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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Bookish nightmares....

Radio is hardly the place to "see" images, but I was drawn to the description (on Weekend America) of the subject matter in Rosamond Purcell's "Bookworm" photos (click pics for slide show). I have yet to clean up the stacks of books damaged in last May's flood (see here) and these pictures are what I see in my worse nightmares.

But my nightmares were put in perspective by my spouse who went out of her way to inform me of the bookcases that killed a 38-year old woman in Florida....

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Boom goes Danvers....

I am in Thanksgiving break mode these days, shifting to a schedule that provides the option of getting up to read in the middle of the night and spending my days in my dungeon office. The difference this year is that my "shift" began with a "bang" -- literally.

On Tuesday evening I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I went to bed early -- about 9 or 10 PM -- and found myself awake and ready to read at 2:30 AM. At first I sat and contemplated how to make the maneuver out of bed so as not to disturb my spouse who worked (as is usual these days) on a project well past midnight. It took a few minutes for me start my moves in the dark from the bed to the reading chair nearby, and just as I sat down I heard a huge blast that sounded like an explosion in the house or something quite big falling in the attic right above my head.

Since the ceiling was not falling on me and since my wife did not even flinch, my first thought was that this was one hell of a head cold I was developing. Sitting in silence and contemplating my sanity, I waited to see or hear any movements that would reduce my anxiety about going quite mad -- perhaps some movement in the street that would indicate (as I began to think) that some nearby home oil tank might have blown up.

Finally -- and thankfully -- I heard my son moving about outside our room confirming that it was not in my head -- that there was indeed some huge explosion in or near the house. But explore as we might, there was not a sign of anything -- and our neighbors did not seem to be in trouble or even wandering about their homes as we were. Only our lights seemed to be on, and traffic at 3AM was nil....

Next morning our daughter (who lives about a mile away) calls to ask if we saw the news -- huge explosion at 2:46 AM at ink plant about 3 or 4 miles away in Danversport area. As it turns out, lots of property destruction from equivalent of 2000 pound bomb, and miraculously no deaths and only a handful of injuries. Helicopters and news reports all day showed that it was clearly quite an event, and one of my wife's close friends (see comments by Holly Gould in story here) found herself looking up at the sky from bed as a result. Her home and cars are lost, and her cats have gone missing -- but she survived and we are learning more about just how major this near tragedy was.

Quite a way to start the holiday break....

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

2 X 2

If I have any identity among my colleagues in the field of public administration, it is tied to my obsessive use of 2X2s in almost all my work. I guess that is why I found my wife's recent project involving painting coasters so fascinating -- somehow arranging here work in 2x2 format enhances their attraction for me ....

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Tip's myth and waiting for the fat lady....

As the co-author of an American government textbook, election nights are always a bit more interesting -- especially in years when we have a new edition due out in a few weeks. In fact, the entire publication process is geared to the election -- everything ready to go except for some pages in election-sensitive chapters, and the day after an election is when the gaps are filled....

Since my portions of the text are not impacted by the election results in the short term (I cover subjects like constitution, federalism, bureaucracy, public policy), I have little to do today except mull over how the election outcome might impact on the next edition (which is likely to be in two years....) Our book is unique in its focus on what we term the "myths and realities" of US government and politics, and each chapter is built around one or two such myths. For example, in the constitution chapter we focus on the "myth of the living constitution". We do not try to debunk all the myths, but rather stress the role myths play in US government and politics and some of the "reality" and countering myths at work. Its a neat theme that seems to have grown stronger with each of the seven previous editions....

As my colleagues Alan Gitelson and Bob Dudley work on putting the the finishing touches on the 8th edition, I am already thinking about a new myth that we might integrate into edition 9 -- the myth of "all politics is local". The famous Tip O'Neill observation is the perfect myth for our textbook -- it is true at all times, except when it isn't. This year the "nationalization" (or Iraq-ization) of the mid-term elections seems an appropriate description of what happened, although the situation was much more complicated than that. Two "realities" need to be stressed -- first, that only (so far) 27 of the 435 House seats changed hands (in terms of party) and that several of those changes can be attributed to local rather than national concerns. (For interesting piece on incumbency advantage, see here.)

