Over at Charlie’s place, a fellow named Cdodgson brought up the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia as an example of a “peaceful secession from more or less democratic states which the people involved don’t regret and don’t want to reverse.” The context, of course, was Scotland.
The basic description is true. The Velvet Divorce was peaceful and the countries were more-or-less democratic. But the Czechoslovak breakup came in the context of the upcoming Scottish vote. And the Velvet Divorce holds few lessons for Scotland.
The history of the Velvet Divorce does however hold lessons for the Velvet Divorce: namely that it was a sleazy breakup of a perfectly functioning country that benefitted no one save the two politicians who arranged it and forced it through: Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Mečiar. Neither of them did their country any good, before or after the split.
Did the January 1, 1993, division of Czechoslovakia reflect popular opinion? Of course, the answer has no bearing on the benefit of small states or the morality of breaking up democratic polities, but it is interesting ... because it didn't! In 1991, polls showed only 9% of Czechs and 15% of Slovaks favored a split. (Page 252.) By December 1992, support had risen ... to only 36% of Czechs and 37% of Slovaks.
Moreover, Czechoslovakia already showed a rather impressive level of decentralization: in 1992, the federal government controlled only 22% of public spending. (See Table 6.1.) An additional 0.5% of spending went through the federal government to the two states via federal grants. (Table 6.5.) It is true that fiscal grants from the federal government had dried up as an almost accidental response to de-communization. That might have annoyed some Slovaks ... only the polls didn't show it.
The deal was hashed out between Klaus and Mečiar with no popular input. Neither politico was a particularly admirable person. Both leaders refused to hold a referendum because they believed that they would lose.
A continuing federation would have eventually led to more fiscal transfers. It also would have ended Mečiar's ambitions. So Klaus threw out the poorer chunk of the country and Mečiar escaped the limits of the federal system. Win-win for them.
Did the split leave anyone else better off politically or economically? On the Slovak side, the answer is pretty clearly “no,” although the country managed to survive the Mečiar years. It came close to some ugly outcomes, though. (See Hungary for a bad but-still-not-worst-case example of the bullet that Slovakia dodged.)
Lose-lose for everyone else. Trade collapsed despite a customs union, and both countries went through a painful adjustment. (Page 60.) It worked out OK in the end, but at grave risk to democracy and the gratuitous sundering of a political community. The Czechs and the Slovaks certainly seem to feel that it was pointless: two decades later, only 41% of Czechs and 29% of Slovaks think the Velvet Divorce was the right thing to do. Given status-quo bias, those numbers are astoundingly low.
There is a value in democratic political communities. They bind people through something more than impersonal market exchanges. It is hard to see why they should be broken up unless they are turning undemocratic (which would include systematized ethnic discrimination) or have such histories of intercommunal hatred that they cannot be made to work without violence.
It may be the case that some members of a democratic community have so soured on the others that they wish to share none of the responsibilities of being in a community. But that is parochial and cramped.
To return to Scotland: the breakup of Czechoslovakia was nothing like the proposed breakup of the United Kingdom. It had no popular support (unlike Scottish independence), led to great economic dislocation for both new countries (unlike Scottish independence, which will likely have no impact on England), occurred in a situation of low fiscal transfers (unlike Scottish independence), led to a near-breakdown of democracy in one of the countries (unlike Scottish independence), and did not occur after several decades of divergent policy preferences (unlike Scottish independence).
Comparisons between Scotland and Slovakia are best avoided, I think, unless the discussion is solely focused on short-term economic effects.
Over at Charlie’s place, two fellows named Tim and Barry raised the old canard that Scottish secession will lead to unending Conservative control of not-as-great Britain. They were unconvinced by (or ignored) the evidence contained in the previous post.
Are they right? After all, U.K. elections are decided using first-past-the-post. National vote shares matter only inasmuch as they translate into victories in individual constituencies. In the United States, for example, Democrats can win the national House vote by almost 2% and still lose the chamber, which is what happened in 2012. Is the U.K. similar?
Short answer: no.
Longer answer: losing Scotland knocks Labor down to 217 seats, versus 306 for the Tories. Parliament shrinks from 650 to 591. That means Labor needs to capture 45 seats to outsize the Conservatives and and 79 to gain an outright majority.
Is that doable? Well, the way to find out is to look at Tory constituencies and ask how much of a swing would be needed to flip the weakest 45 and the weakest 79. If the required swing is huge, then the Tories would indeed have a lock on the 2015 election sans Scotland.
And whaddaya know? The Conservatives are facing at least 82 swing seats. See here and here and here. Translation: It won't take much of a swing to knock the Tories off their perch. The polls are already showing a 7-point swing even if Scotland walks away. If the Liberal Democrats remain the number-three party, then Labor will not a hard time putting together a winning coalition in 2015. The rise of UKIP, of course, is more worrying ... but only if it wins enough seats to put together a majority with the Conservatives.
To sum up: the U.K. parliament is more responsive to the popular vote than the U.S. House of Representatives. Even without Scotland, Labor would be able to win a parliamentary majority as long as it remains ahead in the popular vote. And right now, it is ahead in the popular vote in England and Wales.
This is amateur psephology, of course. I welcome data that shows why the above analysis is wrong. (And I think I now need a British Isles tag.)
If Scotland votes to leave the U.K., then Brussels has made it clear that it will also leave the European Union. Scotland would need to apply like any other potential member state.
But what about the rest of the U.K.? Would it vote to leave the E.U. without Scotland? Many observers are worried.
I do not think that they should be.
The Tories will be up for reelection in 2015, unless there is a vote-of-no-confidence. That election will be weird. The Scottish government wants to wrap up the independence negotiations by March 2016, so Scots might still be able to vote in the U.K. election.
That said, it would entirely reasonable for Parliament to disenfranchise Scottish voters before then. Would that swing the 2015 election to the Tories?
Probably not. I played with the crosstabs from this poll. Here are the results:
|Weight||Weight w/o Scotland||% Tory||% Labor||% UKIP|
My general impression from the literature is that the district boundaries in England (I mean England England) generally favor Labor, even after the recent redistricting. So Labor is likely to win. Labor opposes holding a referendum on the European Union. That would make Brexit moot.
Moreover, my gut feeling, which could be entirely wrong, is that allowing Scotland to secede will kill Cameron and hurt the Tories at the election. After all, Cameron allowed the election to happen and Cameron took off the option of giving Scotland the powers of your typical Canadian province. So he really will be to blame.
Absent some sort of black swan, Labor will be more likely to win, and Brexit will be moot.
This analysis fails if the Tories pick someone popular to replace Cameron. But I have no idea who such a person would be.
On the other hand, if the Tories pull off reelection, then Britain is likely out of the E.U. The above analysis, from this poll:
|Weight||Weight w/o Scotland||% Brexit||% E.U.|
Any Cameron-replacement is likely to demagogue the Europe issue and the voters south-of-the-border will be pissed. The momentum will be towards withdrawal and the polls will likely move that way.
But I would bet against a Tory election victory in the wake of Scottish secession, and thus against Brexit. Investors and bankers relax! The Labor Party will save you.
On the other hand, I think that the Spanish government is going to be much bolshier about letting Scotland in than I did a few months ago … they won’t veto, but they will drag things out, and Scotland is going to hurt.
There was that shock poll, yes. But we saw something similar in the Mexican presidential campaign. The official stance of this blog is unchanged. Although the gap is closing, we would still strongly bet against a Yes vote for secession.
Calling Sam Wang!
Anyway, there is another discussion to be had about whether Scotland should secede. Charlie Stross tries to draw some conclusions about the general desirability of small states here; I show incredulity and confusion about his argument here and here.
Sadly, Charlie has disabled Livejournal commenting, but I would encourage more participation, if only to help me understand what it is exactly that he is arguing.
Crispin Sartwell has an interesting critique of the left-right distinction in The Atlantic.
I think he’s right that the left-right distinction doesn’t make sense. I also, however, think two other things. First, it doesn’t matter. In extremis the distinction is meaningless. In practice, however, that means nothing. At any given time, political coalitions do make sense. Burkean conservatives may switch sides, as would egalitarians and democrats and cultural conservatives and the supporters of entrenched power. I am not sure why we should care that these coalitions change over time.
More importantly, Sartwell completely loses all credibility when he writes this: “The welfare state is more pervasive now than it was a century ago, and we now have institutions like compulsory public education. These are achievements of the left, programs they are still trying enhance, but have they actually resulted in more equal societies? Quite the contrary, I believe: They have led to ever-more-frozen hierarchies. The mainstream left is a technocratic elite, with a cult of science and expertise and an ear for the unanimous catchphrase. This is anything but a meritocracy; it an entrenched intergenerational class hierarchy.”
There are two problems with this paragraph. The first is when he claims that public education has not resulted in more equality. That is simply false. Goldin and Katz are the go-to resource here, but I challenge Prof. Sartwell to produce evidence that the expansion of public education has been inegalitarian in any country in any time period.
The second problem is in the penultimate sentence. I believe him that so-called meritocracies lead to unfair inequality: I am a great believer in the Rawlsian veil of uncertainty. (How could I not be, given the wide range of outcomes in my own immediate family?) But the reference to a “cult of science” is bizarre and gives the game away. He wants you to believe that expertise is a meaningless social construction. To add insult to injury, he wants you to believe in an “ear for the unanimous catchphrase” without defining what that means or providing evidence that it exists. Me, I have no idea what he is talking about, although it sounds like a bad thing. Which is his rhetorical point.
It gets worse. Sartwell’s next paragraph is: “Whatever the right is, it runs aground in contradiction similarly in its treatment of its own sacred concept ‘liberty,’ which is hard to hold in solution with opposing gay marriage or marijuana legalization, or with a thousand dimensions of the contemporary surveillance/security state.”
Sartwell could explain that liberty is incoherent, in the sense that a poor person is not free. But he does not. Rather, he takes a rather boringly conventional libertarian stance.
So ... he believes that public education has not increased equality, that expertise is meaningless, and that old-fashioned conservatism is stupid.
And I call bullshit. Sartwell is peddling garden-variety yawn-inducing libertarianism. Either that or his essay was badly composed. I am sympathetic to that problem! My own blog writing is generally badly-composed, although I would be more careful if asked to write for The Atlantic.
Am I wrong? I am happy to be schooled, including by Prof. Sartwell himself. (I deliberately refrained from googling his name before writing this; all I know is what is in the article.)
UPDATE: Googling has now occured, what with the Bosnia-Nigeria game not being as interesting as the earlier two matches today. Here is Sartwell’s blog. It is ... uh ... I am not sure what to say.
Panama-Venezuela relations remain at an all-time low because of the money that Venezuelans owe Panamanians. Venezuela’s capital controls are the reason the debts have not been paid. Panama responded in three ways. First, various forms of moral suasion, which are continuing but useless against the Maduro administration. Second, a case at the WTO, which is continuing but very slow. And third, a threat to publicize the moneys that corrupt Venezuelan officials have hidden in Panama ... which has sunk like a stone and disappeared.
Via Randy McDonald comes the likely reason: wealthy Venezuelans are continuing to move to Panama. Some of them are assuredly hiding money from the Venezuelan government, ill-gotten or not. Moreover, banking secrecy is the kind of thing that it is hard to half-violate without spooking clients from elsewhere. And, finally, the fact is that if the Maduro administration were going to respond to the Panamanian threat it would have already responded. Since Panama has no other real arrows in its quiver, it loses no credibility from not following through on its threat.
Plus, there is a new administration in Panama, from one of the two opposition parties. It is not bound by statements from the previous presidency. Venezuela is a scary place and an economic wreck, but it is a wreck in a very Venezuelan way. Panamanians rightfully discounted attempts to frighten them into thinking that the (conservative) opposition would create such a mess at home ... although President-elect Varela does intend to impose price controls on food.
We will continue to bring you more news in the Panama-Venezuela spat as it continues.
The two papers have very different definitions of what it means to replace a constitution. Cordeiro, for example, dates Argentina’s constitution to 1853. (Page 6.) Negretto, on the other hand, dates the current constitution to 1994. Who is right?
Negretto uses two definitions for a “new” constitution. First, did the framers claim that it was new? Second, in cases of doubt, were the changes enacted by a constitutional convention?
The first definition is a problem for Argentina. You can find popular references to the “Constitution of 1994,” but the callers of the constitutional conventional of 1994 were very explicit that the purpose was to amend the existing constitution. In fact, the text of the Congressional resolution calling for the convention starts with: “It is declared necessary the partial reform of the national constitution of 1853 including the amendments of 1860, 1866, 1898 and 1957.”
It should be noted that all of the above-mentioned reforms were passed by means of constitutional conventions called by Congress.
Moreover, it should be noted that there was no way to change the Argentine constitution without calling for a convention! Here is a translation of Article 30 of the constitution as it stood before the 1994 reform: “The Constitution can be amended in all or some of its parts. Congress shall declare the need for reform by a two-thirds vote of its members; but no amendment shall be carried out without a Convention called for that effect.”
As for the 1994 reform, they held elections to the required Convention on April 10, 1994. Congress set out the terms of the election in Article 10 of the resolution calling for the amendments. The Peronists received 37.7% of the vote and 44.6% of the seats; the Radicals got 19.9% of the vote and 24.6% of the seats. (See page 26.) The convention then put meat on the bones of the reform that Congress had passed.
It seems to me that Argentina is still governed by the Constitution of 1853 and has, in fact, amended its magna carta rather less than us Americans.
In short, Negretto is wrong. Oh, he is right by his own definition ... but that definition implies that the only way to amend the Argentine constitution is to replace the Argentine constitution. Since the Argentine congress can and does constrain constitutional conventions, that does not seem to be a reasonable definition.
I do not know enough about the other cases in his data set, but I would worry that his results depend on similar arbitrary definitions.
Maybe I should not have recommended the essay on democracy. I read it while playing with my boy. I am re-reading it now. And it has this:
“Plato’s great worry about democracy, that citizens would ‘live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment,’ has proved prescient. Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment. France and Italy have not balanced their budgets for more than 30 years. The financial crisis starkly exposed the unsustainability of such debt-financed democracy.”
