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Popular Mandates, Legitimate Authority, and Ranked Choice Voting

November 9, 2011

Ed Lee is leading the San Francisco mayoral election, with 31 percent of the first place votes as of Wednesday morning.  That means he’s probably going to lose.  At least, if I were betting then I would be against him.  But we’ll have to wait and see.

Given the timeliness of Ranked Choice Voting, I thought I would compile my objections to RCV, and examine one objection at length.  If you are unfamiliar with RCV, you can read a primer at this link.  It’s deceptively simple.[1]

There are many, many problems with Ranked Choice Voting.  First, it is deliberately intended to give a greater chance of winning to candidates further toward the political fringe.  Second, it is the quintessential “black box” voting system.  While the mechanics of ranking three candidates in the voting booth might be easy, very few voters can explain exactly how the elimination rounds proceed, what happens to ‘exhausted ballots’ (ballots in which all choices have been eliminated) or ballots with ‘overvotes’ in the first or second column, or how to calculate the denominator when determining 50 percent-plus-one.  Third, it must rely on computers to count the ballots and redistribute the votes of eliminated candidates (yet even more ‘black box’ voting); my understanding is that it is practically impossible to conduct a full hand recount for major races with large numbers of candidates (I may be wrong on this, and I await to see how these mechanics will work in SF).  Fourth, there is some tentative evidence from Oakland that RCV leads to confusion among lower-income, racial-minority, and low-information voters.  (Nicole and I are writing a scholarly article on this point.)  Fifth, it treats higher order preferences (first choices) with the same weight as lower order preferences (second and third choices), with no political theoretical basis for doing so.

Finally, RCV as a system deprives the voter of perhaps the most important knowledge necessary to vote in a run-off election: the names of the candidates in the final run-off.  With normal run-offs, the voter knows the final two candidates when she walks into the voting booth on run-off day.  With RCV, if the voter wants to participate in the final, decisive run-off, she must guess who will make it to the final round.  I think this is the most bizarre aspect of RCV.

Then, of course, there is Jean Quan, who will forever be the poster child for bad Ranked Choice Voting outcomes, just purely based on who wins these sorts of elections.

One problem I never hear discussed, however, is that Ranked Choice Voting produces highly ambiguous popular mandates for ‘come from behind’ winners.  ‘Come from behind’ victories (where the final winner was not the candidate with the most first place votes) are rare in RCV.  Jean Quan’s victory in the first RCV election in Oakland is the most important such outcome in the US; two supervisor races in San Francisco were come from behind victories during the same election in November 2010.  But that’s it.  Prior to November 2010, the first place vote winner in every race in San Francisco also won the final tally.  So the ‘ambiguous mandate’ problem was theoretical until Jean Quan and the two supervisors in San Francisco were sworn in last January.

The Importance of Electoral Institutions

In democracies, the electoral institutions are responsible for translating the popular will into authority to govern, and for transforming candidates into elected officials.  The quality of these electoral institutions matters a great deal, since different institutions usually lead to different outcomes.

(Some common current and historical electoral institutions are: proportional representation, first-past-the-post, ranked choice voting, two-round voting, district vs. at-large-seats, primaries vs. caucuses vs. top two primaries, single or multi-member districts, partisan vs. non-partisan races, grandfather clauses, residency or literacy requirements, poll taxes, etc. etc.)

Some institutions are better at translating the popular will into legitimate state authority.  Literacy requirements, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes were common in the southern United States prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 precisely because they thwarted the popular will (especially of African-Americans and some poor whites) and allowed the South to maintain its apartheid system.

In another realm, political scientists tend to favor proportional representation for national legislatures because they allow a wider range of parties that better reflect underlying social groups to enter parliament.  Others argues that first-past-the-post is better because it encourages parties to cluster around the median voter, leading to ‘moderate’ outcomes and tamping down centrifugal social forces.  In other words, electoral institutions are not neutral, mechanical tools that simply and automatically translate the popular will into legitimate authority: these institutions have normative content as well.  Pick wisely!

Legitimate Authority and Ranked Choice Voting

Why is legitimate authority important?  Reinhard Bendix examined the difference between legitimate authority and raw power in a 1976 article, “The Mandate to Rule: An Introduction“:

Authority differs from power by its dependence on the belief that it is legitimate. For authority to be effective for any length of time, beliefs in its legitimacy must be shared by the few [who govern] and the many [who are governed]. The desire of those in authority to be considered legitimate is nearly universal. As Max Weber pointed out, the few want to know that they have a right to their good fortune and that they deserve it in comparison with others (271). I would add that their position will be the more secure, the more strongly the many are swayed by awe and the conviction that subordination will yield them a return in protection and prosperity.

It may be objected that power alone matters, that concern with legitimation and the mandate to rule merely assuage the conscience of the powerful. I think this view mistaken. Power needs legitimation the way a modern bank needs the confidence of its depositors. Rulers are always few in number and could never obtain compliance if each command had to be backed up by a force sufficient to compel compliance.


A run on the bank is like a massive challenge of state-authority, for both may demonstrate that the bank’s and the state’s resources are not sufficient to withstand such a loss of confidence. Legitimation achieves what power alone cannot, for it establishes that belief in the rightness of rule which precludes massive challenges as long as it endures.

Bendix is referring to the sorts of revolutions we witnessed this year in the Middle East: popular assent is precipitously withdrawn like a run on a bank, and anti-government uprisings occur.  If these regimes wish to stay in power, they must deploy violence to maintain themselves, as in Syria.  Ruling with legitimate authority is important, among other normative reasons, because it allows for easier governing.  Systems which produce unauthoritative governance are more brittle.

I argue that ranked choice voting, as a system, produces far more ambiguous claims of authority than the previous electoral institution used in Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro, and San Francisco– simple majority elections with a run-off if no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote.  This ambiguity arises in part because of the flaws of RCV that I listed above.  For ‘come from behind’ victors like Jean Quan, this ambiguity is far greater since RCV leaves many core questions unanswered, or answered confusingly and incompletely.  Ideally, elections are not supposed to leave loose ends like these:

  • “who won?”  (answer: Jean Quan won in RCV.  Yet, I think that if Perata and Quan alone were campaigning for a few months before a normal run-off, Perata probably would have won because Quan would have withered under an undivided media glare, which was distracted by such a large field.  In a simple plurality system, Perata would have won.  Therefore, the electoral institution essentially “chose” the winner, rather than the voters.)
  • “who got the most votes?” (answer: Don Perata received 10 percentage points more first place votes (34 percent); Quan only received 24 percent of first place voting.  But after the RCV algorithm was used, Quan squeaked ahead by 2000 votes– a margin of about 1 percent.)
  • “who had the most support from the voters?” (answer: it depends if you believe that second or third place preferences hold the same weight as first place preferences.  Perata got far more first place votes.  Quan got slightly more first plus second plus third place votes, after removing ‘exhausted’ ballots from the denominator.  Confused yet?)
  • “Did you understand the process of vote counting?”  (answer: virtually no voters can explain how the counting and elimination rounds work in any detail.  Just a bare minimum of understanding. How do I know?  I constantly asked them during the campaign.  Compare that to the simplicity of 50 percent plus one!)
  • “Can we check the accuracy of the tally?” (answer: as far as I can tell, not by hand, in any practical sense.)

Note that if Quan had won in a normal run-off scenario, all of these answers would be easy and unambiguous.

Governing without Legitimacy

In the above passage, Bendix also captures the difficulties of ruling without legitimate authority: your edicts must be implemented by force and routine governance is very difficult as a result.

