Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention last week received wide acclaim, with some pundits even implying that her address opened the door for Michelle to be considered for the democratic ticket in 2016. The relatively large post-convention bump enjoyed by the democrats may or may not have been partly her doing.

As economists we start at a disadvantage in explaining political phenomena like this, because despite the contributions of governments to supporting trade and investment, mainstream economic models of the world capture political power in only a limited way. The implicit stance of mainstream economics is that power can only derive from differences across agents in either material possessions or market control.

Michelle Obama is surely not powerful because of her material possessions, whose importance she even implicitly refuted during her address. However, a particularly fervent economist might attempt to graft a market model onto the political process, defining the Obamas as monopolist suppliers of a “good” (leadership, say).

The process through which the “market for leaders” clears in the modern world might then be seen as the result of generations of technological experimentation and institutional evolution, resulting in our present “production function for leadership” taking the form of the infrastructure of the democratic nation state, presumably featuring returns to scale that support a natural monopoly.

Were we to go along with such an exercise, we would still need to explain why leadership rotates, or in other words, why Michelle would bother asking the public for their support this November. To account for this, one would presumably require some type of deus ex machina, like time-delayed corruptibility or in-built human obsolescence that erupts over a very short period (like four years), which is not already an accepted facet of economic man.

We would furthermore still face the problem of why there is such a song and dance, with millions of dollars spent, in the run-up to elections in the first place. Why doesn’t some government committee simply choose and then oversee the performance of the person most qualified for the monopolist’s job, just as suppliers in natural monopolies the world over are screened and then regulated? The public’s wishes, if required as a further input to the leadership production function, could then be ascertained simply through public referenda.

More generally, why is “leadership of the US” one good, of France another good, and of every other sovereign nation another good, rather than having leadership goods differentiated along some alternative grouping mechanism? Why don’t leaders rotate, at least sometimes, across differentiated production lines (e.g., the US President moving on to become PM of England), as also happens in the case of real-world monopolists?

Encapsulating all of these real-world political elements into a mainstream economic model where power derives simply from cornering a market quickly begins to seem like a square peg-round hole problem.

In fact, our discipline’s clearest statement about Michelle’s speech is that it was blatant cheap talk and should not have moved anyone to think or do anything differently than they were already planning. So then, why the bump in the polls? More fundamentally, why would the Democrats even bother to host such spectacles, which are devoid even of debate about the best economic policies to include in the party platform in the upcoming face-off against the republicans?

Leaving for another day the discussion of how we economists might develop the means of interrogating the ultimate sources of political power, we can still address the most immediate question of why Michelle’s speech was so successful. For this we need look no further than its primary microeconomic relevance, which is the direct utility hit that it generated for her listeners. It was plain from the rapt faces and steadfast fist-pumps in the audience that people felt good listening to her. My own and others’ musings (this and this, among other related strands) on such matters lead me to conclude that these positive feelings emanated mainly from the support she offered for the optimistic beliefs of audience members about themselves.

First, Michelle offered her audience reasons to believe that things they already cared about, both now and in the future, had great value both materially and ideologically. Their struggles had a higher purpose and would be rewarded; their children’s future looked bright; their jobs and their health were in good shape.

Second, through personal storytelling and emotional sharing, she offered her audience identification with the story of her family, arguably one of the most famous families on the planet at the moment. This implicitly supports the listener’s belief in higher status (read: esteem) for himself, both now and in the future. “I’m just like Michelle or Barack – therefore, since they have high value, I have high value.”

It is difficult to argue that the good feelings generated by Michelle’s support of these beliefs are not economic phenomena, given the wad of material resources spent to generate them. Presumably, party members believe that these feelings will not just make people happy, but will motivate people to take actions favourable to their party – like voting and volunteering.

The ability to make us feel good is what lies behind the economic value of every good we consume (think of food, health club memberships, and housing, not to mention drugs and art). Our internal beliefs about how satisfied we will be with different goods directly motivate our behaviour in economic markets, and so do our internal beliefs about our own worth. Aware of her limited ability to credibly support more optimistic beliefs about the material realm in the current climate, Michelle and her speechwriters opted mainly for the next-best thing: supporting people’s positive beliefs about themselves.

Even while a fundamental understanding of the political system is still outside the grasp of mainstream economics, as economists we should not discount the relevance of self-regarding beliefs to our decisions in the real world.

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