“Another hostage dies”

Although Chicago’s police drama has grabbed the headlines, Illinois’ disgraceful budget standoff continues. And more local service providers are shrinking or closing their doors. Lutheran Social Services recently announced the closure of key programs.

This Friday, an article appeared in Capitolfax.com, an authoritative media source on state budget politics, under the cheery headline: “Another hostage dies:”

Haymarket Center is closing its social setting detoxification program. This was Haymarket’s first program, the start of our mission 40 years ago.

In FY 2015, this program had 1,047 admissions of 903 unique individuals.

As a social setting detoxification program, it is not eligible for a Medicaid certification, and relied on State funding. With the end of our federal portion of our DASA contract growing near, the 22% cut in our contract, and other programs such as Recovery Homes also relying on State funding, we believe we had no choice but to close this program.

We will be announcing further reductions within the next few days.

Haymarket is one of Chicago’s oldest and largest drug and alcohol treatment providers. It is a pillar of the system. When even agencies like these are closing major services, you get a sense of the havoc wreaked by the lack of a state budget.

Providers and social service agencies across Illinois are desperately trying to fit services under the ambit of Medicaid–the only faucet still properly flowing to support basic services. It’s not clear that we’ll ever have a budget for this year–or who will be paid and when if the Messiah comes and a budget is actually signed into law.

This astonishing governance failure is becoming the new normal. It’s less dramatic than lead poisoning in Flint. The human costs are high enough. And there’s no end in sight, no sign of a reasonable political compromise.

The Framers’ “demagogues” are our charismatic party leaders. What to do?

I just posted something on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. It essentially points out that while Trump is exactly the kind of demagogue the Framers worried about, pretty much every political party leader is exactly the kind of demagogue the Framers worried about: modern parties and modern communications (by modern communications I mean U.S. mail-subsidized newspapers or later) pretty much guarantee that.

One thing I didn’t say in the piece, for reasons of both space and The Monkey Cage’s distaste for explicit ideologizing, is that liberals can (unlike Peter Wehner, whose recent New York Times op-Ed I was responding to) hope to vindicate a different kind of constitution. Those who defend a living constitution, i.e. one that changes in good ways in response to political movements and social changes, often say that the old-fashioned constitution that sought to check power via a radically decentralized political system has yielded to a modern constitution that embraces greater federal power–as needed in a complex contemporary economy–but also vigorous protections for individual rights. (I got this from one of Jack Balkin’s recent books, but it seems pretty standard.) On a sophisticated version of this theory, the new constitutional order rests not only on judicial review but on a new model of citizenship in which the hallmark of civic virtue is to notice, and spring to the defense of, one’s own rights and those of others; so-called “popular constitutionalists,” whose work I know less well, stress the particular importance of social movements in making this work and, indeed, in changing how we think about the constitution in the first place.

In other words, the best protection against the likes of a Trump is not constitutional conservatism—which, after all, would welcome the likes of a Cruz. Rather, it is the complex of groups devoted to vindicating individual rights—the NAACP, La Raza, the ACLU, #BlackLivesMatter—and those in the media, academe, and civil society poised to heed the kind of alarms that they sound. And, of course, the other party; but we shouldn’t have to rely on partisan opposition alone.

Of course, on some level what I just said was already quite obvious, implicit in how we do things. But maybe thinking about Trump can make it more explicit. Bruce Ackerman has referred to moments of ferment regarding constitutional interpretation as “constitutional moments.” Trump have have given us a constitutional teachable moment.



Dropping the knowledge on single payer

Me talking Single Payer issues on C-Span, basically riffing from my VOX article here. That piece got a bit more attention than I expected, in part given the different approaches to health policy presented by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Why no. I didn’t spend thirty minutes walking through personal finance issues with the technician who helped me in the studio. Why would you even ask. I certainly didn’t print out various prescriptive financial materials and tips in their office, and thus miss my beach walk in Naples, Fla.

Race and the First Four Primary Contests

In talking over the past few weeks to some very smart people about the primaries and caucuses, I have been surprised how many of them assume that Iowa and New Hampshire will be as predictive of the nomination for both parties. I think that’s probably wrong for the reason highlighted in this table.

Primary Election Slide

GOP primary voters/caucus-goers are as white as the driven snow in all four contests (and probably in all the ones afterwards, though I didn’t check). Even in lily white Iowa, they are whiter than the general population. A Republican candidate who wins Iowa’s white Evangelical voters and New Hampshire’s white Establishment voters should have a ride to the GOP nomination that’s as smooth as mayonnaise on Wonder Bread .

