Adam Dynes on Noisy Retrospection: The Effect of Party Control on Policy Outcomes – #35

Steve and Corey talk to Adam Dynes of Brigham Young University about whether voting has an effect on policy outcomes.

Steve: Thanks for joining us. I’m Steve Hsu.

Corey: I’m Corey Washington, and we’re your hosts for Manifold.

Corey: Our guest today is Adam Dynes, assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Adam studies legislative behavior with a focus on representation, distributive politics, and political parties. His research examines the behavior of U.S. elected officials at the national, state, and local levels, using surveys, observational data, and experimental methods. He’s the co-principal investigator of the 2012 and 2014 American Municipal Official Survey, the largest survey of U.S. local officials conducted by political scientists with over 4,000 subjects, and the first to employ survey experiments with this novel population.

Corey: Welcome to Manifold, Adam.

Adam: Ah, thanks for having me.

Corey: Our topic today is your recent paper, Noisy Retrospection: The Effect of Party Control on Policy Outcomes. I have to confess that, after reading your paper, my motivation to go out and vote in state and local elections was somewhat reduced.

Adam: Sorry. That was not my intent.

Corey: Can you explain to us what is retrospective voting?

Adam: Yeah, retrospective voting is this idea that … It’s both a normative claim and a positive claim about how the world works. On the positive side, the positives, the positivist take is it’s about do people vote based on the past performance of the candidates or elected officials or incumbents that are running for office? And in its purest form, the idea is that a voter shows up and they are just rewarding or punishing the party of power for how things have panned out and, in particular, often the economy.

Adam: There’s other work that says retrospective voting can also be used to make judgments about how a candidate or an incumbent is going to behave in the future. You can say, “Well, if the economy’s done well in the past under this party, if I vote for them again, maybe the economy’s going to keep doing well.” That’s kind of the positivist, this is how the world works idea of retrospective voting.

Adam: Normatively, it’s an argument about how maybe voters don’t need to be as informed as we think they do in order to create accountability in elections. The idea is you don’t need to know that much about the candidates. You don’t really even need to know their platforms. You just need to know which party’s in power and how are things going. Whether it’s your state or country, your city, are things going okay? Are crime rates down? Is the economy growing? And if so, then reward the party in power. And if not, punish them. That’s kind of the gist of it.

Corey: So what’s the question you investigated?

Adam: Underlying this idea of retrospective voting is that the elected officials in office are going to make decisions and change policies and do things that will impact the economy or impact crime or other social outcomes that we might think voters should take into account when they’re voting, especially retrospectively.

Adam: So our question here is, well, in the timeline of elections, in the two to four years after a party comes into power or a new governor comes into office or a new majority in a state legislature, do we see evidence that they have an effect on the economy and crime and other outcomes? Do we see evidence that they’re impacting the very outcomes that proponents of retrospective voting say voters should take into account in casting their vote.

Corey: So you look at a huge range of policy outcomes. I think 28 of them.

Adam: Yeah, plus there’s another … I think we ended up with 45, because we did some additional ones. Some of it doesn’t have as wide of coverage years wise, but, yeah, we tried to be very comprehensive.

Corey: Can you give us the kind of highlights as far as the policies, most important ones you think?

Adam: Yeah, [inaudible] going to be most important are the economy, measures of economic performance, and the reason for that is because those are ones that a lot of the research on retrospective voting looks at. And this is especially the case for presidential elections but also governor elections, gubernatorial elections, congressional ones … of trying to see do voters punish and rewed the incumbent based on how well the economy’s doing.

Adam: Yeah, so we have measures of economic growth in a state. We have measures of unemployment. We have some measures of income inequality, housing prices, income growth, the number of businesses even and the economic range, and then with a variety of crime, violent crimes, robberies, property crimes, murder rates. I think those are some that are probably quite key or could be really important in state elections.

Corey: What did you find?

Adam: Overall, you look across all these measures, and there’s some that measure health, family, environment, a bit on education, a bit on turnout, it mostly looks like noise. It mostly looks like … the point estimates, the estimate of the effect of barely having Republicans take control of the House of Representatives a the state level or the state Senate or the governor’s office has no effect across all of these measures. So whether it’s the economy or crime, education, environment, we don’t find consistent evidence that they’re having an effect on any of these things.

Steve: So it seems like one possibility could just be that there are many factors affecting those measurable, government only being one of them, and so, even if the parties did what they said they would do and if there was a significant difference between what they would do, depending on which party was in power, that, nevertheless, there would only be a small effect on those observables.

Adam: Yeah. One of the issues here is maybe we give too much credit to government and its impact on a lot of these big, macro-level outcomes. We forget it’s a complicated system with lots of different things that affect our economy and crime rates, some of which are beyond easy things for government to control. So that’s definitely one possibility.

Corey: One thing you do, in the paper, though, is that you actually look at persistent control, which has the possibility of … restrict your analysis to cases where government might have a larger effect than if a party is in power for, say, a four-year period.

Adam: Yeah. Let’s say Democrats have had control of the governorship for 10 years in a row. Do we see effects even after that 10-year period? To answer, we don’t.

Adam: You have to caution, and we do have language in the paper. There’s a bit of caution here in that we’re not … Causal identification is not as strong when we’re looking at the effects of persistent control. So when we’re looking at these short-term effects, we’re better able to say it’s almost like an experiment given the methods that we’re using, but when you’re looking at consistent control, there might be concerns that maybe something else is having an effect on things that we’re not controlling for.

Adam: But, nonetheless, it still seems to be the case that we mostly see kind of noise, that it looks like the results all center around zero. And when there are effects, they seem to be kind of random. They’re not consistent across the different models and regressions that we run.

