Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Young People and Attitudes About Government

February 16th, 2013 by Wayne Leighton

A New York Times article on young people and their attitudes towards government got plenty of play this week (on radio and TV, on the blogs, etc.) The headline tells the story well enough: “A Growing Trend: Young, Liberal, and Open to Big Government.”

But you already knew that. So, what’s (sort of) new here?

First, consider this quote regarding attitudes about what government should and should not do:

“Young people absolutely believe that there’s a role for government,” said Matt Singer, a founder of Forward Montana, a left-leaning though officially nonpartisan group that seeks to engage young people in politics. “At the same time, this is not a generation of socialists. They are highly entrepreneurial, and know that some of what it takes to create an environment where they can do their own exciting, creative things is having basic systems that work.”

In other words, despite seeing a big role for government in providing education, healthcare, and various other services, many young people also are entrepreneurial or aspire to be. The number of young people who want to spend a career working for the government is not on the rise. Instead, it is cool to start a business or work for a start-up.

Then there’s this point about how ideas about government evolve:

Studies show that voters are heavily influenced by the president with whom they came of age; the Franklin D. Roosevelt generation, for instance, stayed Democratic for decades, while many in the Reagan generation remained Republican.

But views can evolve; baby boomers, who supported big government in their 20s and 30s, have become more conservative over time, the Pew center has found. While today’s young voters are more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans or independents, their ideas and philosophies are not quite fixed yet, said John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

Yes, views can evolve. What people think about the proper role of government can change. It’s a point that Ed and I stress in Madmen, on this blog, and pretty much every time we give a speech about politics and reform.

How those views evolve has a lot to do with the actions of what we call “Intellectuals” — those who select and transform and sell to the rest of us what they think are the most important ideas for society. They are reporters and news editors and talk show hosts. They are novelists and movie directors. They are preachers and teachers. And they are influential.

If we want to understand how the views of young people — or voters in general — are evolving, we need to understand how the views of these “Intellectuals” are changing.

 

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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