Three Thoughts on Iowa

  • I made a series of predictions on the eve of the caucuses that turned out to be wrong. I predicted that Sanders and Trump would win; I placed some small bets on that basis. I was roundly proven wrong, even though some pundits are calling the outcome a “virtual tie” and a few delegates were apparently allocated by coin flip. I respect the Sanders campaign for trying to spin the loss as a victory, but I don’t get to collect on the bet for a virtual tie for the same reason you don’t get to move in to the White House on the basis of a virtual tie.

Now, I wasn’t really confident in either prediction (I say after the fact). I was swayed by a late poll by Ann Selzer that has had a history of being pretty good. So I’m again struck by the value of making probability forecasts rather than predictions: at best that poll shifted my uncertainty on Cruz/Trump and Clinton/Sanders a little bit towards certainty. But it’s also the case that the right attitude before the event really should have been uncertainty: some outcomes were impossible, but several outcomes were live possibilities. The goal really shouldn’t be to gloat or mope after the fact: the goal should be to update your forecasting abilities, to get better at making future predictions.

  • The caucus format is deliberative. (More so for the Democrats than the Republicans, but still.) That makes polling somewhat less predictive, because polling can only measure pre-deliberative attitudes. We published a really good account of the issues with polling as a measure of “public opinion” in The Good Society a few years back: Liz Turner’s “Penal Populism, Deliberative Methods, and the Production of ‘Public Opinion’ on Crime and Punishment.” Turner argues that surveys produce only one version of the “hypothetical public” which is aggregative, generalized, individualized, and passive. It can (when properly massaged) produce a good prediction about electoral outcomes, since voting ballots, too, have become aggregative, generalized, individualized, and passive. But even mildly deliberative moments like the Iowa caucuses can lead to surprising outcomes because a very different public (no longer hypothetical) is constituted by the caucus form.
  • Finally, the real problem throughout the (Republican) race has been the number of candidates who had some claim to viability. The larger the number of candidates running, the more likely you are to have Condorcet loser (the one who would win the majority of head-to-head ballots) winning the election. Large numbers of (viable) candidates make voting irrational. In Iowa, there were at least six viable Republican candidates measured by delegates, and eleven candidates received at least 1% of the vote. We can see this problem on a much smaller scale with the way that the Clinton campaign planned to use Martin O’Malley as a spoiler, to prevent Sanders from picking up delegates at the margins. That said, I haven’t seen any evidence that this ended up happening, but rather the reverse.

Could the Iraq War have been prevented?

In the comments to a post on Republican obstructionism, my old colleague Will Roberts proposes the following historical counterfactual: if the American left had been willing to fight harder and dirtier, they could have prevented or arrested the war in Iraq.

He goes on to propose a variety of actions that might have achieved this goal:

A million people showed up in New York — and at least half that number in DC — to commiserate about our powerlessness. We had immense wealth at our disposal. We had fame and access to the media. We had access to positions of economic, infrastructural, and governmental power. And all you can think of is assassinations?

Would it have destroyed the legitimacy of the anti-war movement if ten thousand people had burned down their own houses in protest? If 500 people had shut down I-80 in Pennsylvania for a week? If a thousand people had invaded the White House? If a few Senators had shut down the Senate? If all those anti-war actors had used every single public appearance to speak out against the war? If anti-war folks had joined the military in large numbers in order to disrupt military bases from within?

I have no idea if any of these things would have “worked.” But I think we all felt powerless from the get go, and came to an a priori judgment that there was nothing we could do that wouldn’t a) be futile and b) make things worse by causing more harm to us/the economy/our legitimacy/whatever. But that’s precisely the thinking that I’m both tired of engaging in and convinced does nothing but guarantee political impotence.

Right now, I am tempted and troubled by defeatism: basically, given the structure of American government, the political culture after September 11, and the various incentives and pressures that operate on American politicians, nothing that citizens could have done would have prevented our disastrous, unjust, and illegal “pre-emptive” invasion in Iraq. Each of the actions Will outlines seem likely to have provoked and empowered the hawkish politicians, supplying them opportunities to discredit the anti-war left and gather more support for their policy goals and objectives. I suspect that each of these strategies would have failed. Just shooting from the hip:

  • Arson is illegal, so the first twenty people who burnt down their houses would end up in jail, especially if they still had mortgages. (There’s a guy who demolished his house after it was foreclosed… same problem.)
  • The 500 folks who shut down I-80 would be met by 150 SWAT and end up in jail while moderates distanced themselves from the movement.
  • Post 9/11, I’m not sure how the left would have gotten 1000 people into the White House or what they’d hope to accomplish there…. It’s not like the war was actually being run from the West Wing, this is what the Pentagon is for. Plus, in the midst of their planning they’d be infiltrated by FBI/Homeland Security who would “discover” (or actually discover, given Will’s other recommendations) that the activists were planning violence and arrest them. This is basically what happened to the much less radical NYC Republican convention protesters.
  • It’d have been interesting if a few Senators shut down the Senate the way that the Republicans have begun doing, but this isn’t citizen engagement and actual Senators have shown themselves to always be more committed to re-election or retirement than their constituents’ causes.
  • Actors with “anti-American” opinions? A time-tested, bad strategy, which has always proven counter-productive.
  • Join the military? Now your body belongs to the Army and they can separate the activists and pack them off to the front lines with hooah patriots.

This list is better than an abstract call for concrete action insofar as it’s not a performative contradiction, but I don’t think Will offers any suggestions that seems likely to have succeeded, that couldn’t have been co-opted, and that wouldn’t, for instance, have won the 2008 election for McCain/Palin or justified major crackdowns that would have made things worse before they got disastrous.

What’s more, leftist violence in general would be no more successful that the rightist violence of the radical fringe among the Tea Party protesters. This is basically why Kantian/Rawlsian public reason is so seductive: even if you have radical goals and are willing to consider extreme methods, political liberalism still presents itself as the best strategy for accomplishing anything worthwhile.

However, I don’t really want to believe that citizens are as powerless as this, though wanting doesn’t make it true. So I ask: what could we have done to prevent or end the war? Some of this depends on how we describe this “we”: President Bush could have prevented the war, for instance, by the simple expedient of not launching it. The Republicans could have prevented the war by refusing to support it. Saddam Hussein could have prevented the war by handing himself over to a war crimes tribunal. But given that those actors were set in their course, what could the antiwar left have done?

I’m not talking about what the American antiwar movement actually did: protesting ineffectually while our politicians played patriots, supported the war, and waited five years to elect Barack Obama in the hopes that he’ll manage to withdraw American troops? (I say “hope” because even now it’s not clear if the conflict over election results will lead to violence and a longer duration of “peacekeeping.” But this waiting until we get the presidency back and he’s finished mopping up his predecessor’s mess certainly can’t count as “prevention.”) What could we–no–what should we have done differently?

Citizen Participation and Google: I’m Feeling Lucky

Over at GonePublic, my fellow Masonite Noelle McAfee has a post on the White House’s new Office of Citizen Participation, directed by ex-Google product manager Katie Jacobs Stanton. 

After a quick moment of congratulation, Dr. McAfee moves on to the critical reflections:

Who is engaging whom? how? for what?

At present, there’s little information about what the new office will do, though there are reasons for caution: ‘citizen participation’ is subordinate to the White House’s ‘communications’ office, and so this is, at least in part, about crafting and delivering the White House’s message. They’ll talk, and they’ll organize the distribution of their arguments, but how much will they listen? 

Here, the choice of a Google employee is a little disheartening. Google makes great products, there is no doubt, and their core business of crafting information technologies that supply the desired website quickly and efficiently is a great start on open and transparent government. The internet, like the federal government, is a firehose of news and data: different citizens need very different streams of that data, and we would all benefit by having some way to slow the flow to that exact trickle that will supply us the needed answer instead of a torrent of irrelevance.

However, just try to find a ‘contact’ form anywhere in the *.Google family of sites. This is a company that thinks in terms of aggregating and manipulating eyeballs and pageviews: it’s not the most interlocutionary of corporations. If a product designer at Google wants to know how a new feature will be received, they bring some folks in to a lab and hook them up to machines that test their eye-movements and response times to various things on the screen. If there’s a problem, they find out about it through their electronic ‘customer experience’ data miners, which analyze usage patterns and look for statistically significant anomolies. Unfortunately, that’s the model of institutional design that Katie Jacobs Stanton is being hired to replicate in the Executive Branch.

The Google corporate philosophy actually de-emphasizes customer feedback and responsiveness, becuase they’ve rightly reasoned that customer service and traditional ‘Help Desk’ phone lines are an enormous waste of money for a company that gives almost all of its serices away for free. Avoiding direct interaction with their customers saves Google millions of dollars a year, but that’s not an efficiency that we ought to seek in a deliberative democracy. Reason-giving and reason-responsiveness are what distinguish a democracy from a tyranny. I know the personal e-mail addresses of a few Google employees, so I might be able to get a question answered if I really tried, but ultimately that’s on the basis of my personal social network, not an institutional design that values accountability. 

