The worth of a military man

13 Apr

Marx Weber in 1946 gave a lecture on “Politics as Vocation” in which he described three preeminent qualities of a good politician—passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. It is the missing last one—the sense of proportion—that I declaim in this column.

NY Times carried an article today about the V-22 Osprey helicopter whose debut “on the battlefield end(ed) a remarkable 25-year struggle for the Marines to build a craft they could call their own.” The specificity of technology being built primarily for the military is mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the amount the military is willing to spend. “The Pentagon has spent $20 billion so far and has budgeted $54.6 billion for it…Each V-22 costs about three times the price of a modern helicopter and nearly the same as a fighter jet. The Marines will get 360 Ospreys, Air Force Special Forces will get 50 and there will be 48 for the Navy.”

The gung-ho patriots may be OK with figures except the program is blighted by safety questions. “On April 8, 2000, 19 marines were killed in a training exercise when a V-22 descended too fast and crashed near Tucson. It was the third V-22 to crash — seven people were killed in two previous crashes…In December 2000, four more marines, including the program’s most experienced pilot, were killed in a crash caused by a burst hydraulic line and software problems.” The hilarious part is how Colonel Mulhern, the V-22 program manager, defends it: “The first marine it saves makes it worth what we paid for it. And I have real confidence that the V-22 will do it.” Yup, it won’t take 20 marines—one more than those killed in testing this white elephant—but just one marine to make it all worth it. And just for the record, a marine’s life is about $54.6 billion. (The “value of a statistical life” is about $7 million or just about 1/8k of a marine’s life. So we would be willing to sacrifice 8k Americans for 1 American Marine.)

All Politics is Identity Politics (Or Soon Will Be)

13 Apr

Identity politics is a phrase that is traditionally reserved for studying politics of third world nations with deep ethnic cleavages like India and Fiji. It is rarely used in the context of American politics yet identity politics is rife in America.

More boldly, I would like to say that in fact, all politics is identity politics and the relative success of parties can be solely judged on how successful they have been in peddling robust identities. I use the word “robust” because it is important that identities be “essential”, and fundamental to how one sees himself and hence immune to pressure (or logic) unless of course your identity is based on being data-driven. I make this claim because there is a vast literature in political science that lays bare the abysmally low levels of information in general population and it reasons hence that people must make decisions based on identity affiliation, an assertion that largely bears out in the data.

There are two caveats to the claim that I am making – one is that very few political identities are infinitely tensile – they eventually brook to contrary evidence. Identities can be resilient and make people delusional but often times they have limits. Secondly, political identity for many is a shifting idea determined by what is sexy (a reference to meaningless radical positions held by students), and by what is appropriate or comfortable or stokes one’s prejudices the right way (for example – people don’t ever explicitly call themselves racist. they just feel that all black people are lazy and deal in drugs. and that is true isn’t it – Bill O’Reilly certainly thinks so)

A measure of success would involve the percentage of partisan media one consumes. Identity politics involves a reshaping of the kind of media one consumes, the kind of messages one gets from it, and how s/he chooses to interpret them and “update” (in a Bayesian way) their thinking.

The law of stable yields

Identity politics is the only system that is capable of yielding stable yields and creating a strong unwavering kernel. It is no surprise hence the party in power in the US is the one that has had considerably more success in engaging in identity politics.

A Small Government: US Federal Budget as Proportion of the Economy

11 Dec

The US federal budget is larger than that of any other country in absolute terms. The US government spends more than $2.3 trillion every year, about $500 billion dollars more than Japan, which has the second largest budget in the world at around $1.7 trillion.

Yet, as a proportion of the economy, the US federal government budget is small. The US federal budget of $2.3 trillion is about one-fifth (.197) of its $12.5 trillion GDP. The average budget-to-GDP ratio in developed countries in Europe is about twice as much. For example, UK’s budget of $951 billion is nearly half of its $2.228 trillion GDP, while France’s budget of $1.144 trillion is a little more than half of its $2.055 trillion GDP. The US budget-to-GDP ratio is closer to the ratios in the developing world. For example, India’s GDP of $720 billion is nearly five times bigger than its budget of about $135 billion. Surprisingly, the US budget-to-GDP ratio also matches the ratio of its left-leaning northern neighbor, Canada.

Petro-economies like Saudi Arabia have budget-to-GDP ratios that fall between those of the developing world and the developed economies in Europe. Petro-economies also fall in the middle in terms of budgetary dollars spent per person. Nigeria, unsurprisingly, is an exception in this regard, with budget numbers far below that of other petro-economies.

In terms of dollars spent per person, United States is far behind developed EU economies. The budgetary allocation per person in the EU is more than double that in the US.

There are two key caveats in interpreting all this. An exclusive focus on the federal budget understates the total government spending for countries with strong federal structures like the US. But the good thing is that federal spending and state and local spending are not inversely proportional in countries with strong federal structures but are strongly correlated. Hence, while relying solely on federal budgetary expenditure does understate the impact, it doesn’t do it by as big a margin as one would expect. Take, for example, the US, whose total budget at the state level is around $600 billion, adding which pushes total government spending to $3 trillion or still about .25 of the GDP.

Secondly, one must look at not only the size of the budget but also where it is spent. For example, the US military budget accounts for a fifth of its net budget by conservative estimates. In sheer numbers, US military budget exceeds the total military spending of the rest of the world, but in terms of its size relative to US GDP, it is a measly 4%.

Developed countries pool:


GDP (in trillions, 2005 estimate, unless mentioned otherwise)

Budgetary Expenditure (in trillions, 2005 est. unless mentioned otherwise)

Proportion of budget/GDP

(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person (thousands)


























$246.9 billion

$131.3 billion





$367 billion

$143.6 billion




Asia Pacific








$612.8 billion

$240.2 billion




Developed North American economies


$12.49 trillion

$2.466 trillion






$152.6 billion(est. 2004)




Developing country pool:


GDP (2005 est.)

