Tug-O-War Is Not Charity

Arnold Kling:

Ezra Klein thinks that political organizations are worthwhile charities.

If you donate money to a food bank, it can provide only as much food as your money can buy. If you donate it to a nonprofit that specializes in food policy issues, it can persuade legislators to pass a new program – or reform an existing one – that can do much more than any single food bank.

So he winds up giving his money to support a think tank whose employees are somewhere around the 95th percentile of the income distribution, in the hope that they will help tilt the rent-seeking in Washington in a direction that he likes. … It is actually sort of sad for a policy wonk to settle on the idea of making donations to an organization of policy wonks.

If public policy is a point in a high dimensional space, then every policy change has two components: a partisan and a non-partisan change. Partisan changes are along standard partisan axes, where people are lined up in a tug-o-war on different sides pulling in different directions. Non partisan changes, in contrast, are not seen as a win for one side relative to others. Technically, partisan changes project total changes into the partisan subspace.

Assuming all parties think they seek good, partisan changes can only be good if some parties are right while others are wrong about what is good. In contrast, you can be right about a non-partisan change without others being wrong. Since the total space has a far larger dimension that the partisan space, there is a huge scope for searching in that larger space for changes that all sides could see as good. And donations to encourage such efforts can indeed consistently produce large social gains relative to their costs.

Donations to change policy within the partisan subspace, however, only achieve good when they happen to be on the right side of partisan disagreements. Averaged over the disagreeing parties, such donations cannot on average achieve good unless there is a correlation between between donations, or donation effectiveness, and which sides are right.  Even if you think you are right at the moment on your particular partisan policy opinions, you can’t think it good on average to encourage partisan donations, unless you think donations tend overall to go to the good or more donation-effective sides.

Unfortunately most thinktank efforts go into pushing for their sides within the partisan subspace, because that is what most donors care about. For example, Ezra’s two concrete policy examples, of “the need for food banks and homeless shelters and social services” and “repeal the 2010 health-care reform legislation,” are both clearly partisan.

Humans clearly tend to be overconfident about politics. Since you are human, that tendency is a likely cause of your confidence in your political opinions. If your politics were about doing good with policy, you should correct for that overconfidence, and that correction would on average move folks to have little interest in partisan pushes.  Of course if your politics is not about policy, but about showing loyalty, how clever or informed you are, etc., well then go right ahead and be partisan. But don’t tell me that is generally beneficial charity.

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  • Can’t the same be said about voting? We often appeal to “civic duty”, which I presume is ostensibly charitable. So not only might voting be privately irrational, it can be socially irrational as well.

    • Eugine Nier

      I think there’s at least some correlation between number of votes for a party and which party is right, if only because people tend to vote for the incumbent when things are going well, and against when they aren’t.

    • Randy

      I agree that voting regardless of your information is irrational, and I’d say immoral; likewise encouraging everyone to get out and vote is silly. But the average person making their best judgement about what is best for themselves & their community and country is what makes democratic type governments possible.

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  • lemmy caution

    “Assuming all parties think they seek good, partisan changes can only be good if some parties are right while others are wrong about what is good. In contrast, you can be right about a non-partisan change without others being wrong. Since the total space has a far larger dimension that the partisan space, there is a huge scope for searching in that larger space for changes that all sides could see as good. And donations to encourage such efforts can indeed consistently produce large social gains relative to their costs.”

    If the government raises taxes on people to make these non-partisan changes, is it still a non-partisan change?

  • Randy

    Assuming all parties think they seek good, partisan changes can only be good if some parties are right while others are wrong about what is good.

    You do neglect a variety of possibilities that include one party being wrong about effective methods, or wrong about what goods are preffereable, or wrong about what goods are achievable, or what goods are authorized (a subset of competing goods, I suppose). But that doesn’t effect the over all point, that giving to an actual charity is more definate & immediate than trying to effect government policy with the same few dolllars.

    Excepting perhaps a well placed bribe, but those opportunities are hard to identify.

  • lemmy caution

    Here is Arnold Kling’s charity:

    “An example of a charity to which I contribute is the Seed Foundation, which supports a charter school for at-risk children in the Washington, DC area. It turns out that the school was mentioned favorably in Waiting for Superman, which I have yet to see. I visited the school many years ago, and I was impressed with the level of effort on the part of the students and teachers.”

    That doesn’t seem purely non-partisan. Kling hopes that the school will be a model for future education reform. Education reform that some support and some don’t support. The gift potentially has a similar leveraging effect as giving to a think tank. It is hard to think of a purely non-partisan charity.

    That is ok, though. People should be allowed to give to whatever charity they want to. There isn’t really a charity that everyone agrees on, however.

  • Vlad

    What partisan divides don’t encompass, business does. That leaves very little room for “original” charity. Suppose suddenly politicians start caring about existential risk and policy decision mechanisms, will that make them less worth while to invest in?

  • Tell you what — when your side decides to stop being partisan, then maybe Ezra and others can stop trying to be partisan to counter you.

    Oh, you aren’t partisan? You are somehow above the fray? Tell it to the Koch brothers. You are affiliated with the Mercatus Foundation, funded by the Kochs and heavily involved in partisan activity.

    When you are in a fight with someone, and they suggest we should all just get along, you better be damn careful before you lower your guard. Maybe you should go first to demonstrate good faith. Show that you are free from financial ties to the Koch brothers and other right-wing pressure groups.