 Just look at the way the White House will be delivering on that PublicMarkup feature I requested: 

One significant addition to reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.

This is legislation already voted on by Congress, not bills before the House or Senate, so we’ll be reviewing and commenting on an already-heavily-deliberated piece of legislation for which there is no turning back. At that point, President Obama can either sign it or veto it, he can’t remove particular provisions or renegotiate the language. It’s far too late in the process to be soliciting comment from the public, unless the real goal isn’t to tap the wisdom of crowds but rather to use new media distribution techniques for getting the President’s message to his constituents. 

Dr. McAfee rightly cautions us that we ought not to depend on the White House, or any branch of government, to do our participation for us:

We the public, though, shouldn’t look to the White House to organize us. That’s our job. There is no substitute for self-organizing, certainly not if it is to be democratic.

That sounds right to me, and precisely because that’s true, a White House Office of Citizen Participation won’t undermine or destroy true self-organizing. Turf grass (propaganda masquerading as populism) can’t flourish when the real grassroots are operating effectively, and the election has shown that there’s a tremendous energy and willingness to get involved and use technology to communicate horizontally rather than vertically, to interact with each other for organically-evolving ends rather than merely to steer the regulative apparatus of the state. That’s real power, and there’s more of that self-organizing juice flowing in the US than there has been for several decades. So yes, I am feeling lucky.

The New Executive Order: Cost-Benefit Analysis and Market Failure

I’m late in getting to this news, but on January 18th, President Bush amended Executive Order 12866 on Regulatory Planning and Review. The new order, EO # 13422, has some interesting and potentially troubling new provisions. Here are some links: pro, pro, pro, con, con, con.

Public Citizen identifies three problems with the new order, and I’m going to add a few more:

  1. “[I]t requires agencies to get White House approval of many important kinds of guidance for the public, which would allow the White House to create a bureaucratic bottleneck that would slow down agencies’ ability to give the public information it needs.”
  2. “[T]he new order stresses the concept of ‘market failure’ in its revised command for agencies to state justifications for new regulations for public health, privacy, safety, civil rights and the environment.”
  3. “[T]he order requires agencies to develop annual plans for upcoming rulemakings that identify ‘the combined aggregate costs and benefits of all … regulations planned for that calendar year to assist with the identification of priorities.'”

In addition to these, I’d add a few of my own:

  1. The President may not have the power to micromanage agencies empowered by Congress in this way while respecting the separation of powers. (Both the old and new Executive Orders may be unconstitutional.)
  2. This appears to add a good deal of red tape to the process of producing red tape. While that may seem appealing to knee-jerk libertarians, there’s no indication that this won’t just bloat the bureaucracy further. Sadly, most regulations are needed, and the market fails all the time. Perhaps, though, this process will give us more insight into just how it fails, and shut down the most egregiously bad policies before they’re enacted. It remains to be seen whether outlier regulations like will help pay for the cost of evaluating them all (a GAO study a few years down the road seems appropriate.)

Richard Belzer at Neutral Source disagrees with the first three explicitly. (He’s spent ten years at the Office of Management and Budget trying to regulate the regulators, so he’s understandably supportive of the whole scheme of executive oversight.)

  1. He points out that guidance documents are substantially identical to regulations, since they explain likely agency actions and reasoning to the industries they regulate. The Reagan-era Executive Order only covered actual rulemaking the agency engages in, but increasingly industries seek pre-ruling guidance in order to avoid conflict. The move from oversight over present rules to foresight over proposed new rules is not, he argues, a principled distinction. (This leaves open the question of oversight for regulations… but these agencies are under the charge of the executive branch, and their heads are employed at the pleasure of the President.)
  2. The language on ‘market failure’ is not new, though it may be given greater pride of place in the new text. Before, it was the first in a parenthetical list of possible reasons for regulation. Now, it’s the first in a non-paranthetical disjunct: regulation must be justified by market failure or ‘other problems.’ Again, this doesn’t address the question of whether agencies should be forced to answer to the White House.
  3. However, according to the plain text of the order, the amendments do not give anyone veto power over proposed regulation. Rather, it requires all agency heads to go to a meeting. That’s it: “The Director may convene a meeting of agency heads and other government personnel as appropriate to seek a common understanding of priorities and to coordinate regulatory efforts to be accomplished in the upcoming year.”
  4. Belzer is silent on the constitutional question, at least in these essays. I’ll just repeat my usual argument, which is that Congress arrogated their responsibilities vis-à-vis the administrative state decades ago. They’d have to work more than three days a week if they wanted to actually keep the government going themselves, so they’re content to leave it to various scientists, policy wonks, and efficiency experts. If the White House really wants to wade in and try to make sense of all that, I say let ’em. Maybe it’ll keep them from invading Iran.
  5. Belzer acknowledges that the new order “increases agencies regulatory planning obligations by requiring them to report estimates of the aggregate benefits and costs of regulations planned for the year. How much increase in analytic burden this imposes depends on whether the task is a clerical summation of estimates for individual rules (and now guidance) or it requires additional analytic effort.” How much is demanded is really up the executive in charge: if President Bush (or his deputy, Susan Dudley) doesn’t like the report, he can threaten to fire the head. That’s the extent of his practical power over these agencies; my bet is that most agency heads won’t make waves, so they’ll write whatever report Dudley wants.

