Congenial Invention and the Economy of Everyday (Political) Conversation

31 Dec

Communication comes from the Latin word communicare, which means `to make common.’ We communicate not only to transfer information, but also to establish and reaffirm identities, mores, and meanings. (From my earlier note on a somewhat different aspect of the economy of everyday conversation.) Hence, there is often a large incentive for loyalty. More generally, there are three salient aspects to most private interpersonal communication about politics — shared ideological (or partisan) loyalties, little knowledge of, and prior thinking about political issues, and a premium for cynicism. The second of these points — ignorance — cuts both ways. It allows for the possibility of getting away with saying something that doesn’t make sense (or isn’t true). And it also means that people need to invent stuff if they want to sound smart etc. (Looking stuff up is often still too hard. I am often puzzled by that.)

But don’t people know that they are making stuff up? And doesn’t that stop them? A defining feature of humans is overconfidence. And people often times aren’t aware of the depth of the wells of their own ignorance. And if it sounds right, well it is right, they reason. The act of speaking is many a time an act of invention (or discovery). And we aren’t sure and don’t actively control how we create. (Underlying mechanisms behind how we create — use of ‘gut’ are well-known.) Unless we are very deliberate in speech. Most people aren’t. (There generally aren’t incentives to be.) And find it hard to vet the veracity of the invention (or discovery) in the short time that passes between invention and vocalization.

The technology giveth, the technology taketh

27 Sep

Riker and Ordershook formalized the voting calculus as:

pb + d > c

p = probability of vote ‘mattering’
b = size of the benefit
d = sense of duty
c = cost of voting

They argued that if pb + d exceeds c, people will vote. Otherwise not.

One can generalize this simple formalization for all political action.

A fair bit of technology has been invented to reduce c — it is easier than ever to follow the news, to contact your representative, etc. However, for a particular set of issues, if you reduce c for everyone, you are also reducing p. For as more people get involved, less does the voice of any single person matter. (There are still some conditionalities that I am eliding over — for instance, reduction in c may matter more for people who are poorer etc. and may have an asymmetric impact.)

Technologies invented to exploit synergy, however, do not suffer the same issues. Think Wikipedia, etc.

Unlisted False Negatives: Are 11% Americans Unlisted?

21 Aug

A recent study by Simon Jackman and Bradley Spahn claims that 11% of Americans are ‘unlisted.’ (The paper has since been picked up by liberal media outlets like the Think Progress.)

When I first came across the paper, I thought that the number was much too high for it to have any reasonable chance of being right. My suspicions were roused further by the fact that the paper provided no bounds on the number — no note about measurement error in matching people across imperfect lists. A galling omission when the finding hinges on the name matching procedure, details of which are left to another paper. What makes it to the paper is this incredibly vague line: “ANES collects …. bolstering our confidence in the matches of respondents to the lists.” I take that to mean that the matching procedure was done with the idea of reducing false positives. If so, the estimate is merely an upper bound on the percentage of Americans who could be unlisted. That isn’t a very useful number.

But reality is a bit worse. To my questions about false positive and negative rates, Bradley Spahn responded on Twitter, “I think all of the contentious cases were decided by me. What are my decision-theoretic properties? Hard to say.” That line covers one of the most essential details of the matching procedure, a detail they say the readers can find “in a companion paper.” The primary issue is subjectivity. But not taking adequate account of the relevance of ‘decision theoretic’ properties to the results in the paper grates.

Partisan Retrospection?: Partisan Gaps in Retrospection are Highly Variable

11 Jun

The difference between partisans’ responses on retrospection items is highly variable, ranging from over 40% to nearly 0. For instance, in 1988 nearly 30% fewer Democrats than Republicans reported that the inflation rate between 1980 and 1988 had declined. (It had.) However, similar proportions of Republicans and Democrats got questions about changes in the size of the budget deficit and defense spending between 1980 and 1988 right. The median partisan gap across 20 items asked in the NES over 5 years (1988, 1992, 2000, 2004, and 2008) was about 15 points (the median was about 12 points), and the standard deviation was about 13 points. (See the tables.) This much variation suggests that observed bias in partisans’ perceptions depends on a variety of conditioning variables. For one, there is some evidence to suggest that during severe recessions, partisans do not differ much in their assessment of economic conditions (See here.) Even when there are partisan gaps, however, they may not be real (see paper (pdf)).

Estimating Hillary’s Missing Emails

11 Apr


55000/(365*4) ~ 37.7. That seems a touch low for Sec. of state.

1. Clinton may have used more than one private server
2. Clinton may have sent emails from other servers to unofficial accounts of other state department employees

Lower bound for missing emails from Clinton:

  1. Take a small weighted random sample (weighting seniority more) of top state department employees.
  2. Go through their email accounts on the state dep. server and count # of emails from Clinton to their state dep. addresses.
  3. Compare it to # of emails to these employees from the Clinton cache.

To propose amendments, go to the Github gist

Some Hard Feelings: Feelings Towards Some Racial and Ethnic Groups in 4 Countries

8 Aug

According to YouGov surveys in Switzerland, Netherlands and Canada, and the 2008 ANES in the US, Whites, on average, in each of the four countries feel fairly coldly — giving an average thermometer rating of less than 50 on a 0 to 100 scale — toward Muslims, and people from Muslim-majority regions (Feelings towards different ethnic, racial, and religious groups). However, in Europe, Whites’ feelings toward Romanians, Poles, and Serbs and Kosovars are scarcely any warmer, and sometimes cooler. Meanwhile, Whites feel relatively warmly towards East Asians.

Liberal Politicians are Referred to More Often in News

8 Jul

The median Democrat referred to in television news is to the left of the House Democratic Median, and the median Republican politician referred to is to the left of the House Republican Median.

Click here for the aggregate distribution.

And here’s a plot of top 50 politicians cited in news. The plot shows a strong right skewed distribution with a bias towards executives.

News data: UCLA Television News Archive, which includes closed-caption transcripts of all national, cable and local (Los Angeles) news from 2006 to early 2013. In all, there are 155,814 transcripts of news shows.

Politician data: Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (see Bonica 2012).

Taking out data from local news channels or removing Obama does little to change the pattern in the aggregate distribution.