Friday, November 25, 2005

Potential catasptrophe averted?

Domestic business to attend to this week. I have a spanking new oven in the flat now, having had the electrician around to fix it yesterday morning.

But what is it with workmen? Whenever they come into your home they always tell you that it's a ticking timebomb, a disaster waiting to happen.

In my case, having removed the old oven and taken a look at the wiring, my electrician turned to me and gravely said, "You're lucky you haven't had a fire in here."

At which point he promptly ripped out the old wire and replaced it - adding an extra hour to the call-out and ensuring my bill was twice the price.

Was it necessary work? What do I know, I'm just a layman.
Voting intentions

So, a quick round up of this week's seminars: Monday's mandatory session concerned the quantitative analysis of voting patterns and developing party congruence in the European Parliament since 1979. The highlight was definitely the 'maps' which showed how voting patterns had changed over the previous three maps. But what lost me was the statistical data presented to show how particular variables had been held and the statistical significance of particular issues. I wasn't the only one to just see a wall of numbers - I had to be talked through the findings.

Tuesday's Latin American research seminar was presented by Adriana Jimenez Cuen, whose working on binationalism in Mexico. Her work concerns the ability of Mexican migrants to the US being entitled to vote in Mexican elections - and in the case of Zacatecas state, actually stand for election.

Yet what is interesting is that these changes, progressive as they are, only seem to maintain existing inequalities and political clientelism. For example, it is the wealthier migrants who have a greater say in how remittances are to be invested, along with determining which of the candidates they plan to support. Furthermore, the recent case of the so-called Tomato King, who is based in California but stood for election in his hometown highlights the persistance of political clientelism. Party politics - as defined through ideological positions - remain weak, with personal interests the driving force for choosing the left-wing PRD candidate over the more obvious conservative options of the PRI or PAN.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The grey vote

Yesterday Achim Goerres, a third year PhD student, presented a chapter from his PhD thesis to the comparative politics seminar. He's working on older people's political behaviour and has studied their involvement in protest politics. But his chapter dealt with their voting patterns and their tendency to vote conservative more often than not. He tested the various hypotheses relating to this using data from Germany and Britain. It all pointed to some relationship between the notions of political generations (i.e. the decisions we make as first-time voters having an impact on our voting choices at later elections) and commitment to the status quo as reasons for chossing conservatives over other parties.

The only reservation I had - and which Achim took onboard - was the extent to which he was using the term 'conservative'. The data he showed indicated that older people continually voted Conservative in Britain during the 1980s - yet this was a party that was committed to dismantling the welfare state and ending the status quo. Hardly what one might consider 'conservative' in the conventional sense.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Erasing all doubts

The CIA is claiming that Castro has got Parkinson's Disease. There's only one way to find out though. Has anyone looked at his bank account to see whether he's been up to this lately?

I am curious about these American admissions of the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah and the existence of torture in Iraqi-run prisons. Could this be a 'softening-up' process by which the American authorities are preparing their public for a sharp exit? Call me cynical but the claim that nothing's changed so we might as well cut and run seems to spring to mind.

But the British being idealistic - including Blair - in this respect, won't see it as an excuse to leave, I suspect. Instead it'll be a justification for pressing ahead and getting even more involved - just as the government seems to be doing in Afghanistan in recent days, what with the Americans pulling out and London trying to rouse a new coalition.

Never has the claim made by Robert Kagan in that text of neo-con arrogance and pride, Paradise and Power, seemed more apposite: 'Americans do the cooking, the Europeans [i.e. the British] do the washing up'.
Avoiding conflict

In writing about LSE-related events, I overlooked a further seminar that I attended last week, this time on conflict prevention. It was presented by Armeen Jan, who has been working at the Strategy Unit in Downing Street to create a methodology by which countries at risk can be assessed. It poses extremely interesting questions, perhaps the most obvious being: why bother, if realpolitik considerations trump all others?

Yet there is something extremely interesting and worthwhile in the work that Jan presented. The methodology looks at a wide range of factors that can trigger instability in countries, both internal and external. The intention is to maintain the assessments as a rolling programme which can assist government policies and ideally help prevent conflict before it happens. However, since government is a different reality there will have to be a second filter through which government priorities are determined. This is where the political dimension comes in and may weaken the work in the long run.