WTF? No no no no no it has not! Both countries have entirely sustainable debt loads. Even given that they have abandoned their own currencies they have sustainable debt loads.
What in the name of God is the author talking about? The essay is a weird mash. Lots of good points, some subtle, with the occasional bizarroland statement that reads like it was tossed out there to make sure the Tories (and Republicans) keep reading.
By the way, Alex Harrowell, we still need you.
The Economist this week has an interesting essay on democracy. It ain’t bad. I recommend reading it. But it also has this insane part:
“This postmodern tsar has destroyed the substance of democracy in Russia, muzzling the press and imprisoning his opponents, while preserving the show — everyone can vote, so long as Mr Putin wins. Autocratic leaders in Venezuela, Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere have followed suit, perpetuating a perverted simulacrum of democracy rather than doing away with it altogether, and thus discrediting it further.”
What the f--k? We have already presented the evidence that Venezuela is still democratic, albeit barely. That said, the comparison with Russia isn’t unfair.
But Argentina? Seriously? For real? Is there doubt that Argentine elections are free and fair? No. Is there doubt that the Peronistas would leave office if they lost an election? No. And if you don’t believe me, take the word of the same people who lumped Venezuela with Ethiopia. They give Argentina a polity score of 8. That is the same as Belgium and the Czech Republic, and twice Russia.
It is a headscratcher of a sentence. What was the author thinking? Or is it just cool for Economist writers to parrot Newt Gingrich?
The Monkey Cage was an awesome group blog. It brought serious political science research into the mainstream. It was all good.
And then it became part of the Washington Post.
Which gets us to an odd series of posts that attempts to convince the reader that American political polarization ain’t so bad. We can start with a post entitled “Gridlock is bad. The alternative is worse,” by Morris Fiorina of Stanford. Great scholar, great work ... but the argument is strange.
First, it assumes that the political parties would behave as they currently do under a more parliamentary-like electoral system. That makes no sense. One overreach followed by electoral disaster and that would be the end of that.
Second, to make his case that the parties left unfettered would do crazy things he writes, “The 2012 Republican platform plank stated essentially: never, no exceptions. The Democratic platform plank stated the opposite: any time, for any reason.”
Hmm. The GOP platform wrote:
Not a platform that I would support! And I would agree that point (5) effectively bans all abortions. But I would, no? Read objectively, this is to the right of median public opinion, but it is not off the charts. Of course I believe that it’s folderol, given the enthusiastic anti-abortion and anti-contraception actions of GOP-controlled state legislatures. But it sure is a sign that the national party understands the dangers of getting too far out in front of public opinion.
And the Democrats? Even less:
And that’s all she wrote.
So where does Fiorina’s characterization of the party platforms come from? You got me. He is a great scholar with a great book on polarization. But this was not written as a serious post. It has a slatepitchy feel: let’s devil’s advocate against the conventional wisdom. That has a place, I have been known to do it myself ... but it belongs not on the Monkey Cage that I used to love.
A worse post is Rob Ford’s “In America, polarization is a problem. In Britain, it could be a solution.” (This is the Rob Ford of the University of Manchester, not the other guy.) I have much to say about this, but I would rather make a public call for Alex Harrowell to come over here and fisk it for us. I will say simply that even if Ford is correct (Alex, we need you!), then I am not convinced that you have a problem if the only by-products are falling voter turnout and the rise of a rather silly buy aggressively anti-racist bunch of twits.
Now, as befits that great nation, the Canadian entry into the series is sober and serious. Richard Johnson of UBC limits himself to pointing out something that non-Canadians may not have realized: Canadian parties have become more polarized, whereas Canadian voters have not. That is the Monkey Cage I used to love: rigorously confirming the conventional wisdom (as AFAIK the above is the conventional wisdom in Canada) is a worthwhile initiative, Canadian or otherwise.
Anyway, earlier posts in the series are not slatepitchy, and some in fact argue against the American and British arguments mentioned above. And I do not want anyone to take this as a criticism of Fiorina or Ford. Like I said, I have done the same thing. And many counterintuitive pitches are indeed correct. But these two are odd.
Let me caveat the rest of this post with a reiteration of the fact that I am not a defender of the Venezuelan government. Nor should you be. Mark Weisbrot, a smart fellow, makes a bit of a fool of himself by trying. (One of our commentors makes a rather better effort, but ultimately fails.) I am on the record as thinking that the current bout of violence and repression is both the government’s fault and rather inexplicably stupid.
Had Maduro held his calm, the violence would have been minimal and passing. The fact that he did not and put gasoline on the flames comes as a surprise to me.
In short, the Venezuelan government is run by incompetents. But is it a dictatorship?
To my surprise, I discovered on Caracas Chronicles that one of the most-prominent political databases, Polity IV, says yes, the Bolivarian Republic is a dictatorship.
What is Polity IV? In the words of Anabella Abadi and Bárbara Lira it is “a project of the Center for Systemic Peace, which codifies characteristics of political regimes in order to classify them — in opposite extremes — as ‘Institutionalized Democracies’ or ‘Autocratic Regimes’. To formulate the indicator, Polity IV considers the election mechanism for the Executive Power (meaning regulations, competition and open participation); institutional constraints on the exercise of power by the Executive Power; and the degree of regulation and political competition.”
It is a good database; I have used it myself in academic work. But something seemed odd about the rapid decline in Venezuela’s polity score after the establishment of the Bolivarian Republic:
So I decided to dig into the numbers and see what was going on.
The basic polity score has two components: democracy and autocracy. The total score is determined by subtracting one from the other. In 1998, when Hugo Chávez first won election, the democracy score was 8 and the autocracy score was zero, for a total score of 8. That made it a solid democracy: France was 6 in 1958 and ranks at 9 today.
So what happened?
Well, in 1999 the score dropped by one. The fall was due to a fall in the “executive constraints” score from 6 to 5, presumably as a result of the new constitution. The highest value is 7. By definition, the index gives all parliamentary systems a value of 7, since the legislature can depose the executive. The U.S. also gets a score of 7, since the president cannot introduce legislation. A value of 5 is defined as “substantial constraints on the executive” and still falls well within democratic norms. (Page 24.)
There is a little bit of wiggle room here since a ranking of 6 on “executive constraints” is just an intermediate placeholder. In other words, the difference between 6 and 5 is not defined. But to be honest, the drop was fair: the 1999 constitution gave the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly, which is a powerful tool. (One might not consider executive constraints to be the best measure of democracy and quibble with the way parliamentary systems get the highest score, of course.)
OK, then, fall in 1999 explained. No problem.
In 2001 the score falls again by one point. This time, the fall in the was due to a fall in the “competitiveness of participation” score from 4 to 3. This variable is a little odd. The top value is 5, or “competitive.” OK, gotcha. A value of 4 is an ill-defined transitional category. A score of 3 means that “parochial or ethnic-based political factions that regularly compete for political influence in order to promote particularist agendas and favor group members to the detriment of common, secular, or cross-cutting agendas.” (Page 26.)
I am not entirely sure that I understand what that means in the Venezuelan case.
Even if I did, the fall does not have to do with the Second Enabling Act of 2001, under which the Assembly gave President Chávez temporary decree power. That should have changed the executive constraint score, not the political competitiveness score. (The law did not change the executive constraint score because the Act was constitutional; moreover the previous constitution contained a similar provision.) Anyway. the Second Enabling Act had been preceded by the First Enabling Act in 2000.
But what did happen in 2001 to cause the fall in the “competitiveness of participation”? I do not know. The drop is a bit mysterious. Not necessarily wrong, but not immediately obvious. Help?
In 2006, the executive constraint variable drops by another point. Now, one problem is that a score of 4 is still an undefined transitional category (page 24) but it seems justifiable. The Bolivarian Republic is still a point above the early years of the French Fifth Republic on the executive constraint tip, meaning that Hugo Chávez was more constrained than Charles de Gaulle.
A bigger problem is that the drop seems a little inexplicable. The Chavistas won a two-thirds majority in 2005, so the timing is off. Is it the scale of the Chavista presidential victory in ‘06? A score of 4 still involves an independent judiciary and some legislative autonomy, so it is not unreasonable, but it has a Potter Stewart feel to it.
Thus, 2006 is when Venezuela loses its status as an institutionalized democracy, but not as a democracy. Such a loss does indeed pass the Potter Stewart test, even if the timing is odd.
I am not entirely sure I understand it, but it is not unreasonable. Opinions on what happened in 2006? Right move, wrong timing?
Things fall apart in 2009, though, and that is where I get confused.
First, the summary. The polity score plunges eight points from 5 to −3. How do we get there?
How reasonable are these changes? From most to least:
The putative −3, on the other hand, puts Venezuela with Ethiopia, Jordan, Burma, and Tajikistan and one point worse than Angola, Chad, Mauritania, Sudan, Togo and Singapore.
All ten of the countries in the above sentence are far less democratic than Venezuela. For all the incompetence of the Maduro government, a score of −3 does not pass the smell test.
Am I wrong?
So it isn’t likely to happen.
And now it is less likely to happen with E.U. Commission President José Manuel Barroso saying what we all knew already, which is that an independent Scotland would have to apply for E.U. membership, just like Iceland or Norway. The negotiations will not be easy, even through Madrid will likely agree to allow the application.
I am opposed to Scottish (or Catalan or Texan or Québécois or Regiomontano or Camba or whatever) independence because I am opposed in-general to secession from democratic states. First, secessionism generally requires a cramped nationalism that is too close to tribalism for comfort. Second, it smacks of democratic failure: you don’t like national policies, but instead of trying to build a majority to change them you pack up your marbles and leave. Finally, it is (albeit probably not the Scottish case) selfish, a way for richer people to dissolve their historic bonds of community with poorer ones.
I read the Crooked Timber thread. The positive arguments for smaller states boiled down to (1) We do not like the way that the U.K. votes as a whole, so screw it; or (2) nationalism, just because. (By that definition, I should be a huge proponent for the Republic of New York and New Jersey Only with the Annoying Bit of New York Removed and Maybe Horse Country Too.)
If there are unreconciliable historical wrongs in play, then I could be persuaded to support the partition of a notionally-democratic state. For concrete examples, see Ireland circa 1922, Algeria circa 1961, or Kosovo circa 2008. But those are extraordinary cases that involved a horrible combination of long-standing ethnic discrimination and very recent bloodshed. Moreover, electoral democracy in the modern sense was a recent arrival to all three mother states: the U.K. in 1918, France in 1958, and Serbia in 2000.*
Absent that, however, I say no. Secession should be off the table.
But I might be wrong to say no! Counterarguments very welcome.
* The Fourth Reform Act of 1918 introduced more-or-less universal suffrage to the U.K., although female suffrage remained limited until 1928. The French Constitution of 1958 granted full voting rights to all Muslim residents of the Algerian departments. Slobodan Milošević fell in 2000, after which Serbia (which remained notionally united with Montenegro until 2006) has held basically free elections.
The thing that has always gotten to me about the Venezuelan government under Chavismo has been the incompetence. It is just a mess. You did not need to have electricity shortages caused by freezing rates to the extent that power consumption became free. (Rates have been frozen since 2002. Electricity in Venezuela costs 0.11 bolívares per kWh — at the black market exchange rate, that’s ... uh ... 0.13 cents. This is down from 18.4¢ when the government froze rates.) You did not need to create a crazy exchange rate scheme. You did not need to allow inflation to accelerate. You did not need to send all this money overseas to no political benefit.
The problem isn’t that the goals of the Bolivian Revolution necessarily involve a bad economy or high crime or a stupid foreign policy. It is that they cannot figure out how to accomplish whatever goals they may have. Hell, if you tasked me with building socialism or uniting with Cuba or whatever, I could do a better job. It’s just a mysterious incompetence.
Which brings us to the recent tragic deaths. It is terrible. But demonstrations do get out of control. So it would be very easy for the government to regret the deaths, blame the protestors and continue its crackdown without screaming treason and issuing warrants for opposition leaders. Or censoring Twitter ... which gains you nothing but bad press.
Why ratchet things up? One possible answer, consistent with everything else, is incompetence. Chávez was never incompetent at domestic politics. Maduro is not so skilled. So maybe he is just making mistakes.
Or perhaps he is acting quite deliberately. Javier Corrales, a very smart guy, thinks that ratcheting up the tension will allow Maduro to unite his coalition.
For that to be true, however, you would need to believe that the one-two punch of the economy and crime was on the verge of destabilizing his coalition.
So ... how would know whether that was true?
One of things I teach my students is that it is very important to know what you don’t know when operating in a foreign country. If you have a native-level understanding, great! Play the political game. But if you don’t, then it’s best to be completely hands-off (e.g., letting local partners do the work) or stay away.
The worst thing is to think you understand something you don’t.
This is a problem that Canadians often suffer.
Our case on the Keystone pipeline highlights this problem: TransCanada was prepared for national resistance to the pipeline, but never expected a problem with deep-red Nebraska. But they got one! Oh, boy, did they get one.
Our HBS case goes through that all in depth, but Karl Sigwarth, a former student, just sent me a great story in McLean’s that tells it all far more readably. (Cases, remember, are meant to be slightly cryptic!)
My favorite part:
Back in his office tower in Calgary, Alex Pourbaix, the affable, rosy-cheeked head of pipelines for TransCanada, still marvels at how a western Canadian oil company came to be so hated by ranchers in Nebraska.
“TransCanada didn’t just dream up the route out of thin air,” he insists. But Nebraska landowners could never understand why the company didn’t simply follow the route of the first Keystone project, along the far eastern edge of the state, out of the Sand Hills and away from the aquifer. The new path struck them as so illogical that some believed only secret ulterior motives could explain it. “What we’re really afraid of is that once the tar sands run out, they are going to be piping into the aquifer to get the water so that they can export the water to other areas of the country or overseas,” speculated one Nebraska farmer, Art Tanderup.
Pourbaix was amazed by the mistrust. “I don’t even know what to say to that.”
Now, heavy opposition to anything coming anywhere near the Ogalalla was super-predictable, as anyone who has ever read The Amazing Spider-Man knows:
You just don’t mess with anything iconic enough to make it into a comic book.
