The Monkey Cage

We are professors of political science.

Another Holiday Tradition

President Obama yesterday unveiled this year’s version of a holiday tradition rather closer to presidents’ hearts than the lighting of the White House Christmas tree or the Easter egg roll on the South Lawn. Yes, it’s this year’s quietly released signing statement…

This tradition took root when Pres. George W. Bush famously signed into law a bill banning torture, doing so on the Friday entering the 2005-06 New Years’ weekend, then releasing a signing statement that night on the White House website leaving to his executive discretion the decision whether to actually follow that law.

Jacobs and Shapiro on how politicians try to mold public opinion

In my NYT column on how to think about conflicting polls, I wrote:

A vast majority of Americans — including half of all self-identified Republicans — think there is “too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations.” And a solid majority believes that “the country’s economic system unfairly favors the wealthy.” On the other hand, close to 60 percent of Americans do not see the country as “divided into haves and have-nots” and over 60 percent see “big government” as the biggest threat to the country in the future. What gives?

I think it’s fair to say that there’s enough here to support different political themes. A supporter of higher taxes for higher incomes can focus on the “too much power in the hands of the rich” angle, whereas a supporter of cuts in low-income and middle-income entitlement programs can focus on the lack of resonance of the haves and have-nots argument.

The ambiguity revealed in these polls actually makes sense: if there were a clear and unambiguous majority in favor of some policy and all its ramifications, we would expect it would have already passed and there would be no remaining political dispute. Democrats and Republicans are no longer arguing about laws against racial discrimination or child labor (with rare exceptions). The very fact that an issue is politically live suggests some flexibility on opinions and helps us understand what otherwise seems contradictory about these poll results. . . .

As the political scientists Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro have demonstrated, politicians don’t just see public opinion as a constraint; they also use it as a tool to achieve their policy goals. Conflicting majority attitudes — for example, a belief that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, juxtaposed with a relative lack of concern for income inequality — represent an opportunity for smart politicians to reshape public opinion their way.

What Do Political Polls Really Accomplish?

This is a guest post from Lawrence Jacobs, who is the Mondale Chair at the University of Minnesota and the author with Robert Shapiro of Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness, among other books.

One of the odd paradoxes of American politics is that political polling is soaring as responsiveness to popular opinion is in decline. Roger Simon’s missive flagged non-existent problems with surveys, as many have noted, and pulled a Bill Buckner on a serious problem that does exist: the impact of polls on American politics.

Simon reports that “polling drives our political process” and that it is “changing the prism through which the media — both mainstream and social — see events, which changes the national conversation. You can challenge the accuracy of polls. But you can’t challenge their influence.”

That’s a serious point but Simon flubs it.

The public spotlight is, naturally enough, on the polls that we see but there is an enormous polling operation behind the scenes that is funded by and for politicians, including officeholders and candidates. In the 1960s, the private polls that politicians commissioned were used to identify policies favored by most Americans but an increasingly sophisticated operation started to develop in the 1970s to drive public perceptions and emotions.

Although polls are (mistakenly) equated with tailoring policy to majority opinion, private surveys are primarily geared today to manipulating public opinion – not responding to it. Research that I have conducted with Robert Shapiro and James Druckman show that the particular words that prominent politicians use in high-profile and momentous settings are often researched and crafted in order to produce particular reactions.

Simon’s screed strikes a – glancing – blow at this pattern of polling polluting our political process and distorting serious policy debates. What Simon misses, however, are the net effects of dueling policy and election campaigns. Fashioning polls to drive messages and manipulate Americans and reporters is one thing.  Producing the desired outcome is an entirely different matter.

I suspect that we will find buried in the Bush presidential papers – as we did in Lyndon Johnson’s – elaborate plans to boost public support for invading Iraq in 2003. It “succeeded” for a short period and then public opposition returned and intensified, contributing to Bush’s dreary standing by the end of this as one of our most unpopular modern presidents.

Mitt Romney may well be crafting his positions and messages to the latest polls of Republicans primary voters and caucus goers. But a career of polling-crafting has produced a zig-zagging career over the past several decades that has cratered his reputation for conviction.

And, of course, private polls are not monopolized by any one candidate, party, or perspective. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s when Gallup and Harris monopolized polling and were successfully played by politicians, major politicians today have their own polls to devise counter-strategies and all of us have ready access to numerous private polls.

No one set of polls drives how Americans think nor how “the media” reports on politics. Neither does a single politician reap a unique advantage from polling. The signal is too diffuse.

The overall effects of polling are often neutralized in the cacophony of private and public surveys and the swirl of other media and campaign tactics. There are tremendous problems with American politics today; polls are not the cause.

