Miguel Centellas, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, wrote the following on his Teaching (Comparative) Politics blog. I found the piece (so to speak!) interesting and provocative. With Miguel’s permission, I am reposting it in full here.
All of what follows here is written by Miguel.
I’ve heard a lot of arguments about guns lately (and I’ve engaged in some debates). One thing always bothered me about most “pro-gun” arguments, however. See, here’s the thing: I’m not opposed to guns per se. Both my grandpa and dad were hunters (and I always wanted to go). I’ve shot guns of various kinds, enjoyed it, and was good at it (I have certificates to prove it). But growing up in Michigan, where hunting was a big deal, and where my grandpa and dad (and uncles, neighbors, etc.) went hunting, I rarely ever saw a gun. My grandpa kept his (a rifle, some shotguns, and a pearl handled .22 pistol) locked up in some remote corner of the basement. They were never in any way “readily accessible.” Someone could’ve broken into his house and he’d be helpless, his guns a flight of stairs away in a dark corner. I only ever saw my father’s gun once (a classic Mauser bolt action). That was my experience with “legal” gun ownership. It’s also what I expect of people who advocate “responsible” gun ownership.
But, recently, the arguments I hear are about self protection and the right to defend against tyranny. The arguments often come from people concerned with gun violence in society, but who believe they need guns to protect themselves become they don’t trust anyone else to do it. And the arguments also come from people distrust the government, who don’t think it represents them, and who think the police are simply the armed and brutal hand of a distant regime that seeks to put them down.
The problem is, I recognize all those arguments. Because I also grew up in a rust belt city in Michigan. So I’ve heard those arguments before. They came from gangbangers. Young, angry men who lived in fear of violence and needed weapons to protect their lives, their property, and their “turf.” They also didn’t see the government (and certainly not the police) as someone they could trust. They were cynical about governmental authority.
Ironically, in many ways, these gangbangers were ultimate libertarians (of a certain stripe). They were engaged in the free market, often selling products that were unregulated—and resisting any regulations. They took it upon themselves to protect themselves and their families—they didn’t call 911. They were self-made men (and a few women). They were rugged individualists, relying only on themselves. Gangbangers don’t have Social Security accounts. If their business fails, they don’t get government bailouts. In short, they fend for themselves in a harsh world.
Most of the gangbangers I knew in high school were regularly armed. We all knew it. But they weren’t constantly shooting up the place. If you asked them, they would always insist that their gun was for protection. It was a deterrent from being jumped or mugged or even shot at by rival gangbangers. And perhaps it worked. I remember one time in particular when my brother (who was not in a gang) was walking home from middle school and he was about to get jumped. He was saved by a classmate (who was a gangbanger) who simply walked up, asked what was going on, and unzipped his jacket to show his “piece.” The message was clear: Sam’s “my boy,” don’t try this. Sam got saved from being jumped because a 13-year-old classmate had a handgun.
So that’s my experience with guns. The people who were “responsible” gun owners kept their guns locked up and occasionally went hunting. The “criminals” used them for self protection and walked around armed.
So you can understand my recent confusion. When I argue about gun restrictions and people point to their need to walk around armed to be safe. Especially when it’s accompanied by posturing. You know what I mean, the ubiquitous picture of some guy (it’s usually a guy) posing with his Glock or AR-15 or whatever, looking tough. Because what I see is just a gangbanger posing with his piece, looking tough, and bragging about how “nobody better try to jump me!” while also denouncing a government that’s “out to get me and my kind.” It just reminds me too much of my local gangbangers. I mean, they were the only people I knew that always bragged about their guns and wanted everyone to know they were “carrying.” They see themselves as “patriots.” I just see another gangbanger.
The Australian House of Representatives has passed the government’s carbon tax bill by a vote of 74-72. To paraphrase Joe Biden, this is a B.F.D.
The measure still must pass the Senate, but there the Labor government and Greens combine for a large majority, so it is not in doubt. The House, where Labor has a minority and there is only one Green MP, was where the result was uncertain.
The Green leader, Bob Brown, has claimed that his party was right to block the previous Labor PM Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, because the now-passed measures offer “so much more” than the previous proposal.
On the other side, opposition leader Tony Abbot has made a “pledge in blood” to repeal it if his Coalition wins the next election. Brown, the Green, does not think the threat is credible. “We’ll be winning more lower house seats, and we’ll be winning a stronger hold in the Senate,” he predicted.
