Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Learning from Iran

Sometimes the benefits of comparative studies appear in unexpected places. Borrowing ideas from Iran to deal with problems in the USA? Sounds unlikely, but…

The Iranian system reminds me of the barefoot doctor program during the Cultural Revolution in China.

Curing Mississippi's blues with Iranian care?
An American doctor from Mississippi searched far and wide for solutions to his state’s endemic health problems.

Now, after years of practicing what he calls “health diplomacy,” Dr. James Miller, director of Oxford International Development Group in Mississippi, thinks he may have found some solutions in what may seem like an unlikely place: Iran…

Miller began looking around the globe for successful systems of health care delivery that might be adaptable to Mississippi.

Iran’s system stuck out – particularly since it faces similar challenges like a lack of money and medical personnel, as well as vast rural distances and limited public transportation…

Iran has developed an integrated health system. The foundation of the system is a network of community health houses staffed by locals who create a cultural competency and affinity with the people they are serving…

Behvarze class for new mothers
In Iran’s health care system, remote village health houses are the first line of defense, staffed by villagers known as behvarzes.

The behvarzes are trained to provide basic health services for villages of up to 1,500 people who live within an hour's walking distance. Male behvarzes take care of sanitation, water testing and environmental projects. The women concentrate on child and maternal health, family planning, vaccinations and tracking each family’s births, deaths and medical histories. There are currently about 17,000 health houses across the country serving 23 million rural Iranians…


See also a New York Times article: What Can Mississippi Learn From Iran?

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Iranian cleavage becomes more visible

Our textbooks dutifully note that ethnic (national) cleavages in Iran involve minorities on the borders. Sometimes, they become more visible because of deadly events like those of last week.

Iran Executes 16 Sunni Insurgents in Retaliation for an Attack
The Iranian authorities executed 16 Sunni insurgents on Saturday, Iranian media reported, in retaliation for an attack a day earlier that killed 14 guards on the volatile southeastern border with Pakistan…

The retaliatory response highlights the deep tensions in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, a hotbed of Sunni resistance against the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran. The border area shared by Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan has long resembled a war zone, and more than 3,500 members of Iranian security forces have been killed in clashes with smugglers transporting heroin and opium to Iran, Turkey and Europe.

The attack on the border guards was preceded by the killing of two members of the influential Rigi family, who in the past decade have led an armed separatist struggle in the province seeking independence from Iran and involving suicide attacks, assassinations and abductions.

Web sites connected to separatist groups said the men, Karim Rigi and Gholamreza Rigi, were killed on Oct. 16 by local Iranian security forces, although official Web sites deny involvement…

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Little gems

While putting together the blog post for "How many countries are there?" I was intrigued by C. G. P. Grey, the producer. It turns out that Grey is an American in Britain, who has created a whole passel of wonderful little videos. They're not all relevant to comparative politics, but many of them are. And the ones that aren't might be appropriate for another course you teach.

Wikipedia article on C. G. P. Grey

C. G. P. Grey
Some of Grey's videos:

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Monday, October 28, 2013

What is a country?

Heather Tafel, a professor at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI, posted a link to this really fine video introduction to the question, "What is a country?"

She asks, "Should I show this at the beginning of all my classes?"

I can't answer her question, but I think it would go very well with the introduction to comparative politics.

PS: Thanks, Heather Tafel.

How many countries are there?
How many countries are there? Easy: just grab a map and start counting, yes? No…

Go to the United Nations, find the room where the countries sit — each one with a little name tag — start counting and get an answer…


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Friday, October 25, 2013

It's not just the water in China

It's not just the water that's threatened by China's breakneck economic growth. The air is threatened too. And it's much harder to buy bottled air than bottled water.

Dangerous atmosphere is also a real drag on economic growth. What's a government and a party, whose authority depends on continued economic growth, to do?

hoking smog paralyzes cities in northeast China, closing schools, airports
Thick, choking smog enveloped cities in northeast China on Tuesday, closing schools and airports, snarling traffic and reducing visibility to a few yards, in a dramatic sign of the country’s worsening air quality.

China’s breakneck dash for economic growth has badly damaged the environment, and the rapid deterioration in the country’s air and water quality has increasingly become a source of public unrest. As a result, improving environmental standards has become a priority for the government. But the acrid clouds enveloping several cities this week showed how tough that task has become.

In the industrial city of Harbin, home to more than 10 million people, vehicles crawled through the smog with fog lights on or emergency lights flashing. Bus service was canceled, a major highway was closed and hospital admissions soared by 30 percent, local media reported…

On Monday, visibility was so low in Harbin, about 780 miles northeast of Beijing, that two city buses got lost while plying their regular routes…

Previous efforts to improve air quality have foundered because of poor implementation by local governments, which continue to protect heavy industries and tolerate widespread violation of environmental norms, according to Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing.

“The central government has recognized the fundamental cause — which is its overuse of coal — and what sort of solution should be taken,” said Huang Wei, a campaigner with the environmental group Greenpeace in Beijing…

A survey by the Pew Research Center published last month showed that the Chinese are increasingly worried about air and water quality, with air pollution nearly as big a concern as rising prices, corrupt officials and the gap between rich and poor. The Communist Party clearly worries that the issue is undermining its legitimacy in the eyes of many…

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Capacity limited by corruption

Government capacity is one topic in this report. Rule of law is another.

