Monday, July 16, 2012

Romney! Obama! Same Effing Difference (?)

. Monday, July 16, 2012

Foreword: I have promised a fair few posts on other topics, but I caught the bug for this one and felt like getting it out first. More stuff on finance and politics TK, when I can find the time.

In 2000, in a fit of pique, I briefly became politically active. Disgusted by the cynical triangulations of the Clinton administration, and turned off by Dubya's anti-intellectual populism (and young enough to believe that both were something other than typical), I marched in a few rallies in support of opening up American politics to alternative parties. One of them became a touch violent -- and I was nearly pepper-sprayed by the police, and was nearly impaled by them as well... unfortunately for this story I narrowly escaped all harm -- and it was a great deal of fun.

One of the chants of the day was "Bush! Gore! Same fucking difference!" This was put only slightly less crassly by Ralph Nader, then Green Party candidate for president, as "The only difference between Republicans and Democrats is the speed with which they get on their knees when corporations come calling." Even in my piquedness I cringed at that one, although not as much as I did when my fellow protestors, in violation of multiple laws and menacing in numbers, began bellowing "This is what democracy looks like! That is what a police state looks like!" while gesturing to the men and women in blue who were doing nothing even remotely police-state-ish, but who did intend to maintain rule of law in protection of the actual majority of the population, which we did not represent. The cops did just that, with very little excessive force and that little bit in direct response to intentionally provoked duress. My fellow members of the mob had little sense of irony, apparently. They seldom do. It was more than just a bit off-putting.

(That reminds me to again refer to Milos Forman's surprisingly good essay on how people who lazily make reference to authoritarianism without real knowledge of what actual authoritarian regimes do and have done do a disservice not only to their own reputations but also to wider cultural memory.)

That was when I was a lowly journalism student at a community college. I had never heard of Duverger's law. I had never heard of the median voter theorem even, much less directional models or any further complication. Because things didn't make a ton of sense to me, in my ignorance and at that moment, I thought very much that the forces at work in politics must be sinister. Adbusters made quite a lot of sense, at the time. The WTO was sort of threatening, really, what with its internationalism and its governments and their suits. Who was controlling all of this? Weren't corporations going to profit from all of this? And wasn't that ipso facto a terrible outcome? I'd never heard of comparative advantage, all I know was that people -- people who looked like me -- were pissed right off. Plus we had cool people on our side. Fugazi sang (see above) "Never mind what they're selling... it's what you're buying." All politics is local, man. It starts at home. Far out.

When I was a child I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child. When I became a man I put away childish things. I'll still consider myself part of the "left", but it's a "left" that mostly only exists in my mind. It's a "left" that believes that the redeemable parts of Marx reveal him as one of the first public choice thinkers; so he's of the "right" too, in his way, in my mind. It's a left that believes that had Marx witnessed the 20th century -- not even the bits of it done in his name -- his writings might have taken a different tone. It's a left that is dedicated to the idea that the best hope for an internationalist emancipatory movement is found in secular capital social democracy. I.e., it's a left that thinks that the Gotha program had something like the right idea after all. It's certainly not a left that is embodied in any actually-existing internationalist political movement of which I'm aware. So I'm not so politically active these days. I'm content to sort of shrug, think that the American "right" and "left" both embody a certain bastardized bit of truth, and take the long view that things in 21st century America are probably gonna end up far better than they generally have in the course of human history.

But. But! What about that "Same fucking difference!"? Well we hear every election that "this election is the most important election since" like 1932, or 1864, or 1776, or something. Every go round we hear it and we're hearing it again. But if Nader was right in 2000, if the only real choice we have is marginal rather than categorical, then we could either agree with my younger self that things are pretty sinister at the moment, or we could take the more restrained view that politics stays fairly close to the median as a matter of necessity. So which is it? Is there a difference between Romney and Obama worth getting up for? Is this election a clash of the mediocre, or will it decide the eternal course of the Republic?

