Sunday, October 29, 2017

Federalism by mistake?

Political scientist Daniel Tresiman argues in a new academic article that in transitions to democracy "influential theories contend that incumbents deliberately choose to share or surrender power. They do so to prevent revolution, motivate citizens to fight wars, incentivize governments to provide public goods, outbid elite rivals, or limit factional violence." Examining the history of all democratizations since 1800, however, he shows that such deliberate choice arguments may help explain only up to one third of cases. "In about two thirds, democratization occurred not because incumbent elites chose it but because, in trying to prevent it, they made mistakes that weakened their hold on power. Common mistakes include: calling elections or starting military conflicts, only to lose them; ignoring popular unrest and being overthrown; initiating limited reforms that get out of hand; and selecting a covert democrat as leader. These mistakes reflect well-known cognitive biases such as overconfidence and the illusion of control." Although the methodology used by Treisman is open to discussion (trying to put into conceptual boxes more than one hundred stories), the conclusions are suggestive and surely at least part of the explanation. The same explanations might be applied to attempts to change the course of history through sovereignty conflicts. Both in the Brexit process and in the Catalan independence movement we have seen a lot of hubrys from leaders. Overconfidence and the illusion of control from David Cameron or Artur Mas have led their societies to be guided by movements that escaped from their hands. They called referenda or elections that went not as expected. Other leaders or the same ones made overoptimistic claims (from their perspective) that were not confirmed by experience. Nationalist leaders claimed that they would take back control (what better example of the "illusion of control"). The book "The Ostrich Paradox" explains how badly we are prepared for disasters due to among other psychological biases, overoptimism. Many that are not nationalists (myself included) have also behaved like ostriches, by not acknowledging the seriousness of what was happening around us. However, the world, or at least Europe, will evolve with all our mistakes in a reality that is globalized and interconnected. This world will select those governing institutions that are fitter for survival. Will we stumble into federalism?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The federalist voice in Catalonia

As it is usually the case in many sovereignty conflicts, the federalist perspective emerges as a reference point for solutions based on dialogue, negotiation and respect for the rule of law and democracy. This is not surprising, as most people who live in democracy in the world do so in federations, and some of the richest and most stable societies are federal in nature. In the case of Catalonia and Spain, it has been not only local scholars or politicians who have suggested this way forward, but also prestigious journalists or writers in the international media such as Roger Cohen in the New York Times or Will Hutton in The Guardian. In a recent debate in the European Parliament, the current leader of the European liberals, Guy Verhofstat, made a passionate defense of the federal principles as a guide to leave behind the current conflict in Catalonia.
In the local political arena, the federalist positions are defended by a number of organized groups, among which the association Federalistes d'Esquerres based in Barcelona is the strongest one, although there are also federalist groups of the civil society in Andalusia, Aragon, Cantabria and Madrid. The Spanish Socialist Party, encouraged by its Catalan branch, is officially in favor of a federalist solution, and several representatives of other parties, including Ciudadanos, Podemos and the Popular Party have spoken in favor of federalist reforms. The current leaders of the Basque Nationalist Party have also spoken of a pluri-national Spain in a federal Europe. A documentary is currently being produced by award-winning film director Albert Solé that collects many of these voices.
Spain is already a very decentralized country, but some federalist reforms would make it closer to more stable and consolidated federations. These reforms would include:
-The full support of the Spanish Constitution to the European Project of integration and transfer of sovereignty in a number of areas to the European Union and the Eurozone.
-A reform of the Senate, so that the current autonomous communities (federal units in a future federal state) can participate in solutions to common problems. This reformed institution could then decide on the allocation of funds for large infrastructures or similar common problems.
-A clarification of the responsabilities and financing mechanisms of the different government levels. This is now scarcely transparent. A good suggestion is to clarify in a self-contained list the responsibilities of the Spanish federal level and leave all the others (by default) that do not belong to the European level, to the federal units and municipalities.
-Accept the multi-lingual nature of the Spanish society and adopt a language regime similar to that of Canada, Switzerland or Belgium, instead of the current one where languages other than Spanish-Castillian are relegated to the autonomous regions.
-Locate some services and headquarters now based in only one capital, Madrid, in several other cities, as it is done for example in Germany and other federal countries. The Senate itself, for example, could be in Barcelona or in another big city.
Both Spain and the European Union should converge to a flexible multi-level federal democracy. Spain should evolve in this direction from its origins in a centralized unitary country. And Europe should evolve in this direction from its origins in a set of powerful sovereign nation-states. The nation-state is an obsolete institution, and our increasingly global problems (climate change, inequalities, migrations) require new institutions adapted to the new realities.
Those above are some concrete proposals, but in the case of Spain they could be adapted to the results of a necessary dialogue and negotiation among different political parties and governments. The federalist positions have a wide support. For example in a recent GESOP poll, 46.1% of Catalans defended that the outcome of the current secessionist conflict should be an agreement with Spain to increase self-government, whereas only 36% defended a secessionist outcome. When asked about this option, it is usually the most preferred by Spaniards and Catalans, above secession, status-quo or re-centralization. But it would also be the most natural outcome of a negotiation if all parties (including Spanish and Catalan nationalists) were somehow forced to reach an agreement instead of incentivized to cultivate conflict as they are now. The federalists are often characterized as "unionists" by separatists, but this is a word that is absent from Catalan political traditions, and it is used to try to associate those opposing independence to radicals such as the late Rev. Paisley in Northern Ireland. In fact, what we should learn from Northern Ireland is not the style of this leader, but their method to reach a very broad agreement in the context of the European Union that was finally voted in a referendum to facilitate peace and stability now for twenty years. Since the XIXth century there have been very strong federalist movements in Catalonia and Spain, and their voice is more and more heard today as citizens try to find light at the end of the tunnel in which the conflict is dangerously paralized at the moment.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Open letter to the BBC: don't buy the narrative of hate

