Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Did the Dinosaurs Fail?

The dinosaurs ruled the Earth far longer than any that have come after them, including the birds (now believed to be their descendants). They are no longer here, but they lived very well during their time and by almost any measure they were a great success.

Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and the others may not survive the mortgage crisis. They may go extinct or be forced to evolve into smaller and lighter firms. But they made incredible amounts of money for their investors and by almost any measure they were a great success.

A better analogy might be the saber-toothed tiger. Saber-toothed tigers evolved and re-evolved many times: Each time they gradually became dominant, their teeth getting longer and longer, until they finally undid themselves when their teeth became too long to sustain.

Just because something comes to an end does not mean it was unsuccessful, especially insofar as its original investors are concerned. And runaway adaptations are not necessarily aberrations, but can be normal patterns in an evolutionary process. Just something to think about.


Deep Thought

When Arte Moreno bought the "Los Angeles" Angels, the first thing he did was to lower the cost of beer at Angels Stadium. This move immediately won him the hearts of skeptical fans, and for a year or so after that, he could do no wrong in their eyes.

In a similar vein, I think Barack Obama's first move as President should be to remove the idiotic "no liquids" rule on commercial airline travel. Think that would convince some McCain voters that he's a pretty good guy?

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! If you have travel plans, I hope it all goes well.


How Los Angeles Copes with an Economic Downturn

So, I read this in today's New York Times online. While I regret supporting the cultural imperialism of NYC, I can't help it because the LA Times has been getting worse by the day. I think we're on our fourth new format in a year, this with more ads and more color. Pretty soon the text of the Sunday version will be indistinguishable from the ad inserts.

Apparently, neighboring Santa Monica is banning exercise on the green fairways that run down the middle of many of its streets except for jogging. I'm not sure what to make of it. It is honestly hard to imagine that it is such a priority that anyone would divert public resources, much less that it would attract attention from a newspaper on the other edge of the continent. At least we can conclude that suffering from the financial crisis remains subdued north of Montana Blvd.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I'm Super (thanks for asking)

So, word has come that Robert Gates has agreed to continue on as Defense secretary. Well, that bites. No real change in the military, then. How long will he stay on? Don't ask, don't tell.


Sociology of a Financial Crisis

Michael Lewis, now perhaps famous for “Moneyball,” wrote an excellent book about his time as a young trader on Wall Street in the 1980s called “Liar’s Poker.” I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in this current financial crisis. Everything about the book is out of date or not specifically relevant except its depiction of the culture in the financial sector. That corporate culture is very important, however, because it is the result of choices about how to structure financial firms, and reinforces those choices.

All of Lewis’s books, whether about football, baseball, or what have you, are really about what are euphemistically termed “market failures.” The argument being made through these book-long parables is really more subtle, that many markets behave the way they do because the participants behave in ways that you would not expect if you were approaching the economic problems from a blank slate. It is very surprising to find out that this is true even in what would appear to be the most sophisticated market, the market for financial instruments. It is worth recalling at this juncture that until the 1970s, seats at the NYSE were routinely inherited. The vast majority of its participants, even today, went to a handful of schools. Compared to the amount of money flowing through their doors, the number of firms with market power is vanishingly small. With apologies to Peter O’Toole: The market is a human thing; it does what we do, for our reasons.

Any time some official or pundit proclaims on television or in print that “nobody could have seen this [crisis] coming,” I grind my teeth a little. That’s not true. Even excluding those who professionally gainsay conventional wisdom for academic or journalistic reasons, or those who regularly predict doom, many people genuinely understood that the financial boom connected to the real estate market could not last forever. Some even predicted its downfall. One can do archaeological expeditions through academic journals or magazines and find these people. This does not mean that those individuals were peculiarly prescient or intelligent, although some may have been. The point is that in the financial markets, these people were regarded as cranks or naifs. I had a similar conversation with a well-known real estate attorney in 2006 about the boom, and I hazarded the opinion that the price of the median house could not continue to dramatically exceed the purchasing power of the median home-buyer. I saw the condescending smile. In the real world, I was told, property values climb almost every year, and this was reality. That phrase “in the real world” is crucial. People on the ground had a visceral experience of the boom , and total disdain for outside views and “ivory tower” concepts.

Why were these prognosticators derided and ignored? That is the crucial question.
I don’t think it was necessarily “groupthink,” the concept that everyone just bought into the same ideas. I think there was an evolutionary process by which those who hazarded other ideas were corrected or flushed out. The risks of mortgage-backed securities and other extremely abstract derivative instruments were not ignored by everyone. Each firm had professional risk managers, some of whom were likely smart enough to wonder why mortgage-backed securities were supposed to be an exception to every financial rule. Many realized the problems inherent in buying and selling instruments that nobody understood how to value. But anyone who spoke up too loudly would be dismissed.

The culture of Wall Street proved deadly. Have any of you ever spent much time with a certain kind of arrogant East Coast college graduate? I never went to school anywhere that anyone ever boasted about their grades until I met New Yorkers at my law school. I never met more irritating people to play poker with, because they wanted to win and humiliate other people, not have fun with the group. At my firm, we are in the process of moving to year-round casual dress. The turmoil involved In allowing adults to dress themselves the way they want is striking. And there is resistance. Apparently one recent interviewee from NYU law school said, “I didn’t go to school for seven years so I could wear jeans.” The incredible set of class and cultural concepts that inform this comment is mind-boggling. These same people at firm retreats think that “business casual” means everything except the tie. The status-consciousness is shocking. Everything screams “I wanna be a big shot. “ When I read “Liar’s Poker,” I kept thinking, “I know these people!” As a Californian, I am culturally allergic to uniform of a super-dark woolen suit and a bright pink/purple tie in a windsor knot. The picture I am trying to draw is not meant to be cartoonish. It’s not just “assholes.”

These attitudes in college are reinforced by the Wall Street job market these kids are training for. Here’s the Wall Street concept in a nutshell. In a bull market, the slow get trampled; the brave run with the bulls. This is the crucial insight. In each firm, individual traders – often recruited right out of school with no long-term experience and no sense of perspective – were rewarded for success only. And the rewards were six-figure bonuses with which to buy apartments in Manhattan that exceed the size of a shoebox. The way to get the big numbers in your account was to do what everyone else was doing: take big risks. Since those risks were just on paper, they were fine. In the real world, you see, values kept going up. And the trading desks were littered with the discarded nameplates of those who lost their nerve and sold too early. This risk-taking was encouraged with a hyper-masculinized atmosphere that Lewis describes so well. Those failed were flushed out of the system; nothing was learned from them or about them except that they were regarded as losers.

To draw another analogy, there is a scam in sports betting where a firm sends mailers with predictions to people and asks them to pay money for more predictions after they are proven right. Of course, the firm just sends out opposite predictions to equal numbers of people. Week after week, a small subset will, by chance, happen to have received the proper predictions. These people then buy in to the supposed wisdom of the scammers. Success in the derivatives market had this element of randomness to it, but random success was rewarded with the title of genius and big shot. And they ate it up.

This culture was pervasive within these firms, I believe. Management at the very top faced the same dilemmas. If their firm did not pay out the six-figure bonuses or show the double and triple-digit gains that other firms did, the management would be replaced by boards who knew that, in the real world, you should not pay academic naysayers any mind. Those who are there now are those who took the biggest gambles. This may be the best reason to demand that these executives be dismissed.

Note that the hyper-masculinized atmosphere supposedly rewards courage, but all it really rewarded was conformity. The courageous thing would have been to say “no.” Those who did were no doubt called pussies or worse. They certainly didn’t stay on the trading floor. Slow and steady didn’t win the race; it got fired.

How can a market develop these unhealthy tendencies? The teaching tool of the market is failure. There is no other. In a long bull market, there were more successes than failures. As a friend of mine who is a corporate lawyer in New York likes to say, “It doesn’t take brains to make money in a bull market. “ But these traders thought they were geniuses, and had the beamers to show it. Hubris does not begin to describe it.

