Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nice try, China

Perhaps it's post-colonial guilt. Or just intellectual laziness. In any case, it is surprising how everyone seems to have accepted without question the claim by China, and other poor countries, that it's unfair to expect them to meet binding caps on greenhouse gases. The argument is that rich counries got rich while having a cavalier disregard for the environment, and now we should let the poor countries catch up and not expect them to pay for our sins.

But let's ask this question: in the game of economic development, is it better to have the first move or the second? Suppose that you are a poor country today, facing some restrictions on your economic growth because of past environmental degradation that you didn't cause. Now you're given option B, the chance to develop in a world with a pristine environment and no restrictions. Would you take it? Before you answer-- there's a catch.

The catch is that if you take option B, you must begin your development from a point when no one has yet invented railroads, telegraphs, telephones, electric light, electric power, metal ships with mechanical propulsion, cars and trucks, steel mills, international accounting standards, vaccines, moving assembly lines, bulldozers, airplanes, computers... In other words, you must begin from where the U.S. and Western Europe were at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

No one would accept a deal like that. Why, just to get up to where the rich countries are today would take, well, centuries.

The point is that poor countries can raise their standards of living much faster than the rich countries did, because they can simply adopt technology developed, slowly, by the rich countries. I'm not saying that rich countries did this to help humanity, or that poor countries should thank them profusely. Far from it.

I'm just saying that there are a lot of advantages to moving second in this game, and that those advantages seemingly far outweigh the costs of increased environmental degradation and curbs on development. So if the poor countries are willing to use the benefits of the West's economic development, they should accept some small part of the costs.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Alas! for the Republicans

Oh, dear. I've tried to make it clear in this blog that I would welcome the appearance of a Republican Party with ideas. Strangely, Republicans don't seem to be listening. The latest salvo of blanks comes from ten members of the Republican National Committee, who, Yahoo! News reports, have proposed that any candidate wanting support from the RNC agree to at least eight out of ten items on a list of conservative positions. (Only eight out of ten, lest anyone think there's no room in the Republican Party for diversity.)

The most notable thing about this list is that six of the ten points are of the form "We support X by opposing Y." Not, you understand, "We support X and oppose Y." No, in six of ten cases, the authors find it unnecessary to propose any policies to support their principles; it's enough to be against whatever the Democrats are for. And in the one case where they say they're for something and against something else, it's phony: "We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government-run healthcare." This would be somewhat more compelling if the Republicans actually had a plan for market-based health-care reform.

But Republicans seem to be using the phrase "market-based" like the blank in Scrabble, to mean anything that's convenient in that space: "We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation." Excuse me, but cap-and-trade is a market-based energy reform. Granted, it's not necessarily one that enriches supporters of the Republican Party. The market can be a bitch that way.

Saddest of all was this comment: "A Republican strategist and former Bush White House official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Yahoo! News that the resolution 'bodes well' because 'Republicans are continuing to discuss policy positions and principles.'" For people above the age of two, "No" does not constitute a discussion.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Unanswered Questions About Afghanistan

Obama said today that he plans to "dismantle and degrade" the enemy in Afghanistan. Wait-- dismantle and degrade? First we dismantle them, and then we degrade them? Should we bring back Abu Ghraib for the degradation phase of the mission? Or just make them watch "Cheaters" on cable?

Friday, November 20, 2009

In Which I Mock the Media Bleeding-Hearts: NYC Budgeting

The New York Times has a rather breathless front-page story today  telling us, "Even as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg says that he is trying to avert laying off city workers, his aides have quietly encouraged such job cuts through an internal budget maneuver...But the administration, which prides itself on transparency, has not disclosed the maneuver to the public, or to the municipal unions that may be affected as the city scrambles to cut costs."

An internal budget maneuver! That sounds sinister. And what is this insidious, opaque maneuver, a "marked [emphasis added] departure from tradition?" It is to start showing fringe benefits as well as salaries in departments' personnel budgets. As the Times correctly notes, this gives agency managers a greater incentive to use personnel cuts to reach savings targets, because each employee looks more costly than before.

Yes, but... isn't that how much employees actually do cost? Ah, but "the agencies are not responsible for those [fringe-benefit] costs, which are paid from a central budget at City Hall."

Surely we shouldn't hold managers responsible for costs that are out of their control. Wait a minute, though... we're already holding them responsible for wages and salaries! Are those under managers' control? Not in any way that I can see. In a workforce that is both unionized and under civil service rules, managers have essentially no control over how much anyone gets paid. If they need to reduce wage and salary costs, the only way to do it is by reducing numbers through layoffs or attrition, just as with fringe benefits.

The only difference is that "tradition" says fringe benefits are shown in the central City Hall budget while wages and salaries are shown in agency budgets. But really, there's no reason we couldn't also pay wages and salaries from a central budget. That would really cut down on the incentive for layoffs, because personnel would then show up in agency budgets as having no costs at all. They'd be free to the agency-- but not to the City.

