Friday, July 21, 2017

Corruption in Spanish soccer

As I write this post, the former president of FC Barcelona Sandro Rosell and the still current president of the Spanish soccer federation and influential official in the governing bodies of global soccer Angel M. Villar, are in jail. They will be there awaiting trial because judges believe there is significant risk that they will destroy evidence or try to evade justice. It seems therefore that high level corruption is not limited to FIFA, although both Mr Rosell and Mr Villar were very active in the links and transactions of global sports corruption. The last episode has been the arrest of the president of the Spanish federation, who has been in that job for 30 years. He was the "Spanish Blatter" and his method of operation was the same, showing like in the case of Rosell that success and growth are not incompatible with corruption. In fact, unless proper accountability is in place, they may be highly correlated:
"Authorities also believe Ángel María Villar may have used federation funds to pay off regional soccer chiefs in a bid to maintain control at the top of the powerful federation. Villar was returned to office for a new four-year term in May, the eighth such occasion on which he has seen his contract renewed.
The courts are now investigating the soccer chief and other detainees for crimes including corruption, embezzlement, improper management and possible asset stripping in relation to a range of possible fraudulent activities. The amount of money involved is not known. (...) But those prosecutors were not just looking at possible fraud related to €1.2 million subsidies for soccer in poor countries. In fact, they were also investigating a range of more serious crimes on behalf of Spain’s High Court, and it was on the orders of this higher court that Villar’s phone calls were being bugged."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A limbo instead of a second referendum?

I agree with Polly Toynbee that a second referendum would be as bad an idea as the first one in the UK. She raises the possibility of a permanent limbo that could result from revoking article 50. But there does not seem to be any certainty that article 50 can be revoked. Total confusion and uncertainty remains. For this sorry state, not only brexiters should be blamed, but all those in favour of deciding these matters through a referendum. These are the arguments of Toynbee: "One solution is a long, perhaps never-ending compromise. Andrew Adonis, whose House of Lords speech fired up the anti-Brexit peers, says lawyers are taking a case to the ECJ to declare that article 50 can be revoked. That’s the view of Lord Kerr, article 50’s author. The UK could revoke it just before the March 2019 deadline, as a temporary measure to delay exit, in transition time. Even David Davis agrees the need for transition time, as the fiendish complexity of everything finally dawns. There we will sit in the transit lounge, inside the European Free Trade Association alongside Norway, which has lived frozen in a state of perpetual transition ever since Norwegians voted against joining the EU in 1994. (...)
Indefinite limbo is no visionary battle cry, and will satisfy no one: Brexiteers will always be implacable. But it could turn out to be the least worst option, and so long as we are no better off outside the club, the EU might accept a messy compromise, saving us from calamity. We will obey rules over which we have no power, but all alternatives look worse. Elections will come and go, but at some future date Britain may vote for a government that advocates returning, humbled, to an EU that may itself look changed. Not inspiring, but avoiding Armageddon.
But never try another referendum. Haven’t we learned that lesson the hard way? A crude question divides a nation, driven by emotions not on the ballot paper, paralysing politics for years to come. If your confirmation bias draws your eyes only to stories that tell you the tide is turning, cast your eyes occasionally at how Murdoch, the Mail and the Telegraph still ply their venom. They would still be there, poisoning the air, in a second referendum."