That’s serious advice, by the way. It was utterly ridiculous for TransCanada to be taken by surprise at the Nebraskan opposition. They could have avoided the whole damn thing by starting with the route they eventually chose. (The green line below, instead of the yellow.) That would have also gotten the route approved at the federal level before the opposition had a chance to mobilize.
But they were just too arrogant, failing to realize that their southern neighbor was in fact an entirely different country. No American would ever do that!
Well, the energy certainly looks closer to the PAN proposal than the first pass from President Peña. Peña’s proposal left all the details to the enabling law; this reform pretty much spells out that the industry is being thrown wide open. Pemex is clearly reduced to just an operator among many. Moreover, there was no sovereign wealth fund in the Peña proposal; now there is one.
The reform keeps a ban on concessions might be meaningful were it not for the fact that the transitory articles refer to “licenses.” Licenses are the what the petroleum industry generally call concessions nowadays. There is no difference and I pity the lawyer who tries to find one.
So what happened? Well, on November 2nd, we wrote, slightly paraphrased, “With PRD support off the table, there are two possibilities. The first is that the PRI holds firm against political reform, but swings right on energy. The second is that the PRI relents on political reform, figuring that it still will have a good shot at the presidency.”
We thought the first to be the less likely outcome ... but that seems to have been what has happened.
The title of this post is lifted directly from Mexfiles, which has a post on the reform that you should all go read. It goes into some depth about the possible effect of allowing limited re-election and the federalization of election regulation.
It is also an awesome title. When Porfirio Díaz first assumed the presidency, in 1876, his slogan was “Sufragio efectivo, no reelección.” (“Effective suffrage, no re-election.”) Díaz duly stepped down in 1880. He then ran again and won in 1884. And 1888. And 1892. And 1896, 1900, 1904, and 1910.
The joke was that Díaz had simply misplaced a comma the first time around. Instead of ¡Sufragio efectivo, no reelección!, he had meant to write, Sufragio efectivo no, ¡reelección!
(A useful chronology of the Porfiriato can be found here.)
Anyway, at Mexfiles they are pointing out that the new reform is pretty limited. State elections (which are relatively clean now) will become slightly cleaner. (One of the bigger changes is that INE will be now be able to overturn elections in which the parties exceed their spending limits.) Meanwhile, deputies and senators will become very slightly freer from party control. (Very slightly.) Good mayors will be able to win re-election, but not enough to let them create political machines. In all, a sort of halfway house.
I agree with Federico. The reform seems important only because the PAN made it the price of energy reform. What I do not understand is why the PAN cares. After all, it is a little weird to say, “Give us something unimportant [political reform] in exchange for something that we really really care about [energy reform]!”
The whole thing strikes me as political kabuki, a way for the PAN to pretend that it isn’t just automatically approving whatever President Peña sets out.
The energy reform is moving apace. As you know, the PAN linked energy reform to political reform ... and so, political reform is also moving apace. It moved yesterday out of a Senate committee to the full floor, where it passed today by an overwhelming margin of 106 to 15.
So what was in this motherhood reform? You can find the text here, but it runs 244 pages. (You can also look for it here.) The constitutional changes themselves take up 35 pages. That’s a lot. Below, as a public service, we here at TPTM summarize the amendments for you. The constitutional reform of 2013:
Reforms Article 26 to create a “National Social Development Policy Evaluation Council,” which is probably as pointless as it sounds;
Reforms Article 29 to remove the ability of the Secretary of State or Attorney General to veto a presidential declaration of a state of emergency;
Reforms Article 35 to federalize election supervision by changing the name of the Federal Electoral Institue to the “National Electoral Institute,” which will now in be charge of state elections as well as federal. We are not doing this amendment justice, however — the changes are rather large and deserve a post of their own;
Reforms Article 54 to raise the threshold for a party to receive proportional-representation seats in Congress from 2% to 3%;
Reforms Article 59 to let senators serve two terms and deputies four, with no party-switching allowed;
Reforms Article 69 to require the President to submit a National Public Security Strategy to the Senate in his or her first year in office. (A reform to Article 76 says that if the Senate does nothing, then it should be considered approved);
Reforms Article 73 to require that electoral fraud be punishable by prison. More profoundly, should there be a “coalition government” (see reforms to Article 89 below) then Congress will gain the ability to approve all cabinet ministers save the heads of the Department of Defense (e.g., the Army) and the Department of the Navy;
Reforms Article 74 to make the finance minister require approval by a vote of the Chamber of Deputies;
Reforms Article 83 to shorten the lame-duck transition from five months to three, moving the date the president takes office from December 1 to October 1;
Reforms Article 89 to explicitly allow for coalition governments. It also states that cabinet nominees will assume office when they are nominated; should Congress fail to ratify their position they will then step down. The exact text of the new section is worth translating:
Section XVII: At whatever moment the President may opt for a coalition government with one or several of the political parties represented in the Congress of the Union. The coalition government shall be regulated by its respective convention and program, which shall be approved by a majority of the members present in each chamber of the Congress of the Union. The convention shall establish the causes under which the coalition government shall be dissolved.
Reforms Article 102 to make the Attorney General into an independent post appointed for a nine year term from a list of candidates approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate … although, contradictorily, it also allows the President to remove him or her at will subject only to getting one-third of Congress to agree;
Reforms Article 115 to allow county mayors to serve two terms, among other reforms designed to insure cleaner local elections.
We are unconvinced that the ease on re-election will have a transformative effect on Mexican politics, especially since California-style legislative term limits will remain in place. In fact, other than the federalization of all elections (something the United States should imitate) it is not clear that any of these changes are particularly major, save possibly the idea of the coalition government. (Which still seems a little odd.)
But perhaps we are wrong and this is bigger than it looks! Thoughts?
Mexico’s three parties split three ways on constitutional reform.
Interestingly, the PAN introduced its reform before the President, moving on July 31, 2013. President Peña sent his proposal to the Senate on August 12. (The PRD published its relatively vague statement a week after the President, on August 19.)
Public opinion is at best unclear. In September, polls showed 52% of the population in favor of the President’s proposal, but only 15% “strongly” favored the reforms. Moreover, 61% opposed allowing Pemex to sign profit-sharing contracts with private companies.
So how is the battle shaking out? First, the PRI and PAN wound up at loggerheads over a new tax bill. The PAN walked out over last-minute provisions raising the top income tax bracket from 30% to 35%, a hike in the border state VAT to 16% from 11%, and a 5% tax on junk food. (The maquiladora industry also screamed that they would now have to apply for a VAT rebate rather than simply not paying it.) The final bill had to be passed with PRD support.
Now the PAN insists that it will only support energy reform if the PRI agrees to a series of political reforms. (You can find the detailed constitutional proposal at this link. Among much else, it includes the re-election of senators (once) and deputies (3x) and a run-off presidential election should nobody garner 40%+ of the vote. President Peña got 39% last year.)
With PRD support off the table, there are two possibilities. The first is that the PRI holds firm against political reform, but swings right on energy. We wind up with more radical reform akin to the one in the previous paragraph. The second is that the PRI relents on political reform, figuring that it still will (a) have a good shot at the presidency; and (b) be able to maintain control over its congressional delegation even with term-limited re-election.
My prediction is the second. The PAN reform is still a large bone for public opinion to swallow. It could easily trigger mass demonstrations, or worse. Moreover, the benefits would be limited, at least in petroleum. Foreign companies will still likely want to form joint-ventures with Pemex in the deepwater, and onshore development is likely to move slowly even under a new PAN regime.
Moreover, from the point of view of your average Mexican, it does not matter if the PAN is correct! Let’s assume that its reforms trigger a massive tight oil boom in northern Mexico, a veritable explosion of hydrocarbons. After all, the northern range is an extension of the Eagle Ford shale. Well, estimated breakevens in the Eagle Ford are $75-$85 per barrel. Many of the big companies have failed to make it work in South Texas. The implication is that even if production explodes, there will not be huge windfalls to tax away. Now, gas production could be a different story. Mexico needs natural gas. But the faster and easier way to decrease gas prices in Mexico is to import more from the United States.
That means that the PAN reform will be, in the short-term, all political cost and no benefit. It is hard to see the PRI signing on to that, especially since it is not clear that the PRI shares the long-term vision.
The most probable outcome is something like the PRI reform, tied to political reform. The less likely outcome is that the PRI tacks right to give us a radical Panista reform. It is also possible that nothing will happen, and we will get something like the PRD reform.
Call me in a few months, tell me how I did.
In theory, the transitory articles in Mexican constitutional amendments are self-executing temporary orders designed to insure that the amendment is actually implemented. In other words, they are transitory: once executed, they are obsolete
To my lay eye, some of the transitory articles in the proposed Panista energy reform do not look particularly transitory. The notable offenders are articles 4, 5, 6, 11, and 16. It would logically appear that either they are not transitory, or they are close to meaningless, the Mexican equivalent of a signing statement.
Other transitory articles, it would seem, are transitory in that they refer to a single Congressional implementing action ... but it would also seem that some of them should not actually be transitory. For example, Article 9 gives Pemex a preference as an operator over other companies. Except, well, if its transitory then future Congresses could change the resulting law, no?
Finally, Article 7 requires both the current president and the next one to execute a ten-year program designed to take the federal government’s dependency on oil revenues from today’s ~59% of current revenues to half of the investment earnings of the Oil Fund. I guess that is transitory, but over 10 years? Moreover, after those ten years the 50%-of-Fund-earnings appears to be a permanent cap. So why is that not in the main text?
Transitory articles are not mentioned in the body of the Constitution, so no help there. Which must mean one of three things. (1) Transitory articles are not really transitory; (2) Transitory articles are transitory, but contain a lot of meaningless verbiage; or (3) I am really not understanding something.
The answer is (3), of course. Are there any lawyers here who can explain?
Juan Linz has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in the blogosphere recently. Linz wrote that presidential regimes tend to break down because of irreconciliable conflicts between the executive and the legislature.
Many observers, not least Matt Yglesias, have interpreted Linz as stating that the problem is that presidential system allow for gridlock between the executive and the legislature, especially when the parties are ideologically coherent and commited. Kind of like, uh, the modern United States. So are we doomed now that our parties have become European-style organizations?
Well, maybe. The cross-country data is mildly supportive of the presidentialism = bad hypotesis, but is by no means a slam-dunk. Moreover, while presidential regimes are more likely to break down there is really rather little evidence that the reason was gridlock between the executive and the legislature.
The closest parallel to the current American situation is Chile in the early 1970s — but it is not very close. In the 1969 election, the People’s Union (Unidad Popular) got 60 out of 150 seats in the lower house. The Christian Democrats got 57 and the National Party received 33. The next year, Salvador Allende (the People’s Union candidate) won a plurality of the presidential vote, throwing the election to Congress, where he won with Christian Democratic support. (The Nixon Administration tried to prevent his election but failed.) Allende started a program of widespread nationalizations using existing legal authority under a 1932 law that allowed for the temporary requisition of basic goods when in the public interest. (The law also allowed the executive to put companies into temporary receivership should they be closed by a strike.) In October 1972, the Supreme Court ordered the President to obey lower-court orders overturning some of the nationalizations; Allende refused.
In March 1973, the opposition won the Congressional elections. The Christian Democrats aligned with the National Party to form the Democratic Confederation, which took 55.6% of the popular vote and 87 out of 150 seats. (The People’s Union got the rest.) Congress first attempted to amend the constitution, which failed. It then tried to impeach Allende, but could not get the requisite ⅔ majority. In May, the Supreme Court again reprimanded the President. At this point, Congress went on record asking for a coup. The coup happened on September 11, and its leaders proceeded to disband Congress and jail or “disappear” many of the legislators who had called on the military.
In short, the Chilean crisis was caused by a President who overstepped his authority and disobeyed the Supreme Court and resolved by a military that believed itself above the law. Suffice it to say that this does not characterize America’s current situation.
What about Argentina? Well, Argentina has had a lot of coups since the first one in 1930. In 1930, President Hipólito Yrigoyen’s party had comfortable majorities in both houses. The 1943 coup was against a dictatorship. The 1955 coup overthrew the elected Juan Perón — but Perón’s party controlled Congress by overwhelming margins. As in 1930, gridlock was not the issue. In 1962, the miltary overthrew President Arturo Frondizi: in that case, the prompt was Frondizi’s loss of several governorships to the Peronists in the ’62 elections. Again, gridlock was not the issue. The 1966 coup kinda sorta maybe if you squint could be gridlock-related — but really had more to do with President Arturo Illia’s confrontation with American oil companies. And 1976? That one was against President Isabel Perón’s supposed inability to defeat Communist guerrillas. Her coalition controlled Congress; once again, gridlock was not the issue.
What about Brazil? Well, the Revolution of 1930 took down an oligarchical government with an extremely limited electorate. Not really comparable. The 1964 coup knocked out a left-wing government with American support. It is true that Congress did not support President João Goulart. It is also true, however, that for his first three years Goulart presided over a parliamentary system in which power resided with Prime Minister Tancredo Neves. In 1963, a referendum restored President Goulart’s executive power: the result was paralysis. In that sense, the ’64 democratic breakdown is consistent with the hypothesis that presidentialism causes gridlock causes democratic failure. The problem is that the parliamentary system tried beforehand was doing no better at resolving the country’s political conflicts.
Colombia? Well, the 1953 coup happened after President Laureano Gómez seized dictatorial power. Gómez, in turn, won the 1950 election because the opposition boycotted it. Again, gridlock not the problem.
Let’s turn then to Mexico. Uh … no, let’s not. The 1910 revolution got started against a dictatorship. Porfirio Díaz government was many things, but gridlocked was not one of them. (In fact, Congressional votes were all unanimous after 1893.)
I could go on around the other countries of the Western Hemisphere, but the pattern is similar. Divided government is not the cause of most democratic breakdowns in Latin America. Chile 1973 is the closest, but that is one event, with little resemblance to the government-by-crisis currently affecting the United States.
