Stories by Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of political science and statistics at Columbia University and the lead author of the recent book, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State:  Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.  He blogs at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

Who Supports Government Space Programs?

January 2nd, 2012 at 5:56 pm 16 Comments

After quoting from a speech where a Republican presidential candidate praises the space program, Mark Palko writes:

I [Palko] don’t know what the reaction of the crowd was (the reporting wasn’t that detailed) but I’d imagine it was friendly. You can usually get a warm response from a Republican crowd by coming out in favor of manned space exploration which is, when you think about, strange as hell.

If you set out to genetically engineer a program that libertarians ought to object to, you’d probably come up with something like the manned space program. (more…)

There is No Increased Inequality, Unless You Look at the Top 1%

November 3rd, 2011 at 12:30 pm 40 Comments

Shikha Dalmia writes that “Greedy Capitalists Hogging Wealth Are Not Causing Income Inequality.” In her blog post she cites the lack of significant change in the Gini index of inequality among U.S. individuals in recent years:

I’m a bit confused, because there is another famous graph from Piketty and Saez which suggests that inequality is a real phenomenon. (The graph is all over the place on the web, here’s a link from John Schmitt that I found in a quick Google image search):


What’s the Plan After Default?

September 25th, 2011 at 10:00 am 41 Comments

David Frum writes:

Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the House, was asked at his retirement in 1987 how Washington had changed since he arrived in 1953. He answered, “The people are better. The results are worse.”

What he meant: There are many fewer drunks in government than there used to be. Fewer crooks. Fewer ignoramuses. Fewer cheaters and sexual harassers. Yet back when Congress contained many more drunks and crooks and cheaters, nobody doubted that it would vote to pay the American national debt. This summer, a better educated, more sober, more honest, and probably less adulterous Congress pushed the United States to the verge of national default.

Back in 1953 Joe McCarthy was in Congress. But even he didn’t suggest lowering the federal tax rate to zero, as Congresswoman Bachmann proposed the other day.


What if No One Gets Credit for the Recovery?

September 13th, 2011 at 12:24 pm 14 Comments

Seth Masket writes:

The upcoming presidential election is the most important election in a generation. . . . we are in the middle of (and hopefully on the tail end of) a truly catastrophic recession. The economy will recover, although that may not happen for several years. It seems fair to say that the economy will not be roaring again any time soon, meaning that Obama will at best win by a squeaker. If it dips back into recession, he’s toast. Most likely, it will end up just being a really competitive and interesting race on par with 2004.

The party occupying the White House when the economy does finally start booming will get the credit among the public for saving the country. It doesn’t matter so much who was in power when the recession hit or whose policies helped or hurt the recovery. To a large extent, it’s simply a matter of being in the Oval Office at the right time.


Politics: It’s Not Just About Winning Elections

September 8th, 2011 at 2:01 pm 4 Comments

With the election a mere year and a half away, all sorts of people are making the mistake of viewing all of politics through the narrow lens of election outcomes.

Here are three examples.


Obama’s Self-Destructive Optimism

August 8th, 2011 at 11:02 am 45 Comments

A simple theory of why Obama didn’t come out fighting in 2009: he expected an economic turnaround in four years.

My co-bloggers John Sides and Josh Tucker responded yesterday to a recent newspaper article in which psychologist Drew Westen argues that Barack Obama made a mistake by making conciliatory noises rather than aggressive Wall-Street-blaming in his inauguration speech and after.


Is Larry Summers a Scientist or a Politician?

May 14th, 2011 at 3:54 pm 10 Comments

A couple things in this interview by Andrew Goldman of Larry Summers currently irritated me. I’ll give the quotes and then explain my annoyance.

1. Goldman: What would the economy look like now if $1.2 trillion had been spent?

Summers: I think it’s an artificial question because there would have been all kinds of problems in actually moving $1.2 trillion dollars through the system — finding enough bridge projects that were ready to go and the like. But the recovery probably would have proceeded more rapidly if the fiscal program had been larger.

. . .

2. Goldman: You’re aware of — and were making light of — the fact that you occasionally rub people the wrong way.

Summers: In meetings, I’m more focused on trying to figure out what the right answer is than making everybody feel validated. In Washington and at Harvard, that sometimes rubs people the wrong way.

