OpenSecrets’ interesting question

March 20, 2011

I don’t know what the intern schedule is like at OpenSecrets.org, but someone over there posted this question from their Facebook page at about 9:30pm today (a Saturday):

Question of the day: Which do you consider to be the more powerful political force — the nuclear energy industry, or special interests that advocate against nuclear energy? Please explain your answer.

My perhaps unexpected answer: the anti-nuclear lobby is more powerful… even though it barely exists.

First, the empirical comparison is clear: The nuclear lobby is probably a more powerful force than the “anti-nuclear” lobby. It includes a multitude of groups from General Electric to the Nuclear Energy Institute, and is part of a steady, high-volume set of lobbying campaigns that was supposedly within arm’s reach of repealing the decades-old moratorium on American nuclear power.

Courtesy of OpenSecrets.org

By contrast, the “anti-nuclear” lobby consists almost entirely of the peripheral aims of bigger environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. As that organization is involved in everything from local stream maintenance to defense of funding for the EPA, its seemingly large $1-million+ lobbying expenditures last year are segmented among a host of programs, and their most visible such campaign in the previous cycle was probably their mountaintop removal campaign.

But none of these have to do with the nitty-gritty of anti-nuclear campaigns because none of these target the right decision-makers. Federal lawmakers are actually less important than the town government in the area where theoretical nuclear plants could be located. The placement of nuclear reactors is a famous application of the “Not In My Backyard” principle, a subset of the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma: Even if everyone wanted nuclear power, most are reluctant to let a plant be built near their own property. The reason this concern plays out so often is because town governments are much easier to influence for the average voter, especially average voters with a clear, salient impending threat to their property values.

Indeed, on the federal level there are few “outsiders” in the professional lobbying world; every major energy company has government relations offices in every state, consisting of state natives who know the important political and journalistic actors in their respective states. It is almost impossible, by contrast, to appear as anything but an outsider to a town government, especially if faced by an opposition of NIMBY-mad locals. That’s why the “anti-nuclear lobby” is so powerful: It accidentally behaves like the most effective vast, wealthy professional organizations: it is decentralized, on-message, and speaks directly to potential gains or losses of local voters.

You No Longer Need That Poli Sci Major

March 16, 2011

Hey everyone,

In case you’re wondering where Casual Factors has been the past few weeks… here is your answer. Mini-games and longer RPG-style games for pre-law and law students, poli sci and econ majors, and heck, bored professionals at work.

Wait until you realize just how depressed you get when you lose all your prestige points in one fell swoop.

President Reverses Course on Guantanamo

March 8, 2011

This has already been out since this morning, but it turns out President Obama has decided to continue military tribunals and, as has received the most attention, continue to operate the Guantanamo Bay facility.

I don’t know much about the courts – frankly, I find the study of them interminable – but to me it seems odd that we’re even viewing him as responsible for this level of decision-making. I was under the impression that it was entirely a matter of the legal mumbo jumbo concerning trying foreign citizens on U.S. soil.

There seem to be two issues going on here. One, Congress didn’t want to allow the trials of potential terrorists on U.S. soil for a variety of reasons germane to individual Congressmen who feared the trials would wind up in their district. Two, judges haven’t decided who has authority to actually close Guantanamo. Third – and this is the point I’m surprised no one else is making – the mere procedural questions involved must be a huge impediment to getting the job done.

Here are the questions, basically, you need to ask if you want to understand what’s going on with the huge “delay” (if it is that) in the Guantanamo shutdown:

1) How long does it take to, essentially, close a military base?
2) Who has the authority to send whichever inmates to whichever states?
3) What will those states do in the face of those detainees?
4) What will a trial on home soil do to the applicability of the ruling to things like, say, international law regarding “enemy combatants?”

Number four is kind of a throwaway – this author doesn’t think much of “international law” – but overall, anyone expecting Guantanamo to close anytime soon has a lot to think about.

Adam Carolla – Economist?

