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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Talking Trash Cans 

Have we forgotten the terrible lessons of the 1980s? I still recall the feeling of panic and frustration I felt every time I heard someone's Chrysler LeBaron tell me "A door is ajar" 5000 times in a row. I thought we, as a species, had moved beyond this.

But now the BBC is reporting that the city of Berlin is planning to install trash receptacles that say "Thank You" when you use them. I can hardly imagine what uses the German equivalents of Beavis and Butthead will find for this new "feature."

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Veto Players in Authoritarian States 

Matthew Yglesias (I sure do link to his site a lot) suggests in a post today that authoritarian states can sometimes respond better when good policy goes bad because there are fewer "veto players", or institutional obstacles, to complicate turning the ship of state.

Actually, though, the canonical work on veto players, George Tsebelis's Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work, disagrees on this point:
[I]t is not true that non-democratic systems have necessarily a single veto player. While the decisionmaking process in democratic systems is usually more transparent to outside observers (like journalists or political scientists) who have a good idea of how policy decisions are made, this is not the case in non-democratic regimes. However, transparency does not necessarily mean multiple veto players, and lack of it does not imply a single one. Karen Remmer (1989) has made a forceful argument that different authoritarian regimes in Latin America have very different structures and in some of them, one individual is responsible for political decisions, while in others many players are endowed with the power to veto decisions. I claim that the situation is not unlike decisionmaking inside political parties in democracies....

[W]hether the veto players are decided by competition between elites for votes or by some other process, distinguishes democratic from non-democratic regimes, but there is no necessary distinction in terms of representation or in terms of the actual number of veto players. One has to study the specific regime in order to make decisions on these matters.
The book is well worth reading if your tastes run to rigorous analysis of political structures. You can buy it here (or for some reason download it in its entirety here, but you probably shouldn't.)

International Development Trust Funds 

Sen. Richard Lugar made the news today for proposing that the G8 countries establish a new development trust fund for the Middle East. Lugar hopes the fund, which he suggests should be sensitive to Islamic financial principles, will also get donations from rich countries within the region.

Lugar also proposed modeling the trust fund on the "Global Fund to Fight AIDS," a major UN effort started three years ago. It's worth noting, though, that the NY Times reported just two days ago that the Global Fund has fallen far short of initial expectations. Part of the problem has been utterly unrelated to the problems facing the Middle East, stemming from unresolved fights over AIDS drug patents. On the other hand, a major part of the problem has been that
Donations to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are now about $1.6 billion a year, barely 20 percent of what Secretary General Kofi Annan said was needed when he created the fund in 2001...

While Mr. Bush promised in his 2003 State of the Union address to spend $15 billion over five years on AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, his budget requests have fallen far short of that goal. For the most recent donation to the Global Fund, he requested only $200 million, although Congress authorized $550 million.

Nor have Europe and Asia been as generous as the fund had hoped.
I think Senator Lugar has a good idea: it's going to take a lot of money to promote democracy, development and stability in the Middle East, and the G8 countries clearly have enormous interests at stake in this effort. But it's also clear that there may be better institutions on which to model any new trust fund. I'll post some ideas on this front tomorrow.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Too Bad There's No NY Post in LA 

"Disney Victorious in 13-Year Fight Over Winnie the Pooh" is the headline on the front page of the L.A. Times website, but for some reason, they changed it to "Judge Ends Lawsuit Against Disney" on the page with the actual story (and presumably in the print edition). The case was apparently dismissed because the plaintiffs had stolen the key evidence in their case.

Why am I mentioning this? Because surely if the NY Post were reporting this, the headline would be more like "Mouse Wins Case of Stolen Pooh"

I'm sure there's a better headline out there, but I have to finish this stupid conference paper.

Open Primaries for California? 

In November, according to this article (link via Taegan Goddard), citizens in California will get to vote on whether to adopt a system of "open primaries" to replace the current system (familiar to most Americans) of party-members-only primaries. The referendum is being opposed by the two major parties, but has garnered support from prominent moderate politicians like Richard Riordan and Leon Panetta, and by some big corporations.

Why should voters care? Will it make any difference? The theory underlying the referendum is that the new system will weaken party control over nominations, to the benefit of more moderate candidates. At first glance, this argument makes a lot of sense. But will it really work?

Actually, this is California's second go-round with open primaries. A 1996 ballot initiative established a system whereby all candidates were listed on a single ballot, and the candidate in each party (including Green and other minor parties) with the most votes won his or her party's nomination and appeared on the general election ballot. The Supreme Court ruled that system unconstitutional, but only after two elections using the new system had been held.

The latest ballot initiative is a little different, further reducing the role of parties in California politics. Under the proposed new system, all candidates would once again be placed on a single primary ballot, but this time only the two top votewinners would appear on the general election ballot, regardless of party.

I'll check into the literature later, but my guess is that this reform will probably work as planned, except in very small elections (assembly seats, maybe) where mischevous "strategic" voting is a possibility. It certainly should be much less subject to strategic voting than the old "open primary" system, which some evidence (see Public Choice 114:387-420 for the nitty-gritty) shows was actually less likely to produce moderate candidates than a closed-primary system.