OK, now my reactions:

1. Not enough bridge projects, huh? I don’t believe it. We’ve been hearing for decades about America’s crumbling infrastructure. Summers (and, more generally, Obama’s economic team) had a staff, right? If they had put in the effort I think they could’ve found lots of bridges, water pipes, etc., that needed repair.

I also find it a bit annoying that Summers tries to have it both ways on this: (a) there weren’t enough projects on which to spend the money, (b) a bigger stimulus plan would’ve been better. It’s no surprise that people were skeptical of (b) given that the government’s most prominent economist was claiming (a)!

2. I think Summers is missing the point here. If everything had gone OK with the economy, nobody would be complaining about his style in meetings. But the economy has not gone so well so it’s natural to think that maybe he and the rest of the Obama team could’ve done better. And given the financial crisis of 2008, it seems reasonable to wonder whether Summers, Greenspan, et al. really “figured out what the right answer is.” Even at the time those policies were enacted there were many dissenting voices.

If being “focused on trying to figure out what the right answer is” actually gets you the wrong answer, then maybe you question your strategy.

Why does this bug me?

Politicians and pundits say silly things all the time and I usually just let it go (unless it happens to hit one of my pet peeves). But I hold academic social scientists to a higher standard.

It seems to me that Summers is torn between his two roles. As a researcher, he wants to admit his uncertainty and think about how to do better. As a politician, it’s all about Never Surrender, Don’t Give an Inch, etc.

I don’t know the best solution here, but if I were in this position, I might limit my public pronouncements to my area of expertise and defer to others on theirs. For example, Summers could say, “As a macroeconomist, my judgment is that a stimulus plan of $1.8 trillion would’ve been best. But other government experts told me there weren’t enough bridges to repair etc. Even so, etc.” Whatever credibility Summers has on the macroeconomics is diluted by his willingness to express certainty on any other topic that he’s asked about. Again, this looks to me like a worst-of-both-worlds combination of the academic’s freedom to speculate and hypothesize and the politician’s air of certainty.

P.S. Goldman has a talent for getting people to say things that make them look bad, as did Deborah Solomon (his predecessor in this NYT magazine column). Or could you make anybody look bad by taping them for long enough and then stringing together some of their more embarrassing statements? An interviewer could probably make me look pretty foolish in that way.

Originally posted at The Monkey Cage.

Whose Media is More Biased?

April 28th, 2011 at 12:58 pm 34 Comments

Tyler Cowen points to an article by Riccardo Puglisi on The New York Times and media bias. Puglisi writes:

Controlling for the activity of the incumbent president and the U.S. Congress across issues, I find that during a presidential campaign, The New York Times gives more emphasis to topics on which the Democratic party is perceived as more competent (civil rights, health care, labor and social welfare) when the incumbent president is a Republican. This is consistent with the hypothesis that The New York Times has a Democratic partisanship, with some “anti-incumbent” aspects . . . consistent with The New York Times departing from demand-driven news coverage.

I haven’t read the article in question but the claim seems plausible to me.  I’ve often thought there is an asymmetry in media bias, with Democratic reporters–a survey a few years ago found that twice as many journalists identify as Democrats than as Republicans–biasing their reporting by choosing which topics to focus on, and Republican news organizations (notably Fox News and other Murdoch organizations) biasing in the other direction by flat-out attacks.

I’ve never been clear on which sort of bias is more effective.  On one hand, Fox can create a media buzz out of nothing at all; on the other hand, perhaps there’s something more insidious about objective news organizations indirectly creating bias by their choice of what to report.

But I’ve long thought that this asymmetry should inform how media bias is studied.  It can’t be a simple matter of counting stories or references to experts and saying that Fox is more biased or the Washington Post is more biased or whatever.  Some of the previous studies in this area are interesting but to me don’t get at either of the fundamental sorts of bias mentioned above.  You have to look for bias in different ways to capture these multiple dimensions.   Based on the abstract quoted above, Puglisi may be on to something, maybe this could be a useful start to getting to the big picture.

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2012 GOP Favorites: Too Wonky to Win?

April 10th, 2011 at 6:53 pm 45 Comments

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Chait argues that the GOP has a “Dukakis problem”: none of the candidates being drafted to run looks very presidential.  But will voters really dismiss a candidate because they don’t like their look?