Vigilantes Defeat Boko Haram in Its Nigerian Base
Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamist insurgent movement, remains a deadly threat in the countryside…

[I]n Maiduguri, the sprawling state capital from where the militant group emerged, Boko Haram has been largely defeated for now, according to officials, activists and residents — a remarkable turnaround that has brought thousands of people back to the streets. The city of two million, until recently emptied of thousands of terrified inhabitants, is bustling again after four years of fear.

For several months, there have been no shootings or bombings in Maiduguri, and the sense of relief — with women lingering at market stalls on the sandy streets and men chatting under the shade of feathery green neem trees in the 95-degree heat — is palpable.

Boko Haram has been pushed out of Maiduguri largely because of the efforts of a network of youthful informer-vigilantes fed up with the routine violence and ideology of the insurgents they grew up with… Governor Shettima has recruited the vigilantes for “training” and is paying them $100 a month…

The military, known as the Joint Task Force, or J.T.F., has been unable to defeat the Boko Haram on its own despite four years of a bloody counterinsurgency campaign that has been widely criticized for the indiscriminate detention and killing of civilians…

“The Civilian J.T.F. has driven Boko Haram into the bush,” said Maikaramba Saddiq of the Civil Liberties Organization in Maiduguri, a frequent critic of the military.

Indeed, some activists wonder whether the military is more committed to preserving, not ending, the conflict with Boko Haram in order to perpetuate the government spending that comes with it…

The real work of the vigilante group occurs out of sight, in the identification of Boko Haram members that often occurs door to door.

“We know them by just looking at them,” said Hamisu Adamu, 40, who sells leather bags and is in charge of “discipline” for the group.

“Some of them may be our brothers, and we hand them to the military,” he said. So many, he claimed, that there are few Boko Haram members left in the city. “Inside of Maiduguri, it would be very difficult” for the insurgents to circulate, he said…

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Long term cleavages and politics

Nearly three decades ago, when I began teaching comparative politics, I shared a Frontline video titled "Will There Always be an England?" with my students.

The video's thesis was "England is a country divided. One in five workers in northern England is unemployed, while in the south of the country, power, privilege prevail." Two of the examples of economic depression from the north used in the film were Hartlepool and Teeside. Guess what two examples of economic depression show up in an analysis by the editors of The Economist?

If this is a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same" cleavages in the UK are very stable. What political effects do those cleavages imply?

The urban ghosts: These days the worst urban decay is found not in big cities but in small ones
Britain’s economy is finally crawling out of recession. On October 8th the IMF sharply upgraded its growth forecast for 2013. But the recovery is far from evenly spread. In London and the south-east, house prices and employment are soaring. In places such as Hartlepool, a former shipbuilding and steel town in Teesside, on the north-east coast of England, there is precious little sign of improvement. The local unemployment rate is almost twice the national average, at 13%. Last year there was nobody in work in 30% of the town’s working-age households.
Teeside and Hartlepool
Partly, this reflects the extraordinary success of London and continuing deindustrialisation in the north of England. Areas such as Teesside have been struggling, on and off, since the first world war. But whereas over the past two decades England’s big cities have developed strong service-sector economies, its smaller industrial towns have continued their relative decline. Hartlepool is typical of Britain’s rust belt in that it has grown far more slowly than the region it is in…

The divide is likely to widen more quickly over the next decade. From around 2001 until 2010, under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, much of Britain’s growth came from higher government spending. More and better-paid government employees—and welfare recipients—provided an adrenalin shot for the private sector.

Today that process has reversed, as the government tries to cut its way out of an enormous fiscal deficit. Welfare spending and council budgets are falling especially quickly in poorer small towns…

To turn around, these towns will have to attract a reliable stream of outside money…

And even with growth, the most ambitious and best-educated people will still tend to leave places like Hull. Their size, location and demographics means that they will never offer the sorts of restaurants or shops that the middle classes like. In America, cities that decline must redefine themselves, says Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank. Like a man who has lost weight, they have to get new clothes that fit—shrinking their boundaries and ambitions. Britain’s failing towns struggle on indefinitely in their old industrial shape and size.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Running into environmental limits

Political power depends upon political stability. Political stability depends upon economic growth. Economic growth depends upon adequate resources. What happens if the resources aren't adequate?

All dried up: Northern China is running out of water, but the government’s remedies are potentially disastrous
CHINA endures choking smog, mass destruction of habitats and food poisoned with heavy metals. But ask an environmentalist what is the country’s biggest problem, and the answer is always the same. “Water is the worst,” says Wang Tao, of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing…

The country uses 600 billion cubic metres (21,200 billion cubic feet) of water a year, or about 400 cubic metres a person—one-quarter of what the average American uses and less than half the international definition of water stress.

The national average hides an even more alarming regional disparity. Four-fifths of China’s water is in the south, notably the Yangzi river basin. Half the people and two-thirds of the farmland are in the north, including the Yellow River basin. Beijing has the sort of water scarcity usually associated with Saudi Arabia: just 100 cubic metres per person a year. The water table under the capital has dropped by 300 metres (nearly 1,000 feet) since the 1970s.

