Sites for Exploring Government Through Data

I’m going to begin a post dedicated to curating sites that are aimed at facilitating learning about government through data and/or data-driven simulations.  I will update this as I find more sites. I’m aiming here at quality more than quantity. For starters, I know of only three:


How a Bill Becomes a Law Today (and Why Most Bills Never Do), Ezra Klein’s  “explanatory journalism” venture, is off to a great start. So far, my favorite “articles” have been one called “40 Charts that Explain Money in Politics” and another entitled “Beating the Odds: Why One Bill Made it Through a Gridlocked Congress — and So Many Don’t.” Both are packed full of useful insights into the present state of our political system and policy making process. I highly recommend following the links to these articles and, for that matter, perusing the wealth of insightful content provided at But here I provide an example of the kinds of content they are providing. This is a video they describe as “an updated Schoolhouse Rock lesson for our polarized, dysfunctional Congress.”

State-Law-Abiding Citizens Facing 10 Years in Prison for Violating Federal Marijuana Law

Nicole Flatow reports:

More than six months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice once again changed its position on marijuana. In the wake of Washington and Colorado laws legalizing recreational marijuana and the proliferation of medical laws, the agency that oversees federal prosecutors called on its U.S. attorneys to avert prosecution of those growers and distributors complying with state law.

U.S. Attorney General Holder also decried the impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences, and directed his prosecutors to avert them in non-violent drug cases — even cases already pending. But in a case set to go to trial next week, federal prosecutors in Washington will seek a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence against a family of individuals with medical marijuana cards who say they were growing marijuana for their own use… (read the rest at ThinkProgress)

Boston’s Remarkable Experiment with Youth Engagement through Participatory Budgeting

Peter Levine reports:

On Friday, I had the opportunity to observe about 50 Boston young people at work on the city’s youth Participatory Budgeting initiative. I will write the whole story for GOOD Magazine, so this is just a teaser. In essence, volunteer young people (ages 12-25) have brainstormed more than 400 projects that the city could support out of its capital budget. I watched committees of youth come together to study, refine, and screen these proposals. In June, as many youth as possible will be recruited to vote for their favorite proposals at meetings across the city. The city will then allocate $1 million of its capital budget to fund the top-scoring projects.

This is an example of Participatory Budgeting, a process that began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since spread to 1,500 locations in many countries, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project. It bears some resemblance to other processes, including the New England town meetings that began in the 1600s and still survive in some towns in our region, not to mention the 265,000 village councils of India and other participatory government mechanisms around the world. It is nevertheless an innovation. . . . (Keep Reading)

Great Resource on the U.S. Federal Budget

The National Priorities Project, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary and was nominated for the 2014 Noble Peace Prize, has earned distinction for being “the people’s guide to the federal budget.” The Project’s website is packed full of useful information and resources, but its Federal Budget 101 is the most concise yet informative guide to budget basics I have seen.

When / Why do People Choose to Contribute to Public Goods?

Are people mostly self-interested egoists who are unlikely to help achieve common goals unless somehow forced or induced to do so by government or other powerful agencies?  Although a lot of people (and the assumptions of traditional economics) suggest the answer is yes, there is reason to doubt this is so. Or, to be more precise, there is good reason to doubt it is true of all or even most people. For example, why does anyone voluntarily vote when there is essentially zero chance that doing so will promote the individual voter’s narrow self-interest? And why do people voluntarily recycle or work with others to help out a neighbor in need? At least some people seem to be motivated by a sense of social obligation or some motive(s) other than narrow egoistic self-interest.

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Does it Matter that Congress is a Millionaire’s Club? Does it Have to Be that Way?

Political scientist Nicolas Carnes answers “yes” and “no”. I highly recommend reading both posts, but here’s a taste:

[L]awmakers from different classes bring different perspectives with them: how they think, how they vote, and the kinds of bills they introduce often depend on the classes they came from. The shortage of lawmakers from the working class tilts decisions about the distribution of economic resources, protections, and burdens in favor of the more conservative policies that affluent Americans tend to prefer. Social safety net programs are stingier, business regulations are flimsier, and the tax code is more regressive because working-class Americans are all but absent from our political institutions. . . .

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Is this an Economic Reform Agenda Conservatives and Liberals can Endorse (and Millennials Should Fight for)?

Recently, Jesse A. Myerson has defended five economic reforms that he thinks fellow members of his Millennial Generation should “start fighting for, pronto, if we want to grow old in a just, fair society, rather than the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.” Myerson’s proposal is ambitious, including “Guaranteed Work for Everybody” and “Social Security for All [aka universal basic income]”. As one might expect, conservatives and libertarians have been highly critical. One fellow Millennial accused Myerson of trying to convince their generation to have “their livelihoods funded and assigned by the state,” thus completely ignoring the lesson they all were taught by “Lois Lowry’s The Giver in middle school.”

