Archive | General Politics

435 Separate Cuts; or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation

house recess 2013 coverThe House of Representatives’ Republican Conference has released instructions to its members on how to spend their summer vacations. It doesn’t involve much frivolity, unless one’s idea of holiday heaven involves writing (or at least cutting-and-pasting) op-eds, pumping gas, holding meetings with angry people and, most broadly, hating on Washington.

Kicking off the 31 colorful pages of  “Fighting Washington for All Americans”, GOP Conference Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (of Washington, as it happens) writes that “We should be proud of the work we’ve accomplished together so far in the 113th Congress…. The work we have accomplished in Congress is invaluable to those back in our districts.”  (Alas, only 12% of the public seems to realize this.)

The bulk of Fighting Washington consists of a long and detailed to-do list for the summer “district work period.” It gives members a sample op-ed to place in local papers, provides details on how to hold town hall meetings (hint: you should “reserve a space that is large enough to accommodate the expected number of attendees…” and “take many photographs and videos”), and suggests a list of issues members might hammer home at home: the economy, the excesses of Obamacare, the IRS.  (All the while remembering that “Fighting Washington isn’t about creating more partisan gridlock, heated rhetoric, or Republicans versus Democrats.”  Also that: “While touring, help constituents pump gas and bag their groceries where possible.”)

Now, here’s the thing. None of this is necessarily bad advice. But the people receiving it are incumbents and their staffs. Are they in fact people who need to be told to reserve a hall when holding a meeting? Congress scholars, help out here – is this level of instructional specificity new to the current crop of proud amateurs in the GOP caucus, or did the 1970s waves of newcomers (mostly Democratic then) receive similar orientation?

In the end the document serves as true homage to Richard Fenno and his 1978 book Home Style, in which he famously concluded that “members run for Congress, by running against Congress…”  But I wonder if we – and the House leadership – might do well to remember where he takes the thought: “Yet the institution bleeds from 435 separate cuts…”


PS According to Roll Call, Democrats too plan to spend the summer bashing Washington. So it is indeed 435 cuts, not 234…



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Pushback from the elites

A reform can sound very reasonable, but when it comes up against the interests of powerful people, there can be a lot of resistance.

For example, in recent years there’s been a lot of talk about affirmative action for based on social class, to reserve some fraction of college admissions for people from low-income families, or kids who are the first in their family to go to college, or that sort of thing. It sounds like a good idea (potential difficulties of implementation aside), but as Mark Palko reminds us, such a plan will not make everyone happy. In particular, it would alienate privileged high school students with mediocre test scores.

Palko recounts the story of a high school senior who happens to be the sister of a former Wall Street Journal features editor, and published an article in that newspaper expressing how upset she was to get rejected from some colleges, even though she did not have “killer SAT scores,” “two moms,” or other attributes that she feels is necessary for acceptance at a top school.

I have some sympathy for this student. After all, my application to Harvard was rejected even though I did have killer SAT scores (but only one mom, malheureusement)—-I think the problem was they’d already filled their “nerd quota” that year.

What interested me was this bit from the student’s letter to the newspaper:

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” . . .

Of course there are a lot more applicants to Harvard than there are slots, so at some level this student and the millions of others in her cohort must have realized that “be yourself” can’t really be what you need to get into the college of your dreams.

The problem, I suspect, is that this student thought that the rules of scarcity didn’t apply to her. And if you spread that message to kids who have powerful relatives, you’ll start getting some pushback.

P.S. Palko follows up:

I had mixed feelings about about going after a high school senior; I’m pretty sure that most of the things I wrote at 17 would make me look like an idiot (albeit an idiot with high SATs). John D. MacDonald put it best when he said that when it came to most of his early work, he wished the acid content in the paper had been higher.

That said, this really did capture a certain mindset. It also illustrated my primary concern about factoring race into admissions: high perceived cost to actual benefit ratio. Applicants who never would have been accepted under any criteria convince themselves that their spot was taken away from them.

