Monthly Archives: May 2010

Small Government or Good Government?

James Kwak has a great discussion on the role of government over at Baseline Scenario. He argues that the Heritage Foundation’s latest analysis, which concludes that the most neoliberal states have experienced the highest level of economic growth, is misguided. Kwak’s analysis is, I think, quite compelling. He suggests that the Heritage Index, which weights ten “freedoms” (business, trade, fiscal, government, monetary, investment, financial, property, labor, and freedom from corruption) confuses less government with good government. This, he suggests, is an all-too-common mistake in many analyses. While we should be focused on good government (particularly freedom from corruption), policy tends far too often to focus instead on reducing the size of government, which is not at all the same thing. Kwak’s analysis is definitely worth a read.

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Eurovision as Perpetual Peace

German Pop Star Lena Meyer-Landrut performs at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest

German Pop Star Lena Meyer-Landrut performs at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision Song Contest concluded Saturday night, with Germany’s Lena Meyer-Landrut winning the big prize. The annual contest was established by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in an effort to bring together member countries of the EBU in post-war Europe. It brings together acts from 39 countries in three competition rounds, culminating with an extravaganza to rival American Idol. Since its creation in 1956, Eurovision has grown to become one of the most-watched non-sporting events in the world, drawing an estimated 400-600 million viewers annually. This year, the contest also provided a bit of relief from the ongoing economic challenges facing many members of the European Union.

The contest is regularly plagued by accusations of political bias. While the contest now uses tele-voting rather than judges, allowing citizens of all the participating countries to vote for their favorites performance, several studies indicate that countries tend to form cliques that regularly vote according to predictable patterns. While countries cannot vote for their own acts, they often vote for performances from countries with similar cultures, languages, or histories. For example, since 1998, Greece and Cyprus have regularly given each other the maximum number of points. The expatriate population also affects votes. While countries cannot vote for their own acts, they can vote for any other acts. Thus large ethnic minorities or diaspora populations living abroad will often vote for their own country. This phenomenon helps to explain, for example, the regularly high-ranking given to Turkey from countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, where large number of ethnic Turks reside.

The Eurovision Song Contest also provides some insights into international relations theory. As an effort to bring together countries into a common community, highlighting the interconnections (and ultimately, the interdependence) of countries, the contest provides an interesting example of liberalism in action. Now all we need as a “Eurovision hypothesis” to rival the Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention”: no two countries participating in the Eurovision Song Contest have ever gone to war with one another.

The Next Korean War

The South Korean corvette Cheonan, sank in March 2010.

The South Korean corvette Cheonan

The South Korean government issued its final findings from its analysis of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last March. The report concludes that the South Korean ship was sunk by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine. The conclusion which provoked an immediate and sharp response from the North Korean government, which dismissed the findings as a “conspiratorial farce” and promised “all-out war” and a “nuclear fire shower” if punitive actions are taken against the Pyongyang regime.

The report (and equally importantly North Korea’s reaction to the report) raise some important questions. As Julian Borger argues, South Korea is now caught in a diplomatic (and political) black hole. There is clearly political pressure from within South Korea to respond to the sinking, which claimed the lives of some 46 South Korean sailors. But what sort of response is likely to be productive. The South Korean president is scheduled to address the United Nations Security council this week, and there will likely be discussion of sanctions. But the North Korean regime has been subject to UN sanctions for several years as a result of its ongoing nuclear program. It seems unlikely that further sanctions will fundamentally alter the regime’s policies, particularly if the Chinese government, which has historically been suspicious of sanctions against North Korea, remains hesitant to actively support them. In short, a political/diplomatic response is unlikely to be effective, while a military response is undesirable.

Further, as Ruediger Frank points out in his blog, 38 North, some of the fundamental questions surrounding the attack have not been asked. Most importantly, Frank argues,

Sinking a corvette is very different from shooting a tourist or firing a few pistol shots across the 38th parallel. It is even unlike killing an enemy with an axe in the neutral zone around Panmunjom. It is hard not to regard the deliberate sinking of a warship and the killing of 46 crewmen as an act of war. And it is hard to expect the other side not to share this view.

So who made this fatal and risky decision? Those in the West who insist on calling Kim Jong Il the Dear Leader (although this title has not been in use in North Korea for one and a half decades), who believe that he is the personification of evil and the only person with power in his country, will argue that only he could have given the order. But this assumption collides with a truism that my students learn in their first semester: the top priority of the DPRK leadership is regime survival. An open war against the South would be suicidal.”

Frank concludes that the attack may not have been launched by the North Korean government, but rather reflects the deteriorating chain of command within North Korea itself. Such a situation could be far scarier for the stability of the Korean peninsula.

Conspiracy Theorists Unite!

Rima Fakih, Miss America

Rima Fakih, Miss America

After Rima Fakih won the Miss America pageant on Sunday, the blogosphere ignited in outrage. Fakih is the first Muslim and the first Arab-American to win the prize. Accusations that she was the pageant organizers fixed the competition so that she would win, and (most dramatically) that she has links to Hezbollah quickly found their way into the blogosphere. Rather than celebrating Fakih’s victory as an illustration of the openness and inclusiveness of American society, her win devolved into a discussion of illegal immigration and racist implications that all Muslims are terrorists.

But the reaction to Fakih’s victory got me thinking more broadly about the role of conspiracy theories in politics. Apparently Daniel Drezner has also been thinking about these issues. He’s got a great article in the British journal the Spectator this month, entitled, “The Paranoid Style in World Politics.” In it, he dissects the role of conspiracy theories in thinking about international and domestic politics.

I’ve certainly noticed increasing commitment to various conspiracy theories among some of my students. From the 9/11 Truthers to the Obama Birthers, conspiracy theories seem to be garnering increasing attention on both the left and the right. The question is why? Why do individuals seek to understand the world through these theories?

In his article, Drezer postulates that the rise of the internet (and the increasing level of narrowcasting that exists in much of the mainstream media) serve to reinforce rather than challenge the preconceptions of those who consume the media. Conservatives who get all of their information from FOX News (or liberals who only watch MSNBC) operate in an intellectual echo chamber that both reinforce preconceptions and make even those with the most extreme political views believe their views and opinions are more mainstream than they actually are. In support of this argument, Drezner points to recent polls that 84 percent of Tea Party supporters believe their views are reflective of the views held by most Americans (by contrast, only 25 percent of all Americans agree with that assessment). Similar data exist for climate skeptics.

At the same time, processes of globalization make it appear as if political and economic elites are transferring power away from the people. While we have the right to vote, the process of globalization makes it appear that real power is outside the people’s reach. Multinational corporations, international organizations, and a transnational ruling class all appear to operate beyond our reach. In the context of this perceived powerlessness, individuals seek to make sense of the world.

Drezner is certainly correct, but I think it goes further than this. Conspiracy theories provide a unified understanding of the world, a way to make sense of complex ideas and processes absent a broader theory or ideology. In this sense, conspiracy theories might serve as a proxy for broader political theories or ideologies, like (neo)liberalism, (neo)realism, constructivism, feminism, or (neo)Marxism. They serve as an ideological lens through which the world can be organized and be made to make sense.  The challenge, though, is that unlike more mainstream theories which can be revised or even abandoned in light of new evidence or challenges, conspiracy theories of world politics are not subject to the normal rules of debate and argument. If the evidence doesn’t fit the model, most theories would revise the model. Conspiracy theories challenge the evidence itself.

The International Relations of Hummus…Seriously

The World's Largest Hummus, Lebanon

The World's Largest Hummus, Lebanon

There’s a war brewing…a war over hummus. That creamy delicacy of chickpeas, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice is at the heart of a dispute between Israel and Lebanon, both seeking to assert their claim over the dish.

Actually, there are two issues at stake. The first is simply a matter of international rivalry. For the past several years, both Israel and Lebanon have been seeking to outdo the other to claim their place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest hummus. The most recent effort, made by 300 chefs in Lebanon on Saturday, resulted in a batch of hummus that weight ten tons (22,046 pounds). In perspective, that’s about ten automobiles worth of hummus. (Video of the effort is available at the Telegraph’s website.)  

Saturday’s effort by Lebanon took the record back from Israel, which had made a four ton batch of hummus in October, an effort which had taken the back from Lebanon, which had taken it from Israel, ad infinitum. On the surface, this is simply a matter of international pride and rivalry. And the peaceful expression of the rivalry through cooking (or sport) is preferable to its expression through armed military conflict, as was the case in 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon in an effort to seek out Hezbollah militants firing rockets into Israel.

But there’s another element as well. The origins of hummus are disputed. Today, the dish is widely consumed around the world. Although the earliest verified reference to the dish dates to the eighteenth century, many assert it’s one of the world’s oldest foods. There are references to similar dishes in the Middle East dating back at least to the twelfth century. Records of chickpeas and sesame (the main ingredient in tahini) cultivation can be found dating to at least 2500 BC, and olive oil is discussed in the Bible.

The origins of the dish, though, are disputed. In 2008, the government of Lebanon petitioned the European Union to classify hummus as a uniquely Lebanese food, granting it protected geographical status. Dishes like feta (Greek cheese) and Champagne (sparkling French wine) receive this protection. Other foods including Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Melton Mowbray pork pies, and Asiago cheese, are also protected. The mark is intended to offer a form of intellectual property protection for the label, promoting the product by giving consumers specific information regarding the origin of the product while simultaneously providing a mechanism to facilitate rural development.

According to the Lebanese government, humus is a uniquely Lebanese dish and the name should therefore be protected.  Like with feta cheese, which can only be called feta if produced in Greece and which must otherwise be called “Greek-style cheese” or something similar, the Lebanese government is asserting its claim that only Lebanese hummus is really hummus. At stake is a $1 billion international market for the product.

But there are also questions of nationalism and of national pride. The Lebanese claim that Israel is “stealing” their country’s national dish…along with several other national dishes, including falafel, tabbouleh, and baba ghanouj. The success of Israeli-manufactured hummus in European Union markets likely led to the assertion of Lebanon’s claim. But the specific manifestation of the claim, particularly in the context of the longstanding military tensions between the two countries, takes on a much deeper and more powerful meaning.

Think about that next time you have that hummus.

Clegg the Kingmaker

Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron
Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, and David Cameron

Results from yesterday’s election in the United Kingdom are in, and they produced some surprising results. The Liberal Democrats, which had been riding high in the polls, performed worse than forecasted, losing five seats. As most analysts had been projecting, the Conservatives, who have been out of power for thirteen years, won a plurality of the votes. But they fell short of winning a majority of seats in the parliament—a situation referred to as a hung parliament. As a result, the Conservatives will likely be forced to enter an agreement with one or more of the smaller parties—most likely the Liberal Democrats—to gain control of parliament and the right to name the next Prime Minister.

The elections raise a few important points for students of comparative politics. First, they illustrate the challenges of Britain’s (and by extension, the U.S.) first-past-the-post system [glossary]. This system, in which the winner of each electoral district or riding is the candidate that secures the most votes, produces stable, majority governments when there are two dominant parties, as in the United States. But when a third party enters the mix, unusual results can develop. Take the results from yesterday’s election, for example.

The BBC is reporting the following results:

Party

Seats Won

Votes Received

Conservatives

305

10,681,417

Labour

258

8,601,441

Liberal Democrats

57

6,805,665

Democratic Unionist

8

168,216

Scottish National Party

6

491,386

Sinn Fein

5

171,942

Plaid Cymru

3

165,394

Social Democratic & Labour

3

110,970

All Others

3

2,406,787

Totals

 

29,653,638

So what does this tell us about the British electoral system? Several things. First, think about how votes convert into seats. If we look at the average number of votes each party receives to win an individual seat, we get the following:

Party

Votes per Seat Won

Conservatives

35,021

Labour

33,338

Liberal Democrats

117,339

Democratic Unionists

21,027

Scottish National Party

81,897

Sinn Fein

34,388

Plaid Cymru

55,131

Social Democratic & Labour

36,990

All Others

802,262

Consider the data. The Conservatives won 305 seats on 10,681,417 votes. They thus won a seat in Westminster for every 30,021 votes. The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, won just 57 seats on 6,805,665 votes, or one seat for every 117,339 votes. This means that the Conservatives were more than three times as efficient as the Liberal Democrats at converting votes into seats in Westminster.

How does this happen? Winning a district in a first-past-the-post system requires only that you get more votes than any other candidate, not that you receive a majority of the votes cast. If a party receives 30 percent of all the votes cast across the country but does not get more votes than other party’s candidates in any district, it would receive no seats. It’s even possible that a party that receives fewer votes could receive more seats in parliament. Again, the U.K.’s election provides an interesting example. Smaller parties that are concentrated in a relatively small area tend to be over-represented in parliament. For example, the Democratic Unionist Party (a party based in Northern Ireland) won 6 seats on just 168,216 votes. The U.K. Independence Party, by contrast, received more than five times the number of votes but failed to win a single seat in parliament. Voters supporting the U.K. Independence Party tended to be geographically dispersed, this diluting their support across a larger number of ridings (electoral districts). A similar phenomenon regularly occurs in Canada, where the regionally-based Bloc Quebecois tends to over perform, while the nationally-dispersed Liberal Democrats tend to underperform in national elections.

In a proportional representation system [glossary], like that used in most parliamentary democracies around the world, votes are translated directly into seats. A party that receives 40 percent of the votes would be entitled to 40 percent of the seats in parliament. Not surprisingly, proportional representation tends to expand the participation of small parties in parliament, often fracturing the political spectrum into a larger number of smaller parties. This can lead to instability, as the recent history of Belgium and Italy attests.

So how would the British parliament look under a PR-based system? Let’s think about the number of seats each party received and compare that to the percentage of the popular vote each party won, using that figure as an appropriate number of seats that party might win in a hypothetical proportional representation (PR) system. Here’s what we get:

Party

Seats Won under FPTP

% of Seats Held under FPTP

% of Seats Held under Hypothetical PR System

Difference

Conservatives

306

47

36

-11

Labour

258

40

29

-11

Liberal Democrats

57

9

23

+14

Democratic Unionists

8

1

0

-1

Scottish National Party

6

1

2

+1

Sinn Fein

5

0.7

0.6

Plaid Cymru

3

0.5

0.6

Social Democratic & Labour

3

0.5

0.4

Green

1

0.002

1

+1

Alliance Party

1

0.002

0.1

UK Independence Party

0

0

3

+3

British National Party

0

0

2

+2

The big winners are the Liberal Democrats, who would net an increase of eleven seats in the parliament. The other winners are the UK Independence Party, the British National Party, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens, all of which net an increase in representation. The big losers? The Conservatives and the Labour Party, each of which would lose eleven seats.

Given these hypothetical results, it’s not surprising that the Liberal Democrats have been pushing hard for electoral reform. It’s also not surprising that the Conservatives and the Labour Party have both historically opposed electoral reform. The interesting question now is whether or not Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, can translate his position as potential kingmaker in any governing coalition into real electoral reform that might solidify the position of the Liberal Democratic in the British political landscape. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has already alluded to the possibility, promising to make a “big open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats in exchange for their support. Labour leader Gordon Brown made a similar offer, stressing the “substantial common ground” that exists between Labour and the Lib Dems and promising real electoral reform.

There are, of course, other possibilities. The Liberal Democrats may choose not to enter an agreement with either party but agree not to oppose the Queen’s Speech or budget—a vote against either of the two could constitute a confidence motion in the government, triggering new elections.

Whatever happens, the next few days will certainly be interesting to watch.