Steve: So beyond the specific results that you present in the paper, are there cases where you actually, though, do believe that the outcome of an election actually affect a measurable, societal policy or outcome? I could give examples like 2016 election effect on immigration, 2016 election effect on budget deficit, 2016 election effect on tax rates.

Corey: 2008 election effect on insurance levels.

Steve: Yeah, health insurance.

Adam: Yes. Some of this … There’s a lot of things going here. Some of it might be they implement a policy, it does have some effects, but it’s actually kind of targeted in a sense. So let’s say a state implements Medicaid expansion. You can say, “Look, we have” … If we were measuring the number of people access to that program, it would increase. We’re trying to look at little downstream to say, “Okay, well, even if you increase Medicaid. Are we seeing some effects on health outcomes overall?” And even in that case, even if I think Medicaid was expanded, it could be that, yes, it increases access, it has some positive effect for those people, but, because it’s increasing access in the state by 20,000 people or 40,000 people or 100,000, but you’ve got a state of 5 million people, the effects end up getting washed out. It’s a small effect. It’s almost too small to pick up.

Adam: That’s very possible that these things still have an effect. I’m not trying to say state politics don’t matter or who controls the government doesn’t matter. It’s more of just it maybe doesn’t have as big of a societal impact as we might think.

Corey: I think you in fact get this. I think people intuitively know this, because many people vote on a fairly personal basis. A large number of Trump voters say they voted for him just because they wanted him to lower their taxes and they weren’t particularly concerned about other things and they kind of ignored the noise that he was stating, but they thought they’d pay for your taxes.

Adam: Maybe a bit of what goes on, too, is it’s changing who the winners and losers are, but overall the economy is looking similar. Let’s go with … You were mentioning the 2016 election, the election of President Trump. Yeah, it’s definitely the case they changed tax rates. But if we’re looking at the economy, would I say I’ve seen real differences in the economy from end of Obama into beginning of Trump? When I look at the stock exchange … I know this isn’t very sophisticated analysis. This is just me looking at the stock returns. It just looks like it was going up at the end of Obama. Especially once we were coming out of the recession, it’s going up. And Trump gets elected, and, oh, it just keeps on going up.

Steve: But that’s a very … There are obviously many factors affecting … not to mention the Federal Reserve or trade relations, oil prices, that are totally out of Trump’s control. The question is are there not things that voters are aware of where actually, depending on who wins the election, the policies implemented are significantly different, and it seems like, at least in the last election, there are significant differences one could point to what the Hillary world would look like and what the Trump world currently looks like.

Adam: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s just more with our particular paper, would I expect to see big differences in the economy? And my answer is kind of I’m not sure. I’m not sure they can do enough. They could. You could go … And here’s the thing: they could go wild and you could go push policy that’s going to have wild inflation or just stop funding public schools altogether and police forces. And, yeah, I think we would pick up those effects if you went that wild. I would expect that to have an impact.

Adam: But also part of what’s going on here is there’s constraints on what political actors do in that they’re constrained … some of it by reelection. In some way, where retrospective voting can come in is. if people try to be too extreme, they know there’s this threat that they could get kicked out of office. If they push policy that’s just obviously disastrous and it seems very obvious that they’re to blame, I think that’s a concern.

Adam: Even Trump and take immigration, there’s not … And maybe Trump’s wanted to do more, but there’s also been a strong pull to the middle, and even some Republicans, they’re not funding his wall, because there’s plenty of Republicans in districts where they know it’s not that popular. So Trump keeps putting up a fight and getting up and saying, “I need more funding for the wall,” and they keep passing these spending bills that don’t really give him much funding for it.

Steve: I don’t think either the Democratic Party or the establishment Republicans are particularly supportive of Trump’s views on immigration, so it’s not surprising he’s having trouble getting stuff done.

Adam: But some of that same logic applies here probably in our data as well, in our results.

Steve: There’s a very cynical view some people have that there’s a uni-party or that politicians are just liars and what they promise in the campaign is not what they do when they actually get in office, maybe that moneyed interests actually secretly control what’s happening in the state house. If that were the case, if there were sort of hidden forces really controlling how government conducts its business, then that would be consistent with your data, because basically it doesn’t matter who gets elected.

Adam: Yeah. It could be, yes. But I don’t necessarily, maybe I’m too optimistic, but I don’t think it’s necessarily because there’s monied interests have taken over completely. I do think they have an impact. You could argue, “Well, maybe it’s because” … One I use: “Well, maybe Democrats and Republicans are pushing similar policies on the economy, and they’re pro-business, because they’re worried about business donors or these moneyed interests.” Yes, that is possible. It could explain some of it. But it’s also the case that Democrats and Republicans do pursue different policies. We don’t look at this in my paper. In my paper I had John Holbein.

Adam: But a paper by some other researcher does, where they try to say, “Is it the case that Democratic … almost controlling for everything you can imagine, using some sophisticated methods, if you end up with a Republican governor instead of a Democrat governor, do we see differences in the policies that they push forward?” And the answer is yes. You do see a difference. So it is the case Republican governors, Republican state legislators, when they come to power, especially even when they just barely have control, marginal control, they push for policies that move … they push policies into a more conservative directions, and Democrats in a more liberal.

Adam: So that kind of goes against that they’re just totally bought off necessarily. They are pushing for different policies.

Corey: [crosstalk] … there’s also policies that relate to criminal justice, which aren’t so constrained by economic actors such as big business, and as far as I can tell the effects on crime rates are pretty small, too.

Adam: Yeah. We don’t see a big difference there either. And some of this, too, could be that there’s different ways to achieve the same outcomes. You can imagine even a bundle of policies that some actually help reduce crime rates and others are maybe actually contributing to it and they’re canceling each other out.

