how amusing

The new administration and new Congress are bringing change to the federal government and that change has to be covered. But how deeply? Institutions are important, but except to those who love this sort of stuff, reading writing about institutions can be numbingly dull. So you get Ezra Klein writing things like

Clinton partially repealed 12291 with Executive Order 12866. I’m not going to explain it because, frankly, you all will stop visiting this blog if I do, but suffice to say it pulled many of Reagan’s changes back.

or Elana Schor cutting off an excerpt from a budget resolution, saying

Okay, I had to stop it there at the risk of driving people away with Congress-speak.

Of course these kinds of disclaimers or apologies aren’t really new: Mark Schmitt, for example, who often writes about political process issues, put a number of them into his posts back when he was blogging regularly at The Decembrist. Here’s one from a post on campaign finance

My apologies to readers for a long post on a subject that, evidence shows, is of interest to almost no one.

(And readers who made it to – or at least near – the end of my post on Senate campaign finance disclosures last summer might remember seeing an aside along the same lines.)

I highlight these because I keep seeing them – probably because I appear to be one of those people who finds this stuff interesting – and it keeps reminding me of one of my favorite quotations, from Richard White’s book on the Columbia River:

Planning is an exercise of power, and in a modern state much real power is suffused with boredom. The agents of planning are usually boring; the planning process is boring; the implementation of plans is always boring. In a democracy boredom works for bureaucracies and corporations as smell works for a skunk. It keeps danger away. Power does not have to be exercised behind the scenes. It can be open. The audience is asleep. The modern world is forged amidst our inattention.

following leaders

0.2:

Fifty-five Bostonians, including the president of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, signed a petition accusing Brandeis of lacking the “judicial temperament.” It was the kind of campaign that could get people muttering that if those guys didn’t like Brandeis, maybe he was no good.

teotaw-brandeis-chart

One of Brandeis’s allies drew up a chart pointing out that the fifty-five anti-Brandeisians all belonged to the same clubs, worked in the same State Street banks, and lived in the same neighborhoods. As Walter Lippmann wrote, “All the smoke of ill-repute which had been gathered around Mr. Brandeis originated in the group psychology of these gentlemen and because they are men of influence it seemed ominous. But it is smoke without any fire except that of personal or group antagonism.”

_______________

2.0:

What is this thing?

We often describe LittleSis as an involuntary facebook for powerful people, in that the database includes information on the various relationships of politicians, CEOs, and their friends — what boards they sit on, where they work, who they give money to. All of this information is public record, but it is scattered across a wide range of websites and resources. LittleSis is an attempt to organize it in a way that meaningfully exposes the social networks that wield disproportionate influence over this country’s public policy.

I’m not sure if you can create maps, graphs, trees, and charts on Little Sis right now, but hopefully it will be possible to do things like this in the future.

corruption update

A quick follow-up to the Baltimore post: the mayor has now been indicted too.

you win

Obama has youtube, FDR had the radio, but Calvin Coolidge, whose conversational skills were legendary, was the first president on sound film.
[vodpod id=ExternalVideo.769336&w=425&h=350&fv=]

Baltimore, apple core

I couldn’t help but think of the redevelopment and politics subplot in The Wire when I read this (via):

A Baltimore grand jury indicted a city councilwoman and a developer with close ties to Mayor Sheila Dixon Wednesday on bribery charges related to tax breaks for luxury buildings under construction on the city waterfront.

The indictments of Councilwoman Helen L. Holton and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb are the most prominent charges to emerge from a wide-ranging probe by the Maryland state prosecutor into corruption at Baltimore City Hall, an investigation that included the search of the mayor’s home last summer.

Prosecutors say Holton, head of a committee that oversees tax incentives, approved tax breaks worth millions of dollars for projects involving Lipscomb at Inner Harbor East, after Lipscomb paid $12,500 for a political survey for Holton last year.

Holton, first elected in 1995, was charged with perjury, for failing to list the payment on her annual financial disclosure statement, and with misusing her office. She said in a statement issued by her lawyers that she was “disappointed” in the grand jury’s decision and would continue in office while the legal proceedings continue.

The development stunned City Council members, who have been in recess for the past month, and fueled speculation that the nearly three-year investigation might be reaching its climax. The current grand jury expires Friday and to date the probe has seemed to focus on contracts and hearings held by Dixon when she was the president of the City Council and on her relationship with Lipscomb.

counts of corruption, 1

Back when the Blagojevich scandal broke in the news, there was a lot of discussion of which state is the most corrupt, no doubt prompted in part by the claim that

“If it [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States it’s certainly one hell of a competitor,” Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office, said Tuesday.

USA Today looked into the comparison and came up with a surprising result (click through for a map):

On a per-capita basis, however, Illinois ranks 18th for the number of public corruption convictions the federal government has won from 1998 through 2007, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Department of Justice statistics.