In any case, this kind of major electoral reform can happen in California because of the citizen initiative procedure. It's always interesting to see what bubbles up through this process; until and unless we adopt such a procedure at the federal level (which I don't see (or hope to see) happening), major electoral reform for Congress or the Presidency remain a pipe dream.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Who Were the Nader Voters? 

Matthew Yglesias has posted a critique of an Gadflyer article by Elaine Kamarck, which contends that Bush's sorry environmental record will return Nader voters to the Democratic fold. Yglesias reads her case as relying on an assumption that Naderites were primarily environmentalists, a reading of the piece that I don't share.

But it's still an interesting question: is it true that Nader voters weren't really primarily motivated by environmental policy? Based on the Naderites I knew personally, the environmentalism aspect seemed to me to be a major element of his appeal. Surprisingly, there has been basically no academic work published on this question: I've been able to find a total of one paper (by a new Harvard professor with the unlikely name of D. Sunshine Hillygus). The paper hasn't been published by a peer-reviewed journal, but it appears to be methodologically sound.

Hillygus's main focus is not on the question of Nader voters' policy preferences, but instead whether prospective voters who supported Nader at one point during the campaign ended up voting for him on election day. It turns out that Yglesias is correct, to some extent: environmentalists who initially supported Nader were more likely than the average Naderite to hold their noses and vote for Gore.

On the other hand, the results of the paper seem to show that Naderites were voting to send a message, not to elect a President. It's impossible at this point to say whether they still consider that a message worth sending. I certainly hope they've learned how utterly fruitless it is to use a vote in that manner.

P.S. I've written a bit more on the Nader/Green Party phenomenon here

Outsourcing Security 

This is hardly a new phenomenon, but The Independent and The Economist (publications with very different ideological bents) are reporting on the huge number of mercenaries employed by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq (and presumably to be rehired by the UN and other institutions after power is handed over).

The stunning fact is that mercenaries are the third largest foreign group under arms in Iraq (after the US and UK forces). Puts Spain's threat to withdraw its troops in a whole new light, doesn't it?

The other thing one might worry about here is what happens to all these guys if the UN doesn't hire them. Hopefully the companies paying them are well-organized enough that we don't end up with a bunch of underemployed, highly-trained military guys looking for work in a civil war-prone Iraq. Surely someone is making sure that any separatist groups that arise after the US leaves don't get any help from the mercenaries. Right?

P.S. If you're interested in the phenomenon of privatized military industry (i.e. mercenaries) and have access to a good library, the best piece I know of is PW Singer's article in the Winter 2001 issue of International Security (not available free online).

Partisanship in the US 

I'm venturing WAY outside my area of technical expertise here, but a comment by Atrios got me thinking this morning:
More generally, I think anyone who preaches the joys of bipartisanship is a fool who has little understanding of how American politics does and should work. Partisanship is a good thing. If the opening position is compromise then the public never receives a healthy debate over the merits of a particular policy. Sometimes I wonder if that's really what members of the Broder school of political analysis really want - to cut the pesky people out of the process.

Of course, well-run government does require that there are a few responsible adults on both sides who can, at the end of the day, come together and iron out their differences. But, bipartisanship is not an end in itself. Democracy requires healthy debate and disagreement.
There's been a lot of political theorizing about the value of deliberation and argument beyond just figuring out how to split the difference (see, notably, Jurgen Habermas's "Theory of Communicative Action", which I only dimly remember at this point). I don't know this body of work all that well, so I don't really want to argue with the idea that there's value in public argument and attempts to convince over and above "getting to yes."

On the other hand, a lot of partisan fighting in the US has little to do with advancing modes of thought or contesting shared norms, and a lot more to do with "team spirit" and the news cycle. Based on anecdotal evidence, I think that the "pesky people" generally realize this as well. I remember from my days working on Capitol Hill what an incredibly positive response speeches and letters promising to "act in a bipartisan manner" would get from my old boss's constituents. As a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, I was aghast to see how much traction a politician could get from declaring herself willing to cross the aisle to cut deals. In all honesty, I still enjoy getting my partisan hackles up as much as the next guy, but I'm not sure I can truly say that this has anything to do with the way I believe politics "should" work.

I guess it depends on what you mean by "partisanship." Political parties in the US are more like brand names than policy-promoting organizations (as they are in many other countries, for better or worse). To the extent that Atrios is equating full-blooded support for a political party with the sort of good-for-the-soul democratic discourse that moves us forward as a people, I'm not convinced he's on the right track.

Let me know what you think.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

More Off-Topic Entertainment 

This site, which in my view is long overdue, gives letter grades to the flags of the world's nations. I personally take some exception to his methodology and his judgments (Nepal's flag does NOT have a bad shape! That's the best shape of all!), but he makes some really good points. Also, Somalia really does have a great flag, something I'd somehow missed before.

Democracy Caucus in the UN? 

I haven't really read the libertarian magazine Reason before, but a recent story (reprinted from National Journal caught my eye.

The article documents the apparently-unstoppable movement toward some kind of democracies-only club within the UN, and possibly, in the future, outside that body, as well as the across-the-political-spectrum support it seems to have received in the US and abroad (in other democracies).

