Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Global Assault on Democracy

Me at Mykolas Romeris University, Vilnius Lithuania
A country polarized and in paralysis by its political parties.  A country that spies on its citizens and where its representatives no longer seem connected or accountable to their people.  A country where the standard of living of its people is eroding.  Sound familiar?  At one time such a description did not include the United States.  It used to be them, those other countries, but not the United States.  But what has become clear is how much the United States has lost its exceptionalism and become just another advanced if not aging democracy in serious need of structural reforms.
    In the last two months I have traveled the world.  Or at least the western European world.  In October to Washington, DC, the capital of the United States and  to Moscow, Russia, the capital of Russia and the former Soviet Union, and in November now just returning from Brussels, the capital for the European Union and de facto capital of Europe.  This last trip was to attend a conference on comparative public policy, hosted by an organization dedicated to the study of comparative politics and efforts to draw conclusions about how law and policy is made across the world.  Beyond its purely academic purposes the group hopes to inform practitioners and public officials to make better laws by seeking to learn from the experiences of countries across the world.
    At the conference were scholars from across the world.  Russia, India, Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, and many other countries were in attendance.
KU Leuven University (location of the conference)

We discussed health care policy and Obamacare, security issues, lobbying and electoral systems, transparency and democracy, energy and food issues, and also simply the process of how governments operate and make decisions.  What fascinated me so much was the reality that it is tough times for democracies and freedom across the world.
    Across the board scholars from India, Russia, Italy, Greece, and other countries noted the paralysis facing their countries.  Political parties have become polarized, unable to compromise and work with one another.  Special interests plague the legislative process, fears arising from terrorism have led to a crackdown on dissent or spying on citizens, or the citizens of other countries.  Economically no country seems to be doing well.  All are still gripped in the aftermath of the 2008 market crash or they are still in the middle of austerity programs with citizens facing high unemployment and countries saddled with crushing debts.  There is a real democracy deficit not just in Europe, but it seems everywhere.
    At the same time we were meeting in Brussels over in Vilnius, Lithuania events were unfolding that also boded poorly for democracy. The EU was supposed to meet to welcome Ukraine into a trade pact that would more firmly move that country into the western European and democratic orbit, away from Russia.  It was a hope to bring Ukraine closer to its historic partners of Poland and Lithuania, but it did not happen.  The Ukraine president decided not to sign the agreement, or free the opposition leader from prison, leaving open the direction of Ukraine and whether it would join Europe or Russia.
    Events such as this are troubling and have a personal meaning for me.  They involve countries and places I have visited, and where I have friends.  It is also the geography of my ancestors.  I have been to Vilnius, Lithuania twice to lecture and teach.  The people are warm and friendly and the country has done a great job joining the democratic west, but the country fears an aggressive Russia to its east.   I have been to Kyiv (Kiev) Ukraine once.  It is a stunning city that feels like it wants to be democratic and west, but it is being pulled toward democracy and authoritarianism simultaneously with no clear answer regarding which wins.  And of course Moscow, a city I have visited five times and where I now have many friends.  In my last visit last month I noted how socially open the city had become.  Whatever we may say politically about the retreat from democracy there, the country is socially open, with young people and my students doing what my students in the United States do.  Russia, or at least Moscow, is in the midst of a generation change, ready to join democracy... if only its leaders would let them.  The people there want to be friends with the United States and the are interested in all things American. The same is true for Ukraine. So much of my impressions of these countries reminds me of the problems we face in the United States. 
    We live in a global world in the sense of sharing similar problems. The problems facing the United States are global and are shared by other countries.  It is a crisis of and a challenge to democracies to solve their problems. Yet no one seems to have a solution regarding how to address the gridlock or paralysis that we are all facing,
Me in Moscow near the Kremlin

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Case Against the Filibuster--Why the Democrats Got it Only Half Right