So should we lay people off or not? When you have to cut budgets drastically, all the options are bad. Adding someone to the unemployment rolls in the current job market is going to inflict a lot of pain, pain that we might not want to inflict.  But for God's sake, let's make that decision using meaningful numbers, rather than misleading  ones. Good job, Mayor Bloomberg.

Addendum: It's true that this change makes personnel look more expensive relative to other things. But if you're the head of an agency where most of the cost is for personnel (in the New York City police department, for example, wages and salaries are fifteen times as large as agency Other Than Personal Services costs) you will now need to cut fewer positions than before to reach a given target, because you get more credit for each position cut. Honesty makes the best policy.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Do Israelis Want?

In my last post (November 16), I talked about the importance of mistaken beliefs in politics. This first really struck me when I was living in Israel, and it became apparent to me that the Arab world, and the Muslim world in general, was almost completely uninformed about Israel. In particular, they have a strange view of what Israelis (or Israeli Jews) actually want from peace negotiations. No doubt the reverse is also true, but that's a job for someone else.

So here's a summary of what Israelis want:

a. They want their own country.

b. They want some confidence that people will stop trying to kill them.

That's about it. That doesn't seem too unreasonable, does it? Give them that and a Palestinian state is easy.  Here are some things Israelis do not care about:

1. World domination.

2.  All the land between the Euphrates and the Nile. I doubt that even leaders of Hamas, which has this in its charter, can take it seriously any more, ever since Israel made a major move in the opposite direction by giving the Sinai back to Egypt.

3.  Lebanon. The only reason Israelis ever cared about Lebanon was to stop its use as a base by people trying to kill them. That's still the only reason they care.

4. Gaza. Well, no one wants Gaza.

5. The West Bank. Here I need to put in some qualifiers. First of all, the West Bank is the heart of the historic Israel/Judea. A lot of Jewish history took place there. So there is a significant number of people who want Israel to keep it. Nonetheless, polls show these people to be a clear minority, albeit a vociferous and, at the extreme, a potentially violent one. Most people are not indifferent to the West Bank, as they are to Lebanon, but they would be willing to give it up.

All the problems of making peace in the Middle East can be traced to points (a) and (b) above. Admittedly, the devil is in the details. But for example:

A Palestinian state: As I said, no problem. Most Israelis wouldn't be opposed, as long as they knew a Palestinian  state wouldn't try to (a) take away their country or (b) kill them. The big question for Israelis is whether they are safe with a Palestinian state in close proximity. Israel is the size of four Delawares--with two of them almost completely uninhabited. The basic Israeli fear is of an armed, hostile Palestinian state able to shell or rocket every spot in Israel. And even if the state is not hostile, will it be willing, or able, to stop people who are? Israelis who had no great desire to hang onto the West Bank are now having second thoughts, given what happened when they withdrew from Gaza.

A One-State Solution: Issue (a). Forget it. Not gonna happen. It's perfectly clear to everyone that a combined Israel-Palestine would eventually result in Jews being a minority. Then they are once again dependent on the goodwill of others. That hasn't worked too well for them in the past, and not just in Europe; Jews from Arab countries feel even more strongly about this. Yes, you say, but we can set things up so Jews have constitutional guarantees even when they're in the minority. So how well did that idea work out in Lebanon? (Answer: Depends on how you feel about civil war.)

Right of Return for Refugees: Issue (a). Not gonna happen. See above. Also, Israelis object to the implication that they're to blame for the 1948 war. No Palestinian leader, or any other leader, has yet broken the news to the refugees. No Palestinian leader can even bring himself to say that a two-state solution would include one Jewish state.

Powers of a Palestinian State: Issue (b). One sometimes hears commentators talk about the Israeli insistence on keeping some control over borders, and not allowing a Palestinian national army, as though Israelis just get a kick out of keeping Palestinians down. That's not it. It's issue (b). Don't like it? Should have thought of that before you spent sixty years trying to kill them.

It seems pretty simple, and it's frustrating to see Palestinians continually missing the point. One still hears Palestinians saying, "The only thing the Jews understand is force." That is exactly wrong; the only countries to have recovered land from Israel did it by making peace. Not only has violence not accomplished anything, it has made things worse by reinforcing Israelis' belief that the Arabs will never stop trying to kill them. With an organized campaign of non-violent resistance, Palestinians could have had their own country forty years ago. A campaign like that would have been devastatingly effective. Try convincing a Palestinian of that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bring Back the Bully Pulpit

As someone who believes that people disagree because they have different interests, I am always a bit disconcerted to see how much simple ignorance there is in political discourse, and how much it affects politics. In another way, of course,  it's encouraging, as it suggests political disagreements don't always require a duel to the death.