Nevertheless, at the macro-political level, there certainly was a national feel to the results. It is certainly hard to explain the loss of Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island or the blue-ing of New Hampshire unless you factor in the anti-war sentiment of voters this year. In those cases, relatively popular and effective representatives were defeated who would otherwise and at other times be considered incumbent shoe-ins. Unlike 1994, which seemed to be a "throw the bums out" election untethered to any specific issue, this was a "send them a message" election that was clearly driven by the Iraq War gorilla sitting at the dinner table....

And with Montana and Virgina still undecided as yet, the fat lady has not yet taken the stage....


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Monday, November 06, 2006

Democracy in the air....

It is no surprise that there are lots of democracy-related items floating around out there. The US mid-term elections are coming up, and the media-driven anxiety is generating reflections as well as concerns. Three items struck me as particularly interesting....

NPR ran a series last week about our political language during the war on terror, and among the words focused on by Guy Raz was "democracy". Interesting stuff....

American Public Radio's Future Tense ran a piece last week on the idea of a "government-run voting portal" (in the mode of e-Democracy) put forward by Allison Fine, the author of Momentum. Interviewer Jon Gordon did a terrific job of asking tough questions in what otherwise might have been a five minute "puff piece".

And on Weekend America, most of the two hours this week was devoted to election related stories, but most interesting was story on the impact of place on voting....

As for me, voted absentee this AM since I will be in New Hampshire (where I work) from dawn to 10PM tomorrow. Given the trends and inclinations in Massachusetts (where I reside), my vote will hardly make a difference. But this is a year when voting is less a rational act than an expression of anger or frustration (see here for interesting coverage on voting)Publish. I think the turn out will reflect that more than the outcome....

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Cheers for the FCC

Cheers all around for the FCC in its ruling that Massport -- the operators of Boston's Logan Airport -- cannot monopolize WiFi at the airport. The issue was the free WiFi in the airline lounges, and when MassPort ordered Continental to turn off its wireless in the President's Club (for security reasons, they argued!) the airline protested and took the issue to the federal agency.

It looks like the major airlines at Logan will now provide some wireless services for their customers -- perhaps even outside the lounge areas.

I have found nothing more annoying when traveling than having to spend 8 to 10 dollars for a couple of hours (or less) of WiFi at airports in the US and elsewhere. You would assume that these folks would wise up and see that there are many ways to generate revenue from free WiFi through advertisements or more innovative approaches.

Nice going FCC!!!!

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Accountability and democracy (I)

And now for something completely different -- some thoughts on accountability....

Getting back on track seems to be a constant theme of the few blogs I have posted over the past several months, so it is time once again to try doing so.

This time my focus is on the relationship between democracy and accountability -- a topic that is actually newsworthy given the elections coming up this Tuesday. But instead of the mid-year vote, my thoughts are in reaction to an award-winning book by political philosopher Henry S. Richardson (son of Elliot, by the way) titled Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning About the Ends of Policy.

I am only at the beginning of this work, but the problem Richardson addresses is the possibility of democratic governance in the context of the modern administrative state (my phrasing, not his). He sets the stage by noting that most discussions of modern democracy focus on two issues: how to constitute a democratic system that builds upon and protects individual rights (liberal democracy) and how to establish a democracy that does not foster tyranny of the majority (republican democracy). What neither of these traditions directly confront is the necessity of administrative discretion and the accompanying potential for bureaucratic domination.

While this may be a refreshing reconfiguration of the current debate among democratic theorists, it is hardly a new topic for students of American public administration or administrative law. For the mainstream scholars in American PA, Dwight Waldo's articulation of the problem in The Administrative State and later publications has been a preoccupation since at least the mid-1940s, with notables such as David H. Rosenbloom (e.g., here) and John A. Rohr (e.g., here) leading the way to finding some rationale for "retrofitting" constitutional democracy into the administrative state. For those who study US administrative law, the constitutional problem of how to deal with delegation of authority issues reached its peak in the 1930s and has been circumvented rather than resolved for all these decades (e.g., here).

