Archive | January, 2008

>A message to you Rudy

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A growing addiction to US politics has slowly crept up on me – at least for non-academic purposes – and, may God forgive me, I’ve been following the primaries closely. The collapse of Rudy Giuliani’s bold strategy of missing out the early primaries to concentrates on victories in big diverse states is particularly interesting. But could it have worked? Just to see, I replayed it during a coffee break on the excellent President Forever political sim game:- you can generally knock together a campaign strategy and get to Super Tuesday in half an hour or so.

In this scenario running the Giuliani ticket, I was a little more cautious and did a little better than the real Rudy and his advisors. I won Florida handsomely. But the result and campaign dynamics were, sadly, basically the same: the frontrunner coming out of Iowa and the early small state primaries had so much momentum, he just blew me away (see map above). The main difference between my virtual tilt at the White House and the real one was that the frontrunner that crushed me was Mit Romney, not John McCain. Bad news for liberal Republicans in some alternative reality, but I guess is just about possible. I did manage to pick up California on Super Tuesday though, thanks to early endorsement by Arnie Schwarzenegger, but by then was then so busy barnstorming key states and throwing cash at last minute advertising to shore up my rapidly eroding polls leads it was too late. I even managed to lose New York for Rudy! Not that it made a difference given Romney’s dominance across the Midwest and the South. Hasta la vista, baby.

>Czech presidential debate: dull but informative

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I finally get to watch the Czech Presidential debate between incumbent Václav Klaus and challenger Jan Švejnar courtesy of the the Czech Television website held two days (starts with a 20 second commercial for Czech TV, but stay tuned). Candidates will get to make a formal address to the joint session of the Czech parliament that elects the Czech Head of State in February, but this head-to-head between presidential candidates is is a first the Czech Republic- and it’s a rather odd affair, held not in a TV studio or a public forum, but in a historic committee room as a special sitting of the Social Democrat faction in the Senate but with TV camera in attendance. Social Democrat Senators are thus the only ones to ask questions of two distinctly liberal, pro-market economists. Both candidates make opening statements. Klaus gives his usual confident, hard-edged professional pitch, but later gets a little rattled when he thinks that Švejnar will get answer questions second and be able to critique his answers. They agree to take turns Klaus then tries to lighten the atmosphere with a dose of his usual brand of self-satisfied public bonhomie. The ensuing exchanges are, however, dull but still quite informative.

Klaus argues that he is politically experienced; has had his differences with the Social Democrats (something of an understatement if we take his rhetoric of the 1990s seriously, perhaps we shouldn’t) but believes in ‘social feeling’ (sociální cítění) – the Czech term for some kind of commitment to welfare; he will not make the Presidency an alternative power centre or substitute it for parties (like Václav Havel did, we are supposed to understand). Švejnar begins nervously and speaks too quickly. At first he sounds like he is at attending job interview, rather than presenting a manifestion for political office, but he gets into his strides later on. He is, he says, genuinely independent and his inexperience is an advanage – he represents changes and address the discontent many Czechs feels; has experience of the policy world both abroad and in the CR; and understands the economic challenges of globalization.

The good Senators then pose a series of questions, centring – as one might expect – on social and economic issues. The mistakes of privatization in the 1990s? Irrelelvant to current politics, perhaps inevitable in the circumstances and no worse than elsewhere says Klaus. Much worse than elsewhere says Švejnar with some authority. Charges for visiting the doctor? A good thing they both agree? Civil society? They both believe it in – Klaus claims he has been misrepresented and only opposed NGO encroachment into policymaking. Indeed, he has founded his own foudation and doesn’t (plan to) sit on the boards of any companies (a dig at Švejnar, I think); the EU and the Euro. Qualified enthusiasm from Klaus. Vital to engage with says Švejnar to meet the challenges of globalization. Flat tax? Nothing to get excited about says Klaus, it varies and there are always exceptions and allowances. Not desirable in a developed country says Švejnar due to to the inequality it promotes: containment of social inequality and social cohesion are needed to maintain national competitiveness. Climate change? You know my views says Klaus, trying to laugh off the question, very serious problem says Švejnar – should be a priority. Klaus, by contrast, want extra resources channelled to cutting taxes. The last two responses – and the clear difference on the EU – should deliver all the Social Democrats votes to Švejnar if these were ever in doubt. Klaus does, however, win in the satorial stakes – he has a much better suit and a far more striking tie than Prof Švejnar say Czech TV viewers polled afterwards, but think Švejnar won on points. I agree.

