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Is this thing on?

June 10, 2011
tags:

So, has anything interesting happened since I last blogged 10 months ago?

Let’s see…

  1. Nicole came and visited Uganda where she turned 26, then we celebrated our one-year anniversary in Amsterdam.
  2. Worked full-time and balls-out on the Perata for Mayor of Oakland campaign from September to November.
  3. We lost that campaign in the first ever ranked-choice-voting reversal-of-fortune.
  4. Tea Party revolution; Democrats lost the House.
  5. Was very depressed.
  6. Went to Hawaii; felt a little better.
  7. Jerry Brown sworn in as Governor.
  8. Tried to figure out what to do with my life.
  9. Nicole and I decided to get these god-dammed dissertations done as fast as possible.
  10. Gave our lovely dog Aidan to my parents for safekeeping.
  11. Turned 32 years old.
  12. Applied for eleventy-billion fellowships.
  13. Arab Spring: revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa.
  14. Nicole ended her time as a survey project manager at the Public Policy Institute of California.
  15. Moved out of our apartment in Jack London Square and did a one-month stint in Moraga.
  16. Moved to Turkey in March to conduct dissertation field research for six months.
  17. Elections in Uganda.
  18. Received only one (!) fellowship; looks like I’ll be back in Uganda in the fall. Perhaps Nigeria too, if I can swing it.  Nicole received a fellowship on campus and will be back in August.
  19. About a dozen of our friends gave birth to beautiful healthy babies.
  20. Making good progress on the dissertations.
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Food Subsidies, Handouts, and India

August 9, 2010

I read this article and came to the opposite conclusion that Matt Yglesias did— that nothing about the significant government failures and corruption leads me to optimism that a food stamp or cash handout program would be any better distributed or less corrupt.  It seems like the best, most likely-to-be-successful reform would be to better oversee and reform the current program, rather than try some radical new program.  Incremental steps first.

Theoretically, cash grants, as apposed to in-kind grants, raise the social welfare benefits that accrue from a given program.  That’s because some individuals don’t need the items being granted as much as other people, or have other needs that are greater than the items being granted.  For instance, a poor person on food stamps might have perfectly adequate food supply (say, their cousin is a farmer or their sister is a grocer), but struggle to make rent every month (say, because they live in an expensive city).  Because that person is poor, they join the food stamp program anyway, and overconsume food and underconsume rent.  Cash grants fix that problem– the recipients can use the grant for whatever the think they’re needs are most pressing.  Everybody wins– the state pays the same amount, and the poor person has their needs better served.

The argument against cash grants is that they can also be spent on ‘bad’ things, like drugs, alcohol, flat screen televisions, whatever.  Because the American social welfare system infantilizes the poor, we therefore don’t let poor people have that autonomy, and mandate that food stamps must go to food and other essential items like daipers.  Also the food industry lobby is one of the most powerful supporters of food stamps, and even orthodox conservative senators from farm states find themselves supporting this particular program, like Dick Lugar recently did in the New York Times.   Would Dick Lugar ever vote for increasing Section 8 funding?  Unlikely.

The main lessons I got from the article about India was rather different.   The first lesson was the eternal social welfare policy problem: As we used to say in policy school, the problem with the poor is that they are poor.  In other words, they have many, many problems related to poverty– not one problem with a single solution.  And (in the India case, according to the above article) the poor are often terribly in debt, and they’re forced to borrow money at bad rates.  Sounds like a job for superman– microfinance. (I’m being sarcastic, as microfinance is often sold a a panacea.)  But maybe a well-designed debt forgiveness program would work the best, in India’s case.  But the article never gave a convincing argument that a replacement government program would be better run.

Finally, perhaps much of the problem stems from financial illiteracy– which would also not be solved with cash grants or food stamps.  This problem is far more acute among peasants in developing countries than the poor in the developed world.  It’s especially a problem in places where perhaps one percent of the population has bank accounts, and peasants have few places to store money safely.  (This fact is something that Westerners who design development policies often have rarely understood.)  In fact, it would probably exacerbate the problem of poor financial decisions among the developing-country poor.  Food is food afterall, even if beneficiaries sometimes sell it on a secondary market.