With an election on 26 November (and most of the country currently distracted by rugby), the pre-electoral legislative business is offering a good window into how the parties are positioning themselves for the campaign.
The current government is led by the National Party, which won a plurality of seats in the 2008 election. It is supported by three smaller parties, the farther-right Act, the one-seat United Future (sort of centrist, sort of social-conservative), and the ethnic Maori Party.
Act is all about pushing National farther right, and it is because of that Act goal that National took on Maori as partners, even though it could have had a majority without Maori. Needing to avoid straying too far from the national (small-n) median, the National Party would not want to be overly dependent upon the fringe right.
ACT Parliamentary Leader John Boscawen today confirmed he had negotiated from the Government major changes in the Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill that would mean the continued protection of rights and freedoms that New Zealanders have held dear for generations.
“I had fundamental objections to the Bill but after successful negotiations with Justice Minister Simon Power all my objections have now been addressed,” Mr Boscawen said.
It then goes on to list a series of specific concessions it claims to have won in exchange for its support.
In another, it differentiates itself from the National party over the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). A little background is in order. This program was originally enacted late in the previous parliament, in the run-up to the 2008 election, when Labour headed a minority government. That government was backed by United Future and the New Zealand First Party of Winston Peters.1 At the time United Future would not support the ETS, and so the government worked out some concessions demanded by the Greens, who were not formal partners to the government. The Greens issued their own press release then, touting how they had improved the bill (from the standpoint of their constituents).
Then when National won, it immediately stayed the implementation of the ETS. It later negotiated changes with the Maori (who won the right to earn credits from planting trees on tribal lands). Act would not vote in favor of any changes to the ETS. They believe climate change is a hoax, and want the law scrapped. This week they reminded their supporters of this position.
ACT New Zealand Parliamentary Leader John Boscawen today called on the Government to drop the pretence and scrap the Emissions Trading Scheme altogether after the ETS Review Panel report recommended delaying the introduction of the energy, transport, industrial and agricultural sectors into the scheme.
“Today’s report confirms what ACT has been saying all along; the ETS is a disaster and should be scrapped. [...]
“The report today does a great job of highlighting the scheme’s flaws but does little to remedy them. Instead of delaying the inevitable the Government should have the courage of its convictions and do what ACT has called for all along – scrap the ETS,” Mr Boscawen said.
Meanwhile, the National Party and the Greens have been negotiating on areas of mutual interest. That they would ever work together may seem odd, as they represent opposite ends of the political space, leaving aside Act. However, multiparty politics, especially with minority government, opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for policy progress in specific areas of overlap.
The two parties have announced a deal on a bill to regulate natural health products. The bill passed its first reading in parliament earlier today. It was a shared policy initiative agreed between these two parties under a Memorandum of Understanding. This is something far short of a formal government-support partnership, but a process that permits the Greens to pass policy of interest to their constituency even from the opposition. As for National, presumably they saw a benefit from advancing the safety and reliability of this sector of the market and could never get Act to go along.2 Greens have long looked for chances to show that they are not an appendage of Labour, able to work only with that party. Here is one concrete example.
The Greens have a press release about the natural health bill featured very prominently on the party web site as of today. National also has a press release on it, but rather less prominently. The statements are subtly different, with Greens emphasizing the “stand alone regulator” to deal with natural health products coming “more and more… from countries with a poor safety record” and the benefits to “small business” (presumably natural supplement retailers are part of their constituency). National emphasizes “public assurances about the safety and efficacy of natural health products” and concluding by noting the “three-year transitional period to assist the industry in adjusting to the proposed requirements”.
As to the Greens’ dealing with National, the main opposition party, Labour, has attacked the smaller left party as being “more Blue than Green“, as reported in the NZ Herald, 14 Sept. (Blue is National’s color.) The specific issue referenced is Green support for the government’s environmental protection plan for potential offshore oil and gas fields.3 Labour, with polls showing it having no realistic chance of forming the next government, is clearly trying to out flank the Greens and hold off further losses to the them. Polls show the Green Party may score a record high in the upcoming election.
