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Posts Tagged ‘Politicians’

At Econlog, the very sharp Garett Jones makes an argument for paying politicians more:

There’s some evidence that when it comes to politician quality, you get what you pay for; Besley finds that higher pay for U.S. governors predicts governors with more experience in politics, and Ferraz and Finan look at Brazilian data and find a slower revolving door and better educated politicians in regions where politicians get better pay. But alas the egalitarian ethos in democracies makes it difficult to raise the pay of politicians.

But there’s a countervailing effect of high salaries for politicians: they increase careerism. With high salaries for politicians, you’re more likely to get candidates who give the voters what they want so that they can get (re-)elected. And one of the themes of Jones’s post is that the voters are ignorant and excessively egalitarian: we shouldn’t always give them what they want. We need politicians who are intelligent, informed, and public-spirited. High salaries get us more of the first two and less of the last.

What else does the evidence suggest? In the American states, governments that pay legislators more and generally have more professionalized legislatures have higher government spending. Neil Malhotra has found good evidence that the causal arrow goes from spending to professionalism rather than the other way around. However, his study, for all its sophistication, has some evidentiary holes, and I believe the last word has not been spoken. From my own observations of the highly deprofessionalized, low-paying ($100 a year) New Hampshire legislature, I would say that it attracts candidates who are ideologically motivated but not careerist. They deviate significantly from the views of the median voter, for good or ill.

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Reason magazine recently hosted a debate in its pages over “where do libertarians belong?” The question was really whether libertarians ought to continue a tactical alliance with Republicans and the right, embark on a “liberaltarian” project, or disassociate themselves from both sides. The Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey had previously argued in favor of the “liberaltarian” course (indeed coining the term), but after lack of constructive response from the left and the record of the Democratic Party in power has come to the view that libertarians should see themselves as occupying the center of the political spectrum, occasionally throwing their support to one side or the other. Jonah Goldberg argues in favor of the traditional libertarian-conservative alliance, while Matt Kibbe wants libertarians on board with the Tea Party.

The main critique of Lindsey’s argument is that the U.S. political system simply does not allow libertarians to be represented in office as such. To get elected, libertarians will have to don either the Democratic or Republican label. Moreover, the “center” of the political spectrum is really not libertarian, but a David Brooks-ish, pragmatist mish-mash (Pileus on Brooks).

My response to the whole debate is, Why do we have to choose? Libertarianism is by its very nature a diverse, nonhierarchical, individualistic movement. We can retain a concept of ourselves as a movement while nevertheless working both sides of the aisle. I know elected libertarian state legislators (on whose campaigns I worked, no less) who are both Democrats and Republicans. Now, the Democrats come under much more pressure from party leadership to compromise their principles. It’s a harder row to hoe. But the Democrats have a history in this country of being something of a catch-all party, and their electorate still reflects that to some extent. There are lots of “weak Democrats” out there who are very much open to liberty-based solutions.

At the state and local level, at least in smaller states where state politics has not been professionalized, it’s particularly easy to work within both parties, because the primary campaigns are less high-profile and ideological and more centered around name recognition. Libertarian political activists need to think outside the LP box, start holding their noses, and get involved in their local Republican or Democratic parties. At the federal level, of course, the only constant is that things keep getting worse. Every time you think that there can be nothing worse than the federal Democratic Party, the Republicans take over and prove you wrong, and vice versa. The best we can hope for there is gridlock and widespread disillusionment and mistrust of incumbents. We have no interest in defending virtually any incumbents at that level. (There are a few people I would make an exception for, like Ron Paul and Tom McClintock.)

Where do libertarians belong? Everywhere!

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When do people get to lie in public life without consequence?  I don’t think public officials lie about facts that often (and when they do, they usually get smacked), but they lie about motives all the time.

A classic example comes about in re-districting time, which most states will go through in 2011 after the 2010 Census numbers come in.  In addition to the normal adjustments involved with population changes, my state is poised to gain its 4th Congressional seat.   This state is completely controlled by Republicans, and redistricting will be all about gaining as much partisan advantage from this additional seat as possible.

Everyone knows that increasing partisan advantage is what redistricting is about.  In fact, it really isn’t about anything else, as any map of the screwed up legislative districts in the US can easily attest.    But politicians invariably say something like, “We are not trying to gain partisan advantage; we are just trying to promote the interests of all the state’s voters”  or “We are trying to get balance between urban and rural voters within districts.”