Adam: There’s also I think, even with crime, bigger factors that come into play. There’s economists who argue about how basically the rise in crime in the ’70s and ’80s can be attributed in a significant portion to exposure to lead paint and that the decline since then … I’ve seen serious presentations and empirical evidence on that. Yes, policy comes into play on that and trying to ban lead paint, but you’re not going to see … Anyway, you’re not going to see things that Democrats, Republicans are doing right now that are now affecting how lead affected crime rates.

Steve: That goes back to the point of you should look at variables that you’re sure are relatively sensitive to policy decisions by government, otherwise why look at … Some spots are probably relatively independent.

Steve: I wanted to ask you about some work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this researcher at Princeton named Martin, I’m not sure I’m saying his name right, Gilens, G-I-L-E-N-S.

Adam: Oh, Gilens. Yeah, Marty Gilens.

Steve: Gilens, yes. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.

Adam: Yeah, I’m familiar with this work.

Steve: So that’s a slightly more nuanced version of kind of what we’ve been discussing, where his claim is that, regardless of citizens’ preferences, average persons’ preferences, the outcomes, the policies enacted, tend to only be enacted if the economic elites or certain groups with disproportionate influence also agree with the general populace, and he has evidence to that effect. So it could be the case that, in cases where elites are not controlling what happens, yeah, the election actually makes a difference, maybe in criminal justice. That’s one example perhaps. But when it comes to some very sacred cows, it doesn’t matter what the general population wants. The elites won’t allow it to happen.

Adam: Yes. I think there’s some truth especially to that. Some of it may not necessarily be for nefarious reasons. Some of it could just be … I don’t know. Who are often our elected officials? Oh, elites, come from upper class. Oh, they share lots of similar preferences. And you’re right. They’re just doing the same things that other upper-class people would do if they had gotten elected as well.

Adam: I do want to point out. There is some caveats on Gilens’s work. I guess Gilens and Page I think is the author.

Steve: That’s right.

Adam: One of those, and they admit to this, is that on lots of policies the poor, the middle class, average median American in terms of income, and the wealthy often agree. There’s lot of policies where we don’t see a big difference in their preferences. They do narrow it down on those policies and on preferences where you do see differences between the wealthy and middle class.

Adam: I think the way they would push back, and they do this in some of their papers, they’d say, “Oh, come on, Adam. Yeah, sure, they agree on lots of policies, maybe even 80%. So yes, we see a correlation overall between the preferences of even the poor and policy outcomes. But if we really want to know who’s having influence, you want to look at it when they disagree. Where do we see a correlation?” And that’s sort of they would push back.

Adam: I do want to point that out to make it sounds like not everything’s just in the favor of the wealthy, at least because there’s lots of things where the wealthy and poor agree. That’s not necessarily the happiest interpretation.

Adam: There are some articles that try to push back, though, and say are there measures of the preferences of the wealthy. How accurate are they? Because it’s really hard to measure the preferences of the wealthy. It’s a hard sample to get.

Steve: I think there’s widespread misunderstanding of their preferences, especially in 2008, because wealthy donors tended to trend Democratic when you got to the very high income levels. The conventional view was that really wealthy people were uniformly Republican.

Adam: Yeah. Are you saying the 2016 election?

Corey: I was talking about 2008 and stuff and ’12. I think there was just a conventional view prior to that time that, the richer you are, the more you wanted your taxes cut, the more you’re going to support Republican policies. But I think perhaps shifts in social views and I think many wealthy people may have become uncomfortable with the rising levels of inequality that a lot of high net worth people were actively backing Democrats and continue to.

Adam: Yeah. I think 2016 pushed that more that way, too. You saw more than you used to see where … Anyway, you just saw there wasn’t a big difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in terms of wealth of voters and education [inaudible], and some of that is because of changing coalitions in the party.

Adam: But the other thing … There’s plenty of evidence that wealthy, definitely on taxes, have a much more libertarian view, that conservative view wanting lower taxes, surprise, surprise, and that matters. So that policy difference, with the Gilens work, you’re going to see differences there.

Steve: Yeah, taxes are not obviously the only issue that separate the wealthy from the rest of the population. Immigration is a good example, because it’s generally working-class people that are more negatively affected by immigration, and wealthy people just get cheaper servants out of it. So, consequently, you can imagine the elites are fine with mass immigration and average people might have more problems with it.

Adam: Yeah. Another thing I do want to talk about a little bit here is on the research, especially with our project, with retrospective voting, one of our bigger points is to say, “Well, if you think that voters should vote based on how the economy’s doing, because it has these direct ties to things that elected officials have control over, well, then you might end up with voters still rewarding and punishing elected officials based on outcomes that, in the short come, they weren’t affecting.” It’s not to say that they can’t have effects on them and in the long term that they’re not having effects, that these policies don’t matter. It’s just that, in the short term, it’s not helping voters act as if they’re more informed by voting based on how crime rates are doing and their economy. They’re likely, especially based on our results, blaming state officials for things that they didn’t effect.

Adam: So that leads to a question of how should voters be casting their votes, what should they be focusing on.

Corey: I’d like to focus on the first point you made, because I think it’s really important. I think your idea is that there’s no clear evidence that state policies affect outcomes, but people think they do. People are effectively reacting to noise. So, if you think you’re voting rationally on the base of an outcome, you may be deluded. You may, in fact, think that party A had effect on policy B when, in fact, they don’t. So you’re systematically making votes based on effectively mist.

Steve: Or maybe people are just voting on mood affiliation.

Corey: That’s right. A lot of people just vote party lines anyways.

Adam: In some ways our research is saying maybe that’s actually not so bad.

Corey: Or at least it’s not any less rational that somebody thinks they’re objectively assessing the evidence.

