Agency discretion

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

That is apparently a provision in the bailout/takeover bill the US government is telling Congress it must approve–or else.

Referenced at Naked Capitalism and Marginal Revolution.

Speaking of Marginal Revolution, look here for a visual representation that is on target (pun very much intended).


I did not even know it, but apparently I have been a Pigovian since my first year of eligibility to vote in presidential elections. It was 1980, and I backed John Anderson. ((Not only with my vote, but as a petition coordinator in my city for his petition drive to get on the general-election ballot.)) The main plank in his campaign platform that I still remember 28 years later was a 50c/gallon gas tax. This was at a time when the nominal cost of a gallon of gasoline had just passed 50 cents (though the price in 2007 dollars was about $2.00).

Last October, in the WSJ, Greg Mankiw gave the case for a large (but gradual) increase in the gas tax, which he reprinted at his blog under the title, The Pigovian Manifesto.

John Anderson got 7% of the vote in the general election in 1980, and as far as I know no candidate who advocated a large increase in the gas tax has beaten that percentage since. As Mankiw concludes with:

don’t expect those vying for office to come around until the American people recognize that while higher gas taxes are unattractive, the alternatives are even worse.

Indeed. Count me in as a self-declared (and, in spirit, adult-lifelong) member of the Pigou Club, along with Mankiw, Al Gore, Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker, Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan, Greg Easterbrook, Joe Stiglitz, Gary Becker, Nouriel Roubini, Arthur Laffer, and an evidently growing list of economists, pundits, and other social commentators. Are political scientists/orchardists welcome to the club?

Dikes and Votes: Consensus government and flood control

There was an item on National Public Radio this afternoon about California turning to the Netherlands for flood-control expertise. The basic premise was that, whereas the Netherlands has known how to deal with the problem of rising floodwaters throughout its history, California is just getting started in preparing for the rising sea levels stemming from global warming, which threaten the low lands of the state’s Delta region.

In discussing the challenges in California of reconciling conflicting interests and the myriad government agencies–state and federal–that have a stake in this policy, we hear Jeffrey Mount, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, say that:

You have this situation in California where we are a bunch of consensus wimps. And frankly this is one of those problems where there’ll be winners and losers, and we’re never going to come up with consensus in this.

Of course, there are few policies that do not produce winners and losers. In the Netherlands, on the other hand:

They’re actually cognizant that they’re on a trajectory of change. And they’re trying to adapt to that change. Rather than simply trying to make it work for today, they’re trying to make it work for tomorrow as well.

But the invocation of the Netherlands as a contrasting case to California’s over-reliance on “consensus” is an odd one to any of us who are familiar with the literature on comparative democracy. The Netherlands, after all, is one of the paradigmatic cases of “consociational” and “consensus” democracy, both concepts pioneered by my colleague, Arend Lijphart (who happens to be Dutch).

So, if the Dutch are really so much better at making tough choices on this (or any) issue that we wimpy Californians, the problem must not lie in consensus decision-making, per se, but somewhere else.

The Netherlands is, of course, a parliamentary democracy with one of the world’s most proportional electoral systems: 150 seats elected nationwide, with a 0.67% threshold to win a seat. Those are the institutional bases of its broad multiparty governments, and its consensus politics. It has numerous parties that span the ideological spectrum, and each of them is quite centralized and disciplined. Currently, the largest party in the Dutch parliament has only 27.3% of the seats. The government is a coalition of that party, another with 22% and a third that has 4% of the seats in parliament. Consensus government–all three parties are “veto players”–but they have a bare majority in a parliament that has minimal checks on its authority to make legislations. ((There is an upper house, elected indirectly, and with some authority, but its composition does not differ fundamentally in partisan terms from the lower house.))

California, on the other hand, a fairly prototypical presidential system. In fact, it really is a presidential system on steroids–not because its “president” (the Governor) is so powerful, but because, as is the nature of presidential democracy, power is fragmented and shared among several institutions. Given federalism, it is further fragmented and shared between state and federal governments. Legislators owe relatively little to party programs for their election, and much to their ability to cater to moneyed interests or organized blocs of voters in their narrow (and almost always noncompetitive) districts. Both California and the US federal structure do not merely require consensus, they offer a worst of both worlds: Multiple access points for organized interests with narrow demands, and super-majority decision-making through various two-thirds vote requirements and, in state government, the recourse to ballot initiatives by interest groups unhappy with what they are getting from the legislature and executive.

