(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘government

“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”*…

The majority of countries are democracies, but how many people enjoy what we think of as democratic rights? A nifty interactive map from Our World In Data charts the changes in political regimes across the globe, country by country, over the last 200 years. By way of explaining its categories:

• In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.

• In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.

• In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.

• In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts.

As Visual Capitalist observes…

Do civilians get a representative say in how the government is run where you live?

While it might seem like living with a basic level of democratic rights is the status quo, this is only true for 93 countries or territories today—the majority of the world does not enjoy these rights.

It also might surprise you that much of the progress towards democracy came as late as the mid-20th century

An interactive look at the state of democracy around the world, and how it has evolved. From @OurWorldInData, via @VisualCap.

* H. L. Mencken


As we ruminate on representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933, the day after an arsonist ignited the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament in Berlin (and four weeks after Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of German), that Adolf Hitler attributed the fire to a conspiracy of Communist agitators.

Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch “council communist”, was the apparent culprit; but Hitler insisted on a wider network of villains. He used it as a pretext to claim that Communists were plotting against the German government, and induced President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree suspending civil liberties, and to pursue a “ruthless confrontation” with the Communists. A court later found that van der Lubbe had in fact acted alone. But Hitler’s orchestrated reaction to the Reichstag Fire began the effective rule of the Nazi Party and the establishment of Nazi Germany.


“Suffrage is the pivotal right”*…

… but how we vote matters. We tend to take the electoral system in which we exercise our franchise for granted. Perhaps we should think more broadly. Why Is This Interesting? explains how Venice selected its Doges, and ponders the questions that raises for our own elections…

The way societies make decisions is important. There is a growing understanding that different systems can lead to quite different outcomes. Ireland rejected the British first-past-the-post system after independence and adopted the single transferable vote in 1921. New York City started using ranked-choice voting this summer, with some hiccups. Other countries have moved to full proportional representation where seats are allocated to parties more or less based on national vote share.

There’s also the question of the best level of representation. Should city councils be elected at-large for the whole city (like in Cambridge, Mass.) or in single-member districts, and how would that affect outcomes such as diversity and zoning? Perhaps some decisions should be taken away from the city council, and either moved down to the neighborhood level or up to the regional level? And should some decisions, such as monetary policy, be taken out of democratic control altogether and left to technocrats?

Using sortition to choose government officials, as Venice and Ancient Athens did, is a niche idea these days, but in common-law countries, juries deciding legal cases are (supposed to be) chosen randomly from the population. Nobel laureate Daniel McFadden wants to use “economic juries” of randomly selected people to decide on big public projects, arguing that this can better reflect public opinion than a referendum.

Since these political design choices affect policy outcomes, it would be naive to think this is only about high-minded notions of the “quality” of decisions. But that doesn’t make the question of how societies should make decisions any less interesting.

What’s the best way to hold elections? On Venice, decisions, and policy outcomes: “The Dogal Elections Edition,” from Why is This Interesting? (@WhyInteresting) Eminently worth reading in full.

[Image above: source]

* Susan B. Anthony


As we ponder the practice of polling, we we might recall that it was on this date in 1620 that 41 adult male colonists recently arrived in what we now call Massachusetts, including two indentured servants, signed the Mayflower Compact (although it wasn’t called that at the time). Though they intended to reach the Colony of Virginia, storms had forced The Mayflower and its pilgrim passengers to anchor at the hook of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It was unwise to continue with provisions running short. This inspired some of the non-Puritan passengers (whom the Puritans referred to as ‘Strangers’) to proclaim that they “would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them” since they would not be settling in the agreed-upon Virginia territory. To prevent this, the Pilgrims determined to establish their own government, while still affirming their allegiance to the Crown of England. Thus, the Mayflower Compact was based simultaneously upon a majoritarian model and the settlers’ allegiance to the king. It was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the community’s rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival– the first (colonial) document to establish self-government in the New World.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899


“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”*…

How much does your state depend on federal taxation?

While the richer among us are better at sheltering their income, all Americans pay federal income tax on the same basis. But the return on– the benefits received from– those tax payments varies wildly among states.