Adam: Yeah, because what we’re trying to show here is if a voter is really trying to say, “Okay, I’m going to try to figure out whether I should blame my governor for what I see in term of some of these downstream effects in crime, the economy, health outcomes, environment,” and, yeah, try as they might, they’re probably going to end up blaming or rewarding for things that outside of their control, and you know what might be better is try to vote for them based on the policies they support and what you think those policies are going to do. And it turns out party’s probably a pretty good short cut for figuring that all out.

Corey: But how’s that any more objectively rational if these policies in fact don’t have an effect? How’s voting what policy you think might do, because the policy doesn’t have an effect, rational?

Adam: Well, I think you can still argue … I’m still holding out that these policies do have some effect, even if it’s not big enough to pick up on a statewide basis. So maybe Medicaid expansion isn’t going to life health outcomes across the whole state, but it probably is going to have some effects for those who now quality who didn’t before, especially maybe financially, but maybe those additional 30,000 aren’t enough in a state of 5 million people where we’re going to see it affect the overall economy or health outcome.

Steve: Corey, if you were hiring a football coach, and one coach would result in a 56% win percentage and the other one would result in a 55% win percentage, which is basically impossible to measure in the coming seasons, you still might prefer to hire the 56% win percentage coach, right?

Corey: Of course. The fact that you can’t detect a difference doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Steve: It could be rational.

Corey: Correct. But you, in fact, are unable to determine those percentages.

Steve: I agree. That’s a separate question.

Corey: But back to Adam’s point. He’s making kind of a Rawlsian point here, too, as far as I can say, which is, okay, maybe don’t focus on the economy as a whole or the state as a whole. Maybe you focus on a certain interest group. If you’re selfish, this isn’t the Rawlsian part, you focus on yourself, but if you’re not, maybe focus on the most vulnerable and say, “Perhaps these policies are washed if you average over all the citizens, but there may be a small percent of people that are affected.” This is kind of self-serving. It’s the argument I make to all of my left-leaning friends who say they want to leave the country when insert Republican gets elected.

Steve: Unfortunately, they never do.

Corey: My view is, fortunately, they don’t, because if you leave, in fact, you’re going to leave people really vulnerable to policy changes in the country, and they’re going to suffer and you’ll be in Canada with national health insurance.

Adam: I have to chime in a little aside here. My wife’s from Canada. The thing that kind of made her want to pull her hair out is when conservatives were saying, “If Hillary Clinton gets elected, I’m moving to Canada.” She has some friends who would post this. She’s like, “Do they not realize … What policies … They want socialized medicine, is what they want?”

Steve: Canada might have a more reasonable immigration policy than the United States.

Corey: It’s got a different one. We can probably get into that.

Steve: Let me get back to voters. Are you familiar with a book by Bryan Caplan? He’s an economist.

Adam: A little bit. Which one?

Steve: It’s called The Myth of the Rational Voter. It’s in actually a book that he wrote. And I just want to read something for both you and Corey from that book. “In polls taken since 1945, a majority of Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms liberal and conservative, explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade, what the Food and Drug Administration does. More than half do not know that states have two senators, and three-quarters do not know the length of a senate term. More than 50% of Americans cannot name their Congressman. 40% cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are wildly distorted. The public believes that foreign aid consumed 24% of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about 1%.”

Steve: So I would just say that the empirical evidence is that arguing about small bits of rationality on the part of voters is just crazy, because the evidence is so strong that they’re not even following the basic facts.

Adam: Oh yeah. Everything Caplan says there, it’s like amen. Most political scientists would nod and say, “Yep. That is the state of voter knowledge generally.” And this also feeds this debate about retrospective voting.

Adam: There’s early work, this classic book, this giant, huge book, The American Voter. It came out like 1960, and it’s this early work trying to look at voter behavior, how are voters choosing, trying to understand public opinion, especially in the context of an election using surveys. It’s this groundbreaking work. And the authors, very well known in political science, their conclusion is voters do not know much. They’re very ignorant, and mostly they see a world through a partisan lens, and it seems to be their partisanship drives lots of their behavior, even their preferences, that they are partisan first. They figure out what party they’re in early on in life, and then from there they figure out their preferences on policies.

Adam: So this has been a theme throughout modern, contemporary political science and trying to use surveys and scientific methods to try and understand voters, that they just do not know much. So early work on retrospective voting, this is where someone like another famous political scientist, V.O. Key, tries to push back and say, “Well, you know what, there’s this work that’s trying to say voters are idiots, but I’m going to push back against that,” and he puts forward retrospective voting as this way to save voters from their ignorance, that they don’t need to know much. They just need to know is the economy doing well.

Adam: This debate that we’re chiming in on and your quote here from Caplan is part of that ongoing debate. Can voters overcome their ignorance? Can they use shortcuts? And we’re trying to say, “Well, retrospective voting isn’t going to save us from the ignorant voters.”

Steve: I think people who have a kind of cynical or realist view of the state of voters’ knowledge and rationality, when they look at the … I’m sorry if I’m not saying his name right. Is it Gilens? When they look at the Gilens’s results, they’re relieved, because they say, “Okay, these voters don’t really know anything. So when they disagree with potentially better-informed elites, I’m actually relieved that the elites actually get their way. Maybe you get better government from that.”

Adam: That comes up in my classes. Some of this is with my students. We’ve talked about the Marty Gilens readings from time to time in some of my classes, and that’s often what comes up. Now, of course, being a professor at Brigham Young University, my sample of students probably looks a little more conservative than undergrads at your average university, and this is also what is often brought up, is “Actually, I feel reassured,” for the very reason you say. Now, some of it I wonder is “Are you reassured? Is it because you like the wealthy making decisions or is it because they’re pushing policy in a direction you also like?” It’s hard to separate those two.

