Book Review: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith – The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith – The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011)

The rise in populism over the last decade has birthed a bumper crop in books on dictators, with contributions from Frank Dikötter, Daniel Kalder, and others. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith’s entry is a quality addition. The reigning classic in the genre, though, is Gordon Tullock’s early work on the public choice theory of autocracies, which is collected in The Social Dilemma, which is volume 8 of his Selected Works.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith work from the discipline of foreign policy, rather than from economics, law, or political science. They belong to the realist school, which is in some ways the current incarnation of Machiavellianism and realpolitik. Foreign policy realists have quite a bit in common with public choice economics—politicians respond to incentives, and tend to behave in self-interested ways.

The Dictator’s Handbook is a popular-level distillation of a larger theory of autocratic behavior Bueno de Mesquita and Smith have explored in numerous academic works. Dictators often show strong ideologies in public. These are often various forms of socialism, nationalism, theocracy, or some mixture of the three. In private, dictators may sincerely believe in their ideology. And it will influence their policy choices. But, just as public choice theory argues, when self-preservation conflicts with the ideology, self-preservation nearly always wins.

This self-preservation instinct explains why so many dictatorships look so similar. Military support is essential to maintaining power, which is why dictatorships often have lavish and showy military budgets, even if they do not have any intention of going to war. Well-paid soldiers are less likely to rebel, especially in poor countries where other career opportunities are limited. A highly visible military projects power, which scares off rebels inside and outside of the palace. And a well-fed and well-feted general is less likely to pursue his own coup.

Gaudy personal styles and decorating styles are another common dictator trait; nearly every dictator’s residence, whether in Belarus or Libya, is almost indistinguishable from Donald Trump’s apartment in Trump Tower. It’s another way of projecting power, if not taste.

A dictator’s inner circle is often unstable. This is both caused and countered with a culture of excessive honorifics and ostentatious wealth—with obvious gradations to signify an official’s place in the hierarchy. Taking privileges away is a sign that someone is falling out of favor.

Dictators rarely have a formal succession plan. This is another reason why they usually have a garish, privileged court culture. Dictatorships are typically in very poor countries. Officials who enjoy a Western standard of living—courtesy of the dictator, they are constantly reminded—are less likely to overthrow the dictator. Moreover, when aspirants are competing against each other, they are not competing against the dictator himself. When generals have a comically large number of lapel pins on their epaulet-laden uniforms, there is a reason for it. They are status signals in their competitive game against each other. They are not just marks of favor from the leader.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith run a risk of stereotyping by pointing out how alike so many dictators are. But they are well aware that each country, and each dictator, has their own situation and cultural factors in play. At the same time, their commonalities show a kind of convergent evolution: successful dictators stay in power because they have discovered “best practices” that apply widely. Dictators that did not adopt these practices did not stay in power, so the only remaining examples have strong militaries, garish styles, elaborate court cultures, no formal succession plan, and so on. While the world as a whole has been tending towards democratic liberalism since the end of World War II, there are still plenty of illiberal countries. It is important to understand them if their people are to become free.

It is also important to know warning signs when we see them, as the tragedy of President Trump’s late-term coup attempt shows.

This Week in Ridiculous Regulations

After last week’s insurrection at the Capitol, the outgoing president, several elected officials, and their supporters have some soul-searching to do. Meanwhile, agencies continued to issue new rules, ranging from showerheads to motorcycle brakes.

On to the data:

  • In the first week of the year, agencies issued 49 final regulations.
  • That’s the equivalent of a new regulation every three hours and 26 minutes.
  • It’s a bit early for annual projections, especially with a new administration coming in on January 20, but so far, we’re on pace for 1,225 final regulations for all of 2021. 2020’s total was 3,353 final regulations.
  • There were 21 proposed regulations in the Federal Register last week. With the same caveat, that’s on pace for 525 proposed regulations for the full year. 2020’s total was 2,149 proposed regulations.
  • Last week, agencies published 403 notices, for a total of 10,75 in 2021. 2020’s total was 22,480.
  • Last week, 1,733 new pages were added to the Federal Register in a three-day week, after 3,150 pages the previous week.
  • The 2020 Federal Register totals 1,733 pages, on pace for 43,325 pages in 2021. The 2020 total was 87,352 pages. The all-time record adjusted page count (which subtracts skips, jumps, and blank pages) is 96,994, set in 2016.
  • Rules are called “economically significant” if they have costs of $100 million or more in a given year. There are no such rules so far in 2021. Agencies published five economically significant rules in 2020, and four in 2019.
  • There is no cost data yet for 2021’s economically significant rules, since there have not yet been any. The running cost tally for 2020’s economically significant regulations ranges from net savings of between $2.04 billion and $5.69 billion, mostly from estimated savings on federal spending. The exact number depends on discount rates and other assumptions.
  • Agencies have published two final rules meeting the broader definition of “significant” in 2020. 2020’s total was 79 significant final rules.
  • In 2021, one new rule affects small businesses. It is not classified as significant. 2020’s totals were 668 rules affecting small businesses, 26 of them significant.