This seems to be another case of orthodox economics and public policy analysis failing to take into account real existing market distorting problems on the ground– theory butting up against practicality, and failing.

Some thoughts on the Prop. 8 Ruling

August 5, 2010

Here are some initial thoughts.  I’ve taught (as a teaching assistant) two semesters of Law and Public Policy at the Goldman School, a class in which we closely examine the jurisprudence surrounding same-sex marriage, so I have some minimal expertise on the issue, even though I am a political scientist and not a lawyer.

Vaughn Walker Laying Down the Law

  1. Vaughn Walker’s opinion is pretty epic, in my initial take.  It is thorough, scholarly, clear on the legal issues.  It marshals a lot of social science in its evidence, which is apparently due in part to the plaintiffs arguing a truly masterful attack (Boies and Olson as a superlative team, who knew!), while the Prop. 8 proponents offered only token evidence of state interest in defense of a ban on same-sex marriage.  Whatever evidence they marshaled was simply destroyed at court.  This case will be taught in law school, if only as a study of how to argue (improperly) a case with ‘rational choice’ implications.
  2. The proponents of Prop. 8 could not marshal any convincing evidence for a prohibition on same-sex marriage.  This seemed to me, from the beginning, to be the crux of the case.  How does allowing same-sex marriage degrade, de-institutionalize, or lead to negative externalities to heterosexual couples?  Presumably, if this argument were true, there would be social science evidence that legalizing same-sex marriage led to some identifiable problem for the institution of marriage more generally.  Same-sex marriage is legal in multiple states and countries, and surely a statistical ‘paper trail’ should exist.  That the proponents of Prop. 8 could not find even the slimmest of evidence (which is really all that is needed under the ‘rational basis test’) suggests the ultimate struggle for marriage equality is on firm ground.  I mean, the attorneys and researchers for the proponents were paid to find such evidence.  And they couldn’t!
  3. Vaughn Walker has written an opinion designed to be the strongest possible decision on appeal.  There is A LOT for an appeals court to hang its decision on:
  4. Not only does he find that same-sex marriage bans fail to have any rational basis in any public policy outcome, but that:
  5. Even if there were such an outcome identified, that sexual and gender orientation is a suspect class, and thus laws based on such classification require stricter scrutiny, which Prop. 8 would also fail. He doesn’t actually set that level of scrutiny, but implies that:
  6. Sexual orientation discrimination is equivalent to sex and gender discrimination, and thus warrants at least that level of heightened scrutiny.  This is new law, as far as I know.  Most discriminatory laws against gays and lesbians have been struck down on the ‘rational basis test’ (Romer, the Florida adoption cases)– this ruling, I believe, is the first federal opinion raising sexual orientation to heightened scrutiny, to which sex-based discrimination has been raised for decades.
  7. Same-sex marriage extends an existing right, and doesn’t create a new right.  Walker lays this out in an admirable historical narrative detailing how abolitions of certain racial- or gender-based marriage restrictions have previously extended an existing right, rather than creating ‘new’ rights.
  8. In all, I think that Judge Walker’s ruling allows the 9th Circuit appellate panel the maximum flexibility in choosing from among the various rationales for allowing same-sex marriage.  The appellate courts can pick from among these multiple rationales.
  9. Perhaps most interestingly and hearteningly, this ruling is fantastically clear that it is pro-family.  Prop. 8 proponents (and anti-gay activists in general) cloak themselves as defending families, traditional marriage, and so forth, from dangerous innovations that might weaken the institution of marriage.  On the contrary, says Judge Walker.  Prop 8 hurts parents, families, and children by stigmatizing, delegitimizing, and actually breaching real existing family bonds that already exist!  It’s almost that like Judge Walker is adopting the saying, in the old gay rights slogan, “they’re here, they’re queer, get used to it.”  Gay- and lesbian-headed families exist in reality already!  So Prop. 8 hurts actual existing families!  This was a political strategy that the No on Prop. 8 campaign minimized, and that Judge Walker took up to his great credit.
  10. As Dahlia Lithwick has noted, this opinion is tailored specifically to Associate Justice Kennedy, who will likely be the deciding vote in a Supreme Court case.  She lays it out in great detail here.  Read it.  Basically this is the strongest possible opinion that can been upheld at the Supreme Court.  I wager that even Chief Justice Roberts might be convinced, if only to avoid the stigma of being the leader of a ‘Dred Scott’ court.
  11. Unfortunately, the fact that Judge Walker is gay will be politically (though not legally) important in the next few months.  There was no way for him to minimize that, and he correctly just plowed forward and did his best.
  12. The best part of this opinion is that it lays out in the fact record the lack of evidence for any rational public policy rationale for prohibiting same-sex marriage.  This will allow state courts all over the country to rely on his interpretation of the facts, no matter how the law is ultimately decided.  It’s a fantastic precedent.

