It’s been a long time since I wrote anything, but I’ve been recently fascinated by the fight over tenure in Wisconsin and felt the need to get my thoughts down on paper. Scott Walker has recently decided to end tenure at University of Wisconsin and has been pushing his reforms through the legislature. I’ve seen a lot of commentary on how this will hurt the University of Wisconsin (it will), hurt the state of Wisconsin (probably), and is just beating up on a small group to win points in the GOP nomination (it is, and it’s brilliant). What I haven’t seen is analysis looking further down the game tree – which is that Scott Walker’s move threatens the future of all American public universities.
First of all, I fully expect this to pass and prove popular. Professors are not the most sympathetic group in the world, and a gaggle of entitled eggheads complaining about losing their cushy jobs-for-life will not play well. If Walker begins mass layoffs of Democrats, that might change – but I suspect that gradually chipping away at their privileges will prove quite successful. It will play well to the base while cutting away at the power structure of a hated enemy. Why wouldn’t other governors do the same?
Tenure is an arrangement that rests on trust. It’s a very long-term contract that is secured by nothing but the faith of the issuing institution, kind of like a sovereign bond. Imagine you hold Portuguese bonds and Spain defaults tomorrow with no consequences – how does that change your expectation of getting paid? Imagine you are a tenured professor at University of Nebraska or Ole Miss – how does the Wisconsin reform change the credibility of your tenure? Every professor at a red-state public university – especially in politically-sensitive fields – should be looking for a new job right now, and probably is. And even if you are in a relatively liberal state, the long-term value of your tenure has deteriorated considerably – someday in the future a conservative will win the governorship, and likely strip your tenure protections.
Perhaps I’m wrong, and Walker’s reforms will be beaten back and the status quo will remain. However, I suspect that Walker’s move has suddenly flipped public universities from a high-trust equilibrium to a low-trust equilibrium. If so, the effects could be very far-ranging indeed, even in states where no such reforms are even considered. By becoming an object of debate the credibility of the tenure contract at state universities has just plummeted. If I am right, the next few years should see a massive outflow of talent from state universities to private universities and the private sector. It’s a depressing prospect for America’s great state universities, but I’m not sure if there’s a way to stop it – trust is very hard to reestablish once it’s been shaken.
So a retired New York municipal official got a little burst of news coverage recently by trenchantly analyzing Obama’s Presidency thusly:
I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.
Kevin Drum suggests that this is an excellent opportunity for Jeb Bush. By repudiating this sort of talk, he can force his opponents (Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, primarily) to defend it. Bush will look reasonable and presidential, while his opponents will look like loons. While political scientists generally disdain the idea that this sort of too-clever-by-half maneuvering matters, Drum is probably half-right.
There is one time when small details of campaigning matters a lot: the primary election. In general elections, voters are generally uninformed and mostly vote on party cues. In primaries voters cannot use party cues, and by definition primary voters are more politically active and usually sophisticated than general-election voters. And as Larry Bartels tells us, media coverage can really move the dial. So campaigning matters, and anything a candidate can do to get positive media coverage can be very important. Pushing back on this sort of talk is the sort of bold truth-telling that the DC media will just eat right up, and that can well translate to better positioning in the primary.
Drum is half-right because it’s just too early; better for Bush to save this tactic until closer to the primary season. Bumps are short-lived, and this is far from the last time a prominent Republican will say President Obama hates America.
Christopher Balding has a an interesting piece on Chinese statistics on growth, GDP, and consumption. As you might expect if you have even a cursory knowledge of China, the stats are highly suspicious. But as Balding reveals, they’re suspicious in an interesting way. In the course of looking at rural consumption figures, he comes up against the revelation that due to changes in methodology the statistics are not really comparable from year to year. Even more importantly, even basic figures like national GDP have frequent but unannounced methodological changes such that they are not comparable over time.
How should this alter your views on China? First and foremost, we know much less about its recent economic history than we think. If it is altering the methodology from year to year, then statistics both on levels and growth have huge unacknowledged error bars around them. Secondly, it should worry people about future growth levels. There are two possible scenarios. One is that the Chinese government does not think it worthwhile to keep reliable economic statistics. The second is that the “real” statistics are secret and the public statistics are manipulated to serve political interests. Neither has particularly positive implications for the quality of economic governance in China and its future trajectory.
I suspect that marijuana will be a pretty major issue in the 2016 campaign. Looking at this map, it is clear that the legalization movement is only now gathering steam. Three liberal states have already legalized recreational use, with several blue (and not-so-blue!) states planning legalization referendums for 2016 or the next few years after. Marijuana might be fully legalized under state law along the entire West Coast and all of New England by 2020.
It will be a salient 2016 election issue because it will have become a massively salient policy issue. With the lack of a Presidential election in 2014, and the Obama administration effectively downplaying the question, it wasn’t really on the agenda. But whoever wins in 2016 will have a massive mess on their hands in 2017, particularly if California votes for legalization. The status quo, of a gray market in Colorado and Washington with no federal recognition of the growing industry, is unsustainable and cannot be sustained. It certainly cannot be extended from those states to the much larger populations of California and the Eastern Seaboard. The next administration simply will be forced to make a decision about whether to crack down on it or tolerate it to a much greater degree than Obama has (e.g., allowing pot retailers to file taxes and access banks).
It is hard to know what this debate will look like, simply because it is difficult to gauge how public opinion will look in two years time. If opinion continues to consolidate in favor of legalization, the tenor of the debate is likely to be much different than if it stagnates or reverses. But here’s my expectation: opinion will continue to move in favor of legalization. It will be a wedge issue in the Democratic primary – a political entrepreneur will seize on it and attempt to force policy concessions on the issue from Hillary Clinton. In the general, she will attempt to downplay the issue and avoid presenting a definite policy, as opposed to a Republican candidate who will be very very anti-marijuana and will push the issue hard. If marijuana legalization does not increase much in popularity by 2016, both candidates will be attempting to seize the anti-marijuana high ground even though roughly half the population favors legalization. That half will disproportionately vote for Clinton anyway, and for legalization if they have the opportunity.
A Republican win would mean a high-intensity, high-profile crackdown and basically going to war on state governments who tolerate marijuana. If Clinton wins, she will attempt to delay action as long as possible but will eventually opt for a crackdown. In short: marijuana activists should be cheered that their legalization campaigns are making so much progress…but shouldn’t count their chickens just yet. Passing these laws are just the opening shot of a campaign that will take a long, long time before either side can claim victory.