Category Archives: Political Animals

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, “In Louisiana, we don’t expect our politicians to be corrupt. We insist on it.” Warren’s famous novel is a lightly fictionalized biography of Huey Long, the famous Louisiana politician. While raucous and entertaining as a personality study, this novel also helps to take some of the bloom off the rose of the type of people who run for political office. Huey Long was an exaggerated character, and Warren’s fictional Willie Stark is a an exaggeration of an exaggeration. But the difference between such men and more everyday political types is more a matter of degree than of kind.

Also revealing is the way people enabled, rationalized, and defended Stark’s flaws and the hurtful things he said and did to people throughout the novel. Similar things happen today with famous people from athletes and entertainers all the way up to presidents.

Tolstoy’s Insights on Political Types

A passage from Part 6, chapter 18 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace reminds me of more than one person I met during my years in Washington:

The visitor was Bitski, who served on various committees, frequented all the societies in Petersburg, and a passionate devotee of the new ideas and of Speranski, and a diligent Petersburg newsmonger—one of those men who choose their opinions like their clothes according to the fashion, but who for that very reason appear to be the warmest partisans.

Herbert A. Simon – Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organisations

Herbert A. Simon – Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organisations

Realistic, subjective, and humble—probably a reflection of Simon’s time at the University of Chicago. Rather than the typical snake-oil management guru who pretends to know everything, Simon that there is no perfect structure for an organization. Every possibility has at least some drawbacks. Simon instead emphasizes the need to treat organizational structure as an ongoing process, rather than a finished product. Often personnel will dictate what structures work best, and personnel change over time. Technology has its own impacts, and Simon even in 1947 saw that computers would have significant effects on the workplace. Part of trial is error, and wise managers will accept this as part of the process. The trick is being humble enough to admit mistakes and being flexible enough to try different approaches with more promise.

Randall G. Holcombe – Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained

Randall G. Holcombe – Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained

Excellent, though probably a difficult read for a layman. Most people have a two-axis view of politics—most countries are some blend of capitalism and socialism. Holcombe argues that there is a distinct third system, which he calls political capitalism. It has characteristics of market capitalism, such as private property and usually democratic political institutions. But political capitalism also features heavy control by elites. Because votes count for very little in any decent-sized election and because voters typically have low information, it is naturally easier for elites to control public policies with relatively little public accountability.

An underappreciated key point, first made by Mancur Olson, is that small groups have lower transaction costs than larger groups. A small group is easier to form, and it is easier to monitor members so they don’t shirk on the rest of the group.

Another point is that principled legislators have almost no chance of being influential under political capitalism. If a politician is known for sticking to their principles, other legislators will not bother trying to win their vote on bills. If they support a bill, they’ll vote for it no matter what. If they oppose it, their support cannot be bought, so it’s not worth spending resources on.

That means principled legislators aren’t offered choice committee assignments, fundraising assistance, or get introduced to powerful social connections. Principled legislators are doomed to ineffectiveness.

It is well known that political office naturally attracts certain undesirable personality types. Holcombe demonstrates that institutional structures actually reward them, so there is a natural selection process to put the worst on top.

Holcombe also makes several valuable contributions to the theory of rent-seeking. I wish I had known about these when Fred Smith and I were working on our 2015 rent-seeking paper, which would have greatly benefited from his insights. I will definitely be citing this book in the future.

Gabriel García Márquez on Partisanship

Times and places change, but much else stays the same. From pp. 241-242 of Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“The only difference today between Liberals and Conservatives is that Liberals go to mass at five o’clock and Conservatives at eight.”

