keynesianism within one country

17 September 2009

I still have only a rudimentary understanding of the Canadian political system, but one thing that’s stood out in my news reading in this time of public budget crises is the fact that Canadian provinces are allowed to run deficits. As far as I know, every U.S. state has to balance its budget. There must be limits to the provincial deficits or potentially the situation could get out of hand, but I don’t know how those are determined (assuming that they exist).

Long-term questions aside, I suspect that, in the short term, the ability to run a deficit gives the provinces the flexibility to avoid the furloughs and closures faced by the public sectors in many of the states.


how much constitution could a constituent constituate if a constitutional convention could be constituted by constituents?

22 February 2009

If you’ve been following the California budget crisis in any detail, there’s a good chance you’ve come across talk of reforming the state constitution. Now it looks like that talk might lead somewhere. Robert in Monterey has the details at Calitics:

That’s why the Courage Campaign, where I work as Public Policy Director, is joining the Bay Area Council and a diverse coalition of organizations to sponsor a Constitutional Convention Summit on Tuesday in Sacramento (you can register at Repair California).

It’s my own personal belief, and one shared by the Courage Campaign, that a Constitutional Convention can successfully fix California’s broken government. In a poll of our members last September over 90% said they supported a convention. And in December we launched CPR for California – a Citizens Plan to Reform California that included some major structural fixes for the state, including fixing the budget process and producing long-overdue initiative reform as well as empowerment solutions such as public financing of elections and universal voter registration.

But the key to success is that a convention must truly be “of the people.” A convention will fail – and may not even be approved by voters – if it is seen as a top-down effort. Remember of course that a Constitution is a social compact, the product of a sovereign people, a recognition that we must have government to survive but that it must also be accountable to the people. For a Constitutional Convention to have legitimacy it must include the people of California at every step of the journey – especially in setting the Convention’s priorities. Additionally, the delegates who attend the Convention must be representative of the state’s population, and not be selected from a small group.

It’s also worth noting some of the limits of a Constitutional Convention. The Courage Campaign believes that all social issues should be off-limits at a convention, such as marriage equality (that is best dealt with by the California Supreme Court, or by the voters if the Court upholds Prop 8). The Convention alone won’t solve our state’s financial woes.

Robert also makes a point I’ve tried to make with friends and family when this has come up: if you look back historically, state constitutions (and our federal one) have always been subject to revisions. Actual conventions rather than amendments have been less frequent, but a number of states have had more than one. California has had two, along with some substantial changes during the Progressive era that I don’t think went through a full convention.

Now, I will freely admit that the results haven’t always been good: see, uh, California’s constitution and its hundreds of amendments, or see the 19th century constitutions revised, in part, to take away voting rights. Other times they’ve been revised to widen the franchise or set up more direct elections or do many other things we’d consider improvements. Like most political processes, a constitutional convention can be put to all sorts of uses, but that’s not reason enough to put it aside entirely. The convention is a process deeply rooted in our system of government, difficult to call because it should not be taken lightly, but there to be called when other processes have failed.


counts of corruption, 1

8 January 2009

Back when the Blagojevich scandal broke in the news, there was a lot of discussion of which state is the most corrupt, no doubt prompted in part by the claim that

“If it [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States it’s certainly one hell of a competitor,” Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office, said Tuesday.

USA Today looked into the comparison and came up with a surprising result (click through for a map):

On a per-capita basis, however, Illinois ranks 18th for the number of public corruption convictions the federal government has won from 1998 through 2007, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Department of Justice statistics.

Louisiana, Alaska and North Dakota all fared worse than the Land of Lincoln in that analysis.

Meanwhile, an earlier analysis by the Corporate Crime Reporter ranked Illinois sixth in federal corruption convictions on a per capita basis from 1997 to 2006, behind Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, and Ohio. (For the visually inclined, The Monkey Cage and its readers have you covered with a list, graph, and map.) If you’re wondering what happened to Alaska and North Dakota, Corporate Crime Reporter did not analyze the states with fewer than 2 million residents; only 35 states are included in the rankings.

