I came across something the other day that isn’t particularly noteworthy on its own, but serves as a useful example of a common journalistic malpractice. Plus, it’s from the Washington Times, so it presents an opportunity to abuse a non-MSM source while getting in on the ground floor of the predictable internet arguments over the subject matter of the article.
The article in question bears the arresting headline, America is an oligarchy, not a democracy or republic, university study finds, which seems like pretty good click-bait for an article that doesn’t contain a word about a single Kardashian. Now, for those of you without a lot of time to spare, I’ll tell you right now that this “study” finds no such thing, so you can move along now and sleep comfortably. But there’s quite a bit to unpack from this silly article.
First, there’s really no such thing as a “university study”, despite the fact that newspapers constantly use this term. What this thing is, and what all such “studies” are, is a humble little academic paper written by two guys with jobs as professors at some universities. It gets worse in the main body of the article, where this paper is pimped as a “study jointly conducted by Princeton and Northwestern universities.” The casual reader would be nearly blameless in inferring that high-ranking officials at those two schools had decided to order members of their faculties to drop everything and get to work studying the state of the American polity. But that’s a laughably incorrect notion of academic life, where in reality profs are rewarded for grabbing some “external funding” for their research. The subject matter is of no particular interest to university officials unless it generates a lot of bad publicity. The only things that really matter to them about research are the money kicked in to the university’s general slush fund and the number of publications the authors can squeeze out of their projects.
OK, what about the research that underlies the bold claim of the headline? The basic argument is that organized interest groups exert some degree of influence on the US government. Oh, and business lobbying is aimed at increasing business profits. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. Pretty much stuff that Marxists and libertarians agree on, although they differ radically on the implication of this for the optimal size and scope of government.
So where does the “oligarchy” stuff come from? The actual “study” uses the term only in reference to work by another Northwestern political scientist, Jeffrey Winters, who–as far as I can tell–argues that concentrated wealth is the same thing as concentrated political power. Wealth inequality in the US therefore means oligarchy because money buys influence over policy. You can get a pretty good idea of Winters’ views from his recent post at HuffPo.
Of course, this argument is nothing more than underwear-gnome logic without specifics about the influence that the wealthy exert over policy. Did they install their fellow rich guy Mitt Romney as president? Did they kill Obamacare? Going back a few decades, when the oligarchs gave us President Nixon, why did they allow him to sign the laws creating the EPA and OSHA?
No, Prof. Winters isn’t so foolhardy as to claim that oligarchs rule the US in the way that they run, say, Russia. Instead, our unambitious oligarchs largely concern themselves with lowering the top income-tax rate. Which is to say, they’ve had to deploy all their political might to reducing the amount of their wealth voted away from them. This has got to be the most sorry-ass oligarchy ever.
The argument made by Winters’ colleagues, in the study that is the subject of the WashTimes article, is a bit different. They look at opinion survey data for the US and contrast the for/against views for an unspecified group of policy proposals, distinguishing between the responses of the top 10% of income earners and those of “average Americans”. They then attempt to estimate the responsiveness of each actual policy outcome to the preferences of these respondent groups (plus some lobbying groups). Unfortunately for the authors, the policy views of “elites” and average Joes in the US are highly correlated (to the tune of a .94 correlation coefficient, where 1.0 represents exact conformity, 0 represents complete independence, and -1 represents completely opposing views). So the main thing to be learned from their study is that there’s hardly any class warfare at all in the US.
But that’s not what the two scholars in question concluded. Being determined to sort out the differential influence of the people being taxed heavily relative to those being taxed lightly, they proceeded to massage their data in the name of eliminating “measurement error”. I’m not competent to evaluate their procedure–and only partly because they do not describe it in this study, but refer the diligent reader to a separate paper–so I’ll only report that the “cleaned” data are used to find that the opinions of ordinary Americans have no influence on public policy.
Now, one important thing to bear in mind is that merely fitting a statistical model like this and getting some estimated effects of assorted variables doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about the importance of the results. It’s the “predictive” power of the model that tells us how important it is, and this paper never discusses that. (One type of measure of this is reported, and it’s very small, but we’re not told which of the several possible measures it represents.) In fact, this study doesn’t even contain the customary table reporting the simple summary statistics for its sample. So, for example, we aren’t told what percentage of the 1,779 “policy proposals” in question were actually enacted. This is pretty important to know in order to assess the statistical model. In a world where you get 50% “positives” and 50% “negatives”, a model that can predict positive outcomes 75% of the time is pretty good. On the other hand, if only 5% of the outcomes are positive, there’s not much to explain.
Furthermore, real-world policy outcomes aren’t binary, which means that the data used in this study contain an unknown degree of subjective opinion. Suppose, for example, people are asked if they favor or oppose an increase in the top income-tax rate, and that high-income earners oppose it while average earners favor it. Also suppose that there are three options considered by Congress: Raise the top rate by 10%, raise it by 5%, and leave it unchanged. If what passes is a 5% increase, should that be classified as a “win” for the fat cats or for the hoi polloi? And that’s a simple case. Suppose what happens is that the top rate is increased but the income threshold for being in the top bracket is also increased? How would you code that? And, given that a lot of policies are rolled up into a single mess of an omnibus bill, what are we to make of the assorted logrolling deals that were made to get the ultimate legislation passed?
I don’t mean to say that this study is rubbish, but it does seem awfully weak to serve as the basis for the view that the US is an oligarchy. What I do mean to say is that the Washington Times report on this study is indeed rubbish, and not at all unrepresentative of MSM summaries of social-science research.
Oh, plus this: The Constitution is supposed to establish a republic, not a simple democracy that quickly passes laws that embody the weakly held, indifferently thought-out views of a simple majority. I can’t believe that I have to make that point in writing about a study by a political scientist, but then the other author is a sociologist.