China is using up water at an unsustainable rate. Thanks to overuse, rivers simply disappear… As if that were not bad enough, China is polluting what little water it has left…

In 2009 the World Bank put the overall cost of China’s water crisis at 2.3% of GDP, mostly reflecting damage to health. Water shortages also imperil plans to expand energy production, threatening economic growth…

Rather than making sensible and eminently doable reforms in pricing and water conservation, China is focusing on increasing supplies. For decades the country has been ruled by engineers, many of them hydraulic engineers (including the previous president, Hu Jintao). Partly as a result, Communist leaders have reacted to water problems by building engineering projects on a mind-boggling scale…
The best known such project is… the South-North Water Diversion Project, it will link the Yangzi with the Yellow River, taking water from the humid south to the parched north. When finished, 3,000km of tunnels and canals…

The environmental damage could be immense. The Yangzi river is already seriously polluted…

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Comparing presidential and parliamentary systems

Eric Black, a thoughtful journalist at MinnPost speculates and asks a couple experts. It's not a thorough comparison, but it offers an introduction to analysis and discussion.

Second-guessing shutdown: Would a parliamentary system have avoided the crisis?
Deep question: What would the great shutdown crisis of 2013 look like if the United States had a parliamentary system instead of the presidential system created in our Constitution?

Simple-minded answer: It wouldn’t have occurred. In a typical parliamentary system, there is either just one house of parliament or (more commonly) one house has most of the power. So you wouldn’t get a standoff in which the two houses couldn’t agree on a budget because they were controlled by different parties.

And in a classic, let’s say British-styled system, you wouldn’t get a situation in which the leader of the executive branch (in our case, the president) is at loggerheads with the party that controlled the legislative branch. In a parliamentary system the chief executive (prime minister) is the leader of the majority party in the legislative branch (or the prime minister leads a coalition of parties that constitutes the majority in the powerful house of the parliament)…

In the case of a coalition made up of two or more parties… There is always the possibility that the coalition might break up… In that case, in a parliamentary system, there are two things that typically occur, either of which would (theoretically) prevent a long-standoff/gridlock/meltdown such as the United States has just endured.

Thing one: A new negotiation might result in a new majority coalition, possibly with a somewhat different lineup of partners.

Thing two: The crisis would lead to a “snap election.”…

U of M political scientist Kathryn Sikkink… didn’t take long to caution me against the danger, in such a moment, of “romanticizing” other systems.

It took only another moment for her to mention the case of the parliamentary meltdown in Belgium in 2010-2011… it ended up taking a record 353 days to form a coalition that could command majority support.

Professor Alfred Montero, chairman of Carleton College’s political science department… led me on a longer tour of the contrasts between the two basic models and some special features that make the U.S. system unusual.

The “presidential system,” which is what scholars call the U.S. system, predominates mostly in the Americas. The parliamentary system predominates in Europe.

Among the presidential systems, ours is characterized by one of the weakest presidencies, Montero said…

One of the unusual features of our system… is what Montero calls by the snappy nickname “symmetrical bicameralism.” Many of the world’s legislative branches have two houses. But in most cases, one of the houses has most of the power…

But in our system, both houses are very powerful, roughly equal…

From the kind of international comparative standpoint that Montero brings, the U.S. system is also characterized by weak parties. Or perhaps one should say weak party leaderships…

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See the difference?

There's one line here that pretty clearly shows how unions in the Peoples Republic are different from unions in the West.

CPC official urges greater role for labor unions
A senior official of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has called on the country's labor unions to play a greater role in safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of the working class.

ACFTU logo
Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, made the remarks in a congratulatory speech delivered at the opening session of the 16th national congress of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU)…

Founded on May 1, 1925, the ACFTU is China's only umbrella union and has 31 provincial trade union federations, 10 national industrial unions and more than 1.3 million grassroots trade union organizations affiliated to it…

Like Western labor unions, the ACFTU's role includes coordinating labor relations and seeking better working conditions for its members.

Led by the CPC, the ACFTU serves as a "bridge" between the CPC and the masses and assists the government in ensuring the continuing operation of the labor market.

In his speech, Liu called on the working class to safeguard the country's social stability and unity, maximize positive elements, dissolve negative elements and form a positive momentum of union and hard work.

"The working class should become the role model of unity and progress, and vigorously promote the glorious tradition of unity, cooperation, mutual assistance and friendship, and strengthen unity with other working people and all strata of society," he said…

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nigeria finds respect

While the news was full of stories about Saudi Arabia turning down a chance to fill a seat on the UN Security Council, Nigeria was anxious to accept a seat and claim the international recognition and respect that Nigerians wanted.

Nigeria Elected to UN Security Council
After months of canvassing for Nigeria’s inclusion in the United Nations Security Council, the country, Thursday, finally got elected to occupy one of the non-permanent seats on the council…

Hailing Nigeria’s inclusion as a Security Council member, President Goodluck Jonathan welcomed the development and conveyed Nigeria’s appreciation of the support of all member countries of the UN who voted for the country’s election…

Security Council seats are highly coveted because they give countries a strong voice in matters dealing with international peace and security in places like Syria, Iran, North Korea as well as the UN’s far-flung peacekeeping operations.