While it isn't clear to me that this will end up being anything other than a forum for the occasional conversation, the idea is intriguing, though possibly, counter-intuitively, dangerous. Why? Take a look at the "Democratic Peace" literature in political science, which has arisen to try to explain the observation that democracies rarely, if ever, have gone to war against one another. [I should note here that whether or not there really is a democratic peace (and not just a statistical coincidence) is still up for debate.]

In any case, a quick review of this literature suggests that the proposed Community of Democracies closely resembles Kant's 1795 idea of an organization to promote "Perpetual Peace" worldwide. Sounds great, right? Well, yes, in the long run, if Kant (and democratic peace theorists) are correct. But in the short run, Kant and his acolytes expect plenty of wars between the democracies and non-democratic states. Could the proposed Community of Democracies actually lead to more wars?

The key question is how the democratic peace works (if indeed it really exists). Some theorists expect to see a "separate peace" among democracies because of mutual respect for the foundations of each others' states, or mutual experience in resolving differences through democratic (i.e. negotiated) means. The opposite dynamic (disrespect, mistrust, and a lack of common rules for conflict resolution) is thought to hold between democracies and authoritarian states. If this view is correct, then short-circuiting the UN for what is sure to be an easier forum for group action can only exacerbate tensions between democracies and non-democracies.

The other idea of how the democratic peace works is more complicated, but the basic implication is that democracies are just less likely to start wars in general, not just against other democracies. The mechanisms usually have to do with the incentives facing politicians, which are quite different from the risk-encouraging incentives facing dictators. In any case, to the extent that this latter school of thought is correct, the new Community of Democracies can only help increase peace, particularly if the prospect of membership in this club makes being a democracy a more attractive option.

Finally, I should note that some evidence appears to show that newly-democratized states are the most aggressive group of all.

In any case, this is all very far off at this point. But a quote from the article cited above suggests that we'd do well to consider our options carefully:

"United Nations" is an oxymoron. Democracies and dictatorships are mongoose and cobra, with no real hope of uniting except opportunistically.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Support and Opposition to Free Trade 

This topic is getting a lot of play in the blogosphere right now. Matthew Yglesias has posted a call for ideas to address what he sees as growing support for protectionism in the US. Kevin Drum has speculated that popular opposition to free trade is inevitable because of what behavioral economists call "prospect theory" (the tendency to weigh possible losses more heavily than possible gains when making decisions about uncertain future events). Drum also comes to the (definitely correct) conclusion that:
The simple answer is that we need a better economy that's generating more jobs or else the country's emotional energy is going to be fundamentally opposed to free trade.

But Drum's use of prospect theory is a bit suspect. First, he suggests that what prospect theory says is that people who lose their jobs will be much more intensely unhappy than people who get new jobs will be pleased. While this is quite likely true, it isn't prospect theory, which has more to do with approaches toward risk than to what's already happened.

One could certainly use prospect theory to analyze individuals' feelings about trade agreements and the like (and the findings I discuss below certainly seem to match prospect theory's predictions), but it turns out that traditional economic theory (which just ignores prospect theory's implications) does a really good job of explaining this very subject.

If you're interested, there's a great book that came out a couple of years ago which uses survey data to examine who in the US opposes free trade (here's a brief synopsis, if you're not up for that much reading). It turns out that people who economic theory predicts will be hurt by trade (low-skill workers, in the US case) are exactly the same people who are most likely to oppose further trade liberalization.

The book also directly addresses Matthew Yglesias's concerns with a policy prescription: improve adjustment and insurance policies, which make losing a job much less painful, and you'll reduce protectionist sentiment. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Giant Statues in the American Heartland 

Ok, way off topic here, but I had to let people know about this.

My hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma has been chosen as the site of a new, privately funded, enormous statue, potentially the largest free-standing bronze statue in the world, reports the Tulsa World:
"The American" would be a landmark for the heartland, symbolizing endurance and triumph over challenges that Americans have and continue to face... The 17-story bronze will have a four-story limestone-concrete base, bringing its total height to 21 stories. It will be built to withstand an F3 tornado...

The sculpture depicts a young American Indian warrior with his hair being blown across his face. His right arm is raised as a bald eagle, wings spread, lands on his shroud-covered forearm.

Visitors will be able to ride an elevator to a platform in the midsection, where plasma television screens will project a 360-degree view from outside. From there, visitors can ride to an observation area in the head.

Looking at some Photoshopped pictures intended to show the statue in context, one is awestruck.

"Wow!" one finds oneself saying, "that's, uh... well... it's very big." One also finds oneself thinking, "at least it's privately-funded."

But it turns out, as far as proposals for colossally-oversized statuary in the heartland is concerned, Tulsa is strictly bush-league. I call your attention to this proposal, endorsed by the civic leaders of Lincoln, Illinois, for a 305-foot fiberglass statue of Abraham Lincoln, complete with a "watermelon juice waterfall" and an observation deck inside Honest Abe's stovepipe hat. I beg you to watch the associated PowerPoint presentation (you can get the needed viewer here if you don't already have it, and you may have to use Internet Explorer instead of other browsers), which is without a doubt the best usage of this medium in its history. Just click your mouse to scroll through this inimitable masterpiece.