For example, it appears that large numbers of people do not know that the United States does not, by any reasonable definition, have the best health-care system in the world. In fact, it is arguable that among advanced industrial economies, we have the worst health-care system in the world. And, I would guess (I don't have survey data), many people don't know that the budget deficit declined during the Clinton Administration, and by the end had disappeared altogether and turned into a small surplus. Or that most income gains in the US over the last 30 years have been concentrated at the very top of the income distribution.Or that foreign aid makes up less than 1% of the Federal budget. Clearly, it's hard to have a sensible democracy if voters don't know such things.

This is not to deny that differing interests do play a role. Some people are happy to keep voters misinformed. There's a right-wing website called The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid, and while I don't think it's exactly a conspiracy, and we seem to have different ideas of who the culprits are, there's no doubt that for any given fact, there will be people who will not think it a good idea to have it more widely known. And inevitably there will be those who will see political advantage in outright lies, or, as they no doubt think of it, exaggeration and poetic license [12/31: or metaphor]. I won't rehash the ubiquitous comments about the Internet and short news cycles as contributors to these problems.

For people who believe in democracy the question is, what can be done about this? Can we have a more evidence-based democracy? My ideal solution would be to give me, Howard Frant, a half-hour at night once a week on one of the major networks, along with a pollster to measure what people do and don't know. But even my second choice, giving me Andy Rooney's slot on 60 Minutes, seems unlikely.

So I think it's time to revive the idea of the "bully pulpit." For those of you unfamiliar with this phrase of Teddy Roosevelt's, it has nothing to do with bullying. What TR meant was that the Presidency was an excellent  platform for addressing the public. Let's start using that platform to teach the public things--specifically, to challenge widely held incorrect beliefs . Imagine how "transformative" it would be to have a President come out and say, "Many people believe X. X is not true." Plain speaking. No waffling. Give 'em hell, Barry.

For example: "Many people say that the United States has the best health care system in the world. We don't. We should, but we don't. Different advanced industrialized countries around the world, say the Western European countries, Japan, Taiwan, Canada and Australia, have different health care systems. Some are more oriented to the public sector and others to the private sector. But every single one of them has universal health care for its citizens. Every one. Every one of them has better health--lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy--than we do. Every one spends less, from 25% to 50% less, on health care than we do. Every one. And they have higher patient satisfaction and shorter patient waiting times than we do. How is this possible?" Suddenly, the whole debate shifts.

As a general strategy for improving democratic debate, this has the obvious weakness that Presidents will choose only those facts that support their partisan goals. OK, Presidents are not wholly altruistic public servants. But by putting at least some facts out there for scrutiny by the "gotcha" brigade of the media, they can force the debate to start on the field of facts, before we fight over ideologies. Let the President give the press the footnotes to his speech to be checked, and let the opposition do the same with its reply.

Once this gets established as a custom, it will put pressure on future Presidents to do the same. Most politicians don't benefit from having people screaming at each other; let's make those who do stand out. We need all Presidents to be education Presidents.

Friday, November 13, 2009

You Read It Here First

While I'm thrilled if Gail Collins is really reading this blog, I wish she'd mention my name, or at least include a link. Her November 11 Conversation with David Brooks in the New York Times online makes exactly the points of my October 14 entry on the filibuster, complete with references to Jimmy Stewart and Southern Democrats. On balance I'd say hers is a bit funnier, though less prompt and lacking the useful coinages "honest filibuster" and "virtual filibuster." As a bonus with Collins, you get some pointed comments on Joe Lieberman, whom neither of us, I'm sure, would ever dream of calling the Christine Jorgensen of the Democratic Party.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hey, I'm no macroeconomist, but... seems obvious to me that when states are undergoing severe fiscal pain, and are facing the choice between layoffs and tax increases, some Federal aid to states would be one of the quickest and most effective ways to keep the economic recovery on track. And surely one of the least controversial--Republicans, after all, are big believers in the virtues of state government. In fact, they invented revenue-sharing, back when Republicans occasionally had ideas.

We shouldn't hand out the money in proportion to the size of the budget hole they've got, though. That would just be rewarding political cowardice and gridlock. Yes, I'm talking about you, California.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Quick Look at Crime: That's Odd...

The conventional view of policy analysts overstates how much their job is simply to carry out the requests of their clients. Like city managers, lawyers, professors, and Congressmen, policy analysts have significantly better information about their subject than do the people they are working for. Therefore, an important part of their role is to come up with new ideas that haven't occurred to their clients. For policy analysts, this includes the task of looking at lists of numbers and saying, "Huh. That's odd."

This is a long preface to telling you about some browsing I was recently doing, I can't remember why, in 2008 FBI statistics about crime in the United States. I've done some simple long division (see August 14) to highlight the oddity. 