Quan’s current political legitimacy in Oakland is, for all practical purposes, zero.  Her poll numbers are atrocious.  Her support from the community groups seems low (except from her small but disciplined claque and from patronage-seekers).  The resignation of Chief Batts, the popular head of OPD, essentially destroyed her remaining popular support.  A CBS News poll found her approval rating drop from 57 percent (March 13) to 28 percent (October 12), an amazing plummet in just six months.  Two weeks later, she badly mishandled the Occupy Oakland protests, and she managed to find an even lower poll rating in two subsequent polls:

She’s now well below even George W. Bush’s unusually low approval ratings at the end of his presidency.  Quan is in real risk of being recalled (the big hurdle will be acquiring the necessary signatures to put it on the ballot).

How much of Quan’s current lack of legitimate authority and governing problems is due to RCV and how much is due to her sheer incompetence?  Obviously its difficult to say, especially given how brutally incompetent she  is.  But the fact that her approval ratings were so low and declining at the time of Chief Batts’ resignation, and before the Occupy Oakland protests turned ugly, suggests to me that her popular support was incredibly thin when she was inaugurated– which is not really surprising given that she was the first place choice of only 24 percent of Oaklanders but became mayor anyway.

True, Quan had 57 percent approval in March, which actually surprises me.  But obviously that support was not very resilient.  I believe that a mayor with a more legitimate or clearer mandate from the election would have stronger polling numbers across the whole time period.  (The real data points we need to prove this are monthly approval ratings since inauguration.  But we don’t have that obviously.)

The lack of legitimacy also seems to hinder Quan’s governing strategies.  Her struggles finding a City Administrator, the loss of Chief Batts, the loss of City Attorney John Russo, her inability to find a governing majority on the city council, her difficulty delivering a timely budget, and her conflicts with the business community also suggest that she lacks legitimate authority in the eyes of other political leaders in the city.  RCV’s ambiguous mandate is likely one of the most important causes of her weak administration, which began almost immediately after inauguration, and is now at its nadir.

To my mind, RCV has simply compounded Oakland’s long-term governance problem.  In political science, we would call Oakland a ‘weak state’: stuck with institutions too small and too ineffective, unable to provide basic public services at a reasonable price, patronage-ridden.  RCV has weakened the legitimate authority of elected officials when their offices needed it most.


[1]  I would strongly caution anyone from believing the reports put out by the chief sponsor of RCV,  They are running a highly deceptive campaign of misinformation in support of RCV.  If I ever have time I will rip them to shreds in a journal article.

That was fast.

October 25, 2011

Recall Quan effort begins– from the grassroots.  Where do I sign?

“After nearly a year in office, she has exhibited no leadership or insight to develop and implement a sustainable solution to our growing unemployment and depressed economic development,” the petition says. Oakland has a 15 percent unemployment rate, while the state’s is 11.4 percent.

The Political Economy of Oakland

October 24, 2011

[I worked on the Don Perata for Mayor campaign in 2010.  Nonetheless, I am not writing a polemic (except maybe the parts about Robert Gammon and his tabloid).  I am trying to give an honest analysis of why Oakland keeps getting sub-optimal political outcomes in the long-term, regardless of the 2010 election.]


Some guy named Karl Scheffler once said about Berlin:

Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein.

Berlin is a city, damned to become forever, and never to be. (my translation)

Sheffler meant that Berlin was constantly reinventing and rebuilding itself.  When he wrote this in 1910, Berlin had been in turn a village, a market town, a provincial capital, the capital city of the Prussian kingdom, an industrial center, and finally the imperial capital of a united Germany.  His claim in 1910 was of course tragically confirmed by the horrible events of the 20th century, many of which were planned from Berlin itself.

In another reading, however, this quote reminds me of Oakland.  Instead of a city that is constantly reinventing itself, in Oakland we have a city that will never quite live up to its potential.  A city condemned to “becoming” Oakland forever, without actually reaching its intended destination.  At least this is how I feel about my hometown, especially since the last mayoral election.

We are constantly told that Oakland has the potential to be a model city, the Brooklyn of the West.  To those of us who grew up in Oakland, and who have spent considerable time and energy and money trying to improve our fair city, Oakland’s “potential” is far past cliché.  Oakland seems to be a city condemned to have potential, and only potential.  I want to examine why this is the case– that is, what gets in the way of Oakland reaching its intended destination.

Obviously Oakland is blessed with incredible resources: a bustling sea and air port; ridiculously high human capital; proximity to San Francisco, Silicon Valley, UC Berkeley, and the National Laboratories; a rich history of progressive social movements; national, linguistic, racial, and ethnic diversity; significant greenspace; a central location on several major transportation networks.  Anyone who writes on Oakland is familiar with this litany.

The problems are also obvious: high crime, bad (but recently improving) public schools, highly concentrated poverty in East and West Oakland, crumbling infrastructure.  Also, the Oakland Raiders.

The nagging question, as an Oaklander and a political-scientist-in-training: why is the political system unable to rise to the challenge?  Why can’t we move from a high-crime, bad-education, low-investment equilibrium onto an upward trending path?  Why can’t we emulate the recent successes of cities of similar size, or even Brooklyn itself?

I think the answer lies in its troubled politics, rather than any social, cultural, or even economic explanations.

Below, I’m going to offer my political explanations.  At some point in the future, I want to back up those explanations with data, rather than just my lifetime of experience.

First, however, let’s list some alternative political hypotheses:

  1. Oakland voter behavior:  Oakland gets what its voters want.  The majority of voters (and majorities in several council districts) are super-lefty, impractical, NIMBYs.  They view City Hall as a forum to advance their ideological issues, rather than the institution that is supposed to make sure that public services are running properly and efficiently.  Oakland voters vote for Ron Dellums, Jean Quan, Nancy Nadel, and other incompetents, rather than competent managers and chief executives; the city cannot transcend the wounds self-inflicted by its voters.
  2. The State context/State institutions:  The State of California is a basket case in general; the state puts all sorts of ridiculous constraints in local governments (including but not limited to Prop. 13), and frequently ‘steals’ as much money as possible from them.  The most vulnerable municipalities, like Oakland, are going to be hurt most by this systemic dysfunction.
  3. Local institutions:  For various historical reasons, Oakland is saddled with a bad City Charter.  For instance, we have a hybrid strong mayor-city administrator system, in that the city administrator has the responsibility, but not the authority, to run the city effectively.  The mayor and the city council constantly meddle with the administrator and the rest of the bureaucracy.  Special pleading becomes endemic, and as a result, the folks that should have the long-term interest of the city (as a whole) in mind (professional technocrats in the bureaucracy), are unable to do so.  In particular, the mayor can blame the city administrator when it’s convenient (as Ron Dellums did repeatedly) even when the mayor is himself/herself the problem.  Various other issues (like a district-system for the city council that promotes parochialism) just compound these problems.
  4. Public Employee Unions:  They’re too powerful, and they make unreasonable demands on the public fisc.  Efforts to reform city finances pound up against an immovable wall of union opposition.

While each of these hypotheses has some explanatory merit, I think the underlying explanation (and the causa causans of 1. and 3. above, and potentially 4.) has to do with the distribution of power across the political system in Oakland. Specifically, it has to do with the unique constellation of economic interests in the city, and their effect on the political system.

Oakland’s dysfunction sits at the intersection of two political economic realities: the city’s private sector is dominated by large firms (through no fault of their own), and the city’s civil sector (in Oakland, called Community Based Organizations; everywhere else, called NGOs) is significantly dependent on an entrenched patronage network that emanates from City Hall.  These two groupings are powerful because they are able to deliver political resources to officials in the form of votes, campaign volunteers, free publicity, and campaign contributions.  In turn, the political and administrative systems in Oakland tend to serve the needs of these two groupings, rather than the wider municipal interests.

Large Firms

As a (formerly) major industrial hub, Oakland has a private sector historically dominated by a relatively small number of large firms.  Henry Kaiser, of course, started this trend during World War II.  Along with Kaiser’s legacy, the Port of Oakland; APL and other shipping lines; Clorox; Dryers, Mother’s Cookies, and other food producers; Safeway; and other large firms continued or continue it in the post-war era.  Along with the remaining large firms, large real estate developers currently have much influence on the political system, including the firms that developed Uptown, the Jack London Square area, and Leona Quarry.