Alan Greenspan confessed that he didn’t understand how the market could lack self-correcting mechanisms that would correctly value the risk. He put too much faith in the abstraction of the market, no doubt being very dismissive of anyone who suggested that these firms had developed internal incentives that were self-destructive.

Another stream that fed this culture was the fact that financial sector employees, in particular the leaders of these firms, lacked a decent liberal education that might have given them pause. Business schools and finance programs tend to produce students who are shrewd, good with numbers, and very clever at constructing and understanding finance, but not people with great perspective on life, the universe, and everything. There is something inherently suspect in the intellectual curiosity and breadth of any person who wants to devote every waking moment (that is usually what it takes) to succeed in the financial world. For this reason, I think, professors in these areas are usually much better educated with much better perspective, but they don’t get to pass it on. And, of course, they are ignored as cranks or naifs if they question the prevailing wisdom of go-go-go!
Here’s the conversation I imagine about this financial boom. In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer becomes the head of the Stonecutters (read: Masons) and lives like a god with everyone obedient to him. Lisa tries to warn him about this:

Lisa: Remember Dad, all glory is fleeting.
Homer: So?
Lisa: Beware the Ides of March.
Homer: No.
Lisa: Dad I know you think you're happy now, but it's not gonna last forever!
Homer: Everything lasts forever.

I do not think it is likely that Wall Street culture will change much. After all, Barack Obama’s appointees in the financial world, like 47-year old Timothy Geithner, look just like this same Wall street crowd. They are all Yale and Harvard grads, all immersed in the same culture. They have all been socialized to believing, if nothing else, that Wall Street is so incredibly important (this is why Citicorp gets bailed out but GM doesn’t – these people think the “real America” is on Wall Street. That is the inverse of Sarah Palin’s rural snobbery. Only Barack Obama himself seems to realize that the health of Wall Street firms is not intrinsically important, but only instrumental to building a strong middle class. He alone did not participate in the Big City Culture. His first night in NYC, he reports, he slept on the street. Imagine that.

What needs to happen in New York City is a dramatic change in lifestyles for traders. The end of easy money has to mean that people who work on trading floors earn more normal salaries. Long term health and stability has to replace easy money as the way to go. I doubt this will happen short of a very serious depression, the way the 1930s finally killed the spirit of the 1920s and kept it under wraps until the 1980s. That gives me pause about what may have to happen here.


More on the Tyranny of the Majority In California

Recently, I posted an argument that Prop 8 was a perfect example of what the men who wrote the US constitution were trying to avoid.  I argued that direct democracy was inherently prone to the tyranny of the majority.  Law Talking Guy defended direct democracy in two ways (as I understood him).  First he pointed to several policy changes achieved through direct democracy that he presumed would be seen as universally good things but which had been held up by grid-lock in the legislature. To this I responded that there are of course examples of referenda doing things that everyone on this blog would agree are beneficial but that does not mean they are not examples of tyranny of the majority - it only means that in those cases, we were on the winning side.

Second, he contested my assertion that the men who wrote the US constitution saw direct democracy as inherently flawed.  He said "I don't think the Federalists were overly opposed to public participation of this sort as ipso facto evil."  However, there is considerable evidence that they did think direct democracy was - if not "ipso facto evil" at least a very bad choice of institutions that should be avoided.

Here is a quotation from Federalist 10.

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Here is a link to a wikipedia site that itself refers to a number of quotations by prominent American political thinkers at the time of the Constitution's establishment who saw direct democracy as deeply flawed.  Some of my favorites are:

Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state - it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage" - John Witherspoon

"That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government.  Experience has proved that no position is more false than this.  The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government.  Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity." - Alexander Hamilton.

Direct democracy is not bad because it produces a single bad result - like Prop 8. It's bad because it fails to protect the rights of minorities against the fluctuating whims of the majority.  Sometimes we will find ourselves on the winning side of those whims and we think direct democracy is great.  But when we are on the losing side we realize how obnoxious it is to make laws in this way.  If I only complain when direct democracy hurts my side, I'm a hypocrite.  If I think the problem with direct democracy is that sometimes the wrong majority wins, I'm missing the point.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Too Small to Fail: How My Baby Girl Explains the Current Financial Crisis

My little girl (8 months old) has developed a behavior that I like to call “baby deathwish.” If she sees something she wants, she lunges for it. It doesn’t matter where that object of desire is, or what lies between her and her goal. In the morning she sits facing me lying against my bent knees, and invariably spies my alarm clock four feet away. She tries to reach it, but her tiny arms don’t go four feet. So she hurls herself towards it, heedless of the precipitous drop off the side of the bed and the hard wooden floor. Restraining her can be surprisingly difficult. Similarly, she will try to launch herself off the couch and will someday succeed in toppling her high chair with the imbalance, again utterly heedless of the long drop to the wooden floor. So far, she has not worked out the principle that crying a lot may get me to bring the desired item towards her.

Now, we could teach baby deathwish not to do this. All we have to do is let her fall on her head. If we allow her to fall, she will likely learn to stop launching herself off precipices. If we pursue this laissez-floor attitude, she will stop this behavior… one way or another. For reasons that I hope do not need explaining, we do not employ this strategy. Let’s just say she’s “too small to fail.”

My baby does not just provide an example of risk-taking without consequences. She also resembles the investment banker in other ways. We are amazed at almost any sign of real sentience, and praise her for almost everything she does well, even making poop in her diaper. We then clean up her diaper, and her, without complaint.

Our greatest current desire as parents is to see her start crawling, then running, making all of these behaviors even more dangerous.

Then there are the sublime messes which are also totally predictable, but we do not prevent. This past week, she has discovered that it is fun to blow bubbles through her solid food while eating in order to form a Jackson-Pollock-like spray pattern. At the end of the feeding, the area around her rembles a binomial distribution of splattered puree – one concentration in front of where I am sitting, another in front of whatever other thing caught her attention the most. There is as little subtlety in investing in a bull market. So long as the input (puree du anything) is sufficiently endless, there will be waste. Once again, we are unwilling to teach our baby the value of food by limiting the available amount to that which she can use.

So that’s it. Our financial sector has had all the self-control of an infant, and the government has coddled it in exactly the same manner. Well, I think the diaper genie is finally full. Target is out of pampers , and there’s no more Boudreaux’s Buttpaste in the tube. It’s time to let the financial sector go head-bonk. The problem is a credit crisis, and the government would do better to set up its own bank than finance these Wall Street bankers who refuse to lend money. It’s time for adults to step in here.


No Soup For You

Over the weekend, the US Government committed taxpayers to another rescue package for Citigroup. The Feds will guarantee over three hundred billion dollars of bad investments and give Citigroup another $20 billion in cash, on top of the $25 billion they already got. (Note that $25 billion the same amount that Congress and the Treasury denied the Big Three automobile companies last week...)

For this second bailout, there are at least a few strings attached this time. According to Citigroup, the corporation has agreed to pay no more than $0.01 per share for common stock for the next three years. (Bloomberg says the last quarterly dividend was $0.16 per share.) Furthermore, the LA Times says the US Government will have the right to veto all future executive pay packages. Not detailed in the article, however, was the all-important question of exactly who has that authority.

Unfortunately it appears that no real punishment has been meted out to any current executives--no pay cuts, no firings, no need to leave the corner office. And lest you think those measures would be petty or unfair, remember that Citigroup already announced last week that it would cut 52,000 jobs (a sixth of its workforce!) and as recently as four days ago, Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit told investors not to worry about Citigroup's plummeting share price because everything was just fine.

Apparently, Citigroup is "too big to fail" while the Big Three are not. But Citigroup now has about 250,000 employees (after the firings go through) whereas the Big Three employ 355,000 directly and many more indirectly. Can you really argue that GM or Ford has been managed any worse than Citigroup? How can the government continue to find billions for Wall Street and nothing for Detroit?