Louisiana, Alaska and North Dakota all fared worse than the Land of Lincoln in that analysis.

Meanwhile, an earlier analysis by the Corporate Crime Reporter ranked Illinois sixth in federal corruption convictions on a per capita basis from 1997 to 2006, behind Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, and Ohio. (For the visually inclined, The Monkey Cage and its readers have you covered with a list, graph, and map.) If you’re wondering what happened to Alaska and North Dakota, Corporate Crime Reporter did not analyze the states with fewer than 2 million residents; only 35 states are included in the rankings.

Neither ranking includes state-level convictions. And of course they also leave out all those corrupt officials who were never convicted at all. As Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, put it

Also, public officials in any given state can be corrupt to the core, and if a federal prosecutor doesn’t have the resources or the sheer political will to bring the case and win a conviction, the public corruption will not be reflected in the Justice Department’s data set.

(So there may be hope for Illinois yet!)

The flip side of this is that a relatively high conviction rate may be partly attributable to better detection, as the USA Today notes:

Don Morrison, executive director of the non-partisan North Dakota Center for the Public Good, said it may be that North Dakotans are better at rooting out corruption when it occurs.

“Being a sparsely populated state, people know each other,” he said. “We know our elected officials and so certainly to do what the governor of Illinois did is much more difficult here.”

Still, you have to have corruption first in order for it to be detected, and North Dakota’s prevention abilities don’t appear to be very strong:

Morrison said the state has encouraged bad government practices in some cases by weakening disclosure laws. North Dakota does not require legislative or statewide candidates to disclose their campaign expenses.

***

The uncertainty surrounding the detection and reporting of corruption is one of the reasons John Noonan does not provide comparative measures of corruption for the places and periods he discusses in Bribes. (Working across history, Noonan also lacks good data sets.) Since his discussion of quantification is quite lengthy, I’ve put it in the next post.

a history of bribery

Aside from visualizing the criminal complaint against him a few weeks ago, I’ve been waiting to see what Rod Blagojevich is actually going to be indicted for before blogging about the case. But if the indictment is postponed, I’ll probably pick it up sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, with corruption so much in the news, I’ve begun reading John Noonan’s history of the concept of bribery, appropriately entitled Bribes, parts of which I read a few years ago while researching 19th century corruption in graduate school. In pursuit of the idea, Noonan ranges from the ancient world, to medieval Europe, to early modern Britain, to the United States, to bribery on an international scale in the late 20th century (the book came out in the mid-1980s).

Is it really possible to follow a single concept of bribery through so many places and times? Noonan argues yes, provided the concept is properly abstracted:

The core concept of a bribe is an inducement improperly influencing the performance of a public function meant to be gratuitously exercised. The core turns out to be remarkably constant if its elements are taken with enough abstractness. The concrete constituent elements–what counts as “an inducement,” what counts as “improperly influencing,” what counts as “a public function,” what functions are “meant to be gratuitously exercised”–change with the culture. The concept of a bribe contracts or expands with conventions, laws, practices. Relativized, it does not disappear. The idea is used in postexilic Jerusalem, late Republican Rome, imperial Ravenna, seventh-century Yorkshire, thirteenth-century Paris, seventeenth-century London, eighteenth-century Calcutta, nineteenth-century Washington, twentieth-century Tokyo. Cross-culturally compared in these very varied settings, the abstract central concept–with no forcing of the evidence–recurs.

Noonan also provides a helpful framework for understanding the different standards of bribery that may prevail at any one time in a given context:

Bribery is a legal concept, hence the law determines what counts as bribery in a particular society. This is easy to say but legal definitions turn out to be only superficially helpful. Is the law the edict issued by the prince and the statute written on the books or is the law that which is actually enforced? If one takes the proclaimed rule as the measure, one chooses a standard that is often demonstrably unreal. If one answers that the law is that which is actually enforced, then one is led to ask: How many trials must take place before a law is enforced? Is prosecution enough for enforcement or must conviction follow? Is conviction enough or must serious punishment be imposed? Is there enforcement if only small offenders but not large ones are seriously sanctioned? Actual enforcement is not a clear and simple measure.

Probing the various meanings of any law on bribery leads to perception of a tension between it and the morals of any community. Typically, the morals in practice are less demanding than the law on the books and the morals in public expression are more exigent than the law enforced. Often a society has at least four definitions of a bribe–that of the more advanced moralists; that of the law as written; that of the law as in any degree enforced; that of common practice. If one is to say that an act of bribery has been committed, one should know which standard one is using. The great advantage of the concrete materials drawn on here–trials, confessions, letters, poems–is that one can see what bribery means in these contexts; one can conclude with some assurance as to which standard was in play and what a bribe meant for a particular prosecutor or poet, politician or publicist in a particular society.