I have nothing against big firms and their preferences.  In fact, I think their influence on Oakland has been on net positive for a long time.  I hope they continue to pursue their interests vigorously.

The preferences of large firms, however, tend to be to expedite large projects, and to secure favorable terms on taxes or regulations.  Again, nothing wrong with that; more power to them.  The whole urban planning approval process in Oakland is a goddamned shitshow.  But, Oakland ends up stuck in a Catch-22: only large firms can expend the resources necessary to get approval for projects in Oakland; and with this avenue open to them, large firms don’t need to push for general administrative reform.

Ideally, there would be a well-organized small- to medium-sized business lobby in Oakland that would be pushing for policies that helped them.  Small businesses, for instance, are more concerned with the general speed of permit approval (large firms can lobby for expedited consideration from the city council); or with policies that combat blight and crime; or with street cleaning, road repair, or sane parking policies.  As institutions, Clorox or the Port, for all the taxes that they pay and the jobs that they provide, aren’t really concerned with Oakland’s crime rate or other quality of life indicators.  Their workers commute into downtown Oakland, or they work in highrises.  Individuals that work for such firms, care about quality of life issues, of course, and they do make their voices heard.  But crime, or other quality of life issues, have little effect on the day-to-day affairs of large firms, relative to, say, a newly-openend restaurant or nail salon.

This is no fault of Clorox or the other large firms in Oakland.  It just means that, because large firms have historically dominated the private sector in Oakland, the needs of large firms are overrepresented in the political system, versus more “bread-and-butter” small business needs.  There aren’t powerful private sector voices for increased investment in policing, blight abatement, basic infrastructure repairs, or in general efficient provision of public goods like permitting.

The very new and very admirable Oakland Builders Alliance might be the only politically relevant organization to represent small- and medium-sized business interests.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some group, but I can think of no other politically-relevant, city-wide small business association.  (There are several neighborhood merchant associations of varying quality.)  Either way, there are too few and they are too weak.

Oakland still lacks an organization like SPUR.  (If there were one organization I could create for Oakland, it would be something like SPUR.)  The relative political weakness and lack of organization of the small and medium-sized business community means that quality of life issues and administrative reform fall by the wayside.  Again, individuals concerned with these issues form groups like Make Oakland Better Now, but small businesses remain largely unorganized.  (Larry Tramutola, maybe organize this???)

Here’s an interesting counter-factual:  Imagine that the amount of political time and energy spent fighting over/approving the Uptown development or Leona Quarry was instead spent on streamlining the permit/development approval process for all of Oakland.

The Patronage Network

In the last mayoral election, low-information voters and pundits accused Don Perata of being the ‘machine politician’ or the ‘patronage’ candidate.  The people who made these claims tended to be new transplants to our city, young urban hipsters, or white “progressives” in the Hills.  Taking their cue from Robert Gammon at the East Bay Express, they viewed Don as the second coming of Tammany Hall.  These folks– neophytes to Oakland’s politics– perhaps didn’t realize that Bob Gammon has been slandering Don and his associates since I was 14 years old (that’s almost 20 years!), even before he ‘left’ the Oakland Tribune.

(I call Bob Gammon the Captain Ahab of the East Bay.  Given his support for Jean Quan, Gammon’s lack of political judgment is clear.  Having read his ‘work’ for decades now, it is unclear to me if he has any political beliefs at all; if he cared about the community, he wouldn’t mislead his readers so relentlessly.  My best guess is that he is a political nihilist.  I don’t know why he thinks Oakland can afford the luxury of misinformation in the service of incompetents like Jean Quan.)

In fact, these voices were protesting too much.  A patronage system exists in Oakland, but it doesn’t orbit Don Perata.  It comes from the incestuous relationship between City Hall and many of the non-governmental organizations in Oakland.  These NGOs are the other major power center in Oakland politics.  They provide elected officials with endorsements, ‘lefty-cred’, young campaign volunteers, and financing in the form of targeted mailers to their membership.

For the most part, they too do not care about supposedly ‘conservative’ city-wide quality of life policies like increased police, blight abatement, faster permitting, or improved public works.  Rather, they care foremost about securing (or maintaining) a funding stream for their particular, parochial interests: privately provided social services, social programs, citizen ‘education’ drives, and so forth.  A non-profit gravy train.

This is different from private donations to candidates influencing politician behavior.  This is also different from public employee unions advocating for their interests.

When I refer to patronage, I am being very specific:  I am referring to a system in which taxpayer money goes to private organizations that then turn around and support their elected patrons in the next election.

Here is one example of how patronage works in Oakland:

In the year leading up to the November 2010 mayoral election, folks were understandably concerned with the lack of public knowledge of the new voting system, Ranked Choice Voting.  The city decided to spend some money educating voters. Among other organizations, this money went to Oakland Rising, so they could canvass the flatlands of Oakland, and inform residents of this new voting system.  At the time, I understood that Jean Quan’s adult daughter served on Oakland Rising’s board of directors (or an affiliated NGO’s board), though I am now having trouble confirming this online.

Oakland Rising recruits underprivileged youths to work on various progressive causes (see the mission description below).  To inform the public about Ranked Choice Voting, Oakland Rising presumably built a volunteer database, hired workers, became familiar with the neighborhoods, trained canvassers, and so forth.  (At least, that’s how I’ve done it as an experienced field organizer.)

Fast forward to election season:  having spent city resources training youths on how to canvass in vote-rich, heavily African-American sections of Oakland, Oakland Rising’s sister organization deployed its new skill set on behalf of Jean Quan’s mayoral campaign.

I have no information as to whether they used the same volunteer database, canvassers, precinct maps, etc. for both operations.  Maybe they can clear that up for us.

What is Oakland Rising’s mission?  Let’s let Oakland Rising speak for itself:

Oakland Rising emerged in 2006 out of the vision of several social justice Executive Directors of color.  They recognized that, we, the progressive community in Oakland, are at a crossroads. For years, we have been locked out of City Hall [GFW: a truly bizarre claim]– the efforts of base building organizations and advocates have been reduced to actions and demonstrations in the City Center, 2 minute testimonies at city council hearings, delegation meetings seen by elected officials as obligatory rather than opportunities to co-strategize. With one fight after the other, community members, leaders, and advocates show up in the hundreds at city hall, only to find out that deals have been cut months and weeks before on key issues that impact their families, neighborhoods and communities.

It was clear to them that in order to advance a social justice policy agenda, the social justice community needed on-going electoral infrastructure to garner the attention and respect of elected officials and build the support and participation of low-income communities of color to win at the ballot box. There needed to be an element of electoral organizing in order to shift political power and ensure lasting victories in our city’s government.  While many social justice organizations have sophisticated electoral organizing programs and experience, the lack of coordination and long-term collective vision has often led to last-minute collaboration on tactical electoral campaigns that didn’t reach a scale of significance.

These Executive Directors envisioned an alliance of organizations collectively working on electoral organizing, aligning their organizational work through ongoing civic participation and strengthening Oakland’s social justice movement by working towards a broader vision of a better Oakland. The founders believed that Oakland needed a place-based, long-term political strategy and organization to unite and energize the base-building organizations’ membership and policy/advocacy organizational networks and lead the movement to political victory.

Which is all fine and good– EXCEPT WHEN YOUR ORGANIZATIONS ARE RECEIVING FUNDING FROM THE CITY ITSELF.  If they are, then it’s a classic patronage system:  An organization drives electoral outcomes; elected officials send taxpayer resources to that organization; the organization supports these patrons.