Yet Jan was keen to stress that the work was at the cutting-edge; no other government has a similar process in train. Whether we will be able to get our hands on those countries deemed to be at risk is another matter though. I suspect that it may be a politically senstive list. It might be interesting to see how far the Freedom of Information Act will work in this respect.
From the bottom up

Argentina seems extremely popular at the LSE's Latin America research seminar at the moment. Besides the discussion on investment treaties, we've also had a look at Argentine national development last week and the local elections the week before. And speaking of Argentina local elections, City Mayors has finally put up my latest piece, on the structure of Argentine local government to go alongside my one on Brazil. Apparently another I wrote, on Chilean local government, will also go up this weekend.
Back to the old ways?

Argentina's jurists played a prominent role in the late 19th century and early 20th century, reducing extra-territorial claims by arguing that foreign nationals shouldn't operate under separate rights to nationals. This was enshrined in the Calvo Doctrine which stated that foreign states could not use force to seek redress for any outstanding debts to them. But Gus van Harten in the LSE's law department argued that this position was being eroded through the recent investment arbitration rulings against Argentina following the 2001-02 economic collapse.

Van Harten's argument in the Latin American research seminar (my regular Tuesday fix at the School) was that the increase in signed bilateral investment treaties between industrialised and industrialising countries since the 1990s has set the scene for something similar to what existed at the beginning of the last century. With investors losing out as a result of the Argentine economic crisis, many have taken to pursuing them claims through the courts using the treaties as their main instrument.

The result has been substantial dmagaes awarded against the Argentines with van Harten citing CMS Gas as an example. What is notable about these decisions are the structure of the arbitration models, adopting a commercial approach rather than a public one and the apparent absence of any desire by either Argentina or other treaty signatories either to renegotiate the nature and terms of these treaties or avoid signing them at all.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Three months for change

Thinking about it, I jusy don't get it. I mean, how could the police be pissed off that they didn't get three months detention last week? They must be pretty chuffed with the outcome, which saw thei ability to arrest people from two weeks to one month. As a friend suggested to me, going for three months was probably a bargaining chip, so one month is a good result for them.

But if that was the case, why did Blair push it to a vote? Charles Clarke managed to get the one month deal and was on course to get that through until Blair intervened. I can only assume that he's taken it to heart, rather like his decision to stand by Bush come what may. All of us who thought that he was changeable with the political wind during his first term discovered in his second that he had taken on 'convictions'. Maybe it was the same with the police powers.

Or as a former MP I spoke to recently suggested, it could be a way of ensuring defeat on one issue so that Labour MPs don't sabotage his other key policies including education and health reform. If so that's quite a cynical and long-term game, considering they aren't due for debate until next spring. But it may well be true.
Texts to read...

I need to get a thesis outline including how I'm going to do it back to my suprvisor by the beginning of December ahead of my next meeting with him. Having spent part of the weekend in the library - and finding a mine of education policy and reform material relating to Chile (mainly the 1960s and 1970s), it looks slightly more do-able than I had initially assumed.

I've even got an initial hypothesis which looks like it needs honing still further. But at least it looks like I'm back on track (fingers crossed).
A rethink

It looks like I'm taking a slightly different course with my PhD thesis following a session with both supervisor and advisor (a backup supervisor to provide some external help). The choice on the table was whether to pursue the direction uncovered by my Masters dissertation and focus on in-country case studies in Brazil, or go back to my original thesis proposal, which involved a comparison on education systems and policies in Chile and Brazil.

There are arguments in favour of each, but as Francisco (Panizza, my supervisor) commented, each will take me in a differetnt direction: participation in the case of in-country cases in Brazil, or on public policy analysis between Brazil and Chile. Ken (Shadlin, my advisor) made the point that the difficulty with an in-country thesis is that it might be difficult to disentangle the role of federal and sub-national governments in educational policy, an issue that would be absent in a two-country case study. Then there's the question of available material - and I can tell there's not a lot in the UK on the Brazilian states I would be looking at; at least with Chile and Brazil there's some stuff I can already get my hands on.

Having thought about it, I look like going back to the Brazil-Chile study, which would also benefit me by ensuring that I have knowledge of more than one country - always an asset as single country expertise may be rather limiting. It just means I'm going to have to brush up on Spanish though...
Interviewing individuals and the data

This week's subjects before the PhD seminar group were Gwendolyn Sasse and Cheryl Schonhardt-Bailey who gave contrasting accounts of quantitative and qualitative work.