None of this speaks to the desirability of cost-benefit analyses for new regulation, which in my opinion is quite high. Many people suggest that cost-benefit analyses deprioritize the intangibles, but I think it’s the opposite. When we finally understand the real costs of environmental pollution, for instance, we’ll quit polluting. The same thing goes for the costs of seat belts v. the cost of accident fatalities, the cost of accounting rules v. the cost of accounting corruption, ad infinitum. A good cost-benefit analysis is really about challenging our presumptions, looking at alternatives, and forcing us to weigh what matters to us. Public Citizen disagrees: “”These cost/benefit analyses are notoriously biased against regulation, especially long-term goals such as preventing global warming or cancers that manifest years after exposure to toxic substances. The upshot of this whole executive order is that the White House is already working to undermine not just agencies but also the new Congress’ ability to protect the public.” Maybe… but don’t blame economics for that: blame the White House.

That’s not to say that the next Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Susan Dudley, won’t misuse her influence in some way. Here’s some background on her: bio, pro, pro, meh, con, con, CON. (The last is a 68 page report put out by Public Citizen and OMB Watch.) Basically, she’s a free market ideologist: the new emphasis on ‘market failure’ is her baby, and she’ll undoubtedly nurture it for the next couple of years if she ever gets appointed. But she also looks like a crackpot, blindly opposing safety, financial, and environmental regulation that seems eminently reasonable to most people. These things are common sense to conservatives and liberals alike: air bags, banking privacy, regulations to prevent overfishing, or arsenic-free water. We all want these things. I don’t think she should be given a position of power for the same reason I wouldn’t give a hardcore Marxist an agency headship: ideologists lack the flexibility to be good administrators and managers. It’s worse in her case, insofar as she’s continually guilty of a basic logical fallacy. She regularly reasons like this: If people demand a safe or environmentally product, they will get it. This product does not exist. They do not really want this product. That’s a fine example of modus tollens, though of course it conflates the economic sense of demand with the common sense one. I may want to drive a car that is safe, but if I cannot afford one, economists do not count my desires as ‘demand.’

Dudley’s theory of market-failure, however, is not logical. She reasons: If the market has failed, we need government regulation. The market cannot fail: markets are self-regulating. Therefore, we do not need government regulation. Sadly, this is an example of denying the antecedent: If I’m asleep, my eyes are closed. I’m not asleep. By Dudley’s logic, therefore, my eyes are not closed. However, it is equally possible that I have blinked, just as it is possible that we make laws and regulations so as to register our demands as a people. Think of the government as an enormous Costco: we’re taking advantage of all the volume pricing deals to be had on safe roads, clean environments, and honest corporations and stock traders. The market may not fail in Dudley’s definition, but it regularly fails us. Markets aren’t nice: in a good market, rich people ‘demand’ more, and poor people ‘demand’ less: the market supplies them according to their means, not according to their needs. Yet even rich people can’t afford to pay Ford to build a car with seat belts if that requires Ford to retool the whole production line just for those few rich people. Markets suffer from a collective action problem: they are not always able to take advantage of economies of scale, and actually existing markets generally fail to plan for the future: they reward near-term profits, with which they hope to buy someone else’s innovations.

Nothing about what I have written negates the value of considering the costs and benefits of regulation. Men are not markets: we can think ahead, plan for uncertainties, and take lessons from the past in a way that the senseless beast of the market cannot. We partly inhabit markets, but we also have other identities. We evaluate cost-benefit statements as parents and partners, churchgoers and gardeners, sports fans and knitters, in other words, as citizens.