Category Archives: The Partisan Mind

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.”

Vonnegut on Partisanship

The line of thought that Kurt Vonnegut describes on p. 27 of Breakfast of Champions isn’t true of all people, but it is still distressingly common.

Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.

There is a good reason why Vonnegut’s depressing observation is true. Humans evolved as a tribal species, and we haven’t quite grown out of it yet. This is one reason an immigration debate still exists, even though economists decided the issue more than two centuries ago. More to the point, agreeing or disagreeing with people for merit-unrelated reasons is one way that people define their in-groups and out-groups.

The Conventions Continue

Last week I pointed out that the GOP and Democratic nominating conventions will cost taxpayers as much as $136 million, and to little effect. This week the political duopoly begins the second half of its festivities. With both sides still bleating their talking points past each other, I was reminded of a startlingly relevant quotation all the way back from 1815. It appears on page 411 of Benjamin Constant’s Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments:

When a nation is shallow and imitative, it finds nothing more powerful than editorial slogans. They are short, they seem clear, they are inscribed easily in the memory. Cunning men throw them to fools who seize them, because they are thus spared the trouble of thinking. They repeat them, because this gives them the appearance of understanding. Hence it arises that propositions whose absurdity astonishes us when they are analyzed, slip into a thousand heads and are repeated by a thousand tongues, such that one is endlessly reduced to proving what is obvious.

I’m not just picking on Democrats here. The GOP has the same problem, and to the same degree. There are a lot of reasons why such a base strategy is politically successful. One is rational ignorance; people have better things to do than dissect the fineries of policy.

Another is tribalism. If Homo sapiens has been a species for one million years, then we have lived in small tribes of 150 people or so for nearly 99.9 percent of our history, up until the agricultural revolution a little more than 10,000 years ago. After all, for most of our species’ history, other tribes were just as likely to steal from or kill members of your tribe as they were to share a meal or become friends. That’s why a wary, us-versus-them mindset is in our blood. People have a natural tendency to identify with one political tribe and vilify the other one.

Substance gets lost in the resulting vitriol. Any rock, down to the tiniest pebble, must be hurled at the hated Other. Even if you miss, you feel better about yourself simply for having thrown it.

It may be only two months until the election, but it feels like so much longer than that. What to do, then? Leading up to the election and beyond, independent voices need to keep pointing out the parties’ fiscal and regulatory excesses, as well as ways to reform them. It takes some repetition, but if we keep at it someone will listen.

The Dying Duopoly

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch point out that duopolies rarely endure because they tend to abuse their customers. That creates an opening for competitors to enter the market.

Political markets are different than economic ones, but duopolies still have many of the same qualities — particularly regarding customer abuse. That’s why I was pleased to see a writeup in this morning’s Politico that the percentage of political independents is at an all-time high in a long-running Gallup poll. A full 40 percent of Americans have now opted out of the Republican-Democrat duopoly.

Obama,Cheney Surprisingly Similar on Civil Liberties

Great column from Steve Chapman:

Back in 2007, when Barack Obama was running for president, a mildly surprising bit of news emerged: He and Dick Cheney were eighth cousins. Today, though, it appears that report was wrong. Judging from Obama’s record in office, the two are practically brothers.

As a candidate, Obama criticized the last administration for holding Americans as enemy combatants without trial. He faulted it for wiretapping citizens without a warrant. He rejected the Republican claim that the president has the “inherent power” to go to war without congressional consent. He depicted George W. Bush and his vice president as a menace to constitutional limits and personal freedom.

But look at him now. Last week, Obama signed a bill letting him detain U.S. citizens in military custody without convicting them of anything — not for a month or a year, but potentially forever.

Read the whole thing.

Winning Hearts and Minds on K Street

I’m all for the Occupy Wall Street movement going out there and having their say. Many of the activists seem almost completely innocent of economic knowledge, as I’ve written before.

But I do lean left on many issues — I’m against crony capitalism and corporate welfare. It’s time to get out of Iraq, Afghanistan, and our other top-down nation-building adventures in this Hayekian bottom-up world. The PATRIOT Act and the Bush-Obama administrations’ other civil liberties excesses should be repealed outright. I favor LGBT rights and legalizing gay marriage. Drug prohibition is as bad of a policy failure as alcohol prohibition was. I prefer welcoming immigrants to shunning them.

As someone who has studied the economic way of thinking and makes his living looking at the data, obviously my preferred economic policies differ from what most Occupiers want; they haven’t and they don’t. But we share the common aim of helping the poorest of the poor. Means may differ. Ends don’t.

I question their means.

Today in DC, Occupiers occupied a stretch of K Street and snarled up an already-hellish evening commute for thousands of people. Two points:

One, this is not the way to win people over to your side. It is an astounding PR failure. As Rory Cooper tweeted, “Hey OccupyDC – my wife is stuck downtown and my child is trapped at school. You’re doing a heckuva job selling your socialism.

Not how I would have put it. I prefer tact. But you see his point.

Socialism is also a dead horse; one wonders why Republicans insist on beating a horse that died two decades ago. Cooper may work for the partisan Heritage Foundation, but you also don’t have to be right-wing to resent people who block your way home after a long day at work.