Steven Landsburg provides one answer. He notes that Ezra Klein has published the following picture, purportedly showing the vast differences between the platforms of Obama and Romney on the issue of income taxation:

Leave aside for now the tacky Excel-template graphic... this message has been approved by Krugman and many others across the web. And it looks like a pretty big difference! Except:
What we actually have is an election in which both candidates are proposing massive redistributions from the top downward, one slightly less so than the other. You’d never know this from looking at Klein’s chart because it illustrates changes in rates, whereas what actually matters is the rates themselves. It makes no sense to ask whether any particular group ought to be paying more or less without reference to how much they’re already paying.

Indeed, this is a classic example of what I once called the “Grandfather Fallacy” — by focusing on changes instead of absolutes, Klein’s chart conceals any existing inequities and hence treats them as “grandfathered in”.
Maybe you could quibble with Landburg's use of the word "massive", but he does a quick-and-dirty correction of Klein's graph by plugging in the relevant pre-existing points, and comes up with this (tacky Stata-template) graphic:

Pretty big difference! In the story the graphs are telling, I mean. Not so much in the candidates' plans. Which will be subject to further moderation in both cases, meaning that they are highly likely to move closer together rather than further apart.

Now there's no reason to not consider both changes and levels. I get that both can be meaningful, especially symbolically. But while symbols are important the baseline reality is, unquestionably, even more important. Symbolism is often ephemera, and even if ephemera is often the stuff of politics those of who us who have put childish things behind us might wish to do better. The baseline reality suggests that there really isn't a qualitative difference between the two candidates, at least as it pertains to income taxation. And now that the GOP has made it a huge part of their platform to defend socialized health care at all costs, and that Romney is in favor of keeping the majority of PPACA intact too, I'm not super-clear on how they qualitatively differ on health care reform either. Maybe they'd differ greatly on foreign policy (paging Drezner!), but I can't for the life of me discern what Obama's foreign policy actually is -- "pivot to Asia" and "use drones to blow up whomever we damn well please" notwithstanding -- and Romney stubbornly refuses to even broach the subject*.

The point is that these differences are marginal, not fundamental. The argument is whether that is a good thing or not. And I really don't know... I think the fundamental conservative point -- that stability is ceteris paribus preferable to instability -- is not appreciated nearly enough by the left. At the same time I believe that the fundamental liberal point -- that we can always do better than we have done, and really should try to -- is not appreciated nearly enough by the right.

So score another one for the structuralists I guess. And score one more for the proximity models I guess. And give one more to the marginalists. And get cynical if that's your bag, or sit back and let it all wash all over you and think about how much worse it used to be. But please let's keep the argument running a bit longer. I'm not finished with it just yet.

*The lack of actual foreign policies from either the right or left is a topic for another day. My current thinking is that a) the right adopted the Manichean/Messianic view of the neocons -- most of whom were not Republicans in any other sense -- because it fit in with their Manichean view of foreign policy since World War II; b) Democrats found it tough to oppose because many of the neocons came from their ranks, and also because it was politically popular and because they had no other frame to adopt. Now that the neocons are out of sorts, no one has anything. I think HR Clinton's State -- via Slaughter -- is grasping towards something, but they aren't there yet and Obama hasn't latched onto it.


LFC said...

Not really buying the line that there are no qualitative diffs of any importance betw Obama and Romney.

Perhaps it's partly b.c I've spent much of my life in or around Wash DC, but I think some of the important differences between the candidates are ones that won't get discussed much in the campaign, b/c they don't lend themselves to broad-brush, crowd-pleasing rhetoric. But the fact is that in the U.S. system, when a new administration takes office, esp. if it represents a change of party, the upper reaches of the federal bureaucracy undergo a substantial degree of turnover: all the political appointees of one admin are out, and the new admin brings in its own. The effect is -- not always, but I'm sure sometimes -- to reorient the policy directions of the major depts on a lot of issues that are often quite technical, ill-understood, and under-reported, but that have important consequences. Emissions standards for cars and factories, decisions on land-use and planning, policy on pipelines and offshore drilling, the allocation of the AID budget, the approach of the admin to the int'l financial insts., how rigorously the civil rights and antitrust and consumer protection and workplace safety laws are enforced, attitude to voter ID laws: just to mention a few exs of areas where policy could change in substantial ways from an Obama to a Romney admin.
The electorate I think doesn't fully understand how a change of admin can change some key personnel down to the 'nitty-gritty' level, which in turn can really affect policy.