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What Makes for Effective Regulatory Agencies?

Back in 2010, when Congress was contemplating creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA), Political Scientist Steven Teles wrote an interesting review of Daniel Carpenter’s 856 page history of the Food and Drug Administration, from which Teles drew three “important lessons” for those who favor effective regulation of the financial industry:

First and foremost, while Americans’ skepticism of government is strong, it is not insurmountable. Many Americans think of “bureaucrats” as either ineffectual or self-interested power grabbers, but few feel that way about employees of the FBI, the military, the Social Security Administration, or the National Institutes of Health. And because Americans view these agencies in a positive light, they and their representatives in Congress have been willing to grant them broad power and authority, and in some cases to allow them to exercise power that they have not been explicitly granted—proof that Americans do not oppose handing power to government when they believe it is in trustworthy hands. Just as important, as a result of their reputation these agencies have been able to attract talent that other agencies cannot. . . .

Second, in building an agency with the kind of power that the FDA had at its height, personnel matters. An agency with the ability to control, at least to some degree, its political destiny and strike fear into the hearts of those it regulates requires not only high-quality people, but also people possessed of a particular regulatory spirit. . . .

Finally, developing a powerful organizational image would depend in part on a leadership cadre capable of exploiting the damaged reputation of the financial industry, and taking advantage of new leverage points as they present themselves. The background of the financial crisis obviously should give the CFPA a running start on this. But, as the FDA’s more recent experience shows, the enemies of any regulatory agency with teeth will always be on the lookout for opportunities to strike at its organizational image. Even if the CFPA is able to reshape the financial industry as the FDA once did with Big Pharma, nothing lasts forever. Organizational image, Carpenter suggests, is power—but power based on something as subjective as reputation is also, perhaps inevitably, ephemeral.

The public choice school of political economy has long argued that “regulatory capture”–i.e. the taking over of regulatory agencies by the groups they are supposed to regulate–is nearly inevitable and, thus, effective regulation in the public interest should not be expected. Teles’ and Carpenter’s analysis of the FDA’s experience suggests that this is not necessarily the case. On a related note, Carpenter and David E. Moss have recently published a co-edited volume on the topic of preventing regulatory capture. From the abstract:

When regulations (or lack thereof) seem to detract from the common good, critics often point to regulatory capture as a culprit. In some academic and policy circles it seems to have assumed the status of an immutable law. Yet for all the ink spilled describing and decrying capture, the concept remains difficult to nail down in practice. Is capture truly as powerful and unpreventable as the informed consensus seems to suggest? This edited volume brings together seventeen scholars from across the social sciences to address this question. Their work shows that capture is often misdiagnosed and may in fact be preventable and manageable. Focusing on the goal of prevention, the volume advances a more rigorous and empirical standard for diagnosing and measuring capture, paving the way for new lines of academic inquiry and more precise and nuanced reform.


Do Minimum Wage Increases Kill Jobs?

One of the most famous lessons taught in introductory (micro) economics courses is that, according to economic theory, minimum wage increases have the unintended consequence of  increasing unemployment. Consequently, it is often argued that minimum wage increases actually end up hurting those (i.e. the working poor) whom such policies are supposed to help. As Congress considers increasing the federal minimum wage to $8.20 and certain major cities entertain mandating “living wages” as high as $15, it is worth considering the empirical, as opposed to merely theoretical, economic research on the affects of  minimum wage increases on employment.

Back in February, John Schmitt, Senior Economist at The Center for Economic and Policy Research, reported the following results of his meta-analysis (i.e. systematic analysis of published research findings) of research on this topic published since the year 2000:

… The weight of that evidence points to little or no employment response to modest increases in the minimum wage.

The report reviews evidence on eleven possible adjustments to minimum wage increases that may help to explain why the measured employment effects are so consistently small. The strongest evidence suggests that the most important channels of adjustment are: reductions in labor turnover; improvements in organizational efficiency; reductions in wages of higher earners (“wage compression”); and small price increases.

Given the relatively small cost to employers of modest increases in the minimum wage, these adjustment mechanisms appear to be more than sufficient to avoid employment losses, even for employers with a large share of low wage workers.

It would seem, then, that as with the Whack-a-Mole Theory of Consumer Credit Regulation, the predictions of this economic theory are currently not supported by empirical evidence. (See also here and here.)