UPDATE: For those without the time or inclination to view the PowerPoint presentation, a mysterious, apparently Oklahoman-turned-New-Yorker blogger has posted the highlights here.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

More on Outsourcing 

Daniel Drezner's new piece in Foreign Affairs explains well exactly why the current fascination with overseas outsourcing of information technology jobs is just old protectionist thinking in fancy new clothes. The short version is this: outsourcing is just another way of conducting international trade, where what's being imported is just one aspect of the production process (be it customer support or computer programming or what-have-you), instead of a finished product. There's no analytical difference between one kind of importing and the other. If you buy the case for free trade (efficient allocation of resources means a bigger economic pie for the world), you shouldn't have a problem with outsourcing.

Furthermore, the piece quite convincingly pooh-poohs some of the more alarmist talk being bandied about by CNN's Lou Dobbs and others suggesting that enormous numbers of existing jobs are at risk or that the Bush Economy's sad job growth record should be blamed on outsourcers.

Drezner also calls attention to the fact that for those individuals who lose their jobs, the rosy long-term picture painted above is small comfort, and makes some noises about the desirability of assistance (portable health insurance, retraining) to those finding themselves out of work because of outsourcing.

All in all, it's a good piece, and I highly recommend it.

One quibble: Drezner makes one very curious claim, or at least fails to explain adequately what he's talking about.

Drezner explains that
Offshore outsourcing adds two additional political pressures...

The second pressure is that the Internet has greatly facilitated political organization, making it much easier for those who blame outsourcing for their troubles to rally together. In recent years, countless organizations -- with names such as Rescue American Jobs, Save U.S. Jobs, and the Coalition for National Sovereignty and Economic Patriotism -- have sprouted up. Such groups have disproportionately focused on white-collar tech workers, even though the manufacturing sector has been much harder hit by the recent economic turndown.

I don't doubt that there are lots of internet-based anti-offshoring groups trying to influence policy. But the vast bulk of political-economy thinking about protectionist politics suggests that making it easier across the board for groups to organize, if it has any effect at all, should lessen protectionist pressures. As a political scientist himself, Drezner should be aware of this.

Before getting into the specifics, let me point out that what's good for the protectionists is good for the free-traders: we do see consumer's-rights and pro-free-trade groups organizing on the Internet (although your guess is as good as mine as to how deep or extensive their support actually is, especially compared to the anti-offshoring brigade's web groups).

So shouldn't the Internet's effect just be a wash when it comes to trade policy? Yes, probably. But if it isn't, the benefit should go to pro-free-traders. Let me try to explain.

First, you may remember from Econ 101 that throwing up barriers to trade means that uncompetive industries are better off (nobody gets fired, no factories get shut down), but that it also means higher prices on imported goods or services. The clincher here is that the losses outweigh the gains: protectionism is a net loser for society.

So why do we still see protectionist policies like tariffs or anti-outsourcing laws being considered? Remember that there are a few people and industries who are really, really hurt by trade. If you're afraid of losing your job or your business, you are quite likely to spend some time and money attempting to change your prospects. On the other hand, while the savings to consumers produced by free trade are very high across the whole economy, for any given person buying any specific good or service, the savings might be quite small. Hopefully you'll agree that the incentive to write your Congressman to protest a small increase in the price of most things you buy is less than the incentive to write him about losing your job.

In situations like this it’s a lot easier for the smaller group facing the higher individual costs to get together and act collectively. The big, diffuse-costs group faces a much bigger free-rider problem, where each individual basically just hopes that others will do his share of the work, resulting in a level of collective effort below what anybody actually wants. And this is one very widely-held explanation for why protectionists have been so successful historically in getting their agenda enacted.

Getting back to the Internet, one would think that lowering the trouble it takes to organize for everybody equally would either do nothing to advantage protectionists or would lower the costs of collective action just enough that consumers could finally start getting together and lobbying as a group. Unless Drezner knows something I'm missing here, I think this one point of his just isn't correct.


Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Just How Green Would a Green Party Make Us? 

In a fit of clear-headed thinking, the editors of The Nation wrote an open letter to Ralph Nader earlier this year, begging him not to enter this year's Presidential race. The editors rightly point out that, despite Nader's claims to the contrary, it's tough to see how his participation does anything but aid President Bush's reelection prospects.

Four years ago, Nader ran as the Green Party's candidate, and there was much excitement in certain communities about the prospects for a left-leaning third party to take its rightful place among the heavy hitters in American politics. But as every Naderite has been told 10 gazillion times by now, in tones earnest or patronizing, the American "winner take all" electoral system all but guarantees that only two political parties can compete successfully. This is known in the political science biz as "Duverger's Law" and while the "law" bit may be stretching things a little, it's about as close as social scientists get to settled wisdom. Nader, for one, seems to have dropped the pretense that he was building this fabled third party, as he's running as an independent this year.