I am a viewer and admirer of BBC World. I have received these days a WhatsApp message that apparently media firm Mediapro has been circulating. This media company is, according to the message, producing a debate for the BBC that will be conducted by the prestigious journalist Stephen Sackur. In the message, the producers are saying that they are looking for 100 independentists, 100 "unionists" and 100 neutral/undecided individuals. I have no doubt that a rigorous program conducted by Mr. Sackur can be a very interesting and helpful contribution to the events that we are experiencing in Catalonia. However, I believe there are reasons to question the choice of partner and the framing of the debate. Mediapro is a company that has strong links to the secessionist groups. Beyond this, it is a company that has been or is still being investigated by the FBI for the involvement of its subsidiary Imagina in the FIFA corruption scandal (you can check this by googling Imagina, FBI and FIFA or replacing Imagina by Mediapro). The role of this media company in Catalonia is not very different from the role of the British public relations company Bell Pottinger in Southafrica that was recently denounced by the Newsnight programme of the BBC for profiting from the promotion of social division. The full story of the relationship between Mediapro and the secessionist movement in Catalonia is explained in the "serious" pages of the satiric magazine Mongolia (the Spanish "Charlie Hebdo") last summer (unfortunately, not available online). Beyond this, the binary narrative that these producers are using to promote the debate, is very unfortunate. The word "unionist" does not belong to the very rich history of political movements in Catalonia or Spain. Instead, it was introduced in Catalonia by the organized pro-independence movement to associate those who oppose independence (who have very different views among themselves) with a radical unpopular movement. I can assure you that there are no followers of the late reverend Paisley in Catalonia. There has never been a so-called "unionist" movement in Catalonia. People like myself are neither independentists, nor unionists, nor neutral. We are federalists, like at least 40% of the population according to surveys. Why not frame the debate between federalists, non-federalists and neutral? Why not frame the debate in terms of pro-European, anti-European or neutral? Because that does not play into the hands of those that have used the self-government institutions of Catalonia to promote a nationalist agenda leaving aside the rule of law. Please make sure that this message reaches Stephen Sackur.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Magical Thinking and the Catalan Fox News