Meanwhile, the Communists seems set once again to playkingers – and/or extract concessions from one or other candidate. They will back Švejnar in the first round of voting to ensure he isn’t eliminated, as he would be if he didn’t top the ballot in at least one chamber of parliament. (To win in the first round a candidate would need a majority in each chamber of parliament, which is nigh on impossible). However, then seem set on ensuring that neither candidate is elected in the second and third rounds (which just require majorities of those parliamentarians attending) by abstaining. There would then have to be a second election (up to three more rounds of voting) – as happened in 2003 – when the Communists would quixotically field their own candidate. Perhaps the next televised presidnetial debate will be with Communist parliamentarians.

Meanwhile, the OpenDemocracy virtual political futures market on the Czech presidential election has Klaus’s stock fairly high (61% chance of re-election traders reckon), but falling. About right I think.

>New Nigerian pensioners’ party smacks of ‘virtual politics’

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Nigeria, Iwas intrigued to read, has recently seen a pensioners’ party registered. This is odd given that Africa has a young population and not much in the way of generous welfare states for grey lobbies to defend. As the incredulous tone of the report in the Nigeria Daily News suggests, this may, however, may be some kind of post-Soviet style ‘virtual party’ of the kind my SSEES colleague Andy Wilson has ably written about acting as a façade for some business group or local political boss.

>Why is CEE ahead in renewable energy generation?

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The EU’s latest targets for renewable energy generation throw up an interesting fact: that many CEE states have considerable highly levels of renewables than most West European states – and here ‘renewables’ as I understand it excludes (carbon neutral – possibly) nukes. Not too surprisingly Sweden comes in top, generating almost 40% renewably, but Latvia comes in second with 34% coming from renewables and states such as Romania and Slovenia easily outperform most old EU15 states, including those with a history of green politics such as Germany. The solution to this paradox, it turns out, is simple: the bulk of renewable electricity generation (including in Sweden) comes from hydro-power Whether this is a question of river systems or institutions (authoritarian communist central planning sweeping aside local objections over the destruction of local environment in ways democratic policy-making structures could not?) is an interesting question. Ultimately, however, the dispiriting picture is of a huge renewables gap, especially in the UK which comes in with a woeful 1.3% of renewable sources and a target, which might see us catch up with East European levels by 2020.

>Czech politics: Švejnar gets my online endorsement (sort of)

> The presidential election – we are of course talking the Czech Republic here – is hotting up. Václav Klaus, possibly scenting that the wind is moving against him, as now found the time for a televised head-to-head debate with challenger Jan Švejnar. A Hillary Clinton-esque ‘inevitability strategy’ it seems did not really pay off for VK either. Not only have his supporters quickly set up two campaign websites: http://www.svejnarprezidentem.cz/ and http://www.jansvejnar.cz/, but opinion polls suggest that Švejnar is (narrowly) the people’s choice – this being the Czech Republic not Serbia or Slovakia (or indeed Ireland or Finland), however, the voters get no say in this election. It’s the country’s MPs and senators get to cast the votes. But don’t let that dampen the (relative) excitement. The Czech business daily Hospodářské noviny has a presidential election website which includes a rather nifty little quiz (with some fine tongue-in-cheek asides by the paper’s political commentaor) for Czechs to weigh up the two candidates they (mostly) can’t vote for.