Another goodie outside the political realm is when university presidents–intelligent people with PhDs–say that the reason the BCS conferences don’t want to move to a national football playoffs in college football is because they are concerned about their “scholar athletes” getting their final exams messed up, or some similar gibberish.  The real reason, which everyone knows, is that BCS conferences and owners of the bowl games don’t want to give up the money and prestige they get from the current system.  This is not a mystery.

Another sports case will be the unsuccessful coach who quits “to spend more time with his family”  (only to pop up in a couple of months in some equally stressful job across the country).

So why is this blatant lying OK?  The media not only don’t care, they expect it and even facilitate it by letting these types of outlandish statements go unchallenged in many cases.  Put a typical Congressman in front of a TV camera, and you are assured of one thing: total B.S.  Congressman Spineless will never say “Ya know, I changed my vote for this bill because the Speaker completely intimidated and threatened me” even though everyone knows that is the truth.  Instead, Congressman Spineless comes up with some lame rationale for his changed tune, and everyone gives him a pass.

We could come up with a simple cost-benefit model of lying.    Motives are hard to prove, so lying about them is relatively low cost.  Winning votes and staying in power has a high benefit.  That explains a lot of it, I think.   But reaching a John Edwards level of sliminess seems to take a certain serious pathology that goes way beyond simple cost and benefits.

We have all become so accustomed to political lies that we barely notice anymore.  We recognize most of the spin for what it is, and we try to uncover actual motives without the delusion that politicians will ever say anything truthful about their motives.

We seemed to have arrived at this strange equilibrium where everyone knows that we are being lied to on a continual basis, but we put up with it.  Indeed, the more outrageous the claim, the less scrutiny it gets sometimes.  Apparently it is OK to lie if  what you are saying is complete balderdash and not a soul believes you.

Strange world.

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Or this guy?

Or this guy?

Should we trust this guy?

Should we trust this guy?

Rob Farley at LGM cites research finding that “men with beards were deemed more credible than those who were clean-shaven.”  Tongue in cheek, he then confirms the research by pointing to Paul Krugman (bearded and trustworthy) and Bill Kristol (clean shaven and untrustworthy). 

If this is true, contemporary politicians are really losing an opportunity to fool signal constituents of their trustworthiness.  Or as the authors of the study put it: “the presence of a beard on the face of candidates could boost their charisma, reliability, and above all their expertise as perceived by voters, with positive effects on voting intention.” 

The last Presidential candidate with a beard was Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916.  Many people think that the last President with a beard was Benjamin Harrison (who lost the Presidency to my namesake in 1892).  However, according to Kenneth Crispell and Carlos Gomez’s book on presidential illnesses, Woodrow Wilson grew a beard after his stroke (pg 70 and HT: Modeled Behavior).  And ironically, given the research Farley cites, Wilson did so to hide his facial paralysis!  So it might not make sense to trust bearded folks – except for Rob that is! 

My guess is that this new research is either wrong period (which is unlikely given that there was an era in US history when esteemed figures wore beards) or is temporally/culturally dependent and thus wrong in some times/places, including the US over the last century plus (more likely).  I’ll trust the behavior of those who have a real stake in winning over the public – CEO’s, pitchmen, campaign advisors, and politicians just to name a few – over one study (of course, the evidence on pitchmen is mixed given Billy Mays, Norm Abram, and Bob Villa).  Thus the politicians who have shunned facial hair are probably not making a mistake, as the research Rob cites suggests they are.  As one news story noted:      

“People don’t trust candidates with facial hair and it comes down to the simple fact that people think they are hiding,” said Jeffrey Adler, a political consultant in Long Beach, Calif., who has run campaigns for 20 years. “It’s the old body-language paradigm, that they are hiding behind the facial hair. There have been numerous studies. Again and again, voters tend to the photos without facial hair. We always advise clients to lose the facial hair.”

I did a quick perusal of JSTOR and nothing popped – but I bet someone has done research on the question. 

Given my culture/time argument, it seems that someone is losing an opportunity to help sell themselves to the populace — the US soldiers in Afghanistan who are forbidden from wearing beards amidst a culture that greatly reveres them.  Indeed, allowing soldiers to grow beards would seem to be most consistent with our current COIN doctrine.  But as with many things involving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what the military preaches and what they allow are sometimes (frequently?) two different things.  See here for a story about some soldiers who agree with me.  (BTW, there are some US soldiers who are allowed to wear beards; however, it is not the norm even amongst soldiers in the field).

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