Archive | Institutions

Positive-sum, zero-sum, and negative-sum advice

Henry’s reference to advice for graduate students reminded me of a discussion from a couple years ago.

Dan Goldstein broadcast some advice on interviewing for academic jobs in marketing. My question was, how much are these pieces of advice are zero-sum and how much of them would create overall improvements.

Just for analogy, if I give people advice about how to make cleaner powerpoint presentations, that’s positive-sum (better communication for all); if I tell people a secret way to put their proposals at the top of the pile for a granting agency, that’s zero-sum; if I give people the advice of not posting preliminary results so they don’t get scooped, that’s negative-sum.

Now let me play this game with Dan’s advice:

“Get yourself a room in the conference hotel, preferably on the floor where the express elevator meets the local elevator for the upper floors.”: Zero-sum. If you get a room at the conference hotel, somebody else will have to find a room elsewhere.

“Get your advisor / sponsor to write a cover letter encouraging people to meet with you at AMA.”: Zero-sum, I think.

“Repeat this process a bunch of times. It’s a good idea to hit a school with 2 packets, 3 if you suspect they’re a little disorganized.”: Negative-sum. I’m not saying this wouldn’t work—a couple of years ago, our department missed out on a top candidate because we literally lost his file. But it can’t be good to have duplicate letters flying around.

“Don’t sweat it.”: Positive-sum.

“Keep in mind that you will leave this process with 1 or 0 jobs. Therefore, when talking to a person, the most likely thing is that here or she will not be your colleague in the future. Therefore, think of each opportunity as a chance to make a friend.”: Positive-sum. Also a good point.

“Put the important stuff early in your CV so nobody can miss it.”: Positive-sum. It saves people time.

“Audition for the part, and make yourself stand out.”: Zero-sum. (Possibly negative-sum because of the time spent auditioning, possibly positive-sum because time spent auditioning could help with teaching.)

“One of the biggest risks facing you is that you will be forgotten. Make sure the interviewers know something unusual about you.”: Zero-sum. Or maybe positive-sum, I don’t know.

“Don’t gossip.”: Negative-sum. I say this because Dan illustrates with a story where the gossiper provided him with useful information! So the gossip was probably helpful.

Other thoughts on academic advice

All told, I think Dan’s advice is positive-sum. What made me think of all this is that sometimes I see advice for academic researchers that’s clearly negative-sum (or, at best, zero-sum), advice telling people not to do anything too original until they get tenure etc. (I got some of that advice from colleagues myself, back when I was an untenured professor.) Dan’s advice seems generally good to me (although, as noted above, I don’t think I can really judge that very well, it’s just my guess) but in general it seems worth thinking about whether advice that we’re giving is beneficial for outcomes or just positional.

Continue Reading

The LA City Council Is Terribly Efficient

Now this is how how voting is done:

So instead of being recorded as absent, the council members have a technological fix: The chamber’s voting software is set to automatically register each of the 15 lawmakers as a “yes” unless members deliberately press a button to vote “no.”
The “yes” votes then flash on video screens throughout the chamber—and are placed in the clerk’s official record—even when members have left to grab a snack in the hall or hold a meeting.

It gets better.

Last year, for example, Alarcon made concurrent meetings so routine that he scheduled them on his official appointment calendar to coincide with the council’s regular 10 a.m. public sessions. The calendar showed he had appointments planned during 57 council meetings last year.

And better!

The rules of the council state that members must activate their own voting machines and must be within the council chamber to be counted as present. But the city attorney who advises the council said his office has defined the “chamber” to include the back rooms, bathrooms and news conference area, all of which are out of public view.

More is here.

[Hat tip to John Balz.]

Continue Reading

Depictions of Presidential Power


In my intro class yesterday, we began a discussion of presidency and I noted that presidents face the challenge of leadership: they confront high expectations even as the Constitution affords them little formal power. (How they have accumulated power in other ways comes later.) As evidence for high expectations, I noted how much the media focus on the president and, in doing so, perhaps exaggerate the extent of presidential power—a point I’ve discussed before. To illustrate, I put together this montage of Time covers from the 2008 campaign and the Obama presidency.

Continue Reading

Who Graded Gregory Watson?