I am not saying we should bail out the automakers. But my tolerance for Wall Street bailouts is now officially gone. How can it be fair that the top executives at these firms--the ones who screwed up--get to keep their jobs and big salaries while the rest of their employees suffer? I am so sick of getting the same smug lecture that we "have to" rescue these Wall Street firms from their own mistakes or the world will end. If the situation is that dire, why doesn't our government use it to leverage big concessions from these firms? Where is the pain?

And come to think of it... Where is the please and the thank you? Everyone knows these firms have no mercy on those who owe money to them... Just look at all the foreclosure signs out there... So now that they owe us bigtime, when do we get to watch the eating of crow and humble pie? At least the CEOs of the Big Three swallowed their pride and went to Washington hat-in-hand to endure hours of angry Congressional hearings (even if they did fly down on private jets). For $700 billion, can we at least hear a little begging?


Saturday, November 22, 2008

President Obama's "Last Cabinet"

I was inspired by USWest's comments on the previous post to construct the portrait she suggested. Thanks to Leonardo da Vinci, Paint Shop Pro, and a bout of insomnia. (Click to enlarge.)

Of course this begs the question, who will be Judas?


Friday, November 21, 2008

Obama's Cabinet as of Today, 10 am

I like visuals. With all of these appointments to Obama's cabinet, I think it is a good idea to actually see how things are shaping up. It will also give us an idea of how quickly he is selecting people. So I made this, such as it is.

(Click to expand)

Pale yellow indicates no selection as of this time.

Dark green indicates a selection has been made and the name of the nominee is placed underneath.

The light green is questionable. We aren't yet sure of the status of HRC.

Where I placed the posts around the table is random.

Update: 2:16 PM: He's named one more, finalized HRC, and is rumored to be considering Richardson for Commerce.

(Click to expand)


Draft Al Gore!

For some reason, nobody seems to be asking if Al Gore will have a post in this administration. Why not? He's got a Nobel Peace Prize now, perhaps he can be Secretary of the Interior or head of the EPA? Special envoy on climate change? If HRC deserves a post, surely Al Gore does too. If Joe Lieberman can be brought into the fold somehow, surely Al Gore can!

Maybe Paul Krugman for Treasury and Al Gore for Interior. Now we've got two Nobel prize winners on staff. Now all we need is a Surgeon General who is at least vaguely aware that teenagers want to have sex.



The conservative Washington Times reports that Obama will still seek to repeal the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, but that he will wait for several months to do so, perhaps until 2010.

While obviously I would love Obama to fulfill his promises on gay rights as soon as possible, I must agree that Obama's main domestic priorities should be the economy, health care, and global warming: The nation faces more important challenges right now, and anything having to do with gay rights unfortunately would be a dangerous distraction.

Apparently, the Obama transition team has held informal discussions with the legal groups that have been working on this issue, and they been forthright about their strategy. Though we must never stop pushing, I do appreciate the honesty, and I recognize that this combination of caution and commitment is probably just what the country needs right now.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Waxman Ascendant

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) wrested the chairmanship of the House Energy & Commerce Committee Chair away from Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) today. It is rare for a sitting chair to be ousted by his own party, and it is my understanding that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stayed out of the fight. The votes in the steering committee and subsequently the full caucus were very close, but Waxman was victorious.

This matters because Dingell has long held up environmental regulation of automobile emissions (being from Michigan) while Waxman has long crusaded for legislation to fight global warming. With Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) as Chair of the Environment & Public Works committee in the Senate (Go California!) Obama now has a good chance of securing the cap and trade system he favors, to roll back emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and impose an 80% cut by 2050 as he indicated this week.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Ziegler Poll: A Fact Check

I posted a comment on LTG's post below but I thought I would take this a little further. Let's look at John Ziegler's entire poll and see what is true as he presents it, and what isn't.

200. Before this past election, which political party controlled both houses of congress?
201. Which candidate could not say how many houses they own?
202. Which candidate said they could see Russia from their house?

These questions at least have a correct answer. The correct answer to #202 is "None of the Above" (Sarah Palin said one could see Russia from Alaska, not from her house).

203. Which candidate had to quit a previous political campaign because they were found to have plagiarized a speech? Joe Biden did indeed use pieces from a British leader's stump speech in his 1988 campaign. But he also repeatedly credited the man for the rhetoric. And I haven't seen anything saying that this was the reason he withdrew from the race -- little help here?

204. Which candidate won their first election by getting all of their opponents kicked off the ballot? Barack Obama ran unopposed in the Democratic primary race for the state Senate seat representing Chicago's 13th District because he successfully challenged his potential Democratic opponents' petitions to appear on the ballot. That's true. If you want to call that "getting all of [his] opponents kicked off the ballot", well, no arguing that. But of course, there's more to the story. For instance, one of his opponents suspects some of the signatures on his petition were indeed forged:

Askia filed 1,899 signatures, but the Obama team sustained objections to 1,211, leaving him 69 short, records show.

Leafing through scrapbooks in his South Shore apartment, Askia, a perennially unsuccessful candidate, acknowledges that he paid Democratic Party precinct workers $5 a sheet for some of the petitions, and now suspects they used a classic Chicago ruse of passing the papers among themselves to forge the signatures. "They round-tabled me," Askia said.
Obama's main opponent, Alice Palmer, was running for Congress at the time and told Obama she would not run for re-election to the state senate seat. It does appear there were legitimate problems with her signatures as well, including many people who did not live in her district. (Media Matters cites an AP story I can't find)

205. Which candidate wore clothes that their political party reportedly spent $150,000 on?
206. Which candidate currently has a pregnant teenage daughter?
207. Which candidate said that Obama would be tested in his first six months as president by a generated international crisis?

I have no problem with any of these.

208. Which candidate claimed to have campaigned in 57 states? Again, can't argue with this one. What's fascinating to me is the conservative spin on this statement.

209. Which candidate said their policies would likely bankrupt the coal industry and make energy rates skyrocket? This one really bothers me. Here's the actual quote:
What I've said is that we would put a cap and trade system in place that is as aggressive, if not more aggressive, than anybody else's out there. I was the first to call for a 100% auction on the cap and trade system, which means that every unit of carbon or greenhouse gases emitted would be charged to the polluter.... So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it's just that it will bankrupt them because they're going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that's being emitted. That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in solar, wind, biodiesel and other alternative energy approaches. The only thing I've said with respect to coal, I haven't been some coal booster. What I have said is that for us to take coal off the table as an ideological matter, as opposed to saying if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it.
This is the cap-and-trade system that John McCain also favors.

210. Which candidate said that the government should redistribute the wealth? You could argue something about this being misleading, but it's true. Here's a good article from Slate on the subject.

211. Which candidate started their political career at the home of two former members of the Weather Underground? Ugh. I posted this link in the comments to the last post which effectively takes down this bizarre lie.

There you have it. We pride ourselves here on being a good forum for discussion, so if you disagree with any of the above, let us know in the comments.


Spillover from - John Ziegler's "Poll"

For those of you who want to have some fun, wander over to It discusses John Ziegler's "How Obama Got Elected," where Ziegler asked voters to identify certain positions with certain candidates. He then concludes that Obama voters were misled by the media, based on their results. He asks the voters to identify supposedly true statements such as "Obama won his first election by getting his opponents kicked off the ballot" or "Obama said his policies would bankrupt the coal industry and make energy prices skyrocket" which are, at best, half-truths and are certainly very biased in their presentation. No wonder most Obama voters didn't get these "right." Ziegler was just asking if Obama voters had imbibed McCain's talking points. Not surprisingly, Obama voters were less likely than McCain voters to have done so.

Or wait. That's not what Ziegler showed. He ONLY interviewed Obama voters. All we know from this "study" is that Obama voters had a low recognition rate for McCain's talking points, which Ziegler calls "being dumb." We know nothing about how McCain voters would have responded.

