Friday, April 17, 2015

Left Wing Soccer

This web page has a collection of interesting pieces on soccer. My preferred ones are about the positional game of Pep Guardiola's teams, and about the application to soccer of the Moneyball strategy, popularized in baseball by manager Billy Beane in the Oakland A's. I am not sure that I agree with all the elements of the definition of a soccer left wing given in this site, but some of them seem OK (very subjectively, I would add believing in the working philosophy of managers such as Louis Van Gaal and Luis Enrique and criticizing the arrogant and childish behaviour of this medieval aristocracy in the XXI century, the most famous players... sorry guys!):

"Why left-wing? Quite simply I believe in:

  • the investment in academies and the right for all clubs to finance one.

  • financing for grass-roots football from the Premier League.

  • Greater punishments for clubs (outsider investors) who overspend.

  • the importance of fans and their prioritization as footballs most crucial investors.

  • a creative thought-process for transfers shown by Porto and Benfica.

  • the sport being a force for good to unify agencies, in contrast to its tendencies to exacerbate.

  • the simple joys that football brings for free, to all.

  • the left-wing attachments the game gives us: our identity, civic pride, emotional highs beyond normal daily drudgery; a chance to sing and worship; a chance to brag, feel pride and hold our heads up high."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The political economy of the reform of political parties

Political parties play a key role in solving collective action and social choice problems, as explained by John Aldrich in "Why Parties?" in its two editions. Parties have been necessary to reduce transaction costs in politics, although their role has changed with technology and with the evolution of social conflicts. In Europe these days there is a call for democratic regeneration, which is urgent in the case of social democratic parties to fight the populist and extreme right movements that emerge from the democratic malaise that has accelerated with the financial crisis. Parties seem today the vehicle for professional politicians that appear detached from ordinary citizens. An agenda for reform should look at the human capital strategies of political parties and at their governance. But reforms need to be realistic. In the world of 24 hour news, politics needs to have a professional component. In democratic societies, political activity is always going to be a labour intensive task. Primary elections have been seen by some as a panacea, but they fit with difficulties in political systems that are not presidential, and since machine politics has an advantage in these mainly internal elections, they do not make life easy for political entrants. Social democratic parties could explore ways of organizing people that connect with the idea of recovering the attachment of these parties with working and ordinary people. For example, the main task of the grass roots could be to help economic activities with a social dimension, such as cooperatives and other business where the workers have a high degree of control. The grass roots could have as priority to get involved in this sort of activities, as workers or consumers, and promote their expansion, together with the support of social assistance work. All these will not be easy, as more and more citizens have a consumption relationship with politics, with experiences in one individual party that are shorter and shorter in time. But a close look at how parties organize and select their personnel will be a key ingredient of fighting democratic malaise.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Qatar and the example of Spain in sports

As it is well known, Qatar will host the 2022 soccer/football World Cup. This decision was surrounded by corruption claims and still many experts believe that Qatar is far from the best place to organize such an event. Among many controversial issues, the main soccer leagues (the ones that are followed by more fans globally) will have to interrupt the competition in the autumn before the world cup to allow their best players to participate in that event. Today, the Qatari minister for sports and youth, in an interview in the Spanish newspaper El Pais (for which this great newspaper should be ashamed, as there is no question about corruption or the miserable condition of immigrant workers), says that his model in sports is Spain. That is why many Spanish footballers end their professional careers in Qatar, or why they hire many Spanish coaches or medical doctors specialized in sports. However, Spain is far from a model from the point of view of developing sports to develop welfare in general. The boom in Spanish sports in the last 20 years has been accompanied by a speculative bubble (which finally burst) of which the sports bubble has been a component. The Spanish authorities have promoted sports to the detriment of other more productive activities, as with the tax privileges targeted at foreign footballers or the many bailouts of football clubs in financial difficulties. Many of the stars of Spanish sports have been involved in doping scandals, sometimes with the unhidden support of local or national politicians. Spain is a good model if they want to win the World Cup, but it is not the best model if they are committed to develop their country and improve social welfare. At least, before they continue following the Spanish model in sports, they should read the book by Andrew Zimbalist Circus Maximus, where the social benefits of big sports events are appropriately questioned.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Jefferson and Hamilton in our century

"Jefferson and Hamilton. The Rivalry that Forged a Nation," by the historian John Ferling, is a fascinating book that provides ideas not only about the past, but also about the future. Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the USA, and Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and forger of the US Constitution that left behind the Articles of Confederation, were bitter political enemies. But the system that resulted from the synthesis of their opposed ideas has been long lasting. The federalism of the XXI Century will equally be a set of principles that not only deal with “territorial” issues, but also with issues of democracy and economic policy and principles. The ideas of Jefferson and Hamilton were crafted in the eighteenth century, but they resonate today in our contemporary controversies. Hamilton was in favour of a strong federal government, and of a centralized industrial policy. He represented the financial  urban interests, and his thought expressed fears of a democracy without constraints. He associated federalism with the need to provide checks and balances and with a sustainable economy in a huge market. Jefferson was egalitarian, a true believer in the democratic ideas of the American revolution, but he was also a representative of the rural owners. He at the same time expressed distrust for a strong federation, and was in favour of a republican, anti-aristocratic society. Today, we need a federal architecture in the world that is functional precisely to achieve a stable egalitarian democracy, otherwise it is hard to see how welfare can be exported beyond small territories and social groups, and how markets can be at the same time promoted and regulated at the optimal scale. The majority of individuals that live in a democracy do so in federations. Economists such as Piketty or Milanovic teach us that in the world of today it is a fallacy that we can solve our democratic and social problems with a weak coordination of sovereign national governments. We need to build federations. There are still too many articles of confederation in the XXI Century.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