Changes in violent crime rates, 1989-2008:

Murder and non-negligent manslaughter: -38%

Robbery: -38%

Aggravated assault: -29%

Forcible rape: -23%

2008 violent crime rates in cities of under 10,000 as a fraction of rates in cities of over 250,000:

Murder and non-negligent manslaughter: 23%

Robbery: 16%

Aggravated assault: 50%

Forcible rape: 81%

To say the least, rape looks like an outlier. I think this is something worth noticing, don't you? If I were to pursue this further (I don't plan to, but be my guest) I would want to know whether the figures on big city/small town disparity looked similar in 1989--i.e., a lot more rape in small towns than you would expect relative to other violent crimes--or whether in small towns, rape has declined much less than other crimes since 1989. Those alternatives would probably lead to differing suggestions for future policies: is it a problem of small-town culture, small-town policing, or what? Keep me posted.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What Familiarity Really Breeds

An underappreciated reason that political change is often slow is that it just takes time for people to get used to the idea. Things that seem crazy the first time you hear about them seem possible the fifth time, and obvious the tenth.

Tuesday gay marriage had what is supposed to be a dramatic setback in Maine, where 53% of the population voted against it. Talking heads are saying that gays need to rethink their strategy. Yes, but... here are the figures on people who voted against it in 2004: Oregon 57%, Michigan 59%, Ohio 62%, and so on up to Mississippi 86%.  Even more dramatically, when the issue of gays in the military first came up in 1993, 44% agreed that gays should be able to serve, according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll; the figure was 62% in 2001 and 75% in 2008.

Similarly, in 1965 from 46% to 62% (depending on whether the polling question included the word "tax") favored Medicare. In 2009, 77% said they thought Medicare was very important for the country, and almost another 20% thought it was somewhat important. Undoubtedly, if you could find the data there would be similar results on racial intermarriage, integrated schools, and even abolition of slavery.

Tentative conclusions: If your change is a good one, keep trying. And don't sneer at the courts as a means to social change.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Room

The most interesting race in yesterday's election didn't make the front page of The NewYork Times. Although it took place in upstate NewYork, it didn't even rate a very prominent mention in the "N.Y./Region" section. And although Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, Tim Pawlenty, Rush Limbaugh, and Dick Armey all got involved, it wasn't mentioned at all in the "U.S." section.

I'm referring to the race between Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Douglas Hoffman for the vacant seat in New York's 23rd Congressional district. What made this race noteworthy is that the Republican nominee, one Dede Scozzafava, withdrew from the race after the above-mentioned Republican luminaries backed Hoffman, finding Scozzafava insufficiently ideologically pure. (In a truly breathtaking display of chutzpah, Republicans then denounced her as a turncoat for endorsing Owens.) Owens won, making him the first Democrat in that seat since before you were born.

If I were a Democratic apparatchik, I might be a bit saddened by this result, as it seems likely to slow down  the Republican party's slide toward self-destruction. As someone who believes in multi-party democracy and wants to see at least two parties with intelligent policy ideas, I am cheered. Not that Republicans show much sign of learning. The right is already spinning the results, with Mike Huckabee saying it's Republicans' fault for not choosing Hoffman "from the get-go," and other conservatives saying it serves the party leaders right for trying to foist their choices onto Republican voters.

Foist? Yes. For Scozzafava was chosen by the local Republican Party county committee leaders. So a larger issue raised by this election is how we should feel about party primaries versus back-room deals.

By shifting choice from party bosses to voters,  primaries were of course seen as a way to make elections more democratic. Do they? Here's the issue: in a two-party election (other things equal, with some simplifying assumptions, etc., etc.) the winning candidate is the one closer to the preferences of the median voter. That is, the candidate closer to the center of the electorate gets the most votes.

But with primaries, the candidates selected are those closest to the center of their own parties, who may be far away from the center of the electorate. Thus we have the Arlen Specter phenomenon, where a candidate who is easily electable cannot win his party's nomination.

In theory, of course, primary voters could take account of this possibility in voting, and vote for the candidate most likely to win the general election rather than their personal favorite. In practice, this often doesn't happen. That was the idea behind the Democratic Party's designation of superdelegates to the national convention-- the assumption was that elected officials and party officials would be more pragmatic than the rank and file. But this reasoning was not made very explicit, with the result that in the last election there was some outrage at the idea that superdelegates might go against the expressed wishes of voters-- Democratic voters, that is.

What we end up with, it appears, is increasing polarization among elected officials (particularly at the national level, where ideology tends to be more important), and the increasing impossibility of bipartisanship. And if both parties nominate relatively extreme candidates, there is the possibility of electing true loonies, who are far from what most voters would want.

A few weeks ago (October 14), I advocated bringing back the filibuster. As long as we're thinking the unthinkable, perhaps it's time to bring back the smoke-filled room. Without the smoke, of course.