At a briefing yesterday on cannabis policy, I made my usual argument that (in rough numbers) 80% of the users of almost any drug use it moderately, take no harm from it, and do no harm to others, but that the other 20%, who use more than is good for them, account for 80% of the consumption and an even larger fraction of damage to themselves and others. My conclusion from that was the necessity of regulation, since the industry that sells the drug (or offers other potentially habit-forming services such as gambling) will always be financially dependent on dependent problem users, while the public interest is in serving the desires of non-dependent non-problem users while minimizing the number of dependent users.
Jonathan Rauch of Brookings found that line of argument troubling. He asked me whether the interests of the responsible 80% should really have to yield to the interests of the irresponsible 20%. (Since the two groups aren’t distinguishable at a glance, there’s no way of restricting the consumption of problem users without somewhat inconveniencing non-problem users.)
That question, asked by someone whose intellect and ethical sensibility I have come to respect, led me to reflect on the difference between a moralistic or rights-based approach to a problem such as this one and a policy-analytic or outcomes-based approach. If you think of problem users and non-problem users as different people, it’s natural to ask which group’s interests ought to make way for the other’s. That seems to be a moral or constitutional question. But if you think of yourself as a potential user of a drug (or, as Jonathan suggested to me, the parent of a potential user), unable to know in advance whether your (or your child’s) use will remain controlled or will instead progress to dependency, and ask how much inconvenience in controlled use you want to sacrifice for protection against a bad habit, then you confront a practical problem rather than a moral one.
(Some readers will recognize in this Schelling’s solution to the puzzle of why it’s justified to save a larger rather than a smaller number of lives, when that’s the choice; if you imagine yourself as a member of one of the two groups, without knowing which one, it’s obvious you’d prefer a higher probability of survival to a lower one. Jonathan instead recognized this as a Rawlsian veil-of-ignorance argument, which also seems right to me.)
Of course, this same approach can be applied well beyond drug policy. Asking “How much do the non-poor owe to the poor?” is a moral question. Asking “How much protection would a reasonable person want against the risk of poverty?” sounds more like a computation. Of course, if you think of yourself as naturally immune to the risks of drug abuse or of poverty, you’ll be more inclined to let the drug abusers, and the poor, go hang. But that seems to me compatible neither with the Categorical Imperative nor with the Golden Rule. If we accept arguments from symmetry in physics, why not in ethics?
Some candidates are thinking of running against Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper next year. Does that spell danger for him? Republicans seem to think so:
At least five candidates are officially challenging Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014 and another three are mulling whether to jump in the race.
That so many are choosing to challenge the popular governor is, Republicans contend, a sign that a Democrat who once seemed invincible is vulnerable.
Well, that could be a sign that Hickenlooper is vulnerable, but only if the five candidates already in the race were remotely threatening to him. Yet as the Denver Post notes, they’re really not a very impressive crew. Three of them are unaffiliated with a major party. No offense to independents and libertarians, but those folks tend to not do very well in statewide elections. One of them is a Republican described as “starting” a telecommunications business whose main credential is that he doesn’t like Hickenlooper’s stance on gun control.
Writing in TNR, Michael Kinsley is annoyed Paul Krugman and his “attack dogs” calling him lots of nasty names on account of his defense of austerity. Though the consequences of economic devastation are very real indeed (the Greek suicide rate, for example, just hit a 50-year high), let’s focus on the argument; as a (sometimes unsuccessful) proponent of a more generous lefty discourse, perhaps a bit of decency might get through. To wit:
1) Inflation is nothing to worry about. Kinsley has been wringing his hands about this since 2010 at least, but as you can see in the chart above, it has been moderate before and since and is in fact probably too low. Inflation is no worry because there is still a lot of slack in the economy, mostly in the form of unemployed workers. The price level is set by market forces, not by magic, and increased economic activity will come largely in the form of new jobs and services, not increased prices.
