Count Me In With the Unsophisticated Six Year Olds

by Henry Farrell on May 10, 2011

“Kindred Winecoff”: doesn’t like Paul Krugman’s elite-focused account of politics (see also “Daniel Drezner”: for a rather milder version).

bq. If Greenspan’s “with notably rare exceptions” deserves internet infamy, and it does, then surely Krugman’s less notable exceptions should too. As Drezner notes, Krugman’s examples — the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq war, mainly — were supported by majorities of the population. … What interests me about this isn’t that Krugman is playing fast and loose with his factual claims, or even stacking the deck in a blatantly partisan way. That’s par for his course. It’s that he thinks that a simple political explanation is just not feasible. Instead, some moral lesson is needed. If something bad happens, it must be because bad people are doing it. This is the political sophistication of a six year old. … Occam’s Razor can help us here. If there are tax cuts, maybe it’s because people wanted tax cuts. If there is Medicare Part D, maybe it’s because people wanted Medicare Part D. If there is a housing bubble, maybe it’s because public policy was skewed in ways that home ownership attractive, because that’s what people want. This might not work all the time, but as a first approximation this sort of thinking holds up fairly well. In the examples Krugman gives, it’s batting 1.000.

Um, getting away from the invective, not so much. I like much of Winecoff’s blogging on IPE, but the relevant political science here seems to me to support Krugman far more than it does Winecoff. International political economy scholarship (the field that Winecoff specializes in) tends to have an extremely stripped down, and bluntly unrealistic account of how policy is made. Typically, modelers in this field either assume that the “median voter” plays an important role in determining national preferences, or that various stylized economic interests (which they try to capture using Stolper-Samuelson, Ricardo-Viner and other approaches borrowed from economic theory) determine policy, perhaps as filtered through a very simple representation of legislative-executive relations.

However, actual work on how policy gets made suggests that this doesn’t work. On many important policy issues, the public has no preferences whatsoever. On others, it has preferences that largely maps onto partisan identifications rather than actual interests, and that reflect claims made by political elites (e.g. global warming). On others yet, the public has a set of contradictory preferences that politicians can pick and choose from. In some broad sense, public opinion _does_ provide a brake on elite policy making – but the boundaries are both relatively loose and weakly defined. Policy elites can get away with a hell of a lot if they want to.

The result is that the relevant literature on policy making (located largely within comparative political economy and a growing debate within American politics) argues that elites play a very strong role in creating policies. Take one of the issues where Winecoff argues that Krugman is wrong – the Bush tax cuts. Here, the arguments in the political science literature do not start from the proposition that these cuts were driven by public desire for lower taxes. Instead, they involve debate between those who “suggest”: that the cuts were deliberately crafted in ways that distort public perceptions and those who “claim”: that this was unnecessary, since American public opinion on taxation is so inchoate as to give elites wide room for maneuver. More generally, in Andrea Campbell’s “words”:,

bq. Tax policy, regulatory policy—the laws and rules that have been key in fueling the rising share of national income claimed by the very rich—are extraordinarily complex. The public has no idea what to think of these policies (one reason pollsters don’t ask about them—to do so would merely elicit “nonattitudes”). There is for example considerable confusion about the incidence of various taxes across income groups.


bq. One chief problem is that citizens simply don’t pay attention to such complex policies; another is that even if they did, they can’t figure out what their stances should be, and no one is helping them. Low salience and great ignorance make for a disastrous democratic brew.

A similar argument can be made about Medicare Part D. It is fair to say that the Medicare changes _began_ in a shift in partisan patterns of competition over issues. However, it surely didn’t end there. In Andrea Campbell and Kimberly Morgan’s “description”:

bq. The mobilization strategy of Republicans, and opening of the door to a major expansion of Medicare, also increased the activism and influence of organized interests. The collapse of bipartisan support for government cost controls in Medicare, coupled with the emergence of a budget surplus, eroded legislators’ discipline with regard to provider reimbursements. In addition, the determination of Republicans to enact a reform that relied heavily on private actors created an opening for those groups to extract benefits for themselves. For example, managed care companies could argue that they would not participate as insurance providers if reimbursement levels were not high enough, and employers could demand subsidies to assure their continued willingness to provide retiree drug benefits. All of this added to the cost of the bill. More generally, gaining the support of powerful interest groups was essential in passing a reform that was likely to garner little Democratic support and was viewed skeptically by more conservative Republicans.

I don’t know about the politics of housing policy – perhaps one can make a similar claim, perhaps not (political scientists, and political economists in particular have tended to overlook housing). But I suspect that one can. There is very wide variation in rates of home ownership across democracies. This may reflect differences in underlying preferences (maybe in an ideal world Germans don’t want to own their houses the same way that Americans do). But it also plausibly reflects huge differences e.g. in mortgage regulation which are largely driven by interest groups rather than voters themselves.

More generally, the point is clear. One can certainly make a reasonable case that electoral politics plays a more important role than Krugman acknowledges. But one cannot make a good case that policies of the kind that Winecoff describes are a simple reflection of public preferences. Or, at least, if one wants to make this case, one is going to have to make a detailed counter-case against a substantial body of research which seems to demonstrate the opposite. Elites play an extremely important role in US policy making, and to make an elite-centered argument is not to think like a six year old. It is to think in ways which accord with the relevant political science literature, as best as I know it.

Let me make it clear that I don’t want to bag on Winecoff in particular. He doesn’t like Krugman, and describes him in pretty harsh terms – but then Krugman’s own revealed preferences suggest that politesse is not a necessary condition for good debate. The problem here is a more general problem with the field of international political economy, which frankly (and I say this as someone who writes in the field and teaches it) has an extremely weak understanding of how policy is made. I’d like to see IPE and IR scholars and students being forced to read some of the relevant literature in comparative political economy. For example, Pepper Culpepper’s “Quiet Politics and Business Power”: has some very nice discussion of the interplay between interest group clout and electoral considerations in policy making processes. Books like this don’t make it onto IPE core syllabi, but they really, really should. And as long as they don’t, IPE scholars will continue to make claims which fit badly with what we know about national level policy making.