make the Supreme Court much bigger

The Supreme Court of Spain has 79 judges. The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany has 16 members. The Constitutional Court of Italy has 15, but Italy is like many countries that also has a final appeals court for regular cases, and that tribunal is staffed by 350 judges.

I mention these examples in the context of arguments for “packing” our Supreme Court. Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to expand the court is usually presented as an example of executive overreach and a partisan ploy that backfired. But the problem with the current court is now critical.

Who would imagine that the following system could work? 1) One court has final jurisdiction over many fundamental issues that confront the society. 2) The public is divided over those issues. 3) There are two political parties, which hold incompatible views on those issues. 4) Justices appointed by each party regularly and predictably vote to decide cases in line with their respective party’s position. 5) Justices serve for life terms. 6) The president can nominate anyone he wants to be a justice. 7) A majority of the Senate must confirm. 8) The president and the Senate may be controlled by the same or by different parties.

Once those eight conditions are in place, it’s more or less inevitable that presidents will be unable to replace Supreme Court vacancies unless their party controls the Senate, but when it does, they will be able to confirm virtually anyone they like to a life term. The defeats of Bork and Garland simply reflected opposition parties making rational decisions in the system they were given, and we should expect tit-for-tat from now on.

As I showed in a previous post, there have been periods when Supreme Court nominations have been uncontroversial. Those have been times of bipartisan elite consensus about constitutional questions. When that consensus has broken down, confirmations have been deeply contentious and the outcomes have been determined, to a large extent, by the luck of who controls which branch at which time.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would establish staggered terms for Supreme Court justices so that replacements become frequent. The stakes of each nomination would fall, and every president would be expected to have a strong but temporary impact on the court–as presidents influence the FCC. But this reform would require a constitutional amendment, since Article III, Sec. 1 decrees life terms.

An alternative is to change the number of justices. That is constitutional, since the number is set by a statute. But I’d change it a lot–to something like 25. Then turnover would be frequent, and the stakes of each appointment would be fairly low. I’d complement that change with a Senate rule that allows nominations to go through unless blocked by a super-majority.

In a large court, most cases are assigned to smaller panels–sometimes by lottery. There are reasonable processes for doing that. A larger court also has a much better chance of representing the diversity of the American people.

Letting the next president name 16 new justices seems a bit much (even if that president’s name turns out to be Joe), so I’d increase the size of the court by one seat every year for the next 16 years.

See also: reforms for a broken Supreme Court;  is our constitutional order doomed?are we seeing the fatal flaw of a presidential constitution?,  two perspectives on our political paralysis,  and the changing norms for Supreme Court nominations.

game theory games meant to play well on Zoom

It makes sense to introduce game theory by playing some games. Many online and in-person games are available for that purpose. A useful list of reviews is here. I could not, however, find games that would play well in a large virtual course, especially without a significant registration fee. So I made some up, and they seemed to work well in a class of 62 students yesterday. I am making them available here.

The games simulate:

  1. A pandemic at a university. (How much does each student comply with social distancing?)
  2. Carbon policy. (How much does each country reduce its emissions?)
  3. Carbon policy with negotiations; and
  4. An iterated commons game involving fishing.

Instructions are provided in the first sheet. In brief, an instructor should …

  1. Show students each sheet of the spreadsheet in turn.
  2. Read or briefly explain the scenario at the top. Do not answer questions about what the students’ objectives should be or what defines winning. Let them just play.
  3. Field a survey–using Zoom or another platform–with the choices that are presented in each scenario. E.g., The response options for the first scenario (the college pandemic) should be 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4.
  4. Enter the data from the survey in the grey cells of the sheet (e.g., cells B14-B18 in the college pandemic scenario). The other cells are all locked.

(In the second climate game, students should talk in breakout groups before they take the survey individually. In the fishing game, there are three rounds.)

  1. Discuss the results shown in the rest of each table once the data are entered.

Here are some questions for discussion:

  • A game has parameters–for example, the number of players, the choices they can make, and whether players can talk. What other parameters can you think of that go into a game? How do you know whether the parameters are right for the situation?
  • What assumptions do we make by using a game to model/represent/explain the real world?
  • What kinds of situations–if any–can game theory help to explain? (You might think of other examples or general categories of situations that games seem useful for.)
  • What kinds of questions can game theory probably not answer?
  • When introducing his idea of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin talks about the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape.” Did we see evidence today that disaster is inevitable when people try to coordinate their behavior? If not, is there anything valuable in Hardin’s idea?

You’re likely to get some intriguing specific results. For instance, when my students played the carbon-policy game, the global results were pretty good. (They’re a bunch of environmentalists.) I then put them in small groups to simulate negotiations before surveying them again. After their discussions, the global impact on carbon worsened. It appears that some of the groups became small conspiracies against the common good. Specifically, some students persuaded each other that they could get away with emitting more carbon.

