December 19, 2009

Walk on

Arpad and Smiley, his chicken killing Platonic girlfriend, love a good walk.

Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.--Gary Snyder

December 18, 2009

Virtu and fortuna

Goat Rope has been looking at public policy and how it happens these days. It occurred to me (not for the first time) that the author of Ecclesiastes was right about there being nothing new under the sun.

Some of the wisest words ever written about political strategy come from my old pal and sometime patron saint Niccolo Machiavelli, who admittedly does have a bit of a PR problem.

But let's put in in context. In his book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy, political scientist John Kingdon looks at how public policy gets made. His most interesting idea--and one that rings true in my experience--is that there are policy windows that open sometimes. When they're open, you have a chance at getting things done and when they close, you don't. (Speaking of which, the jury is still out on the window for health care reform.)

A policy window could be a crisis, a change in mood following an election, the expiration of a piece of legislation that has to be revisited, or any number of things. Sometimes--rarely--you know in advance when a window might open. Most of the time you don't. That means you need to do a lot of preparation in advance to be able to seize the moment when it comes.

In his classic The Prince, Machiavelli talked about virtu and Fortuna. Virtu basically means the voluntary things we have control of while Fortuna referred to the unexpected opportunities that might come along. Machiavelli believed that we could at least anticipate and prepare for these opportunities:

...I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. I would compare her to an impetuous river that, when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings, removes earth from this side and places it on the other; everyone flees before it, and everything yields to its fury without being able to oppose it; and yet though it is of such a kind, still when it is quiet, men can make provisions against it by dykes and banks, so that when it rises it will either go into a canal or its rush will not be so wild and dangerous. So it is with fortune, which shows her power where no measures have been taken to resist her, and directs her fury where she knows that no dykes or barriers have been made to hold her.

The key to success, in Machiavelli's day as in our own, is the matching of virtu to Fortuna, which above all means adapting to the needs and opportunities of the moment:

...the prince who bases himself entirely on fortune is ruined when fortune changes. I also believe that he is happy whose mode of procedure accords with the needs of the times, and similarly he is unfortunate whose mode of procedure is opposed to the times....

I therefore conclude then that fortune varying and men remaining fixed in their ways, they are successful so long as these ways conform to circumstances, but when they are opposed then they are unsuccessful.

FORTUNA IS FICKLE. Here's reaction from the AFL to the health care reform goat rope in the Senate.

ANOTHER VIEW. Krugman says pass it.

A STATE VIEW of what reform, especially Medicaid expansion, would mean to WV is given here.

COOL VIEW of an undersea volcanic eruption here.


December 17, 2009

Catching the wave

The eminent philosopher Tom Petty was right: the waiting is the hardest part. But it also seems to be an indispensable part of working for social change. It's like learning to fall in judo--if you aren't willing to do it you might as well stay off the mat.

As an analyst told political scientist John Kingdon in Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies,

When you lobby for something, what you have to do is put together your coalition, you have to gear up, you have to get your political forces in line, and then you sit there and wait for the fortuitous event....As I see it, people who are trying to advocate change are like surfers waiting for the big wave. You get out there, you have to be ready to go, you have to be ready to paddle. If you're not ready to paddle when the big wave comes along, you're not going to ride it in.

That pretty much says it all.

SPEAKING OF GOAT ROPES, how 'bout the health care mess in the Senate?

AS DISAPPOINTING AS THE SENATE BILL IS, it would be huge for El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.

JOBS, JOBS, JOBS. Here's labor's five point plan for generating them.

TICKING CLOCK. Jobless workers are about to lose health insurance subsidies unless those are extended.

HOW'S THE FISHING? A big planet with lots of water has been found not too far away (in cosmic terms).


December 16, 2009

When the time comes

Timing is everything.

Lately the theme here is public policy and how it gets made--or doesn't. I've been bouncing off some of the research of political scientist John Kingdon's very useful book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. Although this book was written in the 1980s about federal legislation, it rings pretty true today even at the state level.

If you are interested in this kind of thing, you can get in touch with your inner policy wonk by clicking on earlier entries.

As mentioned earlier, Kingdon refers to wonks as policy entrepreneurs, who are people willing to put time and effort into developing ideas for how laws and programs could work.

Let's say a given wonk or group of wonks develops a really good policy idea. As the saying goes, that and a couple of bucks will buy you coffee in most places unless you like the fancy kind. It's important in this early stage to get the idea out there to as wide an audience as possible--and especially the audience that pays attention to such things and can help make them happen. He calls this process "softening up," a term that brings artillery barrages to mind.

As he put it,

Who are policy entrepreneurs trying to soften up? Some of the time, they speak of educating the general public. Presidential speeches, for instance, are used to "bring the public along," in the words of one bureaucrat...