A piece on annotated versions of the US constitution by Adam Liptak in the NYT Book Review has this bit at the end:

both authors tell the story of Gregory Watson, a University of Texas undergraduate who wrote a paper on one of the amendments proposed at the time of the Bill of Rights but not adopted. It would have made Congressional pay raises effective only after the next election. Watson started a letter-writing campaign, noting that in this case there was no deadline for ratification. The upshot was the most recent amendment, the 27th, ratified in 1992. Characteristically, it is Lipsky who includes the killer detail. Watson’s professor, unconvinced that the amendment was still pending, gave him a C.

So which University of Texas professor (presumably a professor of political science) gave him the C? John Sides, who formerly graced the department at UT Austin? Skeptics might retort that Sides is much too youthful to have been around campus in the 1980s. But they haven’t seen the portrait in his attic.

Continue Reading

Sign of the times

Robin Blackburn in Port-au-Prince:

The conference was opened by the prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis, who was appointed despite a scurrilous campaign by opposition forces, who argued that appointing a lesbian to such a prominent position was a violation of Haitian manhood. Pierre-Louis had been the director of an NGO known as Fokal (Fondasyon Konesans ak Libete). In choosing her, Preval was thought to have made an adroit move, pleasing the NGO and donor communities: Fokal is supported by George Soros and various Canadian charities.

Continue Reading

Is Filibustering Constitutional?

One question about filibustering which comes up frequently is whether the Senate filibuster is “constitutional”. This came up in a 1994 New Yorker piece and a recent exchange between Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias (Aug. 5, Aug. 6). The gist of the argument is that the Constitution already spells out all the supermajority requirements for legislative action (2/3 for treaties, removal, expulsion, Constitutional amendments) so the 60-vote threshold for most legislation and nominations to clear the Senate is an additional and unintended hurdle in the process. As evidence, they cite the inclusion of a previous question motion in the initial Senate rules as proof that the Senate was “supposed” to be a majority rule chamber, with the deletion of this motion in 1806 representing an unintended embrace of filibustering (Harold Meyerson agrees with this reading of history).
Since serious people take this argument seriously, it is worth deconstructing.

1) Persistence is 9/10s of the (Constitutional) law
Any argument that “X is unconstitutional” where X has been with us since 1789 is probably not going to do well. Many features of modern politics are not explicitly provided for in the Constitution—political parties, primary elections, interest groups, the Daily Show, bloggers—and yet I don’t expect the Supreme Court to go Robert Bork on them. There is a profound case to be made that the influence filibustering has increased dramatically over the last fifty years, but this is an extraconstitutional development.
And, the historical record is more complex than the authors discuss. There was filibustering in the Continental Congress (e.g. a case of quorum-breaking in 1778) and Madison refers (favorably!) to quorum-breaking in the Virginia legislature during a discussion of quorum thresholds in the Constitutional Convention. That’s not to say that the authors of the Constitution generally approved of obstruction; just that they anticipated it would happen, sometimes with positive effects and sometimes with negative effects.

2) “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings”
Drum and Yglesias note that a court case against the Senate filibuster would probably be struck down as a “political question.” But, more directly, the Constitution (Article 1, Sec. 5) delegates to each chamber the right to choose its own rules. Unless there is a credible case that obstruction is interfering with some other Constitutional mandate, Congress’s discretion over its rules appears absolute.
During the 1950s, reform-minded senators and interest groups promoted a more subtle Constitutional claim that their ability to “determine the rules” of the Senate were being blocked by the rules themselves. That is, since the rules carried over from one Congress to the next and set out a supermajority process (or, from 1949 to 1959, NO process) for overcoming a filibuster against cloture reform, their rights were truncated. The problem with this argument is that the reformers frequently managed to force a test vote on their argument in the Senate, and (until 1975) could not get a simple majority to agree with their contention that a simple majority should be able to revise the rules of the Senate at will.