To test whether this result generalizes, you would have to repeat it with controls. Maybe the result worsened just because it was the second try. In any case, it is fun to discuss the concrete results, form hypotheses, and connect the games to the real world.

See also: why learn game theory? (a lesson plan that includes a game) and these posts about game theory.

theorizing democracy in a pandemic

This is newly published: Peter Levine, “Theorizing Democracy in a Pandemic,” Democratic Theory, vol. 2, issue 2 (Winter 2020), pp. 134-142 Abstract:

The COVID-19 pandemic raises questions about the future of democracy and civil society. Some recent predictions seem to use the suffering to score points in ongoing political arguments. As a better example of how to describe the future during a crisis, I cite the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. King does not merely predict: he calls for action, joins the action, and makes himself responsible for its success or failure. With these cautions about prediction in mind, I venture two that may guide immediate responses. First, communities may erect or strengthen unjustifiable barriers to outsiders, because boundaries enhance collective action. Second, although the pandemic may not directly change civic behavior, an economic recession will bankrupt some organizations through which people engage.

The whole special issue on Democracy in the Time of COVID-19 looks interesting and is currently available for free.

public event on Governing the Commons: 30 Years Later with discussion of policing and climate change

The Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University is offering a virtual event on October 2, 2020 – 9:00 AM – 12:30 PM. It celebrates the 30th anniversary of Elinor (Lin) Ostrom’s Governing the Commons. I’m on the panel about environmental justice and policing studies, and there are other panels about social-ecological systems thinking and practice; polycentric governance; and the “‘new commons’ (health, data and knowledge, urban).” It’s free but registration is required.

See also insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory; new chapter on Elinor Ostrom and Civic Studies; and many previous posts on this blog.

defining civically engaged research in political science @APSA2020

If you’re participating in the American Political Science Association’s virtual annual meeting this year, there’s a Roundtable on Facilitating Civic Engagement Research
(Sep 9 – 4:00 pm – 5:30 pm EDT) with Richard Davis, Mary Currin-Percival, Eitan Hersh, Diana Owen, Stella Rouse, and me.

“Civic engagement research” can mean research about civic engagement, which is my main job. Such research can be empirical, asking what causes various people to engage (or not) in various ways, and what their engagement accomplishes. Or it can be normative, asking what makes engagement good or bad, a right or a duty.

I am also interested in research that is done in a civically engaged way. Amy Cabrera Rasmussen, Valeria Sinclair Chapman, and I direct the APSA’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research as an annual seminar for political scientists who want to learn to work in an engaged way.

One conclusion I take away from ICER so far is that there’s a robust debate about what defines civically engaged research.

One kind of definition is methodological. On this view, you are doing civically engaged research if you form a research partnership with a group or network of people outside academia and frame your questions, collect and analyze your data, and disseminate the results together with the partner. This definition is content-neutral and not necessarily connected to any particular ideal or agenda. Perhaps entering a partnership simply helps you to generate certain kinds of knowledge and insight.

A different definition is about solidarity. The civically engaged researcher conducts research as a way of being part of some group, or a strong ally of it. The group in question might be demographic, but not necessarily. Sometimes, for example, researchers express solidarity and membership in the geographical community where they work. This definition can be methodologically neutral–you’d be a civically engaged researcher if you do your research as a Chicagoan, regardless of whether you use ethnography or multivariate regression or any other method.

A third definition suggests efforts to make research influential–to connect research directly to public conversations, policy analysis and advocacy, or trainings and program evaluations. This definition encompasses efforts that begin inside academia, whether or not they involve partners. One of many such examples would be the Center for Inclusive Democracy, on whose advisory board I sit. They produce research studies, policy briefs, a tool for citing polling locations, datasets and maps, and public presentations. Tisch College’s new Center for State Policy Analysis also fits this model, or Tufts’ Equity Research Group.

CIRCLE, which I directed for seven years, has bridged these definitions to some degree. CIRCLE has formed many specific research partnerships with grassroots groups. Its original board consisted of scholars and practitioners who represented a nascent theory/practice community for youth civic engagement. Some of them identified as “youth,” which means they belong to CIRCLE’s population of interest. CIRCLE has always employed at least one key staff person whose main responsibility is to develop and tend partnerships. At the same time, CIRCLE began in academia, with political scientists as its first two directors; and some of its work has been relatively detached empirical social science meant to affect the world.

See also: civically engaged research in political science #APSA2019; engaged political science; scholarship on engaged scholarship; and Apply for the Second Annual APSA Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER) at Tufts University’s Tisch College, June 15-18, 2020