So breathe easy America! We will get through this. How, you ask? Well, if the GOP keeps this up, it will lose a lot of elections, even with our gerrymandered House of Representatives ... and there is a lot of ruin in the United States. The worst-case scenario on the debt ceiling is pretty bad, and I would certainly a 5-10% fall in GDP and the corresponding human suffering a failure of the United States. But in the unlikely event that the Republicans take us there, they will not be in a position to take us there again.
Political science is hard!
There has been some recent blogobuzz about the work of Juan Linz, who argued that presidential systems were more prone to breakdowns than parliamentary ones. Breakdown, of course, meant a military coup.
Problem is, Linz’s arguments aren’t airtight in theory or in practice. They strongly hinge on the idea that the constitution’s problem-solving mechanisms are illegitimate. Perhaps that is true in the United States; perhaps if it is not. If President Obama is forced to choose between breaking the law by omission or breaking it by commission, we might have a test of this proposition.
(Omission is letting the U.S. start to default on payments in the next few weeks; commission is authorizing a Treasury auction in contravention of the debt ceiling. Both are in fact illegal.)
In addition, Linz provides no prediction as to whether a strong presidency would be better or worse for stability. A strong presidency (as in Colombia) avoids some of the problems of legislative-executive conflicts; but it increases the problems of getting stuck with a hard-to-remove problematic executive. (This very problem caused the Honduran coup.) A weak president, on the other hand, lessens the winner-take-all problem. (Scott Mainwaring and Matthew Shugart, currently at Notre Dame and UC-Davis, suggested that two decades ago.)
Jim Robinson and Ragnar Torvik have a more developed model that takes into account the fact that many parliamentary systems outside Latin America switched to presidential ones. I like that paper. Thing is, Robinson-Torvik reduces the choice of system to an epiphenomenon ... and predicts that presidentialism will be preferred in societies that are (a) polarized with respect to preferences for public goods; (b) highly divided ideologically; and (c) have a low government budget. If they are right, then a parliamentary system for such a society might be better in some theoretical sense ... but it is also a Nirvana fantasy.
Empirically, there are some problems with Linz. First, Latin America has no parliamentary regimes. That makes intra-regional comparisons difficult. The parliamentary governments of the West Indies have seen three democratic breakdowns (Grenada, Guyana and Suriname). That is a relatively low rate compared to the mainland, but the islands are different from the mainland are different on a whole host of variables, not least their judicial links with the United Kingdom and the willingness of the United States to intervene.
Second, in Africa, neither system is more likely to survive. That poses a problem for the theory, at least in very poor countries. (Ditto very rich ones, where most of the democratic breakdowns have happened in parliamentary regimes: e.g., interwar Europe.)
Finally, a lot of the results are driven by the surprising fact that island states are less likely to experience democratic breakdown.
There may be a killer paper out there. If there is, I am not aware of it.
In other words, the U.S. has some constitutional problems. They may even cause political failure. But I am not sure that our current crisis of ingovernability is due to presidentialism per se.
Moreover, it would seem to me that a stronger executive would obviate the current crisis. This could not happen in Colombia or Brazil. Perhaps that is what (for better or worse) the current crisis will give us.
The news from Europe today concerns the birth of the new British royal heir. I actually don’t think the news is that big: the only place my wife and I have heard it discussed is on television. That’s it. None of the nurses in her hospital have mentioned it. None of the cops I meet in the morning could care less. Ditto the gym, the coffeehouse, the sports bar. Zero zip nada except for Chris Matthews.
More important political news from Italy has been obscured. It seems as though the current Italian government wants to neuter the Senate.
The official position of this blog is that Senates are a bad thing. Of the ones reviewed here, the U.S. and the Philippines have the worst; Argentina’s and Brazil’s are pretty bad; Canada’s is redeemed only by its relative lack of authority. Only Mexico and Colombia have halfway-decent upper houses, and even those are still halfway-indecent.
On paper, the Italian senate is not terrible. Each region gets a number of seats proportional to its population. The coalition with the most votes (even if not a majority) in the region then gets 55% of the seats from that region. Bizarrely, the national voting age is 18, but for the Senate it is 25.
But in practice, it’s a problem. In the lower house the coalition with a plurality of votes automatically gets at least 55% of the seats. The government therefore has an automatic majority. (In most parliamentary systems the government usually gets a majority, although not always. Minority governments are generally considered a problem and usually short-lived.) In the Senate, however, the government is not guaranteed a majority. Unless a coalition can be cobbled together, you run the risk of having the government collapse. Moreover, even when a government is formed, bicameralism slows down decision-making.
So now the current Italian government is trying to neuter the upper house! I approve. How can they do that, might one ask? Well, simply, if the Senators believe that replacing the Senate with a weaker body is in the interest of their party, then they will vote for the reform.
Nonetheless, success is unlikely ... but it sure beats the way the Canadian government wants to strengthen its Senate.
I just read a very good essay by Andrew Mwenda in a Ugandan newspaper. (I am not in Uganda.) Here is the conclusion:
Could post independence governments in Africa have performed better? Perhaps, but at a price; they should have aimed at preserving their limited capacity; using it only sparingly. Instead, most governments in Africa moved fast to elaborate public functions. Botswana avoided this mistake perhaps because it had had an almost absentee colonial state. This could have reduced the demands for rapid africanisation. But acting like Botswana would have been a purely technical response to what was actually a burning political problem.
The nationalist struggle for independence emerged to challenge legally sanctioned exclusion of Africans from state power outside of traditional institutions in colonial Africa. That was its fuel. Upon independence, the first demand therefore was rapid africanisation. Although technically disastrous, it was politically popular. The second demand was derived from the first. Africans wanted to take public services to the wider population. Few governments would have survived by resisting this demand.
Political pressure for africanisation undermined the meritocratic systems of external recruitment and internal promotion that allowed the civil service to uphold its high standards. Rapid elaboration of functions without existing capacity made a bad situation worse. What was politically right was technically disastrous. And in our ethnically heterogeneous polities, promoting social inclusion – even on the face of things – was more politically desirable than sustaining technical competence. The problem is that it eroded competence and allowed cronyism and corruption to flourish. Politics is costly and Africa had to pay that price.
Many African elites focus on technical failures in Africa and ignore the political compromises that brought that failure. In other words, the price of political compromise was technical failure. It is possible that if such compromises had not been struck, many states in Africa would have collapsed under the weight of civil war. It is remarkable that African leaders who inherited fictions of states left behind by colonial rule were successful at creating a common national consciousness. This has sustained the sovereignty and territorial integrity of these nations. Today, few states in Africa have fallen apart like Somalia. In others, the state may not be omnipresent yet, but the concept of nationhood has gained a lot of ground.
Click the link and read the whole thing!
I find this a fascinating hypothesis. How to test it? Ted Miguel provides partial evidence from the Kenya-Tanzania border. The border sliced through the same diversity of ethnic groups on both sides, yet villages on the Tanzanian side find it much easier to muster collective action and raise resources to provide public goods than otherwise identical Kenyan counterparts. Ted’s work, however, just indicates that nation-building strategies can work. It doesn’t quite get at Andrew Mwenda’s hypothesis.
I wish I saw an obvious way to operationalize the hypothesis. Calling Suresh Naidu!
OK, I got some emails about Colombian membership in NATO. The rumors are true: President Santos did float a trial balloon about joining the organization. NATO, unsurprisingly, said no. NATO would have said no regardless, but it was useful that the North Atlantic Treaty states that new parties to the organization have to be in Europe. Article 10:
The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty. Any State so invited may become a Party to the Treaty by depositing its instrument of accession with the Government of the United States of America.
The country will sign a cooperation agreement with NATO, but it is still not clear what that means. NATO says, however, that all cooperation agreements are the same, and you can find out what the organization says about said cooperation here.
NATO member or not, Colombia and the U.S. are close allies. We have a free trade agreement. Small numbers of U.S. troops operate in-country. The Colombian supreme court overturned an agreement giving the U.S. access to Colombian bases (see page 39 of this CRS report) but the U.S. still builds facilities there. (The text of the agreement can be found here.)
And the U.S. is surprisingly popular. Here is Latinobarómetro’s 2009 results on the question, “Does the U.S. treat your country with respect?”
SIDE OBSERVATION #1: It is interesting that Venezuelans place themselves in a category with Uruguay and Brazil, and not with their Bolivarian comrades in Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina. My hypothesis is that it reflects Venezuelan polarization: all Venezuelans know that relations between the U.S. and Venezuela are bad, but many more Venezuelans take the American side than do their compatriots in the other big Bolivarian countries.
Here are the results to a general question on the state of bilateral relations:
SIDE OBSERVATION #2: The Venezuelan results are consistent with my hypothesis: everyone knows that relations with the U.S. are terrible, but many of them blame their own government.
SIDE OBSERVATION #3: A large subset of Mexicans are uniquely suspiscious of the United States, and uniquely prickly about national sovereignty. In fact, the U.S. treats Mexico with at least as much respect as Colombia (likely more) and relations are at least as good as with Colombia (likely better). But for understandable historical reasons, Mexicans don’t see it that way.
Finally, the Colombian results appear to hold over time. It is not just a phenomenon of the Obama-Santos relationship.
In short, even though Colombia will not be joining NATO, it has a uniquely close relationship with the United States. Moreover, that special relationship is supported by Colombian public opinion, and thus likely to endure.
None of this is to say that the U.S.-Colombian relationship is necessarily good for Colombia. The jury is out on that one, although if there is demand I will present some evidence that it just might be bad.
In comments, Tzintzuntzan asks about the procedural rules in the Colombian congress. What are the rules by which the legislature makes the rules? Who controls them?
This is something often overlooked when Americans examine foreign countries. It’s an odd oversight, since procedural rules define American politics more than most places. In the Senate, the need to get 60% to pass anything is a procedural rule. In the House, the Speaker’s near dictatorial control over what bills get to the floor is a procedural rule. And don’t get me started on the baroque rules governing the conference committees that reconcile bills passed by both houses. In short, American politics is entirely incomprehensible if you don’t understand the procedural rules.
The same applies (albeit generally to a lesser extent) to other countries. If you don’t understand the rules by which the legislature makes the rules, then you can’t understand their politics.
Fortunately, Royce Carroll (Rice) and Mónica Pachón (Uniandes) have studied the issue for Colombia. Who controls the legislative agenda? Where are the vetoes?
The U.S. president, as Barack Obama knows all too well, cannot introduce legislation directly. Now, it is usually easy for a President to get a sympathetic legislator to introduce a bill, but he or she cannot force Congress to vote on it. Speaker Boehner or a coalition of forty Senators can kill anything before it even comes up for a vote.
Not so in Colombia! Here, the President can directly introduce legislation. Article 200 of the constitution (English here, Spanish here, and note that in context “gobierno” is used in the British sense and ought to be translated in American English as “administration”) lays out the authority:
This article has been interpreted very broadly.
In addition, the President can force votes on his or her bills within 30 days. In fact, they can force a vote within 15 days by invoking a joint session of Congress. Better yet, they can skip committees and insure that the House and Senate debate the same initial version of the bill.
But there is a snag. Bills can be amended on the floor. So the President needs to pay close attention to the legislative process in both chambers. If the House and Senate amend bills differently, then a conference committee will determine its final shape ... and the President of the Republic has no direct authority over the committee.
So who does? The answer: each chamber’s three-person Board of Directors. They are elected to one-year terms, by secret ballot. Each Board consists of one president and two vice-presidents, with (by tradition) the president coming from the majority coalition and the veeps from the largest minority parties. These guys serve pick the conference committee, and these are the guys that the President needs on board to get his or her bills through the Congress. In fact, they pick all committees, so getting any bills through Congress requires their assent.
The board presidents are, to get back to Tzin’s question, the equivalent of the U.S. Speaker. The one-year limit, however, insures that the Colombian congress produces no Willie Browns. Me, I think that is a bad thing, but mileage may vary.
What is the upshot? First, presidents in Colombia have a good-but-not-perfect legislative track record. (See page 17.) President Pastrana got 85% of his major bills passed. President Uribe got 79% passed in his first term, and 57% in his second. Presidential bills generally, however, take a lot longer than 30 days to pass: the average is actually 224.
Congress, however, maintains a lot of influence over the process. Carroll and Pachón calculated the proportion of characters that changed between the first version of a bill and the last. For presidential initiatives, 54% of the bill (among passed laws) changed throughout the process. For legislative initiatives, however, the proportion was only 26%. (See page 20.)
The unanswered question, however, is why presidential bills change more than Congressional ones. There are three hypotheses.
Hypothesis 1: The conference committees run the show. They change presidential bills more than ones introduced by their fellow congresspeople.
Hypothesis 1 is probably wrong, or at least incomplete. If it were correct, the changes to presidential bills should mostly happen in the conference committee. Conference committees, however, change only 14% of presidential bills. Most changes occur on the floor.
Hypothesis 2: The only kinds of congressional bills that can pass are uncontroversial motherhood issues.
Hypothesis 2 is also probably wrong. It is true that congressional bills usually fail: none passed under Pastrana and only 36% in Uribe’s first term. But congresspeople introduced such significant (and successful) pieces of legislation as the Violence Against Women Act, the Congressional Ethics Act, and a law allowing the confiscation of property from convicted criminals.
Hypothesis 3: The Board of Directors exercise control early on over congressional bills, but though means other than the conference committee. (Of course, the threat of an unfriendly conference committee might lead the executive to roll over on amendments earlier in the process.)
This one seems to fit the facts. The Board of Directors (in Spanish, the “mesa directiva”) are very powerful. Their power is limited, however, by the fact that they serve only one-year terms.
The upshot is that the President of Colombia can work even with the kinds of fragmented Congresses produced by Colombian electoral law as long as he can get a friendly Board of Directors. He can even work with the Senate. Barack Obama should be so lucky.
Tzin, does this answer your question?
But this is not to say that all is well with Colombian politics. More on that if there is interest.
Finally, I will have a good thing to say about a senate!
This blog is on record trashing the senates of America, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, and the Philippines. It has been slightly kinder to the one of Mexico, but only slightly. So, finally, here is a senate that I can support.