Adam: But I think there is a concern is that there are some issues, and this is where even if voters are very ignorant about lots of facts about politics, even if who controls state government isn’t having an impact on policy outcomes in the short term, so retrospective voting isn’t going to save us from their ignorance, I still think, though, that there is a case that there are some things where you don’t need to be informed a ton about politics but your opinion’s going to really matter.

Adam: So pretend there’s a country where states are actively oppressing certain groups within the state, like, I don’t know, segregation, and think about in the south and the Civil Rights Movement. I think you could go back and say, “Let’s measure political knowledge among African-Americans in the south.” Now, we might be really surprised. Maybe it was adactyly quite high, especially as they’re mobilizing. But even before then … Even if I found in survey evidence their knowledge about who their senators are “Oh, they don’t really know. They don’t really know that they have two senators.” I’d say, “Yeah, but I’m still happy they’re voting, because on this issue, they have a lot of information.”

Steve: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that democracy, even if you paint it in this sort of very negative way, it does create a safety valve release, so if the government is really tanking the economy or it’s really oppressing a certain minority population, people can sense that, it’s a very macroscopic thing to sense, and then vote these guys out of office. I think everybody who likes democracy would say it will always have that positive feature.

Corey: But I think Adam’s result actually rationalizes people’s not paying attention to the details in politics. If in fact there aren’t very many differences, you should focus your cognitive energy some place else. And look, we have a running discussion on this show about the culture wars. People focus on art censorship. They focus on abortion. They focus on lots of culture issues. And, to some extent, your results actually make that seem sort of rational, because if party control’s not going to affect the economy, not going to affect policing, it might actually affect these other things. Maybe it doesn’t, but at least they’re open possibility. But people would be reasonable not to say, “I’m going to vote for Trump because he’s going to improve or disprove the economy,” because that’s probably not going to happen, but he may affect X social issue that I care about.

Corey: So, in fact, people may be pursuing what’s thought to be a kind of bounded rationality approach to politics. Think about the things that matter. Don’t throw in stuff that’s not really relevant.

Steve: Many is the cab driver that when you talk to him he’ll say, “Oh, these politicians are all the same. Nothing’s going to change. Why do I pay attention to it? I’ll follow the Red Sox because I like the Red Sox,” and it’s not irrational. I think, even, from a purely utilitarian economic perspective, what are you getting for your vote? You’re going to spend a bunch of time reading stuff, educating yourself, and dragging yourself to the polling booth. What do you get from that? You’re barely influencing the election. You’re one-ten-millionth of the electorate or something. Even from that perspective, it’s not particularly rational to vote.

Adam: I think what you’re pointing out here, Steve, lines up probably … Caplan would be nodding his head and saying, “Oh, and why is it that people are so ignorant? It’s because perhaps, deep down, they know their vote’s not going to change the outcome.” But there’s lots of things where your decision does change the outcome, like your decision of what thing to buy, your decisions of how much work to put into your job versus something else, how much time to put into a relationship is outcome consequential.

Steve: I don’t know if it’s Caplan that makes this point. Maybe it’s some other people. But what’s interesting is if you ask someone to, say they’ve lived in a particular state for 10 years, and you ask them to analyze, “Who got elected? What did they do? And did it improve or not?” Generally almost nobody can give you that analysis.

Steve: But if you ask them, “How was the football coach at BYU for the last 10 years,” they can actually tell you, “Oh, four seasons ago we went to this bowl, but we lost. The guy dropped the pass. That wasn’t the coach’s fault.” They’ll give you incredibly detailed, nuanced analysis of that, but they can’t give it to you for politics.

Adam: That kind of counters what I was pointing out. In what way were their decisions related to the football team consequential for the outcomes?

Steve: It’s mood affiliation. They like it. It’s not that they’re getting a tangible benefit. They just like it. They’re really seriously interested.

Corey: Happiness is pretty tangible actually. I think people move towards pleasure, avoid pain.

Adam: Another thing I do want to point out about … This idea is called it’s rational to be ignorant. One thing I do want to point out, I don’t think … I said it in a way as if somebody really realizes their vote doesn’t matter, but there are plenty of people who vote and act as if they think their one vote’s going to change an outcome, and it rarely ever will, very rarely, but I do think if you found out that an election was going to come down to your vote, oh, boy, I think a lot of people would suddenly … ears would perk up and they would probably start … they’d feel a lot more pressure to know what the heck was going on and what they’re voting on.

Corey: So what do you guys think of this pretty conventional philosophical argument for voting that, if you vote, you’re participating in the body politic, you’re involved in civil society. That’s an intrinsic good to take an interest in civic matters. Independent of the utilitarian consequences, we should all try to be part of the polis, and this involves informing yourself and engaging in your civic ritual.

Steve: I think, as an ideal, that’s very laudable. As a realist, though, I would say that the fraction of people that are going to achieve that is quite small.

Adam: I often will think about it in my classes when I teach about why do people vote and who ends up voting and why are people voting, is it rational to vote, is why don’t we think about informed voting as a public good. We would all benefit if people were participating and were doing so well informed. Unfortunately, it’s also a big collective-action problem, because this is a public good, so it’s not in anyone’s individual incentive to become informed or actually really even to vote necessarily, except we have all of these psychological benefits we get from voting.

Adam: And my students, usually their reaction is “So you’re telling us we shouldn’t vote?” And I’m always like, “Well, no. I’m not” … I still vote. Maybe that’s weird, and maybe it’s because I am maybe clinging a bit to what Corey has said here and I’m still trying to say, “There’s this public good here, and, gosh darn it, I’m going to be a public good provider. I’m going to try to do my part and try to be knowledge and show up, even though I know my vote’s not going to change the outcome, and I’m going to try to resist my partisan biases and this whole tribal politics and rooting for my team and voting for my team just because it’s my team. I’m going to try to fight that.” But I’m not sure, in the end, am I making the world better, because ultimately lots of people who end up voting, they’re not going to do that. They’re going to be under social pressure. But I still hold on to this.