Dr Sasse gave some quite useful thoughts and observations on the use of fieldwork, much of with which I could concur. But there's always the problem of knowing whether to do it or not. On the two occasions I've done fieldwork I've had different views about whether it was worth doing. In the first instance I knew I had to do it to get the information I needed; the second time I wasn't sure that it could be justified. But in both cases I realised that it was necessary, since it disabused me of my initial assumptions and ideas which had only been gleaned from reading texts in British libraries. Actually being on the ground made me realise that there were different views and perspectives and not everything I learnt was in those texts.

I recall being in Dr Schonhardt-Baily's classes while as an undergraduate. She took us for the quantitative component of a course I did back in the late 1990s here at the LSE. Then I recall getting very little from the sessions, since I've never been statistically-minded. This time was no better, but I had a greater appreciation for her presentation on an empirical assessment of ideas as words between Bush and Kerry in the election last year. We were encouraged to read her paper prior to the session and I was able to follow it.

But I did have one or two reservations. Whereas she has made available the datasets from the computer software she used to quanitify the data, I still find myself having to fall on trusting her work - since I still remain weak on the quantitative side. Which brings me to the second point, that of the results themselves. In her presentation Dr Schonhardt-Bailey noted that if the results had been counter-intuitive then she would have known the data was wrong. To another questioner she stressed the importance of knowing the context wince the language used could have contrary meanings. Which all suggests to me that this kind of empirical work is useful, but in a descriptive approach, subsequent to qualitative work. I question whether it is possible to do such work without having had prior qualitative work done (e.g. knowing the subject and how different audiences perceive it).

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Unexpected - at least for me

So Blair has suffered his first Parliamentary defeat. Regardless of what it means for him now, one really has to wonder what on earth he was playing at with his excuse that the 'police asked for these powers'.

If teachers ask to scrap the curriculum, or doctors recommend fewer people in their surgeries the Government is going to stand by them?

Of course not. So why should the police be any different? The justification is that these people are at the front line of the 'war on terror'.

Yet did the police (and its cheerleaders in the Government) ever consider what might be the consequences of locking someone up for 3 months? Would it make particular sections of the society (OK, ethnic minorities) feel particularly pre-disposed to such action? I doubt it; in fact it might be more likely to stoke up a 'them-against-us' mentality.

As for the claim that the police need it to stop future terrorist atrocities, aren't we always being told about how many they've foiled - without needing 3 months? And if it were to happen again after they received what they wanted would we then have to accept a future argument that 3 months wasn't enough and they really need 6?

Then there's the question of resources. If the jails are full of people inside for 3 months where on earth are we going to put other criminals - especially given the Government's keenness to clamp down on law and order and the breaking capacity of British prisons.

Finally, how many anti-terror bills have we had in the last few years? And just because the police keep getting all these powers, do they use it responsibly? Is it only just a couple of months since a police force detained a pensioner who heckled Jack Straw at the Labour conferece under anti-terror legislation?

I could go on, but for once I feel cheered by events down the road in Westminster. And that's not something I can say I feel very often.
Making economic policy work?

I also attended my first student-led seminar on a PhD topic this week. Chris Vellacott in the LSE's economic history department presented a chapter from his thesis on Agentine and Spanish economic policy in the late 1950s. he wanted to account for the difference in 'success' (as measured by capacity of the state to drive its preferred options through) between the two, the Spanish being more sucessful than the Argentines.

Vellacott's argument is that the Spanish model was authoritarian and a clear top-down hierarchical structure existed between the state and other social actors, including labour, capital, etc. In such circumstances the state was able to impose itself. By contrast the Argentine system at the time was one in which the state had less autonomy from either labour or capital and floundered as a result.

I failed to make any useful or perceptive comments, but others did. These included whether the the economic policies' 'success' or 'failure' was the outcome of this constellation or vice versa - which was the cause? The structure of the state or the economic policy? In addition the approach doesn't take into account other experiences whereby a chaotic state-labour-capital relationship is transformed into one that is state-dominant, e.g. Pinochet in Chile. And finally, given Vellacott's claim of Argentine and Spanish exceptionalism, what is to be said of Portugal at the same period in time?