MoneyGeek analyzed and ranked states according to their dependence on the federal government. Rankings account for political affiliation, net benefits individuals and organizations in the state receive, state government revenue from federal sources and GDP per capita. We also examined which states received the most in child tax credits — both in terms of the annualized total amount and amount received per capita.

Key findings:

• Eight of the 10 states most dependent on the federal government were Republican-voting, with the average red state receiving $1.35 per dollar spent [i.e., paid in federal taxes].

• Nine states sent more to the federal government than they received — seven of these were Democrat-voting and had higher per capita GDPs than many of the red states that received the most.

• New Mexico had the highest return on federal spending [per dollar of federal taxes paid] of any state ($4.33), and Delaware had the lowest ($0.63).

• The eight states receiving the highest child tax credit per capita were all Republican-voting.

The complete ranking, with data and more analysis at “Return on Statehood: How Much Value Every State Gets From the Federal Government.”

* Benjamin Franklin


As we contemplate contradiction, we might recall that it was on this date in 1620, after ten weeks at sea, that pilgrims aboard The Mayflower first sighted North America. Two days later they anchored off the tip of Cape Cod.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Bureaucracies… are not themselves forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing stupidity”*…

Jumping through hoops for the sake of the hoops…

Not long ago, a New York City data analyst who had been laid off shortly after the pandemic hit told me she had filed for unemployment-insurance payments and then spent the next six months calling, emailing, and using social media to try to figure out why the state’s Labor Department would not send her the money she was owed.

A mother in Philadelphia living below the poverty line told me about her struggle to maintain government aid. Disabled herself and caring for a disabled daughter, she had not gotten all of her stimulus checks and, because she does not regularly file taxes or use a computer, needed help from a legal-aid group to make sure she would get the newly expanded child-tax-credit payments.

A Colorado systems administrator with a chronic medical condition told me that switching jobs had caused an accidental lapse in his health coverage, which led to a cascade of paperwork over responsibility for a medical bill. He estimated that he had spent 100 hours resolving the issue…

In my decade-plus of social-policy reporting, I have mostly understood these stories as facts of life. Government programs exist. People have to navigate those programs. That is how it goes. But at some point, I started thinking about these kinds of administrative burdens as the “time tax”—a levy of paperwork, aggravation, and mental effort imposed on citizens in exchange for benefits that putatively exist to help them. This time tax is a public-policy cancer, mediating every American’s relationship with the government and wasting countless precious hours of people’s time.

The issue is not that modern life comes with paperwork hassles. The issue is that American benefit programs are, as a whole, difficult and sometimes impossible for everyday citizens to use. Our public policy is crafted from red tape, entangling millions of people who are struggling to find a job, failing to feed their kids, sliding into poverty, or managing a disabling health condition.

The United States government—whether controlled by Democrats, with their love of too-complicated-by-half, means-tested policy solutions; or Republicans, with their love of paperwork-as-punishment; or both, with their collective neglect of the implementation and maintenance of government programs—has not just given up on making benefits easy to understand and easy to receive. It has in many cases purposefully made the system difficult, shifting the burden of public administration onto individuals and discouraging millions of Americans from seeking aid. The government rations public services through perplexing, unfair bureaucratic friction. And when people do not get help designed for them, well, that is their own fault.

The time tax is worse for individuals who are struggling than for the rich; larger for Black families than for white families; harder on the sick than on the healthy. It is a regressive filter undercutting every progressive policy we have. In America, losing a job means making a hundred phone calls to a state unemployment-insurance system. Getting hit by a car means becoming your own hospital-billing expert. Having a disability means launching into a Jarndyce v. Jarndyce–type legal battle. Needing help to feed a toddler means filling out a novel-length application for aid.

The Biden administration is expanding the welfare state, through the new child tax credit and other initiatives. Congressional Democrats are crafting a new New Deal. But little attention is being paid to making things work, rather than making them exist. And very little attention is being paid to making things work for the neediest—people short on time, money, and mental bandwidth.