Steve: Adam, I’d like to ask you a historical question. I don’t really know the answer to this. But it sort of came up in a previous podcast that we did. The claim was that after the fall of Athens, for over a thousand years, democracy was typically referred to as, in negative terms, as irrational mob rule, as opposed to rule by wise people, and that was sort of just an accepted cultural value for a long time. We have a different cultural value, but who says that we’re actually getting better outcomes? Wouldn’t that be a very sort of base reality thing that would be difficult to check? So is that history actually true of how people wrote and talked about democracy for long periods of time?

Adam: I am not an expert of Athenian democracy, big disclaimer there. I can’t say I’m a big expert on the founding, but I teach quite a bit in my intro, especially American politics courses, and I’ve done my readings on it. Very much this is the case, especially among the Founding Fathers. They were very skeptical of democracy. It’s almost a swear word, where they’re like, “No, we don’t want democracy.” And they’re thinking Athenian, the people are the rulers and they’re deciding maybe we have a lottery and we choose people at random and they are the legislature and they’re choosing things. They definitely had big qualms with … from the standpoint of concerns about mob rule, and you’ll see a lot of this in their writings, especially James Madison, these concerns about anarchy and concerns about the passions, how can we bridle these passions or the passion of factions, for instance, of groups that are able to oppress others and rise up in power and push for policies that are against the public interest. That’s a big concern of theirs.

Steve: The context in which this topic … It sort of tangentially was mentioned. We didn’t have time to delve into it in the other podcast. We were talking to someone who was kind of a China expert, and we were talking about cultural differences and why certain cultures were, at a given moment in time, willing to assume that democracy was by far the best mode of governance, whereas some other thing, like technocracy with regular polling of the population, which is, one could argue, what they’re doing in China now, might be better. One of the things I was saying is it’s not clear to me exactly why certain cultures or groups of people just accept a very primary assumption about what’s working better or not working better.

Corey: It’s probably simply their political tradition. I think that’s the most obvious explanation. People accept what’s gone before them.

Adam: And that’s even the case in the US. Even though I just said our Founding Fathers were very skeptical especially about mass democracy, especially in the sense of Athens, they still, though, have had over 100 years history in the US of having representative democracy. That’s starting with colonial governance and then developing into colonial legislatures that look very much like the state legislatures we even have today but also back then that developed into those state legislatures once the US is breaking free from Great Britain, and so they have a lot of experience, even coming from England, this idea of a representative democracy, on some level, even if that representation is the elites in your town and some lords who are in the House of Lords. They’ve had hundreds of years of this, of this idea of having elites chosen in some way by the people or they’re supposed to be somehow reflective of people on the ground in some way making decisions.

Adam: Anyway, that’s important. There’s arguments that the American Revolution is a conservative revolution. It’s going back to what they had before and kicking out, just saying, “Hey, England, stop doing these things. Just leave us alone. Let’s go back to what we were doing.”

Adam: And it builds over time, and we constantly are expanding democracy, constantly building little by little from there.

Steve: I think that the modern way that the people in the west talk about the rise of the west in the last few hundred years, you can point to multiple factors which could have contributed to their success, Industrial Revolution, use of markets, and the third one is democratic rule, and I guess what’s being questioned now, because of the rise of China, is whether that third one really is absolutely necessary or could be replaced by something else, and I think that that’s –

Adam: Yeah, there’s arguments you have to have economic development first and now you can afford to have democracy, and you have this middle class that is demanding it and then you get it. Get rich first and then …

Steve: But I think one could even go further and say … back to the end-of-history question, even at the end of history, you might, after you’re a wealthy, technologically advanced country, you might still not want the crowd, the mob, the people that don’t know how many senators they have, to be deciding policies for your country, and maybe you only let them be a kind of safety valve so that, if you find they’re very, very dissatisfied, then you react to that, but in general you have a bunch of technocrats making all the decisions.

Corey: I don’t want to push the relativist point of view, but, presumably, this argument is being made from some point of view. Is this the argument being made by the leaders of the country saying it’s better off to have the public not involved? Is this argument being made by an economically dominant non-politician?

Steve: Well, the debate that I’m discussing is actually mainly between political theorists from the west and from China. So increasingly you will have forums where political theorists from both sides are debating the merits and demerits of their relative systems, and it’s now a serious discussion, post-Fukuyama, that, oh, maybe there’s this other ways to do things. It seems like there always has been another way to do things, because the proof, the evidence that democracy was really that great I think was never really there actually.

Corey: You didn’t have a control case actually to compare to, and you do now.

Steve: Because you have so many other factors going on. You could say, “Oh, America thrived.” Yeah, America exterminated an indigenous population, took over a whole continent. How could you not thrive if you were doing that?

Corey: Had free labor from slaves.

Steve: Yeah, free labor from … It’s not clear which of the factors that favored America made America so great. Was democracy really the key ingredient or was it not? I think that case has never really been fully made, and now it’s being sort of vigorously confronted by people who are from a different system.

Adam: I give a lot of credence to democracy of at least it’s this safety valve. Anyway, we didn’t do anything about surveillance state on here, though, the pluses and minuses of …

Steve: It’s funny because, as far as I know, the NSA is actually Hoovering up. But you’re in Utah. There’s some huge data center near you which is storing … Gee, what’s it storing? If you do some back of the envelope calculations for how much data they’re storing, they’re basically getting everything. Oh, who’s living in a surveillance state?