Reread the mission statement.  To me, this sounds like they have set up an organization to influence politics to obtain funding from the taxpayer for their organization and other similar ones.  Um…

I do not imply that this behavior is illegal.  Oakland Rising ensured the legality of this by establishing a sister 501(c)(4) organization which was the organization working for Quan.  And in fact, patronage networks the world over are typically fully legal.  (On the other hand, corruption, like an actual quid pro quo, is illegal.)  And lots of organizations use 501(c)(4)s to advance their partisan interests; though the allied 501(c)(3)s aren’t normally accepting taxpayer money simultaneously (even if it is legal to do so).

Oakland Rising’s statement on their position in the patronage network is here.  The ambiguity of this situation is only compounded by the fact that both the 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) seem to use the same website and are issuing single press releases for both organizations.

For Quan, of course, this was a smart political move: Quan’s support in African-American parts of Oakland was always weak; she was endorsed by very, very few African-American leaders and institutions in Oakland; her few events in African-American majority areas were poorly attended (we went to them); and she had far fewer volunteers and field operatives than Perata’s campaign, and before election weekend, had no ground game in East or West Oakland.  (Despite what her boosters in the blogosphere think, she did not go “block by block” in these parts of Oakland.  How do I know?  We were there every day.  We never saw any other campaign at any time over months.)  Using Oakland Rising was a good way to deploy a “ground game” in the last few days of the election.

(Shockingly, no news organization would follow up on this particular example of patronage during the campaign, despite how often we raised it with them.  Perhaps a testament to how common this is.)

And it is common in Oakland to send city resources to organizations that, in one way or another, with various parallel organizations, assist in the campaigns of elected officials.  While this type of petty patronage is common in many political systems, I believe that it is particularly bad in Oakland, where well-organized activist pressure groups (in this case, supposedly progressive organizations looking for funding from the city to run their various social programs) have captured city government.  The progressive inclinations of the electorate (which I share) lead the electorate give the benefit of the doubt to these organizations.

Let me be clear– campaigns usually reach out to like-minded civil society organizations to help find volunteers and other political resources.  What’s different about the above scenarios is that they involve TAXPAYER MONEY.

Go to a city council meeting and see how many organizations are pleading LOUDLY for funding; these groups put the fear of god into the council members since these organizations can revoke political benefits (votes, volunteers, endorsements, mailers, so forth).  Council candidates labeled “anti-community” or “anti-progressive” will not get very far.  Rather, council members compete to shower benefits onto these organizations, perhaps even believing that they have an impact on the community.

And maybe they are great organizations providing very needed public services! Hard, econometric data on such effectiveness, which would allow for true cost-benefit analyses, are notoriously hard to produce, and is completely lacking for Oakland NGOs.  Nonetheless, these organizations clearly have important impacts on individuals underserved in the community, regardless of cost-effectiveness.  Oakland Rising, for one, seems to have admirable goals.  And it is certainly centrally located and well liked in the “progressive” community in Oakland.

But whether these organizations are admirable, lets not kid ourselves: they are also part of an entrenched patronage network that has existed– and grown more powerful– for at least a decade if not longer.

Budgets have to be written, and at a time of forced austerity, something has to give.  Unfortunately, in Oakland, cops are laid off but the patronage money keeps flowing.  Once patronage systems are established, they are difficult to rip apart.

Don’t believe the patronage network exists?  How about more examples:  Marleen Lee describes another channel of unaccountable patronage here.  Then there was the unaccountable (and thankfully repealed) “paygo” money given to city council members to spend in their districts on whatever they wanted, which councilwoman Quan used to pay for a mural (!) in the Dimond District during the mayoral campaign.  A snapshot in time of Oakland’s never-ending corruption problem at City Hall is summarized by Chip Johnson here.  Perhaps the worst (and most tragic) recent example of pervasive patronage was the City establishment’s relationship with the now defunct Your Black Muslim Bakery, a criminal organization posing as a religious organization, which ended up assassinating journalist Chauncey Bailey.

And surprise, surprise, Don Perata is not involved with this shady patronage emanating from City Hall.  But but but but but the East Bay Express!  All those articles!  If you still believe anything they have to say, I have a bridge running between Yerba Buena Island and West Oakland that I’d like to sell you.


The result of the influence of these two powerful constituencies in Oakland, fighting for their interests, is that there is no one powerful enough to argue for simple quality of life issues: more police, more housing, more development in West and East Oakland, fewer potholes, cleaner streets, faster permitting, blight abatement, etc.  Instead of advocating for city-wide and systemic reform, the most powerful organizations in Oakland advocate for their parochial interests.  (Again, I don’t blame them!  I would be surprised if they didn’t!)

Unlike in other cities, in Oakland there aren’t countervailing powers in the form of effective small business or homeowner lobby groups.

As a result, Oakland’s political system is focused on:

  1. Approving and expediting large projects (fine! but let’s not forget the little businesses!), and
  2. Funding dubious non-governmental social programs (maybe fine! but maybe not! Do we have cost-benefit analyses that they work?).

To my mind, this particular distribution of power across Oakland’s political system explains the long-term and stagnant political and administrative trends in our city.

[Edited at wife’s suggestion to remove some tart language and the familial disclosure.]

Update from Uganda

October 23, 2011
Makerere University

Makerere University Main Building

I have now been in Uganda about a month, working on my dissertation research.  It has been pretty productive– far more so than Turkey:  a combination of the language barrier in Turkey, the lack of a central Irish Pub where helpful academic and development workers congregate and share ideas and contacts, and the general eagerness of Ugandan bureaucrats to listen to my plea and help me if they can.  I located very useful reports and data sets from the development community, and acquired a bunch of local books (super cheap here– like $3 a book).  I’ve also joined MISR as an affiliate and the Makerere University Library.  Finally, I’ve applied for a Ugandan research permit, which has been approved by UNCST and is now with the Office of the Presidency awaiting their approval sometime in the next month.

I spent the first week or so at Backpackers, which is pretty far away from the center of town (40 min by boda boda, a motorcycle taxi in Uganda).  But I met some great people there, both Ugandan and Muzungu, and managed to find a more permanent place to live while in Kampala.  I’m living in Ntinda. I’ve also been catching up with friends.

With Nicole back in the States and me having been to Uganda last summer, I’ve pretty much been grinding out work.  Drafting interview questions, reading background material, locating reports in various libraries, selecting rural districts to visit and research, and making tentative contacts at Ministries while I wait for research approval.  I’ve been watching a lot of soccer in the afternoon and evenings.   And I joined Kabira Country Club (a necessity since my living arrangements are very Spartan, and because Nicole required that I get in shape in return for her approval to go to Uganda for another three months).

A big chunk of my time here is going to suck.  I am taking digital photographs of Ugandan newspaper articles from 1986 to 2000, filling a gap in the quantitative documentary record.  It should take me about 3 weeks to complete this effort, in a dark, dusty, barely-organized, mosquito-ridden Makerere University library basement.  Blah.

Once that is complete, contingent on approval from the Office of the Presidency, I will go ‘upcountry’ and interview local government stakeholders across Uganda.  They will hopefully be able to fill some gaps in the historical record on local governance and insurgency/counterinsurgency.  While these won’t be full ethnographies, I will be cross-checking problematic claims made in other primary and secondary sources.  I was originally going to do this by motorcycle, but Nicole and some friends talked me out of this adventure.  Boo.

EuroCrisis 101: Or, some questions for Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz

September 17, 2011

In my day job I claim to be a political scientist.  In my hobby time, I claim to be a political economist.  Most materialists and institutionalists don’t really distinguish between the two fields, but in the current economic and financial crisis (2007 – ?), these fields are especially blurred.  I’ve studied the current crisis quite in depth in the domestic context, but despite being an “International Relations” political scientist, I don’t have a really firm grasp on the international and institutional context of the situation in the Eurozone.  So I have a bunch of questions for people who do; maybe Professor Krugman or Professor Stiglitz can answer them?

