Interpretive Frameworks and the Election

Robby Soave wrote,

Trump won because of a cultural issue that flies under the radar and remains stubbornly difficult to define, but is nevertheless hugely important to a great number of Americans: political correctness.

Read the whole essay. I was not persuaded.

After the financial crisis, it was remarkable how many economists found their world view confirmed by it. Keynesians said that it proved Keynesianism, Those who thought that loose monetary policy is the root of all evil felt vindicated. Scott Sumner and others put the blame on tight money. Economists on the left blamed neoliberalism and deregulation. Economists on the right blamed government-sponsored enterprises and affordable housing goals.

I’m getting the sense that last week’s election is going to have a similar follow-up. Everyone is going to use it to climb on to their favorite hobby horse. It proves that America is racist. It proves that the economy is not working for some people. It proves that nationalism is more popular than globalism. It proves that elites have failed. It proves that the American political process is flawed. It proves that new media have altered the electoral landscape. It proves that Obamacare is not working. It proves Hillary Clinton is unpopular. It proves that the American people do not care about facts. It proves that Americans are still mad at Wall Street. It proves that Americans want to get out of the Middle East. It proves that terrorism is a major issue. It proves that issues don’t matter, and that it’s all identity politics. Americans wanted anyone but another Bush or another Clinton. It was a repudiation of Barack Obama. It shows that democracy is flawed.

I am going to climb on to my own hobby horse in order to offer a meta-interpretation. We face a blooming, buzzing confusion of interpretive frameworks for the election. Because it is only one event, we are not going to be able to sort it out.

I would argue that the same holds true for many economic phenomena. There are many plausible interpretive frameworks. If we are looking at singular events, like the financial crisis, we have no chance of definitively sorting them out. When we look at macroeconomics in general, too many factors change to enable us to draw firm conclusions. With microeconomics, there is enough similarity across markets and across time to develop more confidence in crude interpretive frameworks, such as basic supply and demand. But attempts to get more refined and precise are likely to fail.

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15 Responses to Interpretive Frameworks and the Election

  1. Lord says:

    As we have another minority president I would say it is all, and none, of the above. Voters have many reasons and are split on just about everything in every way.

  2. RL Styne says:

    Here’s a media man on the left blaming left wing media. This takes us out of the realm of interpretive frameworks and into prediction.

    • Tom G says:

      Yes! I shared him to my Facebook just last night.

      At the end of Soave’s article:
      “There is a cost to depriving people of the freedom (in both the legal and social senses) to speak their mind. The presidency just went to the guy whose main qualification, according to his supporters, is that he isn’t afraid to speak his.”

      I’m convinced this is one important factor — and the key factor in how bad the polls did, because PC thought police have taught many to avoid admitting their own anti-PC beliefs.

  3. Handle says:

    It’s hard to extract ‘lessons learned’ from rare events with high causal density. It’s even worse when the attempt faces enormous social incentives and psychological pressures to believe favored ideas instead of true ideas.

    The military insists on always doing After Action Analysis, and is very familiar with the problem of finding too many plausible culprits after things went wrong. “There is a lot of ruin in a Division”, and usually all those little wrong things are all also happening during victories, concealed by major advantages and many little right things.

    At this point, those adjudicating debates on short-duration incidents between military analysts tend to shrug and come to the same conclusion, “More would have helped.” More firepower, more men, more aircraft, more bombs, more actionable intelligence (but not just more information). Of course you always try to make all the little wrong things better, but it’s hard to know where you are going to get the most bang for your buck, so to speak. And “more” tends to compensate for all the little wrong things you didn’t uncover, or couldn’t get rid of.

    I’m pretty sure that, regardless of all the supposed deep-think commentary and exchanges of acrimonious recriminations we are reading at present, Democratic political strategists came to “the only answer that we can really be sure of is more Democratic voters” conclusion a long time ago, and they will be relying on the demographic momentum they’ve established to achieve victories in the future. Which, naturally, will be attributed to some kind of combination of big-data and political genius or something like that, instead of the simple principle of ‘mass’. Trump’s vision of the Republican Party seems to be one that is motivated to do everything possible to undermine that strategy, but we’ll see.

    I haven’t yet seen any commentators, on the right and left, who confidently and repeatedly asserted a Clinton landslide (e.g., Douthat), articulating what was wrong with their former beliefs and analysis and how they are updating their priors but in ways not generally defamatory of Trump’s supporters. That’s a tell.

    I see a lot of people on the left now saying, “Bernie would have won!” Which is funny, because I distinctly remember a lot of people on the right rooting for Bernie to win the Democratic primary, precisely because they certain sure he would lose. That reminds me of the quote from, I think, Tony Snow, who said that the proper title of all contemporary political memoirs is, “If only they had listened to me!”

    And the real trouble with all these post-mortems and ‘helpful advice to my political opponents’ articles is again that the temptation to focus on one’s own pet peeves and project them on whole populations, and the desire to portray oneself as deserving of future influence over policy and affairs, is simply overwhelming.