The 15-member council includes five permanent members with veto power – the US, Russia, China, Britain and France – and 10 non-permanent members elected for two-year terms…

President Jonathan
A statement issued by his Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, said… “The president believes that today’s endorsement of Nigeria’s candidature for the Security Council seat by the vast majority of member-countries is a glowing expression of support and encouragement for Nigeria’s active participation in the promotion of peace, security and political stability in Africa and other parts of the world.

“This is the fourth time since it became independent in 1960 that Nigeria is being elected to the UN Security Council. It is also the second time (2010-2011 and 2014-2015) that Nigeria will be elected to the Council under the Jonathan presidency…

Also the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) described Nigeria’s election as an unprecedented feat and a testament to the achievements of the Jonathan-led PDP administration.

The party, in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Olisa Metuh, said the development had clearly shown that the world recognises the efforts of the present administration in repositioning our country through the president’s transformation agenda…

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Anecdotes to consider

Ellen Barry, writing in The New York Times, offers some powerful anecdotes about Russia's political culture, but they're anecdotes, not valid generalizations. They're also impressionistic stories, not tested hypotheses.

Nonetheless, they offer some good opportunities for reflection after considering a textbook account of Russia today.

The Russia Left Behind: A journey through a heartland on the slow road to ruin
On the jarring, 12-hour jounrney from St. Petersburg to Moscow, another Russia comes into view, one where people struggle with problems that belong to past centuries…

As the state’s hand recedes from the hinterlands, people are struggling with choices that belong to past centuries: to heat their homes with a wood stove, which must be fed by hand every three hours, or burn diesel fuel, which costs half a month’s salary? When the road has so deteriorated that ambulances cannot reach their home, is it safe to stay? When their home can’t be sold, can they leave?…

Eight miles west of the M10 lies the village of Pochinok, one of hundreds of disappearing settlements. The wilderness is closing in around Nina and Vladimir Kolesnikova and their children.
Most Russians live in housing built in the late Soviet period. A report released last year by the Russian Union of Engineers found that 20 percent of city dwellings lack hot water, 12 percent have no central heating and 10 percent no indoor plumbing. Gas leaks, explosions and heating breakdowns happen with increasing frequency, but in most places infrastructure is simply edging quietly toward collapse.

There is a reason for this: Compared with populist steps like raising salaries and pensions, spending on infrastructure does little to shore up Mr. Putin’s popularity, said Natalya Zubarevich, a sociologist at Moscow’s Independent Institute of Social Policy. If something goes wrong, the Kremlin can always fire a regional official…

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Nation state (1648-2030)

This ought to give your students something to discuss and write about. As a technicality, they ought to mentally insert "nation state" into the text wherever Parag Khanna writes "state" or "nation."

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

The End of the Nation-State?
EVERY five years, the United States National Intelligence Council… publishes a report forecasting the long-term implications of global trends. Earlier this year it released its latest report, “Alternative Worlds,” which included scenarios for how the world would look a generation from now.

One scenario, “Nonstate World,” imagined a planet in which urbanization, technology and capital accumulation had brought about a landscape where governments had given up on real reforms and had subcontracted many responsibilities to outside parties, which then set up enclaves operating under their own laws…

[M]ost of us might not realize it, “nonstate world” describes much of how global society already operates. This isn’t to say that states have disappeared, or will. But they are becoming just one form of governance among many.

A quick scan across the world reveals that where growth and innovation have been most successful, a hybrid public-private, domestic-foreign nexus lies beneath the miracle. These aren’t states; they’re “para-states” — or, in one common parlance, “special economic zones.”…

In 1980, Shenzhen became China’s first; now they blanket China, which has become the world’s second largest economy.

The Arab world has more than 300 of them…

This complex layering of territorial, legal and commercial authority goes hand in hand with the second great political trend of the age: devolution.

In the face of rapid urbanization, every city, state or province wants to call its own shots. And they can, as nations depend on their largest cities more than the reverse…

Scotland and Wales in Britain, the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain, British Columbia in Canada, Western Australia and just about every Indian state — all are places seeking maximum fiscal and policy autonomy from their national capitals.

Devolution is even happening in China. Cities have been given a long leash to develop innovative economic models, and Beijing depends on their growth…

The broader consequence of these phenomena is that we should think beyond clearly defined nations and “nation building” toward integrating a rapidly urbanizing world population directly into regional and international markets. That, rather than going through the mediating level of central governments, is the surest path to improving access to basic goods and services, reducing poverty, stimulating growth and raising the overall quality of life…

And yet more fragmentation and division, even new sovereign states, are a crucial step in a longer process toward building transnational stability among neighbors.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pre-Medievalism in the UK

We all know that echoes of the ancient past are heard in all political systems: Danelaw in Britain, Mongol authoritarianism in Russia, Confucianism in China, sharia in Nigeria, Mayan kingships in Mexico, and Persian militarism in Iran.

But, we really have to dig deeply into ancient British history to understand the proposed Royal Charter that would "regulate the press" in the UK.

This might only be a passing comment on the regime, but it's a complicated comment.