February 16, 2011

I’ve been a little behind on my favorite podcast, but check out this (approximated) bit from the February 7 episode, where radio host, comedian, writer, etc. Adam Carolla makes his case about why he doesn’t like inefficiency. He and guest Kevin Smith sum it up thus:

When my wife and I finish a pizza and she wants to throw the rest away. She sees a pizza. I don’t see a pizza. I see a farm, and a bakery, and a delivery truck, and a pizza shop, and a pizza shop owner… Its waste! How can you possibly want to throw that away? Give it to the dog… I’ll finish it. Its a farm, and a delivery truck…

Could any economist or political scientist come up with better moral reasoning behind not wanting to throw things away needlessly?

Another “No, it won’t” Prediction

February 11, 2011

Sorry, guys – I don’t keep meaning to do it, but journalists keep ignoring obvious political realities. Case in point: MSNBC’s piece on fears that the presence of GOProud will in any way ‘disrupt’ goings-on at the CPAC conference going on in DC this week.

GOProud — which advocates for “individual liberty” and argues that the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to the states — is one of over 100 organizations participating in this year’s conference, a 38-year-old gathering of conservative activists sponsored by the American Conservative Union.

Not everyone is happy about their inclusion.

The group’s presence prompted a handful of socially conservative organizations to opt out of participating in this year’s event, including Concerned Women for America and the American Principles Project.

This may be bad news for the organizers of the CPAC itself – maybe, unless, say, the presence of a pro-gay rights group brings the organization new sources of funding from, say, moderates. Its too early to tell. But the point that this MSNBC piece misses is about the overall objective of conservative confabs like this one.

Meetings like this are places for Presidential candidates to make themselves known, and to network their campaigns with potentially allies who also attend such events. This fact does not vary from year to year, from organizational makeup to organizational makeup. Whether or not CPAC includes GOProud, it will still be one of the biggest such political summits of the entire Presidential race. Because of its size and diversity, GOProud has institutional sway. Individual candidates bow out of it at their peril.

In the broader, abstract sense, the objective of CPAC is not to represent a static image of American conservatism (especially considering there’s really no such thing). Its goal is to raise money to perpetuate and expand itself, and to promote the broader ideas it represents in electoral politics. Nothing fundamentally changes about CPAC by including GOProud. It still remains an institutional stronghold, and it still seeks to represent the face of contemporary conservatism.

“As You Get Older, You Get More Conservative”

February 4, 2011

In case you’ve never read this blog before… guess what, the political trope popularized by (Conservative statesman) Winston Churchill that age and conservatism are positively correlated is an overstatement. I heard this claim for the first time in awhile today, so a couple of graphs courtesy of OpenSecrets seem worth pointing out:

These charts, which OpenSecrets hosts using FusionCharts, have been concatenated by me. As you can see, over the past twenty years, almost half of Senate-oriented politically active seniors have donated to Democratic Senators and House-oriented seniors have semi-reliably contributed more to Democrats than Republicans. And the top two Democratic recipients of cash from American seniors? Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold, DW-NOMINATE scores of, what, -.998 and -.9, respectively? Something like that? Somebody check me on that.

Consider that the first baby boomer didn’t retire until 2007. All the folks who grew up in the fifties, sixties and seventies won’t actually start filling campaign coffers in the “retired” column until, well… around now. I predict that in ten years, Winston Churchill’s prognostication will be DOA.

Lobbying Spending Decreased in 2010

February 2, 2011

2010 saw a dip in lobbying revenues compared to 2009, the first time a year-to-year dip in revenue has been observed in ten years. Rollcall has a theory or two.

“I think the recession has contributed to the decline in business expenses across the board, and lobbying is not immune to budget cuts,” said Jan Baran, a senior partner at the Wiley Rein law firm who specializes in lobbying compliance.

Lobbying dollars for those involved in agriculture, defense, health care, retail, real estate, transportation and construction sectors declined last year. Energy, communications, finance and organized labor lobbying revenues rose only slightly.

