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Last week I was in Barcelona for two days, giving a talk at an event on “the right to decide,” sponsored by the Centre Maurits Coppieters (nonprofit arm of the European Free Alliance, the European Parliament group for ideologically mainstream minority nationalist parties) and by the Fundació Josep Irla (nonprofit arm of the Catalan Republican Left [ERC], largest pro-independence party in Catalonia). I also did some media interviews. You can see some excerpts of my interview with Catalonia’s TV3 evening news here (in Catalan).

I was interested in going to find out more about Catalonia’s independence movement and its prospects. For background on the Catalan movement, see my post here on Pileus from September 24, 2012, two weeks after the massive Catalan National Day demonstrations that kicked off the current process. (That post, including its forecasts, has held up pretty well, I’d say.)

Now that the Spanish Constitutional Court has invalidated the consulta (consultative plebiscite) that the Catalan Government had authorized with the support of over two-thirds of Catalan MP’s and three-quarters of the Catalan electorate, the way forward is murky. An official consultation will not now happen. Instead, tens of thousands of volunteer poll workers are signing up to help with an unofficial poll that will involve ballots and ballot boxes and occur on November 9.

It remains to be seen how successful the November 9 consultation will be. The pro-independence parties and civil society organizations are trying hard to mobilize voters and volunteers for the event. The anti-independence parties are boycotting the vote, as indeed are some far-left types who hate Artur Mas, such as the leader of the ex-communist, ecosocialist party ICV-EUiA, which otherwise supports the “right to decide” and remains agnostic on independence.

If the November 9 consultation is successful, then the pro-independence parties will try to negotiate a “unitary party list” for early elections to the Catalan Parliament. They will treat this election as a plebiscite-by-proxy, and if an absolute majority of seats and votes go to the pro-independence list, Artur Mas will take it as a mandate for independence.

However, several difficulties remain. The more radically independentist party, ERC, wants to declare independence right away after a successful “plebiscitary election.” Artur Mas’ party, Convergence and Union (CiU), is divided between independentists and those favoring a solution like confederation. (Technically, the party is a long-standing alliance between two separate parties, the now-independentist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia and the autonomist Democratic Union of Catalonia.) Generally, the last few days have seen more division and acrimony among secessionist leaders than the previous two years, and if it continues, that division will alienate voters. Civil society groups continue to call for unity among the pro-independence leaders.

Another difficulty is that while a majority of Catalans with an opinion on the matter favor independence (a recent El Mundo poll had the anti-independence side ahead within the margin of error, but their polls have always been biased in an anti-independence direction), polls suggest the pro-independence parties would not together gain a majority in early elections. The reason for this is that many independentists are not in the secessionist parties. For a successful result, the “unitary list” will need to contain important leaders from civil society and non-secessionist parties.

If the Catalan process stumbles now, it will be a shame, because it will show the Spanish government that they can face down demands for more autonomy simply by standing pat and threatening to arrest politicians. Spanish autonomous communities like Catalonia enjoy far less autonomy than American states (they are not allowed, for instance, to vary the overall tax burden from a central standard).

The most likely outcome of the process now seems to be Continue Reading »

Things are moving rapidly as the nation continues to respond to the Ebola “crisis.” Schools are closing (NYT). The military is in on the action, as CNN reports, “forming a 30-person “quick-strike team” equipped to provide direct treatment to Ebola patients inside the United States.” Most significant, President Obama has named an Ebola czar, Thomas Klain, whose qualifications include serving as an aide to Vice President Biden. Hopefully, Klain (who was also a top lawyer for the 2000 Gore Recount Committee) will not take responsibility for counting the number of Ebola “victims.” It remains stubbornly stable at 3: Eric Duncan, “patient zero,” who contracted the disease in Liberia and died, and two nurses (Nina Pham and Amber Vinson) who appear to be recovering.