Kindred Winecoff said...

I would (respectfully) suggest that many of these changes are more marginal than qualitative, particularly since the broad guidelines for bureaucratic policymakers are set by the Congress. So yes, there's a bit of room for discretion here, and yes methods for implementation will vary some as will commitment to enforcement, but does that really constitute a meaningful political difference in the sense I'm describing?

Perhaps in some cases, but as a rule I'm not so sure.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't underplay FC's contribution here. Obama's recent attempt to change immigration policy is entirely executive branch. As the Economist noted a few months ago, the difference between Bush's EPA and Obama's EPA was that the former considered particulate emissions to be worth $0 in a cost benefit analysis whereas the latter considered them to be worth billions (perhaps more attributable to OIRA than the EPA but there was turnover in the ranks of EPA economists during Bush). Regardless of which one you prefer, the differences can be pretty stark - the mercury rule would not have happened under Bush.

I don't know who Landburg is, I take it he is an economist, but I want to add that I hate his chart. First, it's not obvious to me why changes in levels aren't important. Calling it a 'fallacy' is hyperbolic for sure. The slow accretion of changes in levels adds up to large changes in the rates themselves. Moreover, his y-scale is horrendous. I can't imagine why it goes down to -400 and rises to 100 but it is clearly hiding some non-trivial variation on the right side of the x-axis. Am I right in thinking that the difference between those bars on the right is 10-15%? Is that trivial?

Additionally, Klein's original language, "proposing a large redistribution from the poor and middle class to the top" is clearly meant to be understood as a change in current policy, rather than "Romney intends to fundamentally alter the tax code and place the tax burden on the backs of the poor." To suggest otherwise seems intentionally obtuse.

Kindred Winecoff said...

I don't think I'm underplaying LFC's point. Perhaps we just have different definitions in mind, but I really don't consider something like the mercury rule to be a sufficiently significant difference to be considered qualitative rather than marginal. (Also note that the mercury rule has been mandated by Congress since 1990; implementation has been delayed by litigation and lobbying, but that spanned nearly 5 administrations, including 1.5 Democratic administrations.)

Landsburg is an economist and mathematician. I agree that changes can be important, but they can also be made to *sound* to be more important than they really are. That's his real point, and I think it's a solid one. His graph looks the way it does, I'm sure, because that's what the Stata-template kicked out. Any other scale would've chopped off what's happening at the bottom.

What's happening at the bottom is really what Landsburg is concerned with. (What's happening at the top is knowable from Klein's graph... it's 6.1% + 8.7%, or 14.8%. But that's only for the top 0.1%, or something like 17,000 people, and has to be spread out among the other 330,000,000 of us. By the time you drop down to the top 90-95% the difference between the plans is less than 4%. Which is... something less than revolutionary. I.e., marginal rather than qualitative.) That's why he says "both are proposing massive redistributions from the top downward, one slightly less than the other". As I said in my post you could quibble with the use of the word "massive" and also perhaps "slightly" but that's about all. The overall story is pretty much the same: the top half pays, the bottom half doesn't.

Landsburg is a stickler for precise wordings and careful use of language in all his writing. He attacking Krugman (not Klein) along these lines is typical for him.

Under no feasible definition is it even remotely true that Romney's plan proposes a large redistribution from the poor to the top, as Krugman claims. In fact that would be impossible, since almost every group under Romney's plan gets a tax cut (except the bottom 20%, who on average would pay an extra $140/year... not quite a "large" redistribution and probably statistically indistinguishable from $0). The worst thing that can be said about Romney's plan is that it constitutes a somewhat smaller redistribution from the top to the bottom than Obama's plan.

This is Landsburg's point.

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Romney! Obama! Same Effing Difference (?)
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