Notice, however, that this research is about “modest increases in the minimum wage.” Thus, this evidence (on its own) does not speak to the question of whether a large increase, like that being considered in Seattle, will lead to an increase in unemployment.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that no empirical finding, no matter how solidly established, is sufficient in itself for settling policy questions. There is no escaping the need to make core value judgments on issues of public policy. For example, libertarians would object to a minimum wage increase out of principle (regardless of its consequences). That is, they would see such a regulation as an illegitimate government intrusion into the freedom of employers and employees to negotiate the terms of employment. On the other hand, progressives sometimes conclude that the benefits created for the employed by a higher minimum wage would outweigh the reduction in overall employment (if this were in fact the consequence of minimum wage increases). Still, the debate over these value questions should be kept separate from the empirical question about the actual effects of minimum wage increases. And the evidence presently suggests we do not face a significant tradeoff between (modestly) higher minimum wages and employment.

Does it Matter that so Few Congress Members are Veterans?

Graph by Kevin Jefferies

Over at Monkey Cage, Erik Voeten offers an interesting discussion on the decline in the proportion of Congress members who are veterans and what, according to political science research, this might mean for Congressional foreign policy making:

Frank Lautenberg, who passed away this summer, was the last of 115 World War II veterans who served in the U.S. Senate. To the best of my knowledge, there will be only 12 U.S. senators who have experienced active military service in the 114th Congress. Only one in five members of the current House of Representatives were active-duty military. By contrast, during most of the Cold War, 70 percent of the U.S. Congress were veterans, with the peak coming in 1977 (80 percent).

Does this matter for policy making? There is some research suggesting that it does, most notably the work by Peter Feaver and Chris Gelpi. Feaver and Gelpi establish the following regularities (see especially this book and this chapter-length update):

— On issues that concern the use of force and the acceptance of casualties, the opinions of veterans track more closely with those of active military officers than with civilians.

— The U.S. initiates fewer military disputes when there are more veterans in the U.S. political elite (the cabinet and the Congress).

— The U.S. uses more force in the disputes it initiates when there are more veterans in the U.S. political elite.

— Veterans are less likely to accept U.S. casualties for interventionist uses of force than for “realpolitik” uses of force. [keep reading]

[Graph by Kevin Jefferies]

Two Views on Why to Cut Defense Spending

Robert Golan-Vilella, of the National Interest, responds to Melvyn Leffler’s argument in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs that cutting defense spending will actually improve security because “when the government is operating under constrained resources, it is forced to make more difficult choices and prioritize more effectively …”

[I]f one wants to make the case for cutting defense spending now, the best arguments for doing so are those that stem from long-range thinking rather than asserting that the cuts themselves will spur better planning. Such an argument might run like this: The United States is a very secure country. It dominates its own hemisphere. It spends more on its military than the next ten countries combined—and many of those countries are its allies. America has adversaries, but its rival great powers are far less dangerous than those of the past. Thus, there is room to cut the U.S. defense budget to right-size it to the threats it actually faces, while still enabling it to maintain preponderant military strength. The money saved could then be used to accomplish any number of other national priorities.

Whether or not you find this line of thinking persuasive, the point is that it starts with an assessment of what the world and the international threat environment actually look like. . . . [Continue reading]


Chicago Economist Uses Empirical Social Science to Discover the “Law of Unintended Consequences” is Not a Law After All

The New York Times reports:

When Neale Mahoney, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, set out to evaluate the effect of [the 2009 Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act], he was confident he knew what he and his colleagues would find: It didn’t work.

“I went into the project with this sort of conventional wisdom that well-intentioned regulators would force down fees and that other fees and charges would increase in response,” he told me this week, comparing hapless rule makers to the carnival visitors playing the game known as Whac-a-Mole, where a mole springs up somewhere else as soon as one is knocked down.

But his expectation was wrong. The study came to a conclusion that surprised Mr. Mahoney and his colleagues: The regulation worked. It cut down the costs of credit cards, particularly for borrowers with poor credit. And, the researchers concluded, “we find no evidence of an increase in interest charges or a reduction to access to credit.”

… “Looking at the data forced us to rethink our understanding of the effects of regulating consumer financial products,” Mr. Mahoney told me. “The data changed our view of the world. That is what’s so exciting about being an empirical economist.” [Keep reading]

This is not only “exciting.” It also demonstrates the social importance of empirical social science. It is all too common, sometimes based on mathematically or logically sound (but empirically untested) models, sometimes based on dogmatic acceptance of “laws,” to either overestimate or underestimate what can actually be achieved by politics or public policy. The first principle of empirical social science is that beliefs need to be tested against reality. In this case, it turns-out, contrary to common belief, regulation in the public interest was possible. There are, of course, plenty of cases where empiricism will lead to the opposite conclusion, and that this will challenge or refute widely held optimistic beliefs. Since erring on either side–overestimating or underestimating what can be accomplished–is costly, it is of supreme importance that beliefs be constantly tested against reality.

