The Imperial Presidency

I tend to skip over the Nixon/Watergate posts, but this is a really good explanation of the imperial presidency, and its limits (it’s a lot longer than the snippet below).

Okay, it’s time for me to finally write about the flipside of the problem of presidential weakness: the imperial presidency.

The problem is as follows.  Richard Neustadt said, back at the end of the Eisenhower administration, that the presidency was constitutionally a very limited (or “weak”) position.  Presidents are not absolute rulers of the government; they’re not, Neustadt explains, even absolute rulers of the executive branch.  They can only give orders to executive branch departments and agencies and hope to have those orders carried out in relatively rare and strictly limited situations — and even then, operating by giving orders turns out to be terribly costly for presidents who try.  (Note: this is also true of Members of Congress, governors, foreign prime ministers, party and interest group leaders, and others who presidents need things from, but it’s the exec branch that’s important here).

So Neustadt believed.  But Watergate and other episodes (especially but certainly not limited to the Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and W. Bush administrations) raise the question of: what if the president doesn’t take “no” for an answer?  What if the president finds a way around the bureaucracy?  What if he does what he wants done, essentially, by himself — or by people he hires who are loyal to the president, not to their agencies?  If the normal functioning of American politics is full of built-in checks and balances, what if presidents find a way to cheat that system, and to find ways to govern unchecked and unbalanced?

My answer is going to be: yes, presidents have tried to do that.  They generally do it through the “Presidential Branch” of government — the White House Office, and the larger Executive Office of the President.  They have, in limited ways and for short periods of time, apparently succeeded.  But in the cases for which we have information, what these presidents have found is that the system is stronger than they thought, and that going rogue has all sorts of dangers to the president.  On the whole, I am convinced that this kind of thing — that is, using the Presidential Branch to get things done that the president wants but that the normal processes of government stymie — doesn’t “work” in the sense of allowing a president to have unlimited dictatorial powers.  It doesn’t work at all; it backfires, and destroys those who would try it.  I’m an optimist, in other words, about this problem.  It is, nevertheless, even from my optimistic position, a real danger to be aware of.  And there’s no question that presidents do have the capacity to attempt it, and can create all sorts of damage in the process.


Moving and Unpacking

Unpacking after a move is a revealing process. I took my time with it, and so three months later I’m coming across things I evidently don’t need, and things that I’ve forgotten about that after laying ignored for a while, become interesting again.

I found The Second Shift, a sociology book about what really happens in two income households. Until now I hadn’t put any thought into it, but when I saw it I was reminded of another book I read, Elizabeth Warren’s The Two Income Trap. It is now currently on the way to my local library, so I can compare/contrast the two together.

As for most of the other things I found while unpacking, it turns out I don’t really need them. Some of the stuff are sentimental things I keep around. Cards, gifts; it’s always fun coming across those and sort of basking in the memories they conjure up.

Mostly though, it seems like I’ve accumulated a lot of junk, and then moved it across the country with me. It’s a slow process getting rid of it all.


It’s been a while, hasn’t it? New year, new attempt at doing this more regularly. A trio of links tonight.

  •  First, a post by Nate Silver on what is driving growth in government spending. He reaches a similar conclusion to Krugman on the Federal government (Mostly insurance programs with an army), while also analyzing state and local governments. It also takes it one step further and makes a point I hadn’t considered before.

Nevertheless, the declining level of trust in government since the 1970s is a fairly close mirror for the growth in spending on social insurance as a share of the gross domestic product and of overall government expenditures. We may have gone from conceiving of government as an entity that builds roads, dams and airports, provides shared services like schooling, policing and national parks, and wages wars, into the world’s largest insurance broker.

Most of us don’t much care for our insurance broker.

So before the big event, the boys were told to get into a single line as we gathered outside the camp’s central building. Then, a twist: we were told we had to go in one at a time. The girls would be waiting on us.

I was first in line. The room was dark. All was silent.

I nervously walked inside and briskly walked down the narrow path to the other side of the room. The girls were lined up on each side of the path, and bombarded me with the sorts of lewd catcalls that I had laughed off for much of my life.

No, I wasn’t scared or intimidated. In fact, I was flattered at the attention because I didn’t know any better. I was later told the girls had turned their backs and gone silent to the boys who made a game of it.

Later, and even more affecting, were the stories of harassment from our female campers. Virtually everyone had a story to tell.



One thought on the Chinese leadership transition.

