Monday, March 30, 2009

Bowling Alone by Putnam

This week’s reading was a book by Putnam, Bowling Alone. The title refers to Putnam’s main argument: that American’s are doing more, but are doing the “more” alone rather than in groups. This leads to a decline in social capital. A decline in social capital leads to a society that is not as strong as it could be. At least, that is the argument Putnam is making.

Putnam examines many influences that might be the cause of the decline in social capital. He states that, through statistical analysis, he has determined that the movements of women into the workplace, education and a market economy have little to do with the decline in social capital. Instead, the fact that technology has enabled our leisure time to be spent in individualized pursuits – like video games, is the biggest cause. Putnam believes, and supports his beliefs with evidence, that people are more engaged but are more engaged in solitary pursuits.

Putnam makes several interesting claims. The statistics for people being less involved in group activities seem to be supported by last week’s reading – at least in so far as the evidence relates to politics. Last week’s readings showed how people were moving away from the Republican Party, but not to another party. This means that people are moving out of organized political parties – which are an element of social capital – and into individualized notions of politics. This evidence seems to support Putnam’s claims that people are involved, but are involved alone.
Additionally, Putnam claims that for every 10 minutes of commute time, people are 10% less likely to become involved. I don’t believe that his statistics validate this claim. I didn’t see the correlation factors that linked commute time to involvement. Instead, I believe that people who spend time commuting simply don’t have that time available to do other things. If the time spent commuting is less, then the time available is open for other things. I don’t think there is such a strong correlation between the 10 minutes of commute time and 10% less likely to participate. I would even think, although I have not done research, that if you have children commute time matters less in terms of determining involvement. When you have children, you are involved in any number of things that your child is involved in. So the amount of time you spend building social capital is not necessarily under your control.

Putnam states, as one of his solutions, that churches must become more relevant and more tolerant. He doesn’t see a contradiction in this statement, but I do. I do not think churches have to become more tolerant. For many churches, to be more tolerant of alternative life-styles is an abandonment of their beliefs. People go to church because they believe as the church believes. Whether they choose to believe all the particular doctrines is up to them, but they do believe as the church believes. If churches were to begin abandoning their beliefs in favor of what some might call “more tolerant” beliefs, then their bastion of faithful will diminish. That means that churches who adapt their teaching to what is socially acceptable will be the ones to survive, and those churches won’t have any ability to lead their faithful, because the faithful will be leading them. This would make churches irrelevant except as a place of social gathering.

Putnam does make several good points. It is easier to solve problems when you are interconnected because you know the other people. When there is a face on the problem, it is easier to invest resources in.

However, connections don’t come without society being willing to allow them. With a technological society that allows work to contact you anywhere (through Blackberrys et al), you are never detached enough to make social connections. At some point, a community has to develop between people. This takes time and effort that people have to put into other things these days .

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why Parties? by John Aldrich

In his book, Why Parties?, John H. Aldrich attempts to explain why parties formed, and what good they did in a historical context. I found this writing to be interesting, because it examined the actual happenings of the government, and proposed a framework for what happened based on what happened. In many ways, this book suffers from the same flaw that a case study would suffer from. Mainly, there is nothing to compare it to, and that the case study itself is self-selecting the outcome of the hypothesis. In this situation that means that the pick of the formation of the parties in a historical context, must provide the accurate background for the hypothesis or it would not have been chosen as the case study.

However, many of the points made in this book are interesting. One of the points that I find most interesting in this book is that the parties formed, historically, in order to prevent disorganization and the failing of the Constitution. This would imply, that contrary to the belief of the author, all of the people involved did have at least one similar goal in mind – the stability of the Constitution and the organizations associated therewith. This is an interesting note in his book because the people involved had already been through a lot of tough times with instability. There was the Revolutionary War – which provided much instability, and then there were the Articles of the Confederation – which folded like a paper in the wind when tested. So it makes sense that these particular people wanted a sense of stability. That parties were organized to provide this stability seems a little strong, however, there was a lot of evidence provided to make his point.

Namely the evidence regarding the association of parties and voting in the First, Second and Third Congresses. This evidence was structured in such a way as to provide support for the theory that parties were not in existence at the First Congress, but that as issues became more complex and the desire of people was to solve the issues to create stability, parties came into existence. One of the most potent lines in the book was that an unorganized majority can be split, but an organized majority is harder to split.

