Friday, October 10, 2008

Federalism, parties, and institutional support for decentralization

I've had occasion to argue that federalism provides an institutional weight to decentralization in a polity, and that Canadian federalism in particular is well-anchored by the dynamic of Quebec seeking greater decentralization, then other provinces seeking to keep up with Quebec. This helps prevent the dynamic of one or another party of the ethnocultural majority being unrelentingly centralist-- even anti-Quebec animus gets channeled into the protection of other provinces rather than into support for a stronger center. The entrenched character of federalism, the way in which it creates provincial-level sites for politics and parties, gives decentralization an institutional weight that helps to stabilize a constitutional order.

From today's Globe & Mail:


Globe and Mail Update

October 7, 2008 at 11:27 PM EDT

Miles' Law states that "where you stand depends on where you sit."

Nothing could be truer for Canada's premiers. Each is grappling with the federal election based on their local political dynamic, rather than partisan labels. And those individual political calculations will have a profound impact on the next federal government, regardless of who wins.

Let's start in the West.

Facing the voters in eight months and tied in the polls, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell has kept his powder dry.

While the Liberal label of his party might make one think he should support Stephane Dion automatically, the B.C. Liberals in fact draw support from both the federal Tories and Grits. Getting into a scuffle with either federal party's leader would divide Mr. Campbell's own house.[...]

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has been playing defence. He feels a re-elected Conservative government is best for his jurisdiction, but also wants to avoid a Ralph Klein-style interjection that helps the Liberals with their "hidden agenda" attacks on Mr. Harper.

Mr. Stelmach took a swing at NDP leader Jack Layton when the tar sands came under direct attack, but mostly he is leaving it to others to do the heavy lifting. [...]

Ontario's Dalton McGuinty is playing a careful game. Despite his own brother running for re-election as a federal Liberal MP, Mr. McGuinty has avoided any endorsement of the Mr. Dion's Liberals.[...]

Despite the brand name, Jean Charest's Quebec Liberal Party is made up of supporters of every federalist party: Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green. Attacking one at the expense of another only divides his coalition and diminishes his chances in an election that could be held on a moment's notice. Instead, he has played a more traditional role for a Quebec premier, attacking policy elements that threaten to intrude on the province's jurisdiction.[...]

Then there is Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Labrador - a Conservative who legally registered his "Anyone But Conservative" campaign with Elections Canada, calls the Conservative Prime Minister "intolerant" and predicts a "dark age" if the Conservatives get a majority.

Degenerate federalism happens when the provinces are captured by the center and become local sites for patronage and corruption-- pillars of the majority at the center rather than potential bulwarks against it. (Mexico for most of the 20the century or Moscow under Putin, for example.) Canada is about as far from that outcome as it's plausible to be.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Too clever by 31%

Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won enactment of a bill moving Canada to a fixed term for Parliament, unless the Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence. This ostensibly limited the Prime Minister's ability to call an election just to grab a favorable moment on the political calendar.

Then he called an election for this fall, explaining that the restriction didn't apply to minority governments, which is what he has. (Explanation for Americans: Harper's party has a plurality but not a majority of seats in the House. This means that all of his proposals require at least the acquiescence if not the active support of at least one opposition party in order to become law.) He was widely thought to have timed this both to grab a moment of personal popularity and to come before the U.S. election, lest pro-Obama, pro-left, pro-"change" sentiment spread north of the border and doom him in two years' time. At the beginning of the abbreviated campaign, he seemed likely to finally get his wish and be re-elected with a parliamentary majority.

Now: Not so much. As Matt Yglesias has been discussing, an economic crisis has a funny tendency to sweep all the bums (of whatever political complexion) out of office, and perhaps to entrench a prejudice in favor of the other party just because it's there when things return to normal. Yglesias quotes Larry Bartels:
Considering America’s Depression-era politics in comparative perspective reinforces the impression that there may have been a good deal less real policy content to “throwing the bums out” than meets the eye. In the U.S., voters replaced Republicans with Democrats and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved. In the adjacent agricultural province of Alberta, voters replaced a socialist party with a right-leaning funny-money party created from scratch by a charismatic radio preacher, and the economy improved. In Weimar Germany, where economic distress was deeper and longer-lasting, voters rejected all of the mainstream parties, the Nazis seized power, and the economy improved. In every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased dominated politics for a decade or more thereafter.

On one hand, it's of course not Harper's fault that the financial systems of the world are in a tailspin-- and indeed Canada has yet to be hit hard by the results (notwithstanding a very rapid decline in the value of the loonie as currency traders indulge the perverse 'flight to safety' that means rushing into the US dollar even when it's the US that's leading the way off the cliff). On the other hand, it certainly is his fault that he's standing for re-election right now. If he'd waited until the election due date prescribed in his own legislation, he wouldn't be fighting to save even his minority government against the headwinds of [what we can only hope will turn out to be] a Schumpeterian "gale of creative destruction." Now, with less than a week before the election, he's at 31% in the polls and falling, with the Liberals at 27% and rising. So much for cleverly gaming the system...
The financial crisis and secession

Since 1990, the world has seen something of a proliferation of new independent states: 15 from the old Soviet Union, 2 from Czechoslovakia, 6 or so from Yugoslavia, plus Eritrea and East Timor. This has not ben caused by, but has certainly been aided by, a sense that the minimum size for state viability wasn't very large in an era of peace and free trade. The Baltics couldn't militarily survive the late 30s/ early 40s, but that's not our world anymore; the Czech and Slovak Republics had no economic need to stay unwillingly joined if they could trade across an international boundary almost as easily as within a common one. Regional defense organizations and regional trade unions-- prominently NATO and the EU-- made a huge difference here.

