Monday, September 21, 2009

Cartels, democracy, equality

... are the key words in my new project, a book with Mark Blyth and Riccardo Pelizzo about party democracy in advanced countries (New is about the least appropriate way of describing it, since the project was dreamt up 8 years ago).
It aspires to piece together three recognized trends over the past half century and understand the links between them.

The three trends are:

The rise and retrenchment (or at least freezing) of the egalitarian capitalism (aka the welfare state)

The rise and decline in popular political participation through formal electoral politics, the recent growth in dissatisfaction with elected politicians, and a recent shift towards less partisan modes of decision-making (decentralization, non-majoritarian agencies, depoliticization of key economic decisions)

The shift from ideological, mass parties to pragmatic, strategic and state-absorbed 'cartel' parties

The neat thing about this project is that these three things undoubtedly happened roughly in the temporal order indicated above, and we can document that reasonably well.
The tricky thing about the project is making the purported causal relationships between them stick, and, trickier still, establishing the direction of causality (I think we might go easy on that one).

But since egalitarian capitalism was all about representative mass parties mobilizing the less wealthy to establish redistributive institutions, it wouldn't be that surprising if change in the nature of political parties had had some effect on these institutions. And no-one denies party politics has changed. So, I'm pretty sure we're onto something, but it's a difficult task making sense of two-three big literatures and bringing them together in this way.

The key to our argument is that parties are not simply reflections of social interests, filtered through electoral systems. Parties can be very successful and rather hopeless at mobilizing social interests, thus complicating the relationship between voter preferences and policy outcomes. Our project tries to get inside the blackbox of party activity, and understand how and why parties have become more distant from voters. Unlike most of the relevant literature, we tie these developments to the decline of welfare capitalism and the growth of inequality.
More soon....

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Electoral reform and the left

I'm in the process of writing a short article on electoral reform and left politics, as a contribution to the debate on PR kicking off in the British Labour party at the moment. Here it is:

The 2005 election was a turning point in contemporary British politics. It represented a historic moment for the centre-left, as Labour won a third consecutive election for the first time in its history, ensuring more than a decade of majority government for the party. But it also marked a point of no return for the British electoral system. Although Tony Blair’s Labour party won a comfortable majority of 66 seats, it won little more than a third of the popular vote on a very low turnout. Indeed the Conservatives were only a couple of percentage points behind, and won more votes than Labour in England. With the support of less than a quarter of the British total electorate, the current Labour government lacks legitimacy to govern as a majority administration. The ‘First Past the Post’ electoral model (FPTP) – which forces citizens into tactical voting and marginalizes the supporters of minor parties – is an increasingly inappropriate way of electing the representatives of a diverse and demanding civil society.

The argument for electoral reform – and specifically for adopting a form of proportional representation (PR) for Westminster elections – has long enjoyed support on the left. This support waned during New Labour’s triumphant early period, in which Tony Blair enjoyed such a colossal majority in the House of Commons that the Jenkins Commission was ignored and a manifesto commitment for a referendum on electoral reform conveniently forgotten. Now, with Labour facing defeat next year, many of us are rediscovering our interest in fair voting. But above and beyond the obvious short-term attractiveness of PR, which would limit the scale of a likely Tory victory, there are powerful longer-term considerations which the left should take seriously. To put it succinctly, there is abundant evidence from around the democratic world that PR gives the policies of the left a head-start, whilst First Past the Post benefits the right.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Economists' angst

Great piece by Krugman in the New York Times Sunday magazine: How did Economists get it so wrong?

Krugman gives an account of the development of the economics discipline familiar to anyone following his popular writings, and links the search for mathematical perfection in economic modelling to the failure of the economics profession to pick up the signs of impending meltdown. The problem is that beautiful harmonious models can't cope with the incoherence and irrationality of much human behaviour, and worse, often miss the real action.

Fundamental to the error is the belief that markets will tend to find the right prices for things - something that clearly didn't happen in the long 2000s bubble. Particularly amusing, the citation of 'ketchup economics' (attributed to Larry Summers of all people) - the belief that just because one price may make sense in comparison with another, then prices in general must make sense. Someone buying a house in summer 2007 may well have found the best deal in the market at that time, but the whole market was way out, so the price could not be right.

These are pretty fundamental issues, and show a future for a political economy which takes social and cultural institutions more seriously. After all, how could the housing boom have taken over without the cultural hegemony exercised by pro-bubble thinking ('Location, location, location' being my favourite example). Of course there is politics and material advantage in there too, but the really interesting question is how a whole society can embrace a self-destructive economic model without realizing what it's doing.