Friday, December 23, 2005

Off Center

Off Center is an excellent how-to guide for exercising political power. How you, as head of a political party in power, could be more effective at getting passed the legislation that you want. The problem is that it has aspirations to being more: to showing how this is unprecedented and violates the will of voters -- that Republicans are governing from the Right while the voters are centrist. On that score it fails.

Hacker and Pierson cannot show that what Republicans currently do is unprecendented for they never make a case for what is the precedent. They hint darkly that various Republican tactics have no precedent and I, as a nice partisan, am perfectly willing to believe them, but they never actually provide comparative (historical) evidence for this claim.

Their use of polling data to prove voter preferences is equally flawed. They provide lots of polling data showing that a given policy was un/popular at a given moment, or that compared to other worries the policy proposal was relatively low on the list (tax cuts: only 5% of voters had taxes at the top of their lists of worries, yet Bush went ahead...). There are two problems. First, what does polling data actually mean. Second, how are people's responses to polls translated into action (votes).

I'm generally skeptical of survey data on political preferences because it always makes me so happy (yay universal health care!) and then I'm disappointed in how people actually vote. This is because of all the peripheral issues that determine how people respond to polls: what are the alternatives and the trade-offs that people are forced to consider, who are they trying to impress...And the way that Hacker and Pierson report some poll results is quasi-misleading: Even a poll that shows that only 5% of people consider tax cuts a top priority might show that it is among the top 5 for a vast majority.

Just because someone claims in a poll that tax cuts aren't important to them doesn't mean that they won't vote for the guy who gave them tax cuts. Hacker and Pierson would need to present some kind of theory -- however crude -- linking poll results on individual policy questions to how people actually vote. There is a big difference between a prospective question on a poll and a vote in a polling booth for someone who actually delivered.

This all comes back to my quasi-belief in revealed preference: if people vote a certain way, then they must want it. There was also an odd way in which voters in Off Center swung wildly from rather intelligent people (we're supposed to believe what they tell pollsters and believe that people are consistent in what they tell pollsters and what they want from politicians) to rather stupid people (voters can't figure out what is going on in Washington because the media isn't quite straightforward and Republicans mislead). Someone (Bryan Caplan, say) could probably say something more interesting about this inconsistent view of the voter.

If you want to understand how to weild power (or how Republicans wield power), this is an excellent book. If you want to generate moral outrage because this is unprecedented or goes against what American's really want, well, there is work to be done. Plus, it is written in that annoying chatty and inelegant style (with short, crude sentences and contractions) that academics adopt when they write for the masses.


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