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Fukuyama on Measuring Governance

The journal Governance has posted a new commentary (freely available) by Francis Fukuyama on how to measure governance. His main critique of existing measures is that they focus too much on measuring constraints on the executive (checking institutions) and too little on the ability to execute (“power-employing institutions”). Fukuyama then devises a new conceptual measurement scheme based on autonomy and capacity. Governance has also published a set of mostly critical comments by several noted scholars on its blog by Bo Rothstein, Thomas Risse,  David Levi-Faur Christopher Pollitt John Luiz,  Peter Nardulli Thomas Hale ,  Matthew Flinders, and  Shiv Visvanathan. Two common themes in the critiques are that Fukuyama focuses too much on governments and ignores private actor governance and that he does not start from a normative framework that defines what good governance should look like.

Btw, Governance has a very nice model for how to integrate a blog with journal content. I hope other journals take notice.

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It happened in Connecticut

After this latest school shooting, things seem different. I have no idea if we’ll end up with meaningful bullet control (as Chris Rock would say), but the translation of grief, anger, and frustration into policy seems more likely this time, compared to previous mass shootings in recent years.

What’s special about this case? Some natural hypotheses:

– The event itself is particularly horrifying: an elementary school instead of a high school, more kids getting killed, and the killer using three guns that were just lying around the house.

– Cumulation: each new shooting is added on to what came before, eventually enough people become motivated to act.

– Political timing: no national election for 23 months, now is the time for politicians to act without fear of the gun lobby.

– Political alignment: the Republicans have had so much success getting gun voters to their side that Democrats now have nothing to lose politically by supporting gun restrictions. And, if the Democrats move to restrict guns, savvy Republicans can move toward the center on the issue, confident that their Democratic opposition won’t outflank them on the right.

– The pendulum: to put that last point another way, gun policy has swung so far to the right in recent years that the force of public opinion will tend to pull it back to the center. This latest shooting has given politicians a chance to realize this and act on it.

Beyond all these reasons, let me suggest another which arises from my preoccupation with political geography.

The shooting happened in Connecticut. When people get massacred in Colorado, Arizona, or western Virginia, that’s every bit as horrible, but I wonder if there is an implicit social contract: we recognize that people in the southern and western states have lots of guns, they demand to have lots of guns, and it will be hard to take these guns away. People in these states don’t seem to mind all the guns. So from the standpoint of a voter in the east coast, sure, a shooting in Colorado or western Virginia is terrible, but nothing can be done about it because the voters there don’t want to do anything. It’s sad, but there’s nothing that can be done.

But if there’s a school shooting in Connecticut, that’s another story. The citizens of New England have not agreed to be bathed in guns. Yes, I know the long history of gun manufacture in the northeast, Springfield rifles and Smith & Wesson and all the rest. But bringing semiautomatic weapons to school is another story. Or, perhaps more to the point, the most prominent Americans defending the use of semiautomatic weapons in schools—the people who wanted to make sure that people like Nancy Lanza had the right to own these guns—are not, by and large, anywhere near Connecticut.

So, for the parts of the country that are generally in favor of gun restrictions, this latest shooting is particularly disturbing because it represents the politicians of the south and west imposing their will on residents of the northeast.

So, from this perspective, I can see why the Connecticut school shooting is different and could motivate political efforts, in a way that shootings in Colorado and elsewhere did not.

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Politics as an escape hatch

Reading these news articles that slam more and more nails into the already-dead reputation of Hewlett Packard executive Meg Whitman, I keep thinking: what if she’d won her election a couple years ago and was now governor or senator or whatever she was running for? Then nobody would care that her company was falling apart!

Conversely, when Jon Corzine lost his reelection and reentered the business world, he left himself open to charges of acts of corruption that wouldn’t have been possible in congress or from the governor’s office.

But sometimes the immunity can go the other way. Jack Welch still has the street-cred to write Wall Street Journal editorials despite his history of data manipulation, but it’s hard to imagine he could be elected to public office, even if he wanted to. For another example, Al Sharpton was caught out on his lies in a well-publicized court case but that does not stop him from being bankrolled as a quasi-public figure.

Big names in politics and business get away with so much that it’s notable when the magic dries up and their statements get taken with the same skepticism as would be applied, for example, to leaders of foreign countries that are not our allies.