Neither ranking includes state-level convictions. And of course they also leave out all those corrupt officials who were never convicted at all. As Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, put it

Also, public officials in any given state can be corrupt to the core, and if a federal prosecutor doesn’t have the resources or the sheer political will to bring the case and win a conviction, the public corruption will not be reflected in the Justice Department’s data set.

(So there may be hope for Illinois yet!)

The flip side of this is that a relatively high conviction rate may be partly attributable to better detection, as the USA Today notes:

Don Morrison, executive director of the non-partisan North Dakota Center for the Public Good, said it may be that North Dakotans are better at rooting out corruption when it occurs.

“Being a sparsely populated state, people know each other,” he said. “We know our elected officials and so certainly to do what the governor of Illinois did is much more difficult here.”

Still, you have to have corruption first in order for it to be detected, and North Dakota’s prevention abilities don’t appear to be very strong:

Morrison said the state has encouraged bad government practices in some cases by weakening disclosure laws. North Dakota does not require legislative or statewide candidates to disclose their campaign expenses.

***

The uncertainty surrounding the detection and reporting of corruption is one of the reasons John Noonan does not provide comparative measures of corruption for the places and periods he discusses in Bribes. (Working across history, Noonan also lacks good data sets.) Since his discussion of quantification is quite lengthy, I’ve put it in the next post.


the visual display of qualitative information

12 December 2008

If you really want to know what it’s in the criminal complaint filed against Rod Blagojevich, you can read it. But in this 2.0 world, why read when you can visualize? Bill Allison at the Sunlight Foundation’s Real Time Investigations blog uploaded the complaint (via) to a site called Many Eyes, which is the kind of site I wish I’d already known about, and which offers a number of ways to visualize text.

(Unfortunately, wordpress strips out the code that makes it possible to embed these images at their full size and functionality, so I’ve re-sized these images to be larger than what the embed codes were giving me. If you click through, you’ll be able to do all sorts of things, like re-arrange the displays, search for particular words and phrases, count or highlight specific occurrences, and even zoom in on the word tree.)

Let’s start with a Wordle:

blagojevich-complaint-wordle

That gives you an idea of the most important topics/people in the complaint, but it’s more of a bird’s eye perspective. If you want more precision, albeit at the cost of some visual elegance, you could look at a couple of tag clouds:

Here’s a cloud formed on the basis of single words:

blagojevich-complaint-one-word

And here’s a two-word tag cloud:

blagojevich-complaint-two-word

The two-word format does a better job capturing many of the subjects – not just the proper names, but also senate candidate, financial advisor, planning board, campaign contributions, and so on – as well as the alleged activities – Blagojevich spoke, Blagojevich talked, attempted extortion, phone calls. But it also has some pairings that are simply the result of the stylistic conventions of a criminal complaint. For example, the phrase “2008 rod,” which has 53 occurrences, isn’t a phrase in the usual sense – it’s the result of writing out the date of an alleged action (in 2008), followed by Blagojevich’s first name: “…the morning of November 12, 2008, Rod Blagojevich talked to Fundraiser A…”

Finally, the most innovative and analytically interesting visualization is the word tree. Want to know how the Senate candidates appear in the text?:

blagojevich-senate-candidate

Judging by the number of occurrences, Senate candidate 3, who appears to have been identified, is looking pretty good.

Incidentally: a cursory search for profanity doesn’t turn up nearly as much as you’d expect from the news coverage.


analogy watch

10 December 2008

How long until the Truman:Pendergast::Obama:Blagojevich analogy shows up in the major media? Never mind if the person making the analogy does a good job with differences and historical specifics. I’d just be amazed if it’s not made at all.


change you can mimeograph

2 October 2008

I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life. I have no wealthy or popular relations to recommend me. My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate.

