Posted by on October 5, 2016

The Republicans Aren’t the Only Broken Party

A major meme of this election cycle is that the rise of Donald Trump proves that the Republican Party is broken.  I am not totally convinced of this and, even if it is true, then the Republicans certainly have some company.

There is plenty of evidence that Trump is a singular phenomenon that has little to do with the mainstream of the Republican Party.  First, there is the fact that he appears to have no “coattails,” a point made by an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.  Recent Republican primaries in Florida and Arizona, where Senators Rubio and McCain faced well-funded Trumpkin challengers, resulted in thumping victories for the conventional Republicans.

There is also the poll results showing that the majority of Trump’s supporters are simply anti-Clinton.  The WSJ reported the results of a recent Quinnipiac poll that found that 64% of Trump supporters are voting against Clinton, versus only 25% voting for Trump.  Fox News’ recent poll shows that 60% of the likely Trump voters are motivated by fear of his opponent, only slightly higher than the percentage of Clinton voters who profess the same motivation.

There is the fact, on which I have commented before (see Ultimate Electoral Irony here), that Trump is benefitting from a large amount of “crossover” voting from traditionally Democratic supporters, including large numbers of older, working class, less-educated, white voters.  Although the liberal media will never admit this, when Trump blew the nativist dog whistle, a bunch of Democratic voters came running.  This is not a sign that the Republican Party is broken.

Finally, there must also be a significant number of Trump supporters who are simply disgusted with politics and the government, and who want to drop an orange-toned bomb on Washington.  Certainly, this is the prevalent attitude among the libertarian supporters of Trump – admittedly, a biased sample.  As I have said before, the existence of this sentiment probably goes a long way to explaining Trump’s ability to survive episodes that are, by conventional standards, enormous gaffes; for this crowd, the worse he gets, the more they like him.  But this contingent is also not any proof that the Republicans are uniquely broken.

There is nothing here that is inconsistent with the theory, which I have long argued, that the die-hard Trump supporters are merely a very vocal minority, akin to the percentage of Americans who believe that the moon landings were faked.  This minority can make an impressive display at a Trump rally, turning out en masse to cheer their celebrity candidate and to mouth ignorant and ungrammatical comments to the delight of the liberal media.  But the bulk of Trump’s support sits at home, contemplating the horror of Clinton appointing activist Supreme Court judges to advance her mindless PC agenda or ineptly micro-managing every aspect of the economy and our lives, and shamefacedly answers “yes” when the pollsters ask if they are going to vote for Trump.

Unfortunately, as I have pointed out before, we have a primary system that greatly magnifies the impact of a highly motivated minority.  As the New York Times has recently noted, Trump and Clinton were chosen by a grand total of 9% of the eligible electorate.  Yet, no one in the mainstream media questions whether the system of primary elections is counterproductive.  As is too often the case, the statement “it is more democratic” is taken as a debate-ending argument, as if democracy were an end in itself and not a means.

This brings us to the other side of the aisle.  We don’t hear much about the Democratic Party being broken, but the evidence here is at least as strong as for the Republicans.  With the Democrats, we could have our gerontocracy[1] in whichever flavor we preferred, so long as it was either a pathologically lying and hypocritical Washington fixer promising – as if this were a good thing – eight years of a more bellicose version of the Obama administration or an advocate of an economic doctrine that has laid waste to every country it has touched, even under circumstances far more favorable than those in the USA (see Bernie Sanders here and Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism here).

After a close call, and in no small part thanks to a decidedly undemocratic system of “superdelegates,” the Democratic Party has given the electorate the second most hated nominee in history.  And yet this party is held out by the liberal media as a paragon of political competence and rectitude.

Sorry, but the meme that the Republicans are broken and everything is hunky-dory with the Democrats is just plain wrong.  The strongest case that can be made is that they are both broken.

“Free” College

I have made no secret of my contempt for the idea of tuition-free college.  I have recently come across two further arguments for why this is a very bad idea.

There is a lively debate among academics about whether the high monetary returns to college degrees are a sign of human capital improvement or merely successful “signalling.”  The capital improvement argument is that students actually learn valuable lessons in college, which is why they earn more.  The signalling argument is that successfully completing college is merely a way for potential employees to show that they have the right stuff, by undertaking an expensive and time-consuming educational exercise[2].

I won’t go into the debate much, but for those who are interested, here is an excellent podcast on the subject with libertarian economist Tyler Cowen and his Marginal Revolution stablemate, Alex Tabbarok.  I think that Cowen gets the better of the argument, particularly with his points about places like South Korea and the persistence of educational benefits, but it is far from a lopsided victory.  The reality is that there is a fair amount of both going on.

But Tabbarok makes at least one extremely good point, which is that by channelling so many people into traditional four-year colleges, we may have created an educational “arms race” whereby individuals are induced, by a kind of “prisoner’s dilemma,”[3] to make decisions that are not in their or society’s interests.