Like suppose Ben Bernanke prints up a few billion dollars and sends every citizen a big wad of cash. If this were an economy at full capacity, that extra spending would come in the form of increased prices as people bid against each other for goods and services. But in a depressed economy, there is lots of idle capacity lying around. If you want a bartender, there’s one for the hiring, you don’t have to bid one away from someone else. If people buy more shoes, companies can just run the shoe factory a bit faster, by adding an extra shift. Etc.
And furthermore, the 1970s inflation happened at a time when many union-negotiated contracts had a price-of-living clause in them, thus transmitting higher prices into higher wages in a vicious cycle. Today, union density is back to pre-New Deal levels.
If Kinsley wants Krugman et al to take his inflation concerns seriously, he needs a story for how it will happen.
2) The national debt is nothing to worry about. See above for a chart of yields on 10-year US Treasury Bonds. Since the 2008 crash, the government has borrowed hugely, but borrowing costs for new debt have plummeted to the point that people now are paying for the privilege of giving their money to Uncle Sam for ten years. Why is this happening?
Rates on US debt are the combination of expected inflation (low), expected real short-term interest rates (low), and a “term premium,” (i.e., it costs more to borrow money for 30 years than for 5). But the financial system is awash in liquidity—corporate profits are at historic highs, and labor’s share of national income is at historic lows. Because of the weak recovery and the corresponding weak wage growth, business and finance see little to invest in—why build more factories if people can’t afford more products? In other words, all this cash the economy is producing has nowhere to go, so it goes into US debt.
Kinsley keeps asking how we’re going to deal with the national debt. Krugman has said this before, but the answer is: when we get back to full employment. When we get to full employment, the Fed can raise interest rates off the floor without causing a recession. Then we can do some fiscal consolidation without cratering the labor market because the Fed will be able to drop rates to compensate.
As Matt O’Brien points out, the longer it takes to get to full employment, the greater the number of long-term unemployed there will be, who find it nearly impossible to find jobs. This is fast becoming a major structural problem in the US economy, one that took WWII to solve last time it happened.
Personally, I’d say this country could use five years at least of rip-roaring wage growth to make up for the last forty, but this is the basic picture Kinsley is asking for.
Star Trek Into Darkness, the number one movie in America, is rife with political resonance. Political scientists have taken to analyzing popular cultural entertainment, and Star Trek, in its classic and current incarnations, is perhaps the most fertile ground of all for this. It was always deeply political. The original 1960s television series reflected cold war tensions, featuring border strife between the idealistic good guys and other belligerent, mysterious superpowers. This was married to an uplifting vision of a future of gender and racial equality, an absence of avarice, and a military with a primary mission of exploration and peacekeeping. The central governance structure, the Federation, was an interstellar United Nations. Member planets made collaborative decisions, were accorded absolute equality, and pooled their resources in pursuit of collective security and cultural exchange rather than plundering conquest.
Later movie versions continued this idea-driven focus, dealing with weapons of mass destruction, the strange human lust for damaging our habitat, religious fanaticism, and the end of the cold war. Although these new Star Trek movies – this is the second in the series directed by JJ Abrams – have altered the ratio of ideas to action in favor of the latter, there is a lot to think about in Into Darkness. I will not seek primarily to evaluate the merits of the film – with apologies to Leonard McCoy, I am a doctor, not a movie critic – but instead focus on political themes that deserve our attention. Those yet to see the movie and who wish to do so without knowing plot points will want to postpone reading any further.
The movie opens with a sequence exploring the most politically relevant idea in the Star Trek universe: the Prime Directive. This sacred covenant of the Federation – it is Star Fleet General Order # 1 – prohibits interference in the internal affairs of less advanced civilizations. The Prime Directive engages classic political issues of imperialism, colonialism, and development. It is a deeply idealistic principle – self-determination of peoples regardless of their material capacity – that is often compromised in Star Trek and in our own world. Foreign policy realists have constantly cautioned idealists that universal principles, divorced from concrete situations, are likely to be untenable and may do more harm than good. In Into Darkness, the crew faces a choice between allowing a devastating natural catastrophe that will result in the death of the native inhabitants of a planet, or preventing it by making the pre-industrial population aware of technology that can only appear God-like, thus upending their culture and changing the trajectory of their development. These dilemmas remain profound as we think about, for example, the competing imperatives of a responsibility to protect versus intervention aversion in the Syrian civil war.
