Henry Farrell goes after me over this post, and says he'd rather be an unsophisticated 6 year old than... whatever I am. Dan Nexon seconds the motion. Really Farrell's making a much bigger point about IPE and is using me as an illustrative case. He's written about this before.
This puts me in a weird position. I tossed off that post, mostly because I was short of time and because Krugman perpetually annoys me. The point of the post was intended to be that Krugman's constant moralizing doesn't get us anywhere, not even as far as the most basic view of democratic politics. The point was not that the most basic view is the right one. I tried to caveat a bit ("first approximation", "doesn't always work"), but that obviously didn't get across. So I guess Farrell's response is just desserts for being lazy. I'll try to flesh out what I meant better in this post. While I don't want to run away from what I wrote, much less what I intended to convey, I also don't want to get the shit kicked out of me for something I don't really think. So this will be at least as long as Farrell's post, and much longer than Nexon's.
As (I think) Farrell knows, I agree with many of his points about IPE in general. I agree that IPE does a very poor job of explaining preference aggregation, and a pretty poor job of preference formation (although, ideally, we could just import at least some of that from comparative politics). In fact, I'd extend it: I think IPE has a generally poor view of the political space, and like other subfields of political science is too reductionist. I agree that IPE does not have a very good sense of how interest groups and elites influence policy in democracies. I agree that we should pay more attention to subfields that examine these questions in detail. As he says, IPE generally infers preferences from economic theory, then applies some crude form of the median voter theorem (if that) to explain outcomes*. IPE generally assumes (implicitly) that voters are fully informed, and actually care about whatever issue we happen to be studying.
This is lazy even when it's not entirely wrong, and a big part of my dissertation is dedicated to more rigorously exploring how interest groups shape policy in a global context. So, as a jumping-off point, I don't mind him taking me to the rails. Except. He's writing this in defense of Krugman's purely elite-driven take. Here's what Krugman says:
The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.
Here's what Farrell says:
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.
These are two very different statements. On the issues we're talking about -- tax cuts, Iraq war, prescription drugs covered by Medicare, housing policy -- the public did have pretty clearly identifiable preferences about policy, and those happen to map onto policy debates (and resulting legislation) fairly well**. As I linked in the prior post (via Drezner), a majority of the public supported the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq war. The former represented the biggest policy proposal of Bush's 2000 campaign, the latter represented the biggest policy proposal of his 2004 campaign. He won both of them. (Okay, only kind of won in 2000.) Moreover, the public's representatives in the House and Senate voted for both policies.
Now we could believe that public preferences had nothing to do with the Bush tax cuts becoming law and the Iraq war being prosecuted. But then how to explain how a number of other policies supported by the same elites but not the public during the same period -- Social Security privatization, immigration reform, invading Iran -- did not become law or practice? If we're to discard polls and the votes of representatives, how else are we going to get at the public's preferences to know whether they're relevant?
That's not to say that elites don't have a huge role in shaping public opinion, crafting the specific nuances of policy, or even that they have quite a lot of flexibility to shape policy to their own ends. Of course they do. Legislation is written by elected elites, who are influenced by unelected elites and interest groups within their states/districts. One casual glance at trade law is enough to convince anyone of that. Medicare Part D gets closer to Farrell's last sentence. The public supported coverage of prescription drugs by Medicare. It seems likely to me that the public did not have strong preferences over precisely how that happened, other than that they would prefer not to have to pay higher taxes. So what we got was an unfunded bill that catered strongly to the interests of the drug industry. Similarly, the public supported tax cuts. The particulars of the Bush tax cuts met that demand, but in a way that also privileged powerful interest groups and likely Republican voters (see the cartoon in the Bartels paper Farrell links to). There is nothing in the Hacker/Pierson or Bartels studies that Farrell cites that disputes this interpretation***.
But here's the key point: the policy space that elites use to manipulate for their own ends does not exist without the broad support of mass publics****. Or, as Farrell says, "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." No argument from me. That, however, is not what Krugman argues. He claims that the public had nothing to do with it at all. That this is purely a top-down disaster. This view is disputed by the Campbell and Morgan quote that Farrell reproduces:
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.
Right, but this was only important because the public wanted Medicare to cover prescription drugs in the first place. If they hadn't, a bill that both Republicans and Democrats were ambivalent about is unlikely to have become law. To gain passage, and thus satisfy the public demand, it became necessary to craft a bill in such a way as to get the necessary support from powerful interest groups. But that doesn't negate the public's interest in reform along the broad lines that reform occurred. A very similar process occurred during the PPACA ("Obamacare") deliberations.
Near the end Farrell writes:
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.
This where Farrell is misreading me. (And, I think, Drezner.) We're not saying that the public was perfectly represented, much less "reflected". Indeed, I think such a statement is all but meaningless. Drezner has written a book about how interest groups dominate regulation of the economy, particularly in highly-technical areas in which the public is unlikely to have much information or strong preferences. We're both very interested in how power and influence is filtered through political institutions/interactions. I'm just saying, contra Krugman, that mass publics are part of that equation. After linking to a bunch of surveys showing that the public broadly supported the policies Krugman says they had nothing to do with, I wrote in my post, "This [reference to public opinion] might not work all the time, but as a first approximation this sort of thinking holds up fairly well". Or, at least, to entirely excuse the public from the outcomes of policy you should first have to show that they didn't create the political space for those policies to be enacted. Krugman can't do that. That's the point.
(As for housing policy, I'd refer Farrell (and anyone else interested) to the CPE/IPE research done by Seabrooke and Schwartz (also here and this special issue of Comparative European Politics). Ragu Rajan has argued that the rise of credit was encouraged by policymakers to offset stagnating median wages. Oatley has an argument that "what we're experiencing right now" is a result of a number of macro policies, operating within an international context, that both elites and the public broadly supported, culminating in disaster. I think, though I've done no research to back it up, that home ownership was encouraged by major public policies -- including the mortgage interest deduction and Fannie/Freddie -- supported through a host public policies by administrations and majority Congresses from both major parties across several decades, and that the most recent housing crisis is only the most recent, not the only. In many cases, bipartisan elite opinion is/was that these policies distort the economy and should be abandoned. Which mass publics wanted less access to credit and higher interest rates? Sure, finance liked it also, but they weren't the only ones. I.e., We got the housing finance we got because the public wanted credit, the politicians wanted votes, and the financiers wanted profits. NOTE: I slightly modified this parenthetical after initial posting to improve clarity and fix typos.)
*Usually IPE just pumps POLITY into a regression and mumbles something about transparency or checks and balances and then moves on.
**As for "On other [issues], [the public] has preferences that largely maps onto partisan identifications rather than actual interests"... Who's lazily inferring interests now? Why can't partisan identification be an interest?
***The dearly departed George Rabinowitz used to befuddle his Intro to American Politics students every year by assigning Showdown at Gucci Gulch, a journalistic account of the passage of the 1986 tax reform act. It does a great job of explaining how the pressure for tax reform was generated by the mass public, but how the vagaries of getting it passed heavily involved elites and interest groups.
****For one thing, saying "elites did it" doesn't actually tell us anything at all. There are elites on both sides of every issue. Krugman himself is an elite now, as he was during all of the 2000s, and yet he disagreed with most major policies enacted during that period. Which elites get to control policy is decided, among other things, by the publics.