Occupiers have closed a lot of minds that they could have opened instead.

The second point is more subtle, but also more fundamental. They are saying, “I have set up a tent on a busy street. Therefore, your arguments are invalid.”

The shallowness of this kind of thinking speaks for itself. But the real shame is that they have much better arguments to offer. Some of them are right, and some of them are wrong. But they still have substance. They should offer those arguments instead.

My unsolicited advice is to keep saying what they have to say with passion — but also with tact. Again, why close minds that you could open?

Summing Up the Problem

The two movements have much more in common than either would like to admit.

Click the cartoon to enlarge.

(via John Papola)

Fun Fact of the Day

49 percent of Occupy Wall Street protesters support bank bailouts, according to Douglas Schoen, a partisan Democratic pollster who worked for President Clinton.

I’m as surprised as you are! These protests are supposed to be against cronyism, not 49 percent in favor of it.

Then again, Zuccotti Park is not exactly a fount of policy knowledge, as New York Magazine discovered.

CEI Podcast for October 13, 2011: Occupy Wall Street


Have a listen here.

CEI Founder and President Fred Smith compares the Occupy Wall Street movement with the Tea Party movement and finds similarities as well as differences. Both oppose bailouts and other forms of corporate welfare. But, as he points out in a recent USA Today op-ed, he fears the Occupiers are confusing such crony capitalism with the real thing. If corporations have undue influence over government, making that government bigger and more powerful will only worsen the problem. The solution is separation of corporation and state.

Occupy Wall Street Protesters Make Demands

Until recently, I haven’t been paying much mind to the Occupy Wall Street protests. They’re a lot like tea party protesters. They’re upset with the status quo, and are being quite vocal about it. But – also like the tea partiers – they lack a unified voice. What do they want?

That incoherence was partially solved when one activist posted a list of thirteen demands on It doesn’t stand for the whole movement, obviously. Some protesters are focused on different issues than the ones he chose. But it’s reasonable to assume that most of the protesters would agree with most of his demands.

From an economist’s perspective, the demands are both fascinating and disheartening. Fascinating because people who haven’t studied economics believe some really strange things; disheartening because many of the policies would hurt the very people they’re meant to help. Intentions are not results.

Let’s take a quick look at each of the demands. I have left his grammatical errors intact:

Demand one: Restoration of the living wage. This demand can only be met by ending “Freetrade” by re-imposing trade tariffs on all imported goods entering the American market to level the playing field for domestic family farming and domestic manufacturing as most nations that are dumping cheap products onto the American market have radical wage and environmental regulation advantages. Another policy that must be instituted is raise the minimum wage to twenty dollars an hr.

He’s being far too moderate here. Take as true that importing goods across international borders kills jobs. Well, as a matter of logic, importing goods across state borders is no different. Oregonians should be forbidden from importing goods from Californians. Inter-city free trade has the same harmful effects. Consistency demands banning that, too. Even inter-household trade kills jobs under this line of thought.

If the protesters arbitrarily draw the line at the national level, then there is an inconsistency in their thought. And economists from the left and the right have been openly poking fun at that inconsistency for over 200 years.

And why only a $20 minimum wage? Think big. If Congress can raise living standards simply by mandating higher wages, why not $200 per hour? Why not $2,000 per hour?

Demand two: Institute a universal single payer healthcare system. To do this all private insurers must be banned from the healthcare market as their only effect on the health of patients is to take money away from doctors, nurses and hospitals preventing them from doing their jobs and hand that money to wall st. investors.

Because monopolies work so well.

Demand three: Guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment.

This isn’t worded clearly. Does this mean a $20 minimum wage for all workers, as in Demand One? Or does it mean giving unemployment benefits equivalent to a living wage, however defined? If it’s the second case, it’s pretty easy to see that fewer people would choose to work if this demand was met. As any economist will tell you, incentives matter.

Demand four: Free college education.

This should be re-worded as “Demand Four: The poor and uneducated must give money to the rich and educated.” This just sounds like the protesters, many of them students, don’t want to pay their tuition and their student loans (see also Demand Eleven).

This demand is fundamentally unprogressive. Wealth redistribution from rich to poor is one thing. But asking the poor to subsidize the rich strikes this writer as morally wrong.

Demand five: Begin a fast track process to bring the fossil fuel economy to an end while at the same bringing the alternative energy economy up to energy demand.

This day will come. I look forward to it. Progress is a beautiful thing to behold. But these kinds of transitions can only happen from the bottom up. He is demanding that it be top-down, which is the same thing as demanding that it never happen at all. Top-down is how Solyndra happened. Top-down is how ethanol happened.

Top-down is also an open invitation to the exact kind of cronyism that the Occupy Wall Street crowd – and this writer – despise. Again, think results, not intentions. The best way to achieve this policy goal is to make entrepreneurship and innovation easier. It’s a bottom-up world. Policies must acknowledge that if they are to succeed.

Demand six: One trillion dollars in infrastructure (Water, Sewer, Rail, Roads and Bridges and Electrical Grid) spending now.