Under the Constitution of 1991, Colombia has two houses. The House of Representatives is elected by district. Each department gets two representatives, plus an additional one for every 250,000 people. The representatives, however, are not elected from geographic districts. Rather, they are elected by proportional representation at the level of the department. For example, Bogotá divvies up its 18 representatives according to the percentage of the vote taken by each party in Bogotá. La Guajira, then, does the same thing with its two representatives. (The geographic division of the 164 representatives can be found here.)
The 100 members of the Senate (actually 102, since two Senators represent indigenous communities) are also elected by proportional representation, but according to their percentage of the national vote. Voters vote separately for the two chambers.
Now there may be problems. First, proportional representation might not be the best way to organize a legislature under a presidential system — but given the train-wreck that is the American legislature, I would hesitate to make big claims about that. Moreover, Colombia is a country where it is vital that small political minorities receive direct representation.
Second, the actual system of proportional representation used is one of the worst (see page 6 here) advantaging small parties. Basically, they divide the number of votes cast by the number of seats. That becomes the magic number. Every party that gets above that number gets a seat. If it gets more than twice the magic number it gets two. More than three times the magic number, then it gets three. Any fractions over the magic number are thrown away. Then the smaller parties get any remaining seats in order of their vote tallies. Bigger parties get slightly fewer seats than they should and some tiny parties can sneak in. This is a problem for the smaller House districts, but does not really apply to the Senate, since the magic number there is a relatively small 1% of the total vote.
Finally, the benefit of a two-house legislature is unclear. There is a case that checks-and-balances are good, but multiple veto points can also empower minorities.
None of these three objections strike me as compelling.
Colombian politics has a lot of problems, of course. (Is there interest in the recent politics of Bogotá?) And in a perfect world I would not pick the Colombian system for the United States. (Although I would take it over our own crazier system in a heartbeat!) But similar to the way Mexico has made its Senate more functional by using proportional representation to dilute its undemocratic features, Colombia has made its Senate more functional by using proportional representation to make it more democratic.
But I will say that the problems of Colombian politics owe little to the constitutional design of the Senate. (These political scientists agree: their reforms mostly involve changes to electoral law, not constitutional design.) Moreover, in some ways the Senate is better designed than the House. So, finally, an upper house in the Americas that I can support.
At least sort of. The idea that legislators can vote by secret ballot strikes me as nuts. But that problem applies to both Colombian chambers, not just the Senate.
I am a very new observer of Colombian politics. Thoughts?
UPDATE (June 13): The Santos administration just announced that it intends to redenominate the currency by the end of 2014.
President Juan Manuel Santos has long wanted to chop three zeros off the Colombian peso, which trades around 1,800 to the dollar. Except for Paraguay, the next weakest in Latin America are the colón and the Chilean peso, which bounce around 500. (Wikipedia has a list of the smallest-value currency units here.) In October 2011, the proposal failed in the Senate by a vote of 41-15. In September 2012, the President reopened the idea, but by February 2013 it was clear that it was not going to happen in this legislative session. The idea remains current, however, and I will not be surprised if it comes back after the peace talks with the FARC are sorted out.
Redenominating the currency is not crazy: France got rid of two zeros in 1960; Israel revalued by a factor of 1,000 in 1986 as did Russia in 1998; Peru hacked off six zeros when the sol replaced the inti in 1991; the next year Argentina cut four zeros off when the peso replaced the austral; Mexico sliced off three in 1993; Turkey hacked off six in 2005; Mozambique redenominated by three orders of magnitude in 2006; Ghana introduced a new cedi at 10,000-to-1 in 2007; and Venezuela chopped off three in 2008 with the introduction of the bolívar fuerte.
The direct cost of introducing a redenominated currency would not be insignificant. In 2010, the Colombian government estimated it around $123 million. (In a sign of the problem with high-denomination currencies, that number turned into $123 thousand on an English-language website!) Printing new bills is cheap: 84% of the cost would come from minting new coins. There would also be an additional $32 million spent in advertising and explaining the change, for a total cost of $155 million.
(Side note: in Ghana, coins were basically out of circulation by the time the government proposed redenominating the cedi. Since coins had to be reintroduced anyway, the monetary cost of redenominating was tiny.)
So why bother? The issue is understudied, but the economics literature (such as it is) focuses on credibility. Few currencies (I am tempted to say none) are denominated in hundreths or thousandths of a euro for long-standing historical reasons. Rather, it comes about either because of a burst of triple-digit inflation (say, Mexico in the 1980s), outright hyperinflation (say, Argentina) or a long period of relatively moderate double-digit inflation (like Colombia; see the below chart.)
So the big economic reason to redenominate, then, is to reiterate that the inflationary period is over, kaputsky, finis. Over here, the Banco Central de Venezuela states four reasons that boil down to making mental math easier and one which says “Leave behind the consequences the history of inflations of the past had on the currency.”
Layna Mosley at UNC-Chapel Hill tried to figure out why countries redenominate. She hypothesized that credibility might be a reason, of course, but she also thought that conservative governments would be also be more likely to redenominate for reasons of national pride. Her evidence was supportive, but not compelling.
Colombia, however, mostly fits her model. (You can read the Colombian authorities’ reasons for wanting to change.) In addition to standard discussions about credibility and easier math, the central bankers mentioned the feel-good pride effect from having a serious currency valued at around half a dollar (or euro or real) instead of some teeny tiny amount. “There is possibly a positive psychological impact since it reduces the gap between local and foreign currency denominations.”
That fits the Mosley model. The final reason, however, does not:
“A countrywide redenomination exercise would also mean all citizens had to exchange their currency, and this could potentially shed light on the country's vast shadow economy. It is thought that drug cartels which operate in Colombia trade mainly with greenbacks. However, officials do not have any definitive figures that prove the extent to which pesos are used in drug trade, and a wide-scale currency exchange could help in this respect.”
And that, ultimately, is why I think Colombia should redenominate.
I am in Colombia for many reasons. One is to start a big research project. Another is because I like the country. But the main one was to attend a conference on mining put on by the Universidad de los Andes.
El Tiempo reported on the conference. Here is a translation of part of their report:
“In his presentation, Noel Maurer, a professor at Harvard Business School, said ‘there is no curse’ from the resources created by mining discoveries. For him, there is no evidence from any country where either democracy or development has severely deteriorated after an increase in income generated by mining activity.”
That is worded a little more strongly than I would like (you can find some evidence of a resource curse in Nigeria and Zambia, and it is unlikely that the 1997 crisis would have unseated Suharto at a time of high mineral prices) but it does about sum up my opinion. To be fair to El Tiempo, they added my caveat in this tweet.
Lina Holguin of Oxfam-Québec tweeted in response to my caveat, “Congo, Chad and Niger...????” I would answer by saying that while all three countries are poor and unstable, there is no evidence that they would be less poor or less unstable without natural resources ... with an additional caveat that natural resources may have increased violence in particular regions of Congo. Possibly.
El Tiempo also tweeted a few other quotes from yours truly. First: “The decrease in Venezuelan democracy started before the oil boom.” Second, a somewhat misquoted, “No resource boom has affected countries rich in resources.” (I am mildly unhappy with that one: my argument was only about democratic stability.) Third: “Colombia ought to avoid wasting the current mining boom.”
While my discussion was about democracy, that last quote is correct: lots of countries have blown resource booms, leaving them no better off than they entered. Colombia should avoid that. Of course, that is something easier said than done!
Finally, let me end by presenting the (weak) evidence for a resource curse in Zambia.The red line measures the country’s Polity score, a commonly-accepted measure of democracy. The blue line measures the government’s real direct income from the copper industry; the green line measures the percentage of government revenues from copper.
Zambia’s polity score dropped precipitously between 1968 and 1972, while copper revenues boomed. The country then democratized in 1991, after a period of prolonged low copper prices. The argument would be that copper revenues made it easier for Kaunda to establish a one-party state, while the period of low prices was essential to see the fall of that state.
The rub, of course, is that lots of countries in Africa followed the same trend around the same time. (See the below chart.) But you cannot rule out a curse for Zambia.
The Boston bombings have understandably sucked the oxygen out of foreign news coverage. (The mother of one of the victims works at my university. A friend and colleague of mine finished the race shortly before the blasts, but was thankfully already headed home on the T when they happened.) To compensate, in my own small way, I will post a short update about the violent post-election confusion in Venezuela.
Violence broke out after the elections. I cannot say who was responsible, although government supporters seem to be responsible for much. President Maduro has withdrawn his offer to recount the votes; the Supreme Court has now ruled that out. Justice Luisa Morales stated, “In Venezuela the system is absolutely automatic, in such a way that manual recounts don’t exist.”
That is bizarre, since one of the great things about Venezuelan elections is that absolutely the system is set up to allow manual recounts.
Even more bizarrely, the government issued and then suspended arrest warrants for opposition leaders, including Henrique Capriles. In the face of government threats, Capriles wisely called off demonstrations.
I do not think that Venezuela is headed towards civil unrest. I do think that the Maduro government is in the process of destroying its own legitimacy. This will not end explosively, thank the Lord, but it will not end well.
I said yesterday that Venezuela had an excellent voting system. I did not explain how or why. So here is Caracas Chronicles with a great explanation! From them:
You end with three tallies: the electronic record, the machine print-outs, and the vouchers. Hard to cheat, and easy to recount. (There are rumors of vouchers found dumped in the trash. We will see. I am skeptical.)
Voting is one thing that the Bolivarian Republic does very well, much better than its predecessors.
Florida should be so lucky.
Holy cow! I just fired up ye olde web browser, to discover that Nicolás Maduro was still the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela ... by a margin of 1.59%. He eked out a bare majority of 50.66% of the vote.
That’s not a good result. It may even be the second-worst possible result. (A narrow win by the opposition, under Henrique Capriles, would have been the worst possible result, albeit an extremely unlikely one.) Capriles as already fired a salvo: “We alert the country and the world of the intention to try and change the will expressed by the people.” (The tweet no longer seems to be up.)
The bad side is that the result will be challenged. Venezuela actually has a rather good voting system. The electronic machines record a paper ballot, which is saved, so manual recounts are possible. I get worried, however, when the president of the electoral commission declares a close result to be “irreversible.”
Simply put, the Venezuelan economy is full of ticking time bombs. Why be in office as they start to go off? Let the Socialist Party take the responsibility for the mess they have caused.
If I were the president of Cyprus, knowing the little that I know right now, I would take the country out of the Eurozone. But that is not a no-brainer. There would be a lot of losers. Cyprus should leave the euro, but it won’t, because the losers outweigh the winners in the short run.
Who would be the losers from leaving the euro?
OK, so who wins?
How will this political logic look by the 2018 election? Well, I’m pretty sure that it will look like staying in the euro was a bad decision. In that sense, I would advise President Anastasiades to leave the euro now and bet on re-election on the wave of a giant economic boom by the time the next presidential election rolls around.
The problem is that it is not at all clear that such a move will look great by the time of the next legislative election in 2016. There are a lot of short-term losers, and they are politically powerful.
In fact, given the opposition, a new currency may be impossible. The president of Cyprus is powerful, but he cannot unilaterally introduce a new currency. There would have to be wide support for such a move. The problem is that most of the soon-to-be-unemployed won’t give it, the bankers are unlikely to act in their self-interest (this is oddly true of American bankers, I should add), and those who owe debts to foreigners can only be appeased by radical changes in Cypriot bankruptcy law. (It is currently very strict; e.g., creditor-friendly.)
While leaving the euro looks like a clear decision at first glance — two-thirds of Cypriots support it! — the politics rapidly gets blurry by the second and third look. Argentina left the American monetary union after a punishing depression had reduced the economy to barter; Mexico’s president could unilaterally devalue (and pretty much had no other option by that point). Leaving the euro would almost certainly lead to a richer and stabler Cyprus by 2018 … but the above analysis, superficial as it is, makes me think that you can’t get there from here.
Cyprus will have a long and grinding depression, but it will not (unlike Argentina) be reduced to barter because the ECB will provide just enough liquidity to insure that does not happen. Things will get awful, but probably never quite awful enough to get the government to take the logical step. It’s a tragedy for the Cypriot people, but an entirely understandable one.
Moisés Naím has an interesting new book coming out: The End of Power. Its argument that power (conventionally declined) is decaying is incontrovertible ... but I worry from this preview that the author is conflating too many different things to create a useful framework.
There is an argument to be made that the world is facing global problems without a global government. This “governance” thing is failing to compensate; the one international institution that resembles an actual federal government (the E.U.) is still much too weak. But that argument leaves out problem (1). To shoehorn current American political paralysis into his argument, Naím will need a theory to tie the rise of ideological disciplined parties to some greater global force.
Naím appears to be trying to create a theory about the decline of all kinds of centralized power ... but it is not clear that centralized power is declining. Take the examples in the linked-to essay. None of them are clear-cut. Corporate CEOs do churn more than ever before ... but CEOs and the owners of capital get an ever-higher share of income. The BP oil spill did hit the BP share price more than the Exxon Valdez spill hit Exxon ... but the Gulf spill was a far far far far bigger disaster. France did pull out of Afghanistan after a few green-on-blue attacks ... but was not an important part of the U.S. coalition and Paris went on to occupy northern Mali a few years later.
Let me be clear: I think that Naím is an important thinker who is on to something important. I do not think the world is the same as it was in, say, 1980. But from what I see in the precis, I worry that this book will not explain (or even properly define) the difference.
I have posted about the tendency among popular academics to lurch between the extremes of “We Have Seen It All Before” to “Everything is Different Now!” That post mentioned Stratfor as an example of how the former mindset can lead to some head-scratching conclusions. I am hopeful that the new book from Naím will avoid the latter, but the essay gives some reason to worry.