So what's a frustrated Green Party activist to do besides slink home and reorganize his pamphlet collection? Once again, The Nation (this time in its "Editor's Cut" blog) rides to the rescue, suggesting that progressives get together to push for the adoption of a new electoral system featuring proportional representation (PR), so that the US, like Western Europe, can support more than two political parties. The blog posting goes on to make a number of other standard "good-government" proposals, some of which are actually both desirable and marginally feasible. But let's focus on its point number one: adopting PR.

It has to be said: this just ain't gonna happen at the federal level in the US. Ever. Sure, New Zealand made the switch eight years ago, but there's a huge difference in the two countries' rules governing systemic changes. In New Zealand, electoral reform was enacted through a simple referendum (and, it must be said, because of some particularly unusual missteps by politicians). In the US, such a shift would require a constitutional amendment, with that process's attendant supermajorities and votes in state legislatures. Party leaders are generally quite fond of the system that brought them to power, and it boggles the mind to imagine such an amendment getting floor consideration in Congress. Only a citizen-initiated referendum (not a possibility at the federal level in the US (thank goodness)) could get this particular ball rolling. Yes, it's true that some American states and municipalities have non-"winner takes all" electoral systems, but so what? You have to look at the rules governing reform at the relevant level of government to see what's possible, and these rules are very different in the Cambridge city charter and the US constitution.

Even if some magical alignment of the stars were to make adoption of PR a possibility, why would your Green Party-voting uncle choose to support PR? As far as I can tell, there are a couple of ways progressives decide PR would be great for them. The first way of thinking goes like this: there's a huge pool of Americans who simply don't vote, because they are strongly left-leaning and are disgusted by what they see as the rightward tilt of both major parties. PR would allow a Green Party to thrive, and suddenly a progressive majority would rule the ballot box. The problem here is that like Prester John's armies, there's no empirical evidence that these leftist voters exist. I'll be perfectly honest: while some polling data seems to show that non-voters are demographically and ideologically very similar to voters (instead of the angry environmentalists so often imagined), there's really no good, methodologically sound research that I'm aware of addressing the question of non-voter preferences. But read on...

The second train of thought supporting PR seems to follow this logic: Europeans have PR (and therefore relatively succesful Green Parties). Europeans are kindler, gentler, and more environmentally aware than Americans. Ergo, adopting PR here in the US would make our policies kindler and gentler, too.

That's certainly one possibility. But it overlooks a couple of very important points. First, and most obviously, it's just as likely (perhaps moreso, given what polls of American voters tell us) that right-wing parties would compete successfully for political office under PR. This certainly happened in New Zealand, where socially-conservative Christians, Thatcherites and nativists all put together new parties that have succesfully competed for seats in Parliament (as did Greens and socialists).

"OK, fine," a Greenie might say. "That's only fair. Now all points of view are being represented in the legislature." Very true. But unless this representation turns into legislation, the only beneficiaries of a shift like this would be dedicated readers of the Congressional Record who'd get to see a bit more rhetorical variety.

And here's the thing: new research (including my dissertation) suggests that PR systems tend to create increased incentives for politicians to seek the support of well-organized, well-funded groups at the expense of "the national interest." I'll explain how this works in an upcoming post, but the general idea is that it's tougher for voters to work out how to hold accountable politicians who work hard on behalf of special interests when voting for parties instead of individuals. For now let me just say that PR actually seems to empower corporations seeking special treatment at least as much as it helps out organized ideological groups on the left or right. While it's perhaps not immediately obvious that European countries feature more pandering to "special interests" than we see in the US, that's not the relevant comparison: instead, we should be comparing the US under the current system with what we'd see in the US under PR.

Finally, one often sees advocates of PR for the US pooh-poohing the notion that PR causes unwieldy coalitions incapable of ruling effectively. Italy's experience can be avoided with a few technical fixes, say the PR-supporters, and they're right. But they tend to ignore the fact that European states with PR generally don't have the same level of separation of powers that we have in the US. If you think partisan gridlock is something to behold now, imagine a situation where a coalition of Greens and Democrats controlled the House, the Senate was controlled by a de facto coalition of Democrats and Christians, and a Republican was the President. How much environmental legislation might we expect to see signed into law under that scenario?

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Bush as McKinley 

Matthew Yglesias mentions in a recent post that Karl Rove likes to think of President Bush as a modern-day McKinley. Sounds about right to me: when I think of McKinley, I think of raised tariffs and a war started on questionable intelligence. Here's to hoping that the echoes end there: McKinley was not only re-elected, but also assassinated.

Unexpected Consequences 

It looks like the recent bombings in Madrid, blamed on al Qaeda, will have the unexpected effect of helping the European Union streamline its decision-making processes, bringing the countries of Europe closer to developing a unified foreign policy, and potentially, in the long run, standing as a counterweight to the US in world affairs.

The BBC is reporting the latest development in the ongoing and extremely confusing saga of the EU's new charter. Basically, what's going on over there is a fight over who gets how much power in one of the EU's main institutions, the Council of Ministers. It's similar to the fight over the structure of the US Congress back in the early days of this country, with small states wanting to avoid being outvoted by big states, and big states calling for voting power proportional to their size.

