Archive for the ‘Checks and balances’ Category

Obama nominates Garland

16/03/2016

A piece in the Washington Post notes that today, President Obama has formally nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia.

The report opens “President Obama on Wednesday nominated Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, setting up a protracted political fight with Republicans who have vowed to block any candidate picked by Obama in his final year in office. Garland, 63, is a longtime Washington lawyer and jurist who is chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Considered a moderate, Garland is widely respected in the D.C. legal community and was also a finalist for the first two Supreme Court vacancies Obama filled. In announcing his choice in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said he followed “a rigorous and comprehensive process” and that he reached out to members of both parties, legal associations and advocacy groups to gauge opinions from “across the spectrum.” He said Garland “is widely recognized not only as one of America’s sharpest legal minds, but someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness and excellence.”

Pointedly the piece notes that “Seven sitting Republican senators voted to confirm Garland in 1997: Dan Coats (Ind.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), Orrin Hatch (Utah), James M. Inhofe (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Pat Roberts (Kan.). GOP lawmakers, though, have said since Scalia’s death that Obama should leave the choice of a new justice to his successor and that they have no intention of holding a hearing or a vote on the president’s pick. Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said “the next Supreme Court justice could dramatically change the direction of the court” and Americans deserved to “weigh in” before that happens”.

By way of context the piece adds “Garland is a Chicago native who graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. After becoming a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter, he joined the Justice Department, where he handled the drug investigation of then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District. Ascending the ranks, Garland became principal associate deputy attorney general, where he supervised the massive investigations that led to the prosecutions of the Unabomber and the bombers of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Garland was appointed to the D.C. federal appeals court by President Bill Clinton in April 1997 and confirmed on a 76-to-23 vote. In February 2013, Garland became chief judge of the D.C. federal appeals court”.

The article goes on to mention the comments made by the GOP before this nomination, “A four-page document circulated Tuesday afternoon among a small group of the administration’s allies, with the heading, “Read What Republicans Had to Say About President Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee, Merrick Garland, Before He Was President Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee,” highlighted the support he has enjoyed from lawmakers in the past. “Garland has had a distinguished legal career, and prior to the GOP’s historically unprecedented obstruction, was a favourite of Senate Republicans alongside progressives,” the briefing material says. “When earlier Supreme Court vacancies occurred in the seats now filled by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said he would be ‘very well supported by all sides’ as a SCOTUS nominee.” The document notes that when Obama was filling the first Supreme Court vacancy of his tenure, Hatch was quoted at the time as saying that Garland would be a “consensus nominee” who “would be very well supported by all sides.” The briefing material includes previous descriptions of Garland by leading news organizations as a potential nominee who would attract support of Democrats and Republicans alike”.

Sadly, though not unexpectedly, “Democrats are also preparing to make the Republicans’ opposition to filling the vacancy an issue in the fall election. Speaking in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday night, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said in her victory speech that one of the reasons the presidential race matters so much is because the Supreme Court appointment has such enormous policy implications. “Together, we have to defend all of our rights — civil rights and voting rights, worker’s rights and women’s rights, LGBT rights and rights for people with disabilities — and that starts by standing with President Obama when he nominates a justice to the Supreme Court,” she said, prompting large cheers from the crowd. While the question of who sits on the nation’s highest court is not traditionally a top-tier election issue, Democrats are hoping to use it as part of a broader narrative about Republican resistance to the president’s policies”.

Worryingly for Republicans the piece adds that “At the moment, more Americans appear to be sympathetic to the White House’s argument. Sixty-three percent of Americans said the Senate should hold hearings on Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, while 32 percent said it should not hold hearings and leave it to the next president, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. Majorities of Democrats and independents supported holding hearings, while Republicans were more evenly split (46-49) and over half of conservative Republicans said hearings should not be held (54 percent)”.

The piece ends “Administration officials are hopeful that the GOP senators who are most vulnerable this November — Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Pat Toomey (Penn.) — may lobby their leaders for a vote if they come under fire back home for blocking the nominee. “The success or failure of this will depend on the pressure that can be brought to bear on those senators who Mitch McConnell marched out to the firing line,” said one former senior administration official, who asked for anonymity in order to discuss internal White House deliberations”.

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Sources of dysfunction

13/09/2014

Francis Fukuyama writes in Sources of Political Dysfunction in Foreign Affairs that the problems faced by America at this moment in history are a result of how the political institutions were created and have been made worse by worsening polarisation. He argues that the decay is likely to continue and be a real threat to democracy.

He opens “The creation of the U.S. Forest Service at the turn of the twentieth century was the premier example of American state building during the Progressive Era. Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, public offices in the United States had been allocated by political parties on the basis of patronage. The Forest Service, in contrast, was the prototype of a new model of merit-based bureaucracy. It was staffed with university-educated agronomists and foresters chosen on the basis of competence and technical expertise, and its defining struggle was the successful effort by its initial leader, Gifford Pinchot, to secure bureaucratic autonomy and escape routine interference by Congress. At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance. Several major academic studies have treated its early decades as a classic case of successful public administration. Today, however, many regard the Forest Service as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools. It is still staffed by professional foresters, many highly dedicated to the agency’s mission, but it has lost a great deal of the autonomy it won under Pinchot. It operates under multiple and often contradictory mandates from Congress and the courts and costs taxpayers a substantial amount of money while achieving questionable aims. The service’s internal decision-making system is often gridlocked, and the high degree of staff morale and cohesion that Pinchot worked so hard to foster has been lost. These days, books are written arguing that the Forest Service ought to be abolished altogether. If the Forest Service’s creation exemplified the development of the modern American state, its decline exemplifies that state’s decay”.

He goes on to write “The belief that public administration could be turned into a science now seems naive and misplaced. But back then, even in advanced countries, governments were run largely by political hacks or corrupt municipal bosses, so it was perfectly reasonable to demand that public officials be selected on the basis of education and merit rather than cronyism. The problem with scientific management is that even the most qualified scientists of the day occasionally get things wrong, and sometimes in a big way. And unfortunately, this is what happened to the Forest Service with regard to what ended up becoming one of its crucial missions, the fighting of forest fires”.

He adds “The Forest Service’s performance deteriorated, in short, because it lost the autonomy it had gained under Pinchot. The problem began with the displacement of a single departmental mission by multiple and potentially conflicting ones. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, firefighting began to displace timber exploitation, but then firefighting itself became controversial and was displaced by conservation. None of the old missions was discarded, however, and each attracted outside interest groups that supported different departmental factions: consumers of timber, homeowners, real estate developers, environmentalists, aspiring firefighters, and so forth. Congress, meanwhile, which had been excluded from the micromanagement of land sales under Pinchot, reinserted itself by issuing various legislative mandates, forcing the Forest Service to pursue several different goals, some of them at odds with one another. Thus, the small, cohesive agency created by Pinchot and celebrated by scholars slowly evolved into a large, Balkanized one. It became subject to many of the maladies affecting government agencies more generally: its officials came to be more interested in protecting their budgets and jobs than in the efficient performance of their mission. And they clung to old mandates even when both science and the society around them were changing”.

In general his point about lost autonomy is correct however it is very important that many of these organisations can become a law unto themselves and need guidance and structure. The problem that he identifies is correct in that organisations like the Forest Service need clarity which is not what is given to them either by Congress or the executive branch. Some of the problems are worsened by the supposed need for openness which more often than not is a way for lobbyists like loggers and real estate companies with money to influence things to their advantage.

He goes on to argue that “The story of the U.S. Forest Service is not an isolated case but representative of a broader trend of political decay; public administration specialists have documented a steady deterioration in the overall quality of American government for more than a generation. In many ways, the U.S. bureaucracy has moved away from the Weberian ideal of an energetic and efficient organization staffed by people chosen for their ability and technical knowledge. The system as a whole is less merit-based: rather than coming from top schools, 45 percent of recent new hires to the federal service are veterans, as mandated by Congress. And a number of surveys of the federal work force paint a depressing picture”.

In a section that he calls “Why Institutions Decay” he  notes “In his classic work Political Order in Changing Societies, the political scientist Samuel Huntington used the term ‘political decay’ to explain political instability in many newly independent countries after World War II. Huntington argued that socioeconomic modernization caused problems for traditional political orders, leading to the mobilization of new social groups whose participation could not be accommodated by existing political institutions. Political decay was caused by the inability of institutions to adapt to changing circumstances. Decay was thus in many ways a condition of political development: the old had to break down in order to make way for the new. But the transitions could be extremely chaotic and violent, and there was no guarantee that the old political institutions would continuously and peacefully adapt to new conditions. This model is a good starting point for a broader understanding of political decay more generally. Institutions are ‘stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour,’ as Huntington put it, the most important function of which is to facilitate collective action. Without some set of clear and relatively stable rules, human beings would have to renegotiate their interactions at every turn. Such rules are often culturally determined and vary across different societies and eras, but the capacity to create and adhere to them is genetically hard-wired into the human brain. A natural tendency to conformism helps give institutions inertia and is what has allowed human societies to achieve levels of social cooperation unmatched by any other animal species. The very stability of institutions, however, is also the source of political decay. Institutions are created to meet the demands of specific circumstances, but then circumstances change and institutions fail to adapt. One reason is cognitive: people develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Another reason is group interest: institutions create favored classes of insiders who develop a stake in the status quo and resist pressures to reform”.

Interestingly he makes the point “In theory, democracy, and particularly the Madisonian version of democracy that was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, should mitigate the problem of such insider capture by preventing the emergence of a dominant faction or elite that can use its political power to tyrannize over the country. It does so by spreading power among a series of competing branches of government and allowing for competition among different interests across a large and diverse country. But Madisonian democracy frequently fails to perform as advertised. Elite insiders typically have superior access to power and information, which they use to protect their interests. Ordinary voters will not get angry at a corrupt politician if they don’t know that money is being stolen in the first place”.

He adds that “liberal democracy is almost universally associated with market economies, which tend to produce winners and losers and amplify what James Madison termed the ‘different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.’ This type of economic inequality is not in itself a bad thing, insofar as it stimulates innovation and growth and occurs under conditions of equal access to the economic system. It becomes highly problematic, however, when the economic winners seek to convert their wealth into unequal political influence. They can do so by bribing a legislator or a bureaucrat, that is, on a transactional basis, or, what is more damaging, by changing the institutional rules to favour themselves — for example, by closing off competition in markets they already dominate, tilting the playing field ever more steeply in their favour. Political decay thus occurs when institutions fail to adapt to changing external circumstances, either out of intellectual rigidities or because of the power of incumbent elites to protect their positions and block change. Decay can afflict any type of political system, authoritarian or democratic. And while democratic political systems theoretically have self-correcting mechanisms that allow them to reform, they also open themselves up to decay by legitimating the activities of powerful interest groups that can block needed change”.

This is why the system of political funding in America, in Europe is of such importance. Whoever has funding and access to politicians will inevitably gain. The solution is obvious and has been stated before but the state must control all funding of political parties based on a proportion of how each party does at election time. All other sources of funding such be effectively banned, apart from small donations of 100 or 200 dollars or pounds or euros. The consequences of not doing this has been seen, so what is to be lost in doing it? This will only be done if governments can challenge and unseat vested interests but it is only likely to do this if the problem becomes so bad that there is no other alternative.