A friend of mine, James Nicoll, asked me and a few other mutual amigos to review a self-published science fiction novel: Through Struggle, The Stars, by John Lumpkin. Somewhat reluctantly, I downloaded and read it. To my surprise, I enjoyed the read while remaining unconvinced by the scenario. I will also put up my friends reviews (all written separately). Here (with one change) is mine:
Through Struggle, The Stars is much better than a self-published novel has any right to be. It’s a tale of a war in the year 2140 between China and Japan, told through the eyes of a new officer in the United States Space Force. The USSF — which has inexplicably adopted naval ranks and conventions despite the name — exists to defend both the terrestrial United States and its interstellar colonies. The setting is hard science fiction, in the sense that the only gimme is a system of wormholes to allow interstellar travel. No aliens; space vessels rotate for gravity; and while they use fusion engines that we have no idea how to build the accelerations involved are tiny. The politics aren’t self-evidently silly and the populations of the colony worlds are sensibly low. In fact, it reads like the kind of novel that I tried to write as a teenager, only well-crafted.
From the tone of the above paragraph, I’m sure that you can guess that my overall review is going to be negative. Since the book has a lot of positive qualities, let me start with them. First and foremost, I kept reading! I am not the sort of person who finishes every book he starts. In fact, I finish only a small minority of them. Most of my reading is work-related nonfiction and thus mostly skimmed. As for novels, I’m a high-friction reader: the moment I have to work to maintain my attention, my reading speed drops quickly — and it takes very little to get me to quit. This novel I did not quit. That is an extremely good thing.
Second, I very much liked how the majority of the American characters had Spanish last names. Finally, somebody who thinks about demographics! I also liked that they threw in Spanish catch-phrases, but just as that: catch phrases. That is exactly how Spanish survives after several generations. We learn (from a Senate vote) that the United States has at least 52 states by 2140 and the author opens the possibility that Cuba might be one of them. Normally, that would get my “silly future cliché” alert up, but the allusion is simply that one enlisted USSF person has Havana for a home town. That would be possible today. While I do not believe that Cuba will ever become part of the United States it is supremely easy to believe that the country will continue to have a “special relationship” with the mainland, up to and including free migration. So the throwaway line didn’t desuspend my disbelief — after all, add Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and you’ve got 52 right there.
The characters were believable, if somewhat clichéd. Actually, “clichéd” isn’t the right word. They were believable enough for me to care about them (and therefore keep reading) but they weren’t distinct enough for me to really remember any details. The one exception was a Chinese gangster-turned-intelligence-agent, and he stuck with me because I didn’t really ever believe in him. He wasn’t a cliché by any means; he just seemed too much like an agent of the plot, a character created by “The Narrative” rather than a real person who naturally found himself involved with the other people in the book. (The phrase in quotes is a reference to Scalzi’s Redshirts.)
The politics were well-handled … but lacking. First, the portrayal of China as a quasi-democracy felt wrong. Such regimes first appeared in Latin America in the late-nineteenth century; they quickly collapsed (via coups or civil wars) or turned into full-on dictatorships. That pattern continued through the 20th century with a third wrinkle: several of the quasi-democracies turned quickly into real democracies. Mexico’s second dictatorship-in-drag collapsed in the 1990s; even in Turkey today, the “deep state” seems to be on its last legs. It strained my belief to think that China would be ruled by a century-old corrupt oligarchy 130 years from now. (A newly-minted corrupt oligarchy would be a different story.)
Second, the politics of the war were given disappointingly short shrift. It is indisputable that major inter-state war has gone into serious decline since 1945. It strikes me as very plausible that it could see a comeback. The novel provides a necessary condition: powerful directed-energy weapons make it at least plausible that politicians would believe that they could control the ladder of escalation. (The prevalence of robotic and precision weapons had a similar effect.) Logically, therefore, the war began as a limited conflict fought at sea and in space; one can imagine future audiences cheering on such a contest.
The problem is that there was something very pro forma about the backdrop. There is an interesting question about whether industrialized interstate war (limited or not) is possible in a modern democratic environment. Can modern democratic politicians capitalize on violence? Would modern audiences countenance unleashing death in their names for anything less than national survival? These questions are unaddressed. When the author reveals the reason the American president maneuvered the U.S. into the war, it comes as an anticlimax. (It depends on the FTL McGuffin.) There were some references to U.S. domestic opposition, but mostly in the context of “ethnic Chinese” congressmen objecting to a war with the madre patria. (Which is, I have to say, a silly idea — in a world where China has been rich for a century, there will be no discernable Chinese-American community have been little net immigration from China for at least as long. The descendents of past and current immigrants will have long since assimilated; second-generation outmarriage among Chinese-Americans currently tops 50%.) There is a subplot involving a Taiwanese independence movement that strained credibility. In short, the politics never became unbelievable — but they were underexplored.
Which brings me to the killer problem: the book read like it took place in 2012, 2030 on the outside. It was simply unbelievable as a depiction of life in 2140. The ground combat scenes, for example, read like they happened last week. (The main characters were a little too composed during the fighting, but that’s a different issue.) Sure, there were exoskeletons and lasers from space, but that felt like window-dressing. Nothing about microdrones, intelligent robotic “pack animals,” self-guided ammunition ... the tactics of ground combat were basically unchanged.
The same problem afflicted the rest of the book. There were passing mentions of self-driving vehicles, advanced drones, machine translation, advanced 3-D printing, computer interfaces implanted in people’s eyeballs and “the best genes that money could buy,” but none of that had any appreciable effect on the course of the action or the social background in which the characters operated. The author failed completely at giving the impression that the book took place in the future. Now, it is possible that the author is correct that by 2140 automation will advance, sensor technology improve, cyborgization continue, 3-D printing mature and gene modification become common among the rich ... yet with daily life remaining about the same as in 2012. (Along with military organizations, ground combat and democratic politics.) That is possible! And hell, as a small-c conservative, I would very much like it to be true. But it’s a tall order, and a writer who wants to keep my disbelief suspended needs to make the case. The author of this book does not even try.
As a coda, I had three other quibbles. First, while the space combat scenes seemed well thought through, I did have to wonder what all those people on board the ships were actually doing. Even if our 22nd-century space navies decide to keep human commanders in the loop rather than entrusting it all to the AI’s, one would think that the ships would operate with tiny stripped-down crews and lots of maintenance robots. If that’s wrong, I want to know why.
Second, the dynamics of space colonization didn’t make much sense, at least not on the surface. There wasn’t much commerce, so the motivation seemed to be non-economic. The few colonies we saw were not rich places, so there was some indication that the author realized the problem, but it wasn’t explicit. Nothing caused me to recoil, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something didn’t make sense about the scenario.
Lastly, there were a few dumb throwaways. A reference to helium-3 mining on the Moon. Ugh. A reference to asteroid mining. Slightly more plausible for a few rare elements, but double-ugh as something needed to power Earth industry. And then there was a major lacuna for a book about geopolitics: a bit about coastal protections for major cities was the only reference to global warming.
In short, the book succeeded as a yarn. But it failed as science fiction. Props for the Spanish last names, thinking through the dynamics of orbital combat, and avoiding (most) clichés. But minus for essentially writing “2012 in Space!” rather than something about the year 2140.
I would read other works by the author; he shows a lot of promise. I’m not sure that I would read other works set in the same universe, though. None of my objections require him to rewrite his background — just explore it in greater depth. The end result, however, won’t look much like the “2012 in Space” that we saw. Maybe Charlie Stross would let him bounce ideas around?
Comments welcome on any and all of the topics raised above.
So Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana! This is a big step, although it is going to be a problem that the federal government still bans the substance.
Now, it looks like Uruguay might be the first country on Earth to fully legalize marijuana. (Or “marihuana,” as they spell it.) The Netherlands tolerates it, but it is not fully legal.
It is pretty neat that a serious country may legalize marijuana, but to give away the punchline, I doubt very much that it will be a harbinger of much until the American or Canadian federal government moves. There is a lot of opposition to legalization in Latin America, and Uruguay is not considered a bellweather. (It is one in practice, but that is more because Uruguay gets to the future first and less because other nations deliberately emulate the Eastern Republic.)
The bill is pretty vague. Here is the complete text:
“The State will assume control and regulation over the importation, production, acquisition in any form, storage, commercialization and distribution of marihuana and its derivatives, under such terms and conditions as fixed by regulation.
“Likewise, the State will undertake such material activities as are necessary before, during and after to carry out the activities referred to in the previous paragraph, under such terms and conditions as fixed by regulation.
“The activities referred to in the previous paragraphs shall be realized exclusively under a policy of damage reduction that shall, therefore, alert the population to the consequences and adverse effects of marihuana consumption, as well as the effects of minimizing the risks and damages to the population of potential consumers under such conditions as fixed by regulation.”
It is worth noting here that the Uruguayan president is quite a bit more powerful than the American president. (At least inside the country. Outside Uruguay, I do not believe that Mr. Mujica has the ability to order flying robots to kill anyone.) As long as his cabinet concurs, the Uruguayan president can send bills directly to Parliament. (Officially, the “General Assembly,” but everyone calls it Parliament.) In fact, under Article 168 the president can designate bills as urgent. “Urgent” bills must be approved or disapproved with 85 days or they automatically become law. The catch is that the president can only submit one urgent bill at a time.
The marihuana bill is not urgent.
So it is taking its own sweet time through Parliament. Of the six security measures proposed by the President (the marihuana deal is considered a security measure) the legislature has approved only one, which reduced sentences for low-level drug dealing while increasing the penalties for corruption. Right now, the marihuana bill is in a dicey spot. It can pass, but only with support from the President’s Broad Front. So far, only one opposition legislator has come out in support. President Mujica seems reluctant to pass such a significant bill on a party-line vote.
In order to get support, the administration has announced what the regulations might look like after the bill is passed. The drug will cost ₱700 per gram, around US$36. That is higher than the U.S. price of $14 per gram, but roughly the price in Uruguay. (Since marijuana is still illegal, it is hard to come up with a standardized price, even for tolerated medical marijuana.) If the law passes, Uruguayan consumers will receive a photo ID armed with a photo and bar code (that is high tech?) and be limited to 40 grams a month.
To sum, the bill looks likely to pass, but it is still generating controversy.
But I would also bet that the Mexican government is going to consider legalization but do nothing until the U.S. federal government moves. There is a great deal of conservative opposition in Mexico, deeper and wider than in Uruguay, and with a weaker president and a divided Congress everything is tougher.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, a great book by Isaac Campos shows that opposition to marijuana actually originated inside Mexico; it was not imposed by international norms. The reverse actually: had Mexicans been less anti-marijuana, then the world might not have gone prohibitionist.*
Hugo Chávez just won re-election by a convincing margin in Venezuela. If I may, my friend Francisco Rodríguez at Bank of America called it correctly. To be honest, although Capriles did have a few good poll results, most of them showed a Chávez win. Anyway, the Bolivarian Revolution will go on until 2019 , even if the President passes away in office in the meantime. His successor probably won’t be Vice-president Elías Jaua. If something happens to Chávez between now and January 10, 2017, a new election will be held within 30 days. If he passes away after that date, then the vice-president will take over, but the Veep serves at the pleasure of the President and there is no guarantee that the person in the office will be the person in the office then.
In Ecuador, meanwhile, the big news concerns Assange and Occidental. With the former, not a whole lot is likely to happen. The Ecuadorians are settling in for the long haul: it is an easy way for Correa to take an anti-imperialist posture and distract attention from press measures at home. Correa is ahead in the polls for the 2013 election, but there is a while yet.
What I love is that Rafael Correa is going to advise Tunisia about dealing with debt! That is awesome.
Bolivia is having a rougher time. Two different groups are in conflict over the mining industry: unionized employees and cooperative independent miners. Until June, the government could play a conciliatory role, with Glencore as the foreign villian. But by nationalizing the mines, Evo has lost his cat’s paw. Now he is smack in the middle of a fight between the union and the small independent miners, which is a bad place to be. Moreover, his nationalization fights are starting to go bad. He just told a Canadian silver mining firm to go hang, no compensation. Legal recourse is not the problem, since the investment happened after Bolivia left ICSID (although there are other options, see next paragraph). Rather, the problem is that the nationalization, like earlier ones, has put the government smack in the middle of a conflict between different local interests. This is trouble.
President Morales has made a habit of nationalizing something every May Day, usually with compensation, but Rurelec has taken Bolivia to arbitration over a 2010 electricity nationalization. Since ICSID is no longer available, the arbitration will be held under looser U.N. rules. The nationalization beat the hell out of Rurelec: it lost 80% of its revenues and its share price crashed from 16p to 9p (U.K.). So it wants its money. It is less clear if it can collect, although the new nationalizations are making its life a little easier. The company sounds confident.
Finally, all-quiet on the Nicaraguan front, including a giant sigh of relief that President Chávez won re-election, what with this project getting underway. We think.
Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi died last month. He hasn’t been succeeded by anyone yet. (Formally, officially, the Deputy Prime Minister has stepped up. But nobody seems to be taking him too seriously. He’s a mild-mannered guy, not a member of the revolutionary generation, and the wrong ethnicity to boot.) Zenawi was a “slash the tallest flowers” kind of guy; years of life on the run as a guerrilla in the bush seem to have rendered him permanently paranoid. Anyone who seemed too popular or too competent got demoted. At best demoted. So there’s no obvious successor.
I think the odds of Ethiopia staying a dictatorship are pretty good. It’s a country that has never known democratic rule or any sort of pluralism. Since the Emperor Haile Selassie consolidated his rule in the late 1920s, Ethiopia has had exactly three rulers: Selassie himself, Stalinist dictator Haile Meriam Mengistu, and the recently deceased Mr. Zenawi. That’s just three guys in almost 90 years, all of them absolute rulers with little or no tolerance for dissent. The country has almost no liberal traditions. Civil society does exist — there are NGOs and labor unions and even a few lawyers who are willing to sue the government — but it’s young and small and weak. It won’t be too surprising if a new strongman emerges. But it may take a while, and Ethiopia may go through a period of oligarchic rule and jockeying for power before things sort out.
Regimes with clear lines of succession are generally stronger regimes. Part of the reason is that they’re slightly harder targets — you not only have to take out the top guy, you have to get rid of his designated successors as well. But I think the bigger reason is that everyone knows what’s coming next after the dictator. Even if the successor is a dubious character, he’s likely to seem better than chaos and uncertainty.
