Archive for the ‘political science’ Category
This guest post is by Raj Ghoshal, an assistant professor of sociology at Goucher College. Previously we discussed presidents and collective memory in these two posts: Warren G. Harding is awesome & popular presidents kill people.
Presidents’ Day had me thinking about presidential rankings and collective memory. We commonly learn that a certain set of our presidents were great, while others were not – and for presidencies we (or our parents) didn’t personally live through, history textbooks and teachers are often the messengers. But how do presidential historians determine greatness? Are there sociological patterns worth noticing?
I looked at Wikipedia’s aggregation of U.S. presidential rankings by historians. A few patterns jumped out:
- Era matters greatly. Presidents who held office during broad periods of prosperity or national success are more likely to be considered great. Of course, presidents influence a country’s well-being, but the size of the era effects suggests historians are like the rest of us: they give individual presidents more credit or blame than they deserve. The first seven presidents, associated with the country’s birth and rise, are all ranked positively—this should be only 0.8% probable, if ratings are independent of era effects. The twelfth through twenty-first are all rated negatively, with the striking exception of Lincoln. (Perhaps Lincoln was genuinely greater, perhaps others could have been equally successful in leading through the Civil War, and/or perhaps his star dims the lights for those who came around him.) Presidents leading up to the Great Depression are rated poorly (#s 29-31), those in the era coming out of the Depression are rated positively (#s 32 to 36), and the mixed economic and social trends of the last five decades have yielded mainly average presidential ratings. Across these periods, the clustering is clear enough that individual differences between presidents are unlikely to be the sole cause.
- Presidential historians’ collective memory is stable, as the surveys show great consensus over time (this doesn’t mean that individual historians agree, since each data point is a survey). The only two cases out of all 43 where there’s even moderate evidence of changes in historians’ opinions after a president leaving office are Reagan and perhaps Nixon, and those changes are small, even though their supposed rehabilitations were widely discussed in the press (G.W. Bush’s standing among historians fell, but the drop came while he was still in office). While memory projects or changing norms can alter historical figures’ standing, this doesn’t seem to be very common with American presidents. More broadly, studying change is often interesting and revealing, but we should remember that change is usually the exception rather than the rule.
- For the five presidents where there’s data, future ratings closely follow the ratings a president had while in office. These five cases also suggest that historians tend to evaluate currently-in-office presidents fairly positively, at least at first. It’s impossible to disentangle this from era effects without more data, though.
- I didn’t look at how closely historians’ opinion follows public opinion, economic news, wars, or success in getting one’s agenda enacted, but those all probably matter too.
Feel free to use the comments.
Andrea Campbell has an article in Vox about the often perverse consequences of means testing in social policy. If you really need help, then means testing creates an incentive to completely spend all your assets so you can qualify. She uses the tragic case of her sister-in-law who was left paralyzed after an auto accident and now requires round the clock medical care:
Brian continued: Marcella qualified for Medi-Cal because she is disabled, but because Medi-Cal is for poor people, Dave and Marcella have to be poor to receive it-they have to “meet” the program’s “income test.” Counterintuitively, meeting the income test doesn’t mean having enough income (as in doing well on a test), but rather having low-enough income. The income test is actually an income limit.
Moreover, because Dave is employed, he and Marcella would be in a particular version of the program called “Share of Cost” Medi-Cal. It works this way: as a family of three with one disabled member, they are allowed to keep $2,100 of Dave’s $3,250 monthly earnings to live on. The rest of Dave’s earnings, $1,150, would go to Medi-Cal as the family’s share of cost. That is, any month in which Marcella incurred medical expenses, she and Dave must pay the first $1,150. To our surprise, if Dave earned more money, the extra amount would also go to Medi-Cal: the cost sharing is a 100 percent tax on Dave’s earnings. I figured out later that the $2,100 my brother and sister-in-law are to live on puts them at 133 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three. Essentially, the way they meet the income test is for Medi-Cal to skim off Dave’s income until they are in fact poor. Brian noted that they are “lucky” that they are allowed to retain that much income; if Marcella weren’t disabled, the amount they’d be allowed to retain would be even lower than $2,100. And this is how things will be indefinitely. In order to get poor people’s health insurance, Dave and Marcella must stay poor, forever.
To make issues worse, California has an arcane system of means tested programs that make it hard to even understand what you might, or might not, be qualified for:
So much for helping my brother and sister-in-law navigate the system. Medi-Cal is a collection of more than 100 programs, each with its own income methodology and rules. A person familiar with Medi-Cal likened the program to the Winchester Mystery House, the San Jose mansion constructed continually over four decades by the odd widow of the Winchester rifle fortune: there is no master plan. “All the ‘rooms’ added on over the years makes it very difficult to see which rules apply to which groups and to follow them all the way through,” this observer told me. And even if Dave and Marcella could retain a bit more income to live on, they are still subject to the asset limit and all of Medi-Cal’s other strictures. They are still trapped in an eccentric’s mansion, where the stairways lead to ceilings and the doors open onto walls.
Campbell nails it on the head when she notes that social policy is a bizarre contraption of programs. Lesson: Make social policy simple and with wide coverage. Otherwise, don’t bother.
Today, the US government will close its combat command in Afghanistan. One of the most difficult arguments to have about foreign policy is when to end an intervention, such as terminating our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. By the time that happens, many lives have been lost and much has been spent. It is often the case that political groups may seize power and might be anti-American in their orientation. Understandably, people might ask, “Is it all for nothing? Did our soldiers die so that a democratic government would fail and be replaced by tyrants?”
People should ask a different question, “What guarantee do we have that more lives and money will make things better?” We should also ask, “Is there a significant chance that our actions could make things worse?” The answer to these questions is “in most cases, things will not get better with more intervention and they might get better if we stand back.”
The reason is that countries drawing the attention of democratic nations tend to be very broken on some level. In Iraq, the nation was saddled by Baathist tyranny and sectarian violence. In Afghanistan, the problem was a weak state created by decades of Soviet and American interventions, tribalism, and the drug trade. When a third party intervenes in such nations, it is, by definition, an outsider. External threats tend to make people rally around the leader, however vile that person may be.
Instead, we should let nations be free of threat from American forces. That doesn’t mean that the nation will magically heal itself, but, at the very least, it deprives tyrants and charlatans of one source of their power. They no longer have us to point to, or, when we give them arms, they no longer use our guns to undermine our goals. And sometimes it works. Our departure will sometimes allow a political evolution to occur that might be impossible with troops on the ground. Vietnam is still ruled by a communist party, but it has opened up in significant ways and is more integrated into the global economy than we might have suspected in 1975. Ask yourself, what would Vietnam look like today if we had taken John McCain’s advice and stayed 100 years until the job was done?