You have to rank the qualities you would look for in a Czech president and then opt for VK or JŠ in each category. I am more more concerned with the future Czech head of state’s educational level (prefer Švejnar), ‘relationship with the Czech lands’ (vztah k Česku) (prefer Klaus – just) and ‘clarity of political views’ (názorová vyhraněnost) (prefer Klaus, partly because for sheer political entertainment value). Surprisingly, however the survey tells me that, on balance, – like most HN readers – its Švejnar that suits my requirements for Czech president best (by 59: 41 points). Not if I ever want to write anything interesting about Czech politics doesn’t

>Uncertainties of Romanian electoral reform

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Electoral systems, as I always tell my students, are sticky: they tend not to change, sometimes because they are legally or constitutionally entrenched, more often because those parties that benefit from the existing system are (by definition) powerful and block (or fail to agree) changes that might weaken their dominant position and give more representation to competitors. This broadly speaking seems true of Central Europe since 1989. Most changes to electoral systems that have occurred have been variants on the theme of list PR, changing thresholds for representation, electoral formulae or the number of electoral district.

So I was intrigued to hear that – as a kind of afterthought to last year’s presidential-partliamentary standoff – Romania’s has passed legislation changing its electoral system from a list PR system to ‘mixed’ system combining PR and first past the post. A referendum sponsored by President Basescu to change the electoral system to a pure first-past-the-post model with two rounds of voting was held at the same time as the recent Euro-elections failed due to low turnout, so parliamentary parties got together and passed their own version of electoral reform. It is, apparently uncertain, whether and if Basescu will sign the bill into law or the country’s main political forces will have another bite of the cherry and try to introduce a straight first-past-the-post system.

The new ‘mixed’ system apparently agreed is itself interesting emough. It seemingly loosely approximates to the German system with half the deputies to the lower house chosen using PR lists and half from single member districts using the first past the past (what Romanian-sourced reports in English call a ‘uninominal’ system). There will be a national threshold for representation (presumably applying to the PR section. If new system is (as seems to be the case) the same as the compromise proposals on the table reported in The Diplomat in July, independents will need an absolute majority to win in SMDs (which seems unfair). However, if the new law follows the proposal in the Diplomat report) instead of having two votes (as in Germany), Romanians will vote only in single member constituencies with votes of losing parties being pooled and used as the basis for electing members by PR. The effect of such linkage (I think) would be to reduce the representation of winning party and boost the representation of second running parties, which may still pick up a bonus of tactical votes from those want to help them to victory in single member districts.

Romania’s change in electoral system unusual both for the fact it took place at all and because it bucks a global trend towards greater proportionality, but surprisingly, it seems nigh on impossible to find any information about the new law in English or French and as I can’t read Romania, I’ve been asking Romanian specialists at SSEES all week for details about the change and why it happened The answer – as with the failed project of Czech electoral reform in 1999-2001 – seems to be a deal between the two big parties of left and (centre-)right: the Social Democrats and the pro-Presidential Liberal Democrats (not to be confused with the National Liberal Party) to dish smaller competitors and force political concentration and consolidation around themselves. The Hungarian minority seems likely to be relatively unaffected as its support is geographical concentrated.

Lots of worthy reasons for changing the system are reported (eliminating party faction fighting, reducing the power of party bosses, bringing MPs closer to communities etc), vaguely echo the arguments of President Havel in early 1990s as he tried in vain to introduce SMDs into Czech(oslovak) political system. However, I suspect the net effect in Romania – and indeed the CR if they ever tried it – would be to weaken party structures increasing the power of politicians with local power base and probably increasing (or just changing the pattern of?) clientelism and pork barrel politics as local bosses sort to deliver for their own backers. All in the best Romanian and Southern European traditions, of course. Still, as I also my student, clientelism is in a certain sense functional for linking state and society– in the short term.

>Czech Republic: Online Klaus campaigners turn to the people

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Signs of possible nervousness in the Klaus camp, as a new website Volimklause.cz (loosely translatable as MyVoteGoesToKlaus.cz) comes online amid a flurry of pro-Klaus spamming to publicize it (including one to me). This is all a little odd as, of course, it is the Czech Republic’s deputies and senators who elect the President – ordinary citizens don’t have a vote to go to anyone. The objective of the web campaign, which is(it claims) a citizen initiative on the part of half a non-political dozen bankers and businesspeople, seem to be build up cross-party public consensus for Klaus, building on his high approval rates, take the edge off Jan Švejnar’s non-partisan appeal- and perhaps making it easier for a few opposition deputies to sneak a vote Klaus’s way (as some dissident Social Democrats clearly did in 2003) – and to make the case for direct election of the Czech President.

