Tuesday, 8 June 2004

Emprical political science makes the Times

It’s not every day that you see a citation of The American Voter in The New York Times, but thanks to Nick Troester and Will Baude I stumbled upon David Brooks’ Sunday column on partisanship and rationality.

First, to settle the discussion between Messrs. Baude and Troester: Brooks’ analysis is essentially correct, although the transitory attachment voters would have with political parties under pure rationality wouldn’t be “party identification” (an affective—or emotional—orientation) as we conceive of it in American politics. Under pure rationality, voters would select among the platforms of the parties and vote for the party with the most desirable platform at that given moment, subject to the institutional rules governing vote choice (i.e. whether we are using plurality elections, proportional representation, majority-runoff, Condorcet voting, the alternate vote, or what-have-you, and the district magnitude).

Voting, I’d argue, has both expressive and (to borrow Baude’s term) instrumental aspects. One votes to both participate in the selection process—the way Downs conceived of voting—and to express preferences about how the government should act in the future. Much ink has been spilled over this debate over the past four decades (“proximity” versus “directional” voting, the rationality of turnout, etc.) and I need not recount it all here. Suffice it to say: voters aren’t rational in the Downsian sense (Page and Shapiro notwithstanding), people (to the extent they are rational) seek to maximize their expected utility, and Troester (despite his minor fault of not being an Americanist) is right—an outcome I attribute to Troester receiving a Michigan education, versus Baude’s Chicago one.*

On to Brooks, who shows he’s a little out of his field in his discussion:

Party affiliation even shapes people’s perceptions of reality. In 1960, Angus Campbell and others published a classic text, “The American Voter,” in which they argued that partisanship serves as a filter. A partisan filters out facts that are inconsistent with the party’s approved worldview and exaggerates facts that confirm it.

That observation has been criticized by some political scientists, who see voters as reasonably rational. But many political scientists are coming back to Campbell’s conclusion: people’s perceptions are blatantly biased by partisanship.

I’ll grant that he’s working in newspaper space, but there are a couple of caveats:

  1. I think he ascribes too much prescience to The American Voter on the role of perceptual screens or partsian filters. Most contemporary scholars would agree its psychological underpinnings are weak to nonexistent.
  2. Political scientists aren’t “coming back” to their conclusions; with the exception of the aforementioned Page and Shapiro, the Michigan approach has been essentially the dominant paradigm in American political behavior since around 1980, and was certainly a leading contender since the mid-1960s.

Still, this is about the best explanation of contemporary thinking on American politics you’ll find in about 600 words, and it dovetails rather nicely with Ken Waight’s work at Lying in Ponds on elite political discourse.

* I can say this because my training is about 3/4 Michigan school, by way of Ohio State, with a healthy dollop of Rochester-style behaviorism thrown in just for entertainment value.

Innovations in transportation policy

I originally meant to discuss Virginia Postrel’s NYT piece from last month on the highway reauthorization bill, but got distracted. Luckily, she has resurrected the topic at Dynamist Blog, and given me something more to talk about:

New spending also ignores all the “micro allocative efficiencies” that transportation economists like Cliff Winston spend most of their time worrying about: Could pricing make roads more productive? Should we target spending and construction toward the most congested areas? Are the roads the right thickness? Should cars and trucks be segregated? Are construction costs artificially high because of Davis-Bacon and other political constraints? Are we building too many roads in rural areas? What is the right tradeoff between capital costs and maintenance? And so forth… These questions simply don’t get asked, because highway spending is entirely political. It isn’t about making the roads more efficient.

While I’ll concede that the bulk of the highway reauthorization is about new spending (whether for maintenance or new construction), I think many of these topics will be addressed in the eventual legislation. It expands the authorization of toll projects on existing free facilities for rehabilitation and expansion, as well as authorizing new pilot programs for congestion pricing and “high-occupancy/toll” lanes. FHWA and state transportation agencies have been experimenting with new and improved pavement technologies for years, leading to the development of Superpave™ and better standards for highway construction. The idea of separating cars from trucks has been advanced in other venues—Texas’ own Rick Perry has spearheaded the Trans-Texas Corridor project, which includes separate truck and car lanes as a central feature, while similar ideas have been explored for improving traffic flow in both urban areas (access to ports in southern California and the Detroit-Windsor border crossing) and on rural corridors (namely, the congested I-81 route in Virginia).

So, in sum, I think many of the questions are being asked—and answered. Looking for those answers in the national political process, however, overlooks the other areas of innovation—public-private partnerships, state transportation agencies, and (shockingly) the federal bureaucracy—where progress on ideas other than pure pork is being made.