But the Democratic primaries are different because the people who participate in them are racially and ethnically diverse. Iowa and New Hampshire are an unusual pair of starting states for Democratic candidates because they are much more monochromatic than the party as a whole. If we assume that race and ethnicity affect candidate preferences (which seems a good assumption this year at least), it’s easy to imagine an scenario in which a Democratic candidate does badly in the first two contests and well in the next two, or vice versa.

Data Notes after the jump Continue Reading…

The Precautionary Principle isn’t precautionary, and not even a principle

The Precautionary Principle requires that nobody should do anything that could come out very badly.  It sounds like a very sound but entirely different principle, which is that we shouldn’t do things whose odds of a very bad outcome are high enough that they aren’t good bets, but it isn’t; it’s fundamentally different.  Today’s performance of the PP shows that its real meaning is frequently “don’t let anything happen that I could be blamed for if it doesn’t go well.”

Certainly we can spend a lot of effort assessing “very bad” and “odds” to make risky choices.  But there is no escape from the idea of an operational definition, the bedrock scientific rule that a measurement must be reported with (or be understood implicitly with) the protocol by which it was obtained.  What are the operational definitions of the italicized words in the previous paragraph, when the PP is invoked?  Well, could often means “an ignorant monomaniac with an internet connection said so”, and very badly means “another such has spun out a fact-free fantasy or borrowed it from a movie”.  The PP is why ignorant people don’t vaccinate their kids: it endorses believing that a scissors only has one blade.

The superintendent of schools in LA  closed 900 schools this morning in the face of an email threatening terrorism, putting a great city into complete chaos as parents missed work and tried to figure out what to do with their kids, not to mention losing a whole day’s learning, for which the district pays about $44m. All in all, a quarter of a day’s worth of the LA basin’s GDP is probably a good guess at the value Cortines and Garcetti put on a bonfire today for no good reason.  (In New York City, cooler heads prevailed in the face of the same “threat”.)  What would a responsible public official think about this decision?

(1) How does this threat look to a terrorist actually planning to pull off an attack?  It looks a lot like intending to minimize the death and destruction on tap, which is inconsistent with the whole idea from the get-go.

(2) How often are real attacks preceded by warnings? …warnings followed by actual attacks? Murders by death threats (domestic violence aside)? Bayes’ theorem, not to mention common sense, makes these questions central to the analysis.

(3) There is no avoiding risk, only choosing the right risks.  What can go wrong if we close the schools? Well, in addition to the immediate economic and social costs of the closure, we confirm to every crank and nutcase, and high schooler unprepared for today’s chemistry final, that any of them can close down the schools (courthouses? the Super Bowl?) with an anonymous email. These are pretty bad things to happen, and the LAUSD affirmatively chose to cause them with probability 1.0; not very precautionary, is it?

(4) Economist Michael Spence has given us the very useful concept of a market signal.  This is information seeking to induce this or that action whose credibility depends on it being (i) costly to send (ii) less costly when it is true.  The classic example is a used car guarantee: the car dealer might have to make good on it, so it’s not like “I am an honest man, and this is a good car! Really!”, and less costly if the car in question really is in good shape than if it isn’t.   An emailed threat of mayhem (never mind all the evidence of a low-capacity mind at work that struck the New York leadership about this one) fails both parts of the test.

The LA city fathers, incredibly, failed to order the immediate evacuation of their city this morning even though there is a real, non–zero threat of a great earthquake that will kill thousands, including children, if they don’t get out of town.  And after this incredibly irresponsible failure, I am pretty sure they will do it again tomorrow, and the next day!    If the safety of kids is everything to us, how are we letting our precious LA children out on the street going to school day after day, when almost one pedestrian a day, including a child every week, dies in LA traffic? Who votes for these heartless, reckless bozos?

Garcetti, save your people!



Joyeux Noël

They did it. We have a Paris Agreement. The text was released a few minutes ago as the President’s final proposal. The vibes do not suggest any last-minute objections, which would probably be suicidal as everybody else in the room desperately wants to get some sleep and go home.

Update 1750h Paris time: Adopted. Final version here. I don’t know what changes were made at the last minute to get holdouts on board, but they didn’t affect the articles quoted below.(/update)

The key takeaways are unchanged since Thursday.