Finally, going back to an old story, as the government was formed following the close 2005 election, I posed the question, “Did the NZ government agreement promise pork?” I concluded no, because the agreement did not promise to the United Future that the “Transmission Gully” road would be built to relieve traffic around leader Peter Dunne’s district. It only promised a review of the project. Well, according to two items on the National website this week (1, 2), the project is still under review. So not much pork for Dunne to claim credit for in this election–only that, six years later, we still have the government looking in to it!
The New Zealand campaign and legislative sessions afford an excellent laboratory to watch multiparty politics, policy-making, and party positioning in action!
A hard party, and leader, to characterize. Sometimes, based on media stories, I actually wonder if his name was not officially The Mercurial Winston Peters. The party has a constituency that is anti-immigrant and pro “law and order”, and disproportionately elderly. It did not make it back into parliament in 2008 and probably will not this time, either. [↩]
Notwithstanding that its party name originally meant the Alliance of Consumers and Taxpayers, and this is a consumer safety measure. Act has a low-tax, low-regulation ideology. [↩]
The Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill passed its second reading with support from Maori Party, Act, United Future, as well as the Greens. The Greens have not committed yet to supporting it all the way through the legislative process, depending on its final provisions. [↩]
It is often alleged that projects to develop high-speed rail systems are cases of “pork-barrel” politics. Lots of money, sexy projects, and politicians can’t resist “targeting” the spending to areas of benefit for their reelection campaigns.
With respect to the funds to assist high-speed rail that were in the “stimulus” package early in Obama’s presidency, I addressed this charge: as best I could tell from the information available, it was not pork, at least at the legislative stage.
On the other hand, I have heard allegations that certain lines and stations in Japan’s system are “porky” in that they were built in regions that supported key Liberal Democratic Party politicians, but had less obvious merit in terms of the coherence of the rail system itself.1
The distinction here is in the extent to which a public project is sited in a way consistent with programmatic criteria, on the one hand, or for political objectives, on the other. There is not always a bright line between programmatic decisions and pork-barrel decisions in individual cases. Sometimes the objectives are even aligned! Yet conceptually, the distinction is fairly clear. If the decision regarding where to place a line (for example) are based on objective criteria, where some panel of nonpartisan experts scores various competing proposals in order to determine which ones have the most merit, it’s not pork. If politicians determine where to put a line based on the value of that line for their party (or individual politicians’) constituencies, it’s pork.2
So the politics of a proposed high-speed system in the UK are interesting. Normally, at least in US discussions of pork-barrel politics, we assume that projects get sited based on their providing benefits to the districts of politicians who are strategically positioned to influence the choice of routes and stations. We do not normally think that the electorally secure politicians whose districts the lines will traverse will oppose the project, while the project will mainly benefit locations not currently represented by politicians in the governing party or coalition.
Yet the latter pattern is what we observe in the UK currently, as The Independent reported on 26 June.
David Cameron is pinning his hopes of an outright victory at the next election by pushing ahead with a controversial high-speed rail project. Ministers are convinced the expensive rail link will give Tories the breakthrough in northern cities that they need to gain a majority.
The PM is risking the wrath of the Home Counties, where 14 Tory constituencies with rock-solid majorities are affected by the building of the £33bn line.
The news article goes on to note that the high-speed rail line may cost the Conservative party votes in these “rock-solid” districts, but the party will win them in the 2015 election, anyway. The project will be popular enough in northern areas where the party is targeting many seats for possible pick-up in the next election, so there will be a net gain for the party.
At least within the classic US frame, pork is about rewarding incumbents for their incumbency, and rewarding voters or interest groups for their support of the incumbent. But apparently that is not the case in the UK, for this project.
The difference lies in the highly party-centered nature of parliamentary politics, UK style. As opposed to the more decentralized parties and candidate-centered politics of the US presidential system, in the UK politically based decisions on where to build projects are driven by collective party needs, instead of by needs of individual politicians.
This is exactly the pattern we should expect in a political system like that of the UK. If there is pork–and generally it is assumed that there is some just about everywhere, but not a lot in the UK–it should be based on party criteria. If the article is accurate in its portrayal of the politics of high-speed rail, party pork is precisely what we are seeing. Top governing party leaders propose to spend on a project that may earn the party votes in areas it needs to win the next election, even if the project is opposed by some of the party’s own secure incumbent MPs.