It is true that the statement above hold over to today. If you look at the US Senate, for example, you will see that it is harder to split the majority because they are organized. They owe something to the organization and the higher coalition of values that it presents. Therefore, you will get voting patterns based more on overall values than personal preferences. This was a point in the book that was made very well. That when you have a party or something to which you owe allegiance, you are more likely to set aside matters of personal preference in order to vote with the allegiance.

Overall, this book was well supported and well documented. The assertions that were made are still relevant to understanding why the two party system in the US exists and functions the way it functions today. This book was particularly well supported with data and used existing resources and studies that had been around for a while, and so are commonly understood and accepted by scholars of that area, to back-up various assertions that were made. In law this is called using precedent – I would imagine the same principle applies in political theory. If you base your study around something that is commonly excepted you will have less problems with the acceptance of your study.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Random state government readings

Today’s readings were a mixture of things. We had a literature review on state welfare policies, a reading on the future of state government, and a more in depth paper on legislative morality and the impacts of it. These were all interesting readings by themselves. However, I could reach no theme between them all. I was stuck on trying to find a theme between all the readings, and then I realized that there was no theme.

The literature review, written by Harrell Rodgers was entitled, State Welfare Options: Why Are Some States Tough? I found this writing to be very cursory. There was almost no depth to the way in which the studies were presented. Additionally, the studies presented did not all correspond to the question. Some of them did not answer the question. However, the generalizations drawn at the conclusion were in accordance with the study. This would make a nice starting point for someone trying to find some references to work with on the question of state welfare options.

The second reading was the introduction to the Council of State Governments Book of the States. It was written by Keon S. Chi. It was also not very in- depth. However, it covered a lot of issues and presented some concerns about where state government was headed, and what the major trends would be in the coming year. However, this was a 2005 article and some of the trends still seem important today. This might be one reason that historical study is encouraged – because we seem not to be able to move beyond some problems and so they are constantly reoccurring. The last article was Legislative Morality in the American States: The Case of Pre-Roe Abortion Regulation Reform, by Mooney and Lee. Mooney and Lee used pre-Roe abortion regulation reform to study how morality legislation or regulation differs from the various other types of regulation. I found it interesting that they studied pre-Roe regulation. They noted – and I agree – that there is a truncation of the study because of Roe. It would’ve been interesting to see them study something else where that truncation wouldn’t exist. Also, by looking solely at Catholics and Protestants, they ignored any number of religious groups who were (and still are) against abortion. The factors they looked at would not explain the conservative nature of Idaho or Utah for example – however by including Mormons in the group you would’ve been able to explain more of the behavior of the states.

Over all, I thought it was a good study on abortion regulation. Like the authors pointed out, the study was narrow and so their conclusions may not be generally applicable to all morality legislation. It would be interesting to take various other morality legislation and try the analysis on it to see if the study stands up to further scrutiny.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Interest group and party influence agents in the legislative process

Interest Group and Party Influence Agents in the Legislative Process

Something that you hear continually when listing to the political rhetoric spewed by newspapers is that interest groups and parties have too much power and influence. Additionally, this view is bought into by many in the community. However, how much influence do these two groups have, and is their influence much more prominent in California than in other states? I speak with my in-laws from Ohio and Utah and they do not have the same cynical view of interest groups and parties that people in California seem to spout.

Wiggins, Hamm and Bell (1998), in their article Interest-Group and Party Influence Agents in the Legislative Process: A comparative State Analysis, seek to examine the role of interest groups and the strength that they have in the legislative policy-making process. They examine California, Iowa and Texas as their sample states. They found that their study suggests that the governor and legislative majority party leader can effectively offset the lobbying efforts of interest groups. However, they do not seem to find a pattern across states.

I found it very interesting that the authors of this study traced their desire to study the topic back to Madison. They frame the question as one of finding out if public officials – who are elected by and responsible to broad groupings of constituents – can control the mischiefs of factions. I have never thought of the relationship between elected officials and interest groups as one of control of factions. I rather thought that this relationship was symbiotic, whereby one did a favor for the other in return for a favor later. So this is a new and novel approach to the relationship in my perspective.