The Senate was right to change the filibuster rule for presidential judicial nominees. Yet it was too little change, too late.  What really needed to be done was to abolish the entire filibuster rule for all Senate business.  Senate Democrats will soon find that unless they do that nothing will get done in the Senate and there will be more Ted Cruz's  reading Dr. Seuss.
    After the Democrats were routed in the 2010 midterm elections I argued that one of Obama’s and the Democrats mistakes was not voting to disband the filibuster rule on day one in 2009.  While for 18 months the Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate and potentially could do what they wanted, they had failed to act as a unified party were  held hostage both by Republicans and also by the conservatives among their own ranks including Senators Landrieu and Nelson.  Had they killed the filibuster they would have done not only Obama, progressives, and their party a favor, but they too would have saved both the party and America from what has not transpired in the last three years–gridlock and a country held hostage by extremists.  Remember, a far better health care bill might have been passed had the threat of a filibuster not existed.
    Three arguments bode against changing the rule–tradition, bipartisanship, and minority rights.  All three are fallacious arguments.  First, arguing that changing the filibuster rule is wrong because it goes against a rule that has a long tradition in the Senate makes no sense.  While history may argue in favor of some things and while maybe at one time the filibuster was a good thing for the Senate, times have changed.  Political parties are more polarized, partisan, and ideological than they used to be (except of course prior to the Civil War) and there is now less of a tradition of compromise and bipartisan than there was even a generation ago. At one time even controversial presidential appointments got votes.  Robert Bork failed to be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice but he got a floor vote.  Clarence Thomas got a floor vote and was confirmed.  Democrats could have filibustered both but did not.  At one time nominees got voted on but times and circumstances have changed in the Senate. Thus, as the Senate changes so must it rules.
    Moreover, one should not forget that the “nuclear option” to change the filibuster rules on judicial nominees was originally a Republican idea.  In 2005 Republican Senators Bill Frist and Trent Lott, frustrated with Senate Democrats who were angry that the latter were blocking George Bush’s judicial nominees, proposed doing then what Harry Reid and the Democrats did this past week.  It was only a compromise and a backing down by Democrats then that prevented the rule change from going into effect back then.  What comes around goes around.
    Second, as just noted, there is less bipartisanship in the Senate now than in recent memory.  At one point it was less likely that the Senate needed 60 votes to get anything done.  But clearly we have seen how especially Senate Republicans have made it clear that they are now joining their House colleagues in making it impossible for Obama to get anything done.  Remember, after the 2010 elections Senate Republicans made it clear that their number one objective was to prevent Obama from getting anything done.  The filibuster now is being used not really to protect rights of minorities, but simply to be obstructionist.
    This leads to the third argument.  Senate Republicans argue that the filibuster is needed to protect minority rights.  This is an aggregated if not false argument.  For many the image of the filibuster is that of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, speaking until he is hoarse in defense of principle.  Yet the reality is that more often than not the filibuster has been used to thwart minority rights than to protect it.  The filibuster was deployed in 1946  to block the permanent creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee.  Strom Thurmond filibusters in an attempt to stop passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act.  Robert Byrd uses it in an effort to halt the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  The reality is that the filibuster is invoked to prevent prevention of minority rights, not to sustain them.
    But more importantly, while Republicans argue that the recent change to the filibuster rule will hurt minority rights, the reality is that the only minority it hurts if at all are Republicans.  They are invoking filibuster to argue that their rights need to be defended–they are the minority they needs protection.  How odd an argument.  The filibuster is not about protecting party rights, it is about protecting the rights of the people.  Moreover, the Senate and Congress in general are not supposed to be counter-majoritarian bodies.  They are supposed to majoritarian institutions reflecting majority will.   And even if it were the case that the Senate is supposed to embody anti-majoritarian structures–as political scientist Martin Diamond once argued–the representation structure of it granting all states the same number of Senators, along with bicameralism, is more than enough to protect minority interests.
    The first step in reforming Congress for the good is eliminating the filibuster for everything.  It is antiquated rules that is waxed over romantically for reasons that are hard to fathom.  The changes made last week go only part way toward reforming the Senate.  This partial change will no doubt polarize the Senate even more, perhaps leading the Democrats in frustration to finish the job on the filibuster that they already started.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Political Arithmetic: Why Math Sucks for Obama and is Important for Ranked Choice Voting

Political science students think math sucks, and so do many politicans!  Yet the fate of Barack Obama, Obamacare, and Rank Choice Voting all resident in their numbers.  Let’s think about how this is the case.

