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Month: February 2013

Bureaucrats as Policy-makers

Everyone loves bitching about bureaucrats but few know what it is exactly that they do. Ed Page‘s new book ‘Policies without Politicians’ provides plenty of insights. As I mention at the end of this book review, everyone who theorizes or criticizes bureaucrats should read the book as a reality check. A shorter version of the review is forthcoming in West European Politics later this year. *** This book is about the making of decrees such as the Alcohol Disorder Zones in the UK, Salmon critical habitats in the US, Horse Medicines in the EU and Women’s Organizations in Sweden. If you suspect these issues are rather prosaic, you are not alone. And this is precisely the point. This book is about the making of policies in the absence of sustained attention by politicians. It is a study of how bureaucrats make rules when mostly left to their own devices. It is an exploration into the nature and limits of bureaucratic discretion to regulate our lives. The main conclusion, based on an analysis of 58 issues in six political systems, is that the freedom enjoyed by civil servants and their insulation from political control are in practice severely limited if not completely illusory, even when it comes to the relatively minor issues discussed in the book. Admittedly, this is a rather prosaic conclusion as well, but one that is comforting, timely andimportant. It is comforting to the extent that it dispels the popular myth of the faceless bureaucrats controlling our lives. It is timely because theories of policy-making and politico-administrative relations have…

A lesson about discrimination you can never forget

What happens when you tell a bunch of kids that the blue-eyed children are better than the browned-eyed? Watch this video to find out. But be warned – this is one of the most disturbing things I have seen in a long while. It is not that one is unaware that discrimination sits deep in the mind. Or that one doesn’t know kids are rather impressionable. But there is something eery the whole thing I can only compare to the  Milgram experiment and Lord of the Flies. Some context here. Oh, and while I appreciate the lesson, I am glad this ‘teaching’ would’t not be possible today (I hope).

Antifragility goes to Davos

A sample of statements made at the 2013 meeting of the world leaders in Davos (as reported by Felix Salmon): “[We have] removed the tail risk from the euro” Mario Draghi (European Central Bank) ‘There is no tail risk anymore’ Oli Rehn (European Commission) “In Europe, the tail risk has been moved off the table” Zhu Min (IMF) …….. …….. “[R]andomness in the Black Swan domain [fat tails] is intractable…The limit is mathematical, period, and there is no way around it on this planet. What is nonmeasurable and nonpredictable will remain nonmeasurable and nonpredictable…” (Nassim Taleb, Antigragility, p. 138) “While in the past people of rank or status were those and only those who took risks, who had the downside for their actions, and heroes were those who did so for the sake of others, today the exact reverse is taking place. We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D. (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability” (Nassim Taleb, Antigragility, p. 6)

Discretion is Fractal

Last week, I made a presentation at the Leiden University conference ‘Political Legitimacy and the Paradox of Regulation’ under the admittedly esoteric title ‘Discretion is Fractal’. Despite the title, my point is actually quite simple: one cannot continue to model, conceptualize and measure (administrative or legal) discretion as a linear phenomenon because of the nested structure of legal norms which exhibits self-similarity at different levels of observation. And, yes, this means that law is fractal, too. In the same way there is no definite answer to the question ‘how long is the coast of Britain‘, there can be no answer to the question which legal code provides for more discretion, unless a common yardstick and level of observation is used (which requires an analytic reconstruction of the structure of the legal norms). The presentation tries to unpack some of the implications of the fractal nature of legal norms and proposes an alternative strategy for measuring discretion. Here is a pdf of the presentation which I hope makes some sense on its own.