Why are we talking about Royal Charters (first used in 1066) and privy councils? Q&A: Press regulation
In July 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron set up the public, judge-led Leveson Inquiry to examine the culture of the press in response to the phone-hacking scandal.
Lord Justice Levesen

It emerged thousands of people had been victims of press intrusion. Many gave evidence to the inquiry - from celebrities such as comic actor Steve Coogan and singer Charlotte Church, to ordinary people hit by tragedy, including Gerry McCann, father of missing girl Madeleine, and the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The report produced by Lord Justice Leveson in November 2012 found the press had "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people". It made a number of recommendations.

Why are we talking about Royal Charters and privy councils?
It's not explicitly mentioned in any of the articles I found, but it seems clear to me that the politicians do not want to be seen as directly involved in infringing on the freedom of the press.

However, the same politicians are intent on limiting the behavior of journalists and publishers. A Royal Charter could create (without legislation) a regulatory body that is separate from the government.

What is a Royal Charter? Royal charter
A Royal Charter
A royal charter is a formal document issued by a monarch … granting a right or power to an individual or a body corporate. They were, and are still, used to establish significant organisations such as cities… or universities. Charters… have perpetual effect [i.e. they do not end]... 

At one time a royal charter was the sole means by which an incorporated body could be formed, but other means (such as the registration process for limited companies) are generally used nowadays instead…

What is the latest proposal? Press regulation: Main parties agree deal
A Royal Charter aimed at underpinning self-regulation of the press has been published by the government.

An agreement by the three main parties followed months of wrangling since Sir Brian Leveson published his report into the ethics and practices of the press.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller said the deal would safeguard the freedom of the press and the future of local papers.

But the industry said the proposals could neither be described as "voluntary or independent"…

The all-party draft's proposals include:
  • A small charge for arbitration - as an alternative to expensive libel courts
  • An opt-out for local and regional newspapers
  • More involvement in decision making for the press and media industry

It comes following a deadlock between the press and politicians over what a new system of self-regulation would look like.

Some in the newspaper industry feared the Westminster proposals would give politicians too much power…

Energy Secretary Ed Davey said… the draft protected press freedom.

"In the past they've promised to regulate themselves and they've not done it," the Lib Dem MP told BBC Radio 4's Any Questions.

"We've created an independent process which, on reflection, I hope the press will back."…

The proposals will be put to the Privy Council - an ancient body which advises the Queen, mostly made up of senior politicians - for final agreement on 30 October.

What's the Privy Council? Privy Council of the United Kingdom
Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, usually known simply as the Privy Council, is a formal body of advisers to the Sovereign in the United Kingdom. Its membership is mostly made up of senior politicians who are (or have been) members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

Privy Council meeting

The Privy Council… was formerly a powerful institution, but its policy decisions are now exclusively in the hands of one of its committees, the Cabinet [i.e. the government]… The Council also advises the Sovereign on the issuing of Royal Charters, which are used to grant special status to incorporated bodies…

The last words to go James Landale, Deputy political editor at the BBC. 

Beneath the skin of the Leveson law
David Cameron… wants… to have his say. So before any amendments go before MPs, the prime minister… will stand up in the House of Commons and ask the Speaker's permission (yes, that is right, the Speaker's permission) to hold a debate on the issue, using a dusty paragraph from the Standing Orders… to break into the usual flow of parliamentary business. MPs will debate the broad principles but not the detail, and - heaven forbid - they certainly won't vote on it.

All this, note, to determine nothing less important than the balance between ensuring redress for victims of press intrusion and the freedom of the press, a judgement of such sensitivity that it would stretch Solomon…

So there was no white paper. No pre-legislative scrutiny. Just rushed, late night law driven as much by politics as by principle. And nota bene, all this just to regulate the press, not necessarily every darkened recess of the news providing internet. The royal charter says it covers websites that provide news-related material, but there is some confusion as to what that really means. As a distinguished lobby colleague noted, it is like regulating the buggy whip just as the internal combustion engine is coming in.

Thus is law made. Perhaps we should inspect the sausage for horsemeat?

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

New York Times blog: Sinosphere

Ken Halla pointed out a new blog that might well be worth subscribing to. It seems to be the collection of reports from and about China by NYT reporters. Most of the ones now on the blog I've seen in the newspaper, but others are things that didn't make the editors' cuts or ran in Asian editions.

There's also a note on the NYT site about a Chinese-language Web site, if you want to read reporting in Chinese.

About Sinosphere
Sinosphere, the China blog of The New York Times, delivers intimate, authoritative coverage of the planet's most populous nation and its relationship with the rest of the world. Drawing on timely, engaging dispatches from The Times’ distinguished team of China correspondents, this blog brings readers into the debates and discussions taking place inside a fast-changing country and details the cultural, economic and political developments shaping the lives of 1.3 billion people.

For example:

China Venerates a Revolutionary, the Father of Its New Leader

Ancestor veneration in China is back. The Communist Party has devoted official meetings, books, a six-episode television documentary, a garish children’s performance and postage stamps to mark a century since the birth of Xi Zhongxun, a veteran revolutionary who served under Mao Zedong and then Deng Xiaoping.