3) Both chambers make extensive use of supermajority requirements…
The Senate cloture threshold is NOT the only supermajority threshold in Congress. Some examples: about half the bills that pass the House do so under “suspension of the rules,” which requires a two-thirds threshold in the House. House rules also allow for passing bills on the “Corrections Calendar” by a 3/5 vote, for waiving Calendar Wednesday by a 2/3 vote, and require a 3/5 majority to pass a tax increase. Senate rules require a supermajority to waive the Budget Act for many amendments, and (following a 1915 precedent) a two-thirds vote is required to suspend the rules.
So, if the cloture threshold is unconstitutional, each of these items could be the subject of litigation as well. And each round of litigation injects uncertainty into the legislative process, e.g. whether a bill has “really” become law or not.

4) …and a committee system
The Constitution says nothing about a Congressional committee system. Yet the committee system “kills” 70-90% of all bills in Congress, which never get a hearing or reported to the floor. If filibustering is open to a court case, why not the committee system? Perhaps the supporters of every bill that does not get out of committee can sue to ensure that their bill gets an up-or-down vote in each chamber or, failing that, is simply declared to be a law.

5) Where There’s a Will, There’s Majority Rule
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the notion that the Senate “backed into” allowing filibustering is a fallacy.
First, the House retained its previous question motion but there was MORE filibustering in the 19th century House than in the Senate, because the previous question was ineffective against dilatory motions and quorum-breaking.
Second, as Joe Cooper proved back in 1962, the previous question motion was not originally used to limit debate (See “The Previous Question: Its Status as a Precedent for Cloture,” Senate Document No. 104, 87th Congress, 2nd Session). So the existence of this motion in the 1789 Senate rules does NOT suggest that the early Senate was committed to majority rule.
Third, and most important, the previous question is NOT the only motion that can be used limit debate. There are any number of strategies that can be used to limit obstruction: in the final analysis, senators are only constrained by their imagination and their constituents’ taste for procedural reform. If senators are determined to restrict filibustering (which I would not recommend—more on this later) I personally think the simplest mechanism would be to revise the interpretation and use of the motion to suspend the rules. Or, they can adopt the Republicans (circa 2005) doublethink approach of “60 means 50”, i.e. the “true” threshold for cloture on some issues is simple majority. Or, as one senator suggested in 1915, any senator can move the previous question and—with the support of a determined majority—defeat the inevitable point of order that the Senate doesn’t have one. The means don’t matter: what senators lack—and have always lacked—is the desire to impose majority rule. But that is a topic for another post.

Next: Well, How Did I Get Here? The Rise of the 60-Vote Senate.

Continue Reading

The Fundamentals of Filibustering

1) Definition
If we want to understand filibusters, it helps to start with a clear definition. Filibustering is delay, or the threat of delay, in a legislative chamber to prevent a final outcome for strategic gain. The key features are the purpose (delay) and the motive (gain) and NOT specifying the legislature or the method.

2) Obstruction occurs in many legislative settings.
Although the current focus is on the U.S. Senate, filibustering is a general phenomenon. While collecting data on filibusters in the modern Senate, I found references to filibustering in 20 state legislatures, 19 foreign countries, and the United Nations. In 2003, for example, Democrats in the Texas legislatures fled the state to block a redistricting plan. These other legislatures provide case studies that can help us understand the Senate.

3) Methods
There are lots of ways to kill time. We might associate filibustering with long speeches, but this is because Southerners opposed to civil rights favored germane speeches as the most legitimate form of obstruction (and hence more difficult to shut down). However, legislators can also delay by calling for unnecessary roll call votes, e.g. on motions to adjourn. Another classic technique is and by refusing to vote in the hopes of “breaking” a quorum, aka a “disappearing quorum.” The U.S. Constitution requires a simple majority to be in the chamber (or, the classic interpretation, joining in a vote) in order for a vote to be valid. So, if attendance is low, a minority of those present can block a decision by NOT voting. This was the Republican strategy in 1988, when then Majority Leader Robert Byrd had the Senate sergeant-at-arms drag Bob Packwood (R-OR) to the Senate floor.

Filibusters 1789-1901.jpg

For details & more charts, see the book! But the recurring finding is that there was more measured filibustering in the U.S. House than the Senate. And when columnists and academics were arguing over the merits and demerits of filibustering 120 years ago, they were talking about the U.S. House.