    All that being said (heh) and FWIW, my hunch, corroborated by the overconfident tone evinced in many of those Wikileaks emails, is that, besides everyone completely underestimating and refusing to see Trump’s world class political skills and celebrity advantage (something they missed with Ventura and Schwartzenegger too), this election was mostly about a simple and quite reasonable mistake on the part of the Democrats. They thought the country had passed the tipping point to a California-style One Party State (i.e., had been ‘fundamentally transformed’) but it hadn’t. Yet.

    Why did they underestimate the number of potential opponents? My guess is a combination of increasing ideological social isolation (‘epistemic closure’) and social desirability bias, that is, a Bradley Effect estimation error. They believed the polls, but this is probably the same reason the polls were off.

    The irony here is that pushing ‘PC’ made certain complaints become taboo to articulate, which suppressed the very signal they needed to discover the correct number of opponent complainers. They both muffled and had become deaf to alarms far more than they won converts. That’s like banning the tolling of church bells and then concluding the pews must be empty.

    This in turn led to a corollary error of a positive feedback loop. Thinking they had passed the cultural and political tipping points and that there was no longer any need to placate the opposition, many progressive influential individuals and groups began feeling the wild oats of power and acting out in culturally salient ways guaranteed to generate lots of attention. I think many people were aggravated by what they perceived as sudden and outrageous overreach and were eventually recruited to become part of the ‘silent backlash’. If you boil the frog too fast, he’ll jump out of the pot. If you won’t listen to his croaks, you’ll thing he’s been boiled, and you’ll be surprised when he jumps. I’d guess something similar was at play with the Brexit vote. And with Duterte’s victory. And pay attention to how the events in Europe unfold in the coming years.

    Another way of explaining the same point is to use the Insiders and Outsiders frame. This could just be a ‘year of the Outsiders’ because of some theory of political pendulums or ‘people wanting change’. (There’s a famous scene to that effect in Andy Griffith’s A Face in the Crowd – 1957).

    But the Insiders aren’t oblivious to the existence and potential threat posed by the Outsiders. The question is whether they are collecting good, accurate intelligence about the threat, and believing the data instead of, well, themselves.

    In this case, I think the Insiders has set up a framework of social incentives that had the unintended consequence of producing bad and downward-biased intelligence about the real magnitude of the Outsider threat. They also didn’t pay much attention to whatever good data they had, and instead made a ‘Pauline Kael’ error and relied on the fallacy of using an ‘availability heuristic’ that was biased by an ideologically homogeneous social scene and infosphere.

    Whether these are the accurate lessons to learn or not, I think that any Democrat analysts that have to spend some time ‘in the wilderness’ will come back with the same conclusion, “More!”

  4. R Richard Schweitzer says:

    Another perspective (interpretative framework) on the election, in the following response to the one conservative writer at the Boston Globe today:
    Mr. Jacoby:
    Given your academic exposures you may be familiar with the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” If not, you might “Google” that phrase.

    The attachment of “Political Parties,” above, is to an English translation of Robert Michel’s work of that name which established the term and outlined its operation. (way back in 1911 !).

    Understanding that law’s relevance to developments of American Political Parties can provide a different perspective from yours that “Nov. 8 marked a stunning victory for the Republican Party -.” This difference of perspective is not “partisan,” and, at this juncture, may more markedly disclose what has occurred in the Democrat Party structure.

    Both parties have become oligarchies (in their power structures).
    The Oligarchy (popularly “the Establishment”) of the Republicans was first fractured (but not fragmented) by the 2009 Tea Party movement, which not only diverted conservative voters (and public) from the oligarchs, but actually displaced many of them completely; probably due to the regional, less centralized nature of the Republican Party Oligarchy. That fracture opened a wedge (as the conservative “establishment” or oligarchy lost cohesion – still not recovered).

    Meanwhile back at the Democrat ranch, the trends, sensed by Senator Underwood in “Drifting Sand of Party Politics,” took form in the art of James A Farley, as a party of coalitions of constituencies, with predominant but dispersed oligarchies (originally city “machines” and Southern regional interests). As the varieties of particular interests grew (and constituency building with it), the constant adding on of constituencies apparently led to the need for centralization of the oligarchical powers, and that party became dominated (in its recent end) by a centralized oligarchy whose internal relationships (for position and power)
    detached them from sufficient relationships with the memberships of original constituencies (who have now turned elsewhere to have democratic effects).

    The highly centralized Democrat Party oligarchy is now adrift, having been somewhat fragmented by the fragmentation of what were its constituencies – many of the members of which have now “invaded” the territories of the Republican Party oligarchies, and taken over that party’s capacities to direct the course of politically determined actions.

    This may be a corollary to, or have a corollary in, Pareto’s “Rise and Fall of Elites.”