Here's from Ziegler's own website explaining this amazing methodology:

"I only polled Obama voters because I was trying to test the media's impact on the election. Since Obama won, it would be pointless (not to mention twice as expensive) to poll McCain voters."

Wow. Think about that for a minute. Imagine if you actually did the study properly (Ziegler has so many other issues) and McCain voters gave the same responses as Obama voters. What would that tell you about the effect of "the media" on the election? Or what if you found that McCain voters were more likely to identify these "facts" than Obama voters? What would that show you? That McCain voters held a more negative impression of Obama than Obama voters did? Hey buddy - wanna cookie?


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

58 Seats - Begich wins Alaska

Democrat Begich won the Alaska Senate seat yesterday, unseating Ted Stevens. Good riddance to Ted Stevens. The Bridge to Nowhere is now a Bridge to Jail. By keeping Lieberman in the caucus, the Democrats now have 58 votes at least nominally on their side. Chances for Franken to win the Minnesota recount are, according to, at least even. And we don't really know the chances of Martin v. Chambliss in the Georgia Senate recount, but it leans Chambliss. So we're looking at Republicans having 41 or 42 seats at most, meaning they have to keep everyone together to filibuster which will put extreme heat on certain Republican senators who are not at the extreme right of their caucus. This is all very good news for making real change in this country. It's the biggest majority for either party since the Democrats had 58 seats 1978-1980.

Here's what I think we can now get out of Congress in the first six months (not in order):
1. Universal health insurance
2. Climate change legislation (cap and trade)
3. Mortgage foreclosure relief
4. Green Energy legislation
6. Card Check Legislation (Labor)

Health insurance is by far the most important to me of all. It must be universal and (of course) affordable. It must be made so that you cannot lose it or be barred by pre-existing conditions.


Joe the Chairman

So, the Democrats in the Senate have obliged Barack Obama and kept Joe Lieberman in his chairmanship and in the caucus. This is probably for the best. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer...

Seriously, Joe Lieberman will be a useful vote on energy, health care, and education. That's where he's needed. Bush has now set a timetable for Iraq withdrawal (Dec 31, 2011), mooting the Lieberman/McCain position. This means that there are now 57 votes for the Dems in the Senate to break a filibuster. Assuming Begich wins Alaska, which looks likely, that will be 58. Then it's down to Minnesota (too close to call) and Georgia (leans R). Even if it's 58-42, this leaves the GOP in a difficult position to block legislation. Much more likely is that a couple iffy GOP senators (possibilities from blue states or moderate backgrounds: Voinovich, Specter, McCain, Snowe, Collins, Gregg, Coleman, Martinez, Grassley) make deals and the legislation goes forward.


Consumerism, Americans and Their Critics

Outside observers of American culture are fond of criticizing consumerism in America but they seldom if ever direct the same criticism at their own lifestyles.  I'd be willing to listen to that kind of thing from someone from Haiti or rural India or rural China.  But from anyone living in an industrialized environment, it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  

For example, guess which country has the most cars per 1000 inhabitants?  Is it the US which takes at least 3 or 4 days to drive across and has no passenger rail system to speak of?  Nope.  It's Portugal which is about the size of small to medium sized US state and where a quarter of the population lives in the same city.  Even Australia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and New Zealand have more cars per 1000 inhabitants than the US.  With the exception of Australia and maybe New Zealand all these countries have such small distances and dense populations that you can virtually go door to door anywhere in the country by public transit/passenger rail.  

This goes way beyond whether people buy one big bottle of gin per year or three smaller ones (it's not like gin goes bad - besides you can buy vermouth in much smaller bottles because you need so much less of it).  People in ALL OECD countries are living the "good life" and spending money on stuff right and left.  Comparing Americans to Western Europeans or Australians or New Zealanders will reveal that they are a lot more like each other than any of them are like people living in developing countries.  Even in the most rapidly developing parts of countries like China, consumerism is the norm.  Our friend Bert Q. Slushbrow has told me stories of his in-laws in China driving the same kind of cars middle class Americans do, owning several condominiums and generally living the life of Riley.  

In my travels in just under half of the EU member states, I have seen shopping districts bursting with useless doo dads.  I've seen mega stores with huge parking lots and I've seen highways choked with cars.  Indeed, if you just think about the types of stores, its difficult to tell the difference between Grafton Street in Dublin and the Santa Monica Promenade (although the grey sky and rain is usually a dead give away).

My point is not to claim that the US is not consumerist.  It clearly is.  Furthermore, it is fair and right to point to the problems this consumerist life style poses for the environment and the people living in it.  But it is not fair to set this up as some kind of American problem.  Doing so may make middle class intellectuals from other OECD countries feel better about themselves but it lets too may people off the hook (most especially the middle class intellectuals in question).  We are all in this together.  Consumerism is an appealing lifestyle that we all partake in to a great extent and it is very pervasive around the world.  We need to find a way to modify this lifestyle and adapt it to the realities of a sustainable environment.  But if ONLY Americans change their lifestyles the world will still be on a bad path.  We ALL have to change.  So let's ease up on the "horrified" reactions to Cost-co etc, shall we?


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hillary for SecDef

There is chatter lately that President-Elect Barack Obama might offer Senator Hillary Clinton the office of Secretary of State. While I certainly would applaud that appointment, I believe she would serve better as Secretary of Defense. It would be a bold, positive choice on many levels.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Local Food vs Free Trade

We've talked about this before but I found a link to this really interesting article on Andrew Sullivan's blog.  

Some highlights....

Local food production does not always produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the 2005 DEFRA study found that British tomato growers emit 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of tomatoes grown compared to 0.6 tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of Spanish tomatoes. The difference is British tomatoes are produced in heated greenhouses. Another study found that cold storage of British apples produced more carbon dioxide than shipping New Zealand apples by sea to London. In addition, U.K. dairy farmers use twice as much energy to produce a metric ton of milk solids than do New Zealand farmers. Other researchers have determined that Kenyan cut rose growers emit 6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per 12,000 roses compared to the 35 tons of carbon dioxide emitted by their Dutch competitors. Kenyan roses grow in sunny fields whereas Dutch roses grow in heated greenhouses.

Desrochers and Shimizu demonstrate that the debate over food miles is a distraction from the real issues that confront global food production. For instance, rich country subsidies amounting to more than $300 billion per year are severely distorting global agricultural production and trade. If the subsidies were removed, far more agricultural goods would be produced in and imported from developing countries, helping lift millions of people out of poverty. They warn that the food miles campaign is "providing a new set of rhetorical tools to bolster protectionist interests that are fundamentally detrimental to most of humankind." Ultimately, Desrochers and Shimizu's analysis shows that "the concept of food miles is...a profoundly flawed sustainability indicator."

I think this raises some important empirical questions about whether eating locally actually achieves the environmental goals it says and whether any environmental gains it does produce, which as the article argues are debatable, outweigh the costs imposed on the rural poor around the world.


Friday, November 14, 2008

The USA's Position In the World

A tangent has developed in another thread and I think it is interesting enough to have it's own thread.  The subject is, what is the position of the US in the world and is its influence on world affairs declining?

There are a number of ways you can measure power in the international scene.  One of the most basic is to look at GDP.  Here is the wikipedia article on GDP.  You can see that the gap between the US and the next largest economies is enormous.  What's more, six of the next eight biggest economies are members of NATO and the second biggest economy is Japan (not in NATO but an equally close ally).  Among the 20 biggest economies, only China, Russia, India and Indonesia are not close allies of the United States.  And the US is not involved in anything like a Cold War style rivalry with any of the four countries I mentioned.  Russian-US and Chinese-US relations are strained at times but compared to the Cold War it's all happiness and sunshine.

