You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2007.

Calibrated probability assessment training sounds quite useful

Calibration training improves subjective probabilities because most people are either “overconfident” or “under-confident” (usually the former). By practicing with a series of trivia questions, it is possible for subjects to fine-tune their ability to assess probabilities.

From what I gather, you are given many trivia questions and asked to answer the question and to estimate your confidence in your answer. After answering many such questions, you get feedback on how well you estimated your confidences so that you can self correct.

I have tried to find an online applet that conducts such training, but I have found nothing.

 Dani Rodrik points us to The Comparative Constitutions Project, and it looks awesome:

The constitutions project involves the systematic collection, translation, digitization and coding of every constitution in the world since 1789.  It provides a wide array of comparative data on the formal institutional designs adopted by nations at different points in time.  It also provides valuable data on national contexts.

I’ve been reading the Federalist Papers to learn what different institutional structures have been suggested over the age, but this is even better.

It’s election time in Washington State, and apparently local environmental activists are split on whether Proposition-1, which would allocate a lot of money for roads and transit systems, will reduce global warming (link). My primary question is: Why on earth is this sort of thing being referred to voters? Isn’t this the sort of thing we pay our representatives for? Voters in general, myself included, are not in a position to intelligently evaluate this sort of complex proposition.

A huge surplus of propositions, referenda and initiatives seems to be a perennial problem for Washington State. I’m with State Sen. Ken Jacobsen in wanting to get rid of the referendum and initiative process. Unfortunately, I doubt our state will get rid of the process any time soon, because the amendment to the state constitution to eliminate the processes would itself have to be passed by voters, and the emotional arguments against such an amendment are far easier to make than the arguments for one. Arguing that such an amendment would be “a rather draconian effort to insulate politicians from the people” is simpler and more emotionally appealing than arguing that voters are hardly ever in a position to intelligently evaluate complex policy options.

Jim Dew thinks term limits are one of the better institutions related to the presidency. He argues that power ‘corrupts,’ and therefore high turnover for elected officials is a good idea.

I disagree with this assessment. Term limits have few benefits. While I agree that political ‘corrupts,’ there is no reason to believe that ‘corruption’ increases the longer a person stays in power. If the amount of power a person holds we should expect the level of ‘corruption’ to remain the same, so there is little reason to suppose that high turnover for elected officials will decrease undesirable behavior from them. Term limits are not costless either.

In the final term of service, term limits eliminate the incentive for officials to be competent, non-corrupt and non-ideological that elections create. The instant a sitting president is re-elected, he is free from having to consider whether the public approves of him. Barry Weingast discusses this argument and gives examples in his recent EconTalk podcast.

Term limits do not have informed support. People who observe term limits in action are apparently much more likely to oppose term limits than those who do not have an opportunity to observe them in action (link).

Hanah Volokh discusses the way that statutory qualifications can violate the separation of powers:

Both of the two appointments procedures are set up on a straightforward separation of powers principle: I’ll cut the cake, and you choose which piece you want. That is, Congress creates the office, but someone else gets to choose who fills it.


This leaves us with an important line-drawing question. Just what counts as “creating the office,” and what counts as “hiring someone to fill it”? The gray area here is job qualifications.

Clearly if congress said “the office will be filled by Harry Reid” when creating a new executive office, that would violate the separation of power, but surely Congress should have some authority to create limits to help prevent cronyism, corruption etc., so there is a need for a balance.

What Ms. Volokh has not mentioned yet is that the constitution has a good structural mechanism for creating a good balance in the Supreme Court. The legislative branch and the executive branch jointly appoint Supreme Court judges, and as a result, those judges represent the interests of both the legislative branch and the executive branch (though biased towards interests of the executive branch). Perhaps it would be better then if the Supreme Court did not consider constitutional questions when reviewing this issue, but instead made a judgment call based on ‘reasonableness’. The Supreme Court does not have any incentives to favor either branch or too much interest bias toward either branch, so it is in a good position to decide which statutory qualifications for executive branch offices are appropriate and which are not.