Just watched the Chinese unveil the new Politburo. What I’m reading now suggests its a more conservative group than hoped for. Doesn’t appear to be much reform in the future. It did lead to a stray thoughts. First, a Foreign Policy article on the change in Chinese leadership (just happened, in fact),

Deng, the victor of the Mao succession battle, decided not only to appoint a successor but to lay down a plan that he hoped would institutionalize succession, at least for a few generations of leaders. Deng named the then Shanghai Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, who had successfully managed his city during the nationwide student protests that culminated in the June 4th massacre in Beijing, to general secretary, and named Hu Jintao, who was from a different interest group within the power elite, to succeed Jiang. The distinguished Chinese novelist and blogger Wang Lixiong, noting that Hu’s apparent successor Xi Jinping is allied with the Jiang camp, has written a shrewd analysis of Deng’s long-term plan: Two elite groups, one originating with Jiang and the other with Hu, will exchange 10-year periods of center stage while the other waits in the wings. Each group — knowing that the other will get a turn later — will have an incentive to be civil. With luck, long-term stability will result.

And Tom Ricks on American generals:

These corrosive tendencies were reinforced by a new policy of officer rotation after six months in command, which encouraged many leaders to simply keep their heads down until they could move on—and likewise encouraged superior officers to wait out the tours of bad officers serving beneath them. Instead of weeding out bad officers, senior leaders tended to closely supervise them, encouraging habits of micromanagement that plague the Army to this day. Mediocrity also led to mendacity: Almost forgotten now is that an Army investigation of the 1968 massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by troops of the 23rd “Americal” Division concluded that 28 officers, including four colonels and two generals, appeared to have committed offenses in covering up the incident. Even after the extent of the massacre and the subsequent cover-up were revealed, Major General Samuel Koster, who had commanded the Americal and who had been implicated in the cover-up, was allowed to remain in uniform for another 23 months, and was never brought to trial (although he was eventually demoted).

Emphasis mine in both cases. One of the criticisms of the outgoing Chinese leadership is that they shunted off needed reforms and just handed them off for the next group to do.

Rotation to keep people happy doesn’t seem like a great policy for choosing leaders. There are differences between the two situations, but I don’t think this works in either case.

The Cult of Rationality

This post on the GOP’s shock at their failure to win leads to an interesting place:

Yes, but we should note the revolution in rationalist expertise and its rising popularity are a phenomenon in part of computers, but even more of the internet and blogosphere.

There are lots of experts – many with tenure – who think of expertise as an ineffable quality of understanding. Even now we might say that Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft get geopolitics. We can dimly glen their vision through reading there books, but at the end of the day, there is no substitute for going to see the old master.

Nate Silver is not clearly master of anything. His methodology is transparent. His predictions rely on taking data other people have collected, downloading it and cranking it through computer model. By conventional terms he is fairly young, but there is little about what he does that could not be replicated by an interested and bright seven year-old.

But, this is the rationalist view of the world. The most miraculous of phenomena are simply clockwork ducks. Magic does not exist. A mystery is when you don’t know the right question. The answer itself is always trivial, though it could involve an enormous amount of arithmetic to get to it.

This view fell from grace in the 1960s for lots of reasons. Yet, its staging a massive comeback on the internet.

If it fell from grace back in the 60s, why is it coming back now? Also, why did it fall from grace? For some reason this seems vaguely familiar, but I’m still missing something.

The GOP in California

Two quick thoughts about this article.

  1. If the Democrats do end up with a supermajority in both houses, it’ll be interesting to see how effective they are and what they make their priorities. Judging by this, it the objective that they can tackle best at the state level seems to be prison overcrowding. It’s listed in the same bullet as death penalty repeal, which voters turned down, so I’m not sure how they’ll tackle that.
  2. For Republicans to regain relevance in California, it seems that they’ll have to appeal to some group that is currently part of the Democratic coalition. Given demographic trends, immigration would be the issue I’d guess they’d move on (on the national level, there is some hint of this already occurring). But as far as California specific policies, I don’t know.

Sunday Morning Reads

I’m coming to the realization that I may turning into a morning person, and I’m not sure what to make of this.

  • China too is going through a leadership transition. Here are Foreign Policy’s articles on it.
  • In addition, a New Yorker article on corruption in China, focusing on high-speed rail.
  • On the (Rapid!) march of gay rights. It was only 4 years ago that Prop 8 passed in California saying that the state would only recognize marriage as between a man and a woman. Last Tuesday, 3 states pass marriage equality by referendum, and another to define marriage as between a man and a woman was defeated.