Constructivism in the world of Dragons

Here is an analysis of Game of Thrones from a realist international relations perspective. Inevitably, here is the response from a constructivist angle. These are supposed to be fun so I approached them with a light heart and popcorn. But halfway through the second article I actually felt sick to my stomach. I am not exaggerating, and it wasn’t the popcorn – seeing the same ‘arguments’ between realists and constructivists rehearsed in this new setting, the same lame responses to the same lame points, the same ‘debate’ where nobody ever changes their mind, the same dreaded confluence of normative, theoretical, and empirical notions that plagues this never-ending exchange in the real (sorry, socially constructed) world, all that really gave me a physical pain. I felt entrapped – even in this fantasy world there was no escape from the Realist and the Constructivist. The Seven Kingdoms were infected by the triviality of our IR theories. The magic of their world was desecrated. Forever….

Nothing wrong with the particular analyses. But precisely because they manage to be good examples of the genres they imitate the bad taste in my mouth felt so real. So is it about interests or norms? Oh no. Is it real politik or the slow construction of a common moral order? Do leader disregard the common folk to their own peril? Oh, please stop. How do norms construct identities? Noooo moooore. Send the Dragons!!!

By the way, just one example of how George R.R. Martin can explain a difficult political idea better than an entire conference of realists and constructivists. Why do powerful people keep their promises? Is it ’cause their norms make them do it or because it is in their interests or whatever? Why do Lannisters always pay their debts even though they appear to be some the meanest self-centered characterless in the entire world of Game of Thrones?  We literally see the answer when Tyrion Lannister tries to escape from the sky cells, and the Lannister’s reputation for paying their debts is the only thing that saves him, the only thing he has left to pay Mord, but it is enough (see episode 1.6). Having a reputation for paying your debts is one of the greatest assets you can have in every world. And it is worth all the pennies you pay to preserve it even when you can actually get away with not honoring your commitments. It could not matter less if you call this interest-based or norm-based explanation: it just clicks, but it takes creativity and insight to convey the point, not impotent meta-theoretical disputes.

The failure of political science

Last week the American Senate supported with a clear bi-partisan majority a decision to stop funding for political science research from the National Science Foundation. Of all disciplines, only political science has been singled out for the cuts and the money will go for cancer research instead.

The decision is obviously wrong for so many reasons but my point is different. How could political scientists who are supposed to understand better than anyone else how politics works allow this to happen? What does it tell us about the state of the discipline that the academic experts in political analysis cannot prevent overt political action that hurts them directly and rather severely?

To me, this failure of American political scientists to protect their own turf in the political game is scandalous. It is as bad as Nobel-winning economists Robert Merton and Myron Scholes leading the hedge fund ‘Long Tern Capital Management‘ to bust and losing 4.6 billion dollars with the help of their Nobel-wining economic theories. As Myron & Scholes’ hedge fund story revels the true real-world value of (much) financial economics theories, so does the humiliation of political science by the Congress reveal the true real-world value of (much) political theories.

Think about it –  the world-leading academic specialists on collective action, interest representation and mobilization could not get themselves mobilized, organized and represented in Washington to protect their funding. The professors of the political process and legislative institutions could not find a way to work these same institutions to their own advantage. The experts on political preferences and incentives did not see the broad bi-partisan coalition against political science forming. That’s embarrassing

It is even more embarrassing because American political science is the most productive, innovative, and competitive in the world. There is no doubt that almost all of the best new ideas, methods, and theories in political science over the last 50 years have come from the US. (And a lot of these innovations have been made possible because of the funding received by the National Science Foundation). So it is not that individual American political scientists are not smart – of course they are, but for some reason as a collective body they have not been able to benefit from their own knowledge and insights. Or that knowledge and insights about US politics are deficient in important ways.The fact remains, political scientists were beaten in what should have been their own game. Hopefully some kind of lesson will emerge from all that…

P.S. No reason for public administration, sociology and other related disciplines to be smug about pol sci’s humiliation – they have been saved (for now) mostly by their own irrelevance. 

The evolution of EU legislation (graphed with ggplot2 and R)

During the last half century the European Union has adopted more than 100 000 pieces of legislation. In this presentation I look into the patterns of legislative adoption over time. I tried to create clear and engaging graphs that provide some insight into the evolution of law-making activity: not an easy task given the byzantine nature of policy making in the EU and the complex nomenclature of types of legal acts possible.

The main plot showing the number of adopted directives, regulations and decisions since 1967 is pasted below. There is much more in the presentation. The time series data is available here, as well as the R script used to generate the plots (using ggplot2). Some of the graphs are also available as interactive visualizations via ManyEyes here, here, and here (requires Java). Enjoy.