I have no systematic thoughts on this right now but it seems worthy of study.

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Throwing the 1% under the bus for the 0.1%?

The New York Times reports the following proposal is on the table in negotiations over raising additional tax revenue so that Republicans can say they have not allowed marginal tax rates to rise:

One possible change would tax the entire salary earned by those making more than a certain level — $400,000 or so — at the top rate of 35 percent rather than allowing them to pay lower rates before they reach the target, as is the standard formula. That plan would allow Republicans to say they did not back down in their opposition to raising marginal tax rates and Democrats to say they prevailed by increasing effective tax rates on the rich

The article then goes on to report how much revenue this (and other) proposals would raise, but it misses what I think is the most important point of this proposal: if the Times is correct, it suggests that Republicans are apparently now willing to raise taxes on the rich in order to avoid raising them more on the super-rich.

Here’s my logic. This change will have no effect on anyone making under $400,000 a year. But for everyone making over $400,000 a year, their tax bill will go up by the exact same amount because the proposal will only change how income up to $388,350 (where the top rate of 35 percent currently kicks in) is taxed. The increase in one’s tax bill will therefore be the same if you are making $400,000/year, $4 million/year, or $40 million/year. This would obviously not be the case if the highest bracket reverted to the Clinton-era level of 39.6%. Just to give an extremely simple example without taking into account deductions or the like, avoiding a 4.6% increase in income over (let’s say) $400,000 a year would save someone making $500,000 a year $4,600; it would save someone making $5 million/year $211,600; and someone making $50 million/year would save a whopping $2,281,600!

So maybe this is what the post-Citizens United world is going to look like? An anti-tax party that is willing to stomach a tax increase for those making $400,000/year + so long as they protect the super-rich from an even bigger tax increase? From a campaign finance perspective, perhaps this makes sense: someone making $500,000 a year can not single-handedly keep your campaign afloat; someone who can write you a $5 million check, however, possibly can.

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First Responder-in-Chief, 1965 edition

Thanks to Will Nelligan for alerting me to this—
Kent Germany of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center has produced an on-line exhibit giving – thanks to Lyndon Johnson’s proclivity for taping his telephone conversations – a fascinating view into LBJ’s response to Hurricane Betsy, a Category 4 storm which made landfall in New Orleans in September 1965.  (The full exhibit is here, providing the phone transcripts and recordings excerpted below.)

The next day, Senator Russell Long (D-LA) called Johnson and strongly suggested he visit the disaster area. “If I do say it, you could elect Hale Boggs and every guy you’d want to elect in the path of this hurricane by just handling yourself right,” Long told the president. “Just go there right now. Just go, and say, “My God, this is horrible! . . . These federally constructed levees that Hale Boggs and Russell Long built is the only thing that saved 5,000 lives.” See now, if you want to do that you can do it right now. Just pick one state up like looking at it—you lost it last time…”

LBJ was initially noncommittal. That morning, according to LBJ’s White House daily diary, he had been discussing his presidential library (he was going to have “the greatest library ever in the world.”)  Former Tennessee governor Buford Ellington had told LBJ, “I actually don’t think this warrants a trip, but you’re the boss.” Johnson responded, “I’ve been asking Russell Long [for favors] all year, and he’s had a lot of things he didn’t want to do at all… Hale Boggs is the same way and he wants me to go. And [Louisiana Congressman] Ed Willis…. they got trouble with school plans, and they’re segregationists, and they feel like nobody cares about them… I feel about them like a 17-year-old girl; I want them to know they’re loved.” And less than four hours later he was on Air Force One with the Louisiana congressional delegation en route to New Orleans.

Whatever got him on the plane, Johnson was genuinely moved by his visit. After touring parts of the city, including an evacuation shelter whose residents begged for “water… water … water,” Johnson told the press he would “cut all red tape” to make sure New Orleans got help. (See Johnson’s daily diary for September 10, 1965, with detailed descriptions of his trip to New Orleans, here.)