Obama and Obamacare

    Health care reform and Obamacare is really all about numbers.  This has been pointed out several times in the past.
    Health care reform is a necessity in the United States.  America spends about 19% of its GDP on health care or about $2.97 trillion dollars annually.  France is the next most expense at 11.6% of its GDP and it has universal coverage.  America’s population is aging.  Right now the a median age in the US is 37, expecting to rise to 38.7 over the next 20 years as Baby Boomers age. With that aging comes increased health care costs.  US GDP expenditures on health care will continue to rise to well over 20% unless something is done.  Thus, reform of health care was a major priority for Obama.  If we could achieve near universal coverage and cut health care spending even to the level found in France (a one-third reduction in spending), that would free up near one trillion dollars per year to invest in the economy or simply to save.
    For Obamacare to work one needed to achieve near universal coverage by getting many young healthy people otherwise not insured into the health care market.  Increase the insurance pool of those healthy and the insurance markets set up with the health care exchanges will work.
    Yet all of this is now falling apart because of other political math.  The federal health care exchange web site is a mess, producing confusion and too few people who have signed up.  Additionally, after candidate Obama promised the American public if they liked their health care plan they could keep it, millions are receiving notice that their current plan is being cancelled.  The president’s approval rating is falling, over 50% think he is not trustworthy, and his own Democrats in Congress are worried about 2014 and want to act.  Thus, last week Obama issues an executive order asking insurance companies to keep their old policies in effect for one more year.  In essence, Obama is delaying by one year requirements for Obamacare, similar to requests pressed by Republicans only a few weeks ago during the shutdown.
    Here is the math rock and hard place Obama is behind.  First, the request to the insurance companies is merely a request and not an order.  Second, how will cancelled policies be reinstated?  Third, the request is only for a year, thereby pushing the cancellation problems into the center of the 2014 elections.   Thus, the order to delay Obamacare is the product of political necessity but it solves little.  Morever, by pushing the delay it potentially upsets the actuarial numbers that insurance companies need to make the policies work at their current rates.  If people keep their current policies then those enrolled in the new health care exchanges may see their rates go up even more.
    Finally, Obamacare was originally supposed to increase coverage by several millions.  Best estimates by the Census Bureau (as I discussed recently in a blog) are that the numbers of people who will actually gain coverage will be far less than thought and because so little thought was given to increasing the supply of doctors and health care providers there are indications that costs will increase over time.  Bottom line: there is little evidence that Obamacare will trim health care expenditures, bend the cost curve, or really lead to a dramatic increase in the numbers insured, beyond certain populations.
    Okay so here is one last number and thought.  What do we do in a post Obamacare world if the Affordable Care Act collapses on itself?  What if one had simply taken the original 2,000 page law and instead did three things: 1) Allow young adults to stay on their parents policy until  age 26:  2) bar denial of coverage for pre-existing illnesses; and 3)   Allow anyone to enroll in Medicaid and pay for its benefits?  My guess is that this legislation would have totaled about 100 pages and achieved far greater results than Obamacare.

Ranked Choice Voting
    RCV in Minneapolis was all about math too. Some numbers to consider.
    First, had the rules of ballot access been that one needed 500 or more signatures to appear on the ballot for mayor then (based on the final votes on election night) only ten individuals would have qualified as candidates.  Something needs to be done to ensure that only serious candidates who have some support appear on the ballot and many cite the $500 ballot access fee in St Paul as an example.  However, that $500 fee may be unconstitutional.  The Supreme and other courts have struck down excessive ballot access fees as unconstitutional.  Most jurisdictions do fees with alternative signature requirements. This is the better math for Minneapolis–$500 or 500 signatures.
    Second, at 11 PM on election night it was clear that the bottom 29 or 30 candidates mathematically could not win the mayor’s race.  This means that had city charter allowed for it, one could have simply eliminated them on the day after the election, transferred their votes, and the race would have been called then.
    Third, the reason there are no voting machines to do the automatic tabulation is also a product of math.  No two cities seem to run RCV the same way, precluding vendors from making machines that can be approved by the Department of Justice for use in elections.

    Overall, do the math!  Politics is often about numbers that do or do not add up.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Lessons of the Minneapolis Elections--RCV and Generational Change

This blog originally appeared in an earlier form as a Minnpost Community Voice on November 7, 2013

    The mayoral elections in Minneapolis and St Paul could not have been any different.  One was loud and unscripted the other peaceful and predictable.  Both spoke to the character of the two cities and what they mean for their futures.  Minneapolis’ election was a generation changer preparing the city for the future while in St Paul it was an endorsement of the status quo holding the city in the past.  But in both cases, ranked choice voting (RCV) successfully did its job.   
    Critics were wrong when it came to RCV.   With RCV and 35 mayoral candidates in Minneapolis, skeptics contended that voters would not be smart enough or overwhelmed in their ability to process the information needed to make intelligent choices.  There were worries of spoiled ballots, disenfranchisement of the poor and people of color, or widespread dissatisfaction with RCV.  That did not happen.  Why? 
    Minneapolis learned from experience.  Four years when Minneapolis first used RCV I was asked by the City Elections Department to evaluate implementation of the new voting method.  My report’s biggest concern was evidence of some voter confusion but the recommendation was better voter education.  The City responded with a great voter education program that this election significantly reduced voter error and spoiled ballots.  Moreover, in St Paul, part of why the election ran without a hitch is that they too learned from the 2009 Minneapolis experiences.  For critics of government who say it cannot learn, Minneapolis and St Paul did and the results paid off.
    Voters in Minneapolis learned how to adjust to 35 candidates on the ballot.  The top six candidates received nearly 90% of the total votes cast.  Voters demonstrated a capacity to gather information and select candidates whom they preferred and were deemed viable.  Moreover, worries that voters would select only vanity candidates and not vote for someone who was one of the finalists also seemed largely negligible.  In short, the theoretical and hypothetical worries that the election system would break down did not occur.  As a bonus, the Minneapolis experience confirmed a trend from around the country–RCV discourages attacks on opponents, more civil campaigns, and the potential for more cooperation during and perhaps after elections.
    This is not to say that there were no flaws in Minneapolis’s elections.  For one, ballot access is too easy in that city and it needs to change.  Currently Andrew Jackson ($20) gets you on the ballot.  The Charter Commission is talking of raising that to $500.  That is the wrong direction to go.  The US Supreme Court has ruled that excessive ballot fees unconstitutionally discriminate against the poor.  A better option is a minimum number of signatures to appear on the ballot.  Most races call for either paying of a fee or filing of signatures.  A $500 fee really does not demonstrate a showing of support.  A rich candidate could afford that fee easily or raise it from friends.  Signatures are a better sign of commitment.  A requirement of 500 signatures to appear on the ballot would have  eliminated (based on election night returns) 25 of the candidates from appearing on the ballot.  Thus,  a filing fee of $500 or 500 signatures seems a better way to assure some minimal showing of support to appear on the ballot.
    Additionally, the City needs a better protocol for eliminating and counting candidates who have no mathematical chance of winning.  Changing ballot access rules may solve that, but the two days of counting after Tuesday did some damage to RCV.  Tuesday night it was obvious to me when the final results were in that mathematically the bottom 29 or 30 candidates had no chance of winning.  Had the City simply transferred their votes on Wednesday morning then the race results would have been final by lunch time that day.  Finally, high percentage of “exhausted votes” does lend an appearance that some votes were not counted.  They were counted, at least the first choices were, and perhaps second and third too, but the fact that they were not counted in the final vote lends to impressions that must be addressed in the future.  Again, new ballot access rules may address this or perhaps allowing for more ranking, as they did in St Paul.  For now, RCV haters will latch on to exhausted ballots as a major flaw with the voting system.  Overall, we need to distinguish between ballot access rules, ballot casting rules, and ballot counting rules we evaluating elections.
    Beyond RCV, the elections in the two cities spoke hugely of their futures and characters.  Minneapolis’s election was about a generational change.  It was the older DFL being replaced by a new generation of Democrats.  The old labor-led, white establishment DFL lined up behind Mark Andrew while the new demographics of a racially and politically changing city behind Hodges. Andrew was like Frank Skeffington–Edwin O’Connor’s fictional old line Democrat mayor in The Last Hurrah who loses a reelection bid because he does not realize times have changed and he has not.  Andrew is a solid and noble DFLer, but he is old school at a time when Minneapolis is changing.  With Hodges as mayor and seven new council members Minneapolis is set for the shift to the future with a new agenda for a new constituency.  If Obama in 2008 represented the transition  from Baby Boomer to Gen X and Millennial politics at the national level, this is what happened on Tuesday in Minneapolis.
    Not so in St Paul.  Chris Coleman is perhaps the last mayor of the old St Paul DFL.  He is part of the old Irish Catholic DFL constituency that his father represented.  He represents the past of an insular city DFL party that still controls the city with many council members still playing old school politics. .  It is the coalition of traditional labor unions and party insiders. It is the politics of downtown ballpark stadiums and public subsidies for economic development projects.  Coleman does not really have an agenda for the future.  He is like Robert Redford’s character in The Candidate–elected but asking the question “What do we do now?”  Coleman is the mayor of Baby Boomers seeking to hang on one more time.  Minneapolis's DFL party is more robust and  diverse, St. Paul's is neither.  The St Paul DFL is too monolithic and power, and thereby sloppy in what it believes and who it lets in and what it considers to be Democrat politics.  There needs to be real competition in St Paul politics, either inside or outside the DFL, but it is not there.
    In some ways, the people of both cities got what they wanted, or at least elected mayors suited to their personalities.  Minneapolis is the hip, cool, and forward city looking to the future.  St Paul is more stodgy, less prone to change, and more stuck in tradition than its sister across the Mississippi.  The mayoral elections represent a tale of two cities and a contrast in the way they handled changing generational politics.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Obamacare: Republican Tragedy, Democrat Farce