Highlights from last week’s new regulations:

For more data, see Ten Thousand Commandments and follow @10KC and @RegoftheDay on Twitter.

On the Radio: Antitrust, Jobs, and More

On Monday, I talked about antitrust policy on Paul Molloy’s Freedom Works show based in Tampa, FL.

I also taped a conversation on Rick Trader’s Conservative Commandos show today where we discussed today’s jobs report, the COVID-19 recovery, antitrust policy, and other topics. It should air sometime soon.

I’ll post links to audio (and video for the Conservative Commandos segment) if I find them online.

Priorities for Commerce Secretary Nominee Raimondo: Tariffs, TPA, Trade Agreements

President-Elect Biden will nominate Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to be the next Commerce Secretary. She will soon be in a position to undo much of the damage the Trump administration’s trade policies have done to America’s economy and foreign policy interests. 

She should work with Congress and President-Elect Biden to repeal all of the Trump tariffs, and to repeal Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act and Sections 201 and 301 of the 1974 Trade Act. No future president should be able to abuse executive power the way Trump has, especially as the country goes through a difficult recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

The Biden administration will likely negotiate important trade agreements with the United Kingdom and European Union over the next few years. Raimondo will likely play a prominent role in the negotiations. Once in office, Raimondo will need to work with Congress to renew the president’s Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which expires in July. This would greatly speed up negotiations and help remove harmful trade barriers during a difficult economic recovery that could use the boost.

It is also important that the upcoming trade agreements stick to trade to the extent possible. There has been a trend of trade agreements increasingly including trade-unrelated provisions such as regulatory, environment, and labor policies. These are open invitations to cronyism and rent-seeking. The added complexity means more things can go wrong during negotiations, and could scuttle worthwhile agreements.

President Trump’s United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which was laden with trade-unrelated provisions and political giveaways, should not set a precedent for upcoming agreements. Raimondo has a wonderful reform opportunity ahead of her that few commerce Secretaries have enjoyed. She should take full advantage of that opportunity.

Several trade reform idea policies are in Iain Murray’s and my paper “Traders of the Lost Ark,” and in CEI’s forthcoming Agenda for Congress.

December Job Losses in Leisure & Hospitality Eclipse Gains in Other Sectors – What Can Policymakers Do?

This press release was originally posted at cei.org.

The Labor Department reported today the economy lost 140,000 jobs in December 2020. Gains in various sectors were eclipsed by 500,000 jobs lost in the leisure and hospitality sector.

CEI senior fellow Ryan Young says policymakers should continue to clear away never-needed regulations and build in flexibility to future reopening plans:

“There is a small ray of sunshine from today’s jobs report: leisure and hospitality jobs are pandemic-sensitive. They’ll likely come back quickly as more people get vaccinated. Since other jobs are up by about 360,000, that means the rest of the economy is likely growing, if slowly. Officials should continue to remove never-needed regulations that continue to block businesses from adapting to consumers’ and employees’ changing COVID-era needs. 

“As the pandemic subsides, officials should allow flexibility for companies to set their own reopening policies. Reopening safely will require trial and error, which means error-prone policymakers should reject a top-down approach that would make it difficult to adapt as needed.”

CEI research fellow Sean Higgins points to lockdowns and restrictions as a big impediment for leisure and hospitality jobs:

“After months of jobs gains indicating the businesses and workers were adapting to the Covid-19 crisis, Friday’s report that economy shed 140,000 jobs shows the drag created by continual lockdowns and restrictions is starting to roll back those gains. The losses were concentrated in the leisure and hospitality fields, indicating those sectors are running out of ways to cope and are scaling back instead.

“Just two months ago the leisure and hospitality sector was leading job growth, having added 318,000 jobs in September. In November, that dropped to a mere 31,000 jobs gained; and in December, that same sector lost 498,000 jobs. Since February, employment in leisure and hospitality is down by 3.9 million, or 23.2 percent, accounting for more than half of the 5.7 million jobs lost overall since the pandemic started.