Aside from the economy, experts said, other factors were likely responsible for the overall revenue dip, including completion last March by Congress of the health care overhaul that consumed K Street for more than a year.

Spending by health care companies and associations dropped almost 9 percent in 2010, with drug companies such as Pfizer Inc., which lobbied for the health care overhaul, posting some of the biggest declines.

I’m not really on board with the “end of the health care debate” argument, because the health care debate isn’t over – surely groups will want to have a hand in whatever legislation the new Republican House majority comes up with to counter the new policy – and because the implementation of the health care bill requires a new draft of regulatory oversight into the health care industry overall that surely concerns industry groups. When a bill gives itself a decade-long implementation timeline, its fair to say that its passage is not the end of its battles. And of course, when a journalist does some hedge-betting, as with here:

The completion of the health care legislation did not necessarily mean that professional groups or companies trimmed their Washington, D.C., operations.

For example, the Federation of American Hospitals, which lobbied for the health care measure, reported spending $2.6 million last year compared with more than $3.8 million in 2009.

It seems fair to wonder if there’s something else going on.

In fact, I think that two good answers to the puzzle are contained later in the piece, but they don’t get the attention they deserve:

However, much of regulatory lobbying, particularly if it does not involve political appointees, is not required to be disclosed in the filings with Congress. That means that for some entities, the total lobbying expenditure may have simply shifted out of reported categories, not declined.

[...]

Some of the decreases in lobbying spending can also be explained by a simple change in reporting preference. A number of companies, most notably BP and Exxon Mobil Corp., switched in 2010 to a more limited definition of what is reportable lobbying revenue. Prior to last year these oil giants selected the IRS method for reporting lobbying revenue, which includes disclosing money spent on expensive advocacy advertising as well as lobbying in the states. They now are using the method allowed by the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which includes advocacy before Congress and the executive branch but excludes television ads and lobbying in state Capitols.

The first one – that regulatory lobbying is reported differently – speaks directly against the argument that the “winding down” of the healthcare debate could be responsible for much of a decrease in lobbying expenditures. Indeed, if the Administration is handing off its big energy, health care, and tax policies to agency heads and regulatory bodies, shouldn’t we expect a superficial decrease in lobbying revenues? Isn’t this Administration the “Czar” Administration, with the likes of Cass Sunstein and Ben Bernanke responsible for large swaths of new policy? If this is the case, then even a tiny difference in reporting rules could shift the balance.

The point is that when government expands, we should expect efforts aimed at regulatory capture to expand as well. This was the crux of some of George Stigler‘s Nobel-winning economics corpus: That as there is more to be gained by exerting influence on government as a “special interest,” more spending and competition should be expected. Make no mistake that in 2010 the government’s influence on the lives of Americans increased. As such, we should be incredibly hesitant to fly in the face of coherent political theory and believe that there has been any real “decrease” in interest in access to government.

“The Egypt Letter”

February 1, 2011

From IPA:

An Open Letter to President Barack Obama
January 30, 2010

Dear President Obama:

As political scientists, historians, and researchers in related fields who have studied the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, we the undersigned believe you have a chance to move beyond rhetoric to support the democratic movement sweeping over Egypt. As citizens, we expect our president to uphold those values.

For thirty years, our government has spent billions of dollars to help build and sustain the system the Egyptian people are now trying to dismantle. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Egypt and around the world have spoken. We believe their message is bold and clear: Mubarak should resign from office and allow Egyptians to establish a new government free of his and his family’s influence. It is also clear to us that if you seek, as you said Friday “political, social, and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” your administration should publicly acknowledge those reforms will not be advanced by Mubarak or any of his adjutants.

There is another lesson from this crisis, a lesson not for the Egyptian government but for our own. In order for the United States to stand with the Egyptian people it must approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy. On Friday you rightly said that “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” For that reason we urge your administration to seize this chance, turn away from the policies that brought us here, and embark on a new course toward peace, democracy and prosperity for the people of the Middle East. And we call on you to undertake a comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt and all other societies of the region.

