Off the beat: Will Politify work?

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It’s always bothered me that UC Berkeley doesn’t get nearly as much tech press as it deserves. The media give the impression that our southern, cardinal and white neighbor is the source of all young entrepreneurs and every tech startup in the country, even though Berkeley has produced more top tech CEO’s than any other U.S. university.

But I digress. Today I want to talk about Politify, a website founded by UC Berkeley alum Nikita Bier and current student Jeremy Blalock that is finally generating some tech buzz for the campus.

Politify describes itself as “a platform that provides Americans with data-backed financial projections of political scenarios.” Using Census and IRS data, the website says “Politify is setting out to solve one of the oldest problems in democracy: which candidate best serves our individual interests?”

In other words, you enter your tax filing information — income, filing status, etc. — and Politify will project the net financial impact of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama’s economic policies on your finances. You can also enter your zip code and view the percentage of people in your area who would benefit financially from each presidential candidates’ plan.

On its face, Politify looks like a boon to liberals. According to the site, Obama’s economic plan would benefit about 70 percent of Americans and reduce the deficit while Romney’s plan would benefit about 30 percent of Americans (especially the wealthiest) and increase the deficit. Perhaps that’s why Politify was able to recruit left-wing intellectual rock stars and income inequality gurus Robert Reich and Emmanuel Saez to its team.

Bier has expressed his hope that Politify will encourage people to vote for candidates on the basis of their economic interests and those of their community instead of “unrelated criteria like the appearance or morals of a candidate.” Saez voiced a similar opinion in a Politify promotional video.

Bier and Saez’s pitches for Politify represent a version of the argument liberals have been making for decades to explain why working-class middle Americans tend to vote Republican: that if only low and middle income voters understood that conservative policies would slash their benefits while cutting taxes on the rich, they would change their minds and vote for Democrats. Some liberals view ignorance as the only explanation of working class support for the Romney-Ryan ticket.

Commentators have offered other explanations for the political predilections of the working class. Conservatives make the debunked trickle-down economics pitch: working class voters, Republicans say, understand that massive tax cuts for those at the high end will spur investment and growth, and ultimately benefit those at the bottom.

But intelligent moderates, like New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, have advanced reasonable alternatives to the liberal charge that the working class has been duped into voting Republican. The research Haidt cites in his book The Righteous Mind suggests that Bier is naive to hope that voters will disregard candidates’ “appearance and morals.” Haidt argues that peoples’ politics are inevitably derived from their cultural and moral worldview, and that the Republican Party’s emphasis on faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order resonates with the working class. These values, according to Haidt, are respectable and fit well with human nature, and Democrats should try to touch on them.

Politify’s prospective success rests on the assumption that liberal explanation for why people vote against their economic self-interest is correct. In that sense, Politify’s ability to “redefine the red and blue electoral map,” as Bier hopes it will, is an empirical test of two explanations of working class conservatism. If Politify is successful at bringing working class voters to the Democratic party, then liberals may have been right all along. But if Politify is widely circulated and fails to have an impact — as I think will probably be the case — then Haidt’s case for a cultural and moral, rather than self-interested, view of political preference will be strengthened.

To be clear, the site is a valuable and impressive contribution to our political discourse: it’s sleek, easy to use and it provides an important service to voters who want a better understanding of how they will be affected by each candidates’ policies. It’s also a lot of fun to play with.

But whether or not Politify works the way Bier, Blalock and Saez envision may depend on a factor far outside their control: the source of Americans’ political ideology.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected]

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  • I think the problem is that academia is too caught up in explaining why things are. Instead, like entrepreneurs, we need to ask why not.