The temperature goal (Article 2.1.a)

… holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

Decarbonisation goal (Article 4.1) :

In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

Review timetable (Article 14(2):

The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall undertake its first global stocktake in 2023 and every five years thereafter unless otherwise decided by the Conference of the Parties …

Opening for signature party in New York on April 22 next year (Decision paragraph 3). Presumably President Obama will invite all the Republican presidential hopefuls still standing, to gnash their teeth in frustrated isolation.

What we have is not the solution but an international framework for benchmarking everybody’s efforts. Continue Reading…

Cities of Refuge

When I first met Paul Roemer a few years ago a few years ago he was promoting an idea he called “Charter cities.”

The basic idea is that, under contemporary economic conditions – in particular the astonishingly low cost of transporting freight by water – economic activity doesn’t require much in the way of natural or even human resources: just a piece of land with access to ocean transportation, a little basic urban planning, the rule of law, and the absence of intrusive and kleptocratic government.

Alas, those last two are sufficiently rare in the worst-off countries that hundreds of millions of people, deprived of industrial opportunity where they are, want to leave and go somewhere else. The problem is that “somewhere else” mostly doesn’t want to take them in.

Romer’s proposed solution flows directly from this analysis: find an empty space with the requisite transportation access, get the national government out of the way, and build a new city, attracting economic migrants from around the world. At first the charter city would be governed by an international board, with housing and industrial plant built by private actors and infrastructure and public-services financed by ground leases: in effect a Henry George single tax.

Continue Reading…

The too sane negotiator

Like you, I’ve been watching at a safe distance the bitter wrangles and brinkmanship in Europe over Greek debt. It is horribly reminiscent of August 1914. Could the disaster have been avoided?

Europe’s financial establishment has been complaining that their Greek negotiators are childishly obstinate. Why don’t they just give in to the astonishingly detailed neocolonial prescriptions they have been mailed?

You don’t win a negotiation by being conciliatory. Possibly, the Greeks have been rather too sane. A proper mad negotiator would have threatened not just partial but complete default if forced out of the euro. What would Greece have to lose? Better wipe the slate of odious governmental debt clean, which would reassure new private lenders (cf the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Argentina). To protect German taxpayers, the correct strategy for Berlin and Brussels at this point would then be surrender on the terms already offered. This gets most of what they want and already more than Greek voters can stand.

Either you have the institution of debt bondage or that of bankruptcy. International law does not provide for the former. The attempt by France to enforce Germany’s Versailles reparations in 1923 by occupying the Rhineland did not turn out well, even from the narrow viewpoint of French taxpayers.

It’s true that Grexit would have costs for Greece too. In the short run it would be even worse for Greeks than the austerity hair-shirt, though it offers better prospects for growth a few years ahead. The non-cooperative bad payoffs still look asymmetric. However, my speculation is unrealistic. Tsipras campaigned on a promise to keep Greece in the euro, not to threaten to take it out. So Grexit is up to Germany, not Greece.

Why empirical political scientists and political theorists talk past each other

The latest issue of Perspectives on Politics, which just went up, includes my article “The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality, and the Empirical-Normative Divide.” I’m always behind the times when it comes to paywalls, but here’s my best shot at a link for “blogging”:

The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality, and the Empirical-Normative Divide

This is for professional political scientists, and admittedly harder going than the book review I blogged about a couple of days ago. The basic idea is that empirical political scientists very often use as their assumed measure of democratic quality “responsiveness”: the extent to which changes in public policy reflect changes in the preferences of the public, or the median voter. Political theorists, on the other hand, almost never define democratic quality this way: there are a host of other things that democracy is supposed to be about. I try to hash out where the disjunction came from; why it matters; what each side can learn from the other; and why there’s still room for legitimate differences and a division of labor. (Teaser version: we should expect people who measure political phenomena for a living to seek rough agreement on how to define what they’re measuring. We should also expect people who study political concepts and political values for a living to be legitimately dissatisfied with the inevitable simplification this entails.)

Academic readers should be able to download the full version easily as an .html or .pdf. Anyone else whose interest is piqued by the abstract should email me at my academic email address (not hard to find) and I’ll send you a version within a few days.

Update: The article, along with the rest of what looks like a great issue (I’ve been on vacation and have lacked the time to read it), is now ungated through the end of July, courtesy of Cambridge Journals. The link is: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayIssue?jid=PPS&tab=currentissue