Monthly Archives: January 2017

Crude Nation, Raul Gallegos [Review]

Cover for Raul Gallegos, Crude Nation

One of the punchiest descriptions of the “resource curse” comes from Venezuelan oil minister and OPEC founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, who called oil “the devil’s excrement”. Yet the saying obscures more than it reveals. Perez Alfonzo’s pessimism about oil dated to an era before contemporary scholarship admits of an oil curse (the most recent resource-curse literature argues that the curse began in 1980 or so, and Perez Alfonzo’s bon mot dates to 1975). It is also the money from oil, not the properties of petroleum itself, that is said to be the cause of the curse, whether through the knock-on effects on productive sectors’ competitiveness through the Dutch Disease of currency appreciation or the conversion of productive competition into indolent rent-seeking through the corruption of political institutions by the replacement of taxation.

The biggest problem for Perez Alfonsz’s wit, however, is the simple fact that for much of the twentieth century, it was hard to say that Venezuela had been particularly cursed by oil revenues.

The statistics suggest that oil simply made Venezuela richer than it would have otherwise been (assuming that its neighbors supply a good idea of its counterfactual, non-oil-based economic outcomes). Similarly, Venezuela’s Polity score (a measure of democracy) show that the country was ranked most democratic by outside experts during periods of high oil income, and only began a slide away from a Polity score as high as France’s when oil prices entered a prolonged depression in the 1990s.

Since the leftist government of Hugo Chavez (and, since his death, Nicolas Maduro) came into power in 1999, however, all of this has changed dramatically. Today, Venezuela does indeed seem to have been cursed by oil wealth in some fashion, as Raul Gallegos documents in Crude Nation, a fine, readable survey of contemporary Venezuelan life, based on his work as a reporter in the country.

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The Gendered Resource Curse

My co-author, Yu-Ming Liou, and I wrote this for the ISQ blog when we published our article on the gendered resource curse, “Oil, Autocratic Survival, and the Gendered Resource Curse,” explaining how oil rents can lead to worse political outcomes for women. But I don’t think ISQ ever used it, so I’m using it now.

Generally, increasing gender equality accompanies economic development. Figure 1 shows this relationship: as GDP per capita increases (rightward along the x-axis), gender inequality tends to decline (downward along the y-axis).

Social scientists and casual observers have long recognized that oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia form an important exception to this rule. As Figure 2 demonstrates, autocratic countries that receive more than $1,000 per capita in income from oil and natural gas (shown in red) tend to have greater levels of gender inequality at nearly every level of income.

Why does oil income affect gender equality differently than other sources of wealth? We argue that this discrepancy results from a set of policies that oil-rich autocrats pursue to consolidate their hold in power. As we explain more below (and in the paper), the greater rulers’ dependence on political elites who value ideological fidelity, the more likely rulers are to enact the ideologically-informed policies they demand—even when those policies harm national welfare and make it harder to pay off supporters demanding more traditional forms of patronage.

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Quick Thoughts on Constitutional Amendments I’d Like

If it’s so great, how come we had to amend it so often?

It’s clear to everyone–and I mean everyone–that the Constitution badly needs amendments. Here are my thoughts about what those should be–with the caveat that I set a timer for 12 minutes to put these down.

Although I often strive to present relatively evidence-based recommendations in areas of my expertise, what follows is more a spur toward better theorizing than a distillation of disciplinary wisdom. But, let’s face it, part of never letting a crisis go to waste is acting on our instincts tempered by evidence. The whole point of a crisis, after all, is that matters are unsettled–and when they are unsettled, extrapolations from the past should be radically discounted.


End Lifetime Tenure for Supreme Court Justices

Part of the issue with the Merrick Garland nomination that led to Senate Republicans’ successful dynamiting of norms was that Garland could have served for decades, challenging Republicans’ now generations-old lock on the bench. One way to make succession planning easier–and the Court more responsive to the superior branches of government–would be to end lifetime tenure for justices. My favorite version of this plan would be to give every Court member a 14-year term, staggered at two year intervals; that would ensure that every President would get to make at least two nominations and every Senator would have to vote at least once. Ensuring regular turnover on the Court would go a long way toward making confirmation fights less apocalyptic, and that should be a major issue going forward.

24-year Term Limits for Legislators

I know political scientists have a ton of evidence showing that short term limits (two or three terms) weaken legislatures. But the cases that drive people actually crazy are the ones in which some senator or representative gets elected from a safe district and stays there until they literally die of old age–or, in cases like Strom Thurmond, arguably after they have actually passed on. Establishing a 12-term limit for representatives or a 4-term limit for Senators would end that abuse. Even though we’d lose some good legislators (the Lugars of the world, for instance), we’d also end the worst abuses of senatorial seniority and other stupidly antimajoritarian “traditions”.

Better Continuity of Government

For about two weeks after 9/11, people wondered what would have happened if the fourth airliner had hit the Capitol while Congress was in session. (That would have made the Tom Clancy parallels way more explicit.) The possibility that the legislature could be disrupted by a catastrophic terrorist or other incident is still live; I think most of everything in this Brookings report is still valid. Attention to filling mass vacancies is not a silly idea.

At the same time, we need to figure out the presidential line of succession. Arguments abound that, e.g., the current line of succession is unconstitutional (because the Speaker and President Pro Tem aren’t “officers of the United States”), that it’s dumb (because an accident could switch partisan control of the executive branch), that it could lead to constitutional crises (what if the President, VP, and Congress die, leading a Cabinet officer to take over–but a rump Congress meets and elects a Speaker of the House, who would then “bump” the new President?). Let’s be clear: this has been an issue since John Tyler imaginatively re-read the Constitution to show that William Henry Harrison’s death made him President, not a Vice President acting as President. And the 25th Amendment did not really clarify issues.

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