“Seasonal shifts account for part of the loss, but the shuttering of the economy severely exacerbated the situation. As the BLS report notes, 15.8 million people reported in December that they had been unable to work because their employer closed or lost business for reasons related to the pandemic, up one million from the previous month.

“The silver lining is that the economy can recover if given the chance. There is no substitute for letting people get back to work. Hopefully, as vaccinations accelerate, public officials will relent and let this happen.”

Toward Simplifying Antitrust Regulation

Antitrust regulation is a complex mess. Multiple agencies have overlapping jurisdiction with no set rules for determining who takes which cases. One of the antitrust enforcement agencies, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), even has its own court system, where it sets the rules and hire its own judges, and pays their salaries. Over at The Hill, Alex Reinauer and I take a look at two bills from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) that would simplify the mess a little bit. One bill is the SMARTER Act:

It would require the DOJ [Department of Justice] and the FTC to follow a uniform interpretation of the Clayton Act, which governs merger cases. Currently, the agencies can follow different interpretations as suits their political needs, confusing judges and defendants alike.

It would also require the FTC to use independent courts.

The other is the One Agency Act:

Lee’s second bill is the One Agency Act. It would remove the FTC from merger cases entirely, though not from other antitrust cases. The Justice Department is perfectly capable of handling merger cases, and one agency in charge would add simplicity, predictability, and expertise. It would also end pointless turf battles between the agencies.

Read the whole thing here. See also CEI’s dedicated antitrust site, antitrust.cei.org, and Wayne Crews’s and my paper “The Case against Antitrust Law.”

This Week in Ridiculous Regulations

Happy new year, everyone. We made it. 2020 was rough, but as I argued last week, it was not the worst year ever. 2020 was also the rare year where the work week and the calendar year both ended on the same day, which makes this week’s regulation roundup a lot easier. For the some of the year-long totals, see my earlier post and Wayne Crews’s Forbes article. This post will concentrate on week-long totals. Regulatory agencies issued new regulations ranging from pale cyst nematodes to tipping.

On to the data:

  • Last week, 58 new final regulations were published in the Federal Register in a four-day week, after 53 the previous (three-day) week.
  • That’s the equivalent of a new regulation every two hours and 54 minutes.
  • Federal agencies  issued 3,353 final regulations in 2020. 2019’s total was 2,964 regulations.
  • There were 20 proposed regulations in the Federal Register last week, for a total of 2,149 on the year. 2019’s total was 2,158 proposed regulations.
  • Last week, agencies published 386 notices, for a total of 22,480 in 2020. 2019’s total was 21,804.
  • Last week, 3,150 new pages were added to the Federal Register in a three-day week, after 1,326 pages the previous week.
  • The 2020 Federal Register totals 87,352 pages, the second-highest of all-time and the largest from a Republican president. The 2019 total was 70,938 pages. The all-time record adjusted page count (which subtracts skips, jumps, and blank pages) is 96,994, set in 2016.
  • Rules are called “economically significant” if they have costs of $100 million or more in a given year. Agencies published five such rules in 2020, and four in 2019.
  • The running cost tally for 2020’s economically significant regulations ranges from net savings of between $2.04 billion and $5.69 billion. 2019’s total ranges from net savings of $350 million to $650 million, mostly from estimated savings on federal spending. The exact number depends on discount rates and other assumptions.
  • Agencies published 79 final rules meeting the broader definition of “significant” in 2020. 2019’s total was 66 significant final rules.
  • In 2020, 668 new rules affect small businesses; 26 of them are classified as significant. 2019’s totals were 501 rules affecting small businesses, 22 of them significant.

Highlights from last week’s new regulations:

For more data, see Ten Thousand Commandments and follow @10KC and @RegoftheDay on Twitter.

Book Review: Thomas Hager – Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine

Thomas Hager – Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine (New York: Abrams Press, 2019)

Hager writes as a storyteller, rather than as a chemist. This makes a daunting subject much easier to approach. It also makes clear the significant progress medicine has made over the last several centuries. Though Hager argues that drug companies have already picked most of the low-hanging fruit, the next few decades will still see significant advances.

As he points out early on, he tells the stories of ten-ish drugs, not precisely ten. Each chapter is more about a group of drugs. The first chapter is about opiates and pain relievers, a category that likely includes more than ten notable drugs by itself. The good these drugs have done for surgical patients, women giving birth, and chronic pain patients is coupled with the problems of addiction and the inability of policymakers to deal with the problem with anything other than prohibition and restrictions. These policies, create more problems than they solve, which politicians are naturally proposing to address with more of the same.