That’s all for now, but what a great day for justice, and for my many friends who want to get married currently or at some point in the future.

UPDATE:

Another remarkable feature in this ruling, which hasn’t been so prominent or developed in other pro-same-sex rulings, is, I think, the level of humanity that Judge Walker brings to his opinion.  As I mention above, it is a deeply pro-family ruling.  But also he ably lays out the history of discrimination against gay men and lesbians to a level that previous rulings I’ve read have failed to reach.  He leaves no doubt that gays and lesbians are people who are truly harmed by Prop. 8, even though that harm actually plays only a secondary role in bolstering his legal ruling.  He’s probably daring appellate courts which might be willing to overrule him to confront those harms, and to justify how those harms’ legal weight are irrelevant to the jurisprudence of any potential reversal.

Finally, it occurs to me that this is an opinion written by someone who lives in the Bay Area, and is embedded in its society.  I don’t mean this to knock Judge Walker as being a ‘San Francisco liberal’ out of touch with ‘heartland America’– whatever the hell that means.  But I do think that he brings to the case certain assumptions that reflect a certain cosmopolitanism that we enjoy in the Bay Area.  For instance, he takes for granted that gay and lesbian families exist.  That they raise children.  That they function as families very successfully, or at least as well as heterosexual couples.  I feel that, as a Californian, Bay Area-ite (?), and Oaklander, I too take these assumptions for granted, and that it would take actual, rigorous, conclusive social-science to show me that same-sex marriage is somehow detrimental to anyone.  Judge Walker also seems to bring that sensibility to the ruling.  I don’t think that judges in other parts of the country, or even other parts of the state, would necessarily start from those sets of assumptions. I hope I’m wrong– I’m just spitballing here.

ANOTHER UPDATE:

I don’t know the mechanics of how this would work, but considering that the Prop. 8 proponents proposed virtually no factual evidence of a state interest, can the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals remand to Judge Walker for additional fact-finding?  Can they say, essentially, that: “the case presented by the proponents was so shoddy that we want you to allow more evidence to be presented?”  I don’t know if that’s possible, or common.  Does anyone know?

Budget Crisis in Oakland

August 2, 2010

I think this post at A Better Oakland, sort of demonstrates the point I was trying to make here.  I just don’t think there is any way to characterize any solution to the budget crisis in Oakland as “win-win.”  My point in that post was that difficult decisions are difficult– they create losers.  And I just don’t see Rebecca Kaplan making those tough decisions in any of her political history.  Jean Quan was at least willing to put cuts on the table, whether or not I agree with them.  If they win, I hope I am wrong about their abilities, but I am not optimistic.

The Politics of Religion in Uganda

August 2, 2010

One of the first things one notices in Uganda is the religiosity of its people.  This religiosity is on display in every corner of social life—in the Christian decorations on public transportation, on broadcast television, in the number of churches that line the roads, and in the newspapers.