Don’t blame consensus per se–as if imposition by some chimerical benevolent central authority were the answer to all our tough problems. Rather, blame the specific institutions that fragment representation among multiple veto gates–that is, no single representative institution (like the Dutch party-centered parliament) being able to make hammer out policy compromises acceptable to the majority without being subject to vetoes by other, separate, institutions. Blame the absence of collective responsibility, the failure of the representation process to aggregate broad interests, the institutionalized short-sightedness of term-limited executives and legislators. Blame any number of features of our policy-making process, but not our “wimpy” seeking of consensus.

Yes, Californians could learn a lot from the Dutch. Not only about how to deal with flooding, but in how to build a policy-making process that makes consensus “for tomorrow as well.”
Tom Round has an excellent comment below; I agree with the essence of his well thought-out arguments.

House passes Peru trade deal, Dems divided

The House of Representatives has passed the United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement. This deal was signed in April, 2006, but it is the first trade agreement to come before Congress since the change in party control in the November, 2006, US midterm elections.

Given the centrality of trade to the outcome of those elections–particularly in many swing districts–it is hardly surprising that the vote split the majority party. The vote was 285-132, with 176 Republicans and only 109 Democrats in favor. In other words, over half (53.2%) of Democrats opposed the bill (as did about one in eight Republicans).

After the change of party control, both the US and Peruvian governments agreed to modify the deal to include labor and environmental standards in order to ensure passage. It worked, even if the final vote revealed the Democrats’ continuing deep divisions on trade.

The bill still has to pass the US Senate, but that is presumably a foregone conclusion.

The pact was originally ratified by the Peruvian congress easily (79-14, with 7 abstentions) in late June, 2006. (Thanks to a Wikipedia editor for the reference.) I wonder if the Peruvian congress had to re-authorize it after the additional standards were negotiated, or if under Peruvian law such changes are within executive prerogative. (Boz answers this question in the comments: Yes, Peru’s congress did reauthorize the revised agreement. Thanks, boz!)

A veto override

For the first time in the Bush presidency, Congress has overridden a presidential veto. Of course, the incumbent president has vetoed very few bills (4, if I recall correctly).

In my discussion of his first veto–back when his own party still had congressional majorities–I noted that there are two basic types of veto. There are vetoes that follow the apparent intentions of Madison and Hamilton as being a defensive tool by the executive against acts of congress that impose burdens on the national treasury for particularistic advantage. And then there are those vetoes that allow the president to defend an ideological minority whose preferences were defeated in the bill congress passed.

Each veto issued by Bush before the one just overridden would be of the second type: The ideologue protection veto: The stem-cell research bill, the Iraq war “timeline” bill, and the S-CHIP bill.

The one now overridden, on the other hand, was clearly of the first type: the anti-particularism veto.

So, of course, congress overrides the latter. After all, as the Houston Chronicle notes in the headline of its article on the override–“Water projects in Texas authorized by veto override“–no matter how principled a conservative ideologue may be, he or she still lives somewhere and that location has canals and floodways and aqueducts that would benefit from a little federal assistance.

If the logroll is big enough, it can survive the veto. And water projects know no real ideological boundaries.

Next up the farm bill. Lots of pork, threatened veto, but will the pro-ag members of the House of Representatives be able to spread enough largesse around the country’s districts to get the needed two thirds vote?

Homeland security, federalism, and bicameralism

In October, 2005, I commented on the intercameral differences within the Republican Congress on the question of federal grants for “homeland security.” The dispute–with the Senate favoring most of the money being divided equally among the states and the House favoring a high percentage of the disbursements being based on insured risk–is the stuff of classic bicameral policy disagreement. Insured risk tends to be roughly correlated with population, and so it is hardly a surprise that the House would prefer such a determination of where most of the money should go. The Senate, on the other hand, with its equal representation of even the smallest state, would be predicted to find the “risk” from terrorism to be about the same in Wyoming as it is in New York, and indeed that is the logic–the political logic–of its formula.

Now, fast forward to 2007. We had a change in party control, from both houses being Republican to both being Democratic. And at the moment, the chambers are once again bargaining over the formula for the distribution of homeland security grants. The proposals by each chamber again reveal the institutional biases of each chamber. But when compared to the 2005 intercameral bargaining, the 2007 proposals show even more starkly the difference between the parties and their constituencies, on this issue.