The "Prodi doctrine" of the European Union (EU) says that any region that breaks away from an EU member state will automatically leave the club and have to reapply under the usual rules, a lengthy process. This is what The Economist says this week about the argument made by Catalan secessionists that instead the EU is no obstacle to create an independent country: "This tips some Catalans into magical thinking. The Prodi doctrine was a throwaway remark with no legal standing, they argue. Should Catalonia win its freedom, Europe’s leaders will put pragmatism before principle and ensure its place in the EU remains unmolested. Independence-minded business groups even suggest that worried German investors in Catalonia would lean on Mrs Merkel to shield it from ejection. (Brexit-watchers will recognise this questionable line of thinking.) It is hard for dreamers to swallow, but the existence of the EU has become the best guarantee of its members’ territorial integrity. For separatists, the EU once looked like the net that would guarantee their safety as they leapt into freedom. Instead, it has become their cage." This begs the question of why so many Catalans have been deluded by magical thinking. The answer may lie in another piece of the British press, in this case in an article in The Guardian by Peter Preston: "Catalonia has had its own television and radio services since 1983, delivering Catalan-only language programmes and – guess what? – paid for by the same government that declared quasi independence a few days ago. Bias comes naturally, perhaps inevitably, in the reporting of poor anti-separatist demonstrations, in the constant flashbacks to civil guard police wielding batons and throughout the hours of political discussion (...)" Many people living in inland Catalonia "have lived in a media cocoon of settled opinion, convinced that the EU will welcome their new nation into its midst, that the economic outlook is untroubled, that “taking control” will solve all problems. Passion becomes ingrained. No need to draw parallel conclusions closer to home, but this mingling of fact and conviction crosses many borders. If you can make the rest of the world go away, then doubt becomes a stranger (...). How did Catalonia wander so close to the edge of a cliff? Because – on screen, on the airwaves, in cosseted print – there was no real debate. Because (think Fox News) the semblance of real debate was quite enough, thank you." 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A legal self-determination referendum is not a good idea either

It is a contradiction that many, but not all, well-meaning commentators on the Catalan issue advocate for dialogue and reforms (in a federalist direction) and also advocate for a legal and agreed self-determination referendum, "like the Scottish one." It sounds nice, but it is not. A referendum like the Scottish one does nothing to promote a dialogue that favours federalist reforms. Actually, the federalist option was not even in the ballot in the Scottish 2014 referendum. Most democracies in the world, that unlike the British do have a written Constitution (except Ethiopia, Liechstenstein and Saint Kitts and Nevis) either do not allow or explicitly prohibit a self-determination referendum of part of the country. That is, the best democracies in the world, like France, Germany, the USA, etc., would never allow this in their countries.The United Nations only approves of them for colonies or countries with human rights violations. The Council of Europe argues that any referendum about sovereignty must take place under full compliance with the constitution when this is democratic. The Spanish constitution does not allow it, but it could be changed, which takes time and convincing many people like me that are unconvinced. Some people, including the Catalan president and leader of the independence movement, argue that such a legal and agreed referendum should take place because the majority (of Catalans) want it. Probably the majority, which by the way does not favor independence (a myth demolished in an article in the Washington Post) compares this option with the reference point of a regional government trying to organize a vote out of the democratic rule of law. But to do something just because it is consistent with something people say they want when asked is not a good justification in a mature democratic society with high institutional quality, with checks and balances, and honest leadership. A self-determination referendum is what has plunged the UK into political chaos and economic uncertainty, but it is what parties like the Front National in France or the Northern League in Italy want to do once in power, either to leave the EU or to seggregate a part of their country to escape solidarity mechanisms. A referendum is also the preferred tool of Wilders, Orban, Erdogan and Putin. In some historical junctures they can be useful if they can unite all those in favor of peace and democracy, like in Spain in 1978, in Chile in 1988 and in Northern Ireland in 1997. But in the hands of leaders who want to play games with the rule of law, it is a tool that does little to preserve reasoned debate and the expression of political preferences in a way that fits with the collective will of neighbours and people with whom sovereignty is shared, in this case both in Spain and in Europe. A self-determination referendum is an instrument to institutionalize conflict, and conflict favours nationalism, as argued by the article in the Washington Post. Doing well a bad thing is worse than doing it badly.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Another behavioral Nobel prize