It happens that Mr. Xi, born on Oct. 15, 1913, was the father of Xi Jinping, the present party leader…

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Incredible resource on China

Philip Kantaros who teaches at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, sent me a link to Reuters Connected China site almost three weeks ago. Okay, I've been busy, but not looking at the site until today was nearly inexcusable. I'm sorry. If you're planning on teaching about China, look at this site and see how many things will fit into your teaching plans. It's almost an online textbook.

The more I look at the pieces of this very well done production, the more impressed I am. Don't be as negligent as I was. Look at it today. And begin planning to use it when you teach about China.



Connected China
China 101 is "a primer on China's governance and development…" It includes
  • A timeline, 1911- present
  • A great article explaining guanxi and its importance in Chinese politics
  • An interactive map with illuminating information about demographics and economics
  • A wonderful article about the Communist Party and its organization and roles in today's China
There are other sections that include
  • An interactive "Getting Started" section that is nearly an encyclopedia of important people, Party organizations, state organizations, military organizations, Party factions, ideological memes, important details, and videos about top news stories, social organization, institutional organization, and career comparisions (recruitment)
  • Wonderfully dynamic charts of President Xi's networks of power, Party, government and military organization, career paths of important leaders (more recruitment), and a collection of 17 news stories about recent issues

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Monday, October 14, 2013

The distortions of corruption

Minor league corruption is endemic in China. But now that some people have real money and a growing middle class has some money, corruption and guanxi are distorting many parts of civil society. Schools, for instance…

In China, parents bribe to get students into top schools, despite campaign against corruption
Reining in corruption has been the main focus of China’s new president, Xi Jinping. But such campaigns are barely making a dent, critics say, in a country where children are shown as early as elementary school how to game the system.

Lunch line at a prestigious Beijing school
Almost everything, from admission to grades to teacher recommendations, is negotiable in Chinese schoolsif you know the right person or have enough cash, parents and teachers say. As a result, many believe, the education system is worsening rather than mending the vast gap between the elite and everyone else in China…

In Chinese cities, the best schools are the public ones.

Private schools are often aimed either at foreign expats or children barred from city schools, such as the offspring of low-income Chinese migrant workers.

Even by Western standards, the top public schools are often astounding…

Academic performance still matters greatly. [M]any students… [spend] every night… even on weekends and vacations, attending expensive cram classes…

The hyper-competitiveness has driven many parents to curry favor in any way possible — delivering organic rice to a teacher worried about food safety, bringing back lavish gifts from abroad. When all else fails, store gift cards are always a safe bet…

Education in this communist country is supposedly free and funded by the government. But elite schools benefit from hefty fees and donations. These days, admission to a decent Beijing middle school often requires payments and bribes of upwards of $16,000, according to many parents. Six-figure sums are not unheard of.

In theory, middle school admissions are guided by where children live, but independent studies have shown that only half the students at Beijing’s top public schools are chosen that way.

Instead, getting in often comes down to three things: talent, money and relationships, particularly ties with government or party officials.

“If you know someone, you pay a lot less,” said a mother in Beijing’s Chaoyang district…

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Friday, October 11, 2013

A little disunion

The Economist editors won't make predictions about what's going to happen in Nigerian politics. So, I won't either.

Things fall apart: The ruling party and the country’s president face their greatest-ever challenge
GOODLUCK JONATHAN, Nigeria’s president, was visibly stunned when a former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, and seven state governors recently walked out of a convention of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP)… The party… is bitterly divided over whether Mr Jonathan (pictured above) should run for a second full term…

The breakaway faction has a distinctly northern flavour. Six of the seven rebel governors are from the north or the middle belt, exposing faultlines that have widened under Mr Jonathan, a southerner from the oil-rich Niger Delta…

On September 1st 57 PDP members of the 360-seat House of Representatives, the federal National Assembly’s lower chamber, pledged their loyalty to the rebel PDP; 22 of the 50 sitting PDP members in the 109-strong Senate then followed suit…

It is also possible that Mr Jonathan will get the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), an agency that is supposed to snuff out corruption, to probe the PDP’s defectors, some of whom have already been targeted by it…

One result of the in-fighting in the ruling party is that the momentum for economic reform, already flagging, has slowed even more. Few people now expect the long-stalled Petroleum Industry bill, which is meant to bring clarity to Nigeria’s oil industry, to pass. Nor will the PDP’s rows help the president to end violence and sabotage in the oil-rich south, where billions of dollars of oil money still fall into the hands of criminals and corrupt politicians, or to win the campaign against terrorists in the north…

The PDP’s feuding factions are to meet for talks on October 7th. Mr Jonathan… may have enough oil money to buy their way out of trouble. But for the moment the pendulum has swung in the PDP rebels’ favour…. The president, who often seems a hapless (but rarely hatless) figure on the national stage, has a real fight on his hands to keep his job…

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Keeping up with public opinion

The number of people monitoring the Internet in China seems huge. But, keep in mind that Chinese Internet users post 100 million messages a day.

China employs two million microblog monitors state media say
More than two million people in China are employed by the government to monitor web activity, state media say, providing a rare glimpse into how the state tries to control the internet.