Here I compare the House and Senate proposals at each of these moments of bargaining:

    2005 bills (Republican majorities)

    House: 25% of funds distributed equally among states–but state must show need; most of rest allocated based on risk

    Senate: 75% of funds distributed equally among states; 25% allocated according to risk

    2007 bills (Democratic majorities)

    House: 12.5% of funds distributed equally among states; most of rest allocated based on risk

    Senate: 22.5% of funds distributed equally among states; most of rest according to risk

Wow. Good stuff!

Of course, one critical factor here is the relative sizes of the states each party draws its main support base from. That is, the parties’ positions (holding constant the chamber) are partly shaped by the same factor that separates the chambers (holding constant the parties). Consider the following breakdown of the populations of the states represented in each of these two Senates. The first column is the number of states (with half a state in each party row whenever the state delegation is split), and then the cumulative population of those states (or half states).

    Before 2006 election
    54 Reps 27.5 138,079,342
    46 Dems 22.5 142,824,157

    After 2006 election
    49 Reps 24.5 118,950,125
    51 Dems 25.5 161,953,374

Note that the Republican states constituted the minority of the population even when the Republicans held the (spurious) partisan majority of the Senate. (This a theme I have covered before, in a somewhat more refined analysis with electoral data and cool graphs!)

President Bush has threatened to veto this bill over several other provisions, especially that which would extend collective bargaining rights to baggage screeners and other employees who were barred such rights when DHS was established.

We may see the first successful override vote in the House during the W years. The bill passed 299-128. However, the vote was 60-38 in the Senate. These results means a lot of Republicans in each house went with the majority, even if the non-democratic chamber will be able to sustain the minority veto in this case. What a difference it makes which party is setting the congressional agenda!


My main source on the differences in the bills in 2007 was an article by Chris Strohm for Congress Daily. Sources on the 2005 bills are discussed at the previous planting (first link above).

In calculating state populations by party delegation, independents are counted as if members of the party with which they caucus (here, all Democrat: Jeffords, Sanders, Lieberman); population numbers are based on 2000 census.

On the specific issue of union rights for baggage screeners, I highly recommend the thread sparked by Matthew Yglesias in early March. The discussion in the comments contains pretty much the whole gamut of hypotheses about policy-making!

The ‘toolkit’ and the West Coast climate action plan

I received today the kind of e-mail every professor dreams of receiving. It began:

In September 2003 you promised us a PMP toolkit that would enable us to succeed in any circumstance. You didn’t tell us it could help us change the world.

The former student, Tanya,* is referring to my Policy-Making Processes course, which I teach every year to our candidates for the professional Master of Pacific International Affairs degree. I am not sure I promised that PMP would get them through any circumstance, but I do tell them I will give them a set of tools to allow them to determine who makes a given policy, how the policy-maker is held accountable, and who holds the policy-maker accountable. With the basic set of skills grounded in the logics of collective action, delegation, and political institutions, I tell them they are ready to go off and understand policy and how to influence it.

Tanya continues:

Last summer, I was hired by British Columbia’s Office of the Premier to write a strategy paper on how the Province of BC could strengthen its relationship with the State of California.

She developed a paper for the Premier based on her analysis of the electoral incentives of the actors and produced a California Strategy Paper which envisioned collaboration on climate change and even connecting BC and CA’s “hydrogen highways” and cooperation on transportation.

As of yesterday, this cooperation is now official policy. From the Vancouver Sun, 16 March,** I will quote the first and last two paragraphs of a news account:

It’s a political plot nobody saw coming: the West Coast’s inveterate policy wonk Gordon Campbell [the BC premier] and Hollywood’s Terminator-turned-“governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger teaming up as the West Coast’s climate-action heroes. […]

That “climate action plan” will include such things as more precise details of how B.C. can introduce California’s emission standards for automobiles, take part in a regional market for trading greenhouse gas emissions and build a “hydrogen highway” for fuel-cell automobiles to travel from Whistler to California.

Campbell said he found Schwarzenegger supportive of B.C.’s plans, as well as of a strategy to create “green ports” up and down the West Coast that set environmental standards to protect the oceans and air quality.

Tanya indicates that she helped bring this process about by beginning with

the premise that any high-level dialogue between the Premier and the Governor would need to provide significant short-term political benefits to the Governor to even be considered given the upcoming election, hence opportunities to showcase the Governor’s platform initiatives must be highlighted.