The gap is even bigger when we look at overall military spending. Here is the relevant wikipedia article (there are questions about accuracy for the gross level point I'm trying to make I think it's accurate enough).  The US spends just over 10 times as much on its military as the second biggest military spender, France, does.   The US also spends over twice as much as the entire EU combined.   China's military budget is similar to that of France.  The 20 biggest military spenders other than the US include 9 NATO members, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and Israel.  It also includes countries that Brazil and Saudi Arabia that are close allies to the US but not as close as the NATO members or Japan et al.  Only Russia and China could really be considered to be potential rivals to the US and the US outspends them both combined many times over.  

Finally there is the ability to project power globally.  A good indicator of that is the number of aircraft carriers a country has (here is the wiki).  There are 22 aircraft carriers currently in service around the world.  11 of them are in the US Navy.  All 11 of these US carriers are capable of launching and recovering fully operational combat aircraft.  Most of the rest of the world's carriers are only capable of launching V/STOL aircraft like the British Harrier which have limited capabilities (the US Navy operates an additional 10 carriers of this type of carrier that most other navies use).  The only other navies to operate a carrier of the US type are France and Brazil (which operates an obsolete French carrier) both are US allies.  

An overall impression one should take away from this as well, is not just that the US is powerful.  After all, as Bill Clinton said, "America leads most effectively through force of her example rather than the example of her force."  It should also be clear that the USA's closest allies make up most of the list of the most powerful countries in the world.  

It may well be that the US is in a slow decline relative to the rest of the world.  But there is a long way to go before the US is anything other than the richest, most powerful, and best connected country in the world.


The Double Standard for Political Churches and the Media

Hi Everyone,

A while ago, LTG pointed out that there is a double standard between how churches that make public political statements favoring (or appearing to favor) the left and those that open campaign for the right.  I suspect he was thinking of a church in LA (I think it was an Episcopalian church but LTG probably knows the details better than I) that was threatened with losing their tax free status because their pastor gave a sermon condemning war in general and the Iraq war in particular.  

Well, here is a rather routine and unsurprising story from Greenville, South Carolina (one of only two states with coastline on either the Atlantic, Pacific or Great Lakes to have voted for McCain).  This troublesome priest is telling his parishioners that they have sinned and face divine judgement if they had voted for Obama.  I think we can all guess how much risk there is that his church will lose its tax exempt status.

This isn't a big story because it is so unsurprising but I thought I would post about it because it supports that earlier comment by LTG so convincingly.  


Thursday, November 13, 2008

For the First Time I'm Scared about the Economy

Word comes out today that Sec'y Paulson has abandoned the initial plan - approved just six weeks ago - to bail out banks by buying distressed mortgage securities and other 'toxic' assets. This plan was sold to Congress as the way to get credit markets moving again. Paulson now says it won't work, and we are shifting to direct cash infusions to banks. In other words, the $750 billion bailout plan approved by Congress has already pre-failed. So Paulson is hoping to find something else to do with all that cash that might help. Bush, the "MBA President" is nowhere to be found. Apparently a group exercise in synergies isn't going to help.

Oh my God - do you realize this means that the government is desperate and clueless? The problem appears to be that banks refuse to loan money normally no matter what we do. The only solution may be to nationalize the banks and install new management that isn't so recalcitrant. President Obama (feels so good) has to call in the chiefs of these banks and knock some heads together. Start acting like the risk-taking publicly-backstopped entities you are or die.

We are headed into the Christmas ("Holiday") shopping season. They call the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" because many retailers see their first profit of the year that day, then spend the next five weeks making up most of the profit they will see all year. If small business credit isn't working, or if consumer credit isn't working, this will be a disaster. If Christmas sales are that bad, many small and even larger businesses will go under, with resulting mounting unemployment, fear, and more risk-averse behavior. This is exactly the downward spiral of fear, hoarding, and refusal to engage in profitable economic activity that led to the Great Depression. [Republicans like to blame the Great Depression all on tariffs (Smoot-Hawley) but that was just a bad decision among many. Protectionism will hurt more today, but trade barriers aren't the cause of today's woes.]

It's scary. Everyone keeps thinking that "this will pass, right?" What if it doesn't? I will lose my job (I'm one of the few on this blog employed in the wonderful 'free' market) and (next) my house. We really need good economic news soon.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Democrat Begich Leads Alaska Senate Race

At 3:45 local time, Alaska published ( revised vote totals showing Begich ahead by (wait for it) 3 votes. That's after counting about half the outsanding ballots. This morning, Stevens had a 3200 vote lead. Assuming Begich continues to gain votes during the rest of the counting of absentee ballots, we may be able to say Senator Begich - Democrat of Alaska. That would make it 57-1-40 in the senate with 2 races outsdanding.


Prop 8, Direct Democracy and the Tyranny of the Majority

See, this is what I'm on about!  Come and see the tyranny inherent in the system!...

Prop 8 is a perfect example of why direct democracy is undemocratic.  Many people like to perpetuate the childish definition of democracy as "majority rule."  But if you read theorist of democracy that have written since we have actually had democracies in the world (since the late 18th century - exact date depends on exact definition and probably whether or not you are English), you'll find that majority rule is not the biggest concern.  Rather it is protection of the rights of the individual that is the biggest priority.  The Federalist Papers are full of references to the "tyranny of the majority."  They feared that shifting coalitions of 50%+1 would be able to oppress one minority after another.  Next to re-conquest by the British Empire, tyranny of the majority was probably the paramount fear of the men who wrote the US Constitution.  

Direct democracy is, by it's nature, based on the principle of the tyranny of the majority.  Prop 8 is a crystal clear example.  An extremely narrow majority of Californians was able to use the direct democracy mechanism to single out a minority group and oppress them.  

Direct democracy mechanisms are a major threat to real democracy and should be abolished.  Their rare good results are more than made up for by their frequent disastrous results.


Prop 8 Update

The official stats are now 52.3% in favor, 47.7% opposed to Proposition 8. Hundreds of thousands of ballots remain to be counted. The happy news is coming from Los Angeles county where the "yes" vote is now at a mere 50.3%, just 16,000 ahead of "no." We may flip LA County to the good side when all absentees are tallied. That would be a nice moral victory, at least.

More massive protests were in Santa Monica last night. This is something new. This isn't just a Gay Pride Parade. Rather, perhaps for the first time, we are seeing widespread community support for equal rights up and down California, all in the wake of Prop 8's narrow victory. I am increasingly optimistic that this can be repealed next year. Already, talk of boycotts of those who supported Prop 8 is staggering. I heard last night that the wife of the owner of El Cholo, a local restaurant, gave $100 to the "yes" on Prop 8 campaign, and the restaurant has now got some 'splainin' to do. I, for one, will not use a Marriott hotel again (that is a Mormon institution). Californians are waking up to the ugliness of Prop 8 - and of its supporters - and do not like it. As my pastor said last Sunday, to the applause of the congregation ("I am so proud of my country, and so ashamed of my state.").

There is an outside chance that the CA Supreme Court will overturn Prop 8 on state law grounds, that being that it was a revision of the constitution, not a mere amendment. This seems to me to be intellectually indefensible as a general matter. However, the California SC could say the following: The guarantees of equal protection are so deeply ingrained throughout dozens of provisions in the CA constitution that abandoning this principle is of this magnitude must be considered more than a mere amendment. Perhaps. It seems a bit too results-oriented for me.

I think the California SC will be more likely to overturn it on federal constitutional grounds, arguing that where domestic partnerships/civil unions exist that give all the rights and benefits of marriage, a law banning the use of the term "marriage" is without a rational basis other than animus towards homosexuals. It said this under the state constitution last time around; it could make a federal argument this time around. Note that it could make this ruling without requiring that states permit same-sex marriage.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No More Floridas!