EU laws over time

After Google Reader

As you might have heard already, Google slashes Reader. That’s terrible news since I have based a very large part of my internet experience on Google Reader: not only following blogs, but collecting links, catching up with general news, and even keeping up to date with academic journals. For some insight into why Google dumped the Reader read here. There is a good discussion of alternatives RSS platforms here. Let’s hope a new and better feeder will soon appear to fill the gap.

Postscript: There is a petition to save Google Reader which already has close to 100 000 signatures here.

Post-postscript: And I thought I am pissed…

 

 

Interest groups and the making of legislation

How are the activities of interest groups related to the making of legislation? Does mobilization of interest groups lead to more legislation in the future? Alternatively, does the adoption of new policies motivate interest groups to get active? Together with Dave Lowery, Brendan Carroll and Joost Berkhout, we tackle these questions in the case of the European Union. What we find is that there is no discernible signal in the data indicating that the mobilization of interest groups and the volume of legislative production over time are significantly related. Of course, absence of evidence is the same as the evidence of absence, so a link might still exist, as suggested by theory, common wisdom and existing studies of the US (e.g. here). But using quite a comprehensive set of model specifications we can’t find any link in our time-series sample. The abstract of the paper is below and as always you can find at my website the data, the analysis scripts, and the pre-print full text. One a side-note – I am very pleased that we managed to publish what is essentially a negative finding. As everyone seems to agree, discovering which phenomena are not related might be as important as discovering which phenomena are. Still, there are few journals that would apply this principle in their editorial policy. So cudos for the journal of Interest Groups and Advocacy.

Abstract
Different perspectives on the role of organized interests in democratic politics imply different temporal sequences in the relationship between legislative activity and the influence activities of organized interests.  Unfortunately, lack of data has greatly limited any kind of detailed examination of this temporal relationship.  We address this problem by taking advantage of the chronologically very precise data on lobbying activity provided by the door pass system of the European Parliament and data on EU legislative activity collected from EURLEX.  After reviewing the several different theoretical perspectives on the timing of lobbying and legislative activity, we present a time-series analysis of the co-evolution of legislative output and interest groups for the period 2005-2011. Our findings show that, contrary to what pluralist and neo-corporatist theories propose, interest groups neither lead nor lag bursts in legislative activity in the EU.

Timing is Everything: Organized Interests and the Timing of Legislative Activity
Dimiter Toshkov, Dave Lowery, Brendan Carroll and Joost Berkhout
Interest Groups and Advocacy (2013), vol.2, issue 1, pp.48-70

Bureaucrats as Policy-makers

Everyone loves bitching about bureaucrats but few know what it is exactly that they do. Ed Page‘s new book ‘Policies without Politicians’ provides plenty of insights. As I mention at the end of this book review, everyone who theorizes or criticizes bureaucrats should read the book as a reality check. A shorter version of the review is forthcoming in West European Politics later this year.
***

This book is about the making of decrees such as the Alcohol Disorder Zones in the UK, Salmon critical habitats in the US, Horse Medicines in the EU and Women’s Organizations in Sweden. If you suspect these issues are rather prosaic, you are not alone. And this is precisely the point. This book is about the making of policies in the absence of sustained attention by politicians. It is a study of how bureaucrats make rules when mostly left to their own devices. It is an exploration into the nature and limits of bureaucratic discretion to regulate our lives.

The main conclusion, based on an analysis of 58 issues in six political systems, is that the freedom enjoyed by civil servants and their insulation from political control are in practice severely limited if not completely illusory, even when it comes to the relatively minor issues discussed in the book. Admittedly, this is a rather prosaic conclusion as well, but one that is comforting, timely andimportant. It is comforting to the extent that it dispels the popular myth of the faceless bureaucrats controlling our lives. It is timely because theories of policy-making and politico-administrative relations have became increasingly preoccupied with issues like bureaucratic drift, shirking, delegation costs, and the like with little evidence that these actually matter in real life. Finally, the conclusion is important in
view of the continuing tendency of political science to ignore the pedestrian reality of everyday policy making which although lacking the suspense of high politics comprises the bulk of the activities of states and public organizations.

The book contains an introduction, six empirical chapters covering policy-making in France, Britain, Germany, Sweden, the United States, and the European Union, and a conclusion. In this review I will follow the opposite route by first summarizing part of the generalizations offered in the last part, then focusing on some of the country-level insights, and finally commenting on the approach of the book.