This number–three–is not the number that matters. The web is ablaze with stories, as a Google search reveals:

  • US Ebola crisis: 27.4 million hits
  • Eric Duncan: 86.1 million hits
  • Nina Pham: 18.3 million hits
  • Amber Vinson: 1.26 million hits

And then there are the polls. Opinion polls reveal little faith in the Centers for Disease Control and the President’s handling of the “crisis.” A new Politico poll reveals a larger percentage of respondents believe that George W. Bush “was more effective at managing the basic functions of the federal government” (38 percent) than Barack Obama (35 percent)…26 percent see them as equally (in)effective.

All of this is a concern for a simple reason. As the Washington Post reports, Democratic strategists “fear President Obama’s response to Ebola in the United States could become a political liability in the midterm election and Republicans see an opportunity to tie increasing concerns about the disease to the public’s broader worries about Obama’s leadership.”

With the election in two weeks, one can only imagine that the government response to the continuing “crisis” will only escalate.

The Risk of Ebola

Chairman Mao once remarked “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” It would appear that we are in a period of “utter chaos.” First, ISIS dominated the news. Now we have the Ebola “outbreak.” The situation is “excellent” from a political perspective precisely because crises (real or constructed) provide windows of opportunity for offering explanations and policy proposals that may have little direct connection to the underlying reality.

It remains to be seen whether Ebola will become a genuine risk in the US. Given everything I know about risk regulation, I have been a bit skeptical about the media coverage of the Ebola “outbreak,” although when fundraisers are cancelled, it gives me pause (unless polling mysteriously entered the calculus).

Regardless of risk, Ebola may continue to attract attention precisely because it creates an opportunity to revisit key arguments about policy and the role of the state in society. As Megan McArdle notes:

You might find this surprising. The Ebola virus is not running for office. It does not have a policy platform, or any campaign white papers on burning issues. It doesn’t even vote. So how could it neatly validate all our preconceived positions on government spending, immigration policy, and the proper role of the state in our health care system? Stranger still: How could it validate them so beautifully on both left and right?

Drawing on McArdle: the problem is the Ebola “outbreak” (or more precisely, two cases of Ebola contracted in a single hospital). The explanations include (1). A failure to protect our borders; (2) A failure to fund adequately the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control; (3) The inadequacy of anything short of a single-payer system of health care; (4) Obama’s failures as president or the austerity policies of the Republican Congress (5) Our failure to deal with climate change; and (5) The growing trends in income inequality).

In some ways, the “crisis” of Ebola seems to resemble the current concerns over ISIS-ISIL. The real nature of the risk to national security is far less important than the multiple ways in which a situation can be framed as a means of supporting pre-exiting political arguments and solutions. Unfortunately, the solutions rarely involve a reduction in the role of the state or an expansion of civil liberties.

Bottom line: the greatest risk posed by Ebola may be the political response.

 

The Cato Institute has conducted a new poll of Americans’ attitudes toward federalism. Apparently Americans have become much more favorable to federalism and decentralization over the past 40 years.

The Cato Institute commissioned YouGov for the poll. They asked respondents questions about which level of government should have primary control over each issue area, using the exact same wording from a Harris poll conducted in 1973. This method allowed them to see how Americans’ attitudes have evolved over the past 40 years. On 10 out of 11 issues, Americans were more favorable to state or local control in 2013 than they had been in 1973 (the bars in this graph represent the percentage of Americans favoring primarily federal control over that issue):

cato poll

A majority of Americans still want primarily federal decision-making over national defense, Social Security, and cancer research. Two of those three seem to make a great deal of sense: cancer research is a global collective good, and national defense, by definition, is a national collective good. “Prison reform” and “drug reform” are the two issues on which Americans’ attitudes have moved most significantly toward decentralization. A large majority of Americans now think housing, transportation, education, welfare, prison reform, health insurance, and drug reform, in that order, should be primarily state and local issues. Only on education have Americans become more centralist, and that change is so small as to lie within the margin of error.