My own take on the issue places accountable governance at the center of the "democracy in the administrative state" question -- with equal stress on both accountability and governance. Despite the conventional wisdom that assumes and inherent tension between democracy and bureaucracy (e.g., here), the two are linked by a fundamental and necessary reliance on mechanisms of accountability. But while accountability is a necessary condition of each, it is far from a sufficient condition for either. That said, almost all contemporary reforms (and related discussions) that attempt to address or resolve the problematic relationship between democracy and bureaucracy either over invest in the enhancement of accountability or fail to appreciate the complex role it plays in both.

More to come as I plod ahead into Richardson's work....

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Not so typical Times

If reading the Sunday New York Times is one of those lazy day pleasures (if reading any newspaper can be termed a pleasure these days), then having a leisurely coffee while scanning the relatively thin Saturday edition is usually merely a preparatory event. Typically the most interesting thing on Saturday is some arts/culture write up that might start on the front page.

But today's edition of the Saturday Times is an eye-opening exception to that pattern. On the front page top right of the print edition (in New England at least) is a striking picture of a US soldier lying in mud, his bleeding wounds on the right arm and side visible. Two others are around him, obviously taking actions to get medical attention. Under the photo is the story of the sniper attack being depicted, with as graphic a description as one might read in the Times news section. Open to page A7, and the photos are even more dramatic.

The events in the photos took place last Tuesday, and they hardly tell the story as well as the multimedia piece by C J Chivers found at the web site.

There is so much to be said about this story that I hardly know where to begin. Given the context of the election this Tuesday, it is more than merely reporting by the Times -- its placement and presentation both in print and on the web is a statement than cannot be ignored. Yesterday's widely read (and commented upon) Op-Ed by Thomas Friedman (subscription required; reposted here for free) is a worthy accompanying editorial -- and perhaps nothing more need be said than to suggest that both pieces be read by all....

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Blue New Hampshire

Like most political scientists, I have been intrigued by this mid-year election. Putting aside my own prejudices (which is really tough these days) and trying to assume a neutral (even skeptical) stance, I have not been carried away with by the punditry which that sees this as a "wave" election equivalent to 1974 or 1994. However, after a meeting yesterday I am beginning to think that this may be a wave -- and perhaps more substantial than most commentators are willing to project.

Yesterday I briefly sat in on an informal weekly lunch meeting of some folks who are keen and expert observers of the local (meaning statewide) political scene in New Hampshire. Although I reside in Massachusetts -- the state regarded as politically the blue-est of the blue, despite its tendency to elect Republican governors -- I work in "purple-ish" New Hampshire, a state inclined much more toward "red-ness" ("Live Free or Die!" is the famous state motto). (See here for blue-red info.)

But NH is also as proudly "political" as any in the US (the presidential primary is a major part of the culture as well as the economy), and the attention paid to politics comes (literally) with the territory. So when you see trends shaping in NH, you know that something is going on. And the data circulating around the lunch table certainly indicates a trend in the form of a potential shift of NH from toss-up red to firmly blue.

Andy Smith, director of the UNH survey research center, circulated the latest tracking poll his folks had completed for WMUR-TV, the only major TV station in NH. There was no doubt that the numbers were in the Democratic Party's favor -- so much so that there is a good chance they will add both houses of the state legislature to their control of the governor's office, and have a good shot at replacing both GOP US House members with Democrats. If those numbers are right -- and Smith's shop is pretty damn competent -- then the only somewhat Republican-leaning state in New England is about to make the northeast US truly and solidly blue. It is not hard to speculate that if either of the US Senate seats were up this year (both held by popular GOP incumbents), they would certainly be vulnerable....

Bottom line -- and relying on these indicators from tiny NH -- is that this election may actually be one of those watershed (I would not yet say "critical") events in US politics. After all, if NH is going blue, then it is likely that many more traditionally red states are doing the same. Perhaps my distorted view of NH as a true-red state is drawing me to unwarranted speculations. But, oh, wouldn't it be interesting....

(Follow-up: Andy Smith's analysis of his tracking poll also showed up in this AM's Boston Globe...)

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