Chait writes:

Republicans have generally understood that an agenda tilted toward the desires of the powerful requires a skilled frontman who can pitch Middle America. Favorite character types include jocks, movie stars, folksy Texans and war heroes…  [But the frontrunners for the 2012 Republican nomination] make Michael Dukakis look like John F. Kennedy. They are qualified enough to serve as president, but wildly unqualified to run for president… [Mitch] Daniels’s drawbacks begin — but by no means end — with his lack of height, hair and charisma… [Jeb Bush] suffers from an inherent branding challenge [because of his last name]… [Chris] Christie… doesn’t cut a trim figure and who specializes in verbally abusing his constituents… A former tobacco lobbyist and occasional pre-civil-rights-era nostalgic, [Haley] Barbour is the comic embodiment of his party’s most negative stereotypes. A Barbour nomination would be the rough equivalent of the Democrats’ nominating Howard Dean, if Dean also happened to be a draft-dodging transsexual owner of a vegan food co-op.

Chait continues:

The impulse to envision one of these figures as a frontman represents a category error. These are the kind of people you want advising the president behind the scenes; these are not the people you put in front of the camera. The presidential candidate is the star of a television show about a tall, attractive person who can be seen donning hard hats, nodding at the advice of military commanders and gazing off into the future.

Geddit? Mike Dukakis was short, ethnic-looking, and didn’t look good in a tank. (He did his military service in peacetime.) And did I mention that his middle name was Stanley? Who would vote for such a jerk?

All I can say is that Dukakis performed about as well in 1988 as would be predicted from the economy at the time. Here’s a graph based on Doug Hibbs’s model:


Sorry, but I don’t think the Democrats would’ve won the 1988 presidential election even if they’d had Burt Reynolds at the top of the ticket. And, remember, George H. W. Bush was widely considered to be a wimp and a poser until he up and won the election. Conversely, had Dukakis won (which he probably would’ve, had the economy been slumping that year), I think we’d be hearing about how he was a savvy low-key cool dude.

Let me go on a bit more about the 1988 election. Suppose it’s true, as Chait believes, that Americans want their Presidents to look like Clint Eastwood rather than Danny DeVito. How come Dukakis was way ahead in the polls at the start of the general election campaign? The starting point is when people have the least information, when they’re the most superficial. It was by the end of the campaign, at which point voters focused more on party and ideology (see this article) and learned more about the candidates’ ideologies and issue positions, that they decided to go for the preppie from Connecticut over the wimp from Massachusetts.

To political scientists, this perspective — that presidential elections turn on issues and the economy, not on charisma or superficial perceptions of the candidates — is not new. Steven Rosenstone made the argument in his classic 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections. And the political-science view of presidential campaigns has been gaining ground among knowledgeable reporters as well. Unfortunately it hasn’t made its way to the New York Times Magazine yet, but give it time.

My goal is not to mock.  Chait is making an understandable error. He’s close to the action and focuses on the details of the candidates. And candidate effects are complicated. His article concludes:

In an old Simpsons episode, the unlikable brainiac Artie Ziff is elected prom king. “Instead of voting for some athletic hero or a pretty boy, you have elected me, your intellectual superior, as your king,” he says. “Good for you!” It’s funny because it hardly ever happens in real life.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), politics is not like the school prom. In the general election for president, the candidates are well-financed, are clearly distinguishable in ideology, and there are only two of them–thus none of the instability, associated with strategic voting, that we see in the primaries.

I don’t know what’s gonna happen in 2012, but political science research suggests that the Republicans could nominate a goofy short guy with glasses, or a rude fat guy, or whatever, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. (Haley Barbour is a different story: a conservative from Mississippi could be far enough from the national mainstream to get hurt on ideology. But even then we’re talking a percentage point or two.)

It really irritates me when pundits trivialize politics and insult the voters. I’m sure Chait means well and, yes, I know that most voters don’t know anything about the federal budget, probably half of them can’t find Miami on a map, etc. But there’s no evidence that people vote based on candidates’ looks. Certainly not in presidential elections where the stakes are high and their party identification is clear.

If you want to rail at the mistakes voters make and the problems with our political system . . . fine, go for it! There’s a lot to complain about. But please don’t slam the voters for something they don’t do.