A Sobering Thought about NSA Spying

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution offers an alarming answer to a provocative question:

Did Obama spy on Mitt Romney? As recently as a few weeks ago if anyone had asked me that question I would have consigned them to a right (or left) wing loony bin. Today, the only loonies are those who think the question unreasonable. . . . Do I think Obama ordered the NSA to spy on Romney for political gain? No. Some people claim that President Obama didn’t even know about the full extent of NSA spying. Indeed, I imagine that President Obama was almost as surprised as the rest of us when he first discovered that we live in a mass surveillance state in which billions of emails, phone calls, facebook metadata and other data are being collected.

The answer is yes, however, if we mean did the NSA spy on political candidates like Mitt Romney. Did Mitt Romney ever speak with Angela Merkel, whose phone the NSA bugged, or any one of the dozens of her advisers that the NSA was also bugging? Did Romney exchange emails with Mexican President Felipe Calderon? Were any of Romney’s emails, photos, texts or other metadata hovered up by the NSA’s break-in to the Google and Yahoo communications links? Almost certainly the answer is yes.

Did the NSA use the information they gathered on Mitt Romney and other political candidates for political purposes? Probably not. Will the next president or the one after that be so virtuous so as to not use this kind of power? I have grave doubts. Men are not angels. [Keep reading]


U.S. Spending on Public Education is More Regressive than in Most Wealthy Countries

Eduardo Porter of the New York Times reports:

The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students, according to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among the 34 O.E.C.D. nations, only in the United States, Israel and Turkey do disadvantaged schools have lower teacher/student ratios than in those serving more privileged students. [Read the rest here]


Michigan Economist Offers Concise Overview of the Nature of the Health Care “Market”

Miles Kimball writes

Now might be a good time to remind the world just how far the country’s health care sector—with or without Obamacare—is from being the kind of classical free market Adam Smith was describing when he talked about the beneficent “invisible hand”  of the free market. There are at least five big departures of our health care system from a classical free market: . . .

Continue reading (highly recommended)

Projected Effects of SNAP Funding Reductions

Dottie Rosenbaum of the (liberal / progressive) Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) summarizes a new CBPP report:

The 2009 Recovery Act’s temporary boost in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits ends on November 1, which will mean a benefit cut for each of the nearly 48 million SNAP recipients — most of whom live in households with children, seniors, or people with disabilities.

A household of three, such as a mother with two children, will lose $29 a month — a total of $319 for November 2013 through September 2014, the remaining 11 months of fiscal year 2014 (see chart). That equals about 16 meals a month for a family of three based on the cost of U.S. Agriculture Department’s “Thrifty Food Plan.” [More here]


In Monday’s AJC, Benita Dodd of the (conservative) Georgia Public Policy Foundation wrote an oped supporting the cuts. While citing similar estimated effects of the cuts, she argues it is a step in the right direction:

… This restoration of benefits to their original status should not deteriorate into a political blame game. Both sides of the aisle have acknowledged the need to cut government spending: In June, the Democrat-led Senate approved legislation that included $4.5 billion in SNAP cuts. The Republican-led House last month approved a bill that would cut funding for SNAP by $40 billion over 10 years.

The good intentions of program supporters do not cancel out the need for individuals to escape poverty through jobs and economic opportunity. Unless and until Congress cuts back on spending and reaching into hardworking taxpayers’ pockets to fund dependency, the opportunity for economic growth that creates jobs in the private sector will not occur. Until and unless Congress acts to relieve the overbearing regulatory burdens, mandates and costs that are being imposed on businesses in this country, the kinds of jobs that can advance Americans out of poverty will not be created.

Washington needs to end the bickering over how many fish to feed the five thousand and step back so that the five thousand learn how to feed themselves the traditional American way – through a work ethic. [Read the whole thing here]

Should we use Geoengineering to Cool the Planet?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to slow the pace of global warming. Humans could stop adding carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere. Or scientists could try to artificially cool the planet — say, by spraying reflective particles in the stratosphere to block (a small bit of) sunlight.

The first option is typically the only one that comes up in policy discussions. But climate scientist David Keith has long argued that we should start thinking seriously about both strategies. His new book, “A Case for Climate Engineering,” makes the argument at length.

It’s a highly controversial view. After all, solar geoengineering is fraught with risks. Things could go badly awry. And Keith is upfront about those dangers; indeed, he has called for an international moratorium on deployment until we understand the technology better. But geoengineering may be the best way to limit some of the damage from the carbon-dioxide we’ve already put in the atmosphere. At the very least, he says, scientists need to start researching the idea more thoroughly.

Keith, who left the University of Calgary in 2011 for a position at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Sciences, talked with me this week about his new book. . . .

The rest is available at WA Post’s Wonkblog.