(In the midst of the campaign for reelection, Schwarzenegger pushed for and signed major legislation to implement greenhouse-gas emissions reductions in the state, and since his reelection, he has issued regulations to implement the law that have not always been well received by his own nominal party.)

Tanya’s initial research–just as PMP teaches–was to determine which agencies in California were directly accountable to the Governor. Then from press releases, she found out what the Governor was personally invested in. Regarding the prospects for cooperation between California and British Columbia:

Both are traditionally liberal constituencies that place a high value on quality of life. Both had relatively conservative leaders that had found a win with environmental issues. The Governor and the Premier both demonstrated an interest in taking a leadership role in the context of sub-national cooperation.

Tanya “recommended creating opportunities for the respective leaders to showcase their roles in leading North America in advancing regional climate change initiatives, pioneering the adoption of clean energy and transportation technologies and championing health and wellness initiatives.” She also identified several global issues affecting the West Coast that could be included in the dialog.

And, before we knew it, the Governor and the Premier were announcing big steps to move beyond what their respective federal governments have been willing to do in fighting climate change.

Congratulations, Tanya! And thanks for putting PMP to work! And for making my day with your e-mail.

* Of course, I am quoting her with her permission.

** Sorry, I do not have the link.

A threat from Mexico?

Update: See the very interesting comment by Dan.

When the California Avocado Commission objected to federal government plans to expand the amount of Mexican avocados imported into the USA and the range of destinations to which they could be shipped–a policy just implemented last month–critics claimed that the domestic avocado growers were concerned only about market competition. The Commission, which we growers fund by a tax on all Hass avocados that we sell,* always claimed that its (our) opposition was based on legitimate concerns over pests found in Mexico and other countries that we do not (currently) have here in California. Of course, producers who will be subject to import competition always make such “objective” claims, so those who are not the producers always have good reason to be skeptical that opposition to expansion of imports is just protectionism based in economic self-interest.

Well, it turns out growers’ fears are real. While the incidence of armored scale in a recent shipment inspected by the California Department of Food and Agriculture was less than initially reported, the pest is indeed arriving on shipments from the south. The CDFA and the federal officials are currently disputing whether armored scale is a sufficiently serious pest to lead to a ban on shipments. So, this policy issue has a federalist dimension to it, with the state agency being more supportive of producers who are concentrated in its state and the federal agency being more attuned to broader trade interests (exactly as we would expect).

The Mexican government in the past has threatened retaliation against imports of US-grown agricultural products if the liberalization of avocado imports is curtailed. So this policy issue certainly has an international-relations, two-level-games dimension.**

There is little doubt that the armored scale could be a serious pest if it ever were to be released somehow from a shipment of fruit and find its way into a grove in California. Because scale do not move much, the threat is not as great as with other pests like the fruit fly. But the threat is significant. For one thing, there is currently no US-approved pesticide that would combat this type of scale for conventional growers, let alone for those of us who are organic. Most of our current scale problem (from other species) is kept in check by biological controls (natural predators, such as wasps, that are released in groves). But there is currently no known predator for the armored scale. It is likely that such a predator exists in Mexico or elsewhere, but is currently being killed by broad-spectrum pesticides being sprayed in Mexican groves. (Broad-spectrum pesticides kill good bugs as well as bad; the bad bugs often are better at developing resistance and thus surviving chemical warfare than are the good bugs.)

Please buy California and organic avocados if you can!

* Especially for my students: An excellent case of what I mean by “coercion” of collective action. In order to sell our products legally, we individual growers must pay this tax to support the Avocado Commission’s collective goods of research, marketing, and, yes, lobbying, on behalf of our interests.

** By targeting other US products for import restrictions, the Mexican government could engage domestic actors on this side of the border who otherwise would not care about avocados in opposing limits on avocado imports.

The electoral system is not everything, but…

I want to draw readers’ attention to two throught-provoking entries at Make My Vote Count (both of which link to articles at the Guardian, one of the world’s best English-language papers).

These pieces discuss how the problems of gun violence (or, more specifically, the absence of incentives for politicians to address the underlying social problems) and child poverty (on which the UK and US are vying for worst ranking among the wealthy countries) are made worse by FPTP voting.

Ukrainian updates

The tensions inherent in the unusual constitutional arrangements of Ukraine, the rather inconclusive nature of the 2006 parliamentary elections, and the current cohabitation of the two Viktors* have broken out into the open in several parliamentary votes in the past week.