Zachary Hicks is a delegate to the state’s Progressive Party Convention and his feet hurt. The convention has been trying to nominate a candidate for governor, but no one has enough votes. While the party bosses gather in their factions to discuss strategy for the next ballot, Hicks turns to one of his fellow delegates in the convention hall and complains about his shoes. When the delegate asks him why he doesn’t take them off, Hicks replies that he can’t – they’re too tight. When the delegate suggests that he cut them off, Hicks thinks it’s a great idea, and to the surprise of his fellow delegate, he takes out a knife and does just that.

Meanwhile, one of the party factions has decided that the only way to prevent their rivals’ candidate from winning and still break the deadlock is to nominate a dark horse. They arrive at the name of the hitherto obscure Zachary Hicks, about whom even they know very little. Hicks is asleep when his nomination is announced.

I wrote that intro from memory, having seen The Dark Horse – which unfortunately does not seem to be available online or on DVD (but you can see the original trailer) – about a month ago on television, so I might not have the details exactly right. But the premise is clear: Zachary Hicks – described at one point as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge” – is running for Governor and it’s going to take a clever campaign to get him elected.

Kay Russell (played by Bette Davis) knows just the man for the job: Hal S. Blake (played by Warren William), who’s proven himself in the past to be an able campaign manager. There’s only one problem: Blake is currently in jail for failing to pay alimony. Russell convinces the party leaders to take a chance on Blake, and when they arrive at the prison, Blake is giving a speech to the other inmates. The campaign has already started.

If this were a different kind of film, Blake’s cleverness and political skill might have been portrayed as vaguely sinister, but it’s a comedy (with a bit of romance between Russell and Blake) – and a screwball one at that. Blake might be able to convince opposing constituencies like the wets and the drys (this is a film from 1932*, after all) that Hicks supports both sides, but it is his opponents in the Conservative party who stoop to truly dirty politics when they come up with a plan to frame Hicks as having an affair on the eve of the election. It’s hard to watch this movie today without thinking of certain modern strategists**, but Blake – who has his faults, particularly when it comes to relationships – remains generally likable throughout.

When it quickly becomes clear that Hicks isn’t very bright, Blake is undaunted: that just means they’ll present him as a common man of the people (“Hicks from the sticks”). Since Hicks doesn’t know the issues very well – at one point he says he’s against capital punishment, which would great if the state had not already abolished it – Blake instructs him to answer all reporters’ questions by saying “Yes,” then pausing, then saying, “and again, no.”

A bigger challenge is preparing Hicks for a debate. Blake has him memorize the lines quoted at the top of this post. They’re actually Lincoln’s. Hicks has only two problems with this: first, he has a well-off (but politically irrelevant) aunt elsewhere in the state who could be considered a “wealthy relation” – Blake instructs him to ignore that; and second, he struggles to remember to change the word “county”*** to “state.”

There may be a longstanding tradition of politicians incorporating other politicians’ speeches into their own, but this is a fairly clear case of plagiarism. And when the time comes for the debate, it turns out that Hicks’ Conservative opponent, Underwood****, who is first to give an opening statement, arrived with the exact same idea. Recognizing the speech his candidate was supposed to deliver, Blake jumps on to the stage and exposes Underwood as a plagiarist. Underwood is laughed out of the building and Hicks is saved from having to speak at all.

_____

*It’s so old that it’s pre-code, and compared to movies made just a few years later, there’s a surprising amount of suggestiveness.

**It’s true, as TCM’s overview article says, that the decision to “sell” Hicks as a common man is “a round of spin-doctoring that remains depressingly resonant today” but it’s still funny. Just don’t think about the implications for governance.*****

***I believe in the film they actually say “country,” perhaps under the impression that Lincoln said this in a speech while running for President. But a footnote to the text I looked up says that it is actually from a printed message from a campaign for local office from very early in Lincoln’s career – and that he lost.

****I don’t think the movie ever gives his first name.

*****I suppose it’s only appropriate that Guy Kibbee, who plays Hicks, would later play the beleagured Governor of a machine-controlled state in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.