How Politicians Plug Electric Cars

A new study by Bradley W. Lane, Natalie Messer-Betts, Devin Hartmann, Sanya Carley, Rachel M. Krause, and John D. Graham on why governments promote electric vehicles finds that the environmental benefits of the vehicles have little to do with politicians' motives for supporting the industry. Perhaps not surprisingly, "Government Promotion of the Electric Car: Risk Management or Industrial Policy?" (gated) finds that the economic benefits of the industry are the primary motivator for most governments. From the press release:

Contrary to common belief, many of the world’s most powerful nations promote the manufacture and sale of electric vehicles primarily for reasons of economic development – notably job creation – not because of their potential to improve the environment through decreased air pollution and oil consumption.

This is among the main findings of a study by researchers at the Indiana University Bloomington School of Public and Environmental (SPEA) and University of Kansas that analyzed policies related to electric vehicles (EVs) in California, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and the United States – political jurisdictions with significant automotive industries and markets for EVs.

“Billions of dollars are being invested despite doubts that some express about the viability of electricity as a propulsion system,” said John D. Graham, SPEA dean and co-author of the study. “The objective of many of these national and sub-national governments is to establish a significant position – or even dominance – in the global marketplace for these emerging, innovative new technologies.”

Titles of Laws as Propaganda

How illiterate do our politicians think we are?

In the old days we had plain titles of laws, such as the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act. In the United Kingdom, the titles of laws still reflect their subjects, whether the Official Secrets Act or the National Health Service Act. The modern U.S. Congress, as the least trusted institution in America, is particularly prone to these propaganda titles. Thus, modern Americans, instead of universal, government-funded healthcare, get government-funded propaganda: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

How Political Are Judges?

Cass Sunstein, writing on Bloomberg View, reviews the research on judicial voting patterns to determine whether judges are really as "political" as people seem to think.  The good news: federal judges aren't nearly as bad as politicians.  "Judges are far from mere politicians; we don’t see anything like the kind of polarization found in Congress," writes Sunstein. "At the same time, judicial predispositions matter, and they help explain why judges are divided on some of the great issues of the day."  

The research also indicates that even judges are subject to a phenomenon called "group polarization."  "[J]udicial voting becomes a lot more ideological when judges sit on panels with two others appointed by presidents of the same political party," Sunstein explains. "For example, Republican appointees side with plaintiffs complaining of disability discrimination about 29 percent of the time -- but that number drops to 17 percent when they are sitting with two fellow Republican appointees."

As for the Supreme Court, Sunstein highlights research from a new book on the political leanings of Supreme Court justices since 1937:

Strikingly, they find that of the six most conservative justices in their entire sample, no fewer than three are currently on the court (Clarence ThomasAntonin Scalia and Samuel Alito). A fourth makes the top 10 (John Roberts). By contrast, none of the current justices ranks among the most liberal six, and only one makes the liberal top 10 (Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

Do Politicians Respond to Emails?

Writing at the Monkey Cage, political scientist Cristian Vaccari describes his research about how  political candidates, who often rely heavily on email lists, actually respond to emails:

As part of a broader study of the online presence of parties, party leaders, and Presidential candidates in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S., I tested whether and how rapidly their staffs responded to two types of emails (sent from separate fictitious accounts in the official language of each country): one asking for their positions on taxes (a cross-cutting issue that should not strongly differentiate between different types of parties), the other pledging to be willing to volunteer for them and asking for directions on how to do so. Emails were sent in the two weeks prior to national elections between 2007 and 2010 to a total of 142 parties and candidates. The results speak volumes to the lack of responsiveness among political actors: excluding automated responses, only one in five emails received a reply within one business day.

One More Thing to Worry About: Underfunded Public Pensions

If there is one thing that politicians love to do it's to promise people things now and not worry about how we will pay for those promises until sometime far into the future, when some other politician is on the hook to balance the budget. 

We see this all the time in the form of budget deficits in the federal government, and also with the accounting tricks used on the Social Security Trust Fund.

These sorts of shenanigans get less press at the state and local level because many state and local governments are required to have balanced budgets (this paper by my thesis adviser Jim Poterba lays out some of the details).  There are, of course, ways for states to get around the balanced-budget provisions.  The method that currently casts the greatest shadow over the future is underfunded pensions.  State governments promise generous retirement packages to state employees, but use accounting tricks to avoid recognizing the full value of what taxpayers will owe in the future to cover those debts.

Makers and Takers

Can’t resist chiming in on Mitt’s “47%” comment, as I was asked to do so by USNews and World Report:

I'm a freeloader/slurper from the public trough. But I'm also producing something—educated citizens and workers, and useful research—that taxpayers' decisions in political markets have determined to be socially valuable.

Read the rest here.

The Copyright Wars Come to the Obama-Romney Campaign

Last week, the Obama campaign released this sharp-elbowed political ad featuring Mitt Romney’s off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful.” And the Romney campaign promptly issued a sort of knock off — an ad featuring President Obama singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”  The Romney ad uses the song to criticize Obama’s allegedly too-cozy relationship with lobbyists and campaign fundraisers. 

We can’t show you the Romney ad, as it’s been pulled from YouTube.  Why?  Because BMG Rights Management, the music publisher that owns the copyright in “Let’s Stay Together,” has sent YouTube a copyright takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and YouTube has complied.

And we also can’t show you the original news footage of Obama singing — that’s also been taken down from YouTube following BMG’s copyright complaint.  The Obama ad featuring Romney’s singing is still up there – fortunately for the Obama campaign, “America the Beautiful” is a very old song (first released in 1910) and so the copyright has expired and the song is in the public domain.

Would Paying Politicians More Attract Better Politicians?

Whenever you look at a political system and find it wanting, one tempting thought is this: Maybe we have subpar politicians because the job simply isn't attracting the right people. And, therefore, if we were to significantly raise politicians' salaries, we would attract a better class of politician.

This is an unpopular argument for various reasons, in part because it would be the politicians themselves who have to lobby for higher salaries, and that isn't politically feasible (especially in a poor economy). Can you imagine the headlines?

But the idea remains attractive, doesn't it? The idea is that, by raising the salaries of elected and other government officials, you would a) signal the true importance of the job; b) attract a kind of competent person who might otherwise enter a more remunerative field; c) allow politicians to focus more on the task at hand rather than worry about their income; and d)  make politicians less susceptible to the influence of moneyed interests.

Jonathan Haidt Answers Your Questions About Morality, Politics, and Religion

We recently solicited your questions for social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Below are his responses about confirmation bias in religion, the "score" of our morals, the power of branding, how his research has made him a centrist, and how the search for truth is hampered by our own biases. Big thanks to him and all our readers for another great Q&A.  

What Do Indian Politicians and Drug Dealers Have in Common?

Freakonomics described the economics of a crack-selling gang -- a tournament model where you don't earn much unless you can get to the top of the pyramid. Columbia Business School professor Ray Fisman, who has shown up on this blog before, argues that politics isn't all that different.  In Slate, Fisman summarizes his new working paper, coauthored with Florian Schulz and Vikrant Vig, which uses disclosed finances of politicians in India in the last election cycle. The researchers found that being a politician doesn't really pay off: