The Political Economy of Fools – An Economist Writes Every Day


The Ohio State House of Representatives passed a absolutely crazy law allow adults the ability to challenge the gender of children participating in youth sports. This thread contains the details, read at your own emotional risk:

Now, let’s keep a few things in mind. First, it has not yet been adopted by the Senate, which will not make a decision until November. Second, there is no guarantee that the Governor would sign it if it were passed by the Senate. Third, the likelihood of such a law holding up in court seems slim, although I’m certainly no legal expert. Fourth, it seems to me extremely unlikely that the Republican Party has any interest in mandating violation of the Children’s Act being something it will have to defend in future elections.

So what the hell just happened? Why have the houses of state representatives become places where the fringe of the mad can not only gain an institutional footing, but also pass legislation?

Let me answer my own question with a different question.

Can you name your State House representative? Do you appoint a representative from your State House? Can you name anyone who was a representative in your state house and did not subsequently achieve fame in national politics?

I can not either.

The simple fact seems to be that voters don’t pay much attention to state officials. Voter turnout depends on the election draw for national offices, and subsequent voter decisions rely heavily on party branding. But that doesn’t mean candidates don’t have options. There are of course brands within parties (Progressive Democrats, Trumpist Republicans, etc.), which are particularly important in the primaries. There are campaign platform choices that may also resonate with informed voters. The notion that informed voters can swing an election depends on the Miracle of aggregation and the law of large numbers. Simply put, if voter errors are random, then completely ignorant voters should cancel, leaving the outcome to be determined by the minority of informed voters.

What happens with an infinite number of informed people, however? Candidates could inform them, but this is a state House election. Candidates have no campaign money to inform them. What they need is free campaign advertising. What they need is attention.

You know what attracts attention? Mad. The fool attracts attention.

Propose and pass legislation allowing foreigners to require children to be physically inspected to determine their gender will attract attention. That the “legitimacy” of a child’s physical appearance is publicly questioned, in front of peers and a crowd of peers. The shock, the tears, the whispering of the waters for the angst parents and the craziest theories, which have people writing articles and tweets. Articles and tweets that may include a candidate’s name. And if people know the name of a candidate, they could tick his box at election time.

Social media makes it seem like everyone is paying attention to everything, but I suspect it’s the exact opposite. We are no longer bored, which means the price of getting our attention is higher than ever. For narrow campaigns, the only way to get past the top is to offer something so compelling that voters will be forced to think about it for a moment. Which is not to say that all this madness is pure pantomime. Of course, there are incentives to act crazy. But causation can also go the other way. The less we pay attention to state politics, the more elections will select for fools.

That’s a long way of saying that I see no reason why this shouldn’t get even dumber.

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