Filibustering in the House was reduced after stringent reforms were imposed after a long parliamentary campaign that lasted from 1890 to 1894. But it is noteworthy that some obstruction continued afterwards, and is still possible in the current day, e.g. Republicans blocking a revision of the “motion to recommit” rule on May 16, 2007.

4) Motives
We know that legislators can kill a bill with a filibuster, or extort concessions like the $100+ billion cut from the stimulus bill to attract three Republican votes. And sometimes, since they are politicians, what they really want is attention.

Legislators often filibuster to preserve their ability to make speeches and offer amendments. As Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have noted, the House increasingly stages straightjacket debates in which the majority chooses how long a bill will be debated (not long, so they can go back to raising money and visiting their districts) and which amendments will come up for a vote (not many, and nothing that gives heartburn to majority party members). In the Senate, the minority party has some leverage to ensure that major legislation faces a real debate, and that critical issues (e.g. should we drill in ANWR?) come up for a vote.

Finally, legislators filibuster to draw attention to a new issue on the legislative agenda. During the 1990s, Democrats (and John McCain) held major bills (appropriations, highway funding) hostage until Trent Lott promised them votes on campaign finance reform. In some cases, this power can broaden the public debate and keep the majority party from bottling up important and popular proposals.

5) Responses
There are several ways to deal with a Senate filibuster: negotiating, voting on cloture (which currently requires 60 votes), institutional change, and attrition. For anyone who wants to understand the history of filibustering in Congress, the last option is the most important. “Attrition” means that the majority simply waits until the obstructionist(s) is exhausted, e.g. Strom Thurmond’s futile 24-hour filibuster in 1957. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, filmed in the 1930s, the senators choose to wait out Jefferson Smith’s speaking rather than file a cloture petition, because attrition offered a quicker and easier resolution to the contest. This was a realistic touch, and the 1930s Senate successfully waited out several filibusters. Even before the Senate had a cloture rule (and before the House adopted its 1890s reforms), attrition was a realistic solution to a filibuster.

6) Reform
Bottom line: a simple majority has—and has always had—the power to restrict filibustering if senators are willing to take extreme measures to achieve their goals. Although parliamentary rules are discussed as if they are LAWS (with “rules” and “precedents” and “rulings from the chair”) in the final analysis the rules can be interpreted however a majority of the legislature prefer.
Some blogs explain the persistence of filibustering to an 1806 decision to eliminate the “previous question” motion from the Senate rulebook—the same motion which the House uses to cut off discussion. However, this is a confused and confusing argument: the previous question motion did not actually end filibustering in the House (see above), nor does the absence of this motion leave the majority of the Senate powerless to limit filibusters. As I discuss in a recent paper, there are several tactics senators have used, have proposed, or could use to restrict filibustering. This post by Ezra Klein is a good application of this idea to the budget reconciliation process: in the end, the rules are malleable if a majority is determined to win.

7) Puzzles

If 1-6 are correct, there are two big questions about filibustering in the Senate. First, if filibustering has always been possible, why and when did it stop being a rare struggle and become an everyday test of whether the supporters of a bill could muster enough votes to invoke cloture? Second, if a simple majority senators can restrict filibustering whenever they want, why haven’t they done so?

Next Post: is filibustering “constitutional”?

Continue Reading

A General Theory of Politicians’ Infidelity

I have two questions:

1) Are politicians more likely to have extramarital affairs than the population at large, controlling for relevant demographic factors (notably sex)?

2) If the answer to the first question is “yes,” then why?

I do not know the answer to the first question. Thinking about recent presidents, my categories are: definitely yes (FDR, JFK, WJC), there-are-rumors-but-just-rumors (LBJ, GHWB), I-have-no-idea (RWR, HST, DDE, RMN), and almost-certainly-not (JEC, GWB, BHO). So I wouldn’t hazard any definite answers based on this list. This article suggests some sort of systematic family dysfunction among the GOP’s class of 1994, although the stories there don’t necessarily involve affairs.

But for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that politicians are more likely to have an affair. Why? A typical class of explanations revolves around personality, such as arrogance, hubris, neediness, or a desire for attention. Politicians are presumed to be “higher” in these qualities, and this leads them to have affairs. The counterfactual: take these same individuals out of political life—say, into the corporate world or some other occupational sphere—and they would be equally likely to have affairs.

