Poetry Machine


The inefficiency of lobbying

A few weeks ago, we spotlighted work by Elliott Ash et. al. on the startling influence of the Manne economics seminars in shaping judicial decision-making. This week we’re looking at an industry that, conversely, seems extremely influential, but is frequently ineffectual: lobbying.

In a 2009 book, “Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why,” FRANK R. BAUMGARTNER et. al. take an unprecedentedly thorough look at lobbying in Washington, scrutinizing “ninety-eight randomly selected policy issues in which interest groups were involved and then followed those issues across two Congresses.” What they find is complexity and gridlock:

“Since we followed our issues for four years, we know a lot about what eventually occurred (if anything did). In fact, as we outline in the chapters to come, for the majority of our issues, little happened.

If what they are supposed to be doing is producing change, interest groups are a surprisingly ineffectual lot. A focus by the media and many academics on explaining political change or sensational examples of lobbying success obscures the fact that lobbyists often toil with little success in gaining attention to their causes or they meet such opposition to their efforts that the resulting battle leads to a stalemate.

Of course, many lobbyists are active because their organizations benefit from the status quo and they want to make sure that it stays in place. We will show that one of the best single predictors of success in the lobbying game is not how much money an organization has on its side, but simply whether it is attempting to protect the policy that is already in place.”

Preview on Google Books here.

  • The book is full of surprising conclusions; to name a few: “We find surprisingly weak links between material resources and moving public policy in one’s preferred direction. The causes for this are complex but interesting. For example, the wealthy often oppose the wealthy. Similarly, our results suggest that the impact of partnership and elections may be significantly less than is often assumed” (25).
  • This old-school website contains additional information and documentation related to the book, including the multifarious list of lobbied topics.
  • Another angle on the inefficiency of lobbying, from Federico Huneeus and In Song Kim: “We show that firms’ lobbying activity decreases aggregate productivity by 22 percent relative to an economy without lobbying activity. The main force behind this effect is changes in the size distribution of firms because, through lobbying, some firms get bigger than what they should.” Link. ht reader Patrick S
  • In Song Kim also created LobbyView, a searchable database of lobbying information. Link.
  • Dylan Matthews mentions the Baumgartner book in a recent Vox piece that critiques some philanthropy for ploughing too much funding into already crowded fields. As a counterpoint, Matthews mentions the Open Philanthropy Project’s “importance, neglectedness, and tractability” framework for choosing what problems to tackle. Link.


  • ImpactAlpha published a piece on income share agreements featuring our friend and partner Kevin James, and his mission-driven ISA servicer, Better Future Forward. “Better Future Forward, a nonprofit focused on making ISAs more accessible, has launched a pair of funds to test the viability of ISAs with more than 200 low-income students in the city of Chicago and states of Minnesota and Wisconsin.” Link.
  • “The sun sets at least an hour later in Madrid than in Munich because Franco’s Spain switched clocks ahead one hour to be in sync with Nazi Germany in 1940, even though Spain is geographically in line with Britain, not Germany. Similarly, for a range of historical reasons, clocks in large parts of the planet—e.g., France, Algeria, Senegal, South Sudan, Russia, and Argentina—are set to be ahead of their (solar) time. These arbitrary clock conventions—by generating large discrepancies in when the sun sets across locations—help determine the geographic distribution of educational attainment levels.” Link.
  • Andrew Gelman: Robustness checks are a joke. Link.
  • A post by Cecile Gaubert at VoxEU looks at the effects of place-based subsidies that incentivize firm relocation. From the post: “Such subsidies have costly long-run effects, both on the productive efficiency of the economy and in terms of welfare. Moreover, place-based policies do not necessarily decrease spatial disparities.” Link. And link to the research behind the post, at American Economic Review.
  • “The kilogram is dead. Long live the kilogram.” Link. ht Jay
  • New work from Ryan Calo brings legal realism’s indeterminacy thesis into the privacy law conversation. Link.
  • At the Journal of the History of Ideas, an excellent roundtable discussion on the history (and historiography) of quantification, featuring Dan Bouk, William Deringer, Jamie Pietruska. Link.
  • On the diminishing returns of scientific research. Link.
  • “The exceptional weather conditions and associated harvest failures of 1315–17 marked the beginning of the worst subsistence crisis in European history. Historians have mainly viewed the Great Famine, and medieval famines in general, through theoretical models of the larger fourteenth‐century crisis. This article suggests that this approach is flawed, and applies recent theories on contemporary famines to the crisis of 1315–17 in the county of Flanders. This new perspective not only leads to a re‐examination of existing explanations, such as the role of warfare, but also reveals the importance of property rights in entitlement to food: the power of elites, the relative number of large‐scale landowners, and the structure of household income all influenced peasants’ degree of vulnerability.” Link.
  • Sarah Baird, David McKenzie, and Berk Özler on how the labor-leisure trade-off model leads us astray in research and policy conversations around cash transfers. Link.
  • “If you use an app to go to work, should society consider you a consumer, an entrepreneur, or a worker?” An excerpt from Alex Rosenblat’s new book on Uber and the platform economy is up now at FastCompany. Link.
  • “The social causes of a ‘subculture of coping’ in the late medieval coversand belt.” Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations: editorial@jainfamilyinstitute.org.

Subscribe to PW Sources