The new charter, if adopted, would also create two new positions for Europe (Foreign Minister and President) and would "oblige" the member countries to support a unified foreign policy (though it's unclear what this would mean in practice). It's not immediately clear whether these changes would really create a single European foreign policy. On the other hand, it might be a lot tougher rhetorically for, say, the UK to side with the US against the EU President than against a selection of other European leaders.

Interestingly (and in my view coincidentally) the two biggest holdouts on approving the new charter have been Spain and Poland, among the strongest backers of the US during last year's debate over Iraq. Both of these countries have disproportionate voting strength under the current system (adopted in 2000), and have been unwilling to give up such a cushy arrangement. But Spain's Socialists appear to value the development of the EU project more than getting the biggest seat possible at the table. And now Poland is backing down from its demands, too, ostensibly because it doesn't want to shoulder the full blame if the new constitution is never adopted. It should be interesting to see what kind of compromise gets hammered out, but even more interesting is that al Qaeda may have inadvertantly strengthened the EU as a force in the realm of war and peace, with who knows what long-term consequences.

Disappointment with Transition to Democracy 

Today's Los Angeles Times has a somewhat depressing article describing disappointment in El Salvador 12 years after civil war ended and democratic institutions were adopted. I simply don't know enough about El Salvador to assess whether this is a case of a journalist's selective interviews giving a particular slant to the news (although I don't doubt for a second that some Salvadoreans are deeply suffering), but it does strike me that it's worth looking at this and other cases of transitions to democracy to see whether governments, international organizations and private charities can do a better job of making sure that the message "democracy won't improve your life" gets as little supporting evidence as possible.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Arbitrage and Smuggling Discussed on Slashdot 

Well, it's not the usual fare, but there's a somewhat interesting discussion on Slashdot right now about how UK citizens might take advantage of the weak dollar and limited customs enforcement to save a significant amount of money on a new laptop. Kind of funny to see in 2004.

India, Iraq and Federalism 

Over the past couple of weeks, columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has been writing about his tour of Bangalore, India and its budding information-technology economy. It's been a great trip for Friedman. What an opportunity to hook together an exotic locale, the usual list of buzzwords ("Glocalization!" "superempowered angry men!") and one of this election season's big media tropes: offshore outsourcing of high-tech jobs.

Friedman actually uses his buzzwords to get about halfway to a pretty worthwhile point in today's column: while India has the "hardware of democracy" (i.e. voting, political parties, etc.), it's lacking some of the "software" (transparency, good governance) that's required to successfully develop its economy. Jonathan Rodden and Susan Rose-Ackerman made a similar point (less punchily but far more precisely) in a 1995 article, making the case that one of India's democratic institutions, its federal structure, was combining with a culture of government corruption to exacerbate India's economic woes. In other words, it wasn't just faulty "software" running on sound "hardware" that was causing the trouble, but a mismatch between "hardware" and "software."

This is a particularly cogent point, then and now, because federalism has a well-established reputation, particularly among skeptics of big government, for improving economic development. The argument basically works like this: if a state is strong enough to enforce contracts and protect property rights, it's also strong enough to start grabbing private resources. In this kind of environment, people will worry about government confiscation and will be unwilling to invest their capital. Obviously, if you could find some way of maintaining the good parts of having a government (enforcement of contracts) but guard against too much power being centralized in one place, you'd be in optimal shape. If you have a functioning federal system, with a national government that basically serves to adjudicate disputes and enforce a few basic laws, then local governments can't get too greedy and stifle economic development by overtaxing, since firms will just pull up stakes and head for another state or province with a more business-friendly policy. In other words, the state or provincial governments will be competing for firms to tax.

This ideal situation is known as "market-preserving federalism" theory, and scholars have used its insights to call for establishment of federal structures in developing countries. Indeed, at least one policy paper and one right-leaning columnist have hinted that a federal structure will play a key part in the economic development of a democratic Iraq in precisely the way "market-preserving federalism" theory suggests.

But it's worth remembering Rodden and Rose-Ackerman's insights: if firms can't move between jurisdictions easily (because, as in Iraq, their major assets are immobile oil refineries) or if a lot of public investment in infrastructure is needed (which takes a lot of tax revenue to finance), federal systems, even those meeting all the necessary requirements to be market-preserving, may actually be unstable and suboptimal. There's also evidence that federalism exacerbates income and wealth inequality across provinces by exactly the same policy competition mechanism described above. And competition among provinces can also backfire: Rodden and Rose-Ackerman document a kind of dysfunctional competition among local officials to see who can offer bureaucrats the most lucrative postings. Friedman insightfully worries about all of these things when looking at India's future (though he doesn't connect them to federalism). As we think about the development of a federal Iraq, we should worry about them, too.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Oil, Iraq and Civil War 

Here’s something to throw into the conversation next time you get into an argument about the Iraq war: yes, oil is a factor in understanding the dynamics we’ve witnessed, but not for the reasons most people suggest. Whether or not last year’s war on Iraq was "really about oil," next year’s war in Iraq almost certainly will be. While imposing democratic institutions on a foreign country is never going to be easy, Iraq's oil wealth may cause the upcoming internal struggle to be rougher, longer and more violent than we'd otherwise expect.