Another compilation of surveys suggests that a majority of Americans also want primarily federal decision-making over immigration, stem-cell research legality, protecting the border, protecting civil rights, protecting civil liberties, abortion laws, creationism in public schools, and food safety, in descending order. Most Americans also think paving roads, providing job training, law enforcement, running courts, providing pre-K to low-income children, unemployment, gay marriage, and gun control should be primarily state and local issues.

These results are consistent with those of other surveys, which have tested Americans’ views on particular issues. A 2012 CBS News poll found that 69% of Americans preferred that the states handle marijuana policy, while only 27% preferred that the federal government handle it.

What’s interesting is that on all these issues on which the study reports a partisan breakdown, even drug laws, Democrats are more in favor of federal control than are Republicans. Decentralization has emerged as a very starkly partisan wedge issue.

Growing support for decentralization in the U.S. does not necessarily mean that decentralization is a good idea or that it will happen, of course. As my review of Daniel Treisman’s recent book acknowledges, decentralization can have its pitfalls. Yet within the American context of largely market-preserving federalism, greater decentralization on many of these issues will Continue Reading »

The Sunday edition of the New Hampshire Union-Leader featured a front-page, above-the-fold story on the Free State Project after 10 years in New Hampshire. The story gives a good sense of the wide range of activities, interests, and views of FSP participants who’ve moved to the state. A taste:

“I honestly don’t ever advertise it,” Jody Underwood said. “Every Free Stater is completely different. The only thing you would know about me from it is I moved here to be near like-minded people,” she said. “You don’t know anything about me by knowing that. It seems like a weird label to have.”

Underwood, 54, moved from a Philadelphia suburb to a 210-acre Croydon farm in 2007 with her husband Ian Underwood and another liberty-minded couple, Emily and Neil Smith.

The Smiths wanted to live off the grid, and the Underwoods wanted an adventure.

“We feel that life should be lived with principles and not by letting other people telling people what to do,” Underwood said.

Underwood said she immediately knew she had found where she was meant to be.

“I always felt like a fish out of water” before she moved to New Hampshire “because I wasn’t politically-correct.”

Underwood works at home as a research scientist and software designer. She has also started the Bardo Project, a home and farm intern program for adults of all ages.

Bardo is a Tibetan word meaning “between lives,” but on Underwood’s farm it’s about giving people a break between chapters in their lives so they can find new paths.

She cares about education and now heads the town school board.

For much more, check out the full story.

On Friday the 17th of October I will be speaking at the annual conference of the Josep Irla Foundation in Barcelona, Catalonia. The theme of the conference is “Catalonia’s right to decide.” I will be in town Thursday and Friday and would enjoy meeting with any Pileus readers while I am there. Please contact me at jason.p.sorens AT dartmouth.edu. If you are interested in coming to the talk, here is a program in English, and here are the details:

When: Friday 17th October 2014

Where: Barcelona – The Mirador, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

Address: Montalegre, 5 – 08001 Barcelona

Interpretation: English

Since the Scottish independence referendum, the Scottish National Party has seen its membership treble and its poll ratings climb. This boost to pro-independence forces after their referendum failure departs from the script established in previous referendums on autonomy or independence. After the failed 1979 referendum on devolution (due to a turnout requirement – the measure got a majority of votes), the SNP fell back in the polls. After the successful 1997 referendum, the SNP gained in the polls, even though devolution was a Labour-implemented project. After the 1980 and 1995 failed referenda, the Parti Quebecois declined a bit in the polls.

So what’s going on? The biggest reason for the SNP’s gains may be that “Yes” and even some “No” voters in the referendum want to make sure that the Westminster parties follow through on their pledges for even greater devolution. Alex Salmond once said, “It’s only SNP votes that concentrate the minds of Labour.”

To a point, the logic makes sense. The British parties are contesting for power at the center, and party leaders are unlikely to devolve power away from themselves if they can at all help it. A credible secession threat is useful for eliciting concessions.

At the same time, though, there has to be some Continue Reading »

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