Hager also tells the stories of antibiotics, which balance life-saving power versus rapid bacterial evolution; vaccines and inoculations, which have dealt with anti-vaxxer nonsense from the beginning of their thousand-year history; and other fascinating stories of progress and reaction, and innovation and suppression. The final category, of gene-based medicine, is flashing enormous potential right now, much of which is still unrealized. People with cancer, organ damage, birth defects, and genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia are all potential beneficiaries. However, they are threatened by a significant anti-science movement from both the right and the left.

This book came out in 2019, right before the COVID-19 pandemic. If Hager writes an afterword or an updated edition on the 2020 pandemic, it would be fascinating to see his thoughts on how the speed of invention has sped up over time.

For comparison, smallpox first appeared in third century, B.C. Egypt. It took more than a thousand years for the first inoculations to be invented in 9th century, A.D. China. It then took another 900 years or so for people like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to popularize the practice in the 1700s, and then another 200 years to eradicate the disease entirely. In modern times, HIV/AIDS took decades, rather than centuries, to move from a death sentence to a chronic, usually manageable condition. Time will tell if COVID-19 is ever eradicated. But its timeline took a little more than a year from the disease’s first appearance to its vaccine being taken by millions. This is a big deal. For all the pain 2020 has brought, this record speed should be a strong source of optimism for dealing with the next pandemic—and for further progress with existing diseases.

Hager does a good job of staying neutral in his stories, though on several occasions he shows the intellectual’s common distaste for the idea that someone, somewhere, might be making a profit by helping people. Fortunately, he doesn’t go much into public policy in this book. He would likely have little to add that would help patients, speed innovation, or reduce costs—all of which profits incentivize.

Book Review: Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ian S. Port – The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Scribner, 2019)

A dual biography of Leo Fender and Les Paul, as well as a history of the instruments that bear their names. Fender, whose full name was Clarence Leonidas Fender, got his start in radio repair. He founded his own company in 1946 and began building his own PA systems and amplifiers for local musicians. By the 1950s, he was building the first mass-produced electric guitars. He was heavily influenced by his love of Hawaiian music, an dsome of Fender’s first electric instruments were Hawaiian-style lap steel guitars with pickups that wrapped around the strings in a circle. Today’s guitar pickups are typically flat slabs underneath the string. Fender’s customers were mainly working musicians who need instruments that were loud, reliable, and easy to repair.

Before Fender, most electric guitars were hollowbodies. They were built similarly to traditional acoustic guitars, but with pickups. Fender’s solidbody designs were almost impossible to destroy. They are also easy to mass produce, since they are essentiallu flat planks of wood carved into a standardized Telecaster or Stratocaster shape. The necks were a bolt-on design, which meant they were interchangeable and easy to replace if they broke—or if the player preferred the feel of a neck from one instrument, but preferred the body of another.

A pre-Fender guitar’s glued-in neck was permanent. One stage mishap could mean the end of the instrument—and a hefty expense for a musician who might not be able to afford it. Fender’s guitars also had a thinner, brighter, treble-heavy sound that belied his Hawaiian influences. In this way, 1930s Hawaiian music had an underappreciated influence on everything from country music to Jimi Hendrix’s searing guitar solos.

Fender also created the first mass-produced electric bass, the Precision Bass. As with Teles and Strats, these were designed for gigging musicians. Electric basses are far, far smaller than a traditional stand-up bass. They were also far louder, which meant they could keep up with modern rock bands—especially when played through a Fender Bassman amp. They had frets, which inspired the “Precision” name. A few years later Fender introduced the Jazz Bass, which has a slightly offset body shape and a brighter, more articulate sound. The two designs remain the standard choices for genres ranging from Motown blues to metal.

While Fender’s company had a rough going in its early days, the success of the Telecaster, introduced in 1952, and the Stratocaster, introduced in 1954, and its basses, allowed Fender to sell his company to CBS in 1965 for $13 million, or about $100 million in today’s dollars.

CBS was a negligent owner and allowed the quality of Fender’s guitars to decline, to the point where the company was at risk of going by the 1980s. Once the company regained its independence, it upped its quality control and embraced overseas manufacturing, established a custom shop, and began a renaissance that continues to this day. Fender is now the largest instrument maker in the world, and is a studious caretaker for other famous guitar brands such as Jackson and Gretsch that had also fallen on hard times.

Les Paul, born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, was one of the first people to make a solidbody guitar. Though he was not the first, as he liked to claim. He built his famous “log” guitar similar to Fender’s. he was the tinkering type, and after moving to New York he convinced the Epiphone guitar to give him the run of their workshop after-hours. He gave his log guitar a more conventional appearance by attaching the sides of an Epiphone hollowbody guitar to the log’s center block. Today’s semi-hollowbody designs, such as Gretsches and the Gibson ES-335, use this center-block approach to reduce feedback and give a different tone.