The time tax needs to be measured. It needs to be managed. And it needs to end…

Why is so much American bureaucracy left to average citizens? Annie Lowrey (@AnnieLowrey) explains the enormous cost and points to the remedy: “The Time Tax.”

* David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy


As we sign on to streamlining, we might recall that this date in 1970 was “Black Tot Day,” the last day on which the British Royal Navy issued sailors with a daily rum ration (the daily tot).  In the 17th century, the ration had been beer– one gallon per day– but the the switch was meade the following century to rum in order to cut down on the weight and volume necessary to carry to meet that requirement.  The daily allowance was steadily reduced thereafter, until finally it was eliminated.

And so, on July 31, 1970, the last tot was poured as usual at 6 bells in the forenoon watch (11am) after the pipe of “up spirits.”  Some sailors wore black armbands, tots were “buried at sea,” and in one navy training camp, HMS Collingwood, the Royal Naval Electrical College at Fareham in Hampshire, there was a mock funeral procession complete with black coffin and accompanying drummers and piper.  The move was not popular with the ratings (enlisted personnel), despite an extra can of beer being added to their daily rations in compensation.

Measuring out the tot (diorama aboard HMS Belfast)


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 31, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Investment in infrastructure is a long term requirement for growth and a long term factor that will make growth sustainable”*…

So it’s a problem that infrastructure here in the U.S. is so very expensive. Why is that?

As Congress argues over the size of the infrastructure bill and how to pay for it, very little attention is being devoted to one of the most perplexing problems: Why does it cost so much more to build transportation networks in the US than in the rest of the world? In an interview in early June, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledged the problem, but he offered no solutions except the need to study it further.

Biden’s original infrastructure proposal included $621 billion for roads, rail, and bridges. His plan is billed not only as an infrastructure plan but one that would help respond to the climate crisis. A big part of that is making it easier for more Americans to travel by mass transit. The Biden plan noted that “America lags its peers — including Canada, the U.K., and Australia — in the on-time and on-budget delivery of infrastructure,” but that understates the problem.

Not only are these projects inordinately expensive, states and localities are not even attempting to build particularly ambitious projects. The US is the sixth-most expensive country in the world to build rapid-rail transit infrastructure like the New York City Subway, the Washington Metro, or the Chicago “L.” And that’s with the nation often avoiding tunneling projects, which are often the most complicated and expensive parts of any new metro line. According to the Transit Costs Project, the five countries with higher costs than the US “are building projects that are more than 80 percent tunneled … [whereas in the US] only 37 percent of the total track length is tunneled.”

America’s infrastructure cost problem isn’t just confined to transit, it’s also the country’s highways. Research by New York Federal Reserve Bank and Brown University researchers reveals that the cost to construct a “lane mile of interstate increased five-fold” between 1990 and 2008. New construction — widening and building interchanges and building new sections of road altogether — is where the bulk of the problem lies, says one of the researchers, economist Matthew Turner. (The cost of “heavy maintenance” like resurfacing increased as well, but Turner said that’s due almost entirely to the rise in the price of certain paving materials.) 

According to a report by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, the nation’s transit spending “fell by $9.9 billion in inflation-adjusted terms” over the last 10 years. In comparison with similar countries, America spends a relatively small amount of its GDP (1.5 percent) on public infrastructure, while the UK spends 2 percent, France 2.4 percent, and Australia 3.5 percent.

The problem is fundamentally that the US is getting very little for what it builds

Infrastructure: “Why does it cost so much to build things in America?”- this is why the U.S. can’t have nice things. From @JerusalemDemsas in @voxdotcom. Eminently worth reading in full.

Chanda Kochhar


As we lay the foundation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1886– the anniversary of the date in 1864 the Abraham Lincoln set aside Yosemite Valley as a preserve— that Congress recognized and established by law (24 Stat. L.103), the Division of Forestry in the Department of Agriculture.  Created in 1881 by fiat of the then-Commissioner of Agriculture, it’s initial remit was to assess the quality and conditions of forests in the United States.  In 1891, its mandate was expanded to include authorization to withdraw land from the public domain as “forest reserves,” to be managed by the Department of the Interior– the precursor to America’s National Forest and National Park program.


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