Friday, July 14, 2017

Almost full agreement with The Economist

The Economist has just published an article where it develops almost the same arguments that I developed in my contribution to an on-line debate at the blog of the London School of Economics on June 26th. I don't make any claim of plagiarism, I just express my happiness that we have reached the same conclusions, because as I said in that contribution, "The Economist supported this idea (of a self-determination referendum) until they saw it implemented in Britain. Since then, they have backpedaled." Here is a brief comparison between the words of The Economist just yesterday and my words two weeks ago:
-The Economist (July 13th): "In a regional election in 2015, parties campaigning for independence won, but only just: the ruling coalition got 48% of the vote but 53% of the seats in the parliament."
-Real Progress Author (June 26th): "That is precisely what the leaders of the Catalan pro-independence government want to do using their control of the autonomous executive and their majority in the Catalan Parliament, which was produced via a non-proportional electoral law that gives their coalition more than half of the seats with less than half of the votes."
-The Economist (July 13th):"Mr Puigdemont invokes “the legitimate right to self-determination of a thousand-year-old nation”. National and international law is against him. (...) And the Council of Europe, which Mr Puigdemont consulted, said in June that any referendum must be carried out “in full compliance with the constitution”.
-Real Progress Author (June 26th): "a yes/no self-determination referendum could be the cause of great division among Catalan citizens or in other similarly diverse societies. That is why the Commission of the Council of Europe for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) recommends to hold them only under very strict conditions, including a strong legal framework and a neutral democratic authority. Illegal self-determination referendums in otherwise democratic societies are not at the frontier of best practices."
-The Economist (July 13th): "Opinion polls show that around 40-44% of Catalans support independence, depending on how the question is framed. That is not enough to make a revolution. The march to illegality is prompting strains in Barcelona."
-Real Progress Author (June 26th): "One year later, the UK seems to know what 52% of voters did not want on the day of the referendum (EU membership), but they still do not know what the public or their leaders want for their future. It seems that yes or no answers in entirely legal self-determination referendums are decidedly inefficient tools for determining the real will of the people. Now imagine something similar, but without a legal framework, without a census, and without a neutral electoral authority."
-The Economist (July 13th):  Mr Rajoy’s approach may be unimaginative, but it is effective. It is politically profitable for him in the rest of Spain, where many are fed up with what they see as Catalan whining. But it ignores Catalonia’s unhappiness with Spain’s current constitutional arrangements. Keeping the country together may require revisiting them.
-Real Progress Author (June 26th): "Spain needs a broad agreement for a federal reform that can be supported by people who strongly believe in it and by people that may find a common ground around it. Such a detailed agreement could then be voted on in a referendum."
My only disagreement with The Economist is in the title of their article. This title ("Playing Chicken...") suggests that there is a game of Chicken between the Spanish government and the Catalan government. I don't think so, given the lack of cohesion of the pro-independence movement and the lack of international support (also acknowledged by The Economist). It is too unbalanced. The game of Chicken is being played inside the secessionist movement, between a more pragmatic wing that sees that this is going nowhere and a fanatic wing that has been living in the fringes of reality for some time.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The link between globalization and populisms: Rodrik and Boeri

Dani Rodrik has published a working paper where he presents a summary of research about the link between globalization and the diversity of populist movements that have surged in different parts of the globe in the recent past. This economist argues that we should not be surprised by the backlash against hyper-globalization, because economics predicts that global economic integration has very significant distributive effects, that are naturally channelled through the political process, as it has happened in the past. Although these distributive effects could be mitigated by compensatory mechanisms, many times these are not put in place because of a political commitment problem: although politicians may promise that they would compensate the losers to have their acquiescence to liberalize, once they approve liberalization, they don't have ex post the incentives to carry through the promise. I agree about the distributive effects of globalization and I agree that compensation does not always happen (although some societies have gone quite far in that), but I am not sure that the political commitment problem is a very good explanation: why would voters do not learn from history? Then the article has a second part where he explains that populism can be right wing or left wing, and that although demand for redistribution is strong, the supply can be nativist or truly redistributive depending on the supply of narratives, and this in turn depends on objective characteristics of each community. For example, in Spain we don't have right-wing racist populism presumably because our immigrants are mostly Latin American, therefore more or less culturally like us. However, most populism in central and northern Europe (UK, France, ...) is right wing according to Rodrik. Here I think the correlations and causal links are more complex. France and the UK also have a strong populist left wing, and part of the populism in Spain is expressed through nationalist movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country that have significant right-wing components. Tito Boeri in a book in Italian where he collects previous research work of his and others provides a more complex perspective on populism, but I am afraid that some conclusions are still exaggerated. For example, he shows a negative correlation between support for populist parties and belonging to associations. First, in a lot of this empirical work support for populism is measured only as voting for parties that are pre-tagged as populist (in Spain, only Podemos!), and second, it is not clear which type of associations are considered. There is work by historians suggesting that those regions with more associations and civic movements supported nazism more than others, not less. OK, nazism and populism are not the same, but it doesn't look like associations are a guarantee of a better deliberative democracy, as Boeri seems to suggest. In Catalonia, civic movements (whose leadership is not a random selection of cultural traits and income distribution) are being used by leaders of national-populism to promote their populist cause: direct democracy, hispano-phobia, etc. There is much work to be done before we know better about the links between globalization and politics.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cohesion, clarity, stability