A few days later Johnson made a round of calls to various government agencies, telling Louisiana’s state disaster coordinator Robert Phillips in Baton Rouge that federal resources were at his service. “We’ve got to cut out all the red tape. We’ve got to work around the clock. We’ve got to ignore hours. We’ve got to bear in mind that we exist for only one purpose and that’s to the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Later in the conversation he stressed: “I hope that all the government people can put their shoulder to the wheel without regard to hours, without regard to red tape. Bring to these people the kind of assistance they need in this emergency which is worthy of a great government and a great country. And I want to thank all the local officials and the city and county and state and parish officials, and I want to assure you that up here, if you have any problems, well, let me know about them. We’ll get them straightened out.”

Sounds like the script President Obama will be reading from shortly.

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Making the world safe . . . for the other party to mess it up

Mark Lilla writes:

Reagan did in fact restore (then overinflate) America’s self-confidence, and he did bequeath to Republicans a clear ideological alternative to Progressivism. But he also transformed American liberalism. . . . Reagan won the war of ideas, as everyone knows.

Except conservatives. The most important thing I [Lilla] learned from Kesler’s book is just how large a stake conservatives have in convincing themselves and voters that Reagan failed. Think about it: if they conceded ideological victory they would have to confront the more prosaic reasons that entitlements, deficits and regulations continue to grow in Republican and Democratic administrations alike. . . .

Lilla argues that it’s easier for intellectuals (conservative or otherwise) are more comfortable viewing themselves in opposition than in power: “conservative intellectuals and media hacks have realized that it’s much easier to run a permanent counterrevolution out of their plush think-tank offices and television studios than to reflect seriously, do homework and cut a deal.” This may be so, or maybe not. Right now, a government job might be more secure than anything on offer at a television studio, and in any case I think that discussion of office-plushness is a distraction from Lilla’s more serious arguments.

What I really want to explore here, though, is why it might make sense for conservatives not to want to agree with Lilla that Reagan “won.” Here’s the problem: if it’s true that Reagan restored America’s self-confidence, then this self-confidence can be used by his successors in power. Reagan’s success in Grenada begat Obama’s drones, Reagan’s sense of national greatness allows Obama to say that everyone in this great nation of America should have access to health care and a college education. I think this is one reason that conservatives in recent years have been dialing it down, saying that we’ve lived beyond our means, that, in Tyler Cowen’s words, we’re in a great stagnation. Sure, part of this is a response to the 2008 economic crisis, but I think a larger reason that many conservatives have switched from America the Bountiful to Age of Limits is that, the better we’re doing, the more the government can afford to spend.

Coming at it from the other direction, liberals have long argued that it is their economic policies that created the prosperity leading to conservative complacency. This started as a post-FDR argument that the New Deal gave Americans the security to feel middle-class enough want to vote Republican, and the argument reappeared a few years ago with the claim that Clinton put in all sorts of hard work to get a budget surplus that G. W. Bush blew on wars and tax cuts.

From either direction, the idea is that “we” made America strong but, by doing so, provided the opportunity for “them” to screw everything up. Sort of like that chess variant where you turn the board around every 10 moves.

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The Politics of Olympic Risk

In introducing our man-on-the-street reporting from the 2012 London Olympics, I noted the conspicuos lack of writing on The Monkey Cage regarding the Olympics. Fortunately, this post caught the eye of political scientist Dr. Will Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Southampton and a Research Associate at the Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Jennings specialises in research on risk and mega-events as well as the quantitative analysis of politics, policy and society. His book, Olympic Risks, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2012. This research was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (RES-063-27-0205), and he was kind of enough to offer the following observations to our readers regarding the politics of Olympic risk:

In deliberations over whether or not the British government should support a London bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, he later confessed in his autobiography, one of the thoughts that played on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s mind was the political risk that was involved: “…but suppose we get beaten and, what’s worse, we get beaten by the French and I end up humiliated?” (Blair 2010, p. 545). While Blair’s lobbying of International Olympic Committee members has been credited as swinging the vote in London’s favour, the political and economic benefits from winning the Games remain unclear, even today.