He mentions that “Modern liberal democracies have three branches of government — the executive, the judiciary, and the legislature — corresponding to the three basic categories of political institutions: the state, the rule of law, and democracy. The executive is the branch that uses power to enforce rules and carry out policy; the judiciary and the legislature constrain power and direct it to public purposes. In its institutional priorities, the United States, with its long-standing tradition of distrust of government power, has always emphasized the role of the institutions of constraint — the judiciary and the legislature — over the state”.

He notes the “the apparently irreversible increase in the scope of government in the twentieth century has masked a large decay in its quality. This is largely because the United States has returned in certain ways to being a “state of courts and parties,” that is, one in which the courts and the legislature have usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient”.

He turns to the courts and writes that “The primary mover in the Brown case was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a private voluntary association that filed a class-action suit against the Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education on behalf of a small group of parents and their children. The initiative had to come from private groups, of course, because both the state government and the U.S. Congress were blocked by pro-segregation forces. The NAACP continued to press the case on appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was represented by the future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. What was arguably one of the most important changes in American public policy came about not because Congress as representative of the American people voted for it but because private individuals litigated through the court system to change the rules. Later changes such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were the result of congressional action, but even in these cases, the enforcement of national law was left up to the initiative of private parties and carried out by courts. There is virtually no other liberal democracy that proceeds in this fashion. All European countries have gone through similar changes in the legal status of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and gays in the second half of the twentieth century. But in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, the same result was achieved not using the courts but through a national justice ministry acting on behalf of a parliamentary majority. The legislative rule change was driven by public pressure from social groups and the media but was carried out by the government itself and not by private parties acting in conjunction with the justice system”.

Depressingly he writes “The explosion of opportunities for litigation gave access, and therefore power, to many formerly excluded groups, beginning with African Americans. For this reason, litigation and the right to sue have been jealously guarded by many on the progressive left. But it also entailed large costs in terms of the quality of public policy. Kagan illustrates this with the case of the dredging of Oakland Harbor, in California. During the 1970s, the Port of Oakland initiated plans to dredge the harbor in anticipation of the new, larger classes of container ships that were then coming into service. The plan, however, had to be approved by a host of federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as their counterparts in the state of California. A succession of alternative plans for disposing of toxic materials dredged from the harbor were challenged in the courts, and each successive plan entailed prolonged delays and higher costs. The reaction of the Environmental Protection Agency to these lawsuits was to retreat into a defensive crouch and not take action. The final plan to proceed with the dredging was not forthcoming until 1994, at an ultimate cost that was many times the original estimates. A comparable expansion of the Port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, was accomplished in a fraction of the time. Examples such as this can be found across the entire range of activities undertaken by the U.S. government. Many of the travails of the Forest Service can be attributed to the ways in which its judgments could be second-guessed through the court system. This effectively brought to a halt all logging on lands it and the Bureau of Land Management operated in the Pacific Northwest during the early 1990s, as a result of threats to the spotted owl, which was protected under the Endangered Species Act”.

He argues that “A decentralised, legalistic approach to administration dovetails with the other notable feature of the U.S. political system: its openness to the influence of interest groups. Such groups can get their way by suing the government directly. But they have another, even more powerful channel, one that controls significantly more resources: Congress”.

He goes on to elaborate,”With the exception of some ambassadorships and top posts in government departments, U.S. political parties are no longer in the business of distributing government offices to loyal political supporters. But the trading of political influence for money has come in through the backdoor, in a form that is perfectly legal and much harder to eradicate. Criminalized bribery is narrowly defined in U.S. law as a transaction in which a politician and a private party explicitly agree on a specific quid pro quo. What is not covered by the law is what biologists call reciprocal altruism, or what an anthropologist might label a gift exchange. In a relationship of reciprocal altruism, one person confers a benefit on another with no explicit expectation that it will buy a return favour. Indeed, if one gives someone a gift and then immediately demands a gift in return, the recipient is likely to feel offended and refuse what is offered. In a gift exchange, the receiver incurs not a legal obligation to provide some specific good or service but rather a moral obligation to return the favor in some way later on. It is this sort of transaction that the U.S. lobbying industry is built around”.

He makes the point that “The explosion of interest groups and lobbying in Washington has been astonishing, with the number of firms with registered lobbyists rising from 175 in 1971 to roughly 2,500 a decade later, and then to 13,700 lobbyists spending about $3.5 billion by 2009. Some scholars have argued that all this money and activity has not resulted in measurable changes in policy along the lines desired by the lobbyists, implausible as this may seem. But oftentimes, the impact of interest groups and lobbyists is not to stimulate new policies but to make existing legislation much worse than it would otherwise be. The legislative process in the United States has always been much more fragmented than in countries with parliamentary systems and disciplined parties. The welter of congressional committees with overlapping jurisdictions often leads to multiple and conflicting mandates for action. This decentralized legislative process produces incoherent laws and virtually invites involvement by interest groups, which, if not powerful enough to shape overall legislation, can at least protect their specific interests. For example, the health-care bill pushed by the Obama administration in 2010 turned into something of a monstrosity during the legislative process as a result of all the concessions and side payments that had to be made to interest groups ranging from doctors to insurance companies to the pharmaceutical industry. In other cases, the impact of interest groups was to block legislation harmful to their interests. The simplest and most effective response to the 2008 financial crisis and the hugely unpopular taxpayer bailouts of large banks would have been a law that put a hard cap on the size of financial institutions or a law that dramatically raised capital requirements, which would have had much the same effect. If a cap on size existed, banks taking foolish risks could go bankrupt without triggering a systemic crisis and a government bailout. Like the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, such a law could have been written on a couple of sheets of paper. But this possibility was not seriously considered during the congressional deliberations on financial regulation”.

An example of this he argues is the “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which, while better than no regulation at all, extended to hundreds of pages of legislation and mandated reams of further detailed rules that will impose huge costs on banks and consumers down the road. Rather than simply capping bank size, it created the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which was assigned the enormous task of assessing and managing institutions posing systemic risks”.

Under the heading, What Madison Got Wrong he writes “The economist Mancur Olson made one of the most famous arguments about the malign effects of interest-group politics on economic growth and, ultimately, democracy in his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations. Looking particularly at the long-term economic decline of the United Kingdom throughout the twentieth century, he argued that in times of peace and stability, democracies tended to accumulate ever-increasing numbers of interest groups. Instead of pursuing wealth-creating economic activities, these groups used the political system to extract benefits or rents for themselves. These rents were collectively unproductive and costly to the public as a whole. But the general public had a collective-action problem and could not organize as effectively as, for example, the banking industry or corn producers to protect their interests. The result was the steady diversion of energy to rent-seeking activities over time, a process that could be halted only by a large shock such as a war or a revolution. This highly negative narrative about interest groups stands in sharp contrast to a much more positive one about the benefits of civil society, or voluntary associations, to the health of democracy. Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America that Americans had a strong propensity to organize private associations, which he argued were schools for democracy because they taught private individuals the skills of coming together for public purposes”.

He elobrates “Madison himself had a relatively benign view of interest groups. Even if one did not approve of the ends that a particular group was seeking, he argued, the diversity of groups over a large country would be sufficient to prevent domination by any one of them. As the political scientist Theodore Lowi has noted, “pluralist” political theory in the mid-twentieth century concurred with Madison: the cacophony of interest groups would collectively interact to produce a public interest, just as competition in a free market would provide public benefit through individuals’ following their narrow self-interests”.

He goes on later in the article to note, “Democracies must balance the need to allow full opportunities for political participation for all, on the one hand, and the need to get things done, on the other. Ideally, democratic decisions would be taken by consensus, with every member of the community consenting. This is what typically happens in families, and how band- and tribal-level societies often make decisions. The efficiency of consensual decision-making, however, deteriorates rapidly as groups become larger and more diverse, and so for most groups, decisions are made not by consensus but with the consent of some subset of the population. The smaller the percentage of the group necessary to take a decision, the more easily and efficiently it can be made, but at the expense of long-run buy-in. Even systems of majority rule deviate from an ideal democratic procedure, since they can disenfranchise nearly half the population. Indeed, under a plurality, or “first past the post,” electoral system, decisions can be taken for the whole community by a minority of voters. Systems such as these are adopted not on the basis of any deep principle of justice but rather as an expedient that allows decisions of some sort to be made. Democracies also create various other mechanisms, such as cloture rules (enabling the cutting off of debate), rules restricting the ability of legislators to offer amendments, and so-called reversionary rules, which allow for action in the event that a legislature can’t come to agreement”.

He makes the point that “the so-called Westminster system, which evolved in England in the years following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, is one of the most decisive in the democratic world because, in its pure form, it has very few veto points. British citizens have one large, formal check on government, their ability to periodically elect Parliament. (The tradition of free media in the United Kingdom is another important informal check.) In all other respects, however, the system concentrates, rather than diffuses, power. The pure Westminster system has only a single, all-powerful legislative chamber — no separate presidency, no powerful upper house, no written constitution and therefore no judicial review, and no federalism or constitutionally mandated devolution of powers to localities. It has a plurality voting system that, along with strong party discipline, tends to produce a two-party system and strong parliamentary majorities. The British equivalent of the cloture rule requires only a simple majority of the members of Parliament to be present to call the question; American-style filibustering is not allowed. The parliamentary majority chooses a government with strong executive powers, and when it makes a legislative decision, it generally cannot be stymied by courts, states, municipalities, or other bodies. This is why the British system is often described as a “democratic dictatorship.” For all its concentrated powers, the Westminster system nonetheless remains fundamentally democratic, because if voters don’t like the government it produces, they can vote it out of office. In fact, with a vote of no confidence, they can do so immediately, without waiting for the end of a presidential term. This means that governments are more sensitive to perceptions of their general performance than to the needs of particular interest groups or lobbies”.

He goes on to contrast the budget process in the UK “The Westminster system produces stronger governments than those in the United States, as can be seen by comparing their budget processes. In the United Kingdom, national budgets are drawn up by professional civil servants acting under instructions from the cabinet and the prime minister. The budget is then presented by the chancellor of the exchequer to the House of Commons, which votes to approve it in a single up-or-down vote, usually within a week or two” with that in the US which can and does take months, “The budget works its way through a complex set of committees over a period of months, and what finally emerges for ratification by the two houses of Congress is the product of innumerable deals struck with individual members to secure their support — since with no party discipline, the congressional leadership cannot compel members to support its preferences. The openness and never-ending character of the U.S. budget process gives lobbyists and interest groups multiple points at which to exercise influence. In most European parliamentary systems, it would make no sense for an interest group to lobby an individual member of parliament, since the rules of party discipline would give that legislator little or no influence over the party leadership’s position. In the United States, by contrast, an influential committee chairmanship confers enormous powers to modify legislation and therefore becomes the target of enormous lobbying activity”.