The Beijing News says the monitors, described as internet opinion analysts, are on state and commercial payrolls…

Shenzen Network Police
The report by the Beijing News said they… are "strictly to gather and analyse public opinions on microblog sites and compile reports for decision-makers"…

It is believed that the two million internet monitors are part of a huge army which the government relies on to control the internet…


Analysis

Dong Le BBC Chinese Service

China's internet is one of the most controlled and censored in the world.

Websites deemed to be subversive are blocked. Politically sensitive postings are routinely deleted . Even the name of the former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was censored when rumours were circulating on the internet that his family had amassed a fortune while he was in power.

But with the rapid growth of internet users, the ruling Communist Party has found itself fighting an uphill battle.

The Beijing News, while reporting the story of microblog monitors, has admitted that it is impossible for the government to delete all "undesirable" postings.

The more postings deleted, the more they appear, it says…

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Back to partisanship

Anthony Faiola, writing in the Washington Post, suggests that the days of centrist politics in the UK are over.

In Britain, politicians go back to their corners
After a year in which he led the charge for gay marriage in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to go back to his roots this week. Serving up red meat to his base at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, Cameron repeatedly blasted the left and offered a core vision of tax cuts, reduced public spending, immigration caps and a war on welfare that would warm the hearts of the American tea party…

With the sprint toward campaign season already taking shape 18 months ahead of national elections, an era in which politicians here were tripping over themselves in a race to the center appears to be coming to a close. Instead, the party leaders in a nation that has long stood as the United States’ closest ally are rushing back to their political comfort zones, highlighting a certain polarization in national politics that has become the new norm on both sides of the Atlantic…

At the Labor Party conference last week, Miliband used his pulpit as leader of Britain’s largest opposition force to lash out at private utility companies for gouging consumers. He offered a dramatic pledge to freeze energy prices for two years should his party manage to take back 10 Downing St. He also vowed to raise taxes on big banks and address Britain’s housing crisis by forcing developers who are hoarding land to “use it or lose it.”…

Cameron and Miliband
Yet, for both Miliband and Cameron, there may be method in their madness.

The Conservative and Labor parties are already waging a “race within the race” ahead of 2015. Cameron’s rhetoric this week, for instance, appeared at least partly aimed at battling a recent swell of support for the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose anti-immigrant message has found eager ears among Conservative voters uneasy with Cameron’s tack to the center on issues such as same-sex marriage…

By the same token, Miliband is seeking to reach out to alienated members of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third-largest political force, whose popular support has plunged since it entered into a historic coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 elections. For many rank-and-file Liberal Democrats — and particularly those within the party’s left wing — it amounted to a betrayal of trust that has not been forgiven…

And yet, while Britain’s two largest political parties appear on the surface to be setting the clock back, in truth, both the Conservatives and the Labor Party are, in many ways now, incontrovertibly reformed. On a Manchester stage this week, Cameron at times appeared downright Bill Clintonesque, imbuing his speech with an infectious optimism about turning Britain into a “land of opportunity.”…

Miliband, though perhaps a populist, is also hardly the left-wing firebrand of old Labor, and his bigger problem still seems to be his inability to personally connect with voters. He has pledged not to reverse the Conservative’s fiscal cuts and to match any new spending to budget cuts or new revenue. He also has moved decisively to curb his party’s incestuous financial relationship with labor unions.

Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, said Miliband may indeed veer “slightly” to the left of Blair’s love affair with the free market.

“But by no means is he going back to the dark red days of the Labor party in the 1970s,” Fielding said.

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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Dancing statistics

Want to teach about correlation, frequency distributions, sampling, standard error, and/or variance? Want to use interpretive dance? The British Psychological Society has produced four short (< 5 minutes) videos that dramatically illustrate these concepts.

And thanks to Maggie Koreth-Baker for posting a link to them on BoingBoing.

Statistics explained with the help of modern dance
If you're the type of person who really needs some good visuals to make a concept stick in your head, this series of YouTube videos made by the British Psychological Society Media Centre will help you remember the meanings behind statistical concepts like "correlation", "frequency distributions", and "sampling error"…








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Monday, October 07, 2013

Slow down in economy might slow down reforms

This might put a crimp in the president's reform agenda. Is it an external input or a domestic input into the machinery of government?

Economists dial down projections for Mexico's growth
Storms and insecurity are further eroding once-optimistic predictions for Mexico’s economic growth, analysts say.

At the start of the year, Mexico’s new government under President Enrique Peña Nieto boasted of a robust economy that would grow at a rate of more than 3.5%, better than many countries in the region. Those boasts earned positive headlines for Mexico beyond its borders, as officials here portrayed a country ready to leap into prosperity.

President Peña Nieto
Now, however, even government economists have had to dial down the projections. Mexico’s economy contracted in the second quarter for the first time in four years. The growth rate is more likely about 1.7%, the government says, or half the prediction of just 10 months ago…

The government insists the overall economy remains healthy, will avoid recession and will pick up when wide-ranging reforms proposed by Peña Nieto are finally enacted. Those include a tax overhaul and opening the state oil monopoly to foreign investment.

“I’m confident the deceleration is temporary,” Reuters quoted Agustin Carstens, the head of the Bank of Mexico, as saying. He added that Mexico’s “solid macroeconomic pillars” should bring the country out of its slump by early next year.