Sincerely,
Jason Brownlee, University of Texas at Austin

Joshua Stacher, Kent State University

Tamir Moustafa, Simon Fraser University

Arang Keshavarzian, New York University

Clement Henry, University of Texas at Austin

Robert Springborg, Naval Postgraduate School

Jillian Schwedler, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Chris Toensing, Middle East Research and Information Project
Joel Beinin, Stanford University

Ellen Lust, Yale University

Tarek Massoud, Harvard University
Amaney Jamal, Princeton University
Helga Tawil-Souri, New York University

Anne Mariel Peters, Wesleyan College

Gregory White, Smith College

Asef Bayat, University of Illinois

Diane Singerman, American University

Cathy Lisa Schneider, American University

Robert Vitalis, University of Pennsylvania

Ahmet T. Kuru San Diego State University

Toby Jones, Rutgers University

Lara Deeb, Scripps College

Michaelle Browers, Wake Forest University

Mark Gasiorowski, Louisiana State University

Samer Shehata, Georgetown University

Farideh Farhi, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa

Emad Shahin, University of Notre Dame

John P. Entelis, Fordham University

Tamara Sonn, College of William & Mary

Ali Mirsepassi, New York University

Kumru Toktamis, Pratt Institute

Rebecca C. Johnson, Northwestern University

Nader Hashemi, University of Denver

Carlene J. Edie, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Laryssa Chomiak, University of Maryland

Mohamed Nimer, American University

Steven Heydemann, Georgetown University

Miriam Lowi, The College of New Jersey

Wendy Pearlman, Northwestern University

Hesham Sallam, Georgetown University

Melani Cammett, Brown University

Michael Robbins, University of Michigan

Katherine E. Hoffman, Northwestern University

Asli Bali, UCLA School of Law

Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University

Guilain Denoeux, Colby College

Tom Farer, University of Denver

Norma Claire Moruzzi, University of Illinois at Chicago

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, American University of Cairo & Drew University

Asma Barlas, Ithaca College

Ethel Brooks, Rutgers University

Maren Milligan, Oberlin College

Alan Gilbert, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Glenn Robinson, Naval Postgraduate School

Ahmed Ragab, Harvard University

Kenneth M. Cuno, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Agnieszka Paczynska, George Mason University

Zillah Eisenstein, Ithaca College

Quinn Mecham, Middlebury College

Riahi Hamida, Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences Sousse Tunisia

Jeannie Sowers, University of New Hampshire

Hussein Banai, Brown University

Joel Gordon, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville

Ed Webb, Dickinson College

David Siddhartha Patel, Cornell University

Bassam Haddad, George Mason University
Thomas Pierret, Princeton University

Nadine Naber, University of Michigan

As`ad AbuKhalil, California State University at Stanislaus

Dina Al-Kassim, University of California at Irvine

Ziad Fahmy, Cornell University

William B. Quandt, University of Virginia

Lori A. Allen, University of Cambridge

Eugene Sensenig-Dabbous, Notre Dame University Lebanon

Alfred G. Gerteiny, University of Connecticut (ret.)

Lucia Volk, San Francisco State University

Anne Marie Baylouny, Naval Postgraduate School

Ulrika Mårtensson, The Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Emma Deputy, University of Texas at Austin

Sherry Lowrance, University of Georgia

Kaveh Ehsani, DePaul University

Ebrahim Moosa, Duke University

Benjamin N. Schiff, Oberlin College

Jeff Goodwin, New York University

Margaret Scott, New York University (adjunct)