Official statistics put the Christian population at around 80 percent, roughly half that number being Catholic and the other half being Anglican (here called the Church of Uganda).  About 10 percent is Sunni Muslim, and 10 percent is other, traditional animist, or non-religious.  Traditional faith, however, permeates social life even for members of established Churches; traditional medicine, sacrifices, superstitions, and so forth are common.

But the official numbers mask the recent proliferation of American-style evangelism and Pentecostalism.  For instance, of the six available broadcast television stations, one is solely dedicated to American gospel concerts, and another is dedicated solely to American televangelism, including such controversial far-right pastors as John Hagee.  The other channels also have religious programming, although news, dubbed telenovelas, local music videos, and B-movies fill out the rest of the programming.

Uganda seems to be in the middle of what Americans might call a ‘Great Awakening.’  Religious expression in political life is newly common, with even the President leading prayers at public events.  The Catholic and Anglican Archbishops are frequently in the news commenting on controversial political issues.  Recent scandals in the governing body of Ugandan Muslims were front-page news.  American and European missionaries are common.

This social conservatism manifests itself in politics, most recently during the controversy surrounding a proposed law to make homosexuality a capital offense.  The law would also have imprisoned people for not reporting suspected gay men and lesbians.  After an international outcry, the law was withdrawn.  Interestingly the episode also revealed the extensive international networks between American evangelical groups with socially conservative agendas, Republican politicians in Washington, DC, and African political, church, and civil society leaders.  Several Republican politicians struggled to distance themselves from the law, despite their close ties to American evangelical groups pushing the anti-gay agenda in Africa.

Following this controversy from America, I got the sense that Ugandans were surprised by the loud outcry coming from the States, since they were, in their minds, just taking the next ‘logical’ step in the truly vile, escalating, anti-gay rhetoric coming from American representatives of evangelical political groups that frequently visited Uganda and hosted anti-gay conferences here.  In any event, the bill has been tabled for now, though anti-gay rhetoric is common on even the government television channel and newspapers.  One interviewee on the national television station was wearing a shirt that said, “AFRICA UNITED FOR THE FAMILY,” while his colleagues wore shirts that said “AFRICA UNITED AGAINST SODOMY.”  He was on television to talk about the twin evils of human sacrifice and sodomy.

(Human sacrifice apparently exists.  Every week or so in the newspaper there is a story about someone being butchered in suspected human sacrifice rituals.)

But the intersection of religion, social conservatism, US interest groups, and African politics can be currently seen most clearly in neighboring Kenya.  Kenya is about to hold a referendum on a major revision to their constitution.  Major political figures, including the president and prime minister, who come from different coalitions, have lined up in support of the proposed constitution.  Christian groups are leading the ‘NO’ campaign because the constitution allows abortion in cases where the woman’s life is in danger.  The ‘NO’ campaign also claims (disingenuously, I think) that it opens a window to allowing gay marriage.  Former authoritarian President Daniel arap Moi is working for the ‘NO’ campaign.  Again, American conservatives are intervening in the political scene here, this time over the objection of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Recent trends suggest that evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity will only become more deeply embedded in eastern African politics.

Regime and Party Politics in Uganda

July 27, 2010

Uganda is a relatively benevolent, quasi-authoritarian system.  Multiparty politics were introduced for the 2006 election, and democratic elections have been held since the early 1990s.  The media are free and boisterous.  Economic growth has been very good for the past decade.  Ethnic politics are subsumed into the party system, though present just beneath the surface.

But politics are dominated by the leader since 1986, the president Yoweri Museveni, and his party the National Resistance Movement.  Museveni’s regime operated a so-called “no-party system” from 1986 to 2006, which in practice meant that the Movement took the role of the single party in a single-party state.  The Movement recruited far and wide, into the villages, across ethnic groups, in the cities; it has a truly national character and national presence.

Museveni was a national savior after 20 plus years of instability, coups, mass killings, and civil war during the Milton Obote, Idi Amin, and Obote (again) regimes.  When Museveni won the civil war (a bush insurgency) in 1986, the infrastructure of the state—police, army, bureaucracy, roads, bridges, electrical and telecommunications grids—were derelict if they even remained.  The rapid and successful reconstitution of the Ugandan state since 1986 is a minor miracle.