However, when looking at their methodology I found a few problems. First of all they are comparing apples and oranges. There is no adjustment for professional versus citizen legislatures. Instead, they seem to pick three states at random and use them. How does the trifecta of Iowa, Texas and California represent the sum total of the states? There is no analysis of how representative this sample is. Additionally, they do not take the same percentage of bills, or number of bills, or even bill topics and years from each state. They make comparisons based on a random sample where that may not be representative of the various roles that the actors they are wanting to study play. If the random sample is of small or technical bills, then it is possible that their sample is skewed. If the random sample picks only big bills, then it is possible that the roles of the actors is overstated. Therefore, there seems to be a problem with the methodology from the beginning.

However, they still come to the conclusion, after much statistical analysis and study, that their general notion is supported. Their general notion is that party-oriented influence agents – such as the Governor or majority party leaders – can effectively provide the checks and balances needed on interest groups. However, they do make the point that only strong leaders within the system can provide checks and balances on the interest groups. That is the reason that the minority party leaders cannot effectively place checks and balances on the interest groups – according to their analysis.

Even after a careful read of their information and analysis, I do not see that their study presents how the checks and balances and the interactions between the governor/majority party leader and interest groups work. There has been nothing in the analysis that accounts for the sheer desire to thwart the interest groups, or cooperate with them. I believe that there is an element of will in this whole situation that is not accounted for within the analysis. For instance, in California, could the majority party leadership or the Governor really compete with the CTA? According to the analysis, they should be able to – however in practice the CTA has won its battle with the governor. If this analysis is followed, then the Governor should’ve been able to place certain checks and balances on the CTA – which he has been unable to do. But for what they studied, and how long ago this study was written, it is a good overall explanation of the things they studied.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The judiciary and state politics

Placing State Supreme Courts in State Politics, by Brace, Hall and Langer, tries to place the various state supreme courts (although in the case of NY it is called the high court because the Supreme Court is the trial court level) within the state political context. In order to accomplish this, the article looks at the courts and their influence and how they were influenced in the abortion controversy.

The first thing that stuck out at me when reading this article was then last line in the abstract. “Moreover, by capitalizing on the analytical advantages of comparative state judicial politics scholarship, scholars will be able to solve some of the most complex puzzles in the study of state politics.” This is a pretty impressive claim that the author makes – and it immediately pulls me into the study to see if they really can prove this. While I find courts important, it would shock me to find that a study of court can solve most of the complex puzzles in state politics.

I found the overview of current research to be helpful. While I tend to enjoy judicial articles, I am in no way very knowledgeable about the field. This overview presented me with the main points. Additionally, the authors were able to state their problem with the current state of the research. The main problem that they had was that the research dealt with the micro-level behavior of the court, rather than the behavior of the court in the context of the state as a whole.
I think that this is primarily because the literature has always separated out the courts, and they are viewed as an isolated institution rather than one that plays a role in the day-to-day politics and policy making that is normally undertaken by the studies. I base this assumption on the reading we have done for our various classes. In the reading that we have been doing, the focus has been on major policy making in the legislative process and how different factors (gender, professionalism, and interest groups to name a few) can affect that process. However, the state courts don’t play much, if any, of a role in that process. Rather they belong to a different process that occurs once the legislative process is complete.

I did not find the discussion on the abortion proceedings to be of significance to the question of how the state court is placed into state politics. It seems to be common knowledge that a court can overturn a statute. However in a state court they can only overturn a statute as unconstitutional if it doesn’t match the constitution of the State. The abortion debate seems to indicate that they are overturning statutes in relation to the federal constitution. However, those are questions for the federal courts alone to answer. So I found the abortion discussion somewhat muddied by this fact. Additionally, they also looked at micro-behavior of the court – the behavior of individual judges in upholding or not upholding the statute. That seems to go against their view that you need to more broadly view the roles of the state courts.

Lastly, I did not find anything in this paper that indicated that the study of courts on a macro level would answer the most complex questions. I think that they proved courts matter – but I do not think that was ever in doubt. Additionally, they provided a very rough framework for how to view courts in a macro level, while still looking at the micro behavior of the court. So that was interesting. However, the initial draw to see how courts would fix state problems did not pan out, and that is disappointing.