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Syracuse University

Kevin M. DeJesus, York University, Toronto

Courtney C. Radsch, American University

Gamze Cavdar, Colorado State University

John F. Robertson, Central Michigan University
Amir Niknejad, College of Mount Saint Vincent
Mehdi Noorbaksh, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
Anthony Tirado Chase, Occidental College
Russell E. Lucas, Florida International University
Ariel Saizmann, Queen’s University
Patrick Kane, Clatsop Community College
Behrooz Moazami, Loyola University New Orleans
Anthony Shenoda, Scripps College
Mark Allen Peterson, Miami University
Amel Ahmed, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Ilana Feldman, George Washington University
Marwan M. Kraidy, University of Pennsylvania
Mohamad Daadaoui, Oklahoma City University
Sidney Tarrow, Cornell University
Nathalie Peutz, New York University Abu Dhabi
Kamran Rastegar, Tufts University
Najib Ghadbian, University of Arkansas
Mojtaba Mahdavi, University of Alberta, Canada
Stefanie Nanes, Hofstra University
Rochelle Davis, Georgetown University
Zeinab Abul-Magd, Oberlin College
Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco
Andrea Teti, University of Aberdeen
Denise M. Walsh, University of Virginia
Frances S. Hasso, Duke University
Waad El Hadidy, New York University
Elliot Colla, Georgetown University
Monika Halkort, Queen’s University
Sonia Alvarez, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Christa Salamandra, City University of New York
Shirin Saeidi, Cambridge University
Shiera Malik, DePaul University
Steve Tamari, Southern Illinois University
Sean Yom, Temple University
Ali Banuazizi, Boston College
Sinan Antoon, New York University
Moustafa Bayoumi, City University of New York
Jennifer Derr, Bard College
Mirjam Künkler, Princeton University Wilson
Jacob, Concordia University, Montreal
Alan Mikhail, Yale University
Narges Erami, Yale University
Gwenn Okruhlik, Trinity University
Pete Moore, Case Western Reserve University
Max Weiss, Princeton University
Margaret Susan Thompson, Syracuse University
Sarah Shields, University of North Carolina
Sonia Alcarez, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Roberto Alejandro, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Manal Jamal, James Madison University
Justin Stearns, New York University at Abu Dhabi
Nicholas Xenos, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Rebecca Hopkins, University of Texas Austin
John Calvert, Creighton University
Nir Rosen, New York University
Ian Lustik, University of Pennsylvania
Steve Niva, The Evergreen State University
Michael C. Hudson, Georgetown University and National University of Singapore
Shane Minkin, Swarthmore College
Feisal Mohamed, University of Illinois
Ahmed Kamel Khattab, Free University Berlin
Benjamin Simuin, University of Utah
Stephen Engelmann, University of Illinois at Chicago
Stacy Fahrenthold, Northeastern University
Sondra Hale, UCLA
Nicole Watts, San Francisco State University
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Alan Fisher, Michigan State University
Laurie King-Irani, Georgetown University
Gary Fields, UC San Diego
Curtis Ryan, Appalachian State University
Keelu Fahoum, Naval Postgraduate School
Steven Brooke, University of Texas Austin
Andrew Fibbert, Trinity College
Ted Swedenburg, University of Arkansas
John Womack Jr. Harvard University
Sayed Eisisi, University of Maryland
Louis Cristillo, Columbia University
David Waldner, University of Virginia
John Measor, St. Mary’s University

This Is Not What Corruption Looks Like

January 16, 2011

Less than a third of Congressmen who received campaign contributions from Comcast signed the pro-NBC/Comcast merger memo, and signers didn’t receive any more than non-signers.

A big story that hit the Internet this week was titled What Corruption Looks Like: 87% Of Congressional Reps Supporting Comcast/NBC Merger Got Money From Comcast. The story covered the “scandal” that, of 97 legislators who signed a memo urging speedy approval of the proposed NBC/Comcast merger, “87%” received campaign contributions from Comcast – thus, pure political corruption laid bare.

First of all, by my count 87% is inaccurate. The actual number is closer to 78%, if you compare the signers of the memo and OpenSecrets.org‘s list of campaign contributors from the previous election cycle. If the journalist who made the 87% claim was referring to Congressmen who had ever received campaign contributions from Comcast, he or she was being dishonest. This issue has not been a matter of public debate for more than two years, and certainly not more than four.