The point is well made in a recent article from the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank, entitled “”’Free’ College Mainly Means a Faster Hamster Wheel.”  Here is a quote that gives the argument:

Calls for making college cheaper are typically accompanied by the proclamation that higher education is crucial to a financially secure future. And it is, but that’s largely because we have to run faster and faster just to keep from falling off the credential hamster wheel. Instead of a degree signifying that the holder has obtained highly sought after skills or creative thinking abilities, decades of heavily subsidized college have translated into ‘not having a degree’ suggesting you are seriously flawed. A degree is crucial not, to a significant extent, because the workforce requires more sophistication, but because a college credential has become so commonplace.

The article then goes on to buttress the argument by pointing out how college degrees are becoming increasingly hollow – a point recently acknowledged by no less a personage than Harvard’s former President, Derek Bok – with less time spent studying, less being learned and more college graduates taking jobs that don’t require a degree.

Regardless of where you come out on the human capital versus signalling argument, I don’t think that there is any denying that the law of diminishing marginal returns is firmly at work in college education.  As we expand the college population, we are getting more and more people whose only interest is in the simulacrum of an education, and even this only because they think that others expect it.  Clinton would make this trend even worse.

There is another novel argument against Clinton’s plan that I have recently heard.  This is that we are on the verge of major changes in the way we educate people, changes that would be delayed or killed by a new massive subsidy of the traditional four-year, brick-and-mortar system.

As I have pointed out before, our education system – starting with K12 education, but continuing into college – is often doing a terrible job of preparing people for the work environment.  This can be readily seen by the co-existence of skill shortages and large numbers of un- or under-employed people.  There is just starting to emerge alternative educational models, many of them technology driven, to address this imbalance.  This includes things like “coding boot camps” and online university courses.  Or the recent efforts, chronicled in the WSJ, of companies and community colleges to import the highly successful German apprenticeship model into America.  Or the type of programs discussed in a recent piece from Goldman Sachs’ in-house think tank entitled “Narrowing the jobs gap: overcoming impediments to investing in people.”

If Clinton gets her way with a “free” alternative, much of the incentive to innovate would disappear and we would be left with the antiquated status quo.  As is so often the case, so-called “progressives” like Clinton are driving the car while staring in the rear-view mirror.

Trump’s Taxes

There has been a huge fuss about Trump’s $916 million tax-loss carryforward.  This has been mostly a case of the blind leading the deaf since nearly all commentators don’t have the knowledge to discuss this intelligently.  But that has never stopped the chattering classes.

Leave it to John Cochrane, the libertarian economist from Stanford, to zero in on the only truly relevant points in a recent blog posting.  Among other things, he points out how a consumption tax, of the type advocated by a great many economists and uniquely by Gary Johnson among the presidential candidates, could avoid these issues and actually deliver some useful progressivity in these circumstances, despite the usual leftist dig that consumption taxes are regressive.

As Cochrane points out, progressive tax rates mean little when a tax code with more than 80,000 pages and cadres of high-paid tax advisors allow the wealthy to manipulate the income to which they are applied.  But a tax on consumption is much harder to avoid, particularly if you want to lead the ostentatious lifestyle of a Trump.  In the real world, a place rarely visited by leftists, a consumption tax may actually be more progressive.

Body Cameras

I have long been drawn to a policy of requiring police to use body cameras and for the results of these to be made readily available to the public.  A recent study by Cambridge University is pushing me further in this direction.

The university persuaded seven different police departments in the US and UK to require body cameras to be worn by 2,000 officers, chosen randomly, during their shifts.  The study lasted a year.  The school then compared the number of public complaints against the police during the period of the study versus the number for the prior year.  They dropped by an astonishing 93%.

The school found that the cameras deter both excessive police aggression and frivolous complaints, improving behavior on both sides of the Thin Blue Line.   Interestingly, the researchers also found that complaints dropped even against cops who weren’t wearing the body cameras, a phenomenon they named “contagious accountability.”  This, they claimed, was due to better behavior becoming embedded across the police forces as they started using the cameras.

I have long thought that body cameras are in the interests of both the cops and the public.  If anyone knows of any good arguments against this, I would very much like to hear them.

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom


[1] In this case, the gerontocracy is both by and for the old, as I have pointed out earlier.

[2] In game theory, a signal must be expensive in order to be credible.  This is the long-winded, academic way of saying “talk is cheap.”  Especially in Casablanca.

[3] This is a classic game theory concept about how incomplete information can produce bad equilibria.  Here is Wikipedia’s explanation.

Posted in: Economics, Politics


  1. Tomas Jokl
    October 5, 2016

    Leave a Reply

    Hi Roger, fully agree on the part re: free education. It will surely kill the new ways of education being developed right now. I myself study on-line course at Cambridge currently and can confirm, that it is great. Tomas

    • Roger
      October 5, 2016

      Leave a Reply

      Great comment, Tomas. Thanks. When you come to the UK for your diploma, be sure to let me know! (Or even before that.)

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