Traditional monarchs have known this for millenia. But the lesson applies to dictatorships as well. We currently have at least five extant examples of non-royal dictatorships that have been successfully transferred to a son or brother of the dictator: Azerbaijan, Congo, Cuba, Syria, and North Korea (twice). Gabon and Togo are authoritarian regimes run by sons of former dictators; if we include them, the club expands to seven.
Examples of transfer to a non-relative are much much rarer. There have been a couple in the past. (Ataturk hand-picked his successor; Mexico in 1934-94 had an extremely powerful president who chose his successor from the party leadership, but they did not meet the definition of dictator. After all, they had to leave after six years in office.) But not a single extant dictatorship fits this pattern! (Burma’s dictator chose a successor who is still in power, but the successor seems to prefer being primus inter pares to being a true lone ruler.)
Now, it’s a long established principle that old age is a dangerous time for a dictator. All three of the dictators picked off by the Arab Spring were in their golden years. (Porfirio Díaz in Mexico and Juan Velasco in Peru also went down in their dotage.) More generally, an old dictator with no clear successor is pretty clearly putting himself at risk. That said, some dictators do run the course and die, more or less peacefully, in office.
So what happens when a dictator manages to pull this off — grows old and dies without first being overthrown or losing an election or whatever? Well, we can sketch out a tentative typology.
Numbers 2 through 6 include the possibility of foreign intervention; the United States, France and the Soviet Union have all intervened in this manner at one time or another. We may call these 3a (party picks a new dictator, foreign approval makes the difference: the Eastern European model, 1945-1990), 4a (new dictator takes power subject to foreign approval) and so forth. There aren’t really any extant examples of these at the moment — the U.S. seems to have lost interest in installing dictators in Central America and the Caribbean — but I would not be surprised if Russia’s “near abroad” in Central Asia were to throw up a 4a or 5a in the next little while.
6a is damnably rare, actually nonexistant: Panama would be one of the rather few cases since WW2 in which foreign intervention replaced a dictatorship with a democracy. Iraq sort of maybe kinda if you squint really hard. The jury is out (to be charitable) in Libya. And all of those interventions happened when the dictator in question was very much still alive and in power.
Anyway. There are enough elderly dictators out there that we should expect to see some more examples in the next few years. I expect that (5) “a shift to authoritarian but non-dictatorial rule,” will continue be the most common outcome. Which means that some countries that are currently dictatorships will drop off the list! If the number of dictatorships is to remain constant, then new ones will have to emerge. How likely this is ... well, this post is long enough. In a bit.
I have a checkered history with Greenpeace activists, as does my wife. I have surprised signature-collectors by calling them out on their crazy shut-down-the-Navy-sonars position. My wife has done the same, taking them to task for their opinions on nuclear power. And, of course, they have done some ridiculous acts of literal tree-hugging. But still, at the end of the day, I figured they served a useful purpose. In an age of human-caused global warming, somebody needs to keep the Overton Window from shifting too far against environmental protection, right?
Well, yesterday I get an email about Shell’s Arctic Ready campaign. So I looked at the site. Pretty obviously a parody. I mean, dude, it starts with “For hundreds of years, explorers have battled the Arctic. Today, we’re finally winning.” That is funny! And then there is the viral video, which is not only silly, but poorly acted. I am told people were fooled anyway, but Greenpeace came clean.
Abi Sutherland is upset with this. “Greenpeace lied to us. This wasn’t a nod-and-a-wink parody; this was a dedicated effort to deceive. They played the public for patsies and herded them like sheep. That kind of contempt for the people whose support (financial and otherwise) they need is inexcusable … Now, I know that our common discourse is already thoroughly befouled. But that does not mean it’s OK to add yet another dose of rainbow-shining toxic sludge to the mix, not even in the cause of righteousness. Indeed, especially not in the cause of righteousness.”
I see where he’s coming from, but I don’t agree, despite the fact that I hang out with oilmen. A parody is a parody, and this one was less-than-subtle. It was totally “nod-and-a-wink”! And Greenpeace didn’t let it go on for long. And there are lots of reasons to be skeptical about Arctic drilling.
So, no, I am not a fan of Greenpeace. But I also don’t think this parody did anything wrong. Am I being too generous?
Was fraud decisive in the Mexican presidential election? Well, in the sense of fraudulent vote-counting, no. But what about vote-buying? The PRI stands accused of bribing people to vote for them. Moreover, cellphones have provided a new way of circumventing the secret ballot: to get the bribe, the voter needs to zap a picture of his or her ballot. Pretty nifty stuff! More prosaically, the PRI-Green coalition hired children to watch the voting and report back.
Still, at the end of the day, Peña won by a margin of 3.2 million votes. My friend Alberto Simpser calculates that there it would have been expensive for the PRI to have bought enough votes to swing it. Here’s his calculation (modified slightly by yours truly to account for an apparent arithmetic mistake):
First, the PRI needs to swing a minimum of 1.6 million votes from the PRD to win. Second, reports show bribes between 100 and 1,800 pesos per voter. (Note the final “r”!) Youtube indicates that 100 pesos was small enough to backfire. Alberto goes with ₱700, which is consistent with data from the 2000 election (after adjusting for inflation) of a cost of ~₱500. Finally, bribing a voter is not the same as getting his or her vote. Data from a 2004 survey of Argentines implies a vote-buying efficacy of around 16%. So ... the minimum cost of buying the election is: ₱700 × 1.6 million ÷ 16% = ₱7 billion, or US$560 million.
That is a significant chunk of change. Of course, if you assume that the PRI is better at targeting its vote-buying than Argentine parties (which is not unreasonable) the cost goes down.
At 33% efficiency, the minimum cost of buying the election drops to $272 million. Even at an impossible 100%, the coalition would still need $90 million. That is a significant chunk of change: legal spending by the PRI-Green coalition came to only $111 million. Alberto concludes that although the PRI could have raised such sums, they should be detectable. For what it’s worth, the PRD claims to have evidence that the PRI-Green coalition spent $320 million.
To recap: Alberto is not arguing that the amount needed to buy the election is too large to carry out! He is arguing that the amount is too large to hide.
When evaluating the morality of the situation, as opposed to the legality, readers should keep in mind what exactly the PRI stands accused of. It matters whether voters were offered store coupons or offered rides to the polls, both being illegal under Mexican law. Consider the list of illegal behavior on election day reported by the Alianza Cívica, with the percentages reporting the activity:
Well, I worked heavily in North Carolina in 2008 and in Florida in 2004. (I also worked on New York local elections in 1988 and 1989.) The GOP in New York and the Democrats in Florida and N.C. all engaged in nos. (1), (2), (3), (7), and (8) quite legally. They also did a little bit of (4), not so legally. (Google “walking-around money.”)
I find it hard to be outraged about (1), (2), (3), (7), and (8). After all, not all that is legal is moral, and not all that is illegal is immoral. That said, an argument can be made that political parties need to be held to a higher standard: they should avoid all illegal behavior (regardless of morality) and a pretty good chunk of legal behavior as well. My point is only that 1988 this is not, but I can be convinced that I should be more outraged than I am.
Not unexpectedly, the protests over the recent Mexican election (which will go nowhere) have led to bloviations about Twitter and Facebook and the blogosphere yadda yadda. My skepticism about the political effect of the Internet is well-known. Here I pointed out that the Egyptian government readily shut it down during the rebellion. Here I mentioned that revolutionary activity spread further and just as fast in the mid-nineteenth century. And here I presented evidence that most revolutionary mobilization in Egypt took place via ... printed leaflets.
“If I had known that you would be a cowardly Mexican, then I would’ve stuck to taking care of my cows. I didn’t have the Internet or Facebook, and I made a revolution. You, you’re too lazy to march for your rights. But hey, ‘Viva México,’ right?”
Right. I actually don’t think the recent Mexican election was fraudulent, and I still say right. The internet has made political mobilization easier — but only for those who were going to mobilize without it.
Who is Esther Gordillo and how did she win Congress, you ask? Give me a moment for that issue. First, we have some quasi-official Congressional results. The preliminary estimates appear to have been remarkably inaccurate. (Diego Valle, can you explain that?)
In the Senate, the PRI-Green alliance has picked up 48 senators directly and 13 seats via P.R., for a total of 61, four short of a majority. In the House, the PRI-Green alliance has taken 157 districts plus 83 party-list seats. That is eleven seats shy of a majority. (It is also a full twenty districts less than the preliminary post-election count.)
The New Alliance Party (aka “Panal”) won another ten P.R. seats. If the PRI can convince the Panal to support them, that would provide 250 votes.
Now 250 votes aren’t quite enough for a majority. The Mexican constitution contains no tie-breaking provisions. Article 142 of the House internal rules states only that in the event of a tie, the House will immediately vote again.
If still tied, they vote again the next day, at which point that’s it. (Unless the matter is really pressing, in which case they will hope for a miracle, or something. Really! Go read the rules at the above link.) So the PRI will need 251 votes to pass legislation through the lower house. With the Panal plus one independent or PAN defector, they will have it.
Which brings us to Elba Esther Gordillo and the Panal. Gordillo heads the national teachers union (SNTE). Now, I am aware that Republicans like to prattle on about the power of the teachers unions in the United States. That is because Republicans do not know what a real union looks like. Gordillo is immensely powerful, and immensely corrupt. Frex, on an official salary of $26,910 a year she somehow bought a house in San Diego for $1.7 million, in the same neighborhood as Mitt Romney.
The SNTE was part of the PRI machine, but split in 2006 to support the PAN. As part of that split, the union created its own political party, the Panal. Lest there be some confusion, Patrick Corcoran reminds us that the top two positions in the Panal bureaucracy went respectively to Gordillo’s daughter and Gordillo’s personal secretary. Gordillo could have just thrown her votes to the PAN directly, but creating a party gave her more flexibility ... and access to federal election subsidies. Panal did not run a presidential candidate in ‘06, but it did picked up nine seats in the House and elected one senator.
This year, Panal ran its own candidate for president, the hapless and vaguely hipster-looking Gabriel Quadri. The reason was to leave Gordillo’s options open for post-election negotiations. The SNTE has 1.2 million members and managed to pull in about that many votes for Quadri, plus 1.7 million votes for the Panal’s congressional slate, enough for ten deputies and a senator.
Now, my prediction is that given its internal splits, the PAN will not resort to a Republican-style strategy of unified opposition. That will reduce Gordillo’s leverage. That said, she will be the PRI’s easiest route to a working majority in the lower house, giving her something close to a veto. In other words, it is probably the best possible result from La Maestra’s point of view.
But it is a bad result for Mexico. Not the worst, but bad. For those who still wonder why (the $1.7 million house wasn’t enough?) read this article from the Economist.
Ms. Gordillo is not the sort of person you want in a position of power, and this election gives her more power.
OK, we now have better results ... and I’m now reading them correctly. (The previous post used the wrong numbers.)
In the Senate, the PRI-Green coalition won 18 states, 36 seats. They came in second in 10 more, for 46 seats in total. In the P.R. vote, though, the PRI will only pick up 10 seats, and its Green allies another two. That’s 58 seats, seven shy of the 65 needed for a majority. The
House still might be PRI. 174 districts for the PRI-Green coalition, plus 80 P.R. seats, for a bare majority of 254.
Large-scale recounts are underway. To be honest, I do not understand why they don’t just change the law and make a full recount automatic.
The polls substantially overstated Peña’s lead in the run-up to the election. My initial thought was that the undecideds broke for AMLO, but Diego’s evidence is that the polls had a systematic bias. Considering the prevalent use of face-to-face polling, and that the polls were more accurate in 2006, that’s surprising, but the information should lead to better polling in the future. (And good job offers for Mr. Valle, I hope.)
The results are still not in, but it looks like the PRI will take Congress. So far the PRI (or the hard-to-explain PRI-Green coalition) has won 187 out of the 300 first-past-the-post districts. They also appear to have gotten 58% of the congressional vote (tossing the Greens running alone, who did not make the 2% threshold) which (I think! It gets complicated) will give them more-or-less 116 of the PR seats. That is rather more than 250, and thus they should have a majority in the House.
The Senate is less clear. The PRI won 18 states outright, which gives them 36 out of 128 senators. They appear to have come in second in 13 more states, upping their total to 49. Then the two received about 56% of the vote, which will give them (once again, more-or-less, it’s complicated) another 17 seats for a total of 66 ... a 2-vote majority. Recounts and the complications of the PR process could lose them that edge.
Finally, it looks like AMLO is calling fraud. It is indubitably true that the election was far from perfect: see some evidence on Mex Files, and note that the early reporting system clearly broke down for a while. But that, of course, is far from saying that the election was fraudulent. This stuff from Anonymous is entertaining, but not credible, and the anecdotal evidence is, well, anecdotal; only PRI-favoring errors have been reported.
After 2006, I get worried about these sorts of claims. A legal challenge is one thing, once again going to the streets or occupying Congress is quite another. Richard Grabman predicts more such events; I can only hope that he is wrong. Considering that the margins in most districts are quite substantial (and the overall presidential margin ain’t nada) I suspect that he is.
But I do not know. I worry, at least a little. But let’s stay optimistic!
We know the result in the European Cup! Great game, and a most unexpected blowout. Poor Balotelli.
We won’t know the results of the Mexican election for a few hours yet. Absent a truly earth-shattering surprise, though, the details are for the Congressional vote: did the PRI win a majority or not?
In the meantime, here is some food for thought. Four things. First, Mexican face-to-face polling may be the future, as Americans give up land lines. (And, as importantly, become less eager to answer the calls that do come in.) Second, the Economist argues for political reform, but I encourage you to doubt whether the reforms being mooted will make any noticeable difference to Mexican governance. (If there is interest, I will explain my doubts.) Third, consider that the biggest damn difference that any Mexican government can make regarding any damn issue facing the country is to raise more public revenue. The PRI has floated the idea of higher taxes, and there are reforms afoot that might (might! maybe!) reverse the decline in Mexican oil output.