This is something that the right has not traditionally been keen on and the left and liberal centre has usually favoured. However, as is traditional in Czech politics, these positions are reversed in the run up to a close run president contest in which Klaus is standing. Volimklause.cz thus kicks off with the usual conservative argument that direct election of the head of state is not part of the Czech constitutional tradition, but then works its way to the conclusive that undignified political horse trading between parties (very much party of the Czech constitutional and political tradition – and why not?) might make it a good idea to ‘reopen discussion’ on the issue.

Needless to say, I haven’t, however, joined the 4000 odd Czech swho have signed up, partly because as an outside academic observer it is none of my business, but also because I don’t know who I would vote. The virtual political options market on the Czech Presidential elections running on OpenDemocracy.net shows Klaus stocks trading quite strongly at a 58% chance of re-election.

>Demokratizatsiya

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The journal (English language) journal Demokratizatsiya is far to post-Soviet and Russia-oriented to be much interest to, but at least its has its content freely available on the web. Well, until 2003 at least when normal commercial considerations (i.e. restrictions) seem to have set in. Very democratic.

>You’ve never had it so good, Klaus tells Czechs

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Václav Klaus’s New Year message sees the Czech President riffing away on some of his favourite themes with just a very few minor changes of mood and key for connoisseurs to enjoy. Rather dully, his speech takes the predictable form of a review of the milestones in the history of the Czech nation (Any speech on any anniversary by any Czech politician always requires a review of the nation story, it seems). The pretext this time was that years ending in 8 often bring momentous historical change in the Czech lands: 1918 (foundation of Czechoslovakia), 1938 (Munich Agreement and collapse of democracy), 1948 (communist takeover) and 1968 (Prague Spring and Soviet-led invasion). 1989 was a near miss and 1928, 1958 and 1978 exceptions, I hasten to add.

As so often before Klaus told his listeners that growing European integration and the blurring of borders – presumably an allusion to the CR’s entry to the Schengen zone – made it more important than ever for Czech to remember and cultivate their national identity in order to avoid losing their freedom ‘as so many times in the past’. This is a slightly odd juxtaposition, as the Czech experience like that of other CEE nations is very much that of maintaining national identity during periods of unfreedom. It seems to reflect the very distant intellectual influence of the dissident circle around Bohumil Doležel and Emanuel Mandler, which Klaus had links with in 1980s, which saw preservation of the Czechs’ liberal-national identity as a precondition for real liberal democracy.

Klaus then steers his by now customary middle way between anti-communism and communism – which might also be good for hooking the odd independent-minded Communist deputy come the presidential election in February – saying that ‘In evaluating of it [communism], we cannot content ourselves with easy proclamations, which are today so easy to defend, because they no longer cost anything. Fighting yesterday’s battles is neither very difficult nor very courageous’ before warning against nostalgia for totalitarian egalitarianism.

Klaus also opts for the argument that Czechs themselves are partly responsible for the failures of Czech history, an argument which (like many other Czech politicians and intellectuals) he alternates with the view that Czech history was shaped by defective elites, foreigners and Fate. This ties up with a more consistent motif: an appeal for Czechs, both individually and collectively, to energetic and active in politics and business and public and private life. ‘Active’ and ‘activity’ are favourite Klaus watchwords, often opposed to vacuous philosophizing, pessimism and various forms of dependency culture.

His other familiar theme is that transformation in the Czech Republic is a success: although they moan and complain, with prosperity, continuing economic growth and geo-political security Czechs have, in fact, historically never had it so good. The booming mortgage market, he thought, is the best indication that Czech do believe in the future of their country – or perhaps they just know a generous state subsidy when they see one. Another favourable indicator is that Czech have not emigrated to Western Europe en masse as young Poles, Slovaks and Lithuanians have done and that the CR is indeed increasing a place people want to migrate to. This is a little odd, given the President’s earlier warnings about the dangers of (as yet largely non-existent) immigration – presumably Czechs should take pride in keeping these admirers of Czech prosperity out of the country.