I have previously discussed a political system where political parties in proportionally representative system are allowed to set up their own rules for deciding their vote (link). This is unlike traditional closed or open list systems where the decision rule is fixed by the political system. I have been wondering about the risks posed by letting political parties define their own rules for determining how to vote, as I have suggested before. The major risk that I see is to the various separations of power. The risk is that parties could figure out ways to have voting abilities in multiple political institutions which are not independent on each other. If parties in different government institutions had agreements with each other to collude in making decisions, the separation of powers would begin to be worn away.

Would it do to simply add a constitutional clause that parties are not allowed to legally associate with parties in different government institutions? I am not sure if this would just be a ‘parchment barrier’ (though some parchment barriers seem to have been remarkably effective) or a real, enforceable institutional rule. My concern is with enforcement; enforcement would ultimately have to come from the courts, but I am not sure if a Supreme Court would have the appropriate incentives to enforce such a rule; after all, the courts are appointed jointly by legislative and executive bodies, which are composed of political parties. Perhaps this is something that separation of powers actually combats because of ‘ambition counteracting ambition,’ so that as long as the parties in the executive and legislative branches are strongly separated, they will appoint judges who will maintain that separation.

I’m starting to read the Federalist and Anti-federalist papers, and in the introduction to the anthology I am using, I learn that the federalists believed that “in modern political systems,  it is the power of the legislature, not the executive, that is the greatest threat to the liberty and security of individuals.” I am a embarrassed to admit that I didn’t pay too much attention in my high school history classes (until quite recently, I thought the social sciences were pretty much bunk), so I am ignorant of what the historical reasons for this view are. Could someone enlighten me? Why did the framers have this view?

I had gotten snippets of this view before, but I had never seen it stated explicitly before. The view seems strange today.  I am not sure if there is any reason to believe either one is naturally a greater threat to liberty, so making the legislature and the executive branch roughly equal seems the most reasonable to me.

I am curious why Anthony Down’s An Economic Theory of Democracy sells for $45 used, while other famous public choice books sell for much less. For example, The Calculus of Consent sells for $10, and others sell for even less. Perhaps the book has reached some sort of “classic” status in many circles, that allows the publisher to restrict supply extract some monopoly rents.

UPDATE: The Amazon reviews for Down’s book (in the link above) suggest that part of the answer is that the book appears to be regularly assigned to political science majors for class.

I just finished reading Ralph Rossum’s Federalism, the Supreme Court, and the Seventeenth Amendment, which I enjoyed a great deal. The book discusses how the framer’s intended to protect the federal balance structurally by allowing the state legislatures to elect the Senate, and how the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of Senators, largely eliminated federalism, which I have discussed briefly before. The book also covers the Supreme Court’s efforts to maintain federalism. I am baffled why Public Choice theory has not picked up on this line of reasoning, the reasoning is very economic.

I will probably give a full review of the book later on.

UPDATE: Instead, I decided to immediately prove myself wrong: Todd Zywicki has a Public Choice analysis of the 17th Amendment, via the Repeal the 17th Amendment blog. I am still unsure why this topic is not more widely covered in Public Choice; for example, Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice, fails to mention the 17th Amendment in its discussion of Federalism.

As I have become more serious about reading, I have become much meaner to my books. My books suffer all sorts off abuse; they get written in, tossed in my backpack, tabbed, eaten over and generally abused. Most of my soft covers have mushed corners, and even my hardcovers have scratches and dirt on the edges.

My dad has the opposite attitude toward his books. He covers all his books in heavy paper wrappings before he reads them and is generally very careful with them, and he has always admonished me to be gentle with my books.

My father and I are very similar in many other respects, so I am not sure what could account for the difference between our attitudes towards books. Perhaps the difference is simply generational, but I asked him if books used to be a lot more expensive and he claims they’re actually more expensive now. He claims that the difference is that he sees that books are meant to be treated well so that you can have a library, but I already have a bookshelf of which I am proud, despite their condition. Sometimes I even buy books that I have already borrowed from the library and read, just so I can show them off on my bookshelf.

I have noticed that I am somewhat embarrassed to lend out my books because I have written in them, and I am afraid that others will think less of me after reading the silly or arrogant things I have written. My dad thinks my embarrassment means I will learn to be respectful of my books, and I suppose that is possible.