Tyler Cowen on the Contours of Partisanship in American Politics

Tyler Cowen has an interesting post on the contours of partisan politics in America. In the post he argues that at the state-level Republican politics and governance is superior to the Democratic variety:

This superior performance stems from at least two factors.  First, Republican delusions often matter less at the state and local level, and furthermore what the core Republican status groups want from state and local government is actually pretty conducive to decent outcomes.  The Democrats in contrast keep on doling out favors and goodies to their multitude of interest groups, and that often harms outcomes.  The Democrats find it harder to “get tough,” even when that is what is called for, and they have less of a values program to cohere around, for better or worse.

Second, the states with a lot of Democrats are probably on average harder to govern well (with some notable Southern exceptions).  That may excuse the quality of Democratic leadership to some degree, but it is not an entirely favorable truth for the broader Democratic ethos. Republicans, of course, recognize this reality.  Even a lot of independent voters realize they might prefer local Republican governance, and so in the current equilibrium a strong majority of governors, state legislatures, and the like are Republican.

Thomas Pepinsky looked under the hood of this argument and found this:

Those high functioning states (he cites this report) are North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, and Iowa.

It is not obvious to me why Republicans would not look to the entire map of places that the GOP controls state government.

Maybe one clue is that those five states are among the whitest states in the country.

As an exercise, let’s ponder what “They think the rest of America should be much more like those places” means.

Cowen also has an interesting theory of why expats foreigners tend to lean Democratic:

It is easier for intelligent foreigners to buy more heavily into the Democratic stories. They feel more comfortable with the associated status relations, and furthermore foreigners are less likely to be connected to American state and local government, so they don’t have much sense of how the Republicans actually are more sensible in many circumstances.any circumstances.

I don’t know what to make of this. I’ve never lived in a fully Republican controlled state. All I know is that Republican governors and legislatures have a knack for cutting taxes at the expense of essential public goods — like schools in Kansas or drinkable water in Michigan; or refusing to accept federal dollars to finance healthcare for their poor voters in the name of ideological purity. I also know that for all their talk of ideological purity when it comes to social spending, Republicans’ preference for the size of the social safety net is conditional on the proportion of the population that is of European descent.

This is not to say that Republican elites are evil or anything. They are simply self-interested. Instead, it speaks to the awkwardness of the Republican coalition.

In Cowen’s language, in the current historical moment I see Democrats as a coalition that peddles status and some goodies to boot. Republican elites, on the other hand, traffic almost exclusively in status, while opting for lower taxes and fewer regulations for elites. This may work during boom times. But in tough economic times a shared status (codified by say, race) might not be enough to convince the working poor that they are natural political allies with either anti-tax business owners or the editors of the National Review.

And if we are honest, it doesn’t help that we’ve just had 7+ years under a president from a historically low status group in the American context.

Enter Donald John Trump.

The World Bank Group Africa Fellowship Program

The Bank has an exciting fellowship for PhD students from the Continent.


According to the Bank’s website:

Fellows will spend a minimum of six months at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. getting hands-on experience in development work. This includes knowledge generation and dissemination, design of global and country policies and the building of institutions to achieve inclusive growth in developing countries. While benefitting from research and innovation in multiple sectors, Fellows will also work on economic policy, technical assistance, and lending for eliminating poverty and increasing shared prosperity. Special attention will be given to work with Fragile and Conflict-Affected States.

More on this here.

Kenyan Elections 2013 and The High Potential for Violence

In an excellent piece over at African Arguments Sheekh and Mosley give a comprehensive discussion of the recent outbreak of violence in the Tana Delta region of Coast Province, Kenya. According to the authors:

Long-standing competition and conflict over access to pasture and water resources were important factors, but did not alone provide the trigger for violence.  A range of political and economic factors have fed into the local dynamics in Tana Delta. These include longer-term trends related to alienation of local people from land due to large-scale government and private sector purchases, and shorter-term impacts related to the process of delineating electoral constituency boundaries and county districts in line with Kenya’s new constitution. The ready availability of small arms has also seen such conflicts intensify in recent decades. Lack of livelihood opportunities for the youth is also a major factor.

As such, the recent clashes are emblematic of wider trends.  Although the Tana Delta (along with the rest of Coast Province) has tended to be politically marginalised, tensions in other areas – such as Mt Elgon and parts of the Rift Valley including Eldoret, Nakaru and Naivasha, and counties in northern Kenya – could also be exacerbated by the same political factors.  Some of these areas were flash-points in the post-poll violence of late 2007 and early 2008, with major national and regional ramifications.”

Spot on.

The Tana Delta conflict is symptomatic of a larger dynamic that will play out in anticipation of the March 4th 2013 elections in Kenya. The new constitution has created 47 county governments, many of them multiethnic or otherwise diverse, that will each have three county-wide elected officials (a governor, deputy governor, and a senator). Ethnic and communal rivalries will inevitably surface in these county contests, with potentially disastrous outcomes such as what we’ve seen so far in Tana River County.

The potential for decentralized violence in Kenya’s 47 counties is a real cause for concern.

In order to limit the potential for violence, the national commission charged with policing ethnic harmony has initiated talks in potential flash-points to broker inter-ethnic power-sharing deals with the hope of avoiding a situation in which certain communities are totally excluded from county-wide elected offices. Sadly, so far there is no sign that these initiatives will work (Not to mention how un-democratic such back room arrangements will be). Plus the violence will not necessarily be exclusively of the inter-ethnic variety (which is what the commission is fixated on at the moment). Even ethnically homogenous counties might experience inter-clan violence.

While most of the attention in the next few months will be on how to avoid a repeat of the aftermath 2007-08 election, Kenya watchers should be warned that the problem will be much more complicated. If nothing is done, many counties will experience inter-communal violence. The new county governments will have real resources (about a third of national revenue) that will generate real patronage networks worth fighting for.

Given the nature of Kenyan politics, the race for the presidency (more blog posts on this soon) will inevitably hog all the attention in the next five months. I hope the contest for State House and its own risks for violence will not overshadow the county-level contests which will also be just as intense and likely to result in violence.

There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?

Who’s interested in democracy?

According to Google Trends the answer is Ethiopians. Between 2004 and now they score the highest in the search index for the word “democracy,” at least among the English speaking countries of the world. Ethiopians have lived under successive military and quasi-military dictatorships since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

It is also interesting to see the relative concentration of searches for the word in eastern and southern Africa compared not only to other regions in Africa but also to the rest of the world. Besides Ethiopia, the other countries in Africa with a high search index have recently had somewhat high levels of political contestation through reasonably competitive elections.