Richard Thaler was yesterday awarded with the Nobel Prize in Economics. After the Nobel prize to psychologist Daniel Kahneman some years ago, it is the second direct recognition of this institution to the merits of behavioral economics, the discipline in the intersection between economics and psychology. Before Kahneman, and before people used the concept "behavioral economics," Herbert Simon, who coined the concept "bounded rationality" and worked on it, also received the prize, as a student of mine reminded me in class. It is debatable whether Thaler has more merits as a generic promoter of the idea in books for the general public (like "Nudge," written with the celebrity legal scholar Cass Sunstein), or as a deep social scientist with frontier contributions. But the prize is a recognition that behavioral economics is already part of the mainstream. Other scholars that have received the Nobel prize, like Jean Tirole, George Akerlof, Robert Fogel, Robert Shiller and Elinor Ostrom have also been influenced by these ideas. The Economist says that "From a renegade offshoot within economics departments just a few decades ago, behavioural economics has gained an established place not only within academia, but also within government departments around the world. From Australia to America, as well as within organisations like the World Bank and UN, the “nudging” approach has been copied. The Nobel Committee’s decision to honour Mr Thaler is of course a recognition of his personal achievements. But it is also a testament to the newfound importance of his discipline." The New York Times has a nice collection of some of Thaler's columns, which I recommend.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hutton: the choice between federalism and an orgy of unforgiving remembrance

Dear reader, if I don't convince you, please read Will Hutton today in The Observer. And by the way, he doesn't need to finish his article with a call for another referendum (a typical concession to secessionism by lazy commentators). He knows better than that, because he interviewed Amartya Sen about it. It is the best article about Catalonia that I have seen, perhaps together with the one by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, "Damage to Catalonia." This is what Hutton, probably the best progressive writer in the UK, has to say:
"Europe is plunging ever deeper into an orgy of unforgiving remembrance. A collective curse has settled over our continent, in which past triumphs are contrasted with present grievances. Only independence, taking back control and avenging a continuum of injustice can restore justice, prosperity and lost glory, even if, in Catalonia, there could be a slide to civil war, as EU commissioner Günther Oettinger warns. It is not that the rest of the world is immune from this contagion: witness the passions over the Confederate flag in Charlottesville, Japanese politicians genuflecting at their war shrine or jihadists avenging the Crusades. But Europe, with so many tribes boasting so much history in so many countries, is the memory capital of the globe, where too many states are so vulnerable to the agonies of secession and fragmentation.
The best justification for what is happening is that these inflated memories are but froth on a deeper and natural yearning of every subnational, culturally united minority to enjoy civic self-determination. The worst interpretation is to see Catalonia as an expression of a destructive populist appeal to its citizens’ worst instincts – puffed-up hatred of the other, driven by false grievances and impossible hopes – while cloaking those unappetising instincts in the language of self-government and democracy.
The right response, as Catalonia’s Socialist party argues, is for Spain to recreate itself as a republican, federal state rather than attempt to sustain itself as a monarchially legitimised unitary state. The only way to avoid disaster and give the mainstream parties in Catalonia the political ammunition to argue against secession, which neither they nor the majority of Catalans want, is to offer the prospect of an autonomous Catalonia within a federal Spain. It is through political creativity that historical myth can be relegated to where it belongs, along with much more determined and imaginative activism to address inequalities and neglect.
Similarly in Britain. If the unfolding disaster of Brexit is to be stopped in its tracks, and the over-remembered, over-deified past restored to its proper place, we need parallel creativity – a constitutional settlement with Europe and, at home, a real assault on the injustices that fed what was at bottom a protest vote against a status quo too many found intolerable. Too much remembering has become toxic. It is time to forget and move on."