Overall, our quantitative models demonstrate a clear positive association between cell phone coverage and the occurrence of violent organized collective action. This effect persists when controlling for a series of standard explanations of violence, as well as unobserved, time-invariant factors at the country and even grid level. Plainly, our results suggest that local cell phone coverage facilitates violent collective action on the African continent.
This article should set off some interesting debates. I’ll leave it to those more statistically adept to assess their analysis (although I wonder whether the authors will get some pushback for their claim that regulatory efficiency is a good instrumental variable for cellphone coverage and is causally unconnected to levels of violence). Nonetheless, this piece does draw some interesting and potentially important connections between the diffusion of communication technology and ‘real world’ outcomes. As the authors note, we have seen a number of pieces over the last couple of years asserting that new communication technologies have helped e.g. foster the spread of the Arab Spring revolutions. However, we’ve seen precious little work that really tries to demonstrate systematic linkages rather than assert them. Pierskalla and Hollenbach’s piece begins to think about how we might want to investigate these linkages.
In the latest edition of his well-known textbook on UK domestic policy, LSE Professor Howard Glennerster tells the remarkable story of how national government support for housing the elderly exploded under Margaret Thatcher. In the decades after the war, local government authorities provided some social housing for the elderly who had nowhere else to turn. Technically, an elderly person also had the right to move into a privately-managed home with the bill paid by the national government. But this happened very rarely until the Thatcher government spelled the possibility out in explicit regulation, making the public generally aware of it for the first time.
Glennerster describes the stunningly rapid adaptation of the British:
People began to rid their elderly relatives of their assets and claim [the housing benefit]. Local authorities, under pressure to cut spending, began to see that if they closed homes or privatized them the old people could still be looked after in residential care and the central government would have to pay for them through the social security scheme. Private [old age] home owners began to realize that if they increased fees locally in line with other homes the social security scheme would have to pay up.
The result, under the putatively tight-fisted Thatcher government, was that Social Security spending on old age homes increased from £10 million to £2,072 million, a more than 200-fold increase over 12 years!
Glennerster, a Labour Party man down to his bones, concedes the reality that is usually trumpeted by conservatives:
There could be no better example of the way individuals will change their behaviour in fairly ruthless ways to avail themselves of public money.
The following guest post is provided by George Washington University political scientist Harris Mylonas, the author of the recently published The Politics of Nation-Building(Cambridge University Press, 2013). The post originally appeared at e-IR.
In my book, The Politics of Nation-Building, I explore the reasons behind a state’s choice to assimilate, accommodate, or exclude ethnic groups within its territory. I develop a theory that focuses on the international politics of nation-building arguing that a state’s nation-building policies toward non-core groups — any aggregation of individuals perceived as an unassimilated ethnic group by the ruling elite of a state — are inﬂuenced by both its foreign policy goals and its relations with the external patrons of these groups. Through a detailed study of the interwar Balkans, I conclude that the way a state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, this argument does not travel to states where the ruling elites are not motivated by a homogenizing imperative.
Some places in the world are run by core groups consisting of apparent minimum winning coalitions, others by elites that go at great lengths to establish national states. Why do some countries have leaders that try to make the national and the political unit overlap and others that opt to rule with a minimum winning coalition? One argument suggests that maybe the degree of diversity prevents the nation-building path in some cases, other arguments focus on the pattern of spread of nationalist ideology and/or the prevalence of competing ideologies such as communism, yet others put forth the importance of war-making and imitation of successful military tactics as a mechanism that accounts for the spread of nationalism and the nation-state system. In The Politics of Nation-Building I build on some of these and suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the nation-building option is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers using non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or even annex parts of their territory.