Addressing the Gender Pay Gap: Culture, Not Legislation

A recent Washington Times article quotes me on Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris’s plan to address the gender pay gap. I could have given better quotes, frankly, but it’s difficult to treat a complicated issue with nuance in a couple of short sentences. Conservatives and progressives both make some good points, but ultimately fall short of addressing the issue constructively:

  1. Conservatives often downplay gender discrimination or deny that it is a problem. This is wrong.
  2. Progressives are right that discrimination is a problem, but with the pay gap, they are prioritizing the wrong facet of the problem.
  3. There is a culture gap, far more than a pay gap. Most politicians put the pay gap at 77 or 79 cents on the dollar. One ideologically motivated study puts it at 49 cents. These figures do not account for the fact that women are more likely than men to work part time or not at all for extended periods to provide child care or other family needs. Men who do the same thing are subject to a similar wage lag. In another comparison, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show a wage gap of six cents for women who have never married—which says more about cultural gender norms than about different pay for equal work. Men and women also often cluster in different occupations, which have different pay. Occupations such as kindergarten teachers and construction have heavy gender disparities, as well as different pay—often in men’s favor. Again, the causes for this are often cultural, not due to different pay for equal work. The pay gap is almost certainly not a myth, but it is almost certainly a smaller problem than many people believe.
  4. Focusing so intently on the pay gap has an opportunity cost: More important gender discrimination issues are being crowded out from popular attention. In the workplace, these issues are as serious as rape and sexual harassment. They also include cultural pressures against women making their own life choices. Different people have different preferences on working vs. staying home. Many people on both sides of the culture wars still don’t respect that. Gender discrimination also includes everyday rudeness, such as men being more likely to interrupt women in conversation, taking their ideas less seriously, or judging them on appearance and demeanor rather than merit. The list is long, and the combined effects are large.
  5. One reason for the undue attention to the pay gap is that wages are easy to measure, while “soft” discrimination is often difficult or impossible to measure. It’s an example of what economist Jerry Z. Muller calls The Tyranny of Metrics. People tend to focus on what they can measure, and ignore what they can’t.
  6. Not only is attention being focused on the wrong issue, but many progressives are only offering one tool, poorly chosen: legislation.
  7. Pay gap legislation is prone to unintended consequences, such as businesses hiring fewer women. This is not what anyone intends. But it would be the easiest way for a company to avoid compliance headaches, potential lawsuits, or as in Sen. Harris’s proposal, a tax increase. This easily predictable effect works against everyone’s shared goal.
  8. Addressing gender discrimination requires cultural change from the bottom up, not top-down legislation. Politicians’ limited vocabulary is hurting progress on a real problem.
  9. Convincing millions of  individuals over time to be more thoughtful to others is a slow, uneven process. It will also likely never end; civilization is not humankind’s natural state.
  10. The cultural change argument is aesthetically unsatisfying. It can’t be planned, controlled, or quantified, even when possible improvements are clear as day, as with gender discrimination. It is a long-term process, not a short-term result. Advocating for cultural progress just looks flat compared to more immediate offerings such as taxes, fines, or quotas.
  11. Emotionally, it is much more fulfilling to hear a fast, simple, and concrete solution at a candidate’s press conference. It gives people something tangible with a face and a name they can rally around. This is in tune with how the human brain works. It gives us an in-group to affirm and an out-group to vilify. A story with a hero and a villain makes for a more interesting story than personal reflection.
  12. In addition to the endorphin rush it provides, signaling support of a bill is far less work than a lifelong effort to treat people well.
  13. The measurement problem, the cultural change argument’s lack of charisma compared to magic bullet legislation, the abstract nature of culture, the difficulty for ongoing individual effort, our own brain chemistry, and the long-term nature of change all contribute to why people’s everyday cultural values aren’t discussed as much as they could be.
  14. Astute readers might notice that economic historian Deirdre McCloskey says similar things about cultural change and the origins of modern mass prosperity, which extends beyond one’s bank account to include the arts, life expectancy, political inclusion, technology, travel, family life, and more. Caring about gender discrimination and fighting against it is another important aspect of the larger classical liberal project.
  15. Gender discrimination is a complex problem with a complex solution. But then, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Juan Reinaldo Sanchez with Axel Gyldén – The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo

Juan Reinaldo Sanchez with Axel Gyldén – The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo

Sanchez was Castro’s bodyguard for 26 years, and is now living out his old age in Florida. He saw a lot of things. The book contains plenty of juicy gossip, though from a well-placed source. But Sanchez also makes serious points about how power corrupts people, and the effect the Cuban Revolution has had on Cuba’s fortunes. He also gives insights into how the Cuban government works, what life is like for the elites versus commoners, how dissidents are treated, how the military is trained, and more. That is his real contribution, and it is a valuable one.