Finally, though, remember at the end of the day that politics exists for two reasons. First, to give us a way to decide on public issues that don’t involve violence. Second, to make the society a better place for its weakest members. And with that, I give you this picture of a little girl in Iztapalapa, D.F., in front of her home ... a home where the family puts out tarpaulins to capture rainwater, where the streets regularly flood, where wages are tiny, where crime is high, and where this brilliantly smart little girl will attend schools that are barely able to teach her any more than her heroic parents already have. None of that is fair, not by my lights.
It might be cheesy, but f--k that. It’s people like this family that make you remember why all this matters.
Uncertainty involves the game that starts today at 2:45pm EST. My wife pointed out to me that my mother is probably spinning in her grave right now, considering her lack of attachment to the madre patria. (In a European competition, she would be have been more likely to root for the Netherlands than the land of our ancestors.) Me, on the other hand, I revel in the victories won by our distant cousins!
Of course, everyone in America who doesn’t think I’m Puerto Rican thinks I’m Italian-American. (Which, to be brutally frank, I am, if we abstract away from such technicalities as my ancestry.) And how could I not like the pair of Balotelli and Buffon? But I think the furia roja is equipped to keep Pirlo in a box ... and we have Llorente (from Navarra, where my grandfather was born!) and Soldado. Plus, Casillas is an awesome goalie, and Iniesta an awesome striker. (Yes, I know he plays midfield.)
It’ll be a great game no matter what, unless the two sides resort to a defensive fallback like Spain’s last game or that miserable Italy-England soccer Stalingrad. I want the furia roja to win, but it matters not.
Today’s election in Mexico, unlike the soccer match, involves almost no uncertainty at all about the result. Enrique Peña Nieto is going to win. The polls are unanimous on that point. On the other hand, there is a great deal of uncertainty about whether it matters. From looking at campaign ads, it all seems pretty inane.
But it is not inane. How much is at stake hinges on three known unknowns:
Gabriel Aguilera summed up well the dilemma of question (1): does Peña Nieto want to be a great Mexican president, or does he want to be a great Priísta? That is, does he want to leave his country in better shape regardless of the consequences to his party, or does he want to leave his party more powerful regardless of the consequences to his country?
Of course, it isn’t really a dilemma but a continuum ... and sometimes, as it took the Obama administration way too damn long to learn, good policy is good politics. But that aside, the above really is the first question.
Here is a good essay on just how bad it could be if Peña wants to be a great Priísta. Jeffrey Weldon thinks that is his aim. The Economist does not. The writer of this graffiti disagrees with the Economist.
And then there is question (2). The Mexican president, unlike his or her Argentine counterpart, really is a weak figure. Now, that is not true when seen from the North: they have two advantages over their U.S. counterparts and one advantage over their Democratic U.S. counterparts. First, only one two executive positions requires congressional approval: the attorney-general and the treasury secretary. Second, the Senate of Mexico has no filibuster and no holds and none of the other insanity that has accumulated around the Senate of America. In addition, the entire Mexican senate is elected at the same time as the President, which makes it more likely for the President to have a majority, as does the presence of the electoral list senators. Finally, Mexican parties are generally more disciplined than the Democratic Party, although not as disciplined as the Republicans.
(For a description of the Mexican Senate, see here. For those bothered by my use of “America” to mean the United States, go away.)
That said, the Mexican president is nonetheless weak as American presidents go. (For those bothered by the above use of “America” to mean the entire Western Hemisphere, go away. Consistency, hobgoblins, all that.) He or she has no true decree power, and cannot introduce bills into the legislature nor command the legislative agenda. On the margin the Mexican presidency is slightly more powerful than the president of the U.S. of A., but rather less so than most other presidents in this hemisphere. Therefore ...
... It will matter a lot whether the PRI has a congressional majority.
The wrinkle is that the PRI has lost a lot of its national discipline: the Priístas I spoke to over the past week have told me that the party has evolved into a series of state-level fiefdoms, where the governor effectively chooses the congressional candidates, and machines are perpetuated by having the governor switch offices with senators and deputies and then switch back. That means that the congressional PRI will want President Peña to be a great Priísta, and not necessarily a great President. In such a world it might be better for President Peña to lack a PRI majority.
As long as the PAN and PRD decide that they will not be served by a GOP-like strategy of automatic opposition (and I suspect that they will not be so served), a Peña who wants to serve his country could build cross-party majorities. Remember, Mexico has no filibuster; its Senate (unlike ours) functions as an ordinary legislature. In short, it will be good if the PRI does well in Congress, but not quite well enough to secure a majority in both houses.
Finally, there is question (3). The problem with it is that there is no way to tell until we have the answer to questions (1) and (2). In the field of security policy, I am with Patrick Corcoran (see part one and part two): there is unlikely to be much change. But in economic policy, there could be; ditto in political reform.
I will discuss more later about what I think the answers are to the above questions. Right now, I just want to say that every Mexican needs to answer (1), (2), and (3) for themselves, and then go out and vote. After which, root for the madre patria!
UPDATE: I was incorrectly informed that Article 71 of the Mexican constitution had been reformed to remove the Presidential power to introduce bill directly into Congress. That is incorrect. The President of Mexico, unlike his or her American equivalent, can send legislative proposals directly to committee. He or she cannot, however, force them to the top of the agenda in the manner of most other Latin American presidents.
This is Patrick Corcoran, from Ganchoblog.
In general, I don’t find the arguments that Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) is a grave economic risk to Mexico to be very convincing. His program isn’t particularly extreme. Rogelio Ramírez de la O (his proposed finance minster) is sharp, experienced, and within the economic mainstream. And most importantly, between its business community, central bank autonomy, and NAFTA, there’s something of a policy straightjacket in Mexico. I don’t think anyone should expect a Kirchner a la mexicana should AMLO pull off the upset, and if I were a fund manager or a currency speculator, his election alone wouldn’t do all that much to change my opinion of Mexico’s prospects.
The problem is this: AMLO’s democratic commitment has wavered time and again. This is something that he has demonstrated repeatedly over the past six years. The reaction to the 2006 loss was a big part of that, but it’s not the only example. The takeovers of Congress were shameful. The shenanigans in Ixtapalapa treated the democratic process in an area of almost 2 million residents as though it existed only to serve him. And there’s no reason to think that this would change. When asked if he would accept the results of the election in July, a question where the only acceptable answer is an unqualified “Yes,” he waffled. His moderation during the campaign has been laudable, but when faced with a narrow defeat of an agenda item he holds precious, I don’t believe that he’ll just take his lumps and move on. Unfortunately, taking your lumps and moving on is a basic element of democracy.
The counterargument to this is that AMLO has been justified in his more extreme actions — that is, the election was a fraud, and the oil reform proposals being tossed around were a vital threat to Mexico’s well-being. Clearly AMLO seems to believe that; he couches his reaction in 2006 as a defense of democracy, notwithstanding his sending the institutions to the diablo. Given the fraud in the 1994 Tabasco race and President Fox’s 2005 push to deprive him of his legal immunity when he was mayor of Mexico City, I can understand him assuming any opposition to him is illegitimate. But while this bias is understandable on a personal level, that doesn’t make it any less worrying or damaging. Over the past six years, there isn’t much to support his belief that he was acting in democracy’s defense: the case for outright fraud in 2006 is extremely weak and has been contradicted by numerous people on the left, and his opinions regarding Pemex are just that — opinions — and have no more inherent value than those who would privatize the company tomorrow (which is certainly not what I’m advocating). The “desperate times, et cetera” explanation for AMLO’s unorthodox actions over the past six years just doesn’t hold up, and if your bar for the barbarians being lined up at the gates is set so low, well, then, what crushing political loss doesn’t justify an assault on the system?
That’s not to imply that his opponents would necessarily make better leaders. There’s also a pretty good argument to be made that the (potential) insidious erosion of democracy from within under Peña Nieto would far more harmful than AMLO’s frontal assault, which has typically been conducted in plain view of the public. If Peña Nieto turns out to be as bad as many assume he will — that is, if he is an old-school PRI dinosaur in a pricey suit — the damage could well be much worse than what is at risk in an AMLO presidency. Even if that doesn’t happen, by all indications Peña Nieto is the lightest of lightweights, and the campaign doesn’t seem to have put much weight on his bones. And the defects of Vázquez Mota are so obvious and damning that they hardly bear mentioning. From my point of view, there is no right candidate, and this is the worst slate of candidates of any Mexican election that I am more than passingly familiar with (basically, from 1988 onward).
But now that AMLO has emerged as the optimistic, anti-Peña Nieto candidate, it’s important to be clear about what his drawbacks are. Support for AMLO carries risks that go well beyond ideology. Electing AMLO would mean entrusting the system to someone who doesn’t wholly believe in it.
Well. There may not yet be an equivalent of Fivethirtyeight for the Mexican election, but the poll of polls doesn’t look good for AMLO. You gotta stare really hard to see any sign of movement. Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) is still cruising towards victory with a plurality of the vote. (Mexico, I have to add, does not have a French-style runoff system nor an Australian-style transferable vote. This is a bad thing.)
It seems odd — but not surprising! — that the biggest issues in the election are the least discussed. Oh, they both get mentioned in short ads (see below) but not much in concrete terms. I am referring, of course, to crime and health policy. The latter should be a big issue. While Mexico has made great strides in public health over the past 18 years, it is still far from universal coverage. So what do the two main candidates propose? (My apologies, Josefina.)
Well, both AMLO and EPN think it ridiculous that Mexico has a multiplicity of public health systems: one for formal sector workers, one for government employees (both run like the U.K. National Health Service) and a bare-bones People’s Insurance program for the poor. So it will be no surprise that both are calling for universal coverage. AMLO, however, wants change to be incremental. He wants to allow patients to receive services in the installations of any of the public health programs, a de facto conversion of the federal government’s role to something more like a single-payer system. The problem, of course, is a combination of complexity and vested interests. Peña Nieto is more direct: he wants a new Universal Social Security System, which he claims would cut overhead expenses from 9.5% to 3% and de jure move Mexico to Canadian-style Medicare. He also wants to provide more free medicines via a voucher system, with no word on how to pay for it.
So who would you trust? EPN has a better, more-concrete plan. AMLO is more serious about these things, and incremental change is generally easier. At the end of the day, AMLO is more honest about the inevitability of the need to throw more money at the problem ... but at the end of the day, a President AMLO is also more likely to be hamstrung by Congress.
Edge: AMLO. Not that it matters.
Wow. Oh wow. Big news in the Mexican presidential race.
Courtesy of Ganchoblog, it seems that the Mexican presidential blowout that we all expected for Enrique Peña Nieto may not actually happen. The Reforma newspaper runs reputable polls, and they show a sudden collapse in PRI presidential support from 42% to 38%, with AMLO rising from 27% to 34%. Now, I remember drinking pulque (horrible stuff, by the way) with some friends in Melchor Ocampo (awful town, I should add, although worth visiting) and being told that the polls meant nothing, AMLO could pull it out. I scoffed. Distant relatives in Huixquilucan (a very much not-awful town, at least if you like bad science fiction movies from the 1970s, but really not worth visiting unless you know somebody who lives there) said the same. But they were PRD partisans, and so I scoffed some more.
But they were all correct! If this poll holds, then the electoral game is on. We will have a real race on our hands, and not a PRI blowout. Both Melchor Ocampo and Huixquilucan are in Mexico State and under the Peña governorship. I think that gave my friends tacit knowledge about the fragility of his support that nerdy old gringo me could not appreciate. I think Mr. Hootsen, who also lives in Mexico State, would concur.
Were I voting in the election, a poll like this would pose a dilemma. I despise AMLO for his actions after the 2006 election. But I suspect, for reasons I find distressingly hard to verbalize, that he would be less damaging to Mexico than a President Peña. Which means that strategically speaking, if AMLO had a chance, I would want to cast a strategic vote for him. Except ... his behavior and statements in 2006. The questions raised by the commentators here are becoming much more valid. Assuming that the poll holds and we really do have a race, for whom should a concerned Mexican citizen vote?
I would like to end with a call for someone to start a blog like Fivethirtyeight, aimed at the Mexican elections. So far, the Reforma poll is an outlier. We have no way of judging its accuracy or predicting the result. Mexico could use a Fivethirtyeight. I nominate Diego Valle to start it.
The 2006 presidential campaign in Mexico was especially nasty, with television ads claiming that AMLO was the second coming of Hugo Chávez and would destroy the country if elected. Mexico, however, lacks an equivalent of the First and Fourteenth amendments and, more importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of both. (Article 6 of the Mexican constitution guarantees freedom of speech, “unless it offends good morals, infringes the rights of others, incites to crime, or disturbs the public order.” Article 7 unconditionally guarantees the right to write and publish, but that is more specific than speech in general.)
The result of the election, then, was a 2007 law that prohibited negative campaigning. (Mr. López Obrador’s subsequent behavior, and whether that retroactively justified otherwise scurrilous ads, is not relevant to this discussion.) The result is an oddly anodyne bunch of ads. TV ads emphasize personality, as do the print ads from the three major parties. The PRI candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, is also running on the Green Party ticket, however, and is using that platform to run a bunch of rather interesting issue statements:
My favorite is “Life sentences for kidnappers,” but I didn’t get a picture. Above you have a subway ad proclaiming “Pensions for all adult over age 65” and “Your place guaranteed in high school.” The latter is pretty much already true, and the former will be interesting without new tax revenue.
Below you have “No to fees in the public schools,” with a picture of an angry white man scolding a woman who only wants the best for her child:
And a related billboard proclaiming “No more fees in public schools: Truly free education.”
The end result is oddly populist to an American, but honestly no worse than the populist positive ads run by Republicans all the time. So what’s the problem? Two things.
First, the internet is unregulated. This is, I think, less of an issue than it sounds. In general, the internet is not a push medium, except for paid adverts, which are (or will be) regulated. Whispering campaigns are of course terrible, but I would need evidence to be persuaded that they are worse in the age of the internet: e.g., that they convince anyone who wasn’t already basically on-board.
Second, negative ads can convey real information. Patrick Corcoran argues this here. It makes sense that the truly scurrilous stuff will not convince a sophisticated electorate regardless of how it is disseminated, while real bad information may find it harder to be known. That said, I am not sure how this shakes out.