The speech ends with an unusual appeal (for Klaus) note: that Czechs should to remember the elderly and socially excluded and vulnerable such as disabled people, families with children and Roma, although this is on the thoroughly conservative grounds that the state cannot provide adequate care for such groups. Just the kind of thing of unifying thing the head of state should say on a national holiday, but also perhaps something of a pitch for the support of Christian Democratic parliamentarians in February.

>Christmas cheer for democracy?

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Despite an email from a student on Boxing Day asking about the critical case study method (I was sufficiently impressed by such dedication to answer at some length) and some very riotous kids fighting over a Peppa Pig playset, I had enough time over Christmas to catch up books I was supposed to be reviewing. Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) has been widely reviewed outside academic journals and gained media airtime on intellectual slots like Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed on Radio 4. Leif Lewin’s Democratic Accountability: Why Choice in Politics is Both Possible and Necessary (Harvard University Press, 2007) was pitched at the same kind of level at academic/intelligent general reader crossover market, but seemed to attach less attention, perhaps because of its more standard concerns with rescuing and re-inventing democracy, rather than saying there was too much of it because more voters are economically illiterate and incorrigibly populist as Caplan (backed by survey data) does.

Lewin’s books seeks to challenge a range of intellectual motifs in political science, which hethinks undermine the notion of politics as purposive rational activity and hence suggest that politicians cannot meaningfully be held accountable for their actions. He develops this analysis in thematic chapters, each discussing the intellectual origins and political science manifestations of one such argument then knocking it down it through an empirical counter-example.

Politicians are, he says, firstly are not prisoners of historical forces, whether structural or ideological. Some strategic choices, such as the US policy-makers’ decision to implement the Marshall Plan, not only radically affect historical outcomes big time, but are contingent and contested instances of Churchill’s ‘hinge of history’ Nor are policy-makers deprived of choice by some supposed inherent tendencies towards conflict in the international system or the recent globalization of the world economy. The formation of the EEC in 1956, Lewin argues, shows political actors can opt for deep, long-term co-operation. Tentative international agreements on climate change – very tentative, as he admits – suggest that the global market is (potentially) subject to political regulation. Neither can we discount politicians’ accountability because of trade-offs and compromises involved in consensus-building and coalition formation. Inclusive power sharing arrangements can simply generate corrupt, collusive political systems like that of the Italian party system – although unfortunately, its post-1994 to adversarial politics of alternating blocs of left and right as he admits hardly seems to have rectified this.

Lewin also doubts whether accountability is always diminished because politicians’ strategies are distorted by self-interested bureaucrats or because social complexity and the longue durée inevitably produce unintended consequences. Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of 1980s show how even a long established, independently minded civil service can be made to implement policies it dislikes, while successful Social Democratic strategies for Sweden’s unemployment insurance system of 1920s aimed at promoting unionisation suggest that long-term consequences can be intended. He concludes with an appeal for a democratic politics centring on choice and competition and a more informed, open and reflexive political class willing and able to face up to issues of democratic accountability.

Overall, Lewin’s hypothesis that political science agendas inadvertently combine to deny democratic accountability is a striking one. However, for me the quality of his book’s argumentation largely fails cut the mustard. Authors and cases selected as counter-examples are seem idiosyncratic and unconvincing. Italy, for example, is an odd test for Lijphart’s consensus democracy model – Holland, Austria or Sweden might be more convincing choices. And Lenin and Hobbes are not perhaps the best representatives of neo-realist views in modern politics, which I suspect do not say that war is inevitably, merely than conflict of some kind based on self-interests is. Despite a nod towards Mill’s comparative method, the book’s broadbrush essayistic studies also offer no compelling argument that cases are critical cases rather than exceptions proving the rule. Democratic Accountability is thus perhaps best an interesting, if undemanding, essay in democratic theory – the intellectual equivalent of a well dunked biscuit over a tepid cup of tea (or several)

