Monday, 16 February 2004

The registration virus takes another victim

Apparently this weekend’s theme in the blogosphere is registration required. Apropos of that: our friends at the CA are going to start requiring registration in the near future.

Choose your tyranny

I haven’t waded into the big war between Randy Barnett, Prof. Bainbridge, Brett Marston, and others over the proper role of the courts; that isn’t to say I’m not interested, just that I haven’t had a chance to sit down and really articulate what I think. Then again, anyone who knows of my affinity for Federalist 10 would probably be able to guess that I’m firmly on the Barnett/Marston side of the debate. For another perspective, see Steven Taylor’s latest post.

Does ballot order matter in elections?

An interesting new working paper crossed the POLMETH list today by Daniel Ho (Harvard) and Kosuke Imai (Princeton), entitled “Shaken, Not Stirred: Evidence on Ballot Order Effects from the California Alphabet Lottery, 1978–2002.” Here’s the abstract:

We analyze a natural experiment to answer the longstanding question of whether the name order of candidates on ballots affects election outcomes. Since 1975, California law has mandated randomizing the ballot order with a lottery, where alphabet letters would be “shaken vigorously” and selected from a container. Previous studies, relying overwhelmingly on non-randomized data, have yielded conflicting results about whether ballot order effects even exist. Using improved statistical methods, our analysis of statewide elections from 1978 to 2002 reveals that in general elections ballot order has a significant impact only on minor party candidates and candidates for nonpartisan offices. In primaries, however, being listed first benefits everyone. In fact, ballot order might have changed the winner in roughly nine percent of all primary races examined. These results are largely consistent with a theory of partisan cuing. We propose that all electoral jurisdictions randomize ballot order to minimize ballot effects.

If that seems interesting to you, go read the whole thing.

It also follows the “cute colon” convention previously discussed here at SN.

Lies, Damed Lies, and ... Economics Professors?

Tyler Cowen, whose blogging at Marginal Revolution I generally admire, is apparently trying to prove that economists really are nothing more than shills for the wealthy. He quotes vapid blowhard George F. Will, who really is nothing more than a shill for the weathly, and asks

In 1979 the top 1 percent of earners paid 19.75 percent of income taxes. Today they pay 36.3 percent. How much is enough?

This is supposed to be some sort of appeal to fairness, I suppose. “It’s just so unfair that the top 1% of the income distibution bear 36% of the cost of the federal government.”

Let’s just set aside the fact that Will and Cowen are focusing solely on federal income tax, and ignoring the regressive federal payroll tax and state sales taxes, both of which raise the bottom 99 percent’s share of the overall tax burden.

The important point is this: statistics about the percentage of the tax burden born by a given segment of the income distribution are utterly meaningless in absence of data about what percentage of overall income (or wealth, or whatever you think is fair to tax) that segment controls. Even if we instituted a perfectly flat income tax, the top 1% would pay a greater portion of the tax burden than people at the bottom of the income distribution, for the simple reason that they have more income.

The reason that the top 1% pay a heavier share of the federal income tax burden now than they did in 1979 is not that the federal income tax has become more progressive. On the contrary, federal income tax has become flatter since 1979. The rich pay a higher share now because the rich have seen sharper gains than the rest of the population. By and large, most people have gotten richer in the past two decades, especially during the 90s, but the rich have gotten more richer than the rest of us.

My opinion as a utilitarian: Fairness is a useful concept for dividing splitting the cost of pizza between friends, but worthless when trying to determine what share of the tax burden an individual should bear. Economist can tell us about the effects of various tax schemes on economic efficiency, i.e. the total size of the economic pie as measured in dollars, euros, or what have you. But any gains in efficiency brought about by making the tax system less progressive may be offset by the diminishing marginal utility of money. If we shift $100 dollars of the tax burden from Bill Gates to some pauper, there’s a net loss in utility, because that $100 was worth more to the pauper than to Bill Gates, who could afford to wipe his ass with $100 bills if he wanted to. Somewhere in the middle lies the perfect tax system that maximizes utility, but we’re not going to find it by bloviating about fairness.

My opinion as a snarky blogger: You're supposed to post your insightful stuff at Marginal Revolution, Tyler, and post crap like this over at the Volokh Conspiracy, where it fits in well with crap by Barnett and Bernstein.

UPDATE: Dan Chak makes pretty much the same point I do, and then fills in the missing data.

Bonne anniversaire

Happy first anniversary to PoliBlog!

Time to get ready to vote for Gary Nolan

Brock rather optimistically wrote below:

The presumptive nominee, John Kerry, deserves credit for voting in favor of NAFTA. I hope he has the courage to stick by what he knows is true: that tariffs and other protectionist measures do more harm to the country than good.

Brock apparently missed tonight’s Democratic debate, in which Kerry virtually repudiated NAFTA by advocating wider use of its environmental and labor side-agreements for protectionist ends—even though, in fairness, he was the best of a horrible field on that score. I’ll let Alex Knapp speak for me on Democrats’ commitment to our nation’s international agreements on trade:

You know, for a bunch of people who criticized Bush for being unilateral on military issues, they sure are eager to act unilaterally in rescinding our international obligations on trade issues. Or does international law not mean anything to these candidates?

Of course, since France is also a highly protectionist country, any issue where we agree with France but repudiate agreements with other countries apparently doesn’t meet the Democratic definition of “unilateral”.