From foragers to post-humans

The book by Ian Morris "Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels" develops a theory about the correlation between technologies of energy capture and cultural values in the very long history of humans. Foragers (hunter gatherers) were egalitarian because they could not afford to accumulate assets and they were prone to violence. Farmers were hierarchical because they needed asset accumulation and specialization to succeed in the technologies of energy capture, and they were less prone to violence. The creation of wealth in the last two centuries would not be the result of capitalism (although it performs well with the contemporary technology of energy capture) but to fossil fuels, which call for political equality, an optimal degree of economic inequality, and a low level of violence. The theory is openly reductionist, functionalist and materialist. But its presentation has the virtue of trying to approach social sciences to other sciences in scope and methodology. I have sympathy with the author's view that human history is a sub-field of biology, and that social science is just a natural science specializing in one particular animal species. Then human preferences are endogenous and subject to scientific explanation, and the fact that humans are more able than other animals to culturally create new things makes the challenge just more interesting. In a small part of the book, the author adds to the debate of why the industrial revolution only took place in Britain. He agrees with those that see relative prices as incentives to invest in technologies (steam power) that could have been developed since ancient Egypt, but adds two interesting ideas: that maritime technologies had created an immense market for ideas in the Atlantic, and that as opposed to foraging and farming (which developed in parallel in several unconnected regions), the industrial revolution could be very fast to spread (due to the technologies of the time), so that it did not give time to anyone else to do the same in a disconnected way. The book format is such that after the author presenting his theses, four "discussants" write lengthy commentaries, to which the author responds at the end. With this, the reader can see different perspectives and put the ideas in context. Although some of the discussion mentions the lack of socially reformist tension in the ideas of the author, both in the discussion and in the main text one misses an analysis of the struggle for values between social classes or groups. The book finishes with a fascinating speculation about how values can evolve in a world of climate change, computer replication of human brains (individual brains and combinations of them) and genetically designed new species: a world of post-humans.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Corruption and reform in the US history

In the book edited by Edward L. Glaeser and Claudia Goldin “Corruption and Reform,” the authors and editors  claim to analyze how the USA successfully defeated corruption during the Twentieth Century, as a lesson for developing and transition countries that are now struggling to defeat corruption. However, what more recent evidence (see the movie “Inside Job”) shows is that corruption in the US has mutated into new technologies and forms, but not disappeared. It is true that machine politics, bribing and local patronage are less blatant than one hundred years ago, but today instead we have revolving doors, massive lobbying and campaign finance (not only in the US) through which the minorities try to influence the choice of the majorities (that is, trying to buy policies). However, there is much to learn from the book, with good descriptions of machine politics and phenomena like the “Curley Effect.” Curley was the mayor of Boston from Irish origin that was immortalized in the cinema by Spencer Tracy, who preferred to impoverish the city to get rid of those sections of the electorate that would never vote for him. The book reminds us of Tammany Hall and similar machines devoted to providing private goods (mostly jobs) to mobilized political agents, and it tells us why it was forces like the  Progressive Movement that pushed many times unsuccessfully for reform, which finally mostly came from the New Deal policies of Roosevelt. A very interesting topic in the book is why corruption is compatible with growth. Although without corruption there would probably be more growth, there is little doubt that for many decades massive local corruption was compatible with economic growth and development. Growth attracts agents looking for rents, and rents are more readily available at the peak of political structures. The corrupt rulers are interested in keeping the machine delivering growth, and then extracting a good fraction of it for their own benefit. When growth is unstoppable for exogenous reasons, for example due to a technological or demographic shock, corruption is not strong enough to derail it (this has interesting microeconomic analogies: FIFA with current globalized soccer?).

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The international support for nationalist populism comes from Russia

Secessionists and other populist movements in Western Europe spend a lot of time and resources deploying an international diplomacy trying to find support for their causes. Often these strategies have a lot of posturing and are mainly addressed to a the local clientèle, but of course they wish to find someone relevant in the international arena that become an ally. In this sense, these strategies are in general a big failure: there is little appetite in developed countries for supporting the cause of groups that live in places that enjoy full respect of human rights and democratic freedoms. However, many of them have found one not always welcome support, namely from Russian nationalists. Marine Le Pen does not hide having received a loan from Putin's Russia, and The Economist recently reported on a variety of populist movements in Europe having links of different intensity with the Kremlin. Spanish Podemos has has also received the support of the chavistas in Venezuela, but probably the politically most interesting link of these groups is from the current Russian rulers and their allies. Another most distant but interesting example comes from Texas, where the Texan secessionists (perhaps the most important of secessionist groups in the US), also have links with Russian nationalists, as reported in this piece. Robert Beckhusen says in this post that "of all the strange political relationships, one of the strangest has to be the one between Texan secessionists and right-wing Russian nationalists. On March 23, the pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzglyad interviewed Nathan Smith, the third-in-command and chief of staff of the Texas Nationalist Movement. According to the paper, Smith is in Moscow to meet with the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia — which supports separatist movements in eastern Ukraine.
Since last spring, Kremlin-backed separatists and Russian troops have fought a war with a pro-European government in Kiev. Smith didn’t take sides in the conflict.
Instead, he told the newspaper that Texas should secede from the United States to preserve its “cowboy” culture and to halt the state’s contributions to an “astronomical military budget.”
“I’m going to meet with a number of public organizations that are close to us in spirit and have common values ​​with us,” Smith told Vzglyad."