The Ukrainian parliament voted 249-6 to approve the 2007 budget, with legislators from President Viktor Yushchenko’s bloc and that of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko abstaining in protest. (Parliament has 450 members.) The president has a veto (with 2/3 required to override), so there may be a showdown looming.

This vote comes in the context of considerable (and hardly surprising) tension in the Orange-Blue coalition formed earlier this year. While the post-Orange Revolution constitutional reforms shifted the appointment of the prime minister to the parliamentary majority, they retained appointment authority in the president’s hands for the foreign and interior ministers. Last week, parliament voted, 247-57, to sack the foreign minister, and 248-22 to do the same to the interior minister. The President ordered the foreign minister to remain on the job, which prompted the Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, to bar him from a session.

And that tug-of-war over the cabinet followed closely on a vote (233-1) in which the parties of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko joined to pass a bill proclaiming the Holodmor, or Death by Hunger, of the Stalin era a “genocide.” (Yanukovych’s party preferred to call it a mere “tragedy,” so as not to disturb his friends in Russia.)

Kyiv St. Michaels famine mem.jpg
Close-up of one section of the Holodmor monument in central Kyiv, just outside the St. Michael’s church.

Meanwhile, a recent poll finds that one in three Ukrainians do not want Jews to be citizens of their country. I wonder what the regional breakdown of that poll was. I would expect such attitudes to be less prevalent in the west than in the Yanukovych strongholds of the east. But in any event, this polling result is disturbing in a country with a rich Jewish past and an ongoing revival of the remnant community.

Sadly, it is not surprising that a large segment of the Ukrainian population would express such attitudes. After all, as the monument below attests, Bohdan Khmelnytsky (Bogdan Chmielnicki) remains a national hero in Ukraine as he was in the USSR, his atrocities in the mid-seventeenth century against Jews notwithstanding. I would be more optimistic that the conflicts expressed by the legislative and cabinet wrangling described above were just symptoms of the growing pains of democracy were it not for the fact that Khmelnytsky remains a nationalist rallying point more or less uncontroversially.

Kyiv Sofiyska Sq Khmelnytsky mon.jpg

The Khmelnytsky monument is located in Sofiyska square, near the St. Sofia church, which in turn is just opposite the St. Michaels.

* All of these are themes I have covered periodically throughout the life of F&V, in the subdomain.

The two photos above and the others linked in their captions are from our trip to Ukraine in 2005, and are part of a photo set and travel notes in the Ladera Frutal travel pages.

Six Senate seats now lean Democratic

Democrats need a net gain of six seats to win the majority in the US Senate. According to Stuart Rothenberg’s latest projections, there are now six seats that are either “likely takeover” or “lean takeover.” In addition, there is one “toss-up” that leans their way, though there is also one current Democratic seat that is rated toss-up.


* DeWine (R-OH)
* Santorum (R-PA)


* Allen (R-VA)
* Burns, (R-MT)
* Chafee, (R-RI)
* Talent (R-MO)

TOSS-UP (1 R, 1 D)

* TN Open (Frist, R)
* Menendez (D-NJ)


* Kyl (R-AZ)
* MD Open (D-Sarbanes)

Midterm election projections

Ed Fitzgerald has a very useful compilation of various midterm-election projections. The mean and median estimates (of over thirty different projects) are 223-204 Democratic majority in the House and 49-49 in the Senate (with eight House and two Senate seats, on average, deemed by the forecasters as too close to call).

Ed also has a graph of generic partisan-preference polling for the House that includes the undecideds. It is striking how flat the Republican preference has been since September, 2005, while the decline in undecided has been almost entirely to the benefit of the Democratic party.

Candidate quality isn’t everything

Back when I first started posting about the relationship between generic party preference and likely actual performance of real candidates in the 2006 US midterm election, I referred to the truism of US congressional elections: The personal vote matters a lot in the USA, and we can’t assume that party preference translates into preference for actual living, breathing candidates of the preferred party; voters may vote for the more qualified individual candidate instead.

However, as Stuart Rothenberg notes, this election is shaping up to be one of those rare cases in which candidate quality may not matter all that much. Surveying the races, including many that are surprisingly competitive, Rothenberg notes:

it is remarkable how similar this group of Democratic candidates is to the GOP class of 1994, when, by my count, 37 freshmen were elected without having held a previous elective office.