Rubongoya (2008) argues, I think persuasively, that Museveni’s regime relied on his reputation as a charismatic war leader, and on the rapid success of the rebuilding of the state and economy, for its political hegemony from 1986 to the late 1990s.  While not precisely democratic since it restricted party competition (among other things), the regime nonetheless ruled by some form of popular consent, given the widespread support the regime and its program enjoyed.  However, once the regime resurrected the state and the economy, achieving its ambitious program, the logic of its popular support was undermined.  The people started worrying about other things, and so the regime needed a new source of power.  It turned, like many other African states, to patronage and corruption to maintain its hold on power.  It also manipulated the party system until 2006, and has had increasingly confrontational relationships with the press and other parties.

The next elections are in 2011.  The people I’ve met and with whom I’ve spoken politics are apprehensive and optimistic at the same time.  Everybody agrees that Museveni, likely nearing 80 and after 24 years in charge, has overstayed his usefulness, but there is no opposition figure with the stature to challenge him.  It also seems unlikely that the NRM will allow Museveni to lose, if it appears to be close: they will rig the vote.  Locals are worried about post-election violence like Kenya in 2008, but party politics here seems less ethnicized than in Kenya.  The one exception is if leading Baganda, the largest ethnic group, form a party, and that party is somehow spurned, then some form of violence might break out.  Museveni is Ankole.  (When the Bagandan royal tombs burned down earlier this year, rioting broke out.)

People are optimistic because they believe, I think incorrectly, that the opposition has a chance of winning.  I think Museveni’s support is too strong in the countryside, and NRM control too pervasive, for Museveni to lose a fair election, and especially to lose a rigged one.  Good and frequent polling will be essential to manage the expectations of the population as the election draws nearer.

Uganda Bombings Plus Two Weeks

July 25, 2010

So, I have a better sense now of the repercussions of the multiple bombings on July 11, which have now been coined the “7/11 attacks.”  The first is just conversational: everyone keeps talking about the bombings, al Shabab, Somalia, and so on.  Locals naturally think I’m a tourist, so they often ask me questions along the lines of, “Uganda is nice, except for the bombings (or al Shabab), no?”  When they find out I am American, they express a shared plight.

The social scene here is empty.  The muzungus (‘white man’ in Luganda) are staying away from the bars and clubs, and many locals are as well.

Security is tight at locations frequented by ex-patriots– usually a metal detector, bag search, and a quick frisk.  Oh, and a bomb sniffing dog came into the bar the other day.  The shopping centers that have car parking have long lines to drive in, as guards are searching cars for bombs.  And using those mirror things to look underneath them.  There is a much bigger official security presence as well.  Military, military police, and multiple varieties of regular police abound.

The African Union starts its summit in Kampala today, July 25.  Major African leaders– like Ghaddafi and Zuma– arrived over last week. Gordon Brown is apparently here as an official observer.  So last week when I rode to and from Entebbe (which is the location of the airport) the security presence was amazing.  Every 50 meters or so was a clutch of official security personnel.  Some with machine guns, some without; but every one watching the traffic on the road.  Entebbe town itself had a smaller obvious presence, but still a noticeable one.  Contrast that to my first 10 days here, before the bombings, when I saw perhaps two traffic police officers the entire time I trekked around Kampala.  Remarkable.

We will see how the African Union summit goes.  The summit’s original theme was “women’s and children’s health,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if the men running the show switch to counter-terrorism and peace enforcement– topics they are likely more interested in.  Uganda seems to be pressing hard to increase the number of AU troops in Somalia, both its own and other states’, and to reorient the mandate to ‘enforcement’ (which means essentially that offensive military actions can be taken by the peacekeepers).  The government has also taken a couple of opportunistic steps in the aftermath of the bombings: first, a wiretapping law was rushed through parliament, and second, 5,000 additional police were hired.  The police hiring was previously held up for ‘budgetary reasons.’