Friday, October 6, 2017

Gerard Piqué is no Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick is an American football player that put at risk his professional career to express his solidarity with African Americans who had been victims of police brutality. He lost his contract and he had to endure the hate of radical nationalists, including the current president of the USA, Donald Trump.  Some recent comments by the first authority of the country have pushed other American football players to join the protest. According to Wikipedia "Before a preseason game in 2016, Kaepernick sat down, as opposed to the tradition of standing, during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner". During a post-game interview, he explained his position stating, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder", referencing a series of events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and adding that he would continue to protest until he feels like "[the American flag] represents what it's supposed to represent". In the 49ers' final 2016 preseason game on September 1, 2016, Kaepernick opted to kneel during the U.S. national anthem rather than sit as he did in their previous games. He explained his decision to switch was an attempt to show more respect to former and current U.S. military members while still protesting during the anthem after having a conversation with former NFL player and U.S. military veteran Nate Boyer. After the September 2016 police shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, Kaepernick commented publicly on the shootings saying, "this is a perfect example of what this is about."
This video explains how much he cares about the victims of police brutality in the US, in some cases killed by the actions of abusive agents.  I discussed recently with my students at the Study Abroad program at UAB the parallelisms between American football players taking a political position and some sports stars in Catalonia also taking a position in the independence debate, like soccer player Gerard Piqué or manager Pep Guardiola. Last Sunday Piqué echoed Kaepernick by complaining about the brutality of Spanish police in trying to prevent some voters from participating in an illegal referendum called by the Catalan regional government. There is little doubt that the Spanish police used excess brutality, but only one person suffered a major injury (a rubber bullet in the eye). I do not need to hide that I have much more sympathy for the cause of Mr. Kaepernick than for the cause of Mr. Piqué, which is also the cause of many upper and middle class people of the community where I live, but very far away from the sympathies of most poor and working class citizens. It is nice that Piqué, a multimillionaire descendant of a family of the Catalan bourgeoisie (his grandfather sat in FC Barcelona's board of directors) now for the first time cares about police brutality. Some years ago a Catalan woman lost an eye because of a rubber bullet of the Catalan police and he didn't say anything as far as I can remember. Piqué has never been seen expressing his solidarity with poor people for the dramatic budget cuts of the recent years (decided both by Catalan and Spanish governments), nor for the loss of money for the welfare state derived from the tax fraud of several of his colleagues and team mates. So far, he has not put at risk his career at all (like his colleague Arda Turan, who supported Erdogan in his last referendum to introduce autocratic elements in Turkey), nor he has started any controversy with the officials at his club. He is in the celebrity market, his partner is the Colombian singer Shakira, and he is most probably benefiting from his increased celebrity as a result of the controversy. Although he says he would understand that the Spanish national team stops calling him, he has not taken the step of refusing to go when called by the national coach, as the 2018 World Cup in Russia is approaching. I am sure that Vladimir Putin will welcome him with open arms.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Soccer secession, much more acceptable than political secession

FC Barcelona and R. Madrid (both) should leave the Spanish soccer League and join the English Premier League, perhaps at the beginning at least together with Glasgow Rangers and Celtic Glasgow. This would be the embryo of a true European superleague, which would exponentially increase the number of interesting soccer games every week. Now we have to endure many boring games in the Spanish league, which could recover some degree of competitive balance in the absence of the two big clubs. Now soccer leagues compete for attention, for managers and for players. Why couldn't they compete also for teams? Most of the audiences, and most of the best players and the best managers, find the EPL the best league. At the same time, there is an untapped demand for better games. Soccer fans have to wait until the end of the season to watch truly big games in Europe, or wait until the finals of the World Cup every four years. This move would contribute to preventing a hard Brexit, by highlighting the benefits of the UK remaining in the single market. It would cause no great problem to the Spanish or European economy because we would still enjoy two "Clásicos" every season. The Spanish Cup and the Champions League would remain in their current format. National teams would survive, but hopefully would be like tourist attractions deprived of political significance (more or less like the "calcio storico" in Florence and Siena). Instead, political secession to create or consolidate even more nation-states (with their package of flag, anthem and radical nationalism) creates instability and endangers investments and prosperity, as it is apparent in the case of Brexit. The poor would suffer the most with more political secessionism, because they don't have tax havens to send anything. A world of small nations competing for capital thereatens the welfare state. A world of soccer leagues competing for teams in a united Europe doesn't threaten anything and may be great for consumer welfare.