This does not mean that the shinkansen project as a whole has not been beneficial, only that certain parts of it may have had political, rather than technical, criteria behind their selection as priorities for spending. [↩]
Note that this implies that the criteria to evaluate programmatic vs. porcine policy are thus largely ones of the process of decision-making, and certainly not normative judgments of whether one likes a given policy choice or not! [↩]
So the US government might actually shut down (and not for the first time). A question for all you comparative government types out there: are there other governments where this sort of thing has happened–or even can happen?
I think most democracies have constitutional provisions that make the equivalent of US “continuing resolutions” more or less automatic, creating a “reversion point” of the current spending levels, rather than zero, in the event of no agreement on a funding plan. Some others make the executive proposal the reversion. Obviously these provisions matter a great deal to the bargaining positions of the various actors.
There are, of course, countries that go government-less for long periods of time. Like Belgium. But of course, in these cases of parliamentary systems with “no government” there actually is no real shut down, or lack, of government. There simply is not one that has been formed since the most recent election (or cabinet resignation). There is a caretaker, and current programs remain as authorized.
So just how unusual is the US here? Is this another case of (dubious) American exceptionalism?
(I originally typed the subject of this post with an “i” in place of the “u.” Come to think of it, that might have been appropriate!)
Israeli firefighters say they have fully contained the fire in the Carmel mountains of Israel, the country’s largest wildfire ever.
Actually, the Haaretz headline and one statement within the article say “full control,” but the substance of the article makes clear that containment is what has been achieved. “The fire is still burning in some locations and the winds are still strong,” the firefighters’ operations officer is quoted as saying.
The main threat to Haifa and its suburbs has been warded off.
With the mass evacuations of some populated areas, this was beginning to seem all too like the firestorms that gripped San Diego twice in the last seven years. Fortunately, the worst of it now seems over. The weather, however, remains unusually hot for the season, and there has been almost no rain so far, despite the normal rainy season being well underway.
The government is no longer requesting further help from abroad.
Israel, which has a dry climate for much of the year like southern California, is woefully ill equipped to fight major fires. I was amazed at the prevalence of outdoor burning of trash when we were there in spring and summer–both around Jerusalem and in other places, especially (but not only) in Arab areas where public services like trash collection tend to be less well provided. Various reports have suggested that it was a trash fire in a Druze village that got out of control. And now much of the Carmel has been devastated.
Israel currently has about 1,300 firefighters available for operational duty, meaning one for every 6,000 residents. The average among Western countries is one firefighter per 1,000 residents.
I do not know what the figure is for southern California (or other fire-prone places like Australia), although at the time of the 2003 wildfires, the lack of preparation of San Diego was exposed. The County was somewhat better positioned to fight the 2007 wildfires.*
This is not Israel’s first major wildfire by any means. The just-linked article notes one in the Jerusalem hills in 1995, after which there was a government commission that noted the inadequacies of resources to cope with fires. Maybe this time they’ll actually do something to prepare for the next one.
Politicians have tried and failed for decades to enact universal health care. This time, they succeeded. In 2008, Democrats won the presidency and both houses of Congress, and by the thinnest of margins, they rammed a bill through. They weren’t going to get another opportunity for a very long time. It cost them their majority, and it was worth it.
Yes, I think that is right. So are a couple of his other points: Power is not about simply retaining it at the next election, but using it; and not only will Republicans be unable to repeal the health-care bill in the short run, in years to come the law likely will be popular enough that they won’t want to repeal it.
And, this just in: the country is divided. Forty eight percent of voters said in exit polling that they wanted the health-care law repealed. Sixteen percent like it as it is. Then there are the 31% who want it expanded. So that’s 47% that see it as either good as is or something to build on. Not exactly the repudiation of the policy that is being so widely spun as the voters’ alleged verdict.
This week’s Economist (not yet on-line) has as one of its lead articles an ardent plea for President Barack Obama to respond to the past week’s special-election Senate defeat by moving to the center. Or, actually, it says the centre, but I am pretty sure these are the same place. The problem is, I can’t tell where this place might be.
The focus of the article is, of course, principally on the health-care reform bill (though a wide range of policies is mentioned). But if the notion of a centrist course in policy reform is to mean anything, I fail to see how the health bills thus far can be meaningfully anything but centrist. Policy reform that consists mainly of compensating (one might say “buying off”) incumbent interests–e.g. increasing the market for insurance policies and medical services–for various new restrictions imposed upon them (e.g. addressing the “pre-existing conditions” problem) is a centrist course.