Around this time last year, trying to explain the "real reasons" for the Bush administration's decision to launch an invasion of Iraq had developed into something of a cottage industry. Although there was widespread skepticism about the President's stated purpose for the war (to rid the world of the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction) there was hardly universal agreement on the U.S.'s actual intent.

One school of thought held, generally in a somewhat murky way, that the actual purpose of the invasion was to secure control of Iraq's oilfields either for the U.S. government or for U.S. oil companies. Another, more cogently developed and well-documented argument held that the invasion of Iraq was actually the first stage in a long-developed plan to completely reshape the political landscape of the Middle East, imposing democracy by force on one country, then watching as a demonstration effect led other Arab (or even Iranian) peoples across the region to rise up and institute democratic rule in their own countries.

Some new scholarship suggests, however, that if the “demonstration of democracy” reasoning played any part in the administration’s calculations, Iraq’s enormous oil reserves made it a singularly bad place to serve as a beacon to other nations. Over and above the suspicion that the association of the words “oil” and “war” tends to generate among the conspiracy theorists in our midst, the best available evidence appears to show that countries with abundant natural resource wealth (like Iraq’s oilfields) are more likely to collapse into civil war, and that these breakdowns are more intense and longer-lasting than civil wars in resource-poor countries. In short, if the Bush administration was trying to forge a new democratic order in the Middle East by overthrowing a dictator and developing a stable democracy, it may well have done better choosing Syria as its target.

Political scientists and reporters covering foreign conflicts often make references to civil wars being fueled by diamonds (Sierra Leone), drugs (Columbia) or oil (Nigeria), but we don't usually hear exactly how these valuable items are related to civil war, and whether they cause wars to happen or just get worse. Instead, the close coincidence of war and resources is simply noted and the next topic is raised. Fortunately, articles in the most recent issues of the academic journals International Organization and AJPS, actually look at recent history for some guidance as to how accurate these guesses might be. Their findings are somewhat disturbing because of what they suggest could be in Iraq’s future. But they also point out some non-obvious ways that Iraq's governors can try to head off future civil conflicts.

First, there is some convincing evidence that resource wealth, particularly oil wealth, can lead to the onset of civil war. This seems particularly true when the resources are located in a region with separatist ambitions (as with the Kirkuk oilfields in Kurdish northern Iraq). This could work in one of two ways: first, as has happened in the Indonesian province of Aceh and in Sudan, the possibility of grabbing full control of the resources can provide a major incentive for rebel activity and provide an invaluable advertising campaign for rebels looking for support from a conflict-averse populace ("Stop letting those Arabs steal your oil! You could be rich beyond your wildest dreams if you support us!").

Second, there's some evidence that oil wealth allows political leaders to lose sight of what's going on among their citizens, which could conceivably lead to festering resentments going unaddressed, or to the flow of funds to rebel groups going unnoticed. Oil revenues from nationalized production facilities or lucrative contracts with private oil firms provide a nice, comfortable cushion for politicians trying to keep a state afloat, but since there's no immediate need to develop a high-quality taxation system, with the requisite careful collection of statistics and auditing of accounts, it's harder to develop a high-quality state that's responsive to social needs and capable of sniffing out corruption. It's probably worth mentioning here that this is clearly a double-edged sword; in the short term, oil wealth can allow a state to buy off malcontents (as the Saudis have done for years). Furthermore, Norway, the only developed democracy among the world's major oil exporters, is hardly a hotbed of civil turmoil. The important point here is that the roar of oil and money flowing around Iraq may keep attention away from the delicate processes of developing a functioning democracy, and may serve to drown out whispers of a growing insurgency.

John B. Judis's article in the March 31, 2003 issue of The New Republic makes a related point, giving a good account of why oil-rich states like Iraq (other than Norway) have typically evolved authoritarian institutions, although it's tough to see how his arguments apply to the sui generis case presented by the birth of Iraq's new ruling order. The mechanisms he describes explain why authoritarian leaders have found it easy to avoid democratizing, so his arguments aren't an exact fit for Iraq's current situation, where (hopefully) the starting point is a set of democratic institutions, however shallow and poorly-formed.

"But wait," you may be thinking, "isn't there already a civil war going on in Iraq?" Maybe so. It's hard to say whether the bombing campaign we're now witnessing will continue after power is transferred this summer. It's also hard to tell who's doing the bombing, and whether sectarian or ethnic separatist groups will adopt new tactics once the U.S. begins its withdrawal. But the same scholarship described above lends credence to fears that any civil war that does break out will be longer and possibly more intense than would be the case in a country without Iraq's oil wealth.

While the evidence isn’t crystal clear, it seems that oil can prolong civil wars by providing insurgents with a source of revenue. Although it's tough to loot an oil well as compared to, say, a diamond mine, rebels in Africa and South America have blackmailed private firms by threatening to blow up pipelines or kidnap technicians. There's also some intriguing evidence that insurgent groups can sell what basically amount to futures contracts for oil they'll take possession of after winning control of disputed territory. And when considering the possible loss of oil-rich territory, central governments have an incentive to pre-emptively and violently repress separatist movements, which is exactly what we saw under Saddam. It's tough to imagine how this dynamic wouldn't repeat itself in a federal Iraq if Kurdish or Shi'a separatist movements seem to be gathering enough strength to succeed.