In addition to  criteria such as transitivity, independence of irrelevant alternatives and neutrality that are desirable for voting rules according to Kenneth Arrow, one could think of other criteria that are especially applicable to sovereignty referendums such as the Brexit one. These criteria could be those of cohesion, clarity and stability.
Cohesion. A yes/no self-determination referendum can be a cause of great division in internally diverse societies. Taking the Quebec referendum of 1995, the Scottish referendum of 2014 and the Brexit of 2016 as examples, all produced a very close result: it seems that these referendums with two options tend to divide the electorate into two halves and produce very crisp and emotional campaigns. The winning option defines a model of society for which almost half of the population has explicitly voted against. In what situation this immense minority remains in terms of risk of discrimination and discomfort, should be a cause for concern.
Stability. Several observers have pointed out the risk of contagion or domino effect, both internal and external. Some might argue that this should not be a problem, since holding more referendums can only be even more democratic. However, it is difficult to find advocates of the secession of a territory that admit the right to become independent of important parts of this territory. The existence of waves of independence and referendum processes suggests that there are imitation effects, which can alert leaders of powerful powers on the international scene, even when some referendum might be desirable to address a serious problem of coexistence or human rights. Partitions and reunifications are not like playing with lego blocks, and have consequences for long term investments made by ordinary individuals and families (personal bonds, labour contracts, social security, homes, professional degrees…).
Clarity. Following the last referendum in Quebec in 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada asserted that it was necessary to take into account the principle that the options presented to the electorate should be clear and avoid confusion, and that the consequences of whatever is decided must be clear and what is decided must also be approved by a clear majority. The Clarity Act subsequently approved by Parliament applied these principles to the specific case of Canada. Note that there is some conflict between posing a clear question and presenting clearly the consequences of what is approved. Making a referendum with two or even three or more discrete options on something that is actually a continuum (the degree of sovereignty) and that does not depend only on the electoral body can induce a sense of "false clarity." There is a risk of "approving" something that is actually pending negotiation.
The solution is not simply to increase a number of seemingly simple options to three or more, because then the question still gives the false impression of simplicity (it would have been difficult to know exactly what devolution max  in Scotland meant without a detailed prior agreement).
By expanding the number of "reasonable criteria" we also increase the number of trade-offs that are typical of social choice. For example, it is difficult to achieve clarity without undermining cohesion. After all, a brief and dichotomous question is very clear, but it facilitates polarization in two opposing blocks, and if we look at the British case, it does not seem to have led to stability.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Alaska First

The Alaskan Independence Party is proud to be "the only Alaskan political party that is entirely composed of Alaskans, staffed by Alaskans and financed by Alaskans. We are not affiliated with any political party on a National level. We believe and hold a firm footing in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and following the Constitution of the United States and Alaska. We are a States' Rights party, as is reflected in the AIP Platform. We stand on a firm Constitutional foundation. The continual growth of membership of the Alaskan Independence Party has created one of the largest third parties in the United States. Join us as we lead Alaska to the Prosperity, Freedom and Liberty that Alaskans expect, deserve and should enjoy. We look forward to your membership!
There is a commonly held belief across Alaska, that the US Constitution has been set aside, and other than ourselves, there are no protections to the liberty and freedoms we are to have as our continued inheritance since the formation of the Union of the "several States". Our main "goal" is a legal vote and ballot." The party is in favor of minimal government and privatization and also in favor of gun rights and home schooling. Of course they want to hold a referendum: "It is the AIP's wish to get a true plebiscite according to international law, where only legal Alaskan citizens vote. The question on the ballot is in the language of the people. (Federal military and their dependents are not legal citizens and will not be allowed to vote in this plebiscite.)" This party is the main challenge to the US tradition against internal secession that has been preserved since the Civil War. Will the New York Times write an editorial supporting this referendum?

