An open letter to the rest of the world concerning the 2012 U.S. presidential election

Yesterday your humble blogger gave a talk about the state of the 2012 presidential race to a group of really rich people international institutional investors.  At the end of the talk, the convener asked for a show of hands about who they thought would (not should) win the race, and an overwhelming majority said Obama.  In talking to the organizers, I learned that this was the sentiment of other groups of overseas bankers that had met earlier in the month.  Indeed, there was apparent surprise at the suggestion that Mitt Romney could actually win. 

Why did this sentiment exist?  I don't think it had much to do with ideology -- we're talking about the global one percenters here.  Based on my conversations, I think it was based on a few stylized facts: 

1)  The U.S. economy is outperforming almost every other developed economy in the world;

2)  They assume that in times of uncertainty, Americans will prefer the devil they know rather than the devil they don't;

3)  President Obama's foreign policies seem pretty competent;

4)  Mitt Romney's policy proposals either seemed really super-vague (this will be an American Century) or, when specific (designating China as a currency manipulator) made him seem like an out-of-date clown. 

So, consider the following a Global Public Service Announcement from the hard-working staff at this blog: 

Dear Rest of the World,

Hey there.  I understand that the overwhelming lot of you believe Barack Obama will be elected to a second term.  I can sorta see that, as that is the current prediction from recent pollssome of our prognosticators and prediction markets. If you look closely, however, none of these predictions are very strong. Or, to put it as plainly as possible:  there is still about a 50/50 chance that Mitt Romney will be sworn in as president in January 2013

I can hear your derisive snorts from across the oceans. Ridiculous! Surely Americans would reject such ludicrous ideas as a trade war with China. Surely Americans understand that their economy has done pretty well in comparison to the rest of the world. Surely Americans can see that many long-term trends are pretty positive

Valid questions. To which I must respond: The overwhelming majority of Americans do not give a flying f**k about the rest of the world. 

Really, they dont. Take a look at these poll numbers about priorities for the 2012 presidential campaign, and try to find anything to do with international relations. There ain't much. It's almost all about the domestic economy. 

See, most Americans don't compare the U.S. to other major economies -- they compare the U.S. now to, say, the U.S. of 2005. And things don't look so hot based on that comparison. As for the notion of a trade war with China, go read how Americans feel about absolute vs. relative gains with China -- they'll superficially welcome a trade war, when they bother to even think about it. Which they don't.

As for foreign policy or counterterrorism, yes, you could argue that the Obama administration has been pretty competent. But, again:  Americans. Don't. Care.  If anything, the foreign policy competency removes the issue from the campaign, and just concentrates the minds of everyone on the state of the domestic economy. 

The fundamental fact of this election is that the American economy is pretty sluggish, voters blame the incumbent when that happens, and the incumbent happens to be Barack Obama.  Indeed, it is only because Obama is seen as pretty likable  -- and that voters do still tend to blame George W. Bush for the current situation -- that this race is even remotely close. 

I'm not saying Mitt Romney is gonna win. If the economy picks up over the summer, Obama should win pretty handily. However, you, the smart money, should think about it this way: what are the chances that between now and November, none of the following will happen: another Euro-implosion, a rapid deflating of the China bubble, or a war in the Middle East? If you're confident that these events are not in the cards, bet on Obama.  If any of them happen, all bets are off. 

Will it matter to you? Think of it this way: compare and contrast who Mitt Romney would pick as the next Fed chairman versus Barack Obama. And plan accordingly. 

Enjoy the summer!  All the best,

Daniel W. Drezner

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner

When a stupid op-ed produces some smart debate

So in yesterday's New York Times, Northwestern University political science professor Jacqueline Stevens wrote something really stupid about whether the NSF should fund political science. 

I don't use the term "stupid" lightly.  Based on her blog, she has a philosophy of science that's about, oh, sixty years out of date.  She was (as she now acknowledges) sloppy with some of her facts.  One paragraph proudly trumps a John Lewis Gaddis essay that actually critiques the very kind of work Stevens claims to like.  And, after spending much of the essay indicting political scientists for getting in bed with an imperial state ("research money that comes with ideological strings attached"), she closes with:  

Government can — and should — assist political scientists, especially those who use history and theory to explain shifting political contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines. Research aimed at political prediction is doomed to fail. At least if the idea is to predict more accurately than a dart-throwing chimp.