A second class of explanations revolves around circumstance or situation. I can think of two dimensions that matter here. The first is separation from family. Here’s a quote from one of the GOP ‘94:

Mark Neumann, a Wisconsin Republican who was elected to the first of two House terms in 1994, said that when he came to Washington, he initially had trouble balancing congressional duties with his responsibilities as a husband and father.
“It was extremely intense and there was a lot of pressure,” said Neumann, who announced Wednesday he’s running for governor in 2010. “The whole concept of being away from home and family was certainly difficult to adjust to. I’d never been away from my wife for more than a day at a time until then.”

(To be clear: Neumann is not cited as having an affair. He’s just articulating the problems created by separation.) Separation from family may weaken bonds with spouse and children, at least to some extent. And that increases the likelihood of finding another person attractive, etc., etc. Of course, some politicians do live at home (e.g., governors). But even they travel quite a bit.

A second circumstantial factor is just opportunity. Here’s a passage from this NY Times piece:

But perhaps the strongest risk factor for infidelity, researchers have found, exists not inside the marriage but outside: opportunity.
“People tend to assume that bad people have affairs, and good people don’t, or that affairs only happen in bad marriages,” said Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego-based researcher who runs the Web site, and author of a forthcoming book on infidelity and marriage, “To Have and to Hold.” “These assumptions are just not based in reality.”

To me, “opportunity” means various things. Irrespective of one’s relationship with spouse or family, being separated from them simply makes it logistically easier to cheat. It’s easier to keep things from your spouse. It’s easier to sneak around without their knowing.

Opportunity also gets at how many more people politicians typically meet as compared to others. And somewhere in that large group is someone that politicians will find attractive. Other things equal, the larger your sphere of friends and acquaintances, the greater the chance of an affair. So, in a sense, all the pressing of flesh just leads to, well, some pressing of flesh.

The counterfactual is this: if we took a random sample of the population and installed them in political office, would it increase the chance that they would have affairs? My guess is that it would.

There is perhaps an interaction here as well. Aspects of politicians’ personalities make them more attractive—e.g., self-confidence—and that, combined with opportunity, increases the likelihood of affairs. In other words, it’s the combination of personality and circumstance that is particularly potent.

What am I missing?

Continue Reading

Conservatives Copying Liberals Copying Conservatives

Matthew Yglesias quotes an article on Douglas Holtz-Eakin’s proposal to set up a Center for American Progress for the right.

The irony, of course, is that the Center for American Progress itself was developed as a liberal answer to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that has been a source of Republican policy ideas for decades. But Holtz-Eakin says established think tanks of the right, like Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute, were “not helpful” during the McCain campaign because they weren’t politically engaged or innovative in their media strategies.
That’s why Holtz-Eakin says he now looks to the Center for American Progress as a model. The center, headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, combined a battery of domestic and foreign policy proposals with outreach innovations, such as hosting film screenings around the country and collecting e-mail addresses of people who sign up for the screenings.

Matt is skeptical that this would work – he argues that the conservative movement has little in the way of substantive policy proposals, beyond the claim that cutting taxes is the solution to everything. Political scientists such as Steve Teles would point to a different set of problems. In his book on the conservative legal movement, Teles documents how conservative lawyers tried at first to copy the successful strategies of liberal lawyers, and found that it didn’t work out very well. The problems that conservatives needed to solve were different, and the available resources were different too. It was only when conservatives moved away from copycat strategies to a more sophisticated analysis of their problems and their environment that they began to succeed. Efforts by the left to copy the right haven’t worked very well either (the Constitutional Society, for example, is a faded shadow at best of the Federalist Society). As Steve notes in an online seminar that I heartily recommend to your attention (not least because I put it together):

An analogy is only good insofar as the things being analogized are really comparable. Conservatives made mistakes when they unthinkingly replicated in one context something that had worked for them—or for their liberal foes—in a very different context. Carefully studying what someone else did can, at the least, help you avoid making old mistakes, but only an accurate and searching understanding of one’s own situation can prevent the making of all new ones.
Continue Reading