Although his slender "lead" was obviously dwarfed by the tens of thousands of ballots still to be counted, Senator Norm Coleman brazenly declared victory on Election Night. Coleman tried to put his victory story out there in the press as though it were a done deal and tried to browbeat his opponent Al Franken into giving up--but fortunately nobody was buying the bluster this time. The "pre-count" of the votes (still going) currently has cut Coleman's lead to 206 votes out of 3.5 million.

Democrats must stand behind their candidate's right to a full recount of every ballot cast in the state of Minnesota. The Obama campaign should lend its army of volunteers in Minnesota to join those who will watch the recount progress next week. The DNC should send its attorneys to fight any legal shenanigans Coleman may use to suppress ballots. (And Franken needs to play by the rules too.) We must ensure Franken gets the full recount that the US Supreme Court denied to Al Gore.

This is the most important test of the integrity of the Federal elections process since Florida 2000. Fortunately, the standards for undervotes and overvotes are clearer in Minnesota than they were in Florida. At least we've learned something in eight years. In the end, democracy demands transparency and the voters--not the candidates--must have the final say. We must make sure this election is won, not stolen.


Why are we bailing out the auto industry?

I don't get it. I really don't. Sure, GM, Ford, and Chrysler are struggling. They've been struggling for 25 years. In the past 25 years, the only bright spot they've had at all was the SUV market in the late 1990s. Thatwas not their own doing. It was led by fashion, pushed by low gas prices, and promoted by a hefty federal tax benefit for small businesses that bought SUVS (classified as 'light trucks'). Rather than use the profits wisely, they let the rest of their models and market segments go to pot. They overinvested in the SUV market, as if it would last forever.

At the same time, the primary goal of auto industry management was cost-cutting, not improving quality or anything else. They hired MBAs to cut wages, reduce workforces, close plants, and eliminate or curtail the pensions their employees had earned, all while management paid itself record-high salaries for their efforts. The focus of management has always been on cost-cutting, never on producing a decent product. American cars feel plastic-y and cheap, are loud, and fall apart quickly. The design is always clunky and not quite right, as if they won't hire art students, or won't listen to them if they do. The colors are not attractive. Sleek and elegant are words that Ford and GM just don't understand. Style should be the one area where American cars can compete. Instead, the Germans and Japanese kick our butts in style. These people spend millions focus-testing new names for the cars. They get dumb ones like the "Aveo" and the Chrysler "Crossfire." "Crossfire" is marginally better than "bulletproof." Yet the Germans outsell and outclass them with just numbers and letters. Why are we bailing these people out?

The ONLY reason I can see for a bailout is to save jobs. But that's not going to happen, is it? That's the crime of it. Whatever money we give these corporations will go into "restructuring" or "downsizing," which is corpspeak for reducing workforces, closing plants, and so forth. And, as usual, top management will reward itself for its "courage" in cost-cutting with even higher bonuses and salaries. If we don't give them free money, the companies will go bankrupt and "reorganize," which will produce the same thing.

I've got a better idea. Let's give the money- the hundreds of billions of dollars Obama and Pelosi seem to want to spend - directly to the employees. Then let GM etc. be purchased by foreign car companies at bargain basement prices and do what they will.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Two Things I Love about Nate Silver in a Totally Non-sexual Way

First, Nate Silver (of is apparently by trade a baseball statistician (write-up in NYTimes this morning). That was his training for political polling. This explains quite a bit, actually. First, it explains his strong understanding that statistics (1) are only as good as the data that goes into them and (2) are frequently mis-employed by idiots. Baseball data is notoriously finicky and slippery, and sports writers who use them are likely to do dumb things. After all, the whole sport routinely refers to a batting average of ".273" as a percentage (when it is a per-mill-age (out of a thousand), and says "a batting average of .273 percent" when they really mean "a batting average of 27.3%" or "a batting average of 273 out of a thousand." They don't mean just over one-quarter of one percent, which is what .273 percent would mean. And, of course, it's not an average of anything. It's a success rate. This background also explains some of the mistakes he has made where additional background knowledge of politics might have provided different instincts. PS, I'm irritated to find out that he is younger than I am.

But here's what made me, a language snob, very happy. This morning, in Nate Silve's review of Al Franken's chances for winning the Minnesota senate recount (down to just a 204 vote difference this morning btw), he wrote this: "For what it is worth, an 0.9 percent error rate would be fairly consistent with other studies of optical scanning systems, which are considered among the more reliable voting technologies." Note the clean phrase "an 0.9 percent error rate." That is a giveaway that he was saying the words as follows: "an oh-point-nine error rate" not as "a zero-point-nine error rate" or "a point-nine error rate." People who are too snobby to say "O" for "zero" bug me. I like this guy.

I have also seen him use correctly use the phrase "an historical election." Now, sometimes you hear some reporter saying this phrase where the "h" is aspirated as in "hiss." That is what is known as a "hypercorrection," where the speaker is applying a grammatical rule more widely than he or she should for fear of failing to apply it where needed. For example, when people say "thusly" instead of "thus" (thus is already an adverb) or overuse "whom," or use the "and I" formation where it is not appropriate, as in "she sent the package to my wife and I."

If you aspirate the "h" in "an historical,"please say and write "a historical," as you would, "a hot dog" or "a hissy-fit." The reason for the "an" rather than "a" is only if you elide the "h," so that it sounds like the word "anise." I often deal with abbreviations in my legal writing, and will use "an" before abbreviations like "SLC" or "RFP." It's natural and appropriate. I now believe that Mr. Silver elides the "h" as well. If only they could get Mike Pesca to do the same.


Misrepresenting Numbers

Numbers are everywhere. We discussed these during the elections. There was post after post on poll numbers and their validity. While we are skeptical of poll numbers we tend to accept other numbers, like studies on social trends, as valid. We need to be more skeptical of those as well. And the first question we need to ask when we hear a number presented in an argument is, "Is that a big number?" Take Newt Gingrich's recent commentary in Business Week.

He has written in Business Week that adolescence "is a 19th century invention of the middle class to keep kids out of sweatshops" and that it is time to make them do real work. His article has some suspect statistics.

"The proof is all around us: 19% of eighth graders, 36% of tenth graders, and 47% of twelfth graders say they have used illegal drugs, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan. One of every four girls has a sexually transmitted disease, suggests a recent study for the Centers for Disease Control."

Firstly, my niece is 16 and she has more the 4 friends, none of whom I am sure carry an STD. I think he is misrepresenting these numbers, or he is presenting them in a way that makes them seem larger than they really are. Here is what I found at the Center for Disease Control regarding teen drug use. You be the judge. To me, the actual numbers are bit more complicated than he is presenting here. It really depends on how you count things, how you categorize things.

Then I went looking for info on STDS and teens. I found the March 2008 paper to which Mr. G refers. It does say that 1 in 4 young women have one of the 4 most prevalent STDs. That is different from "an STD". When you count four STDs vs. just one, then you will have higher numbers. If you count 10 STDs, then the number will be higher than it is with just 4. And if you throw boys into the mix, then hummm . . . how high is that? True, sexual activity among teens is a serious matter. But if you take Newt's "1 and 4" number, that translates that into 26%, or about 3 million women between the ages of 14-19. That is high, but the "1 in 4 number" makes it seem much higher.

Secondly, I don't think it is wise to compare today's youth to Ben Franklin and John Quincy Adams. That strikes me as a bit ridiculous. People also died at the age of 40 in those days and so, they started their productive and reproductive life early. So if Newt is in favor of ending adolescence, then the logical policy option would be to allow 14 year olds to vote, get married, and join the military, buy cigarettes and alcohol, and carry valid driver's licenses. We'd have to lower the age limits on running for public office.

Thirdly, I would point out to Mr. G that in the 19th century, children as young as 4were being killed in textile mills and coal mines. So he's right, people wanted to protect their children. But I'd question if it was the middle class. He is implying that the middle class in the 19th century was so poor that its children had to go to sweatshops to help put food on the table. And by implying we should go back to that type of situation, he is setting bar very low for what should count as the Middle Class. That tells you how the Republicans define the Middle Class. Does Newt really support going back to the industrial revolution? Does he really think that a defining trait of the middle class should be that we send children to work? Yikes!