By now everyone knows that federal roll out of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) health care exchanges has been a disaster. But Obamacare is also a tragedy and a farce.  A tragedy because it is a horrible policy, a farce because it is now forcing Democrats to defend what was essentially a Republican idea.
    The Affordable Care Act is a Republican idea.  Obama himself acknowledged that during his 2012 presidential campaign, repeatedly reminding Mitt Romney that the Affordable Care Act was based significantly upon the policy he signed into law as Massachusetts governor.  But Romneycare’s origins goes back to the 1990s–a policy alternative to the Clinton’s failed healthcare proposals.
    The problems with the Affordable Care Act rests with two original design flaws in the law.  First, the legislation was meant to appease business groups and build on an existing system of health care insurance.  There were too many moving parts, too much capitulation to the industry for the law to work. It was essentially a free-market approach to delivering insurance, giving big insurance companies the opportunity to make more money by selling insurance to the uninsured.  The profit motive of private interests and the free market would solve our health care crisis.  This belief lead to a second and more fundamental problem residing in the assumption that economic markets and competition can deliver health care in an efficient, equitable, and affordable fashion.  The fact that the current health care delivery and insurance system is the most expense in the world with 48 million uninsured and mediocre outcomes attest to that.  The Affordable Care Act is a testament to a foolish belief that market mechanisms will solve health care problems. 
    The Affordable Care Act assumes that consumers can make choices about health care and will buy insurance if affordable.  It assumes that insurance companies will offer policies if markets exist.  The law assume that consumer choice and vendor competition will produce savings.  None of this was true before and there was no reason to think that it should have worked under this act.  If anything, the Affordable Care Act speaks to the limits of free market approaches to delivering vital government services such as health care.  No one in their right mind thinks the US military should fights wars and make a profit doing it, or that police and fire departments should let market mechanisms determine how the bad guys are caught and fire put out.   But Obamacare is a quintessential business pro-business free market idea.  Even the subsidies for the poor are pro-business–if individuals cannot afford health care the government will subsidize it–with the money going to private business.  What a windfall for the private insurance profit margin!
     If these design flaws were not bad enough, the Act has three other problems in terms of cost, coverage, and outcome.  First, the Act does little to address costs.  Currently the US spends 19% of the GDP on health care–we have by far the most expensive health care delivery system in the world.  The next closest are countries such as Canada and France at around 12% GDP, but with universal coverage.  Obamacare is supposed to reduce costs by insuring everyone, thereby reducing emergency room visits and encouraging people to visit doctors before a problem gets too serious.  There are also some provisions in the Act that are supposed to cut costs and in general the entire concept of the health care exchanges is that competition will pressure down costs.  All great theory, but as pointed out in a terrific recent article in special issue of Public Administration Review devoted to Obamacare, these ideas have little empirical foundation and actually most of them were already shown to be ineffective in reducing costs when the Act was being debated.
    Maybe short-term health care costs will go down but there is no evidence that longer term Obamacare will “bend the cost curve.”  On top of that  throwing millions of new consumers into a market with no plans to increase the supply of primary care doctors and nurses means there will be pressure to serve more people with existing resources.  The Act also does nothing to address the going health care needs of aging Baby Boomers who will pressure the health care delivery system.  In effect, the law fails to account for the demographic forces significantly driving up health care costs in the system.
    Additionally, Obamacare is far from universal coverage.  Remember initially that out of fear that universal coverage would lead to illegal aliens jumping the fence along the Mexican border to get free medical care in America ,the 12 million or so undocumented individuals living in America are not eligible for coverage, leaving them with the choice to self-deport themselves back to Mexico.  Many Republican states are also choosing not to extend Medicaid coverage.  The result?  While currently about 83% of individuals in America have health care insurance from their employer, through government, or purchased privately, at best Obamacare will push coverage up to about 90%.  At best, the Affordable Care Act does not even cut in half the number of uninsured in America.  It makes a good dent, but passage of the Act expended so much political capital to achieve so little.
    Finally, the Act does little to address the root cause of so many health care problems–poverty and poor life style choices.  Poverty leads to a host of problems that increase health risks, including malnutrition and homelessness.  But Americans are fact and lazy–we eat, drink, and smoke too much.  Obamacare does nothing to address these issues, problems that health care officials say we need to if we are to really reduce costs and improve outcomes to make America more healthy.  In effect, the act does almost nothing to address preventive or public health issues, again adopting a free market approach that individuals should be free to make their own health care choices.
    Despite all these problems, Democrats and their media apologists defend the law.  They say the law can be fixed or improved over time.  That the law was the camel nose under the tent to further reforms or that–to use the great line that often justifies bad laws–“The good should not be victim to the perfect.”  The reality is that Obamacare was a bad law or idea from the start–it was a bad Republican proposal that the Democrats have now embraced.  Couple the original design flaws along with so many self-inflicted wounds in implementation and so many problems forced upon Obama (a massive Republican effort to destroy a law they originally embraced) and one has a recipe for Democrats going down in 2014 or 2016 because of Obamacare.
    Thus the tragedy and the farce of Obamacare might also have an irony too it–Democrats are embracing a Republican idea and may lose politically because of it and Republicans who originally designed the ideas for Obamacare are now opposing it and may win politically.