He adds later that “In full perspective, therefore, the U.S. political system presents a complex picture in which checks and balances excessively constrain decision-making on the part of majorities, but in which there are also many instances of potentially dangerous delegations of authority to poorly accountable institutions. One major problem is that these delegations are seldom made cleanly. Congress frequently fails in its duty to provide clear legislative guidance on how a particular agency is to perform its task, leaving it up to the agency itself to write its own mandate. In doing so, Congress hopes that if things don’t work out, the courts will step in to correct the abuses. Excessive delegation and vetocracy thus become intertwined. In a parliamentary system, the majority party or coalition controls the government directly; members of parliament become ministers who have the authority to change the rules of the bureaucracies they control. Parliamentary systems can be blocked if parties are excessively fragmented and coalitions unstable, as has been the case frequently in Italy. But once a parliamentary majority has been established, there is a relatively straight-forward delegation of authority to an executive agency”.

He writes that the “obvious solution to a legislature’s inability to act is to transfer more authority to the separately elected executive. Latin American countries with presidential systems have been notorious for gridlock and ineffective legislatures and have often cut through the maze by granting presidents emergency powers — which, in turn, has often led to other kinds of abuses. Under conditions of divided government, when the party controlling one or both houses of Congress is different from the one controlling the presidency, strengthening the executive at the expense of Congress becomes a matter of partisan politics. Delegating more authority to President Barack Obama is the last thing that House Republicans want to do today”.

Thankfully he realises that “In many respects, the American system of checks and balances compares unfavorably with parliamentary systems when it comes to the ability to balance the need for strong state action with law and accountability. Parliamentary systems tend not to judicialize administration to nearly the same extent; they have proliferated government agencies less, they write more coherent legislation, and they are less subject to interest-group influence. Germany, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries, in particular, have been able to sustain higher levels of trust in government, which makes public administration less adversarial, more consensual, and better able to adapt to changing conditions of globalization”.

He concludes “The U.S. political system has decayed over time because its traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid. In an environment of sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests and gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people. This is not the first time that the U.S. political system has been polarized and indecisive. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, it could not make up its mind about the extension of slavery to the territories, and in the later decades of the century, it couldn’t decide if the country was a fundamentally agrarian society or an industrial one. The Madisonian system of checks and balances and the clientelistic, party-driven political system that emerged in the nineteenth century were adequate for governing an isolated, largely agrarian country. They could not, however, resolve the acute political crisis produced by the question of the extension of slavery, nor deal with a continental-scale economy increasingly knit together by new transportation and communications technologies”.

He ends, “Two obstacles stand in the way of reversing the trend toward decay. The first is a matter of politics. Many political actors in the United States recognize that the system isn’t working well but nonetheless have strong interests in keeping things as they are. Neither political party has an incentive to cut itself off from access to interest-group money, and the interest groups don’t want a system in which money won’t buy influence. As happened in the 1880s, a reform coalition has to emerge that unites groups without a stake in the current system. But achieving collective action among such out-groups is very difficult; they need leadership and a clear agenda, neither of which is currently present. The second problem is a matter of ideas. The traditional American solution to perceived governmental dysfunction has been to try to expand democratic participation and transparency. This happened at a national level in the 1970s, for example, as reformers pushed for more open primaries, greater citizen access to the courts, and round-the-clock media coverage of Congress, even as states such as California expanded their use of ballot initiatives to get around unresponsive government. But as the political scientist Bruce Cain has pointed out, most citizens have neither the time, nor the background, nor the inclination to grapple with complex public policy issues; expanding participation has simply paved the way for well-organized groups of activists to gain more power. The obvious solution to this problem would be to roll back some of the would-be democratizing reforms, but no one dares suggest that what the country needs is a bit less participation and transparency. The depressing bottom line is that given how self-reinforcing the country’s political malaise is, and how unlikely the prospects for constructive incremental reform are, the decay of American politics will probably continue until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action”.

An end to paralysis?

05/09/2014

Yet more appointments for the administration are being held up. As usual everyone suffers.

Writing late last year, for the Brookings Institution it was noted that “Over one thousand presidential appointments are subject to time-consuming Senate confirmation. That system currently allows Senators to place anonymous “holds” and filibuster votes on nominees — making it increasingly difficult for the executive branch to function”.

The article notes that “after years of inaction, the Senate is now considering reforms to streamline the process: adopting new rules to limit anonymous holds and agreeing to pass legislation to reduce the number of appointments requiring confirmation”.

The scholars note simple refoms that can be quickly implemented that can make a big difference such as “These would include creating a “surge capacity” before the beginning of a new president’s term involving a temporary increase in the number of FBI agents, Senate staffers and others involved in vetting so as to avoid backlogs, an expansion of the White House personnel operation to create a permanent staff of professionals, and a tiered-system of background checks, with the most stringent reserved only for top-level positions.”

The second category they note are structural reforms that will take time and energy to implement, if they are so desired, such as “a reduction in the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation, streamlining the forms nominees need to fill out during the confirmation process, and a sharp curtailing of the use of ‘holds’ by individual senators”. Or more radically ideas such as “mandatory discharge procedures, providing that if a committee does not act within 30 or 45 days of receiving a nominee with a full package of required information, that nomination would become eligible for consideration by the full Senate. Bolder still would be what some have called “confirmation by rule,” nominees below a certain threshold of rank or significance would be deemed confirmed by default if the Senate did not act within a specific period”.

The Democracy in America blog notes that “Barney Frank had an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing that the refusal of Senate Republicans to confirm any Obama administration nominee to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless the president adopts their pro-Wall Street stances on financial reform creates a constitutional crisis”.

The results of this are clear when it notes that “a Senate minority refuses to approve any nominee, regardless of qualifications, until its policy preferences are enacted, it effectively means that the minority can dictate policy to the majority, forcing the government to undo legislation it has passed”.

The article concludes noting that Republicans are far more capable of blocking nominees than Democrats due to their world outlook. Checks and balances have had their day, it is time they were whittled down to a set of core principles and not an overriding unquestioned idea.

Either way, it is doubtful that any but the most minor of the reforms suggested above will be implemented. Leaving little hope for the only true, long lasting solution.

“Nowhere near the point of saying yes”

23/07/2014

An blog post notes increasing Congressional opposition to President Obama’s welcome but belated plan to arm the Syrian rebels.  It opens, “The Obama administration’s new plan to break the stalemate in Syria is running into bipartisan opposition in Congress, raising fresh doubts about whether military aid promised to the Syrian rebels will arrive anytime soon, if at all”.

It continues, “The White House last month announced plans to provide moderate members of the Syrian opposition with $500 million worth of weapons, equipment, and training. Freeing up the money requires authorisation from Congress, but after classified meetings this week, key lawmakers speaking toForeign Policy — including many Democrats — remain deeply skeptical of the White House’s plan”.

As has been stated here before, the genius of the American system of checks and balances does, in theory work well, but when decisions need to be taken quickly and efficently the slow and cumbersome design shows its age in a world that seems to move ever faster and faster. This is particulary dangerous in the area of foreign affairs where “secrecy and dispatch” are all that is necessary for an effective foreign policy.

The piece goes on to mention “That spells trouble for Barack Obama’s administration, which is trying to build support for the program as a part of the fiscal year 2015 defense appropriations and authorisation bills under consideration in the House and Senate. At issue is the degree to which the United States should try to aid Syria’s beleaguered rebels. The CIA is currently providing training and small arms to rebels in Jordan who have been vetted for potential ties to extremists while Washington allows Persian Gulf countries to provide anti-tank missiles. The new Pentagon program would supplement or replace the CIA program, which has been criticized as too modest to make an impact on the battlefield”.

The article adds that Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), “a member of the House’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, received a classified briefing on the program on Tuesday, July 15, from top Pentagon officials, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld. Other influential Democrats expressed misgivings about the administration’s request as well. ‘It’s difficult for me to see this accelerating the end of the war in Syria,’ Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the Appropriations and Intelligence committees, told FP in an interview. ‘I think the burden is on the administration to demonstrate why this is going to help the situation and not risk just dragging us in further. I consider myself among the skeptics.’ Republicans were even more critical. ‘I am not satisfied, convinced, or even confident that arming moderates in Syria is the right course of action or a dollar well spent,’ Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told FP on Tuesday after attending the same classified briefing as Kaptur. ‘Considering that the Department of Defense couldn’t explain how the funds for fiscal years 2013 and 2014 were used, it makes me feel very uneasy to give them even more money, especially since it isn’t clear how these supposed moderates are vetted,’ said Cole”.

This neatly illustrates the problem of the American system, minor issues over where the money for the programme comes from will inevitably lead to delays and partisan bickering when the grave consequences of doing nothing have become so stark for all to see. Congress as usual is unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture.

The report goes on to mention, “the Syrian opposition’s envoy to the United States, Najib Ghadbian, wrote a letter to congressional appropriators urging them to approve the program. ‘We are asking our friends in Congress to authorize and appropriate the proposed Department of Defense train and equip program for moderate vetted Free Syrian Army units,’ wrote Ghadbian. ‘The United States has real national security interests at stake as the Free Syrian Army continue to lead the fight against international terrorist elements like the Islamic State.’ A spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Oubai Shahbandar, called the Pentagon plan ‘crucial’ to combatting both President Assad and Sunni extremist groups in the region”.

Worryingly it continues, “even early supporters of the Syrian rebels in Congress are beginning to back away from demands that the Obama administration ramp up military support in the conflict. ‘It would’ve been a good plan two and a half years ago. I’m not sure it’s a good plan today,’ Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. Citing a ‘whole host of problems’ with arming the rebels, Rogers said there had been an alarming influx of Sunni extremists into Syria and faulted the White House for having no clear plan on how to manage the future course of the conflict”.

It ends “multiple GOP aides accused the administration of purposefully botching the meetings with Congress because it never wanted to further intervene in Syria in the first place. ‘It doesn’t feel like the administration even wants this,’ said a congressional aide. Whatever the case, the shifting sands in the Syria debate is frustrating longtime backers of the rebels, such as Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee”.

In a damning indictment of the American system, “Many members of Congress, including those of influence, are nowhere near the point of saying yes to more military engagement in Syria. Even worse for the White House, members of the president’s own party are among those most reluctant to give Obama what he wants”.

“Opens a new spigot”

06/04/2014

In what may prove to be a fateful decision the Supreme Court re-inforced its infamous Citizens United decision. The Washington Post reports, “An elite class of wealthy donors who have gained mounting influence in campaigns now has the ability to exert even greater sway. A Supreme Court decision Wednesday to do away with an overall limit on how much individuals can give candidates and political parties opens a new spigot for money to flow into campaigns already buffeted by huge spending from independent groups. In this year’s midterm races, outside organizations financed by very rich donors, such as the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, have significantly shaped the campaign landscape with TV ads and other expenditures totaling in the tens of millions of dollars. The ruling by a sharply split court opens the door even wider for a narrow universe of donors to expand their giving by writing single checks for as much as $3.6 million that could flow directly to candidate and party committees”.

Brewer’s rational choice

05/03/2014

A report in the New York Times notes the veto of Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona. It opens, “Ending a day that cast a glaring national spotlight on Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a bill on Wednesday that would have given business owners the right to refuse service to gay men, lesbians and other people on religious grounds. Her action came amid mounting pressure from Arizona business leaders, who said the bill would be a financial disaster for the state and would harm its reputation. Prominent members of the Republican establishment, including Mitt Romney and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, also sided with the bill’s opponents, who argued that the measure would have allowed people to use religion as a fig leaf for prejudice”.