Reading the September 17, 2011, issue of the Economist precipitated these questions, especially their prescription for future Eurohealth [my additions in brackets]:

A rescue must do four things fast.  First it must make clear which of Euorpe’s governments are deemed illiquid and which are insolvent [meaning which just need capital infusions to weather the storm, and which are unable to pay back their liabilities even if given capital infusions], giving unlimited backing to the solvent governments but restructuring the debt of those that can never repay it. [However, I agree with Felix Salmon that this is essentially a distinction without  much of a difference.]  Second, it has to shore up Europe’s banks to ensure they can withstand a sovereign default.  Third, it needs to shift the euro zone’s macroeconomic policy from its obsession with budget-cutting towards an agenda for growth. And finally, it must start the process of designing a new system to stop such a mess ever being created again.

So I have institutional questions for someone more versed in this field than I.  Assuming that we are slouching toward Mount Megiddo, and that informal institutions, conventions, norms, or constraints are basically out the window…

  1. Can the ECB ‘nationalize’ or even buy failing banks, either on the periphery (Greek, Portuguese banks, etc.) or in the center (Dutch, French banks, etc.)?  Could the ECB go around the French or German governments and purchase French or German banks, if they deem it necessary?  What are the legal issues surrounding such steps, laying aside the conventions that prevent such thing from happening (at least in the case of French or German banks).
  2. Presumably, the French and German governments could nationalize their banks at will.  They are constrained by domestic politics from doing so.  This seems obvious, but are there hard constraints that I am not aware of?
  3. I understand that the French and German banks are the most exposed to this crisis.  But are there ‘southern’ banks that could be nationalized to head off the crisis, from reaching the ‘northerners’?
  4. Do you think its possible to create Eurobonds for past debt only, i.e. no future debts?
  5. If the ECB or another facility, or sovereign nations, bought or simply ‘nationalized’ the banks most in need, or created ‘temporary, one-time’ Eurobonds for past debts, could these new creditors demand as ‘collateral’ or conditions:
    1. a tariff on Greek (or other ‘defaulting’ sovereign) goods and services (perhaps a super VAT), triggered on a future inability or unwillingness to pay?
    2. a financial transaction fee on Greek (or other ‘defaulting’ sovereign) finances—private finances or public finances, with a similar trigger?
    3. conditional Greek (or other ‘defaulting’ sovereign) budget oversight/approval?
  6. Do you think such collateral or conditions would actually discipline the ‘southern’ governments and their (nontheless multinational) financial sector, and do you think that ‘northern’ governments and financial interests would view this as credible collateral?  Would the Germans and the French, and their banks, go along with such a deal?
  7. To address a negative GDP spiral, can the ECB, the World Bank, or some other entity (which???) finance Keynesian stimulus in the shrinking Southern European economies, such as, say, high speed rail from Athens to Venice (spitballing), or some other infrastructure development?  They could presumably require the labor to be local, and thus stimulate the local economies…
  8. How does Basel III fit in to future banking regulations?  Does the EU or the ECB have a mechanism to tighten banking rules, to make banking more ‘boring’ as (Prof. Krugman has advocated), or is it just up to Basel III?  Is there a failsafe for the Europeans?  And does the push for more boring banking have to come from outside the EU?

And if we assume that the ECB is a free actor that isn’t under the control of the French and the Germans, how do these answers change?  (I can imagine that panicking ECBankers might act without approval of their central governments, it that is even possible.)

Does anybody know the answers to these questions?

Update: Actually, Matt Yglesias might know too, given his careful study of these issues, as an institutionalist.

10 Years On: 9/11

September 4, 2011

I originally posted this story on Daily Kos on 9/11/06, the five year anniversary of 9/11.

I’ve edited the story at points, but I’ve noted such edits in text with brackets.

9/11 stories are probably universally difficult to tell. I’ve always had trouble conveying to my friends and family what it was like in New York City on 9/11 and for the months afterwards. Some memories will always and only be my own, impossible to express fully. They are usually little details that don’t get through the media filter. The massive amount of dust covering sidewalks and cars when I returned to my office downtown a week later. The lingering stench of ground zero. The strangeness of Manhattan streets empty except for emergency vehicles. Thousands upon thousands of fliers in the subway stations posted by families begging for any information about missing persons–describing the height, weight, hair color, or tattoos of the lost–even the tower and floor of their office. Wondering, on the way to work, if any of those people got home safely. The eyes of dust-covered people staggering northward through the East Village on 9/11.

My story from 9/11 itself is rather mundane. Thousands like it (and, of course, thousands worse) occurred all across Manhattan five [now ten] years ago.

I was working as a paralegal in downtown Manhattan in the fall of 2001. Two friends and I–recent college graduates–had rented a preposterously small apartment at the corner First Avenue and 12th Street.

On my way to work on September 11, just as I reached the subway entrance two blocks from my apartment, I noticed that all pedestrians had stopped their morning routines and were looking south by the hundreds, toward what looked like an enormous fire in one of the World Trade Center towers. Smoke was already drifting east toward Brooklyn, and I remember being struck by how large the fire seemed to be.

From the pavement, I called my supervisor Jim, who [I believed] was probably already at work just five blocks east of the towers. I got his voice mail: “Hey Jim, it looks like there’s a fire in the World Trade Center. I’m not even going to try to get down there with the subway, so I’ll find a cab and I’ll be a bit late.” I then called my mom in Moraga. She knew I worked near the World Trade Center, and she worries a lot. So I woke her just after 06:00 Pacific Coast time, and told her that there was a fire in the World Trade Center but that I was okay. I don’t think she was awake enough for the conversation to register, but in retrospect I’m glad I called. The cell phone system soon crashed.

My curiosity got the better of me, and instead of taking a cab directly downtown, I walked the two blocks back to my apartment to turn on the news. My roommate’s sister was visiting that week, and she was still asleep when I turned on the television. We didn’t have cable, which meant that our rabbit-eared TV usually got its reception from the antenna on top of the north tower [of the WTC]. But this morning, only one station came through: CBS, which had another antenna in Brooklyn.

Despite the chaos in Dan Rather’s studio, the general outline of the morning’s events came through clear. A terrorist attack. Both towers had been hit. The Pentagon and possibly the State Department had been hit. We wanted more news and an Internet connection, so L. and I decided to walk over two blocks and across Union Square to an Internet café [the News Cafe] that usually had multiple televisions tuned to news stations.

As we walked, I started calling my friends in Manhattan, but I could reach no one. The phone lines were jammed or destroyed, and if I did get a connection, it went to straight to voicemail. Two of my friends lived one block south of the World Trade Center, but I could not reach them. I was miraculously lucky that day: of all my [probably dozens of] friends working in finance downtown, none died.

The café was, unsurprisingly, packed with people, shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-back, all watching the images on the televisions. [Perhaps 100 people jammed in the place.]  As I moved to the front, and bought L. water and myself a coffee, I overheard a newscaster say the word “collapsed.” I looked up to the television and saw only one tower standing in the picture. I asked the man next to me, “One of them collapsed?” The south tower had crumbled at 09:59, as we walked to the café.

I repositioned L. and myself near the door. We watched newscasters try to keep up with the information spilling across their desks, into their earphones, and onto their monitors.

Around 10:28 the north tower began collapsing on the television screens. Several of us raced outside, where we could see straight down 5th Avenue to the area soon named ground zero.

The tower had already finished collapsing and gigantic billows of dust and soot pushed outwards and then upwards like a mushroom cloud turned on its head. The streets were empty of cars. Several women were screaming and crying hysterically on the sidewalks. Some men stood dazed, or on phones.

I walked back into the café. And watched more news. A short time later–how long I can’t remember–as the patrons in the crowded café stood silent and awed in front of the televisions, a piercing alarm went off far in the back of the café, near the computers. The alarm was shrill like a fire alarm in a school–the kind where you put your hands over your ears. In this café, packed wall to wall with people, with only a single door as an exit, in the initial hysteria on September 11, 2001, someone in the back yelled:


The crowd surged in panic toward the door, near where L. and I stood. The press of the crowd instantly pinned our arms to our chests, shuffled us involuntarily toward the door, momentarily pinned us in the doorway, and then wrenched us to the street. I remember looking at L. next to me and hoping she was okay. We were some of the first people to get pushed out of the door since we had been standing near it.