Getting the Facts Straight: Payroll Tax Edition

From Princeton political scientist Nolan McCarty’s blog:

For me at least, one of the frustrations about the debate over extending the cut in the payroll tax is extent to which politicians have tried to exploit the public’s lack of understanding about how the Social Security system works.

The first lie is the Republican claim that extending the payroll tax will somehow deprive the Social Security system of funds and jeopardize the retirement security of seniors.

Democrats have responded not with the truth but with the claim that the revenue losses from the extension will be offset by “general revenue.”

Understanding why both of these claims are untrue requires some background knowledge of how Social Security works.

Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system where current retirees are supported by the payroll tax payments of current workers. When I pay payroll taxes, they do not go into some account with my name on it, they go to my mother-in-law. Every year since 1984, the payroll tax revenues plus interest on the SS Trust Fund’s holding of treasury notes has exceeded the benefits paid out. The Trust Fund then exchanges this surplus for more treasury bills and the federal government spends it.

In 2010, the Trust Fund surplus was $94 billion or about 16% of the benefits paid. That is about the same size as the revenue short fall from the 2 point reduction in the payroll tax rate (the SS Trustees estimate a loss of about $90b for 2011). So even with this loss, payroll taxes and interest will cover the benefits paid. So one of two things will happen. The Treasury will actually give $90b to the Trust Fund. But because it is surplus, the Trust Fund will give it right back to Treasury in exchange for government debt. Or it could be handled the easy way: Treasury would just give the Trust Fund $90 billion in Treasury notes.

The important point is that the effect of the payroll tax cut on the balance sheet of the Social Security Trust Fund is exactly zero. With or without the cut in 2011, the Fund would increase its holding of U.S. government debt by over $90 billion. Even if the government did not give the Trust Fund the $90 billion worth of debt, the effects would not be felt until around 2035 when the Trust Fund is expected to be exhausted.

Thus the Republican claims have no merit.

I’ll admit the Democratic shading of the truth is less egregious. It is easier to say that general revenue will cover lost payroll tax revenue than it is to explain that the government will only promise to pay it back later by issuing more debt. But I do think, the Democratic rejoinder is problematic on two accounts.

First, it seems to suggest that the current funding of Social Security is more perilous than it really is. It would have been more comforting to point out that the system takes in so much money that it could pay out all promised benefits even with the lost revenue.

Second, the Democrats missed an opportunity to raise the public’s understanding of the longer-term problems with Social Security. The years of surplus will come to an end at some point. Already (and independent of any payroll tax cuts), benefit payments exceed payroll tax revenues so that the surplus is being generated by interest on government debt. At some point in the next decade, tax revenues plus interest will no longer be enough and the system will have to start redeeming its $2.5 trillion stash of Treasury notes. At this point, general revenues will indeed start flowing out to Social Security recipients, placing increasing strain on the federal budget that will also be coping with escalating Medicare costs.

Do Low Corporate Tax Rates Attract Inward Investment?

It may seem like a no-brainer that low corporate tax rates will attract investment from multinational corporations. However, the empirical evidence is surprisingly scanty, and in a forthcoming article in Comparative Political Studies (earlier non-paywalled version here), Nate Jensen finds no significant relationship across OECD countries, even when he tries to control for endogeneity.

The mantra that governments must remain competitive in the global marketplace by slashing levels of corporate taxation permeates public policy debates and has influenced academic scholarship. To date, few studies have systematically analyzed the impact of lowering levels of corporate taxation on changes in FDI inflows. Utilizing dynamic tests for up to 19 OECD countries from 1980 to 2000 and isolating the impact of time-varying factors on FDI inflows, I find no empirical relationship between corporate taxation and FDI inflows. Using a number of different tax rate variables, control variables, and estimation techniques, I find no relationship between corporate tax rate changes and FDI flows. This null results remains even after using delayed tax rate changes as an identification strategy to mitigate endogeneity concerns.This result has the potential to drive the tax policy literature and the broader literature on globalization and the states in a slightly different direction.

Roger Simon’s Ignorance about Polling

Roger Simon, the Chief Political Columnist for Politico:

I have never been called by a political pollster and don’t know anybody who has, but I know some pollsters, who assure me they don’t make the numbers up, and I believe them.

What If North Korea Collapsed?

Based on optimistic assumptions about how a collapse might occur, we estimate that 260,000–400,000 ground force personnel would be required to stabilize North Korea. This means that even in the relatively benign scenario that we describe, the requirements for stabilizing a collapsed North Korea would outpace the combined U.S. troop commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Managing a more demanding Korean collapse scenario would push these requirements higher or lengthen the duration of the operation, or possibly both.