It adds that “Brewer announced her veto at a hastily called news conference after spending the day holed up in the Capitol in private meetings with opponents and supporters. “I call them like I see them, despite the cheers or the boos from the crowd,” she said. She added that the legislation “does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona,” and that it was “broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences.”The governor further castigated the Republican-controlled Legislature, which passed the bill last Thursday, for making it the first piece of legislation to reach her desk this year. Her priorities, she said, are a budget, continuing the state’s economic growth, and “fixing our broken child protection system.” The bill was inspired by episodes in other states in which florists, photographers and bakers were sued for refusing to cater to same-sex couples. But it would have allowed much broader religious exemptions by business owners”.

The piece continues that critics, “who included business leaders and figures in both national political parties — said it was broadly discriminatory and would have permitted all sorts of denials of service, allowing, say, a Muslim taxi driver to refuse to pick up a woman traveling solo. Supporters said the bill was needed to allow people to live and work by their religious beliefs”.

Interestingly the piece notes that “Hour by hour, the state began to lose business even as the governor deliberated: The Hispanic National Bar Association said Wednesday that it had canceled plans to hold its annual convention of 2,000 lawyers here next year, citing the bill and saying in a statement, “It is imperative that we speak up and take immediate action in the presence of injustice.” Outside the Capitol, protesters gathered in the shade of a palm tree holding signs that read, “Civil rights trump religious wrongs.” Inside, television cameras stood guard by the entrance to the governor’s wing as volunteers from the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, hauled in boxes of petitions holding 63,000 signatures asking for a veto. The measure is the latest initiative in Arizona to set off a political firestorm. Arizona is still struggling to repair its image and finances after the boycotts and bad publicity it endured after the passage of an immigration law in 2010 that gave police officers the right to stop people whom they suspected of being in the country illegally and made it a crime for illegal immigrants to hold jobs. The state also faced a boycott almost 20 years ago, after voters initially refused to recognize Martin Luther King’s Birthday as a state holiday”.

The report attempts to explain how the bill was passed at all, “After the bill passed the Legislature and set off a national uproar, tourists and business travelers started directing hundreds of calls and emails to the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association, a trade group, telling that they would never again visit the state if the measure was approved. A growing list of companies — Apple Inc., American Airlines, Intel — added their voices, some with threats to withdraw business from the state if the measure became law. Democrats who spoke out included Secretary of State John Kerry, who said in a television interview on Wednesday, “I cannot imagine how that law would withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Similar religious protection legislation has been introduced in several states, including Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota”.

In a related piece it discusses the GOP’s reaction to the controversy, “When Gov. Rick Scott of Florida was asked early Wednesday whether he supported Arizona legislation that would make it easier for business owners to refuse service to gay people on religious grounds, he demurred, saying he was unfamiliar with the bill. By afternoon, his office issued a statement saying the measure was divisive and should be vetoed. With that, Mr. Scott joined a contingent of establishment Republicans — among them, Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 2012, and Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona — who are vocal opponents of same-sex marriage but came out against a bill that had become a rallying point among conservatives in the Arizona State House and across the country. Ms. Brewer vetoed the measure”.

The article importantly mentions that “The decision by members of the Republican establishment to join gay activists in opposing the bill reflected the alarm the Arizona battle stirred among party leaders, who worried about identifying their party with polarizing social issues at a time when Republicans see the prospect of big gains in Congressional elections on economic issues. No less important, the bill produced almost unanimous opposition among one critical Republican constituency — business owners — who feared it would entangle the state in lawsuits and prompt a damaging boycott”.

As has been noted before on many occasions the piece adds that “the division was a window into a Republican Party that remains torn on gay rights issues, be it the Arizona measure, same-sex marriage or permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Some of the party’s most committed voters continue to be intensely opposed to gay marriage, but their views are at odds with an increasing percentage of the American electorate, particularly younger and independent voters”.

It concludes, “The divisions surrounding this issue were reflected in the careful deliberations Ms. Brewer undertook before deciding on her veto and in the tentativeness of Mr. Scott, who is facing a tough re-election campaign, in dealing with the question in a morning television interview. “In Florida, we are focused on economic growth, and not on things that divide us,” he said later in the day in a statement urging its veto. Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, announced his view with a post on Twitter; he did not respond to a request for further comment. Same-sex marriage continues to be an issue that can reliably turn out the party faithful, but it no longer produces the near-unanimity among Republicans that was once the case. Opposition to gay marriage and other gay issues is strong among the Tea Party, but that wing does not have the power that it once had”.It ends “‘It just makes the party look small and out of touch,’ said Steve Schmidt, a Republican consultant who has warned that the party is hurting itself by being identified with opposition to gay rights. ‘Arizona has become an outlier state in which an extreme ring of the party is able to put forward legislation that damages the entire brand of the Republican Party.'”From that perspective, the fact so many Republican leaders supported the religion bill’s defeat was heartening to the centrist wing of the party.“It is further evidence our party is advancing,” said John Weaver, a Republican consultant. “The legislation was such an affront to most people — legitimizing discrimination — that opposition to it was easy. Actually, I think it propels support for gay marriage because it was such an overreach and jarred so many people.”

A new Commission

08/12/2013

This morning’s briefing on the work of the Council of Cardinals involved the extraordinary participation of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, who communicated the Pope’s approval of a proposal submitted by the eight cardinals –the creation of a Commission for the protection of minors. “Continuing decisively along the lines undertaken by Pope Benedict XVI, and accepting a proposal presented by the Council of Cardinals, the Holy Father has decided to establish a specific Commission for the protection of minors, with the aim of advising Pope Francis on the Holy See’s commitment to the protection of children and in pastoral care for victims of abuse. Specifically, the Commission will study present programmes in place for the protection of children; formulate suggestions for new initiatives on the part of the Curia, in collaboration with bishops, Episcopal conferences, religious superiors and conferences of religious superiors; and indicate the names of persons suited to the systematic implementation of these new initiatives, including laypersons, religious and priests with responsibilities for the safety of children, in relations with the victims, in mental health, in the application of the law, etc.”

The system works

02/04/2013

The system of oversight on drones seems to have worked, according to some.

She writes, “The Obama White House deployed a new unmanned aerial vehicle last week: the drone trial balloon. According to several well-placed leakers, the CIA’s not-so-secret targeted killing program will probably be not-so-secretly handed over to the Pentagon in the coming months. It was the rarest of moments in American politics: a time when congressional oversight of intelligence seemed to work”.

Interestingly she goes on to add “the ACLU has complained and filed lawsuits, think tanks have been counting up collateral deaths, and professors have had a field day debating just war theory and exploring the creepiness of remote control killing. But these criticisms did not move the policy dial much until February 7, when John Brennan faced his Senate confirmation hearing to be CIA director. Brennan’s hearing was a crucial focal point, the first time anything resembling a public debate about targeted killing had ever occurred. Brennan wasn’t just some sideline figure caught up in someone else’s policy fight like Chuck Hagel was in the Benghazi brouhaha. Targeted killing was Brennan’s baby. In his old job as Obama’s White House czar for homeland security and counterterrorism, Brennan had masterminded the program, from creating the bureaucratic processes determining which agency did what, right down to naming names for the kill list. In his new job, Brennan would have enormous sway over the CIA’s future activities, including lethal drone strikes”.

She then mentions that things have begun to change, and perhaps not without the permission of the administration, “The timeline is revealing: On February 4, just three days before Brennan was slated to appear before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, someone leaked the administration’s drone “white paper” summarizing the legal arguments used to justify drone strikes against Americans abroad. Suddenly, senators on the intelligence committee started getting partial access to some of the legal documents they had been requesting for months. This may not sound like much, but it beat what they had before: no access at all. You could hear chinks opening in the drone stonewall all over town”.

The piece then goes on to say “The White House promised to release more, but not all, the drone-related documents that the committee wanted. That was enough for Feinstein’s committee, but not for Rand Paul, the wacky rookie Republican senator from Kentucky, who delivered a decidedly unwacky 13-hour filibuster against Brennan’s confirmation, demanding better answers and greater transparency in drone policy. Paul’s filibuster drew bipartisan support, tremendous national attention, and would have gone longer, except that he had to pee. The intelligence committee’s establishment politics and Paul’s populist filibuster proved strange but effective bedfellows. It took just 42 days from Brennan’s hearing to get wind that the CIA may be getting out of the drone business”.

Yet something that she is missing is that the reason that it took “record time” for the CIA to get out of drones is because the process had already started. Brennan, a career CIA official, wanted to bring the agency back to its roots and allow others to fight and use drones as they saw fight. The process may have even begun under Brennan’s short lived predecessor but this is uncertain.

The article concludes, “Congress lets itself get jerked around far more than it should. Want to guess how many members of the current Congress have ever worked in intelligence before? Two. This means that most intelligence committee members have to learn on the job, which takes the one thing in shortest supply: time. If legislators want to win the next election, they’re better off devoting time to other committees that offer pork and other benefits to folks back home and involve policy issues that they can at least talk about in public. From a re-election perspective, intelligence committee service is always a political loser. This is no secret. My research has found that fewer of Congress’s most powerful members serve on the House and Senate intelligence committees today than they did in the 1980s, even though intelligence is arguably more important and challenging. What’s more, the House still imposes term limits for representatives serving on the House intelligence committee (almost no other committees have them), ensuring that members have to rotate off just when they finally know what they are doing”.

“At least two weeks”

16/02/2013

A Senate confirmation vote on John O. Brennan as CIA director has been postponed for at least two weeks as lawmakers step up pressure on the Obama administration to provide more information about its drone campaign against terrorism suspects. In particular, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that she is seeking seven Justice Department memos related to the administration’s targeted killing program, in addition to four the committee has been allowed to view”. This is not so much checks and balances as the Senate overriding the executive and putting America in danger.

A democratic China

12/02/2013

An article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs argues that if China is to survive it must bring democracy to the country. It opens noting “According to 2003 surveys cited in How East Asians View Democracy, edited by the researchers Yun-han Chu, Larry Diamond, Andrew Nathan, and Doh Chull Shin, 72.3 percent of the Chinese public polled said they believed that democracy is ‘desirable for our country now,’ and 67 percent said that democracy is ‘suitable for our country now.’ These two numbers track with those recorded for well-established East Asian democracies, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan”.

It goes on to mention “It is true that the party’s antireform bloc has had the upper hand since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. But recently, voices for reform within the CCP have been gaining strength, aided in large part by calls for honesty, transparency, and accountability from hundreds of millions of Internet-using Chinese citizens. China’s new leaders seem at least somewhat willing to adopt a more moderate tone than their predecessors, who issued strident warnings against ‘westernization’ of the Chinese political system. So far, what has held China back from democracy is not a lack of demand for it but a lack of supply. It is possible that the gap will start to close over the next ten years”. Indeed, it adds “China does seem light years beyond both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which were disastrous for the country. But the party has never explicitly repudiated or accepted culpability for either, nor has it dealt with the question of how to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. In a system with no true accountability or checks and balances, Wen’s worries — and those of hundreds of millions of Chinese who suffered through the horrors of those events — are sincere and justified”.