Corey: I guess we probably don’t know. I have a couple kind of technical questions to ask. One sort of aside, I always want to throw something out to you guys. Maybe the main motivation for voting is not so much that you think your vote’s gong to change anything, but, in the case of, say, high stakes national elections, you’re trying to mitigate the downside risk, the very tiny downside risk that you’re not voting causes the other person to win. I think people know it’s unlikely, they know it’s almost certainly not going to be the case, but they don’t want to be the person who did not vote and then Trump got in. I’m just throwing it out there. That may be a possible motivation.

Steve: Or Hillary.

Corey: Or Hillary, yeah, possibly.

Adam: Some of those psychological benefits can be, one, is rooting for me team, and I feel good. I went out. I did my part. Yeah, go team. It’s showing up to the game. And maybe your team’s not that great, you don’t like them that much, but you really hate that other team. So, yeah, you did your part to boo against the other team and voting.

Corey: So this partly unifies the explanation why people care about football and politics. At some level, it’s the same team.

Corey: The second thing is your paper focuses on state elections, and you don’t do national. Is it just because there’s not enough data at the national level to a get a fully powered study on this topic?

Adam: Yeah. A big part of this is, with the methods we’re employing, we needed more observations. With 50 states, for 40, 50 years, you can get a lot more statistical power to get at these things.

Adam: There are questions, like does it translate up to the national government. Is that kind of what you’re getting at?

Corey: Exactly, yeah.

Adam: There’s some reasons to say it may not. At the same time, the one reason we think that the national government has so much influence on the economy possibly often is because of the Federal Reserve, which is actually very … What’s the word I’m looking for? Very sheltered from …

Steve: It’s quasi-independent.

Adam: Yeah. So there’s part of me … Some might say, “Oh, the federal government’s where are the action is.” Okay. Well, one, lately, they’re not passing that many policies. But then a lot of their biggest levers they have actually delegated to the Federal Reserve, so you might expect to see some similar results. And you have the similar constraints where elected officials are thinking about the median voter. Party leaders, like Nancy Pelosi, she’s thinking about her representatives from swing districts and how does she keep her people there, which all makes it so the policies you push may not be so extreme, even though Democrats, Republicans do different things, but maybe not as extreme as people might think and say. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar results if I could have the same data at the national level.

Steve: It does seem to me … I sort of went through a list at the beginning of the podcast that there are a lot of issues where the two parties really would try to do very different things, and then the question would be are the things they do really impactful. And on topics like immigration, budget deficit, tax rates, federal courts, gun rights, abortion rights, Brexit, to take a European example, or not European example, British example, whether the British would adopt the euro instead of keeping the pound, these are ones where I think there really are clear impacts, most people would agree, and the parties are very polarized on which of the policies they favor.

Corey: Deficit’s kind of an interesting one, because it used to actually divide Democrats from Republicans, and now either nobody seems to care or it seems that it’s actually intra-party, where there’s actually some divergence on that issue.

Steve: I think you could argue very strongly that Trump blew up the federal deficit. Obama did it, but he kind of he had to do it because of the financial crisis.

Adam: Some of it is because we’re on autopilot with our spending and federal budget. When I say autopilot, what I mean is they’re not doing appropriation bills in the traditional process. It’s just these continuing resolutions. And especially if your continued resolutions are from things that were done during a financial crisis when you’re trying to stimulate the economy and expand spending, well, I guess if we’re on autopilot from there, that’s where our starting point’s going to keep on expanding.

Corey: You can really see where the “Okay, Boomer” sentiment is going to get really heated on this topic, because your son’s generation is going to face the music on this deficit in a very serious way.

Adam: They’re going to say, “Okay, Millennial.” I’m a barely a Gen-Xer I guess. I barely make the cutoff.

Corey: We’re at the upper end, too.

Steve: We’re old Gen-Xers.

Corey: I want to get into something super nerdy. So if we’re done with the interesting, fun stuff, I kind of want to the stuff that virtually nobody cares about, which is you work really hard on your statistical analyses to make sure your findings are robust, and I think for someone who’s a nerd on the reproducibility crisis it’s really heartening to see somebody work as hard as you do to try to get every angle and make sure your effects are real and stuff. I don’t want to interrupt to go to something that maybe 10 people care about, but I think it’s really interesting if someone delves into the paper.

Adam: My co-author, this is near and dear to his heart.

Steve: Is it fair to say this is a little bit of a legacy of the impact of maybe the influence of economics on political science, that you’re very careful about defining instruments properly and checking for causality and things like that? Is that what you’re talking about, Corey?

Corey: Yeah. Adam can go into the details. He runs a couple of different models, but he’s very concerned about whether you have something that, maybe there’s an effect there, but maybe he didn’t look far enough out. Maybe the effect did not appear to one model, but he looks at another model. He also looks at … He’s just extremely concerned that his results effective reproduce.

Steve: Yeah. The extreme limit would be to pre-register and say, “I’m going to do this analysis when I get the data, and I’ll be convinced this way if I get this result, and I’ll be” … Yeah.

Adam: Some of it, yes, we are concerned about the replication crisis, this idea that lots of our findings … 20 people do a regression. One of them are going to find … Each gets their own sample, does their regression. One of them’s going to find a statistically significant effect. And the concern, especially in psychology, with these experiments with small N that … Also what we’re seeing is that spurious result, and the other ones just don’t get published.

Steve: It’s not even 20 different groups do different regressions. It’s like you’re secretly doing 20 regressions in your office, and then you’re publishing the one that came up …

Adam: Some of this is because it’s hard to publish null results, too. Some of this is when we’re like, “Okay, we have a null result,” we know, even in the review process, it’s going to be hard to get that published, so we are just going to hammer it home and we’re going to try look at it from every angle possible and just keep saying, “Look, the story’s the same. The story’s the same. Story’s the same. Story’s the same. Story’s the same.”