    To address your point, yes, perhaps the world would be better off if there was no partisan politics. But we’d also be better off if we could all work unselfishly for the good of mankind, as some more naive socialists thought. That didn’t work out so well. In the meantime before your utopia of no politics is created, we have to deal with the world as it is.

    • It seems there are two possible models of how other partisans react. In one a person like yourself sees the other side engaged in undesirable partisanship, and you respond to counter them. In another when one side sees the other flagging it seizes the opportunity to make gains. It’s in the latter situation that marginal partisan giving can be effective.

  • Doug

    The way you view the algebra of “policy” space is important. I absolutely agree that there’s a lot more dimensions of policy (thousands of policy issues) than there are partisanship (left-right, and also maybe a few other minor dimensions). However if we consider each policy issue as forming the basis of the policy space how does the partisan subspace orient in this space?

    Is it the issue that the partisan subspace is highly co-linear with a few of the basises and pretty much orthogonal with a whole set of basises? Or does the partisan subspace pretty much have a random loading on each basis, and isn’t really orthogonal to hardly any basis?

    The former issue is more like a world where a few big issues dominate (e.g. gay marriage, abortion) and there are many many policy issues which hardly have any taint of partisanship with them, and would produce improvement (e.g. ending farm subsidies, closing tax loopholes). If you believe this to be the case then your recommendation would be to try to ignore abortion and fight against farm subsidies. But if this is the case and these policies should clearly be fixed, why haven’t they? Why do we still have sugar tariffs after 30+ years of economists telling us their moronic?

    There are many many policies of the US government that are plainly moronic by anyone with any knowledge on the issue, yet I don’t see these issues being solved any time soon. Nor do I see the ever-growing army of dispassionate analytical wonks staffing ever increasing NGOs and think tanks doing anything to fix this. At least 1 out of 4 TED talks dealing with a public policy issue seems to have a great, relatively non-partisan improvement idea. How many actually get implemented?

    Unless there’s been an intellectual breakthrough that reveals existing policies as bad the policy in place now that’s bad was probably bad when it was first put in place? Most of these are probably already protected by powerful interests and may be harder to fight than partisan issues.

    If you think the algebra of policy space is closer to the latter, with the partisan subspace having a random orientation among the policy basis (i.e. almost all policy issues have some taint of partisanship implicit in them), then the optimal strategy is different. Your solution to avoid tugs of war would be to operate like a “political hedge fund”. Identify leftist sides of policy issues that are clearly superior to the right on that one issue, and combine them with rightist policy issues that are clearly superior. Then present a compromise that is net overall balanced in terms of partisanship, yet clearly improves the world with its combination.

    However if each policy is considered on the margin then all single policy issues fall in the partisan subspace (because each policy has at least some loading in partisan subspace). Most political participants are on the margin rather than being in the position to present grand compromises. So why not pick the single best policy (or set of policies) and focus all your effort on that, disregarding the net partisan balance. Unless you think it increases the credibility of the political actor by being partisan neutral.

    I think one good example of this is non-partisan libertarians, particularly the Libertarian Party, who on many issues are superior to the status quo but try to emphasize a variety of left and right positions. My question would be has the Libertarian Party and similar non-partisan libertarians been more or less successful at pushing policy in that direction than libertarian leaning leftists and rightists operating in their respective political institutions?

    • Yes most random policies will have a non-zero projection into the partisan subspace. Someone who seeks the best policy regardless of its partisan projection is very different from someone who focuses primarily on the finding ways to push policies with favorable projections, even though they might both end up supporting the same policy.

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  • Michael Kirkland

    Counterpoint: If the people who recognize that partisan changes are difficult to judge objectively all decamp to non-partisan causes, then partisan decisions will be made by those who don’t care about being wrong.

  • michael vassar

    Is it potentially a good charity in a region where rule of law has essentially broken down to fund/promote the dominant/police/stationary bandit side in a tug of war against the non-dominant/mob/roving bandit side? Personally, to me US politics looks like a fight between stationary bandits and roving bandits, and permanent near-total defeat of the roving bandits seems like a prerequisite to the reestablishment of real economic growth.

    I don’t see myself as partisan, as I’d be happy to support a party of the right OR the left so long as they could offer credible hope for the total destruction of the Republican party as they currently exist. Ironically, this makes me think that altruists should support Palin, as she seems to be the person with the best chance of doing that, and also seems utterly incapable of actually holding power herself, though as a charity, I still prefer SIAI over Palin’s primary campaign by many orders of magnitude.

    • Anonymous from UK

      > I still prefer SIAI over Palin’s primary campaign by many orders of magnitude

      Dude, we should consider putting a big banner on the SIAI site saying “our own president says we are better value for money than Palin!”

      • michael vassar

        I think that would be misleading without the context within which I explain why she’s such a good value for money.

    • Are you saying that you’d want to destroy the Republican party so the Democrats win every election and that might lead to more stable government? Or are you saying that Republican policies are like roving banditry? I am at once fascinated and confused by this comment.

      • Michael Kirkland

        It is possible to have parties other than Democrats and Republicans. Lots of other countries manage it just fine.

      • michael vassar

        I am saying republicans are like roving bandits but conservatives don’t have to be. Destroy the republicans and a new conservative party will emerge.

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  • It seems obvious that donating to partisan pursuits is crazily ineffecient no matter how correct you are unless you genuienly cannot find a trustworthy counterpart willing to forgo an equal donation to the other side in exchange for you forgoing such a donation.

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