  5. Michael J Moran says:

    It was a close election. Could have gone either way. I think the more interesting questions are would have Sanders or Biden done better on dems side, or would have Cruz, Kasich or the may other pubs also one? SO how much was unique to these two Trump and/or Clinton?
    I don’t know the answer, but think these are better questions.

    • Tom G says:

      I think these “what if” questions are more fun — but not really “better”.

      I do think any of the Reps (even Jeb? ughh, only if he got primary voters) would have won over Clinton in this year, if they could have generated the voting buzz to win the primaries. Maybe without the Donald, the debates would have been won by Carly? (my first choice), with Carly & Ted (second) fighting it out …

      • Tom G says:

        Oh ya, a lot of the anger by Reps against RINO Trump is based on many Reps thinking a true conservative would also have won over Clinton, combined with the (wrong) premonition that Trump would lose because of his vulgarity.

  6. Bryan Willman says:

    1. I am glad to see Arnold applying the line of thought that “everything in the real world is way more complex than a GDP factory” to politics as well. Just as some toy model doesn’t explain the economy, no toy model explains politics. A mirror to PSST is PTV – patterns of thinking and voting.

    2. My personal observations:

    A. The democrats (as a group) either do not know or not believe why they lost. If they had won they would not believe or grasp the importance of how narrow the margin would have been. They do not seem to understand that a great many people in the US disagree with them.

    B. The republicans (as a group) probably do not really quite know why they did so well – and in particular are on the whole surprized at how well they did down ticket in spite of pre-election fears about Trump.

    C. The mass media (and many bloggers) are demonstrating that they actually do not understand much of anything. I will not be surprized to see the economic carnage in that industry continue. (Humilty note – don’t understand much except that I don’t understand….)

    And I now make a prediction – the notion that demographics will bring the democratic party, particularly in its “progressive” (that is massively statist) form to lasting power, will prove to be of fairly limited predictive value.

  7. Tom G says:

    I’m sure you’re mostly right, Arnold, on the similar complexity of election prediction to macro econ prediction, of too many competing influences.

    What about Allan Lichtman’s 30 year run of predicting election results?

    13 True/False questions; if six or more are false, the incumbent Party loses the White House.

    This is certainly the “Tide of History” view, as compared to the “Great Man of History” view.

    I’m pretty sure his 13 measures will, in the next 28 years, be wrong at least once — and it will be blamed on very much a combined “Great / Terrible” person. But I could be wrong, too. Each time these 13 T/F measures are “correct”, the Bayesian posterior gets stronger. Until there is such effort by the incumbent party to take actions so as to avoid any “False” results, yet with some other unmeasured metrics being more important, that they get 8 or more “True” responses but still lose.

    That’s my own hobby horse, by the way: in economics when a “law” or “regularity” is believed enough to allow premium profits by those who apply that law, the changed behavior to get the profits changes and invalidates the regularity.

  8. Andrew' says:

    Scott Adams said exactly this as to why it is important to pay attention to people who predicted it in advance.

    I knew there was the general anti-establishment angst, so I,searched out for “but why Trump?” and Scott Adams had a persuasive argument.

    Then the 3 professors I saw who have their prediction models based on alternating between incumbent and challenger parties had it for the Republican party based on their various indicators under normal conditions. So, while we weren’t under normal conditions all Trump had to do was not screw it up.

    I still wasn’t confident because he almost did.

  9. mo says:

    I agree with the general point that phenomena like elections are too multivariate to lend themselves to any single explanation (and therefore permit many).

    I think, however, Kling and the reason post are underselling PC as an interpretive framework. PC is a powerplay, as Tyler Cowen would call it. It is the interpretive framework that underlies and reinforces the Oppressor/Oppressed axis that justifies most everything the Progressive coalition stands for. PC says that the only valid arguments and observations are those that identify the out-group (white, straight males (or Western Civ)) as oppressive, and the in-group (POC, women, trans) as oppressed. PC is more than an interpretive framework, it’s a means of pushing other interpretive frameworks beyond the range of permissible discourse.

    In other words, a rejection of PC is a Klingian claim to heterodoxy. Rejecting PC involves rejecting a bundle of frameworks, but principally the framework that says there can only be one framework.

  10. LarryM says:

    All of us here, myself included, are subject to the dynamic that Kling identifies. But my two cents:

    The people who were influenced by “anti PC” rhetoric were all going to vote for Trump anyway. Perhaps that rhetoric increased turnout among that segment of the population.

    At the presidential level, this election doesn’t tell us nearly as much as people of all stripes are saying. Lichtman + very unpopular Democratic candidate + Republicans more willing to turn out for their unpopular candidate = Dems losing a very close election.

    BUT that being said, the more fundamental challenge for Dems is the house/senate/states. There something has to change, but I don’t know what. Certainly possible that 4 years of likely Republican misrule (and perhaps actually following through on some of their less popular proposals – it would be really fun to see the reaction if Ryan passes a bill gutting medicare) may be enough in the short run – and obviously a Dem wave in 2020 would have big consequences in terms of redistricting – but not something to rely upon, and not enough long term.

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