Budgetary Expenditure (2005 est.)

Proportion of budget/GDP

(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per


$720 billion

$135 billion





$89.55 billion

$20.07 billion





$270 billion

$57.7 billion





$619.7 billion

$172.4 billion





$2.225 trillion

$424.3 billion





$115.6 billion

$24.75 billion






$181.2 billion

$60.4 billion




Saudi Arabia

$264 billion






$106.1 billion

$41.27 billion





$77.33 billion

$13.54 billion




All figures from CIA World Fact Book which can be accessed at:

Rational Ignorance: Celebrities or Politics

29 Nov

It is a commonly held belief that people are too busy to be informed about policy issues. The argument certainly seems reasonable given the oft-repeated assertion that people are leading increasingly hectic lives with little time for leisure, except that it doesn’t stand well to scrutiny. Americans, as I corroborate below, have ample leisure time and ample access to informational sources.

An average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends about 44.5 hours per week, or six and a half hours daily, consuming media, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. More than half of this time is spent in watching television programs, movies, and other videos. The figures are comparable for American adults, who watch more than four hours of television each day or twenty-eight hours each week on average, according to a Nielsen study. Even if we assume that Americans do other tasks, say cook or clean, simultaneously for part of the twenty-eight hours, it is reasonable to conclude that Americans do have a fair amount of leisure time which they spend primarily watching television.

Given that people have ample leisure time and access to information, why do people choose not to be informed about politics? Some researchers have argued that people don’t care about politics because they are rationally disinterested – they don’t feel that they can make a change hence they don’t care to be informed about it. Inarguably fan support is at best peripheral to whether a sports team will either win or lose, then why do people often times posses close to perfect information on the teams (or sport) they follow and argue passionately over the matters related to sports?

Americans are not information averse; they are surprisingly well informed about things they care to know about like celebrity gossip and football. They also spend a fair amount of time and energy collecting, regurgitating and discussing this information. While talking about sports people show a surprising amount of talent for remembering and accurately interpreting statistics. So why is it that Americans are willing to spend time and energy in collecting entertainment and sports while showing little interest in foreign or even domestic policy?

Admittedly policy issues are generally more complex than celebrity news and perhaps people’s interest in entertainment news is driven by the fact that consuming entertainment news is less cognitively demanding. The explanation seems inadequate given people (perhaps mainly men) do keep track of elaborate sports statistics and present well-articulated positions on why a certain team is better than the other. One can perhaps argue that given the general lack of morally divisive issues, people feel more comfortable discussing entertainment news than say abortion. But then certainly there are policy issues that are bereft of morally divisive issues. It seems though that most political information is presented in identity packets rather than ideational packets as in choices are explained and understood as liberal or conservative choices. Choices marked with identity dissuade analysis and reflection, as research has shown, and combined with the chronic lack of factual information on relevant policy topics on American television, there isn’t much hope that people will get to critically think about the problem.

Understanding Voter Disinterest

15 Nov

Voter indifference in the US is commonly understood as an effect of the media environment. For example negative advertisements or availability of entertainment that had pushed news programming to a distinct second. While the above view may very well be true, it is unlikely that is either the sole or even the major cause of the dwindling number of voters.

To understand voter disinterest fully, one must try to see it in a “personal” context that takes into account the rationale behind why a person chooses to engage in a democratic process. By doing so, one may understand the downturn in voter interest as an artifact of the spatial (nation or culture-specific) and temporal (historical) locality. More specifically, US voter’s indifference towards politics can be seen as a side-effect of living in an era where economic and social conditions are relatively (and in absolute terms when measured as life expectancy etc.) good. Given that an average American voter tends to view government’s role in resolving social and economic issues as rather limited, it is not altogether surprising that a US voter may conclude that s/he have little to gain from voting. The contention is corroborated by the fact that the voter group that does rely upon the government – older adult voters, who need Medicaid and Social security benefits, votes most often in the elections.

The lack of growth in citizen’s level of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1996), in spite of the increase in the amount of information available, can similarly be explained by lack of motivation in voters. Research by Robert Luskin identifies interest and intelligence as key variables affecting the level of political sophistication also ties into the above analysis. Luskin states, “Education, too, may be motivational in part. In an educated society, the blanket ignorance of politics may be a solecism. We learn about the things we care about.” Education, by making a person more aware of the actual role of government and the services it offers, as opposed to the widely perceived peripheral role of government, can make people more motivated to vote.

Rational self-interest or disinterest cannot fully explain voter disinterest in the US. There is an argument to be made, that aside from the differences that emanate from different school systems and the perceived differences in the importance of government’s role in alleviating social or economic problems, nearly all the other differences can be traced to differences between media environments. One key difference in US media markets and media markets in other countries is the lack of a comparatively large public broadcaster. NPR and PBS fare poorly in terms of budget, viewership and production values when compared to their counterparts in say Britain (BBC) or Canada (CBC) or other developed countries. One may impute from the above that the presence of a large public broadcaster in a media market has an important salutary impact on the way politics is covered.

The effect of a large public broadcaster can be understood in terms of the kind of programming shown by public broadcasters – primarily thematic coverage of news. Thematic coverage of news as opposed to incident oriented coverage of news, the most prominent model on network news, allows citizens to trace the arc of accountability to the government or other social and economic factors, according to Shanto Iyengar, a professor at Stanford University. This, in turn, may make a person more motivated to vote

In all, voter disinterest can be more fully understood by analyzing factors influencing voter’s perception of his/her self-interest and government’s role in helping achieve their interests, whether it be security or employment.