Finally free, L. swung right, away from the crowd that was now rapidly popping, person-by-person, out of the doorway like rubber balls from a tube. I stood about 5 to 10 feet from the door, in the middle of the crowd, as people burst forth and fanned out. Instinctively foolish, I stood there and grabbed those people who emerged, stumbled, and fell. I put people back on their feet, and then they started running again.

But then the alarm itself seemed to burst from the café and run down the street. A businesswoman dressed in a blue-grey suit ran down the street, with the alarm screaming from her purse. As she turned a corner and the alarm dissipated, some of us guessed that she was carrying a panic alarm to protect her from muggers. Or she had an anti-theft devise on her laptop. Or perhaps she was trying to steal computer equipment from the café. In any event, for all I know, she may still be running.

L. was now standing in tears on the sidewalk, as were many others. I comforted her, told her that everything was okay and that it was a false alarm. Unfortunately, the events earlier that day were not.

2012 and the Progressive Agenda

August 18, 2011

As we swing into the 2012 election cycle, I thought I would offer some free advice for Democrats.  I think the following agenda would mobilize the base of the Democratic Party, and give voters the perception that Obama is a fighter for the middle class.  (It also doesn’t increase the deficit except for student loan forgiveness.)  Given Republican control of the House, these laws almost certainly would not be adopted between now and election day, but “losing well” by forcing the Republicans on record and setting the agenda for a second term are also useful political and policy goals.  Other policies could be adopted by the administration without Congressional approval.

Family Security Act

Living Wage Act

  • Change the minimum wage to a living wage, but base it on regional costs-of-living.  New York, California, and other high cost areas would have different living wage levels than low cost areas such as Alabama and Wyoming.

Prosecute the Banksters

  • People’s anger against ‘Wall Street’ has been successfully co-opted by the corporately-financed Tea Party movement into an ‘anti-government’ feeling.  This was political malpractice on the part of the Obama administration, but I think it can be rectified.

Taxes on the Millionaires and Billionares

  • Ditto.

Student Loan Forgiveness

  • Most (if not all) other developed countries give their citizens higher education for next to nothing or for free.  It’s pretty appalling that we don’t.  Also, it would help my family out a lot!

Family Home Debt Forgiveness

  • While we’re at it, why not knock 10 percent off everyone’s mortgage?  Currently, homeowners have been the only ones punished by the housing bubble; banks still hold the mortgages on a dollar-for-dollar basis.  Stick it to the banks– always a good election strategy.

Obviously these are pretty pie-in-the-sky… but the President and Congressional Democrats need to lose well going into 2012.  Heck, they might also win a couple of fights before winning the election!

The Political Economy of Decline in California

August 9, 2011

Co-authored commentary with Nicole, just posted to the California Journal of Politics and Policy.

Link to the journal website (must register for free copy).

Or, link to .pdf file.

The Political Economy of Decline in California

Nicole and George Willcoxon are doctoral candidates in political science at UC Berkeley

Is California a ‘failing state’?  When political scientists refer to states they generally do not mean, for instance, Maryland, Hawaii, or Alaska, but rather the state as the collection of political institutions that govern and administer a given geographic territory—institutions such as the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police, and the legislature.  To assess whether these ‘state institutions’ are in decline, our academic field investigates whether such institutions can provide public services and solve collective problems, and whether their performance is improving, stable, or worsening over time.

Typically, scholars of state weakness, decline, and failure almost exclusively study countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and it is counterintuitive to group California together with developing countries, given that our state is a global leader in technology, cultural production, agriculture, and tourism.  However, we believe that California is beginning to show features of political and administrative incoherence usually found in developing countries.

True, public administration in California is fairly resilient in the face of the current crisis, and it continues to fulfill basic functions despite the seemingly permanent fiscal chaos in Sacramento: the highways are patrolled, judges render verdicts, children go to school, public health and public order are maintained, and the state university systems still graduate tens of thousands of students each year.  Yet, while our ‘state institutions’ are not ‘failing’ in the strictest sense, these institutions are undoubtedly in decline and are in danger of severe, irreparable, long-term damage.

State Decline in California

A simple glance at the newspaper reveals that in virtually every major public sector state capacity and service delivery are rapidly diminishing.  This trend puts paid to the analogy with developing-world public administration.  The federal courts have seized parts of California’s prison system because of human rights violations.  Our public universities have abandoned the core tenets of the longstanding Master Plan with far too little public discussion, and they are well down the road to being indistinguishable from private universities in their funding sources and exclusivity.  Public infrastructure is in abysmal and declining condition.  State parks have been shuttered.  Public servants are commonly furloughed, and state and local authorities are considering selling off government buildings and other properties.

Given the current crisis, it is hard to imagine that even twenty years ago the public administration in California could deliver services relatively efficiently and at a relatively high capacity.  Today virtually every sector of governance built up over decades of careful investment and planning across the 20th century—from the UC system to the prison system—is in danger of unraveling.

Revenue Management as State Capacity

Why does California find itself in this predicament?  Political science can help explain some causes of this deterioration, which go far beyond the need for simple belt tightening in a time of economic crisis.  In large part, the answer comes from the manner in which our state collects, adjusts, and manages its revenues.  Put simply, extracting economic resources from the population—usually through taxation, and especially from elites—is the core competency of modern, successful states.

Few findings enjoy such consensus.  Raising revenue through taxation is so crucial to state capacity that it forms the basis of large swathes of political science, sociology, and public policy literatures.  From both the right and left of the political spectrum every major scholar of state institutional development—Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, Freidrich Hayek, Samuel Huntington, Charles Tilly, and, most recently, Francis Fukuyama—puts the ability of states to raise and manage revenues at the foundation of their institutional success or failure.  States that cannot fund themselves effectively through taxation lapse into institutional decline; states that utilize other sources of revenue such as tariffs or oil and mineral wealth generally fall prey to their own unique pathologies such as economic inefficiency or the ‘resource curse’.

Collecting revenue through taxation, especially from elites, is the single most important task of successful modern states, and political scientists consider it one of the best indicators of the ‘health’ and ‘effectiveness’ of the wider set of institutions that govern society.  Citizens can argue over whether the state should be ‘generous’ or ‘stingy’ with its spending, but every government needs the capacity to adjust revenues in a flexible fashion on a year-to-year basis, given economic boom or bust.  This flexibility is an obvious cornerstone of any rational budgeting process: it is much easier to tweak tax rates or revenue sources than to tweak the bureaucracies that they fund—at least without damaging the decades-long cumulative work that it takes to build successful political institutions in the first place.

Yet the government of California is not able to generate consistent and stable revenues, or even adjust this revenue in the face of changing economic conditions; in particular, the state finds it exceptionally difficult to extract resources from elites such as corporations, millionaires, and landowners.  It is, thus, unable to perform the core function of successful modern governance.  While California can issue debt to finance its short-term deficits, borrowing is only a second-best solution to true fiscal solvency, especially given the political difficulty of running large surpluses to pay down debts rather using surpluses to increase services or decrease taxes.  As a result, we are now witnessing the beginning of a sharp decline in California’s capacity to provide public services.

Institutional Constraints in Sacramento

California’s revenues whipsaw through the business cycle due in part to an overreliance on highly volatile revenue from income taxes, sales taxes, and fees rather than relatively stable revenue from property taxes, but more importantly, due to a world-historical legislative logjam in Sacramento related to taxation.

The legislative logjam exists largely because of the combination of two dynamics: first, a counter-majoritarian requirement that raising taxes requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature; and second, new interest group politics that enforce a doctrinaire anti-tax discipline on the small-but-just-large-enough Republican minority in the legislature.