  • I_h8_disqus

    I just wanted to add that the trickle down theory does work even if it gets lost in the glut of other things going on that affect the economy. The wealthy make up an important part of the investment pool of money needed by start up companies and venture capitalists. So we can tax them say 20% more and let the government use that money for things that won’t help the economy and job creation like wars overseas or debt reduction or bailing out banks, or we can let the wealthy invest that money in start ups or other investments that will create jobs and help the economy. The Silicon Valley exists not because of government taxes, but because of wealthy investors who put their money behind brilliant entrepreneurs who came from schools like Cal. The economy runs on people spending money. It does not run on the government spending money, at least not any longer.

    • “The Silicon Valley exists not because of government taxes, but because of … entrepreneurs who came from schools like Cal.” You do realize the irony in this statement?

      • Calipenguin

        I don’t see irony. Obama is under the delusion that “you didn’t build this” if you attended any public schools or drove on any public roads while achieving your dreams. However, by that definition, the government didn’t build anything because it gets all its wealth from taxing private individuals and businesses. It doesn’t matter what school you attended. If you apply yourself and create something terrific that none of your classmates are required to create then the achievement is all yours.

        • wawaweewa

          Dumbass, when he said, “you didn’t build it,” he was referring to entrepreneurs’ not having built the ROADS or SCHOOLS.

      • I_h8_disqus

        There is irony, but it is very weak. I could have ignored Cal and used Stanford and Harvard as the examples, because they were the dominant schools represented at the company I worked at during the summer. Plus the Cal MBA program doesn’t get much funding from the state as you can see by the inflated tuition MBA students pay compared to undergraduates.

        Politify won’t tell me that my state legislator is voting to cut funding for Cal every year so that her pet projects can stay funded. That is the kind of information that a voter needs.

  • Jamie

    First off, smooth work as always.
    Second, I would concur with an earlier comment that Politify is unlikely to persuade those predisposed to oppose its voting recommendations. There is obviously an enormous amount of debate as to which candidate offers a better long term benefit to the United States, and sites such as this, while intriguing, are unlikely to singehandedly alter choices.

    In addition (and correct me if necessary), the information provided by the site seems to entirely miss much of the divide between liberal and conservative thought. The democratic party (by and large) offers to give people more things, which costs more for taxpayers. The republican party aims (mostly) to give people less things, with the opposite effect. Under this form of analysis, an unsustainable no-taxes-all-spending model would look fantastic for everyone, whereas such a plan would have serious long-term harm, deficit-wise. Or, from a left-wing perspective, high taxes look terrible, even if they’re very necessary to cut the deficit. Both debates are left untouched.

    In addition, the site cannot account for potential economic changes and the general increase or decrease in the standard of living caused by the differing policies; such analysis is not expected, as it’s incredibly difficult. This lack does, however, show another reason why conservatives may find a purely taxes paid/services provided approach deficient: those who believe that lower taxes on the more successful are better for the economy will be unlikely to adjust their opinion if told that in the next tax year, The Rich won’t pay their Fair Share. The arguments zip right past each other with no real clash.

    so yeah…in conclusion, i’d agree with your discussion…the ideology of both sides will probably be used to interpret the data in whatever way is most convenient.

  • guest


    Bier and Saez’s pitches for Politify represent a version of the argument liberals have been making for decades to explain why working-class middle Americans tend to vote Republican: that if only low and middle income voters understood that conservative policies would slash their benefits while cutting taxes on the rich, they would change their minds and vote for Democrats. Some liberals view ignorance as the only explanation of working class support for the Romney-Ryan ticket.”

    The other possibility, of course, is that rational self-interest is not the major explanation for how people vote. That some people, based on cultural or other reasons, are more receptive to certain discourses or ideologies. I believe this is the point that other academics like George Lakoff have been making.

  • I_h8_disqus

    Politify won’t go anywhere because most people will not trust the calculations behind the site. It is just too easy to imagine that the liberals supporting the site have tweaked the calculations to make liberal economic assumptions win out over other economic theories. Then add in the fact that most conservatives individual interests are not served by ignoring people over their wallet, and the site is doomed.

    PS. Well written article, thanks.

  • Very insightful piece, Jason. Thanks for writing about us!