This is particularly relevant to the Blagojevich case, where the “morals in public expression” were expressed quite literally in the form of the arrests and the ensuing press conference, while the standard of the law as enforced has yet to be determined. Additionally, I’ve seen the question come up in a number of places of whether there’s a meaningful distinction between what Blagojevich is alleged to have done and more conventional practices of deal-making or logrolling, with some arguing that both types of activities are a kind of bribery, and others arguing that there’s a real difference between trading support for public activities for support for other public activities and trading support for public activities for personal, private enrichment. I’m more in agreement with the latter group, but in any case the difference of opinion suggests that there are different standards in play here.

I’ll be posting more on Bribes as I work my way through the book.

chance coincidence

When I heard that Blagojevich quoted Kipling in his press conference, I wondered if he quoted the same poem Grandpa Simpson quotes in a casino in the episode where he almost gambles away all the money he inherits. Turns out, he did. Here’s Blagojevich:

Here’s a transcript of the Kipling quotation:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating…

That’s from the start of the poem. Grandpa Simpson picks it up at a later point, quotes a few lines, then skips to the end:

I think Rudyard Kipling said it best: If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss, yours is the earth is [sic] everything that is in it, and, which is more, you’ll be a man, my son.

Homer’s response: “You’ll be a bonehead!”

life and taxes

Robert J. Samuelson claims*

Sure, the wealthy extract privileges from government, but mainly they’re its servants. The richest 1 percent of Americans pay 28 percent of federal taxes, says the Congressional Budget Office. About 60 percent of the $3 trillion federal budget goes for payments to individuals — mostly the poor and middle class. You can argue that those burdens and benefits should be greater, but if the rich were all powerful, their taxes would be much lower. Similarly, the poor and middle class do have powerful advocates. To name three: AARP for retirees; the AFL-CIO for unionized workers; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for the poor.

Ezra Klein and Henry Farrell point out that Congress is actually more responsive to the preferences of the rich than to those of the poor and middle class.

Ezra also notes that tax rates for the wealthy have gone way down and goes on to talk at length about taxes, wealth, and inequality. That’s important, but there’s another key point here: taxes aren’t automatically bad. They pay for social welfare, they pay for the military, they pay for public subsidies for business, and so on. Taxes are a public good.

Does this mean that current tax rates are at an ideal level? No. It also doesn’t mean that they’re too high or too low or too regressive or too progressive, though they may be one or more of those things. It just means that discussions of taxation should proceed on the basis that taxation done right provides benefits everyone rather than on the assumption that taxes do not provide some kind of a return to those who pay them.

______

*I wasn’t going to click through to the column, but then felt I should. Surprisingly, aside from the claim about the rich, it’s not a bad defense of lobbying – or at least, of the idea of lobbying.

Update: See also here, especially the income graph.

the visual display of qualitative information

If you really want to know what it’s in the criminal complaint filed against Rod Blagojevich, you can read it. But in this 2.0 world, why read when you can visualize? Bill Allison at the Sunlight Foundation’s Real Time Investigations blog uploaded the complaint (via) to a site called Many Eyes, which is the kind of site I wish I’d already known about, and which offers a number of ways to visualize text.

(Unfortunately, wordpress strips out the code that makes it possible to embed these images at their full size and functionality, so I’ve re-sized these images to be larger than what the embed codes were giving me. If you click through, you’ll be able to do all sorts of things, like re-arrange the displays, search for particular words and phrases, count or highlight specific occurrences, and even zoom in on the word tree.)

Let’s start with a Wordle:

blagojevich-complaint-wordle

That gives you an idea of the most important topics/people in the complaint, but it’s more of a bird’s eye perspective. If you want more precision, albeit at the cost of some visual elegance, you could look at a couple of tag clouds:

Here’s a cloud formed on the basis of single words:

blagojevich-complaint-one-word

And here’s a two-word tag cloud:

blagojevich-complaint-two-word

The two-word format does a better job capturing many of the subjects – not just the proper names, but also senate candidate, financial advisor, planning board, campaign contributions, and so on – as well as the alleged activities – Blagojevich spoke, Blagojevich talked, attempted extortion, phone calls. But it also has some pairings that are simply the result of the stylistic conventions of a criminal complaint. For example, the phrase “2008 rod,” which has 53 occurrences, isn’t a phrase in the usual sense – it’s the result of writing out the date of an alleged action (in 2008), followed by Blagojevich’s first name: “…the morning of November 12, 2008, Rod Blagojevich talked to Fundraiser A…”

Finally, the most innovative and analytically interesting visualization is the word tree. Want to know how the Senate candidates appear in the text?:

blagojevich-senate-candidate

Judging by the number of occurrences, Senate candidate 3, who appears to have been identified, is looking pretty good.

Incidentally: a cursory search for profanity doesn’t turn up nearly as much as you’d expect from the news coverage.