He goes on to add importantly that “Democracies should be taken to task for their failure to root out corruption, but no one should confuse the symptom with the cause. Worldwide, there is no question that autocracies as a whole are far more corrupt than democracies. As a 2004 Transparency International report revealed, the top three looting officials of the preceding two decades  were Suharto, the ruler of Indonesia until 1998; Ferdinand Marcos, who led the Philippines until 1986; and Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo until 1997. These three dictators pillaged a combined $50 billion from their impoverished people. Since 1990, according to a report briefly posted a few months ago on the Web site of China’s central bank, corrupt Chinese officials — about 18,000 of them — have collectively funneled some $120 billion out of the country. That figure is equivalent to China’s entire education budget between 1978 and 1998. Beyond the sheer financial loss, corruption has also led to extremely poor food-safety records, since officials are paid to not enforce regulations. A 2007 Asian Development Bank report estimated that 300 million people in China suffer from food-borne diseases every year. Food safety is not the only woe. Corruption leads to bridge and building collapses that kill and chemical factory spills that poison China’s environment — and their cover-ups”. The issue he says is that there are no checks on the exercise of power.

The article ends “It is now time to give democracy a try. As the scholars David Lake and Matthew Baum have shown, democracies simply do a better job than authoritarian governments at providing public services. And countries that make the transition to democracy experience an immediate improvement. Already, China is seeing some of these effects: Nancy Qian, an economist at Yale University, has shown that the introduction of village elections in China has improved accountability and increased expenditures on public services. It is unlikely that a democratic China would beat today’s China in GDP growth, but at least the growth would be more inclusive. The benefits would flow not just to the government and to a small number of connected capitalists but to the majority of the Chinese population, because a well-functioning democracy advances the greatest good for the most possible. Two aspects of the Chinese economy presage a path to democratization. One is the level of per capita GDP. China has already crossed what some social scientists believe to be the threshold beyond which most societies inevitably begin to democratize — between $4,000 and $6,000. As the China scholar Minxin Pei has pointed out, of the 25 countries with higher per capita GDPs than China that are not free or partially free, 21 of them are sustained by natural resources. Other than this exceptional category, countries become democratic as they get richer”.

Too effective

25/03/2012

The former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, in an article lauds the American Constitution. However, he does say that “Worrying whether a particular country’s constitution is fit for purpose can seem a pointless activity. In the end, these problems are self-correcting: if a constitution doesn’t do its job, if it doesn’t strike the right balance between the interests of the governed and the need for good governance, then it collapses”.

The only problem with this is that it may take decades or centuries for a country to collapse, as he puts it, all the while the citizenry either do not see, or refuse to see the problem with their governing structures. This may be because of the media or vested interests or even the politicians themselves who refuse to see that the way a country is governed is not working anymore.

He goes on to write, justifably that “For more than two centuries the US Constitution has regulated the affairs of a great continental democracy, steering it through good times and some pretty bad times. For many Americans, the Constitution is an almost sacred text”.

He goes on to describe how difficult running the mission in Afghanistan was. He notes that the Constitution “seemed to obstruct rather than encourage the better governance of the world’s greatest republic” and how it reminded him of a previous report he wrote in the early 1990s on a similar topic.

He mentions, rightly how “the most obvious difficulty was in generating what I call strategic stamina. Stabilising a country in the state Afghanistan was in when the American-led coalition precipitated regime change in the autumn of 2001 takes decades, not years. But a political system in which most elected representatives are running for office most of the time finds it almost impossible to give such projects the sustained attention – and resources”. This is an echo of Niall Ferguson’s  Colossus which argues that America has two problems it must fix if it is to remain powerful, its debt and its ADD problem.

He concludes arguing that “The distribution of power between the executive and the legislative branches of government, and within the executive branch, also seemed to create more problems than it solved. In so many respects, the Constitution is an 18th century solution to an 18th century problem – an over-mighty Georgian monarch. The result – the shackling of the chief executive through a series of legislative controls – means that the executive can hardly spend a cent without the prior consent of the legislature.”

Finally he writes that “Worse, and perhaps more corrosive, the legislators have a big say in how that money is spent, thus exposing those running almost continually for re-election to huge outside pressures from lobbies of one kind or another. Within the executive branch, the hundreds of posts filled by political appointment mean that few if any senior federal officials spend more than four years in a job. Those chosen for such posts may be well-qualified professionals, but too often an 18th century system of patronage is used to reward political loyalty”.

He closes noting ” I cannot help observing that, while Europe’s problem may be that it does not have a working constitution, America’s may be that it has a constitution that works too well”. Now more than ever with no end to a return of agonism in sight, a powerful Hamiltonian system is needed to correct the excesses in the system and end the needless checks and balances that used to work.

Adding fuel to the fire

19/01/2012

If you add an overheating economy, a restless people imagine what would happen. Now add to that mix a dangerously subservient government controlled press.

An article on the role of the Global Times, Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece examines just that. Larson notes the recent infamous “saber-rattling editorial, printed with only slight variations in the Chinese and English editions, which duly unnerved many overseas readers. ‘Recently, both the Philippines and South Korean authorities have detained fishing boats from China, and some of those boats haven’t been returned,’ the editorial fumed. ‘If these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons.'”

Such hyperbole is worthy of the New York Post but unlike the Post the Global Times is under the tight control of the government. Larson explains that “while the People’s Daily is the parent publishing organization of Global Times, the two newspapers have remarkably different missions. Global Times is unequivocally a state-owned paper subject to the same censorship regime, but since its founding in 1993 it has evolved a more populist function — a mandate to attract and actually engage readers, rather than to telegraph coded intentions of the Foreign Ministry or the Organization Department, which determines all senior personnel appointments”. Thus from the outset Larson notes that the paper’s role is populist and can thus stir up, or damp down trouble, almost as it sees fit.

She describes meeting the editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, “he told me when I visited recently as part of a delegation of American editors and academics. ‘And we are not afraid to upset you.'” She adds that “Hu, however, breaks the mold in nearly every way but one: his devotion to the party. He is a former war correspondent and a maniacal editorial micromanager “.

Worse still she writes that “Hu relishes in mentioning lightning-rod topics that most state outlets simply avoid as too sensitive, including the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and this spring’s detention of artist Ai Weiwei, if only to reinforce a party-friendly line. If the de facto stance of China’s state-run media is to avoid controversy, Hu actively courts it.” Larson adds that the paper’s “circulation the third-largest newspaper in China, with a daily print readership of 2.4 million, according to the Sobao Advertising Agency, and reported web readership of 10 million.”

Larson says “Global Times has delivered on that hunger for international coverage, albeit often with a claustrophobic worldview that presents China, arguably the world’s second-most powerful country, as a besieged underdog. A sample of front-page headlines from October 2011: ‘Attacking China becomes a new vogue for Washington DC’; ‘The Senates vote menaces China’; and ‘India and Vietnam signing contracts provokes China’.” It is this mix of violent nationalism and paranoia that is so dangerous. It breeds an atmosphere where the other is always the enemy and anyone who ever challenges this an also a threat to the state.

She concludes thus, “As a former reporter at Beijing Youth Daily told me: ‘Why do people read Global Times? There are few options … there’s no real news in China. We have such limited choices.'”

It is this lack of balance in the media in China that is not only dangerous for regional stability but could cause the acceleration of the end what the Global Times supports for.

Ignoring the obvious

14/12/2011

After the final version Vickers report was released there seems to be another twist to the story.

It has been reported that the British Government “is preparing to water down a key recommendation in the Vickers report that would protect savers in the event of a bank going bust”. Apparently, “Investors and banks have argued that Vickers’ suggestion that retail depositors should be paid back before all other creditors if a bank collapses could risk destroying the market for bank debt and cause corporate deposits to flee the UK”. It adds that “The recommendation on ‘depositor preference’ is therefore set to be dropped from the final version of Vickers implemented by the government, according to sources, on the grounds that savers with up to £85,000 in the bank are already protected by an industry-funded insurance scheme”.

This however overlooks the two facts. The first is that the revised proposal places far too much confidence in the insurance industry in paying out in the event of a crisis. Secondly it does not take into account that without citizens spending their money there would be no economy! Lastly what if the insurance companies haven’t enough money to pay? What will happen to the domestic economy then when the banks get their money before hard working citizens?

The report notes that “Giving retail savers additional protection would have minimal benefits and could result in corporates moving their money abroad and bond investors demanding more collateral as they are moved down the debt hierarchy”. However, only the most short sighted companies would do this as the UK currently has a good credit rating, and to do otherwise would start a trend that would mean that few investors would get their money back. Waiting however, under these circumstances, would mean that the money would not be returned immediately but would eventually be returned.

It seems that “The UK has not finalised its approach to the report in part because it is understood to be reluctant to produce a parallel set of rules on bail-in bonds tailored to Vickers when the EU is already debating the same topic. It could instead try to slot the two regimes together and use the EU rules to flesh out the more vague Vickers proposals”.

So the wait for proper regulation continues.

The need for ideology

26/08/2011

In a blog post Toby Young examines the problem of the Left. Yet, problems for the Left mean problems for society and therefore the common good itself.

While is thesis is not new it is especailly pertinent. He notes that “Labour’s success has traditionally been dependent on an alliance between the traditional working-class and middle-class liberals and that coalition has now collapsed”. It is the radically divergent views of these two groups that lie at the heart of the problem, with the middle class moving further left, especially on social issues, while what is left of the working class is being courted by various shades of Right. Taking the UK example with fascist, BNP, small state nationalists such as the United Kingdom Independence Party in addition to the Conservative Party.  

Indeed it was Tony Blair who revolutionised the Labour Party by bringing it much further to the Right than he should have but the electoral success was undeniable winning three general elections in a row. Young notes that Labour lost the 2010 election and while this is due to both economic and other factors he argues that “the Social Democrats were by the Swedes, polling their lowest share of the vote since universal suffrage was introduced in 1921. This was the first time in the Social Democrats’ history that it lost two elections in a row. Only 22 per cent of those Swedes in work voted Social Democrat in 2010, a number that fell to 13 per cent in the Stockholm region”.

He points out that “One of the reasons socialists believe history is on their side is because they think capitalism is inherently unstable, lurching from one crisis to another. Yet the financial crisis of 2007-08 has sent voters scurrying towards the Right, not the Left”. Young argues that crucial to understanding this problem is immigration. with “educated liberal elites who control most Left-wing parties are pro-immigration. Not only do they believe in its economic benefits, they believe in the virtue of diversity as an end itself. The traditional European working classes, by contrast, are suspicious of immigrants and worry about them taking their jobs or – worse – taking money out of a welfare pot they haven’t contributed to”.

