I resist what I see as the occasional habit of political scientists to report a null effect and imply from that the conclusion that various reforms don’t matter or shouldn’t be done. This comes up here with term limits for judges and has also come up regarding ideas for campaign finance reform, nonpartisan primaries, and nonpartisan redistricting. I resist anti-reform arguments for two reasons:OK, first of all, my credentials. I support a variety of filibuster (and executive branch nomination) reforms. I support changes in the line-of-succession. I support teenage voting, and have flirted with support of vote-from-birth, and I support eliminating the minimum ages for serving in elective office. I support, in theory at least, replacing "electors" with an automatic system that translates state voting results into electoral votes without the danger of a flaky elector. I'd support some sort of change in the composition of the Senate to make it less malapportioned. So I'll claim that I'm not against all reform.
1. There’s no reason to believe that whatever happens to be the current rule in the U.S. is actually an optimal policy or anything close to it. Reforms proposed for the U.S. are often close to existing policies in other countries.
2. Outcomes are multidimensional. I discuss various potential outcomes of term limits on judges here and here.
3. Much of the research essentially compares of the current system to the past. There were long-serving elderly judges in the past, just as there are today, so why worry?
So how to deal with reforms? The main thing about supporting a reform is that it requires a multistage test. First: is the identified problem really a problem? For example, lots of suggested reforms are intended to solve the problem of the influence of political parties. Right away, that's going to separate those of us who believe that parties are mostly a good thing from many reformers. Then, second, would the proposed reform actually solve, or at least contribute to solving, the problem. And, third, it's probably worth at least some assurance that the proposed reform is unlikely to cause other significant problems.
Now, I agree with Gelman that we should not approach reform with too high a bar. We certainly should not assume that the framers in Philadelphia got everything right, nor that the happenstance, partisan maneuverings, and compromises of the last two hundred years have left us with some sort of perfect system. That said, my sense is that we also should be very careful about this stuff, especially as political scientists. As we contribute to the popular and political discussion, we should be clear what our professional expertise allows us to say, and what it doesn't. I think some political scientists believe the best course is simply to analyze, not to endorse (or reject); others, of course, feel perfectly comfortable acting as citizens regardless of their expertise.
My guess is that the reason political scientists sometimes appear to be reform-averse is that there are a lot of very goofy reforms out there that can't pass those tests. My guess is that I have something like a 50/1 ratio of reforms that I've read that I reject to those which I support...but that still leaves me supporting quite a few reforms.
I obviously can't speak for others, but I suspect that you would find the same thing -- a very large ratio of rejected to embraced reforms, but still quite a few reforms that they support.
I guess overall, I think that if someone makes a strong case for reform, many, and perhaps most, political scientists are open to listening. It's just that we've often heard this turn before, and we know how it goes. Which, I'm sure, can make some of us (myself certainly included) seem dismissive at times, and that's not a good thing at all. But an overall bias against reform? I'm just not sure it exists.
Anyway, my guess is that most political scientists who study the US (I think that's the group Gelman is talking about) support at least a couple of significant political reforms. Yes? No? Let me know about it.