Here’s a rule of thumb. When thinking about “the voters,” think a bit about yourself. Do you vote based on a candidate’s looks? No. So why are you so sure that the ordinary undecided voter is doing so? Sure, many undecideds know less about politics than you do. But if they went out to vote, they might have some preferences. To think that they’re voting based on looks is just silly. And, more to the point, it’s not borne out by the data.

Check out Hibbs’s graph above. Chait also pulls out this line:

A series of experiments has shown that subjects, even young children, can reliably pick the winners of races based solely on candidate photos.

No! As I wrote a couple years ago about a study that claimed an impressive 70% accuracy in predicting winners based on their looks:

It’s a funny result: at first it seems impressive–70% accuracy!–but then again it’s not so impressive given that you can predict something on the order of 90% of races just based on incumbency and the partisan preferences of the voters in the states and districts. I can’t be sure what’s happening here, but one possibility is that the more serious candidates (the ones we know are going to win anyway) are more attractive.

I’m not saying that the study that Jonathan Chait is citing is wrong, exactly, but I don’t think it provides evidence that Mitch Daniels would be dead meat in the presidential election. What matters is the economy.

Here’s why this annoys me so much: There’s some political science research on the importance of the fundamentals in presidential elections. But that’s pretty obscure stuff. You can’t very well expect a political pundit to be reading back issues of the British Journal of Political Science (yep, that’s where our article appeared, even though it was all about the U.S. We first submitted it to the American Political Science Review but they rejected it. Too many graphs and not enough tables, I think.) So, sure, I can’t blame Chait for not being up on the research consensus. And, as I wrote above, I’m sure he means well. In this case he’s trying to give Republicans the advice to nominate a pretty-boy rather than someone serious. OK, fine. But making a mistake that simultaneously (1) insults the voters, (2) mocks those political insiders who favor substance over style, and (3) brings up the old politics-as-high-school analogy, but this time in all seriousness… well, that’s just annoying.

It’s snarkworld at its worst, and I’m sad to see it in my local paper. Especially when so much real politics is going on.

Why the Tea Party’s Clout Fizzled in Washington

March 31st, 2011 at 11:28 am 64 Comments

A recent headline, “Tea Party Leverage Fading in Spending Talks,” reminds me of the not-always-understood difficulty of transforming electoral success into policy success.

Every time an outsider comes to Washington, you hear the pledge:  ”We’re gonna take the campaign into the halls of Congress.  The election might be over but the permanent campaign is not.  We’re gonna mobilize our millions of voters to remind Congress who really calls the shots around here.”

We heard this on Election Day 1976 when the voters sent Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, all the way to the nation’s capital.  We heard it with Obama.  And again with the Tea Party.

And then a bit later comes the criticism–the new team has gone native.  They’ve forgotten the grassroots.  And, a couple years later, the second-guessing:  if only they hadn’t disbanded their campaign organization, they’d have some real leverage in Washington.  We heard this about Obama last year, that he squandered the opportunity represented by his massive email list.

Why does the same script play out over and over?  (Even in the case of a president such as Reagan or Bush 2 who achieves legislative success, I don’t think you can attribute much of this success to direct pressure from the grassroots.)  Possibly because what it takes to mobilize voters in an election is not the same as what it takes to win votes in Congress, or even what it takes to scare members of Congress into thinking they might lose the next election.

To put it another way, the Tea Party voters did their job, just as the Obama voters did their job two years earlier.  They expressed their preferences and changed the government.  Now it’s the politicians turn to do their jobs, which is not to follow the wishes of their more extreme supporters, but to govern in a way such as to earn majority support in two years.  (You might want your politicians to have other jobs, but the way the system is structured, their basic job is to win reelection.  Let’s just hope that the conditions for increasing the chance of reelection generally align with what’s good for the country.)

Mobilizing your mass of supporters in a permanent campaign?  Maybe this is a great idea, but maybe there’s a reason why, even though it can work for the National Rifle Association and the teachers’ unions, it doesn’t seem to work for politicians.  Instead of thinking that Carter, Obama, and now the Tea Party activists have failed to keep up the grassroots pressure, perhaps we should be thinking that such a strategy isn’t going to happen.  And maybe that’s a good thing.