Studying the origin and passage of a moderately large sample of secondary legislation (decrees), Edward Page concludes that politicians generally get their way even if their attention towards the issues is sporadic. Bureaucrats anticipate the preferences of their political masters and adjust the text of the decrees to the politicians’ explicit or assumed wishes. Moreover, bureaucratic discretion is severely constrained by precedent, existing legal codes, and procedural rules for the preparation of legislation, in addition to the need to anticipate and avoid political vetoes. And if for most of the decrees political direction is passive, there is a tendency for the relatively important ones to be developed under direct
and active political guidance.Contrary to theoretical expectations, the technical and scientific character of many of the issues is not sufficient to exclude political involvement (p.153). Also running against some popular theoretical ideas based on principal-agent modeling is the observation that it was never an ‘alarm’ set off by interest groups (p.151) that brought political attention to an issue. Again, bureaucrats tend to detectand anticipate potential conflicts and solve them before they offer the decrees for final approval. But it
is internal norms rather than external scrutiny or outside interests that are most important in keeping the bureaucrats in check, according to the book (p.165).

Politicians appear to be most often involved in the legitimation of decrees, but that does not mean bureaucrats have a free hand during the agenda-setting stage. Not only did many decrees offer no scope for policy deliberation at all, but in most cases there was almost no scope for choice whether to introduce the proposal in the first place: proposals often followed automatically from prior commitments in primary legislation, the need to update, codify, or clean up existing rules, or the obligation to apply international norms and agreements. In this context the author is right to question the relevance of theoretical concerns like bureaucratic drift and shirking, and ponder what would selfinterested
bureaucratic preferences even look like with regard to many of the policy issues discussed in the book (p.160). If one looks for the influence of civil servants, it is not to be found in the supposedly unconstrained discretion they enjoy in pushing their own agendas or preferences, but in the routinization, regularization and adjustment of policy they perform (pp.168-170).

These general patterns seem to be influenced by the national institutional context (pp.155-158) and vary to some extent across the six political systems studied. Sweden appears to be the place where politicians are most likely to get involved in the preparation of decrees even when one would expects them not to. On the other end of the spectrum, the UK and Germany exhibit the lowest degree of direct political involvement. In the German case, this stems from the fact that potential conflicts are solved in different institutional arenas before the drafting of the decrees had even started. As for the UK, the book posits a ‘general reluctance among politicians to get directly and actively involved in the activity of
rule-making ‘ (p.157). A surprising degree of political involvement (mostly as agenda selectors) is found in the generally pluralist American system, in addition to the continual importance of the agency as the central locus of organizational identity for American bureaucrats. The French system is found to be unexpectedly ‘as close to interest group corporatism as it is to the traditional aloof ‘strong state”’ (p.44).

But it is the chapter on the European Union that most strongly contradicts the popular perceptions and received common, if not academic, wisdom. Page is clear that ‘the role of Commission bureaucrats as [policy] initiators was highly limited’ (p.128), Commissioners often get directly involved, and there is very little scope for independent action. Far from enjoying a bureaucrat’s paradise, civil servants in the European Union appear to have very little substantial autonomy and influence.

Although the synchronic comparisons between the six political systems and the diachronic
comparisons with previous academic accounts suggest intriguing patterns, the book can pursue them only as far. The study is unapologetically inductive, there is little effort to systematize the empirical mess of real-word policy-making into variables, and the case selection is driven primarily by pragmatic reasons. While this serves the exploratory objectives of the book well, it also posits limits on the inferences and generalizations one can make. Since the sample of issues (decrees) is not (intended to be) representative it is difficult to judge whether the case studies provide evidence for genuine change in national policy-making styles (e.g. France, the US), or for systematic differences between  countries (e.g. Sweden vs. the UK). Since the decrees researched differ across the six political systems, the question why certain issues are left for bureaucratic policy-making (decrees) in one country but get in the social and political prime-time in others is left answered. Furthermore, by selecting only cases which eventually resulted in a decree, the book might have overlooked potentially interesting cases where (political) conflict stopped the development of policy in its tracks.

These points are as much suggestions for future research as they are criticisms of the current volume. The book is quite clear about its own limitations deliberately positioning itself as an inductive exploration. And it achieves its purpose rather well. As the author notes, it is difficult to produce a good book describing cases which are dull and boring by definition, but, although not gripping, the text manages to provide just enough detail and institutional context to keep the reader interested. In fact, the short presentations of the six policy-making systems contained in each of the country chapters make the book suitable for primary or complementary reading for academic courses on comparative bureaucracy and comparative public policy. But above all, the book should be required reading, and a
reality check, for all those who theorize and criticize bureaucracy and bureaucrats for their alleged discretion in regulating our lives.