I Study Political Science. You’re Welcome.

There is a simmering debate about the science of politics.  For example, here’s a recent uninformed and deliciously uninformative anger-fueled argument that political science does not “serve the public”—a notion that any good political scientist knows is the warm bed of those too lazy to consider the vacuity of the notion of “serving the public.”

That said, social science is, without a doubt, decidedly unimportant to the everyday, snapshot welfare of the average American.  Similarly, basic research in medicine, nuclear test monitoring, TSA screening at airports, and even your usual dental and automotive checkups have incredibly infinitesimal positive impacts—clearly outweighed by the direct cost of any one visit—on your life.  STOP BRUSHING YOUR TEETH.  IT WON’T MATTER….today, at least.

That said, you’re reading this—so you’re not average.  (lost? bored? –ed.)

The reality of the matter is that politics is about many things.  That said, the requisite consideration is whether politics, as a discipline, contains anything that is both not subsumed by another field and is also important.  The answer to that query is undoubtedly “yes.”  Specifically, the study of politics concerns the study of institutions.  And, to be clear and slightly pugnacious, I mean the study of real institutions. To further the pugnaciousness, I mean both the theory and empirics of real institutions.

In a nutshell, there are many regularities of decision-making that can not be understood without thinking in detail about the rules that people have to follow.  The world is replete with rules.  And, continuing the business of bringing/inviting the fight, I mean formal rules.

To understand why and where power resides where it resides in any system, the very first place to look is the rules.  For example, did you know that the Speaker of the House has the power to announce the result of a voice vote without appeal? Or that the Speaker of the House has the absolute power to expedite business through a somewhat arcane but incredibly potent and important route known as “suspension of the rules”?

(Edit: In recognition of the thoughtful (off-line) comments of my friend Brian Sala, I should clarify my ambiguous description of the Speaker of the House’s power with respect to suspension of the rules. This is a formal motion to pass a bill “as is” without amendment and with limited (40 minutes, equally divided) debate. It requires a two-thirds supermajority. It also is in order only on certain days, and at the pleasure of the Speaker. This is an absolute power (essentially of recognition) and allows the Speaker to deny attempts to circumvent normal order. Given that suspension is very commonly used, this gives the Speaker a subtle form of a carrot to reward members. The Speaker’s power, of course, is conditioned on the supermajority requirement. (That, of course, is not by accident.)  Sorry for any confusion!)

What about the intimate and not so intimate details of recess appointments?  When does the President have power?  When has Congress given this power to the President?  Why would they do so?  Should courts care?  Should voters care?

The easy (and accordingly unsatisfying) answer to these broad questions is, “well, it depends…”

Political science is uniquely responsible for telling you what it depends on, how it depends on it, and—if we’re lucky—how you might change things to make these dependencies work in your favor.

So, unless you think that neither Obamacare nor the Keystone XL project are important, the business of institutional details “matter.”  Then, moving to the redundancy worry—maybe political science is merely a secondary backwater of those who might be able to  teach but surely can’t “do”—the reality is that no other social science (not to mention any other discipline) is concerned with the details that matter and how they matter.

Sure, economics and law worry about related issues, but institutional political science is focused on the mechanics of how things work and how they could work.  Law worries a lot in very important ways about how things work, but the reality is that their focus is appropriately focused on the way things “are,” and (more subtly) focused on things that matter to clients (broadly construed).  Clients—be they litigants or lobbyists—are important.  But they are not the same as voters.  Indeed, theoretically motivated empirical studies in political science confirm that they are potentially very different.

To be quick about it, economics is concerned with broad and systematic models of social/economic/political interaction.  There are very many productive and meaningful overlaps between the two fields.  (Indeed, I have a PhD in economics.)  That said, the two fields are distinct for a reason.

(For example, and first and foremost to someone like me, the idea of a “representative voter” is equivalent to assuming away all of politics.  Those of you who know me know that I like to refer to the theorems of Arrow and Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem (too) frequently. Both show, for related but distinct reasons, that it is difficult if not impossible to sustain the presumption that one can utilize the notion of a “social will.”)

Economics is incredibly useful when it comes to “large numbers” analysis.  But to be honest and utilize the safety of my own blog, there is nothing particularly “economic” about the game theoretic analysis of general institutions.  In particular, mechanism design makes it clear that, in the abstract environment of institutional design, much should be possible—approximation or outright achievement of “first best” (unambiguously efficient) outcomes should be possible.

The difficulty of these results is that they neglect the practical and, appropriately, political realities that hinder (for example) credible commitments in the design of institutions.  For example, governance would be (theoretically) quite easy—and deliciously simultaneously democratic and authoritarian in good measure—if one could simply compensate the “chief executive” based on the measured realization of “social welfare” at regular time intervals during his or her tenure with some sort of fungible numeraire good.

Yes…this is exactly how ZERO countries (that I know of) are governed.  Hell, it’s not even how public corporations are governed.  The recent debate about responsibility, oversight, and transparency in (say) financial corporations is predicated precisely on the difficulty of (for example) measuring “social/shareholder welfare” in a meaningful and credible (i.e., relatively non-manipulable) fashion.

This is not to say that economists/lawyers/etc. do not worry about many of the same issues.  Unlike those who like to throw stones, I don’t need to attack others.  I have too many interesting and—again it’s my blog—important research questions to dive into to waste my time trying to avoid my own glass walls.

In that spirit, I leave you with no silly link this time.  Instead, I prefer to point out that, whenever someone says that rules (for example) are just a bunch of minutiae, you should respond, “you know, the definition of “minutiae” is endogenous.”  Or, combining an old adage and old saw among politicos, “minutiae is defined by those about to screw you.”