If a policy reform were ideologically of the left (or, for that matter, the right), it would entail not compensating incumbent interests, but rolling them. Ideologically drive reform implies making incumbent interests pay the costs of new benefits distributed to the constituents of the governing party (or more broadly). Manifestly, this is not what Obama or his party has even attempted to do.
So, it simply is not clear where this center to which The Economist wants Obama to move is located. It would seem to look a lot like the status quo. And therein lies the rub: one can’t be an agent of “change” at the same time as one governs from the “center”–except perhaps in the most incremental fashion. Yet it is not clear that even incrementalism could command any support from the now marginally expanded veto block in the Senate. This contradiction seems lost on those proffering “centripetal” advice to a president who is evidently deeply beleaguered now that his party holds a mere 59% of the seats in the Senate.
Various news stories in the US have used phrases like “India’s 9/11″ in attempt to contextualize the Mumbai terror for American readers.
Aside from the fact that India unfortunately has endured many previous militant attacks–some of them originating from the same likely suspects, even if not on the coordinated, militarily precise, and mass-terrorizing scale as these latest–there is one overlooked sense in which this horrible incident has already been shown not to be India’s 9/11. (more…)
Second reaction: Can we stop allowing our right-wing politicians to brand timid, not-even-quite social-democratic proposals as if they were for worker ownership of the means of production? (Apparently the WSJ thinks the actual policies could go much farther than the timid campaign themes–possibly even including (hold on to your hats here) single-payer health insurance, windfall profits taxes on oil companies, and a return to Clinton’s aborted BTU tax. Regarding that, see first reaction.)
The vote earlier this week in the House on the financial ‘rescue’ bill1 and the aftermath, renewed my faith in my own life’s work.
Here we had a president who offered up a package negotiated ahead of time with no one and which called for the legislature to abdicate its authority to a presidential appointee.2 Have we seen a more high-handed approach by the US executive result in defeat since the Clinton health-care bill?3 We have seen such heavy-handedness in the intervening years, to be sure. But that gets me to the point of this planting.
We expect such attempts at executive aggrandizement to be resisted, not acceded to by the legislative branch, in a separation-of-powers system. Further, we expect limited party discipline in such a system.4 We expect public bargaining between the branches (and chambers) in such a system. And we expect lots of otherwise extraneous sweeteners to have to be added to encourage greater discipline as that bargaining goes on towards subsequent attempts by the executive to pass its policy proposals.
Seems we have seen all of that this week. It is nice to know presidentialsim does work after all. Presidents and Assemblies and my subsequent work have been rescued. As for the economy, who knows?
I find ‘bailout’ to be too loaded a term, though that is not to say that I don’t think that term fits. I am trying to be objective, that’s all. [↩]
The appointee of a lame-duck president, not less. Of a party that is likely to lose an election in just over a month, no less. [↩]
It never even got a vote. It was similarly negotiated with no one–in Congress, I mean. At least the healthcare overhaul did not ask Congress to abdicate to a presidential appointee. [↩]
On the recent increase in discipline, Clinton’s first budget set the tone, though there may have been earlier examples as well. [↩]
Of course, any focus on the institutional differences between the chambers1 has to acknowledge that these were not actually the same bills. And that there was more information from the stock market about just how some folks felt about the defeat in the House.
Nonetheless, what is striking about the inter-cameral comparison is that in the House, the most vulnerable members regardless of party2 were much more likely to vote against the bill.
Overall, in the House, of course, Democrats were much more likely to vote for the bill than were Republicans (though neither party put on an impressive display of unity).
The upshot is that the House “vulnerables” tended to vote less with the party that has the greatest wind at its back as we head into the election.3 In the Senate it was the reverse, albeit less significantly so.
Essentially, Senators in both parties and regardless of vulnerability were more likely to vote for the bill (which passed 74â€“25). The institutional explanation would point to Senators’ more diverse constituencies making them more insulated from apparent public opposition (even a month before an election!). Yet the tendency of vulnerable Representatives to vote against the majority position of the party riding higher in the polls remains puzzling (to me; maybe readers have a hypothesis, “institutional” or otherwise).
Interesting post from Brian at Crooked Timber, with an Australian perspective on the mandates-or-not-mandates debate between Clinton and Obama. Key point: “To see a candidate be smeared as a conservative for not being enough like John Howard, well itâ€™s a bit galling.”
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4