Over and over again, the key element in making civil wars more likely and worse in oil-rich states seems to be the presence of separatist movements. This is a key insight in analyzing the results of the attempts to create a constitution for a new Iraq. Hopefully Paul Bremer, Ayatollah Sistani and the other players in this process are taking it into consideration.

UPDATE: Crooked Timber has more.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

About the Editor 

My name is Daniel Geffen, and I'm currently trying to finish my Ph.D. in political science at Columbia University. Before going to graduate school I worked as a legislative assistant to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for three years. I've also been a visiting researcher at the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research.

My academic expertise is in comparative political economy: I look at how a country's political structures help determine its economic policies, in particular its approach to international trade. I'm especially interested in the effects of what academics call the "electoral system", in other words whether a country elects the members of its legislature by a "winner take all" system (as in the US or UK) or via some form of proportional representation (as in most of Europe).

I've also done more technical work trying to improve understanding of different forms of proportional representation and analyzing the structure of regional trade agreements.

My wife, Roxana, is a painter whose website should be up and running shortly. We also have a baby daughter, born March 9, 2004.

Why "The Bonassus?" 

According to Jay's Journal of Anomalies, advertisements went up in London in March 1821 offering the curious a chance to see The Bonassus: "A Newly Discovered Animal Comprising the head and eye of the elephant; the horns of the antelope; a long black beard; the hind parts of the lion; the fore-parts of the bison; is cloven footed; has a flowing mane from the shoulder to the fetlock joint; and chews the cud."

This fantastic beast, was of course nothing but an American bison, at the time "the most numerous hoofed quadraped on the face of the earth." Furthermore, bison were hardly unknown to the English populace at this point: in fact, a buffalo had been displayed as a curiosity on the same street 70 years earlier. Nonetheless, the Bonassus made a big splash, drawing audiences from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Jay notes that "The Bonassus, by all accounts, was presented to a public that had already viewed a buffalo but could be lured into parting with hard-earned coin to see a remarkable amalgam of animal parts designated by an unfamiliar name."

This blog aims to take the jargon-filled, academic-niche-oriented scholarship generated by economists and political scientists (surely a remarkable amalgam of parts designated by unfamilar names) and translate it into useful insights on current events. Hopefully this will lead to a better understanding of the political beasts we are all so familiar with already.

Also, "Bonassus" is a hilarious, slightly obscene-sounding word. Ultimately, that's probably a better explanation for why I chose it as the title of my blog.

UPDATE: This site has the lyrics to a nearly-incomprehensible (to me) traditional Northumbrian song called "The Bonassus." It also appears to have some political content, but the metaphor is lost on me. Let me know if you can help.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Intent to Publish 

Here's what you can expect to see on The Bonassus over the next few weeks:

Iraq's new constitution There has been quite a bit of speculation over the past months about what Iraq's new constitution will look like. In particular, the questions of federalism and centralization of power have been discussed on editorial pages, in popular news magazines , in policy journals and in academic roundtables. But a lot of the expertise on constitutional engineering that political scientists have tried to establish in the past few decades has somehow stayed off the radar screen. In a series of brief articles I'll present some of the choices Iraq's constitution's framers have had to make (or ignore) and present the state of the art on the consequences of these decisions.

A Third Party in America? I'll also take a look at why the political system in the U.S. renders the idea of a constructive role for the Green Party a pipe dream, and discuss the likely consequences of various reform proposals that Greenies (and others) hope will remedy this situation. Trust me, folks, it ain't pretty.

Trade, Aid and Private Giving Finally, (and this will likely take up the bulk of the postings on this site for some time to come), I'll address the question of how both we as individuals and the countries we live in can address the question of helping those less fortunate than ourselves. I'll review the resources available to everyday people to help get the most bang for your charitable buck, take a look at where to make donations to political causes to maximize your chance of making a difference, and review various national policy approaches to the international economy to help clarify what role trade and aid have in reducing poverty over the long term.

Well, this is all pretty ambitious. My plan is to post at least weekly on these topics, with smaller, simpler posts in between. I won't bother to start publicizing any of this at all until I've actually started to generate some interesting material, which is possibly a stupid approach, but that's my plan.

First Post! 

Here's my first post on what I hope will be a worthwhile project: a new blog written by a political scientist with an eye to linking current events and current scholarship. I hope to provide a useful resource for others with less time to peruse (and less technical training in deciphering) the gazillions of academic and semi-academic journals on policy and politics. I also hope to hone my own writing skills.

I'll also weigh in on other topics I know a bit about, such as life in New York City and ludicrous dedication to watching Major League Baseball, as well as things I'm less qualified to report on, such as fatherhood (today's day 10 for me).

If you're reading this post, you've either stumbled on it by accident or are a dedicated Geffen-ophile, in which case you can learn more about my life at my other home page and see pictures of my daughter Lucy, if you're interested.

I look forward to making this into a real resource, and hope to hear from you via e-mail

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