That 78%, or 77 legislators, were among 260 who have received campaign contributions from Comcast in the past two years. Thus, a minority of people who received contributions from NBC/Comcast during the time period when the merger was “an issue” signed the memo urging rapid approval of the NBC/Comcast merger. It’s difficult to call this evidence of “corruption” when only about 30% of people who received contributions from Comcast felt inspired to get onboard.

Of recipients of campaign contributions from Comcast who did not sign the memo, the average monetary contribution received was $4,103; of those who did sign, that average was $5,326. That difference is statistically significant-ish; p=0.099, so it broaches the 10% level often used in political science, and the F statistic is 2.749, a much larger value than I expected. However, at the base line, we’re dealing with a difference of $1,000; among those who received campaign contributions from Comcast, a measly $1,000 separates the decision to sign or not to sign the pro-merger memo.

In an election cycle where the average House challenger raised $1,420,000, are we really to believe there isn’t something else going on? I think it’s more likely the legislators who signed this memo are pro-merger for reasons other than “corruption.” Perhaps NBC and Comcast provide a lot of jobs in their districts. Perhaps they honestly believe the merger will bring better cable and wireless options to their areas. Who knows. But if $1,000 in campaign spending – not enough to cover office space for an intern – is enough to flip a vote, then we have a Congress for sale for chump change.

“Five Myths About Communist China”

January 7, 2011

Foreign Policy just put out a great article covering five pieces of pop wisdom about China’s Communist Party. I won’t spoil all five, but the fifth and final one – as if you couldn’t see it coming, it is the myth that “The Party Can’t Rule Forever” – is especially important, yet seems to have left out a few key details. Namely, it isn’t clear why the Chinese middle class should be expected to “want” any more political freedom.

The author, Richard McGregor, writes:

China’s urban middle class may wish for more political freedom, but it hasn’t dared rise up en masse against the state because it has so much to lose. Over the last three decades, the party has enacted a broad array of economic reforms, even as it has clamped down hard on dissent. The freedom to consume — be it in the form of cars, real estate, or well-stocked supermarkets — is much more attractive than vague notions of democracy, especially when individuals pushing for political reform could lose their livelihoods and even their freedom. The cost of opposing the party is prohibitively high. Hence the hotbeds of unrest in recent years have mostly been rural areas, where China’s poorest, who are least invested in the country’s economic miracle, reside. “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose except your mortgages” doesn’t quite cut it as a revolutionary slogan.

It seems pretty clear from history that the state of the economy is so strong a predictor of political stability that, if China maintains its stable and high annual growth rate, we have no reason to expect any sort of unrest on part of the middle class. The choice of focus on the urban middle class is particularly interesting because China has virtually no urban middle class. As of 2008 it was 0.7% of the population. Unlike in Western societies, where the consumption behavior of the urban middle class has important effects on culture and technological diffusion, such consumption is still a luxury in China and is largely uninfluenced by the urban middle class. Consider the state of vehicle ownership in China – private ownership accounts for less than 20% of vehicles owned in China, and the total number of 160 million vehicles is inflated by the fact that most of those are buses and taxis, and that many “privately owned” vehicles are actually collective purchases made by rural villages who the Party has seen as unfit for paved road access.

The three great revolutionary movements of the modern world (“other” three?) – those of the United States, France, and Soviet Union – weren’t really driven by the urban middle class. The urban middle class was integral to the success of the French and Bolshevik revolutions because urbanites happened to live and riot near centers of government power, but in all three cases revolutionary leaders were upper-class, wealthy intellectuals and statesmen. Despite Trotsky’s and Lenin’s pastoral beginnings, they appear to have never actually done a day of “middle class laboring” in their lives. In China, the upper class is comprised almost entirely of Party members, their families… or their patrons. Foreign Policy has a great piece here, but history and political science have a little to add to its assessment of the role of “class” in potential change in China.


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