Friday, July 7, 2017

The language of the tribe

After Branko Milanovic linked to my blog post about his blog post criticizing Alesina and Spolaore, there was a comment on Twitter presumably about my post, saying "The Catalan bourgeoisie in my opinion is unionist and the independence movement is not lead by the bourgeoisie but by cross class alliance." As a matter of fact, I didn't say whether the bourgeoisie was pro-independence or not, I only made a claim about a group of neo-liberal pro-secession economists who I believe are very proud of being bourgeois. There is little doubt that the pro-secession movement is a cross class alliance. That is the whole point of nationalist movements especially in rich regions, to try to distract the working and popular classes from the class struggle. I'm not a marxist, but I still find some marxist concepts useful simplifications (like economic models). But the current drive, which started in 2012 with the Catalan center-right president Artur Mas changing from pro-autonomy to pro-independence, has been led by an important part of the Catalan bourgeoisie (namely, the party of Mr. Mas). In many ways, they have created a monster that now they don't know how to tame. According to Catalan government surveys, those supporting independence come disproportionately from mid and upper income groups. The reason is simple: the best predictor of pro-independence feelings is linguistic identity, and most people having Spanish as first language, although a majority of the population, are among the poorest. But there is complexity and exceptions. For example, I'm among an exceptional 10-20% of people who have Catalan as first language but do not support independence. What I mostly object about that comment is the use of the word "unionist." I don't know about the bourgeoisie, but I will never accept that those like me opposing independence are called "unionist." This was a term that was absent in Catalonia before 2012. It has been coined by the secessionist groups to insult those that oppose them to compare them with the very unpopular Northern Irish fundamentalists of Reverend Paisley. I am certainly not a unionist, I'm a federalist, which in many ways is the opposite of being a unionist. They claim that they want to expand their social base (understandably, since they don't have a majority), but I don't know how they are going to do that if they keep insulting the other (very diverse and heterogeneous) at least half of the voting population.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The thin line between patriotism and tyranny

I hope that at some point Tymothy Snyder's book "On Tyranny" becomes required reading material in all the schools of the world, including my daughter's. I went yesterday to buy it to my favourite book store in Barcelona, the one that has a greater variety of books in Catalan, Spanish and English (La Central, in C/ Mallorca). I was happy to find the English edition, although it surprised me that the Catalan edition came with a label with the endorsement of a nationalist journalist, Jordi Barbeta. This journalist became famous for supporting the change of gear of the moderate Catalan nationalists toward secessionism in 2012 as chief political editor of center-right newspaper La Vanguardia. When the paper decided to stop supporting secessionism some time later, they sent him to Washington as US correspondent, where he interviewed Timothy Snyder recently, with a questionnaire that avoided any parallelism between the strong criticism of nationalist populism in the book and what is happening in Catalonia, although some of the questions transpired some skepticism that warnings about fascism could apply to Donald Trump (the main example used in the book). But at least in my modest opinion, many of the sentences in the book (please buy it yourself and read it to check that I am not quoting out of context) resonate also in Western Europe's regions with secessionist movements:
"Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary"
"You might one day be offered the opportunity to display symbols of loyalty. Make sure that such symbols include your fellow citizens rather than exclude them"
"In the politics of eternity, the seduction of a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures."
"A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best."
"A nationalist will say it can't happen here, which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it."
Perhaps Albert Einstein would disagree about the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, but the main point of the book, I believe, is the thin line between the manipulation of feelings toward your mother land (whichever you believe that is) and tyranny.
The New York Times (NYT) recently ran an editorial where it accepted one of the post-truths of Catalan secessionism: that we contribute 19% of Spanish public revenues to receive only 10% in expenditures. In fact, we receive 15% which is only 1% less than our population percentage. The Spanish ambassador and reputable economists have already replied to the newspaper. The NYT was right that the current situation in Catalonia has been aggravated by a right wing Spanish nationalist government that has also been exploiting nationalist feelings. But as Snyder says, post-truth is pre-fascism. Not only in the USA. Catalan, Spanish and other European citizens should ask themselves:  For whom the bells toll? They toll for you.