The Russia-Georgia war perhaps marks the end of the "peace" described above. Being in line for NATO membership someday is nice and all, but it's not remotely the same as being part of a great power that protects you as part of its own territory.

And the financial crisis may-- may-- mean that minimum viable state size ratchets back up on the economic side as well. Being Singapore or Switzerland or Luxembourg or a banking haven in the Caribbean has been a pretty good deal in an age of easy trade in goods and easy capital mobility. But now: Iceland gets caught in the financial crisis having to bail out a bank with assets many times its GDP, and without the deep capital or foreign currency reserves that a place like the US or Germany or Japan or Britain has.

This suggests great trouble for Quebec nationalism as a project, maybe somewhat less for Scottish or Catalan-- Iceland has a separate currency that's taking a beating; Scotland and Catalonia would be in the EU and probably in the euro zone. But the lack of capital depth would have hit Iceland now even if it were inside the EU and the euro zone.

Small-country wealth within free trade has been one of the virtues of the broadly liberal era we've been living through. When states are dominant economic actors, it's far more important what state (and how strong a state, and how big a state) you live in.
The new Times Higher Education Supplement world university rankings...

have been released. McGill at #20 is the highest ranked in Canada and the second-highest (behind Michigan) public university in North America.

McGill ranked 14th in the world in social sciences, as well as 13th in humanities.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Dynamic Amazon ads...

sometimes freak me out.

If I'm at Chris' Invincible Super-blog, it's just weird to see a sidebar ad trying to get me to buy:

Is Democracy Possible Here?
Ronald Dworkin

Roman Law: an Historical Introduction
Hans Julius Wolff

Roman Law in European History
Peter Stein

The Constitution of Equality
Thomas Christiano

I go there for a few minutes of escapism, not to be reminded of my to-do list-- but Amazon doesn't know that, it just reads the Amazon cookies in my cache and responds appropriately.
that the NYT adopts the dour attitude of the principals in this article about a possible split in the ANC. Democratic consolidation in South Africa requires the possibility of genuinely contested elections and viable bi- or multi-partyism-- and, a decade and a half after the end of apartheid, it remains clear that only the ANC itself can generate enough support to win elections, so for there to be two parties that could win, they'd both have to be ANC descendants. (I'll bet the smaller parties start merging with one or another ANC descendant very quickly.) The possible fissure is good news. It would have done Mbeki good to have a serious opposition watching over him, it's certainly desirable that Zuma have one, and it will be a sight worth seeing when a majority-elected government in South Africa peacefully surrenders power to a rival majority elected-government.

Monday, October 06, 2008

As a political scientist living under minority governments in both Quebec and Canada...

I feel like a physicist watching Wile E. Coyote running on air. Seems like someone should point out to them that our predictions say such things aren't possible, but also it's also kind of fascinating to watch the damn things stubbornly stay in the air anyway. Looks like we're headed for another one at the federal level, as the Tories have stalled out in Quebec, where they'd hoped to pick up seats.

(Duceppe rules out coalition, Montreal Gazette, today.)
Steven Pinker on the coming turn to regulation


Many leftist commentators have gleefully interpreted the financial crisis as proof of the failure of free-market capitalism. Libertarianism and laissez-faire will be out; regulatory command-and-control will be in. Everyone agrees that targeted regulation is needed in the domains of finance that brought us to this disaster, where a mad incentive structure and poorly understood dynamics combined to produce a catastrophic outcome. It is less clear that a general philosophy that "regulation is good" will be helpful across the board. The past decade has shown us that unplanned, bottom-up, productive activity can lead to huge advances in social well-being, such as Linux, Wikipedia, YouTube, and the rest of Web 2.0. And many segments of the old-fashioned economy are still distorted by excessive regulation, like the artificial scarcity created by government-rationed taxi medallions. But the winds of change are clearly blowing in the direction of increased regulation, and I suspect that not all of the effects will be good.

If so, libertarians and economic conservatives will have themselves to blame. In recent decades they have turned the benefits of deregulation and tax-cutting into a religious dogma--less is always better--rather than a consideration that has to be weighed against other goods and submitted to evidence-based evaluation. Worse, they have allied themselves with (or at least failed to distance themselves from) the know-nothing conservatism represented by Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin. Libertarianism and moderate intellectual conservatism have discredited themselves with this disastrous alliance, and whatever contributions they have to offer the national conversation will be blown off. There's some rough justice in this, but it would be a shame if the result is a pro-regulation monoculture.

I'd say that the blame is less with turning "the benefits of deregulation and tax-cutting into a religious dogma" and more with a failure to distance those benefits firmly, at every turn, from corrupt and regressive corporatism. "Deregulation" and "letting the corporations write the regulations" are not synonyms. Neither are "cutting spending" and "increasing spending on wealthy special interests." There's been a thoroughly baleful and stupid path that went something like this:

The apparently morally- and intellectually-powerful cases for regulation or greater spending come from the left.
We wish to resist regulation and greater spending.
Therefore obviously-indefensible regulation and spending coming from the right is the lesser of two evils (even if greater in magnitude!), because it's unprincipled and so can be written off as a temporary aberration.

The fact that *any* libertarians or market-oriented conservatives supported George W. Bush for re-election, after his first term had made clear what his governance was like, is an embarrassment. And now it's not just a personal embarrassment; it's a damaging embarrassment to market-liberal ideas.