Taking the Swedish example he mentions the fact that “Of the one million immigrants who’ve entered Sweden since 1990, three quarters of them aren’t in full-time employment. These are the welfare free-riders that the Right-wing Sweden Democrats drew attention to in their 2010 election campaign, polling 5.7 per cent of the vote”. Young goes on to mention the resentment felt by many who, in some states like Sweden, pay high taxes but have numerically small numbers of people abusing the system but causing problems for the Left and a pool of disaffected voters for the parties of the Right.

This however is the tipof the iceberg he mentions citing as an example the fact that “the Left fared equally badly in the recent Finnish elections, yet only 2.5 per cent of the population of Finland are foreign-born, most from Russia, Estonia and Sweden”. What is apparent is “the fracturing of both the state and the super-state as sources of tribal identity. The European Union has only ever commanded the loyalty of the liberal middle classes”. The working classes see supra national institutions like the EU as a threat which brings them to vote for UKIP or the True Finns.

He adds that “More surprising has been the decline of the state as a unit capable of commanding people’s loyalty. In Scotland, the beneficiary of Labour’s desertion by working-class voters has been the Scottish Nationalist Party and that, too, seems a pattern likely to be repeated elsewhere. Ethnicity in Europe is beginning to trump more abstract sources of collective identity”. He seems to be implicitly supportive of the “clash of civilisations” thesis that has been so widely discredited. 

His remedy is that ” the Left needs is an intellectual colossus, someone capable of articulating a vision that re-unites the liberal intelligentsia with the traditional working class and persuades them to put the interests of the collective – whether the nation state or something larger and more abstract – before those of their family and their tribe”.

A state without a period of sustained agonism is a very dangerous thing. Balance must be brought back and the need for ideology asserted forcefully.

Economic war?

14/08/2011

After the US debt deal was finally agreed, China has been sticking its oar in where it’s not wanted, again.

The report says that after the US sold weapons to the Republic of China, Taiwan, the People’s Republic, should punish the United States for the slight. It notes worringly that “China has never wanted to use its holdings of U.S. debt as a weapon. It is the United States that is forcing it to do so.”

It notes that after the debt deal was signed, by President Obama, “certain arrogant and disrespectful U.S. Congress members have totally ignored China’s core interests by pressuring the president to sell advanced jets and even an arms upgrade package to Taiwan”.  The article suggests punishment of the United States for this action, namley, stopping buying US debt.

The article notes that “some U.S. Congress members hold a contemptuous attitude toward the core interests of China, which shows that they will never respect China”. This hostility and suspicion of the United States has long been evident in China, but is only growing. However, this is partly as a reflection of the regime worrying about its future. The result of this has been a government uptick in  nationalism. It acknowledges the fact that stopping buying US government debt would bring losses to China but argues that “China can directly link the amount of U.S. treasury holdings with U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and require international credit rating agencies to demote U.S. treasuries to force the United States to raise interest rates”.

Yet, as has been pointed out, “One way or another, the Chinese are going to take a massive hit on their $3.2 trillion holding of dollar reserves”, not only that but he importantly points out that “idea China could somehow have had its export boom without the unsustainable explosion of debt that accompanied it, as implied by the harrumphing commentaries of its official news outlets over the weekend, demonstrates at best a naïve misunderstanding of the nature of free market economics, and at worst something rather more sinister”.

This action would never be allowed to happen by the Federal Government and rightly so, America’s interests must always trump China’s. Such bullying is unacceptable and should not be tolerated.

Power to the president

31/07/2011

As the US creeps ever closer to default with no clear end in sight questions are rightly being asked of Congress and indeed the party system itself.

Some have quite rightly criticised the parties with both Democrats and Republicans at odds and seemingly unwilling to work together as the system demands that they do. It has been noted that “From the Clinton years through the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, partisan division had been accompanied by a growing ideological gulf in Congress, and along with it had come a decline in institutional loyalty and other norms, the near disappearance of meaningful debate and deliberation”. He notes that all the major legislation passed since 2009, “were passed after contentious, drawn-out, partisan battles that left most Americans less than happy with the outcomes”.

Orstein says that the GOP “repeating a tactic employed with great political success by Republicans in 1993 and 1994 against a newly elected President Bill Clinton, they immediately united fiercely and unremittingly against all the Obama and Democratic congressional initiatives”.

He goes on to note that “in an unprecedented fashion, to block a large number of Obama administration nominees for executive branch positions and draw out debate to clog the legislative process and make an already messy business even messier. The session’s legislative accomplishments occurred because Democrats maintained enough discipline — and had large enough margins — to enact their bills with the support of Democrats alone”. This is the same as a parliamentary system with strictly enforced party whip system except institutionally it is still a congressional system. Orstein adds that “Mitch McConnell said in an October 2010 interview that ‘single most important thing’ he needed to achieve was making Obama a one-term president, as pure an expression of the permanent campaign as one could find”.

He goes on to describe the conservative Southern Dixiecrats and the country club Republicans of the liberal Northeast and how, things got done with compromise, more or lesss, the order of the day. He adds that “There is now no overlap ideologically at all between the parties. Only nine of the remaining small number of conservative House Democrats (now called “Blue Dogs”) were to the right of the most liberal House Republican. That Republican, Mike Castle of Delaware, was dumped by his party in a primary as he ran for the Senate and is now out of Congress, as are the bulk of the Blue Dogs”.

This does ignore that fact that the Democrats can be just as bad as shooting their own party in the foot. When Jack Lew was nominated for a second stint as OMB director in 2010, Mary Landrieu (D-LA) refused to let it be voted on due to her insistance that her own narrow concerns take precedence. She refused to let the primary official reponsible for the federal budget at a crucial time take up his role.

Others have noted “that real policy happens only in the two- or maybe four-year windows when White House and Congress are of the same political persuasion”. This is a result of the entire House being elected every two years. The result, Congressmen are more in line with their electorate, no matter how ill informed, than real policy debates in Washington.

Ideology is a good and necessary thing. Yet, as it currently stands “there is little chance that a suitable climate for compromise and bipartisanship will take hold anytime soon”. It is clear therefore, that the Founders system of checks and balances has outlived its usefulness. A powerful executive is needed to keep pace with the world of today.

GOP priorities made clear

04/07/2011

They chose to cut defence over raising taxes. So the US can have no army but the rich can get richer, makes sense.

How not to set up a currency

21/06/2011

With Greek default just around the corner, an piece in the Economist examines where it all began with the seeds of its destruction in the currency’s very DNA.

Speaking on when the euro was established “it was no surprise that the debt crisis started in Greece, which failed to join the euro area when it was set up in 1999 because it did not meet the economic or fiscal criteria for membership”. So right from the beginning the rules were relaxed for political expediency. The article notes that “if it [the euro] founders, this would be an extraordinary setback for the larger cause of European integration”. With a radical rethink demanded simply be circumstances of a Greek default.

It argues, correctly, that from the outset even the ECB was riddled with both politics and compromise. It “emerged from an old-fashioned Franco-German deal. The French wanted to fetter German power—in particular the dominance of the German central bank in European monetary policy” in addition to the fact that the Germans thought that “believed the ECB could be their Bundesbank writ large. Along with these political objectives, the single currency was expected to produce economic gains by eliminating the nuisance and cost of having to change money within Europe”. However, thinking that a whole continent of half a billion people can be run in the same manner as Germany with only a “nuisance” being avoided is not much of an argument for starting a currency.

Of course, the next logical step after the common market would be a common currency but just because something is logical does not necessarily mean that it should be followed through. However, a “stand-alone monetary union without the usual fiscal and political foundations was conceived at the momentous Maastricht summit in December 1991. The treaty set ‘convergence’ criteria, such as low enough inflation and long-term interest rates, to check whether countries were economically fit enough to join the single currency. These also included fiscal criteria, notably ceilings for budget deficits of 3% of GDP and for public debt of 60%.” Of course, when Germany couldn’t even keep this part of the deal itself yet not incur the relevant penalties people should have smelled a rat, if they hadn’t already. Even setting Germany aside, it notes that “Belgium and Italy were allowed to join the euro at the outset, even though their debt exceeded not 60% but 100% of GDP—because that debt was falling”.

Even Dr Merkel is coming in for, richly deserved, criticism, as a result of “the failure of Germany’s political class to discuss their country’s evolving role in a changing EU”. Apparently, “more than 50 per cent of Germans have little to no faith in the EU, according to a January poll by the Allensbach institute, while more than 70 per cent do not see Europe as the future of Germany”.

What is happening now however is the whole EU itself is in danger of unravelling. With a whole generation of politicians who grew up after the Second World War retiring and with them their commitment, however misguided, to the EU. It could be argued that the new generation of people who are taking their place are not as blinded by the ludicous fear of another Europe wide war and thus to the very cause of EU integration itself.

“China cannot rise peacefully”

20/06/2011

In an paper written some time ago, world renowned realist thinker, Dr John Mearsheimer sets out China’s agressive rise and the threat it poses to the United States and by extension world order itself.

Dr Mearsheimer says that those who believe the re-emergence of China on the world stage will be peaceful naively believe “that it will not use force to change the balance of power”. He states that states “cannot know with a high degree of certainty whether they are dealing with a revisionist state or a status quo power”.

He goes on to argue that “Beijing can signal that it is a status quo power by denying itself the capability to use force to alter the balance of power. After all, a country that has hardly any offensive capability cannot be a revisionist state, because it does not have the means to act aggressively”. Yet evidence for this is slim, as has been seen both in hard power with the aircraft carrier as well as the cyber attacks that originated in the PRC. He makes the point that “as the Chinese navy grows in size and capability, none of China’s neighbors, including Australia, will consider it to be defensively oriented”.

He questions those that say China’s behaviour to its neighbour’s has so far been good and that this is a guide to how China will treat it’s neighbour’s in the future. Mearsheimer argues simply that “past behavior is usually not a reliable indicator of future”.

He then discusses the role of America and says that the US does not want a great power rival that will challenge its power. On the US Armed Forces he notes that “China cannot help but see that the United States has formidable military forces in its neighborhood that are designed in good part for offensive purposes behavior”.

He does mention the other possibility. That China simply seeks regional hegemonic power. The result of this he says would be a “much more powerful China [which] can also be expected to try to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region”. It would not be hard to imagine that US interests might be threatened by this, though US reaction to this is impossible to predict at this stage. He says that “Beijing should want a militarily weak Japan and Russia as its neighbors, just as the United States prefers a militarily weak Canada and Mexico on its borders”. Want he doesn’t mention however is India, which is itself “rising” and becoming increasingly uneasy about China’s power pojection capabilities.

Finally, he strikes a chilling, but necessary tone, when he notes “the United States can be expected to go to great lengths to contain China and ultimately weaken it to the point where it is no longer a threat to rule the roost in Asia”.

A tale of two decisions

31/03/2011

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has handed down two interesting decisions. 

The first was a brashly worded judgement which criticsed the UK government for refusing to allow convicted felons to vote. It makes little sense of course to bar all criminals from voting, those with only minor offenses should be allowed to vote having completed their punishment.

Jean-Paul Costa, “president of the European Court of Human Rights, said it would be a ‘disaster’ if Britain defied his court’s ruling over enfranchising inmates. In a thinly veiled comparison, he said only Greek military dictators had previously denounced the European Convention on Human Rights”.