Indeed, there are great difficulties reconciling mega-events such as the Olympics with our conventional assumptions about political behaviour. These projects are inherently risky for policy-makers. They are complex and expensive, requiring high levels of public investment, tend to attract threats such as terrorism (and, at recent Games, cyber-attacks), and are a potential source of disruption to local businesses and local populations. Further, the economic benefits invariably are over-estimated (television audiences tend to be over-estimated too), and the costs are always under-estimated: in Olympic Risks, I show that since 1976 the average Olympics cost over-run is equal to around 200% between the bid book submitted to the IOC and the final outturn cost of the Games. In the case of London 2012, the total cost of the Olympics is now well in excess of £12 billion, far beyond the £1.8 billion quoted in an initial feasibility study. Beyond this, there is no psephological evidence to suggest incumbent governments receive a boost in the polls due to hosting the Olympics, and indeed the time horizon of planning from development of the original bid to the event itself is so long that political payoffs tend to accrue to future governments often of a different partisan colour (for London 2012, the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has received plaudits for performing a ceremonial role during the Games but had no involvement in the original bid nor much of its planning).

There is a tendency to attribute this contradiction between the sizeable economic risks of hosting the Olympics and the low political returns to considerations focused upon ‘high politics’ on the part of decision-makers in government. There is similarly a view that systematic optimism bias in budgeting for mega-projects is evidence of ‘strategic misrepresentation’ (i.e. lying) on the part of planners, lowballing estimated costs to ensure that the initial bid is approved. I find these sorts of explanation unsatisfactory, most of all because intentionality often remains unproven (i.e. the recurring presence of cost overruns may provide proof of regularities in failures of cost controls but does not automatically mean that planners knowingly mislead in their original projections). Instead, these phenomenon can be viewed as the product of more prosaic processes, with decision-making distorted by high levels of uncertainty at the early bid planning stages. When bidding for the Olympics, senior officials in government have little motivation to attend closely to the details of policy given the low likelihood of being awarded the Games (keeping in mind that London’s victory ahead of Paris in the IOC vote in 2005 was a surprise to many). Instead, bids to host the Olympic Games often originate in local coalitions of civic entrepreneurs, sporting associations and business, with ‘high politics’ becoming involved in the process late on. Likewise, budgeting projections at the initial stage are often made in the absence of detailed stadium designs while key parameters of the project can remain unspecified until much later in the process. Such a lack of detail in scope definition is a well-established cause of cost over-runs in major projects. Because of this, the bid books submitted to the IOC perform the function of what Lee Clarke (1999) calls ‘fantasy documents’, i.e. representations of organisational reality produced to provide a demonstration of manageability and control to public audiences. It is no surprise, then, when the final cost of the Olympics far exceed predictions, but at the same time there is no evidence of a smoking gun, as proponents of ‘strategic misrepresentation’ would have us believe. Further one does not need to subscribe to arguments about ‘securitization’ of mega-events to recognise that decision-makers use planning documents, such as cost forecasts and economic impact assessments, to provide legitimacy to the adoption of these projects in the face of immense uncertainty. Indeed, that uncertainty may account for the attraction of supposedly vote-seeking, blame-avoiding policy-makers to risky and often uneconomic mega-events, similar to the idea of the Winner’s Curse: where in auctions subject to incomplete information, the winner will tend to over-pay. Over-estimation of the political and economic value of the Olympics, and systematic under-estimation of its costs, can thus be linked to the competitive procedure through which host cities are selected.

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“Not a Scientific Survey…”

The House vote to de-fund the American Community Survey, the 3 million-person strong supplementary sample to the US census, has been noted on this site before but perhaps deserves to be highlighted. A useful NY Times primer from the weekend is here (with a h/t to Rob Mickey). The data are used for many purposes, not least for driving funding formulas for the distribution of federal money to states and congressional districts.

In the story, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL) complains that the survey “intrudes on people’s lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators.”  Leaving aside his casual equation of bankers to people (sorry! rimshot here), Monkey Cage readers might be most disturbed by Webster’s assertion that the ACS is an especial waste of money because “in the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”

The congressman has at least escaped the danger of being confused with his 19th century senatorial namesake. That Daniel Webster observed in 1825 that “Mind is the great lever of all things; human thought is the process by which human ends are ultimately answered.”


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