Mitchell’s Musings 12-25-2017: At the Margin

21 Dec 2017 7:29 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 12-25-2017: At the Margin

Daniel J.B. Mitchell


NOTE TO READERS OF THIS BLOG: I have become aware of a quirk in the EPRN system that can cause incorrect graphics to appear in past musings. Essentially, if an image file was used with a filename such as "Figure 1," and then a later post uses a different image file with the same name, the most recent version ends up in both musings. I will try to correct past errors that may have accumulated in past musings, if time permits. However, all past musings are also posted at:

You should be able to find a correct version at that link.


Note: As was the case last year, there will be no further musings until April 2018, since I teach January-March and time is a limited resource.


Economists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries developed the idea of marginal analysis. It explained basic concepts that are now routinely presented in Economics 1 such as demand and supply curves. In essence, it distinguishes between average and marginal.

For example, when gasoline prices shoot up because of some disturbance in world oil markets, reporters will routinely interview consumers who say that they have to get to work, that they have no alternative but to pay the higher price, that they can’t take the bus because it’s too slow, etc. But somehow, transit usage inevitably goes up, despite these interviews. [] And if the high prices persist for an extended period, people start buying smaller, gas-efficient cars and making other cost-saving adjustments.

Why? Because at the margin, there are people for whom the choice between driving and taking the bus is not so dramatically different. They could go one way or the other. They are different in that respect from the average driver. And the high price of gasoline tilts them toward public transit. Not everyone responds. But some folks do. And, over time, the response is bigger as the opportunity to change behavior becomes greater. In economics terminology, the price elasticity is higher in the long-run than immediately.

Similarly, journalists have been in the habit of interviewing people about their political preferences and then noting that some folks won’t – and seemingly can’t - change their minds despite extreme contradictions to their beliefs. It’s partially that people don’t like admitting past error and partly confirmation bias. They believe messages that confirm their beliefs and filter out contradictory messages. So particularly with Trump supporters during the past year, journalists find lack of movement in his “base” of average, not marginal, supporters.

The problem with that kind of analysis is that the electorate also contains “swing” voters – people at the margin who can move one way or the other. The fact that some people are immovable doesn’t mean that everyone is. And following the gasoline price example, over the long term – if there is a stream of contradictory information – more people will change their minds than in the short run. The challenge for the opposition is to influence the marginal voter. But that task may be more difficult than some folks imagine.

In prior posts, I have noted that there is no reason to expect a faltering economy between now and the November 2018 elections. Of course, some world crisis could change that outlook so any forecast has to be qualified. Still, real GDP has been growing at something like 3%/annum. You can argue about measurement. But as we measure it, all that it takes to grow at 3% is labor force growth at around 1% and productivity growth around 2%. There is nothing outlandish about either figure. (Of course, the much higher numbers used to justify the idea that the tax cuts recently enacted will pay for themselves are not plausible.)

The outlook for 2020 is less clear, but only because forecasting out that far has too many unknowns. If you want to justify a substantial slowdown or even recession by then, you have to sketch out some scenario of an overheated economy leading to inflation and a Federal Reserve reaction that goes too far. But inflation has not been behaving as expected for some time. So counting on such a scenario would be risky at best.

Reasonable performance of the economy tends to reward incumbents. So the idea that President Trump’s low poll ratings will hand Congress or even the Senate to Democrats represents excess optimism on the part of Trump opponents. For there to be change, those folks at the margin in swing districts and states have to be persuaded that they made a mistake in 2016.

Persuasion of that type is a delicate balance. It is surely not accomplished by alienating potential allies. Excessive identity politics are not going to have the desired effect. Such politics don’t stop at making folks proud of their heritage; instead they castigate others – particularly the others who made the Trump victory in 2016 possible (and carried along the Senate with him). Even the current focus on sexual harassment and assault, as noted in a prior post, has led to excesses and a potential backlash. You can argue that the excesses are rare, but one thing of which you can be sure is that they will be highlighted on the right.

Here is a recent example of excess. Actor Matt Damon opined that there are gradations between Weinstein-type sexual assault and predation and just coarse behavior. Minnie Driver, another movie celebrity, castigated him for his remarks. Because of the prominence of both individuals, their spat received notable publicity. The essence of the complaints against Damon was that men shouldn’t talk about the issue. But as Joan Vennochi, a Boston Globe columnist pointed out, “for the first time, we are talking about male behavior with colleagues and family members. Why shut it down with across-the-board man-shaming?”[1] Ask yourself, on the margin, does this Hollywood tempest make voters in critical districts net more or less likely to vote for politically-correct Democrats? Under what set of assumptions does castigating potential allies attract their support (and votes)?

Do you think the Hollywood upheaval is irrelevant for political outcomes? In a musing two weeks ago, I wrote about Senator Al Franken and what could be the result of his forced resignation; that was a clear case of Hollywood spillover into politics. Here’s another: Democrat Doug Jones recently beat Roy Moore – a candidate with extreme negatives in the sexual harassment area – in Alabama by a small margin.  Jones – who has yet to take office - was promptly criticized on the left for not calling for Trump to be removed based on his (Trump’s) harassment allegations.[2]

Jones – it must be emphasized – is from Alabama, i.e., Trump-land. It was a miracle he was elected, and yet he is apparently not to be allowed leeway to consolidate support. If that pattern of internal conflict persists, and if the economy continues as it is, is a dramatic political shift to the left really likely between now and November? Sometimes, if you want to win, you need to rise above principle.

There is a lesson from California that might be relevant. In 2003, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won a recall election against incumbent Governor (and Democrat) Gray Davis. The main issue in Davis’ demise was a state budget crisis.

Schwarzenegger had considerable popularity from his film career and promised to make California great again in a nonpartisan way.[3] He temporarily dealt with the budget crisis by borrowing and got the electorate to endorse his solution via ballot propositions needed to accomplish his “fix” in 2004. But in 2005, he called a special election and put on the ballot four propositions that essentially mirrored Republican priorities at the time. It’s a long story and the details are not important here.[4]

In the end, however, all of the Schwarzenegger propositions were defeated. How did that result come about? It did not come about by alienating voters who, only two years before, had voted for Schwarzenegger in the recall election. The battle was largely fought on TV and consisted of ads that focused on the idea that Schwarzenegger was at fault for not doing what voters had expected of him back in 2003. In other words, it was not the voters’ fault; it was the governor’s fault. Voters were not deficient. The new governor was deficient. There were many ads aired, but take a look at this one:

In short, for potential voters: no blame, no shame, and a simple message back in 2005 in California changed a political outcome. Can Democrats do it again in the national context in 2018 (or 2020)? Their contemporary problem is having constituencies that are not focused on the election or that, because of group-think, can’t imagine others with contrary views (or don’t care if they offend them). There is the old Will Rogers quote which seems applicable: "I'm not a member of any organized political party... I'm a Democrat."[5]

In contrast, Republicans have long been seen as the party of business. And the business of politics is winning. So the notion that Trump’s low poll ratings, or the recent tax legislation, or the undermining of Obamacare, or changing national demographics is guaranteed to upend the political scene in 2018 (or 2020) is wishful thinking. It will require an organized no-blame/no-shame, focused campaign aimed at appealing to those voters on the margin and on not offending them.

Of course, I could be wrong. And there is the Russia-thing. But can you count on it?





[3] See the first TV ad at

[4] For those details, see


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