The European story is well known and so are the interactions between the Russians and the Europeans. Tilly’s argument that war made the modern national state may be correct but it is also based on an understood reality: borders were constantly changing during the centuries that modern European states developed. But the Westphalian principles have been adhered to more in some parts of the world than others. Border fixity did not only vary tremendously over time but it also significantly varied crossnationally across the globe. For example, following the Treaty of Berlin in the end of the 19th century the borders of Africa “froze” after the decision of the Great Powers. This led to a completely different incentive structure for both ruling elites and counterhegemonic elites in countries with “fixed borders”. Beyond the case of Africa, however, we can point to other places with similar levels of border fixity that resulted from different geopolitical configurations, such as Latin America—the back yard of the USA—or the Middle East, where the colonial powers also left their mark on the demarcation of borderlines.
Oklahoma is an oil state. Oklahomans vote for people like senators Inhofe and Coburn, who rail at the ‘myth’ of climate change. After all, there are millions and millions of dollars still to earn selling oil to burn: what more evidence does a reasonable Sooner need?
People who think science is more than a political flag one can choose to wave or not, depending on whether there’s profit in it, are pretty sure that one of the effects of global warming is increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather.
I wish I believed that a just Providence sent things like today’s tornado upon people who vote for oil-whore Oklahoma Republicans. I don’t, but could the devastation in Moore possibly give the survivors something to think about along these lines?
UPDATE (21 May):
I obviously wrote the foregoing too quickly and too elliptically. Let me unpack it here:
The reference to a just Providence was a pointer to the repeated meme, trotted out (for example) after Katrina, that natural disasters happen to people who deserve to be punished. The reason I “wish I believed that” is that if I did, I would feel OK about the consequences, I guess even the children whose school was shredded around them. But I don’t: I believe natural systems are ordered by an amoral, implacable, scientific reality that we understand much better by taking it seriously and being smart than by theodicy. I believe actions like putting carbon back in the air from underground as fast as possible have consequences, consequences that fall most heavily on the least deserving: the poor people who will not have enough to eat as floods and droughts deepen and come more often, and all the children still unborn around the world who didn’t get to dance at the fossil fuel party but will still have to figure out how to live in a toasted planet – yes, and children in tornado alley who never voted for anyone.
I also believe that the time to talk about politics and how we engage with that amoral reality is while the manifestations of foolishness, especially their injustice, are salient, and that doing so shows respect and sympathy for those who suffered and died for no good reason other than the cupidity of their leadership and its wilful ignorance (or worse, putative ignorance)
Let’s be realistic here. Unless there’s some kind of major upheaval within the Republican party that moves it back to the center, when the day comes that there’s a Republican president and a Republican senate, the filibuster will be gone. It won’t take a Democratic minority using it with the profligacy Republicans have, either. All it will take is one filibuster on something Republicans care about. Today’s Republicans don’t care about the institution’s traditions, or about what kind of precedent they might set. They care about getting what they want. If you think they won’t do it, you haven’t been paying much attention to American politics over the last five years.
Of course, there’s no way to prove this one way or another, certainly not yet. But while I think Republicans have less restraint than Democrats do in violating norms, I think this claim is overstated.
After all, we do have some experience with this: Republicans really didn’t get rid of the filibuster during the George W. Bush presidency. Are current Republican Senators really all that different than Frist-era Republican Senators? Maybe. Maybe not.
In fact, Republicans during the Bush years wound up arguing that judicial filibusters were illegitimate (although enough were willing to cut a deal that nothing was done). They probably didn’t care about executive branch nominations because Democrats basically didn’t use the filibuster against those, so it wasn’t a big deal. Legislation, though, mattered — and Republicans from 2003 through 2006 did nothing to end filibusters on bills, even though Democrats continued the Bob Dole practice of filibustering all major bills.