Caplan, by contrast, is a much tougher cookie. Backed by survey evidence, he argues that the failures of democratic governance stem less from the rational ignorance of voters, as traditional Public Choice models suggest, than their irrational anti-liberal economic prejudices. Compared both to professional economists and a minority of well informed voters, most Americans he finds suffer from marked irrational biases when assessing the working of the economy and economic policy: an anti-market bias stigmatizing profit-seeking and unequal remuneration as greed; an anti-foreign bias favouring protectionism and autarchic measures costly to most consumers; a ‘make-work’ bias which wrongly sees employment as a something to be husbanded and protected, rather a resource whose input should be minimized; and a pessimistic bias, which wrongly assesses the economic situation and most aspects of economic policy as negative and deteriorating. Adapting the classic ‘rational ignorance’ perspective, Caplan suggests that such biases, in fact, represent ‘rational irrationality’: citizens cling to populist beliefs that bolster psychological well-being and identity when (as in politics) the marginal costs of doing so are low, but behave rationally in consumer markets when confronted with narrower, more immediate cost-benefit decisions

Such systematic biases, he claims, void conventional Public Choice arguments for the essential rationality of voters – to prop up the key analogy between political and economic markets – such as cognitive short-cut, cues from friends and family, retrospective voting on how the government didor the ‘miracle of aggregation’. Rational politicians thus demagogically play to majority economic prejudices, but then ignore campaign promises knowing that the electorate will punish them if the economy deteriorates because of its populist nostrums. This explains why democracies make policy with some degree of efficiency. Contrary to the prevailing ‘democratic fundamentalism’, we are, Caplan concludes, already bumping up against the desirable limits of democracy. We should therefore introduce economic literacy tests for voters and abandon efforts to boost turnout likely to mobilize less educated, less economically rational voters.

Although refreshingly iconoclastic, Caplan is not wholly convincing. The case for systemic voter ignorance seems made, but empirical evidence for ‘rational irrationality’ appears patchy. Even given its US focus, the book’s dismissal of self-interested (class-based) voting is sweeping. Politics is often a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers, not (just) an exercise in generating a single, rational socially optimum outcome. Caplan’s ‘democratic pessimism’ also seems to point as much to technocratic elitism as the greater marketization he clearly favours. Nor, as he is happy, is his argument very new. Indeed the books comes with self-consciously liberal (no pun intended) helping of quotations from classical liberal economists of the C18th/C19th (Smith, Bastiat, Spencer) and early 20th century elitist and democratic sceptics like Le Bon and Mosca – both intellectual influences on fascism, as I recall, but I guess that might be just historical contingency. The difference is that whereas then the uneducated nature of masses could in the views of someone like J.S. Mill (perhaps rather oddly not referenced by Caplan) justify civic literacy tests and an unequal if universal franchise (extra voters for graduates) as a form of quality control before their full admittance to democratic citizenship, now we have education galore. But rising levels of education, as Caplan is happy to point out, have not brought rising levels of knowledge about politics.

Caplan’s reputation-making brickbat thus adds to a growing contemporary literature identifying the success of liberal democratic societies with liberalism rather than their democracy, and placing the onus for democracy’s failures on citizen incompetence, rather than flawed institutions. The Future of Freedom and Stealth Democracy immediately come to mind. And, of course, as mentioned in the previous post there are sharp resonances in CEE, where the liberal intelligentsia have longer suspected the populace of being too collectivistic and too stupid to be trusted with extensive democracy, hence the current vogue for ‘counter-majoritarian institutions’. The herd of docile sheep on the cover of Caplan’s book – presumably intended to represent the mass of dozy citizen-consumers – is an analogy used not only by J.S. Mill in On Liberty, but also in my hearing by a leading liberal Slovak politician. No wonder they vote for Robert Fico, a man seemingly more cut for democratic politics as outlined by Caplan as he seems to half-believe in the populist solutions he offers.