Probability Theory 101

Gregg Easterbrook:


Gingrich is a wild card. He probably would end up a flaming wreckage in electoral terms, but there’s a chance he could become seen as the man unafraid to bring sweeping change to an ossified Washington, D.C. There’s perhaps a 90 percent likelihood Obama would wipe the floor with Gingrich, versus a 10 percent likelihood Gingrich would stage an historic upset.

North Korea, East Germany, . . . California

Andrew Sullivan passes on this amusing line from James Pethokoukis:


We’ve had some eye-opening natural economic experiments: North and South Korea. East and West Germany. California and Texas. Enough is enough.

The Economy in Iowa Isn't Too Bad (But Don't Forget the Big Picture)!

In response to Michael Lewis-Beck’s guest post below, the New York Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt tweets:

Conclusion seems either off or old. IA’s UE rate is still 6% & risen much less than US vs 12/07.

The Death of Kim, Jong-il: Grounds for Apprehension

We are delighted to welcome the following guest post from Patrick M. Morgan, the Tierney chair in global peace and conflict studies at the University of California Irvine.  Among others, he is a specialist on deterrence and a founding member of the Council on U.S. Korean Security studies. (Full disclosure: Pat is also my father in law.)


Actually, Iowa is Extremely Representative in Terms of its Economy!

We are once again pleased to welcome back Professor Michael Lewis-Beck of the University of Iowa, with the following guest post suggesting that Iowa – far from being atypical in terms economic conditions – is actually the most “representative” state in the country in this regard!

Before every presidential campaign, there is intense discussion over whether Iowa should retain its “first in the nation” status, in terms of the presidential nomination process. Often media commentators argue that it does not deserve this status. The current front page comments by A.G. Sulzberger (New York Times, December 18, 2011, p.1) are illustrative, asserting Iowa “is an odd staging ground for an election that is often said to be all about jobs and the economy,” since the Iowa economy is decidedly atypical. But is this assessment objectively so, when a comprehensive systematic battery of economic indicators for the American states is examined? Is Iowa an outlier, a decidedly unrepresentative American state in terms of the critical economic dimension? Not at all, according to research Peverill Squire and I have conducted (Lewis-Beck and Squire, 2009). Indeed, Iowa appears to be more representative of the mix of economic forces operating within a state than any other. Below, I explain why.


In our data-gathering, we aimed for an exhaustive collection of relevant and available measures on the economic, social, and political aspects of life in the American states, as culled from reliable documentary sources, such as the Census Bureau. We located fifty-one such indicators, and subjected them to a factor analysis, a simple principal components extraction with varimax rotation . Three factors – Economics, Social Problems, Diversity – were extracted, together accounting for the majority of the variance in the data-set. Of the three factors, Economics was clearly strongest, accounting for almost twice the variance of the next nearest dimension. According to the factor loadings (> .7 ), the Economics dimension is dominated by average pay, per capita income, median household income. Also, indicators on unemployment, gross state product, energy consumption, home ownership, and mobile homeownership contributed to determining the factor, falling near its mean value.


Theoretically, if Iowa is a “perfectly” representative state economy, it should register a “typical” score on the factor: more specifically, it should score at the mean. Given the factor scores (Z) are normed to a zero mean, the alternative hypotheses are expressed as follows:

H0: Z = 0, Representative
H1: Z ≠ 0, Not Representative.

To test the hypotheses we observed how far the Iowa score deviated from the zero mean, in comparison to the other states.


Perhaps surprisingly, the Iowa score (-.02) rests virtually at zero, and nearer that ideal representative point than any other state. (Its rival in “first in the nation status,” New Hampshire, lies away and in the other direction, at .26). On the economic dimension, then, the Iowa representation hypothesis is fully sustained. Once state economies are measured by multiple relevant indicators, Iowa is most representative of all the states. Its cross-section of economic forces, especially within the controlled context of the socio-political factors, best mirrors the general strengths and weaknesses at work in an American state economy. If one state must lead the presidential candidate selection process, then Iowa seems an ideal selection in terms of the economy. Identification of the preferred “first state” with respect to the economic dimension seems paramount, given the abiding importance of the economy for the vote generally in American elections (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2007).

Lewis-Beck, Michael S., and Peverill Squire. 2009. “Iowa: The MostRepresentative State?,” PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 42 (1) 2009,pp.39-44.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Mary Stegmaier. 2007. “Economic Models of Voting.” In Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior, eds., Russell Dalton and Hans-Dieter Klingemann. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel: How Much do Individuals Matter in Politics?

As the world digests the deaths of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il, an interesting and unresolved questions is raised for observers of politics: how much influence does any one person ever really have over the evolution of politics in a country, a region, or even the whole global political systems?