Would things be different for a Republican Senate in 2017 or 2021? Maybe. On the other hand, the longer they remain in the Senate minority, the more Republican Senators will use strong language in support of rules which allow obstruction. That won’t entirely constrain them in the future, as it hasn’t completely constrained Democrats who were in those Bush-era Senate minorities, but it will tend to constrain them. It’s no surprise that many of those Democrats least enthusiastic about eliminating the filibuster are those who made strong pro-filibuster statements during the years of Republican majorities in the 1990s and 2000s.
The basic story of filibuster reform is that there are cross-pressures for Senators between their interests as party members and their interests as individual Senators. It may be true that Republicans are more likely to think of themselves as party members than Democrats are, but I think it’s unlikely that Republicans wouldn’t be cross-pressured at least to some extent. And that means that they, too, might be reluctant to act.
Of course, all that assumes that the filibuster survives intact until Republicans get the White House and a Senate majority. If Democrats have a couple of good election cycles while Tea Partiers continue to gain seats in the Senate at the expense of other conservative Republicans, then that’s probably not very likely.
Sarah Binder wrote last night about the new threats that Harry Reid is making to go nuclear. The first thing you need to know is that if you’re at all interested in the filibuster, you need to read everything that Sarah writes. Especially if you read me on it — if we differ, remember that I’m just a consumer of Congress research: she produces it.
To begin with, she emphasizes that the mechanism for majority-imposed reform is far more blunt and uncertain than I (and some others) tend to describe it. That’s important.
Sarah also argues, also on something that I didn’t take into consideration in my posts on this last week: “Republicans can credibly threaten to retaliate procedurally if the Democrats go nuclear. And that might be a far more credible threat than Reid’s.”
I have two reactions to this.
The first is that a lot of liberals will read dismiss it, claiming that Republicans are already maximizing obstruction. That is incorrect. Only one judicial nomination has been defeated by filibuster during the current Congress; there are also a handful of other judicial and executive branch nominations which probably have not been brought to the floor because Reid doesn’t have 60. On the other hand, there’s a long list of nominations that the Senate has confirmed so far this year. There’s also one judicial selection who withdrew after “blue slip” obstruction, but that speaks to Sarah’s point: Republicans could make more trouble in other ways than they currently do.
Republican obstruction on nominations is unprecedented and, in my view, unjustified. They have invented a 60 vote threshold for virtually all nominations which never existed before 2009. But it is certainly not universal obstruction. It could be much worse under the current rules.
On the other hand…
I’m very hesitant to disagree with Sarah, but I really don’t think much of the retaliation threat. It makes sense to threaten to shut down the Senate, but after majority-imposed reform is imposed, does it makes sense to carry out that threat? I don’t think so — because if it was in the GOP’s interest to shut down the Senate, they would be doing it now. In other words, I don’t think Republican Senators hold off on more extreme obstruction now because they’re nice; I think they do it because they believe it’s in their interest. And once they’re faced with a new status quo, it would turn out that more less the same incentives apply.
Indeed, we’ve seen this before. Republicans threatened retaliation if Barack Obama used a recess appointment despite the House-forced pro forma sessions during a Senate recess, but when Obama acted the threat of retaliation turned out to be a dud. That doesn’t prove that retaliation wouldn’t happen this time, but as I said, I’m just skeptical about it. I’m sure there would be a lot of shouting, and there’s a good chance there would be some demonstration of something on the Senate floor, but after a few weeks I suspect it would fizzle out. Now, to be fair, one could go back to that quote I’m so fond of from Maltese Falcon about how in the heat of the moment people don’t always act in their own best interests. Given that, and just generally, I’d expect managers of the immigration bill to want to get that done before a filibuster battle begins.
But overall, I continue to think that the threat of massive retaliation if the Democrats go nuclear — the threat that Republicans could respond by “shutting down” the Senate — is a relatively minor factor in the chess game. Still: read Sarah’s post in full; while I haven’t been convinced, there’s every possibility that she’s right and I’m wrong on this one.