The shaky economic performance comes as violence continues in many parts of the country…

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Friday, October 04, 2013

A little systems analysis

Here's a good example of one of those pesky external inputs that limits the capacity of a government to freely make policy (i.e. sovereignty).

Iran Staggers as Sanctions Hit Economy
For years, Iran’s leaders have scoffed at Western economic sanctions, boasting that they could evade anything that came their way. Now, as they seek to negotiate a deal on their nuclear program, the leaders are acknowledging that sanctions, particularly those applied in 2010 on international financial transactions, are creating a hard-currency shortage that is bringing the country’s economy to its knees…

In repeated meetings during the week [in New York], Mr. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the government’s financial condition was far more dire than the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had let on…

Western economists believe the crisis point may be much closer than previously thought, perhaps a matter of months. Iran news outlets have reported that the government owes billions of dollars to private contractors, banks and municipalities.

Because of the sanctions, oil sales, which account for 80 percent of the government’s revenue, have been cut in half…

The sanctions have introduced numerous distortions into everyday life. For example, Iran is allowed to use money it earns from oil sales only to buy products from the purchasing country. As a result, Iranian supermarkets are filled with low-quality Chinese products, while several infrastructure projects are being built by Chinese companies, rather than Iranian…

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Thursday, October 03, 2013

Another Chinese economic laboratory

Thirty years ago, China created a Special Economic Zone adjacent to Hong Kong. It was meant to be a walled-off laboratory for economic experimentation. It was successful enough that other SEZs were established in other Chinese cities.

Now comes the Shanghai Free Trade Zone. More experimentation in a limited area. It seems unlikely that the experiments will be confined this time either.

Shanghai free-trade zone launched
A free-trade zone in Shanghai, China's economic hub, has been launched as the world's second-biggest economy prepares to test long-awaited economic reforms…

The sign reads "China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone"
Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng… said the zone would help "implement a more active opening-up strategy".

Restrictions on foreign investment will be eased inside the area and interest rates will be set by markets.

Among other measures to be trialled inside the zone are allowing China's heavily-regulated currency, the yuan, to be swapped freely for other currencies…

"The establishment of the Shanghai free-trade zone is a significant move for China to conform to new trends in the global economy and trade," Mr Gao said.

The new zone "shows that the new government is keen on making reforms", said Stefan Sack of the European Chamber of Commerce in China but he added that "a free-trade zone in Shanghai alone will not change how business is done in China"…

Shanghai FTZ a fresh commitment to reform
The Chinese government officially inaugurated the Shanghai pilot free trade zone (FTZ) on Sunday with a desire to nurture changes through experiments in a wide range of areas.

Testing of a convertible yuan [and] wider opening of 18 service sectors… are expected to unleash economic potential in the 29-square-km zone in the coming two to three years.

After trial operation, the successful experiences will be applied in other parts of China and help escalate the Chinese economy to a new level in the face of a slowing domestic economy, according to government officials and experts…

The key to developing the Shanghai FTZ is that more attention should be given to institutional establishment that could be replicated nationwide, rather than implementing favorable policies at local levels…

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Measuring inequality

Ken Halla posted a link to this article by Max Fisher suggesting that the Palma ratio might be a better way to measure economic inequality than the familiar Gini Index. Right now the Gini numbers are more universally available, but putting the two measures alongside one another might offer some interesting insights.

There's a link in Fisher's article to a more complete explanation of the Palma index and video presentation as well.

How the world’s countries compare on income inequality (the U.S. ranks below Nigeria)
The way we measure income inequality is changing. After years of relying on a complicated metric called the Gini coefficient, some economists argue that we should adopt the Palma ratio, which measures the gap between the rich and the poor in a society…

The countries that come out looking best include, no surprise, the usual suspects of Northern Europe. Interestingly, Eastern Europe scores quite highly as well, as do some post-Soviet countries in Central Asia. Perhaps that's a legacy of Soviet-era social programs meant to flatten class divides. But it's also a reminder that, while economic equality is great, it's not synonymous with a healthy economy. Some countries are economically equal because everyone is well-off, as in Denmark, and some because most everyone is equally poor…

The United States doesn't come out of this comparison looking great. It's ranked 44th out of 86 countries, well below every other developed society measured. It's one spot below Nigeria… but above Russia and Turkey… countries that have experienced heavy political unrest in recent years…

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

China celebrates its national day

China marked 63 years since the founding of the People's Republic.

China media: National Day reflection
Media in China are celebrating the nation's economic progress on National Day, but also highlight the need for more social reforms.

On the 64th founding anniversary of the People's Republic of China, The Beijing News praises the country's economic might, but adds that the government needs to do more to protect citizens' rights…

The Communist Party's People's Daily contrasts China's survival and prosperity with "ideologically confused" Arab countries that fell victim to the Arab Spring by "copying the West" and putting excessive faith in democratisation…

In other National Day-related news, the People's Daily Overseas Edition showcases "frugal" flower decorations in Beijing that are in keeping with the party's ongoing anti-extravagance campaign…

The Southern Metropolis Daily says authorities on Thursday threatened to shut down Xianguo, Zaker, Mobee and other mobile applications that provide news information services without approval from official regulators. The crackdown is targeting services that allow access to pornography, false information and blocked foreign websites…

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