To shield research from disciplinary biases of the moment, the government should finance scholars through a lottery: anyone with a political science Ph.D. and a defensible budget could apply for grants at different financing levels.

So, in other words, state funding is pernicious and corrupting -- unless you and yours get the money. 

So yeah, there's a lot of stupidity contained in this essay.  But that's OK!!  I have been to many a seminar (and maybe, just maybe, presented at some) in which the paper du jour was horrible, but the discussion that the paper triggered was quite interesting.  And I think that happened in this case.  For robust deconstructions of Stevens' arguments, see Henry Farrell, Steve Saideman, Jim Johnson, and Jay Ulfelder.  

Two other responses are worthy of note, however.  At his blog, Phil Arena makes an interesting semi-serious suggestion:  

Here's a thought experiment -- if [the American Political Science Association] were to increase membership dues by $500 a year or so, and if most current members remained members, we'd have a pool of money a bit smaller than the current NSF budget for political science, but still one that could fund a good number of projects with the greatest potential for generating positive externalities.  The big data sets that lots of people use, like the NES, could continue.  And let's face it, many of the individual projects that are funded by the NSF do not generate significant positive externalities -- and even if they did, a great many of them would be carried out even if without external funding.  So the net loss wouldn't be that big.

Now, there are some obvious problems and not-so-obvious problems with this proposal.  Obvbiously, APSA membership wouldn't stay the same size.  Not-so-obviously,  the demographics of APSA membership would likely skewresearch dollars in ways that people like Stevens would find even more abhorrent. 

Still, I think a more modest version of this idea makes a great deal of sense.  It's entirely reasonable to, say, ask that tenured professors at R1 research universities to chip in $500 to a research fund.  It's also reasonable to ask other APSA members to chip in... something.   I'd want to see the International Studies Association do the same.  The result would not be a perfect substitute for NSF funding, but it would certainly be a good way of building up an appropriate research infrastructure free of Congressional interference.  

Second, Penn political science professor Michael Horowitz posts about  an ongoing research project with Official Blog Intellectual Crush Philip Tetlock.  This section contains some beguiling findings... and an invitation:

One of the main things we are interested in determining is the situations in which experts provide knowledge-added value when it comes to making predictions about the world. Evidence from the first year of the project (year 2 started on Monday, June 18) suggests that, contrary to Stevens’ argument, experts might actually have something useful to say after all. For example, we have some initial evidence on a small number of questions from year 1 suggesting that experts are better at updating faster than educated members of the general public – they are better at determining the full implications of changes in events on the ground and updating their beliefs in response to those events.

Over the course of the year, we will be exploring several topics of interest to the readers – and hopefully authors – of this blog. First, do experts potentially have advantages when it comes to making predictions that are based on process? In other words, does knowing when the next NATO Summit is occurring help you make a more accurate prediction about whether Macedonia will gain entry by 1 April 2013 (one of our open questions at the moment)? Alternatively, could it be that the advantage of experts is that they have a better understanding of world events when a question is asked, but then that advantage fades over time as the educated reader of the New York Times updates in response to world events?

Second, when you inform experts of the predictions derived from prediction markets, the wisdom of groups, or teams of forecasters working together, are they able to use this information to yield more accurate predictions than the markets, the crowd, or teams, or do they make it worse? In theory, we would expect experts to be able to assimilate that information and use it to more accurately determine what will happen in the world. Or, maybe we would expect an expert to be able to recognize when the non-experts are wrong and outperform them. In reality, will this just demonstrate the experts are stubborn – but not in a good way?

Finally, are there types of questions where experts are more or less able to make accurate predictions? Might experts outperform other methods when it comes to election forecasting in Venezuela or the fate of the Eurozone, but prove less capable when it comes to issues involving the use of military force? We hope to explore these and other issues over the course of the year and think this will raise many questions relevant for this blog. We will report back on how it is going. In the meantime, we need experts who are willing to participate. The workload will be light – promise. If you are interested in participating, expert or not, please contact me at horom (at) sas (dot) upenn (dot) edu and let’s see what you can do.

So, to sum up:  a stupid op-ed.  But lots of interesting things to read as a result of it.   Well done, other political scientists!!