A second target is a more specialized public, peculiar to a particular issue.. As with the general public, the purpose of the softening up is to insure that the relevant public is ready for a certain type of proposal when the time does come...

I think the key words are "when the time does come." I've frequently written here about the similarity of this kind of work to my martial arts hobby. As much as one might like to, you can't usually kick someone in the head (in a friendly way) just because you want to; you can only do it when an opening exists.

In my experience as in Kingdon's analysis, it takes a long period of preparation to be able to move quickly to get something done when this happens. But without an opening or a window, it probably won't happen. That's what makes it interesting.

NOTHING BUT SHAME. Here's E.J. Dionne on dirty deeds done dirt cheap (to coin a phrase) in the US Senate. And here's the way the prospects for health care reform looks now.

EASY MONEY. Economist Dean Baker calls for a tax on financial speculation here.

FREE MEDS. 270,000 West Virginians may be eligible for free prescription drugs under the WVRx program.


December 15, 2009

Softening up the target

The theme at Goat Rope these days is public policy and how it happens (or doesn't). If you're interested in this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts. You'll also find links and comments about current events.

Political scientist John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies looks at the political ecosystem from major players like presidents and senators down to humble policy wonks. We're on the wonk part now.

One pleasant surprise for me in reading Kingdon's analysis is his assertion that ideas actually matter (to a degree anyway). This is especially true in what he calls the policy community, which consists of interest groups, think tanks, academics and others interested in this kind of thing.

You might think that policy ideas are developed as solutions to particular problems. Kingdon agrees that this happens, but also maintains that "people in and around government sometimes do not solve problems. Instead, they become advocates for solutions and look for current problems to which to attach their pet solution."

Just because one has a viable idea that holds up well to arguments and critiques, it doesn't follow that it will become a reality--but it might. The next phase involves what he calls "softening up:"

To some degree ideas float freely through the policy primeval soup. But their advocates do not allow the process to be completely free-floating. In addition to starting discussion of their proposals, they push their ideas in many different forums. These entrepreneurs attempt to "soften up" both policy communities, which tend to be inertia-bound and resistant to major changes, and larger publics, getting them used to new ideas and building acceptance for their proposals. Without this preliminary work, a proposal sprung even at a propitious time is likely to fall on deaf ears.

That rings true in my experience of working at the state level. Once you've developed an idea, you need to get it out there to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways for it to stand a change of going anywhere. This involves both public education and coalition building. Sometimes this can take years.

IT'S TOUGH OUT THERE. A new poll of unemployed workers shows the damage done by the recession.

AFGHANISTAN. Economist Jeffrey Sachs suggests a different approach in that country.

ANOTHER TOOL USING ANIMAL. Would you believe the octopus?


December 14, 2009

Policy entrepreneurs

Arpad is quite the entrepreneur during deer season. This picture represents his idea of heaven.

The theme at Goat Rope lately has been public policy and how it happens or doesn't, although you'll also find links and comments about current events. As mentioned previously, one of the most useful explorations of this area is John Kingdon's Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, which was written in the 1980s but still holds up pretty well.

And, while Kingdon was writing primarily about federal policies, it seems to fit pretty well at the state level as well. To recap, usually it's the political big dogs who get to set the agenda, which is basically what's on the table for legislation at any given time. They tend to be big picture people responding to what they consider to be a major problem.

The specific policy alternatives, for example how to reform health care, are often developed by people in a less visible position, such as congressional and administration staffers, researchers, etc.

Before anything makes it to that stage, ideas continually emerge and recombine in what he called "the primeval soup" of the policy community, which consists of wonks, interest groups, academics, etc.

Kingdon identifies one group in which I must claim membership which he calls "policy entrepreneurs" who advocate for specific options. He says that these

are not necessarily found in any one location in the policy community. They could be in or out of government, in elected or appointed positions, in interest groups or research organizations. But their defining characteristic, much as in the case of a business entrepreneur, is their willingness to invest their resources--time, energy, reputation, and sometimes money--in the hope of a future return. That return might come to them in the form of policies of which they approve, satisfaction from participation, or even personal aggrandizement in the form of job security or career promotion.

In his view, policy entrepreneurs have different motivations. For some, it might be the advancement of personal interest, while for others it might be attempting to promote their values or the sheer fun of the game.

(Personally, I like it when you are trying to do something that is rational, doable and in the interests of low income and working people. But, yes, the game can be kind of fun.)

More later.

A DOG THAT DON'T HUNT. The Associated Press conducted an exhaustive survey of all the intercepted "climategate" emails and concludes that the science of global warming is still solid.

GO BYRD. This op-ed by yours truly attempted to send some love to WV's senior senator for his recent statement on the future of coal in this state.

LESSONS LEARNED? Here's Krugman on reforms in banking and finance.

MONKEY SAY, MONKEY DO. Here's more on the "language" of certain monkeys.