It says much for a court, which wildly oversteppes its mandate, then acts in a wholly unprofessional and puerile manner by comparing a functioning democracy to a dictatorship.  The report continues noting, “asked why, said it would be a ‘disaster’ for Britain if it was to defy the judgment, Mr Costa told the BBC: ‘The only country which denounced the Convention [on Human Rights] was Greece in 1967 at the time of the dictatorship of the colonels. 

Costa “said he understood the anger the court’s decision had caused in Britain as some countries felt such matters were for parliaments not the courts. Mr Costa was one of only three European judges, out of 17, who was against the court’s decision and felt Britain was not breaching human rights by having a blanket ban on votes for prisoners”.

The court has gone too far in its powers by interfering in the sovereignity of another nation. Prime Minster David Cameron will have a difficult time from the already angry hard right of his party if he backs down.

In a more recent judgement however the court ruled on a case that began in Italy. The court ruled that crucfix’s are allowed in the classroom.   The judgement which was the result of “Soile Lautsi, a Finnish-born mother who said public schools in her Italian town refused to remove the Roman Catholic symbols from classrooms. She said the crucifix violates the secular principles the public schools are supposed to uphold”.  The newsreport states that the “decision by the court’s Grand Chamber said it found no evidence ‘that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils.'” There are similarities between this case and one where the Orthodox Church fought a similar case some time ago which the ECHR also ruled on.

Interestingly, the court made numerous references to the cultural sigificance of the crucifix. This esentially agrees with Pope Benedict’s idea of a Christin Europe, and therefore a rejection of Turkish entry into the EU. It also gives a helping hand to Benedict’s more general mission to get the West, but espeically Europe to acknowledege its Christian heritage and the New Evanglisation that he hopes to kick start.

Cardina Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, was reported to have said that “the crucifix was ‘one of the greatest symbols in the West,’ like the crescent moon is in the Muslim world, and that denying it or canceling it out risked canceling out Western identity.  The crucifix, he said ‘is a sign of civilization, even if you don’t recognize it theologically,’ said Ravasi”.

Back from the brink

02/03/2011

Shutdown avoided, because the Dems would get blamed.

Irish election – Part I

01/03/2011

And the results are in. The General Election that was held in Ireland recently has resulted in a decisive swing against the long time governing party, Fianna Fail, that were decimated, though not destroyed as was hoped for.

With only the last remaining seats to be counted it looks as if Fine Gael will have around 76 seats in the 166 seats in the lower house. It was reported that the “share of first preference votes was: Fine Gael 36.1 per cent, Labour 19.4 per cent, Fianna Fáil 17.4 per cent, Sinn Fein 9.9 per cent, Independents 15.2 per cent and Green Party 1.8 per cent.”. These will translate into “, Labour will take 36 and Fianna Fáil will get 25, including outgoing Ceann Comhairle [speaker] Seamus Kirk.  Sinn Féin looks set to take 12, Independents will win 13, the United Left Alliance will take four and the Green Party will lose all six of their seats”.  Turnout was higher than last time at around 70%.

What is extremely surprising is that the electorate carried through with the threat that the polls had been showing for months and decimated FF. Fine Gael won with “electoral meltdown for Fianna Fáil”. It is extremely doubtful that it was really a vote for Fine Gael as opposed to against FF.

Both Mary Hanafin and Barry Andrews lost in their shared constituency as well as Dick Roche and the disgraced John O’Donoghue not only that the Green Party returned no MPs at all.

Also eliminated was incompetent deputy prime minister, Mary Coughlan, who shared a constituency with “Pearse Doherty [who] was comfortably elected on the first count having won the seat in a byelection last November. He won 14,262 first preferences, almost a third of the vote”.

Unsurprisingly the population of greater Dublin did the most damage to FF with only former finance minister Brian Lenihan retaining his seat, with “Labour’s Pat Rabbitte stormed to victory, being elected on the first count” not only that but “Independent senator Shane Ross topped the poll in the five-seater Dublin South.  He was elected on the first count, having exceeded the 12,108 quota by almost 5,000 vote”, exceedingly rare in the PR-STV model that Ireland uses to elect its MPs.

Interesting times ahead.

Shutdown 2011?

23/02/2011

Prepare for the blame game. Proof that checks and balances are no longer suitable.

Ups and downs

13/02/2011

The Economist takes a look ahead at the next eighteen months for President Obama. It discusses his preformance and prospects for reelection.

It notes how in his State of the Union address that he told Congress that America had to “out-innovate, out-educate, and outbuild the rest of the world” and be “the best place on earth to do business.” The article notes how “After the thumping of the mid-terms, the man who had developed flat feet suddenly got his moves back”. However this fails to overlook the fact that there was “no change in President Obama’s job approval rating after his State of the Union address”.

The SOTU was, it generally is, short on detail but having said that his “job approval rating for the week of Jan. 24-30 was 84% among Democrats, 45% among independents, and 15% among Republicans”. However it bears noting as Gallup says that polls so far ahead of an election “have little election forecasting validity”. However President Obama stands a fair chance of getting re-elected, especially when there was a recent round of moves within the White House which included Bill Daley becoming Chief of Staff but also Jay Carney becoming press secretary and Gene Sperling formerly of the Treasury being moved to become NEC director. It is notable that Sperling and Daley both worked in investment banks at various times in their careers.

The Economist goes on to point out that  Obama’s victories include “repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the armed forces and ratification of the New START deal with Russia”. These achievements while notable are of little or no significance to the vast majority of Americans. It mentions that despite his majorities in the 111th Congress Obama “did not give Mr Obama the power to enact every measure he wanted (an energy bill and immigration reform were two that fell by the wayside”.   This is just farcical, to be in charge of both houses of Congress and yet be unable to pass major legislation because your own party doesn’t agree with it makes little sense. The world has less and less time for this idiosyncratic way of doing things.

It contrasts Newt Gingrich who presided over the “Republican Revolution” of 1995 and the current speaker, John Boehner “a pragmatic politician who has in the past worked comfortably with Democrats”, it adds with a note of warning however that “But many of the new Republicans in Congress think they were sent there to slay Leviathan, not rub along pleasantly with the big-spending Democrats. Behind them, the grassroots of the tea-party movement are already spiky with indignation after the compromises of the lame-duck session and are standing guard against further betrayal”.

It says the Obama will try to protect his healthcare bill in the Senate but the courts are having major problems with it as it stands and the Supreme Court may well rule on it yet. The budget deficit did get a mention in the STOU speech, the deficit reduction commission headed by Bowles-Simpson “to cut the deficit to 1.2% of GDP by 2020 and reduce the debt to 60% of GDP by 2023 via a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases. Mr Obama acknowledged in his speech that they had made ‘important progress’, but said he did not agree with all their proposals, and gave no impression he would implement any”. 

The article notes that Americans like divided government, “Its fans say that it forces politicians from opposite ends of the spectrum to seek common cause in the centre”. That made sense fifty years ago, however that does not take into account the inceasing divisions of the GOP and the Dems today. America needs less checks and balances and more action through unified government or else people of all stripes are going to start wishing the world wasn’t run by China.

Down to business?

09/11/2010

GOP playing tricks, or getting down to business?

Delusions of grandeur

07/11/2010

In what is just the latest example the EU living in another world, in addition to yet another recent example when the EU decided it would increase its own budget by 6% when the governments across the world are having to introduce painful cuts.

The latest example is when for some reason Baroness Ashton and her 7,000 staff have decided they need armoured cars, despite most people – even within Europe,  let alone outside  it – not knowing who these people are. The cars “150 vehicles for four years with 30 cars being sent to missions in each of five regions around the world, including capitals where there is little or no terrorist threat”. If that wasn’t enough the “new European External Action Service (EEAS), which will have a budget of £8bn, shows that the diplomatic postings will include sending 46 officials to Barbados, 57 to Vietnam and 95 to Ukraine. Even the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, which has a population of just 230,000, will have six diplomats”.

In addition to this “as the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Lady Ashton is the best paid female politician in the Western World and earns a salary of £230,702 a year.”

This is yet another example of what Walter Russell Mead in his book, Power, Terror, Peace and War, calls EU arrogance. In other words the inability too see the relative decline of Europe as a continent as opposed to other powers. The European Union on the foregin stage as the best example of this.  It  seems to think that paying people well and having armoured cars makes the rest of the world respect, even fear, you. Dr Kagan put it best in Paradise and Power, when he said “Europeans hope to contain American power without wielding power themselves”.

 How can anyone take the EU seriously when they make their appointments based on gender balance?

112th and beyond

03/11/2010

The victory of the Republicans who picked up at least 60 seats in the House but didn’t manage to overturn the Dems Senate majority, thus comes the promotion of John Boehner as speaker of the House, the first Catholic GOP speaker will go down in history as the GOP gains were greater than the seats gained in the 1994 midterms with Newt Gingrich at the helm.

Now however the wonderful checks and balances come into play, or what in pratice means, nothing gets done. As was said “The country awakens this morning to all the same problems — but the menu of solutions is up for grabs. ‘Yes, we can’ has collided with ‘Oh, no you don’t.'” Interestingly however the article notes how “the seeds of future squabbles were sown inside the enemy camps”. So instead of having a resonably unified GOP as was the case in 1994 that faced off with President Clinton, now there is the chance of the GOP squabbling with itself which would then bring government to a standstill. Even worse for the GOP, they would do it all by themselves, no help from the Dems.

It argues that  the Democratic Senator-elect of West Virginia, Joe Manchin “saved the Senate for the Democrats by winning this race — but he managed to win the race only by strongly distancing himself from Obama. He promised to repeal parts of the health-care reform — ‘overreaching,’ he said of the bill. And he literally put a bullet in climate-change legislation, airing an ad that showed him chambering a cartridge, shouldering his rifle and blasting a bullet right through the controversial cap-and-trade bill”. Not only that but President Obama’s relationship with Speaker-designate John Boehner is said to be only amicable. What will happn when the two men have to work with each other is another matter altogether or will it be?

Moving to the future, the article notes how “If you take the President’s 2008 victory map and subtract the states where his fellow Democrats were obliterated in major races on Tuesday — Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida — you discover that Obama’s 2008 landslide has evaporated into a dead heat”. It goes on to say how “Republican Party has won the midterms by moving to the right. That leaves the rest of the spectrum wide open. If Obama can settle his differences with moderate voters, and seize ownership of the middle ground, he will find a lot of the electorate waiting patiently for him”.

However this leaves other questions to be answered, how strong will the Tea Party be in 2012 after two years in office making decisions that not everyone is going to like? Who will the GOP nominate in 2012? Sarah Palin or someone who can attract the moderate voters with experience and knowledge, Mitch Daniels or Rob Portman who by most accounts had little to do with the Tea Party but was elected anyway. Will President Obama moderate or will he not learn his lesson? Will the GOP stop government working, or will they cut spending and raise taxes to plug the deficit?

On a broader point it should be noted that the checks and balances introduced by the founders were great then but in this age we live in and the increasing polarisation (and thus clarity in the positions of the parties) maybe its time the congressional system was retired so something could actually get done by the executive, without this nonsense?