Until it was repealed last year, California had operated under a supermajority requirement to pass a budget since 1933.  With the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, voters enacted an additional supermajority requirement to raise taxes, which remains in force.  The original, budgetary supermajority rule existed with little problem for roughly sixty years, and Proposition 13’s supermajority was commonly surmounted in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Republican and Democratic legislators alike responded to California voters’ preferences for high-quality services paid for with high taxes on corporations and the wealthy, including higher taxes on landowners than currently exist.  As long as the two political parties could find negotiating space, the supermajority requirements did not preclude high quality administration, paid for in full.

This high quality administration brought significant improvements in our state’s human development.  During the 20th century, our state became the technological capital of the world, the center of the greatest public education systems in human history, and a home where most people enjoyed a relatively high standard of living.  The California Golden Age was not a fluke of nature caused by our sandy beaches and excellent skiing; prudent, high-quality public administration funded by taxation was responsible in large part for these circumstances.  We were both born in California under this social contract, an arrangement that is under siege today.

The New Age of Ideological and Party Discipline

Democrats have controlled the legislature almost continually since 1970.  And starting in the 1990s, Democrats have enjoyed ever-larger majorities, reflecting the growing dominance of Democratic Party registration and left-leaning policy preferences in California.  These majorities would prefer to tax corporations and the extremely wealthy in order to maintain what they perceive as an equitable provision of public services.

Yet, while these large legislative majorities have had the responsibility and the democratic mandate to maintain the high-quality government services they promised during election campaigns, they have not had the authority to pay for these services unless they could draw some minority party members to their side, or win an almost unobtainable two-thirds of the seats in the legislature.  This arrangement essentially granted a veto to a well-organized minority faction in the legislature, which was not a problem so long as there was bargaining space for the two parties to compromise.  But starting in the late 1990s, the dwindling number of Republicans in the legislature figured out this leverage, and they have used it to hold hostage virtually any tax increase, despite being unable to convince a majority of voters in the state to endorse their small-government agenda and elect more Republicans to the legislature.

What precipitated this change in Republican legislative behavior?  Republicans, even early in the ‘Tax Revolt’ era, had previously considered taxes to be a normal public policy tool.  Today taxes are anathema.  Republicans have shifted their legislative voting patterns because deviating from the ‘party-line’ has become political suicide; most importantly, these legislators are reacting to a new ideological and interest group driven party discipline in Sacramento.  Relative to their left-leaning counterparts, right-leaning, anti-tax interest groups are better organized, better funded, more ideologically driven, and less pragmatic.  With fewer legislators to pressure, right-leaning groups also have better focus.  As a result, Republican legislators face nearly insurmountable incentives to vote against any tax increases (even tweaks!), because right-leaning interest groups can very credibly threaten ‘defecting’ legislators by running primary challengers against them or by withholding campaign donations or endorsements.  Among the most effective such pressure groups are the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Americans for Tax Reform, led by Grover Norquist.

Term limits, uncompetitive redistricting, and a rightward shift in preferences among Republican voters contribute to a system in which independent-minded Republican legislators are unwilling to strike a bargain with Democrats on taxes.  Yet we believe the single biggest explanation of Republican legislators’ voting behavior on tax policy is the effect of the anti-tax interest groups. Events during the height of the recent budget negotiations strongly suggest that interest group pressure, rather than voter preferences or uncompetitive districts, drive Republican behavior in the California Legislature.  On June 10, the newly created California Citizens’ Redistricting Commission released its first draft maps.  These maps radically realigned virtually every legislative and congressional district, and the media and analysts breathlessly declared the maps a political “tsunami” (San Jose Mercury News), a political “earthquake” (Politico), or another such dramatic event.  Eric McGhee at the Public Policy Institute of California determined that the realignment was so complete that 25 out of 120 state legislators would share a district with another incumbent legislator, and that perhaps as many as seven additional Assembly seats and four additional Senate seats were now competitive.  At the time of the budget negotiations, a consensus emerged that in the 2012 general election, Democrats had a very good chance of picking up a couple of seats in each chamber and reaching the two-thirds majority necessary to raise tax rates and call a constitutional convention.  These ‘tectonic’ shifts could not have escaped notice of the Republican legislators, and they happened just as pressure to agree to Governor Brown’s budget plan was highest.  Yet budget negotiations broke down only a few days later.

Even though the redistricting tsunami and the subsequent breakdown of budget negotiations happened nearly simultaneously, we believe that if voter preferences were driving legislative behavior during the budget negotiations then two things could have happened.  First, Republicans in newly competitive seats could have switched their support to the Governor’s budget to appeal to the preferences of the median voter in their new districts, with Brown making some minor concessions.  Second, the Republican caucus as a whole could have shifted the bargaining terms to react to their newly precarious political position.  Neither event took place, which suggests that the pressure of anti-tax interest groups—which was intense and constant both before and after the release of the redistricting maps—trumped legislators’ perceptions about voter behavior in their districts.  Future, more detailed, multi-methods research should be able to answer these questions more comprehensively.[1]

On the other hand, with less intense pressure coming from their own interest groups, Democrats have repeatedly proposed significant spending cuts over several budget cycles.  In other words, the incentives are misaligned for a ‘grand bargain’ that cuts some spending and raises some taxes and, indeed, are aligned asymmetrically between the two parties:  Republican legislators are less willing to bend than their Democratic counterparts.  Governor Brown proposed a ‘grand bargain’, as Governor Schwarzenegger did before him, but unless the incentives facing Republican legislators, the supermajority requirement for taxes, or both, change significantly, our political leaders will be unable to slip the iron fetters on the budget process.

These political arrangements act as a ‘ratchet effect’ on government finances in California regardless of economic circumstances: tax rates go downward easily, but upward only with herculean effort.  Yet, instead of dramatically lowering public expenditures as was intended (‘starving the beast’), the ratchet effect has led to the type of hand-waving, smoke-and-mirrors budgetary gimmicks that have characterized budget negotiations in Sacramento for at least a decade and have put California’s credit rating in the tank.  (Ironically, the same political factions that wish the government to operate ‘like a business’ have prevented California from raising taxes in the same fashion that any business might raise its prices.)

The budget enacted on June 30 is a vast improvement over the hand-waving budgets of the Schwarzenegger era, but its success relied heavily on luck and the passage last year of Proposition 25.  Higher than anticipated tax revenues and the new simple majority requirement for budgets that do not include tax increases allowed the Democratic legislature and Governor Brown to enact a budget without Republican interference.  But the budget deal punted again on raising taxes on the wealthiest Californians and corporations.

A Grim Future

The risks of continued gridlock are stark: far fewer weeks of K-12 education per year, decrepit roads, poor families and the unemployed abandoned to their fate, higher education focusing not on the best students but on the most ‘profitable’ ones, and declining standards of living for all Californians.  Yet, changing the state constitution to lower the supermajority requirement for tax increases requires the same legislative supermajority, and the anti-tax discipline enforced on Republican officeholders shows little sign of abating.  If anything, California has exported its longstanding anti-tax ideology, almost off-the-shelf, to the rest of the country.  Similar budgetary gridlock is a growing concern in Congress, where external actors such as the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, Americans for Prosperity, Fox News and its commentators, Rush Limbaugh, and various corporate-funded Tea Party groups impose an increasingly strict discipline on Republican congressmen and women, short-circuiting any attempts at brokering legislative deals with Democratic colleagues, such as during the recent debt-limit negotiations.  But instead of a supermajority requirement for tax increases, Congress is struggling with its own institutional hurdles in the form of divided government and the Senate filibuster.

So for the foreseeable future, our state institutions will likely be left in a condition of arrested development and decline—similar to struggling developing countries—despite large majorities of the public and the legislature supporting high-quality public service provision.  (The public also likes low taxes in general; but clearly supports higher taxes on the extremely rich and even themselves, if such taxes are linked with maintained or improved public services.)