Despite this intense scrutiny, there were some things I quite liked about the thesis. In particular it was the justification in choosing these two case studies, as exceptional in their respective continents and in offering a compare and contrast approach over a longer timeframe: Spanish authoritarian against weak Argentine democracy in the 1950s and Spanish democracy and Argentine authoritarianism in the 1970s-80s.
Transnational visions

Been awhile since I last put anything down. It's been a busy week (isn't it always), with John Chalcraft enlightening the PhD government department seminar on the role and status of Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon and what it tells us about ideas of capital and labour (the working assumption is that Syrians have more agency than is otherwise presented in Marxist theory, but in accepting their lowly status and constant cycle of return to Syria, the process merely reinforces itself) and David Held.

Held is a bit of a media darling, having written extensively on the limits of globalisation, especially in the democratic realm. His research agenda can be outlined as follows: democracy is a norm that has progressed from the polis to the nation state, but is caught out by the unequal nature of the world system. His interest is in assessing and proposing ways to overcome the global 'democratic deficit' - a topic that has put him among those few academics whose texts have a wider readership than most.

Moral of the story? Find something topical to do your PhD on, it seems.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Thought of the week #2

Last wek it was Saddam and whether he can get a fair trial. This week I want to pose the following: everyone hates traffic wardens, given their over-zealous nature. Yet everyone also gets incensed with foreign diplomats who fail to pay their parking fines.

Rather than slating these individuals, surely we should be championing them as the one class of people who are standing up to the questionale antics (and anyone who saw the undercover investigation into traffic warden training and the ways they issue a ticket to anything that moves earlier this year can testify) of wardens?

Or maybe not.
New directions in sound?

Marcello D2 was in town last Friday - and I never got around to writing it up. Managed to get through a group of mildly interested people along to experience his Brazilian-themed hip hop. Half of us ended up squashed in the front row being bounced about in a manner slightly more excitable than that at the De La Soul gig at the Jazz Cafe we went to last month.

The performance itself was intense and enthusiastic - probably on account of the majority of the crowds being Brazilian and knowing his music. He played a good set, ranging from the more common and popular tunes from his 'Looking for the Perfect Beat' album to others that I didn't recognise. The stage itself was quite cramped, with nearly 10 band members ranging from percussionists to keyboard player, guitarist and bassist - and a DJ whose decks took up most of the space.

The MD2 gig was in a wierd (at least for me) venue in the heart of Leicester Square and on the third floor. Somehow that didn't seem right, especially with a rock gig going on two floors above. We stayed around after he left the stage and Sambatralia, the Jungle Drums-sponsored club night took centre-stage. Worth noting though that the majority of the music was funk, which along with DJ Cliffy's Batmacumba - and now Giles Pedersen's decision to go down the same path at the Brazilian Love Affair in Notting Hill - indicates a departure for Brazilian music in London.
Casing it

So today is the next installment of our comparative politics seminar. This time we're discussing the issue of case selection and the potential pitfalls one can fall into. Having down the recommended reading (Geddes, van Evera et al), I'm staggered that there is so much science on the subject and the problems seem so great that it's a wonder comparative studies work ever gets done.

For example, van Evera recommends looking for extreme types of cases, since their accentuation makes it clearer to see the impact that one variable may (or may not) have on another. But Geddes notes something called 'regression from the mean', which if I understand it correctly, means that taking something extreme could indicate abnormality - and is therefore not an accurate reflection of reality.

Oh, what to do?
Big beasts

Most memorable aspect of this week's PhD Government seminar? Clearly Erik Ringmar's analysis of giraffes and what they represented in the Chinese, European Renaissance and 19th century periods. All this was anecdotal observation before he entered into a study of what the appearance of giraffes - exotic and out of place everywhere except in east Africa - meant in terms of particular societies and their world view. In China's it arrival in the 1420s signified that all was well with the world and contrasted against another giraffe's appearance in Florence in the 1480s, when there was curiosity about what was going on in the world outside, while in 1820s France it was just something to place in the scientific schema.

OK, it's not really 'government', as Ringmar himself admitted. But it's fun nonetheless and along with the second week's analysis of American public policy through the medium of country music (don't ask!) and dangerous dogs legislation, the kind of thing I'd like to do one day - but maybe once I've got a doctorate...