By 1952, the Gibson guitar company saw Fender’s success, and approached Les Paul about being the endorsee for its first entry into the solidbody market. That guitar, the Gibson Les Paul, remains in production today and has been favored by guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Slash, and Carcass’ Bill Steer.

Les Paul was also one of the first people to use overdubs and multi-tracking, which are now staples of modern recording. When he and his then-wife Mary Ford were at the peak of their popularity, Paul’s production techniques made their sound instantly recognizable.

Paul and Fender knew each other, though their careers were centered on opposite coasts, with Fender in California and Paul usually in New York when he wasn’t on the road. They were usually on good terms, although Fender and Gibson remain the two largest competitors in the instrument business.

Port is a gifted storyteller. While he usually treats Fender and Paul separately, he deftly points out common themes in their careers and their instruments. It helps that both men were a bit quirky. Fender was a bit of the nutty professor type, happier in his shop than working on the business side of his business. Paul was not the best husband to Ford, and he didn’t handle his decline in popularity very well. In his later years he became a gregarious elder statesman, and his talent for spinning a yarn made him particularly endearing, even when he was clearly exaggerating. While musicians will obviously get the most out of this book, it also makes a good case study in invention. As with most other ideas, including calculus and the steam engine, the modern electric guitar had multiple near-simultaneous inventors. There was trial, plenty of error, and the whole process was messy and unplanned. As befits the rock music Fender and Paul helped to make possible—even though neither of them even liked it.

Regulation in 2020: Some Quick Numbers

The 251st and final issue of the 2020 Federal Register was released this morning. Here are some of the initial findings:

  • Federal agencies issued 3,353 final regulations in 2020. This is up from 2,964 regulations in 2019, or an 11 percent increase.
  • This was the second-highest total of Trump’s presidency, just behind 2018’s total of 3,368.
  • Since 1993, federal agencies have issued 111,065 final regulations.
  • Since 1975, federal agencies have issued 208,155 final regulations.
  • Although the Trump administration claims to have eliminated more than 600 regulations during 2020 as part of an effort to get rid of #NeverNeeded regulations harming the COVID-19 response, few of these went through the proper rulemaking process. This means they were not recorded in the Federal Register. My colleague Alex Reinauer tallied fewer than 60 rules properly removed as of October.
  • That said, removed rules still count as new rules in the Federal Register’s accounting rules. So this year’s rule and page counts capture a modest amount of deregulation, as well as new regulation.
  • Some of President Trump’s most significant increases in regulatory burdens will not show up in The Code of Federal Regulations or the Federal Register. These include its doubling of tariffs, its immigration restrictions, its threats to regulate political speech, and its antitrust investigations and lawsuits against tech companies, each of which could have billions of dollars of economic impact.
  • Compare this to the $100 million threshold for a regulation to count as “economically significant.”
  • While only five economically significant rules appeared in the 2020 Federal Register, the Trump administration is clearly imposing economically significant regulatory costs through other means.
  • 2020’s unadjusted page count is 87,351 pages. This number will later be adjusted to subtract skipped and blank pages—usually a little less than a thousand pages in recent years. This is the second-longest edition in the Federal Register’s 85-year history, and the largest ever from a Republican administration by a mile—literally.
  • The previous GOP record was 80,700 pages in 2008, George W. Bush’s final year in office. With standard paper size of 11.5 inches in height, President Trump’s final Federal Register is 1.2 miles longer than President Bush’s.
  • The 87,352-page Federal Register would stack more than 7 feet, 3 inches tall. This is two inches taller than NBA great Shaquille O’Neal.
  • Federal agencies issued 22,480 notices in 2020. These are often as innocuous as announcements of upcoming hearings or address changes. But agencies have also used notices to enact significant policy changes without putting them through the required notice-and-comment rulemaking process.
  • One of the Trump administration’s biggest positive regulatory contributions is an executive order directing agencies to be more transparent about their use of guidance documents and prevent their abuse. CEI’s Wayne Crews had spent years promoting this reform. As a result, most federal agencies issued rules in 2020 implementing new guidance document processes.

Wayne Crews and I will have more say about regulation in 2020 soon.

For more data, see Ten Thousand Commandments and follow @10KC and @RegoftheDay on Twitter. See also neverneeded.cei.org for reform ideas. My article on why 2020, though difficult, was not the worst year ever, is here.