He must be unfamiliar with the data. Government infrastructure spending is about 2.5 percent of GDP right now. That’s the highest it’s been since the 1950s, when the interstate highway system was being built. And today’s 2.5 percent is sliced from a pie that’s nearly 7 times larger in real terms. That puts current spending on par with about 17 percent of 1950 GDP. That is hardly austere.

Demand seven: One trillion dollars in ecological restoration planting forests, reestablishing wetlands and the natural flow of river systems and decommissioning of all of America’s nuclear power plants.

More unfamiliarity with the data. The EPA’s budget is currently a little over $10 billion. He demands a century’s worth of EPA spending over what one assumes is a period of years, not decades. That’s a lot of money that we don’t have.

Meanwhile, forest acreage today is roughly what it was a hundred years ago, despite U.S. population growing four-fold. And getting rid of dams and nuclear power plants means using more coal and natural gas. That’s what economists call a tradeoff. And that tradeoff directly contradicts Demand Five.

Demand eight: Racial and gender equal rights amendment.

Just such an Amendment passed on July 9, 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment reads, in part, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Emphasis added, though the egalitarian language is clear enough on its own. Perhaps he should press for more consistent enforcement of that language. That certainly has been lacking.

Demand nine: Open borders migration. anyone can travel anywhere to work and live.

Yes. I don’t have a problem with background checks to keep out recidivist criminals or terrorists who, while rare, would hurt other people. And screening people for communicable diseases is a reasonable public health measure. But, like the Occupy Wall Street crowd, I don’t think anyone should presume the moral authority to tell other people where they may live, work, or travel. Right on.

Demand ten: Bring American elections up to international standards of a paper ballot precinct counted and recounted in front of an independent and party observers system.

Mandatory recounts are a bit much; most Congressional elections are 60-40 or 70-30 affairs. But there’s not much to object to here. Though there will come a time when computerized voting machines will be harder to corrupt than paper ballots. He should instead demand honest vote counts, whatever the medium.

Demand eleven: Immediate across the board debt forgiveness for all. Debt forgiveness of sovereign debt, commercial loans, home mortgages, home equity loans, credit card debt, student loans and personal loans now! All debt must be stricken from the “Books.” World Bank Loans to all Nations, Bank to Bank Debt and all Bonds and Margin Call Debt in the stock market including all Derivatives or Credit Default Swaps, all 65 trillion dollars of them must also be stricken from the “Books.” And I don’t mean debt that is in default, I mean all debt on the entire planet period.

Do this and no one will ever lend again. This demand has so little understanding of basic human nature, let alone basic economics, that it frankly doesn’t deserve serious scrutiny. It just sounds like he wants all the trappings of a modern first-world lifestyle without paying for them. As the economist Deirdre McCloskey would say: no, dear.

Demand twelve: Outlaw all credit reporting agencies.

Moody’s and the other ratings agencies played a starring role in inflating the housing bubble. Oh, they deserve plenty of blame. But the solution isn’t to outlaw them. It’s to outlaw Congress from giving them special treatment. Congressional coddling allowed them to lie to their customers and not get punished by market mechanisms. Their legally protected oligopoly is an outsized example of crony capitalism. Don’t confuse it with the real thing.

Demand thirteen: Allow all workers to sign a ballot at any time during a union organizing campaign or at any time that represents their yeah or nay to having a union represent them in collective bargaining or to form a union.

Government policy should be neutral towards labor unions. Not hostile, not favorable. Neutral. Part of that neutrality means ensuring secret ballot elections when workers are deciding whether to unionize. If the ballots are open, it’s pretty easy to imagine both management and unions putting pressure on workers to sign with their side. Better to preserve anonymity. Let workers express their true feelings without fear of reprisal from either side.

This demand’s wording is unclear on neutrality, and unclear on secret ballots. Hard to tell what to make of it.

So there you have it.

Like almost any list of demands, there is good and bad here. Two common themes animate the list. One is that the writer clearly hasn’t studied economics. Free trade promotes wealth and peace, and has almost zero net effect on employment in the long-run. High minimum wages price the lowest-skilled employees out of work, and hurt them. There is no free lunch. Nobody will lend money if they aren’t going to be paid back.

None of those statements are controversial inside the profession, only out of it. Regardless of one’s political leanings.

The second theme is entitlement. Other people should pay for my health care. Other people should pay for my college education. I shouldn’t have to pay back my credit card balance. In short, gimme. How millennial.

The tea party movement’s uninformed populism is embarrassing to many on the right. No wonder Brendan O’Neill, seeing the same phenomenon on the left, wrote in The Telegraph that “The teenage moralism of the Occupy Wall Street hipsters almost makes me ashamed to be Left-wing.”

I agree with some of their demands, but it’s hard to see the Occupy Wall Street crowd being taken seriously. For that, they must first be able to be taken seriously. Given the movement’s lack of policy knowledge, its unseemly thirst for other people’s money, and the fact that some of them actually think that standing in the middle of a bridge invalidates their opponents’ arguments (!), they have a ways to go.