Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change

Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change

Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change

Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change


Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers presents a simple, economic framework for understanding the systematic causes of political change.

Wayne A. Leighton and Edward J. López take up three interrelated questions: Why do democracies generate policies that impose net costs on society? Why do such policies persist over long periods of time, even if they are known to be socially wasteful and better alternatives exist? And, why do certain wasteful policies eventually get repealed, while others endure? The authors examine these questions through familiar policies in contemporary American politics, but also draw on examples from around the world and throughout history.

Assuming that incentives drive people's decisions, the book matches up three key ingredients-ideas, rules, and incentives-with the characters who make political waves: madmen in authority (such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher), intellectuals (like Jon Stewart and George Will), and academic scribblers (in the vein of Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes). Political change happens when these characters notice holes in the structure of ideas, institutions, and incentives, and then act as entrepreneurs to shake up the status quo.

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In the fall of 2011, a movement called Occupy Wall Street went viral. Protesters in New York were joined by others in hundreds of cities across the country and the world. They were complaining about the “one percent,” the wealthy Wall Street types. They argued that the rules apparently did not apply to these privileged few, who were coddled by a government that was supposed to be regulating them instead. a few years earlier, a cnbc reporter went on a live television rant about the government’s bailout of Big Auto, igniting the Tea Party, which soon emerged as a force in U.S. politics. in this case, protesters complained that government was too big: that it regulated too much and spent too much. From Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party, angry citizens in the United States had had enough. They wanted things to be different.

In late 2010, some 4,000 miles away in Tunisia, a poor merchant set himself on fire to protest thuggish police confiscating his wares. Sympathetic protesters flocked to the streets, and soon that country was engulfed in the flames of revolution, which then spread to Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

The Arab Spring offers perhaps one of the most dramatic and enduring modern examples of people clamoring for change and dying to get it, sometimes literally. For decades, the rules of the game in countries like Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia were whatever their dictators said they would be. Few people liked the status quo, but fewer did much about it. Then it was time for a different idea.

These days, many people around the world seek political change. a lot of them are tired of the status quo, which they see as unjust, or unfair, or simply unproductive. To them, it also is time for a different idea.

As economists who study politics, we’ve spent years thinking and writing about how economic insights can provide a better understanding of political . . .

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