Adam: But some of it is realizing, going in, that there’s a bias against null results, publishing those, and so we’re going to have to really sell it.

Corey: What’s interesting is that, in your case, though, the null result is in some sense the interesting result, because it goes against conventional wisdom.

Adam: Yeah. It is nice. That is a nice thing sometimes, when you have a research project, whether you get the null result or the effect, it’s still interesting. Unfortunately, lots of things we care about or lots of things that reviewers and editors care about don’t fall into that bin of they find the null result interesting.

Adam: Anyway, so some of this, though, is, in a way, it’s not necessarily … We do have concerns. We want our things to replicate, and we want to show that they can replicate. But, in a weird way that also relates to the replication crisis, because there’s a bias towards not publishing null results, we were like, “Okay, fine. Then we are going to just hit you over the head over and over again with our 100-plus-page appendix and our code that takes 45 minutes or so for it to run on my computer to go through all of the regressions that we do to produce.” It took a long time running all of this.

Corey: Do you think your approach, the level of rigor you take, is now normal in the field, or are you kind of an outlier?

Adam: It’s becoming more and more normal. I think we’re still a bit of an outlier, and some of this is, again, because we’re trying to sell a null result. But it is more and more the norm to put your data up online, make it available. Most journals now are just saying, “Hey, we accept you for publication. Now tell us where you’re making the data available.” I think that helps, too. That’s a step in the right direction.

Corey: What kind of reaction have you gotten to your findings?

Adam: One of them is “So you’re saying politics don’t matter?” You have people like, “Parties matter. Obviously parties matter.” So some people push back in that way. And it’s a similar conversation I think we end up having with people. It’s like, “Well, this doesn’t mean they don’t matter. But, at the grand scale, maybe not as much as people think.”

Adam: The other is there is a concern, too … Some of these people say, “Oh, well, this shows retrospective voting is working. Maybe the reason he finds the null result is because, ah-ha, they know they’re going to be punished for a bad economy, so they’re all putting in the same effort and doing the same things. Boom, you’ve proved retrospective voting’s actually happening.” And we pushed back against this in the paper. It’s a little subtle. I probably should’ve had bigger flags around it, because this is the common critique we get. But our pushback is to say, “Yeah, but there’s pretty strong evidence that they propose and actually pursue and pass different policies.” Now, you might say those policies aren’t extremely different, and maybe that’s the pressure of retrospective voting or median-voter theorem on what they’re proposing, but, to the extent that this fear of being published for the economy or bad crime rates affects their behavior and makes them put more efforts into those things, their effort looks different. They are pursuing different policies.

Adam: Anyway, those are, I think, the bigger reaction.

Corey: Now to push the positivist trope too much, but the idea of retrospective voting is essentially a positivist idea. You put a hypothesis to what the party will do, the party doesn’t do that, your hypothesis is falsified, and you punish them as a result. But I would say that that response you got is effectively to make the theory unfalsifiable, because either result you got … Under the scenario you laid out, the person who’s pushing back at you, either result would seem to support their view. They’re claiming that your result supports their view, and the alternative result would also support their view. So it seems like they’re effectively violating the fundamental edict of positivism, which is your results should be falsifiable to at least some degree.

Adam: Yeah. On some level, yes. This is how often the problem of rational choice and some of the economic theory buildings [inaudible] “Well, this is actually why things don’t fall in line with the model.” People do it with their data results, too, and they massage it till everything lines up with what they want to see.

Adam: But, at the same time, it is tricky when you think an equilibrium you won’t see an effect, because of a process that’s happening. Those are hard to test. I think sometimes that really can be the case in some things. I’m trying to think is it falsifiable. I guess you’d have to get into the nitty gritty of the mechanisms that lead up to no effect.

Adam: In this case, I think there’s research that does that and says, “But the mechanism show that they’re not doing the exact same things. They’re doing different things. The parties do at least slightly, moderately … They’re doing different things.” Anyway.

Corey: It seems that what the voters should do … I’m trying to take a moral from this as to how rational voters should act going forward. If they read your paper, read others in literature, if you want to be rational, what should you do? And it seems like you should try to take a survey of papers on policies, try to identify those policies where there’s evidence there is an effect, and then to focus exclusively on people advocate those policies. They’re likely to have a significant effect size, rather than worrying about the policies that are likely to have non-detectable effects. Does that seem reasonable?

Adam: But there are lots of policies … There’s some pretty rigorous almost experimental evidence of some policies having positive effects. And our paper isn’t necessarily those policies don’t have an effect. It’s more of just, at the grand scale, is it going to push the whole economy forward enough for where you’re going to see it at the state level? Probably not.

Adam: My thing is if you’re trying to be a rational voter … Well, one, there’s the question should you be voting. But let’s say you decide it’s a public good and “I’m going to get psychological benefits from doing it, and I’m going to create those benefits for myself so that I have some incentives to do this and be informed.” So imagine this magical voter who rarely exists. I think, yeah, the ideal would be to say, “Okay, what are they proposing, and is there decent evidence, arguments that one candidate’s proposals are going to be better for the world?” And I think, for a lot of people, it can narrow down to party. At least, in my sense, I’m often like, “Okay, Republicans often push for this here in Utah. Democrats are pushing for this. In general, I think these bundle of policies are going to be better. And, look, this candidate’s a Republican. They’re probably going to vote in these ways or support a Speaker in the legislature who’s going to help push policy in that position. So yay or nay.” Anyway, that’s my spiel, my take.

Corey: I think we’re about out of time. Steve, do you have other questions.

Steve: No, it’s been great. Thanks a lot, Adam.

Corey: It’s been really interesting.

Adam: Yeah. Thanks for this. This has been fun to do.

Creators and Guests

Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University.
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