Emanuel leaves

01/10/2010

Long the worst kept secret in DC, Rahm Emanuel is leaving the White House to run for mayor of Chicago to be replaced by Pete Rouse, senior adviser to President Obama since January 2009. Rouse will serve as Acting Chief of Staff for the time being. The announcement was made as “Cabinet members and senior staff members packed the ornate East Room, a setting often reserved for visits of heads of state, for the official word that Emanuel, the hard-charging leader of the staff, was on his way out”.

Rouse, longtime Obama aide and skilled Washington hand will replace Emanuel, for now. However given his mastery of the Hill and the expcected loss of the House to the GOP in next month’s mid terms, it would not be suprising to see him confirmed in the position, yet no decision is expected for “several months”.

The departure of Emanuel will set off a chain reaction that will see many leave the administration after 2 November. With Larry Summers already confirmed as leaving, returning to Harvard to teach, Bob Gates leaving next year being possibly replaced by Hilary Clinton. Also NSA Gen Jim Jones is rumoured to have underprerformed and is expected to leave shortly after the mid terms also.

With the midterms brings the “checks and balances” that the founders thought would curb the power of the executive. They would never have dreamt of the Tea Party however, and the possible gridlock that will ensue if enough are elected. Rouse will need all his skill to navigate the minefield that is “increasingly dominated by wingnuts whose main goal is to enrich themselves by spouting fact-free accusations”.

Rouse will work with others but the question is, is there anyone to work with?

Checks and balances?

28/09/2010

When “checks and balances” go too far, the common good suffers.

Decline in parental authority

24/07/2010

In an article written some time ago the admittedly complex issue of child punishment was discussed. The writer, notes how “Most parents who smack consider that the occasional tap does no harm”. Indeed she recounts how her own children “all felt it had done them no harm, but none of them felt it was right or good”. Maybe parents should be more willing to consider the judious use of hitting when things are getting out of control.

What many don’t seem to get however is that the decline in parental authority can lead to many children getting out of control simply because we are more and more being called to respect their “boundaries”. Society is going down this road and look where it is taking us.

Dublin’s visitor

05/06/2010

The Irish Times in a profile written by a Boston journalist, of the recently appointed apostolic visitor for the Dublin diocese, Sean Patrick Cardinal O’Malley, notes that “O’Malley’s tenure in Boston has been marked by a slow but inexorable improvement of the archdiocese’s finances and social standing”.

I suppose that wouln’t be hard, considering what Cardinal Law left behind for his successor to tidy up. However, it does note that O’Malley, “a Capuchin who wears sandals and takes his vow of poverty seriously” sold off his official residence to pay for sex abuse claims.

The article notes how “O’Malley has been much more pastoral to victims. But as the years have gone by, some victims suggest O’Malley is simply a more humble version of Law who says the right things but sees his first obligation as allegiance to the Vatican, not solidarity with victims.” The journalist notes how according to some he “‘has the demeanour of a healer and the skills of a concealer,’ said Anne Barrett Doyle from BishopAccountability.org, a group that monitors the hierarchy’s response to the abuse crisis.”

All this is very well but it’s really a fancy version of bolting the door after the horse is gone, and secondly will it bring people back into believing in the Church again? I doubt it and as someone said today, any institution, let alone the  Church, examining itself isn’t really credible.

I only hope that the visitors don’t stifle the good work that Archbishop Martin is doing. They may even get the rest of the Irish bishops behind Martin.

Now that would be a miracle!

SCOTUS vacancy II

30/05/2010

Looks as if Bader Ginsburg is on her way out. The article mentions that her retirement is “less than two months away” . According to rumours, the Administration plan is that  once Kagan is confirmed, “Ginsburg would then announce her retirement, so that confirmation for Ginsburg’s replacement could be finished before the end of the year”.

The article says the the proposed timetable for the second SCOTUS appointment of the year is based on “fears Democrats may lose enough Senate seats in the mid-term election to make it more difficult to confirm a liberal appointee after the next Congress convenes in January 2011.”

Diane Wood? Merrick Garland? Or Obama could pick Janet Napolitano, DHS Secretary which would then leave him free to pick again at the DHS. How practical this would be were he to chose this course however is questionable.

New SCOTUS associate justice

16/05/2010

In his extremely interesting recent post, on Elena Kagan, who will more than likely be confirmed as the next Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States sometime before September, Glenn Greenwald says that should she be confirmed, she will move the Court to the Right. He criticises Kagan’s lack of judicial opinions, especially on the matter of the Bush/Cheney tactics for national security and dealing with terrorists. He then makes quite a leap and says because of this she must move the Court toward the Roberts/Alito/Scalia philosophy and not to the progressive side of the Court as he would wish.

He cites how she “agreed wholeheartedly with Lindsey Graham about the rightness of the core Bush/Cheney Terrorism template:  namely, that the entire world is a “battlefield,” that “war” is the proper legal framework for analyzing all matters relating to Terrorism, and the Government can therefore indefinitely detain anyone captured on that “battlefield””. This shows just how petty some of the Left have become, instead of thinking about the broader implications for national security they are more concerned with the “rights” of terrorists. These are just the sort of people who want to close  Guantánamo Bay because they see the terrorists as the put upon party.

Of course it would be better to close it as President Obama has said, but on a purely pratical level, want to you do with these people after? You can’t release many of them, but equally they are too dangerous of normal prisons – so by default you have come full circle and have to keep the camp open. This, I suspect, is exactly what happened to Obama when on the first day in office he said he would close Gitmo by 20 January 2010. He however soon realised that there was little other choice but to keep it open. I am not overstaing the threat of terrorism, it is a constant force in the world and will never to totally defeated, yet for these few years it should be seen as important, before we start fighting each other over far more important things like oil and water.  

Greenwald continues, saying that Kagan supports the theory of the unitary executive. While I’m no John Yoo, I do have some sympathy with the need for a more Hobbsian view of the executive branch and perhaps a slight dimunition of the checks and balances system that seems to be all the rage these days.

Finally, Greenwald says that Kagan’s tenure on the Court would long outlast Obama and that “any pro-executive-power decisions she issues will apply to future George Bushes and Dick Cheneys”. As if a 11 September would happen every couple of years! To put the final nail in the coffin of his “argument”, “Kagan’s record on social issues will likely be perfectly satisfactory, even pleasing, to most progressives.  She is, by all appearances, solidly pro-choice and in favor of gay equality” [I wonder why].

He closes saying that there are other “superior alternatives” for the Court, ie more in tune with his views, who see the world as they wish, and not as it is. Among them he names, Diane Wood, Leah Ward Sears, and the “genuinely liberal Harold Koh”. Is he living in the clouds? One word, midterms!  She can get confirmed resonably quickly and be sitting on the Court by the first Monday in October ready for the new judicial term.

Next up, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Partisanship and the congressional system

18/02/2010

TIME on the stimlus or ARRA says that “what makes the bill’s success hard to judge is that it was oversold. Before the stimulus was passed, a report from President Obama’s economic advisers predicted that the bill would ensure that the unemployment rate would remain at 8% or below. By that estimate, the bill looks like a failure. A few months ago, the unemployment rate hit 10%; currently it is 9.7%.” While all of that is true it is difficult to discount that Congress. despite there being the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it still took effort to pass it! There’s a time for checks and balances and then sometimes there just isn’t!

Global warming and consensus

05/02/2010

Global warming has recieved a substantial amout of press over the recent months, especially in light of the controversy at the University of East Anglia. Walter Russel Mead in a post in the American Interest makes the excellent point saying how global warming activists “lectured everyone about the overwhelming nature of the scientific evidence” when in fact, “the IPCC’s claims that the rainforests were going to disappear as a result of global warming are as bogus and fraudulent as its claims that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. It seems as if a scare story could grab a headline, the IPCC simply didn’t care about whether it was reality-based” He makes the point that not only did they want to stop global warming the campaigners “got into this mess because they had a deeply flawed political strategy. They were never able to develop a pragmatic approach that could reach its goals in the context of the existing international system.” So they envisioned a totally new world political order where world problems could be solved at groups like the UN – laughable!

Mead carries on saying that even if there was world peace and lambs and lions lying down together and a world treaty was agreed to “countries would cheat, either because they chose to do so or because their domestic systems are so weak, so corrupt or so boththat they simply wouldn’t be able to comply.” The excellent anolgy he uses to great effect: “the global political system isn’t capable of producing the kind of result the global warming activists want. It’s like asking a jellyfish to climb a flight of stairs; you can poke and prod all you want, you can cajole and you can threaten. But you are asking for something that you just can’t get — and at the end of the day, you won’t get it.”

Crucially Mead suggests “New leadership might help, but everything these two agencies have done will now have to be re-checked by independent and objective sources.” However, part of the problem was that so many people bought into the hype, with the icecaps floating past us by lunchtime tomorrow and the last polar bears being stuffed in the local museum by next Tuesday. There was no “academic oversight” or self correction to the rest of us, with so many people saying that it might not be as bad as the public were made to believe simply because there was a certain line to follow and those that didn’t where cast out, deemed heretical to the movement and could no longer worthy of the name of calling themselves true academics, simpy because they questioned the prevailing winds.

On a broader point, maybe its just me but is that not what academia is all about? Just because the neoliberals and the Left are running the world and have created a new “consensus” doesn’t mean that we all MUST follow it, or even that it is a good consensus. Indeed, those who disagree have a duty (when was the last time you heard that word?) to challenge the “consensus” for the good of us all.

Israel and the Palestinians

26/01/2010

Stephen Walt in a recent blog post says that Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell should resign. Walt says that if he doesn’t resign now he will be:

“remembered as one of a long series of U.S. “mediators” who ended up complicit in Israel’s self-destructive land grab on the West Bank”

Walt continues, saying that it was as much Obama’s fault for raising expectations in the soaring rhetoric of his Cairo speech as Netanyahu having “he most hard-line government in Israeli history”.

Walt ‘s view that “the point is not that Obama’s initial peace effort in the Middle East has failed; the real lesson is that he didn’t really try. The objective was admirably clear from the start — “two states for two peoples” — what was missing was a clear strategy for getting there and the political will to push it through” is true, but the reality is slightly more complex than Dr Walt paints it. President Obama still has to steer through the health care bill without his Senate supermajority, thank you Scott Brown, or should the blame lay at James Madison’s feet for having such a ridiculous system of government where anything that happens, occurs at a glacial pace.

In any event, President Obama has other things on his mind than Israel at this particular moment in time (except perhaps his own re-election and the upcoming mid terms, thanks again James) so perhaps Walt should cut Obama some slack.

It was Walt who not so long ago suggested that the Americans disengage from the whole thing altogether, though whether he meant the peace process and the trade between the two countries I’m afraid I don’t remember!

Although Walt is right when he says that “push Israel as hard as it is pushing the Palestinians (and probably harder), peace will simply not happen. Pressure on Israel is also the best way to defang Hamas, because genuine progress towards a Palestinian state in the one thing that could strengthen Abbas and other Palestinian moderates and force Hamas to move beyond its talk about a long-term hudna (truce) and accept the idea of permanent peace.”

I only hope that for the sake of all of us that Walt is wrong when he says “the two-state solution looking less and less likely”