Since the collapse of the efforts of the California Constitutional Reform Commission (1995), most attempts to precipitate thoroughgoing constitutional reform have failed.  A recent bright spot has been the ongoing work of the California Forward coalition.  Previous editions of this journal offered many reforms worthy of consideration, and a few key reforms have recently passed.  The Citizens’ Redistricting Commission (Proposition 11) seems promising even if it failed to change legislative behavior in the most recent budget negotiations; perhaps after future elections legislators will be less responsive to interest groups and more responsive to the electoral center.  Simple majority budgeting (Proposition 25) has already led to the first on-time budget since 2006 (only the second in a decade), even if the final budget agreement still relied on a huge dollop of luck.

However, the most politically unpopular but necessary reforms remain in limbo: adjusting Proposition 13’s property tax rules, removing the supermajority requirement for tax increases, reforming the popular initiative process to reduce or eliminate budgeting through the ballot box, and loosening term limits to undercut the power of interest groups.  Furthermore, other promising, more far-reaching reforms—such as introducing some amount of proportional representation, switching to a unicameral legislature with more representatives, or eliminating unnecessary or duplicative local government authorities—are likely too ‘wonky’ or ‘foreign’ to appeal to California voters.  Asking voters to approve unpopular or obscure and unfamiliar reforms in a piecemeal fashion through the initiative process seems destined for failure.  Far more promising is bundling these bitter pills with other, more popular reforms—such as further decentralization or realignment, or a rainy day fund—as part of a broader constitutional ratification campaign in which both political parties, and leading Californians, have endorsed the whole charter, even if they object to certain parts of it.  Piecemeal reform risks allowing necessary members of the reform coalition—most importantly, the two political parties—to defect on individual initiatives and campaigns.  While a convention strategy is not without risks of dysfunction and deadlock, these risks can be mitigated with careful planning and preparation.  A convention strategy also has a chance of internalizing tradeoffs and encouraging ‘buy-in’ among the deeply divided and mutually suspicious stakeholders across California, in a way that the alternative ‘expert commission strategy’ does not.

A constitutional convention sounds more dramatic than it really is: since 1945, various US states have enacted 15 new constitutions, usually through conventions.  While our constitution has been amended hundreds of times since statehood, California has not had a constitutional convention since 1879, and has not had root-and-branch revision since 1976.  California is due for such far-reaching constitutional reforms.

Our diagnoses of the problems and our prescriptions for change are not novel—California has been in a budget crisis for a long time.  But it is not too late to arrest our state’s institutional decay; it will require sustained, intense political pressure on both Republican and Democratic legislators to call a constitutional convention.  That pressure can only come from Governor Brown, major interest groups, and the public at large.


[1]  An alternative explanation is that internal discipline kept the Republican caucus intact. However, we believe that intra-caucus discipline is being enforced by the external interest groups noted above; and that, for all intents and purposes, intra-caucus discipline is identical to interest group discipline in the California legislature. With severe term limits, incumbency loses its power to insulate legislators from interest group pressure, and power shifts from elected officials to lobbyists, consultants, and interest groups.

My Trip to Ankara

July 3, 2011

From May 27 to June 3, I left Nicole in Istanbul and traveled to Ankara. I was hoping to set up contacts for when my field research (and not the background research) actually started at the beginning of July. Ankara was as advertised: very modern, wide streets, car-centric, a bit soulless. I stayed in a nice area, called Çankaya. This area is near the ministries and agencies I wanted to approach about obtaining data.

So, one of the problems with not knowing much Turkish yet, is that when you walk in cold into a ministry and ask for help, it takes about an hour to find someone who speaks a bit of English. Then that person just tells you they have no data for me. Even just data tables, let alone reports in English.

But, as always, the World Bank Public Information Office was helpful. They had several background reports on development projects in Turkey and the Southeast in particular. The Southeastern Anatolia Project also claimed to have many reports in English, but they don’t exist electronically (despite being written over the past decade), and exist only at the regional HQ in Şanlıurfa. So I have to schedule a trip there.

I also signed up for access to the National Library, which should have annual reports from many ministries, as well as provincial yearbooks that might help construct a dataset. Hopefully I have access when I return to Ankara.  Unfortunately, the library seems to be the local ‘meet market’ for high school and college students, so it is slammed packed.  Maybe now that school is out, the library will be a bit more bearable.

Otherwise, the city got the job done as far basic field research needs: cheap food and accommodations, beer, and internet access.

Our Life in Istanbul

June 15, 2011

By Nicole

In March George and I made the big move to Istanbul. After months of mulling through our options we decided Turkey would be a relatively inexpensive–yet exciting–place to work on our dissertations. After sadly leaving my job at PPIC, I am happy to say that this is the first time since, well, ever that I am devoting my time solely to school. No work for me! Only dissertations!  But really, it’s time for us to get these suckers done. So I had to put my workaholic attitude aside for a spring and summer.  Although George has lived abroad before, this is my first time living outside of the United States, and will be the longest time I have lived outside of California. Needless to say, Turkey has been quite an experience so far.

We arrived on March 23 with way too much luggage, without a place to live. So, our excess baggage was particularly problematic as we bounced around several shoe box-sized hostels. The first two hostels were pretty much unlivable, even for a couple of days. This motivated us to diligently look for an apartment.

Still, the process was trying, and took a couple of weeks. We finally hit the jackpot and found an apartment in the Taksim Square area of Beyoglu in the New City. Ironically, it was right across the street from one of the hostels we stayed in so it seemed meant to be. Before we were able to move into the apartment, we found a hostel in the backpacker area of the “Old City” near the major historical sites. We spent several days there celebrating our arrival in Istanbul–and having a nice place to live–over hookah and Efes beer; as a result are now VIPs at the Sultan hostel.  (We also saw all the major historical sites.)

The apartment itself is perfectly setup for us: it is large, has two large desks and a king-sized velvet chair for George to use, has a dining room, and comes with lots of funky art on the walls.  Best of all, it is located just off the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Istanbul’s new city, Istiklal Caddesi. We are surrounded by a thriving bar and restaurant scene, and are put to sleep each night to the sound of thumping techno beats. We love it! Unfortunately we will only be living here for a couple more weeks, at which point we will be off to Southeastern Turkey.

For those of you who have never been here, Istanbul is a city of about 13 million people. It spans two continents across the divide between Europe and Asia. The divide runs from the Mediterranean Sea through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus, ending in the Black Sea. Istanbul straddles the Bosporus, giving it both a European and Asian side. The European side is itself split in two by the Golden Horn, an inlet that separates the “Old City” and the “New City.” The Old City is where all of the ancient Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins are, and is the main tourist area of Istanbul. The New City is much more cosmopolitan and modern, and is the center of Istanbul’s nightlife, dining, art, and shopping.

Turkey is about 98% Muslim, but is one of the most liberal Muslim countries in the world. Many women in Istanbul wear head scarves, and in some areas full black cloaks are won. But one of the first things I noticed about the city is how diverse it is. There are many different ethnic groups that live in Turkey and quite a range of religiosity; we have run into some pockets of the city where all of the women are covered and in other places it feels like walking in Union Square.

Anyhow, the language barrier has not been too much of a problem for us because most people we have encountered know some English. And we have learned enough Turkish to get by. I’d say the worst things we’ve had to deal with in Istanbul are: terrible traffic, smog, sexism and the impossibility of exercising outside (I will comment on this later), it is not pedestrian friendly, and we have to live on bottled water.

But despite some small setbacks, George and I have both grown to love Istanbul. The people are very friendly. The Turkish food is great. The views from the terraces are phenomenal: Istanbul has a gorgeous skyline and from rooftops you can see the Bosporus Strait, the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn, and the many  gorgeous mosques at 360 degrees. Istanbul is very vibrant and exciting, and we each learn something new everyday. We both recognize how fortunate we are to live here even for this short time.