You want to help youths? Bring back trade school and apprenticeships. Make trade school an option to public high school students. Fund schools so that they can revive their programs in auto mechanics, computer programming, engineering, resource management, and communications- the trades we need in this century! Teach youth that what they need to "be when they grow up" is "good, happy, hardworking, thinking people. That is first and foremost. Second, they need to find something useful that will earn them a living. But they also need to be flexible, and to know that if they aren't happy in their jobs, they can change. They can learn something new and find new, constructive ways to earn their living. In the 19th century you took on work, and were stuck at it for life. We have options today that allow is the wonderful opportunity to change our work as we change and grow. I studied political science. I loved it. But now, I am interested in computer science and I can go to junior college and learn about that. What a great thing!

Furthermore, if young people are to give up adolescence, if they are to be given a stake in this society, then old people ought to be made to retire and make room for the new generation of leaders.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Daily Show

Andrew Sullivan links to a couple bloggers who don't think the Daily Show can survive post-Bush. These bloggers are missing something important, which is that Jon Stewart never really wanted his show to become a Bush-bashing affair. He feels that what his show does best is make fun of the media, and I'm sure this is what he'll start doing once President Obama* takes office. He said so himself on Larry King:

If public life, if government suddenly became inspiring and moved towards people's better nature and began to solve problems in a rational way rather than just a way that involved political dividends, we would be the happiest people in the world to turn our attention to idiots like, you know, media people, no offense.
He actually got really offended in this interview when King asked him if he preferred having a stupid President that he could make fun of.
KING: So, you don't want it to be bad?

STEWART: Did you really just ask me if I want it to be bad?

KING: Yes because you...

STEWART: What are you -- I have kids what do you think? Yes, I don't want them to have any kind of a -- I want things to corrode to the point where we're all living in huts.


KING: You don't want Medicare to fail?

STEWART: Are you insane?


STEWART: You're literally asking me if I would prefer -- yes, Larry, what I'm saying to you as a comedian I want old people to suffer, old and poor people to suffer. That is -- that is -- what we want is -- what seems absurd to me is the length that Washington just seems out of touch with the desires of Americans to be spoken to as though they are adults.
Oh, and by the way, Colbert is going to be just fine too. There are plenty of conservative idiots to make fun of.

* It feels really good to write that.


More on the Future of the Republican Party

A few days ago, I wrote a post "Whither The Republican Party."  Well here is an article from the conservative magazine, National Review, asking the same question.  It's worth a read as it reveals what the intellectual conservatives that have been driven from the party are thinking.  They are pessimistic about their party's ability to respond effectively to the last two elections.  


Saturday, November 08, 2008

More On Joe The Traitor

This point came up in the comments to the earlier post on Lieberman but I think it deserves to be made more prominent.

Aside from the party loyalty issues, there are policy based reasons to remove Lieberman from his Homeland Security chairmanship.  Homeland Security is probably the one area where Lieberman disagrees with the Democrats most.  During the Bush administration he abdicated any of his oversight responsibilities.  Why?  Because he agrees with the Bush approach to combatting terror both at home and abroad.  To the extent that this is an important issue (I think it is among the MOST important), Lieberman's continued chairmanship of this committee would be de facto handing this area over to the Republicans.  This is not just about punishing a disloyal Senator.  This is about policy.  Lieberman can do a lot of damage Obama's efforts to reestablish constitutional government in the United States. 

You can see a summary Lieberman's policy positions here.  The ACLU rates him as having a 40% pro-civil rights voting record (which is classified as "mixed").  He's better on Gay-rights and affirmative action so the 40% must be so low because of general civil liberties votes.  On foreign policy, Lieberman is famous for his "neo-con" positions.  

Here is the section from on Lieberman's positions on Homeland Security.

  • North Korea must know that we are prepared to use force. (Oct 2006)
  • Iran: Sponsored resolution calling for regime change. (Oct 2006)
  • Last thing we want is to release dangerous Gitmo detainees. (Jul 2006)
  • The president has the right to act alone. (Jan 2004)
  • Unwavering support for our troops in battle. (Jan 2004)
  • Intelligence system must be reformed. (Jan 2004)
  • Win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. (Jan 2004)
  • Right-size the military with Servicemembers Bill of Rights. (Nov 2003)
  • Go back to the UN and negotiate about Iraq. (Nov 2003)
  • Reform America's intelligence system post-9-11. (Nov 2003)
  • Prosecute War on Terror, even if unpopular. (Sep 2003)
  • 9/11 requires strength abroad to provide security at home. (May 2003)
  • American military is best in the world; and has proven it. (Oct 2000)
  • Don’t alarm America - the military is ready. (Oct 2000)
  • Work with Iraqi opposition to overthrow Saddam. (Oct 2000)
  • Supported use of force in Gulf War. (Aug 2000)
  • Kuwait: Congressional authorization plus use of force. (May 2000)
He also voted to remove the requirement of a FISA warrant for domestic wire taps on two separate votes.  Do those positions match up with what you think the median Democrat in the Senate thinks?  What about the median Democrat in Connecticut?  Or even the median voter in Connecticut (a state which voted for Obama 60.6% to McCain's 38.3%)?  His positions on Presidential authority to "act alone" and his refusal consider shutting down the Guantanamo prison are sufficient, in my opinion, to disqualify him from the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee.  


Friday, November 07, 2008

Joe The Traitor

The Democratic leadership in the Senate is about to decide whether Joe Lieberman will continue to hold committee chairmanships in the next Congress.  You may remember that when Joe Lieberman was defeated in a free and fair primary election, he left the Democratic Party and ran against his former party's duly elected nominee as an "Independent."  Since then he has campaigned aggressively for McCain and Palin and has participated in negative attacks against the Democratic nominee, President Elect Barack Hussein Obama.  

Daily Kos has an editorial about Lieberman here.  They also post a list of the Senators who will be making the decision about Lieberman.

Debbie Stabenow, Michigan - Chairwoman (202) 224-4822 
Harry Reid, Nevada (202) 224-3542 
John Kerry, Massachusetts (202) 224-2742 
Daniel Inouye, Hawaii (202) 224-3934 
Robert Byrd, West Virginia (202) 224-3954 
Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts (202) 224-4543 
Joe Biden, Delaware (202) 224-5042 
Patrick Leahy, Vermont (202) 224-4242 
Chris Dodd, Connecticut (202) 224-2823 
Tom Harkin, Iowa (202) 224-3254 
Max Baucus, Montana (202) 224-2651 
Richard Durbin, Illinois (202) 224-2152 
Kent Conrad, North Dakota (202) 224-2043 
Carl Levin, Michigan (202) 224-6221 
Herbert Kohl, Wisconsin (202) 224-5653 
Barbara Boxer, California (202) 224-3553 
Hillary Clinton, New York (202) 224-4451 
Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico (202) 224-5521 
Mark Pryor, Arkansas (202) 224-2353

I urge you all to contact your Senators and urge them to strip Senator Lieberman of committee chairmanships.  If he wants to continue working with the Democratic caucus, fine.  But he has betrayed the party's trust in two very high profile ways and he should not be rewarded by delegating more authority to him.  


Senate Talking Guy?

I leafed through the blog archives today to see how our predictions have panned out over the past few years. On the whole, we have all made some good calls and some bad ones. When it comes to the Senate, though, the king of predictions proves to be LTG. Nearly two years ago, way back on November 27, 2006, LTG made the following predictions for the 2008 Senate races.