Working on the complexity of sovereign conflicts

Branko Milanovic has a very interesting post criticizing the excessive simplicity of views in what he calls civil conflicts, by which what he means are basically secessionist movements. In particular, he mentions the much quoted article by Alesina and Spolaore "On the number and size of nations." This article and related work were widely publicized and translated into Catalan some years ago by nationalist leaders in Catalonia. Their idea that the benefits of small independent nations increase and their costs decrease in a globalized economy is one of the cornerstones of the Wilson Group of neo-liberal pro-secession economists. My conjecture is that Alesina and Spolaore came up with their ideas in the heyday of the Northern League, when it was becoming mainstream in economic circles around Milan that sharing a state with Southern Italy was a drag on the potential of the "really productive Italians." That was before the Northern League lost its initial reputation by tainting its programs with racism and blatant populism. The ideas of Spolaore and Alesina, as well as those of Sala-i-Martín and other neo-liberal Catalan secessionists amount to a coherent way of solving Rodrik's trilemma, by choosing (among democracy, globalization and the nation-state) a world with an internationally integrated economy where small nation-states compete by lowering taxes and regulatory standards, of course making impossible to fulfill the will of the majority of expanding the welfare state and protecting the weak. It is the world that the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK candidly described as a B Plan in case the negotiations for a reasonable Brexit failed. Milanovic points to a basic weakness in the analysis of Alesina and Spolaore, namely that similar societies do not have necessarily similar preferences, as the endless conflicts between very similar communities illustrate. There are other weaknesses in the analysis of the Italian authors, for example the fact that they do not consider other ways of organizing jurisdictions beyond the nation state, an error that Milanovic himself avoided in an old paper that he links in his post. And for example the fact that they asume that humans are organized in sets of lots of homogeneous communities that are heterogeneous among themselves but uniform inside. Anyone who is familar with the current social division in Catalonia (despite mixed marriages, etc.) would take issue with that. The old paper by Milanovic shows a much richer way of analyzing the complexity of these issues, explaining why there may be a trade-off between sovereignty (something that is not a discrete variable, but a continuous one) and income, which may explain why jurisdictions that want to secede, after a short while also want to become integrated in an even larger jurisdiction. It is the same paradox as secessionist Catalans willing to secede from the rest of Spain but willing to join a more integrated Europe (with a common currency and increasingly a common fiscal policy) where Spain is a key member. Perhaps it would be more productive for Catalan elites (including economists in the bourgeoisie) to work for a European Union where member states gradually lose their sovereignty and regions that are efficient, defeat corruption and contribute to solving collective problems (local and global ones) acquire more power.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The role of the status quo in a referendum

I wrote a contribution for an interesting debate in the blog of the London School of Economics about whether a Catalan unilateral self-determination referendum should go ahead. I argued that such unilateral illegal referendum would not fulfill the conditions of the specialized Commission of the Council of Europe in charge of these issues and I developed a comparison with the Brexit legal referendum and other referendums in history (some good, some bad). In the comments section, one participant took issue with my argument that a yes/no self-determination referendum would be divisive, saying that the status quo is also divisive. Unless division should be taken as irreversible, I don't understand the validity of this counter-argument. I believe we should try to find ways to recover unity and cooperation instead of celebrating division with more division. Under much harder circumstances, Northern Ireland came about with a method for resolving their conflict that broke the division. And in my view when the status quo takes place in a democratic society, it should be taken as a starting point. At least when we talk about the status quo we know what we are talking about. Those that voted to leave the EU in the UK one year ago now it seems that they did not know what they where talking about. Voters where comparing something certain and known, although not perfect (the status quo), with something uncertain and unknown (although many were made to believe that is was certain). In these cases, the neutrality between options should be revised, as argued by economists Dasgupta and Maskin in an academic paper. This is what they say in footnote 4 of page 950 of their article in the Journal of the European Economic Association: "Neutrality is hard to quarrel with in the setting of political elections. But if instead the "candidates" are, say, various amendments to a nation's constitution, then one might want to give special treatment to the status-quo -namely, to no change- and so ensure the constitutional change ocuurs only with overwhelming support," as it happened by the way with the Irish Good Friday Agreement, where the overwhelming support took place at the referendum (North and South of Ireland) and prior to it, with the involvement and the consensus of the Republic of Ireland, the UK, the EU and the USA. Some nationalist leaders and commentators elsewhere should learn from that.