1. CORRECT: DEMS pick up CO
2. CORRECT: DEMS pick up NH
3. CORRECT: DEMS pick up OR or MN
4. CORRECT: DEMS pick up "at least one" of VA, NM
5. ALMOST CORRECT: DEMS gain no other seats.
[Possible Exception: GA headed to December runoff]
In other words, he got almost everything right. Furthermore, on the eve of the 2006 election, LTG correctly called every 2006 Senate race:
My predictions: Senate: 50(D)-49(R)-1(I). Democrats will pick up Montana, Penn, Ohio, RI, Virginia, and Missouri. Lieberman, an Independent, will take Connecticut in a close race.
So kudos to LTG! Any thoughts for 2010? Now is the time!


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Latter Day Protestors

West Los Angeles is not burning, but as of about 2pm today, the exits from Century City (where I work) slowed to a crawl as protests at the Mormon temple nearby swelled blocking the major streets. Anger, passion, and anti-Mormon feelings were flooding out. I threaded my way back to the office around the protests after lunch today.

Where were we last week? Where was all this passion last week? Why has it ground itself out in bitter anti-Mormon anger now? Somehow, it took defeat to finally energize us. And it has taken many unpleasant forms.

Goethe wrote that only they who struggle for it every day deserve their freedom. On Monday, Barack Obama recited the line that power concedes nothing without a fight. We were handed gay marriage by the courts, unexpectedly, as a gift. We did not fight for it. I did not fight for it. The anger directed at the Mormons is somewhat displaced. We should be angry at ourselves too. I didn't phonebank against prop 8. Nobody asked me too, either. My current level of passion far exceeds my pre-election level, and that is true of very many. That is backwards.

Proposition 8 was about marriage, but in the end it had nothing to do with 18,000 marriages. It was a simple question put to the people of California: are gay people members of the community or outsiders? Led by Mormon money and African-American voters - ironically driven by the Obama candidacy - our fellow Californians said "no." It was a close vote, but it happened. And those excluded are not just gay people, but all those who believed that California was a free state for all its people that would show the way for the rest of the nation.

Next time, we will win the fight, because next time we will act the way we should have. And the demonstrations near the Mormon temple will be massive, much more dignified, full of hope rather than bitterness, and above all, before the election. Next time we will take on the African-American community, and the whole of California, and demand a vote for inclusion, not exclusion. Yes, we can.

The gay marriage votes isn't about marriage, tolerance, or even respect. It is about what it means to be a Californian, what it means to be an American. That is why the hurt of rejection was so jarring, even shocking, after the election of Barack Obama. In one moment, we rejoiced that America belonged to all of us, not just a country for Republicans and right-wing white males. It really stunned much of the world too. In the next moment, the hard reality of division, privilege, and exclusivity flooded back in. Make no mistake about it: the struggle for gay rights is absolutely a civil rights struggle because it is about who "We" are. In the long run, this is a struggle that none of us -- gay, straight, male, female, black, white, Christian, Muslim, Latino, Jew, disabled, elderly, young, single, married, rich, or poor -- can afford to lose.



California passed a ballot measure by a slim margin (50.6% - 49.4%) to create a "non-partisan" committee to define election districts, rather than the current practice of letting the legislature define its own districts. This will change the state of the State in 2010. It will be interesting to see how it goes. (I put "non-partisan" in quotes to honor RbR.)


Recounting Minnesota

So the latest returns are in. Norm Coleman leads Al Franken by 236 votes out of approximately 3 million cast. That difference is about 1 in 10,000. Would one of the mathemagicians on this blog help me out. Isn't there a margin of error in how accurately these votes are counted? I get the sense that every time three million votes are counted, there is an error rate. Won't there be a different tally every time they are tallied?


Nebraska's Second Congressional District

Word comes today that Obama is expected to pick up an extra electoral vote from Nebraska (which splits its electoral votes) because of Omaha in the 2nd Congressional district. If so, this will be the first time Nebraska has ever split its electoral votes (Maine also allows them to be split, but has never done so). McCain leads by 500 votes now, but there are 17,000 early votes left to be counted, and Obama has been winning 61% of them. If so, this puts Obama at 365 to 173 for McCain. It also means that Obama could have reached 270 (or tied at 269) under a number of scenarios not previously contemplated.

Obama winning an electoral vote in Nebraska is absolutely breathtaking.


Silver Lining

I assume some of you have seen this by now, but let's post it here anyway. From the ACLU:

The California Attorney General, Equality California, and the nation's leading LGBT legal groups agree that the marriages of the estimated 18,000 same-sex couples who married between June 16, 2008 and the possible passage of Proposition 8 are still valid in the state of California and must continue to be honored by the state.
This is what LTG predicted, and will probably come to pass. I'm ready to fight for those 18,000 marriages.


Rahm Emanuel

So President Barack Hussein Obama (I think I'm going to call him that from now on just to piss off the Republicans) has appointed Representative Rahm Emanuel (D, Illinois) as his Chief of Staff and Emanuel has accepted.  So who is this guy?

You can find his wiki article here.  Here are the highlights:  He's a old Clinton hand (worked on Bill's campaign and White House staff).  He also worked for Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago and he is largely credited with the huge Democratic gains in the 2006 and 2008 Congressional contests.  Emanuel has a reputation for being a bare knuckles political brawler (Gotta love Chicago) who only plays the political game to win.  On domestic policy, Emanuel is known as a centrist.  He's affiliated with centrist groups like the New Democrat Coalition and the Democratic Leadership Council which is currently run by former Representative and failed Senate candidate Harold Ford (D, Tennessee).

What does this mean about an Obama Presidency?  It's a strong signal that his White House won't be pushed around by anyone - not by the Republican minority and not by the liberals in the Democratic Party who may see his election as a chance to fulfill a very long wish list of social programs and such.  It also shows that all that talk about Obama being a "socialist" was totally nonsense!  Most especially so if we hear in a few days that Harold Ford will be joining the team.

I'll conclude by saying that having lived in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles and having seen Chicago from the near sidelines for most of my life in the Midwest, this is a dream come true!  Finally, our country is going to be run by Chicago politicians.  Sure, Chicago is run by a corrupt machine but any comparison between Chicago and other machine run cities (like D.C. and LA) and you'll see a huge difference.  In Chicago, the city actually functions.  If you want government to work for you, put it in the hands of a bunch of people from Chicago!


Popcorn and Hamburger Eating Idiots

It may have gotten lost in yesterday's excitement, but Russia has decided to put nuclear capable missiles on the Polish border. This is in retaliation against our plans to deploy a portion of our missile shield in Poland. He even threatened to bomb our shield sites. Yeah, like I sort of don't think so, dude. What is more likely is that they will further destabilize the Ukraine. Rumor is that they are already handing out Russian passports in the region, as they did in Georgia.

The Western media is saying that the Russians want to test Obama's meddle. Medvedev gave a fiery, anti-American speech yesterday, a speech which he had postponed twice, thus timing it to coincide with Obama's victory. There are those who really think Obama will be soft.

Now, I know that this isn't a laughing matter. But somehow, I can't help but find the rhetoric humorous. The Russian propaganda machine has told its people that American Democracy is a joke and that our election was between "senile grandfather and a black man of dubious credentials and intellect" and that Americans are nothing more than "popcorn and hamburger eating idiots". That cracked me up. That's almost as good as "cheese eating surrender monkeys."

What Russia is really afraid of is that Obama will improve America's moral standing in the world and that his administration will return to a foreign policy built on multilateralism and international coalition building. They are very worried about the global outpouring of support for American's new President.

To me, Russia looks more like an angry little kid, kicking and screaming for attention or perhaps a school yard bully trying to pick a fight. Their attack on Georgia has failed to win them the fear and respect they had hoped for. Now with a new President and his plans to refresh our damaged relationships with our allies, Russia feels threatened. With falling energy prices and the global financial crisis, which Medvedev blames on the US, the Russians are in big trouble. A cornered bear will lash out, so it definitely will be on Obama's radar screen.

None of this is to say that we should take Russian moves lightly. But I have confidence in the new Obama Administration to work with Europe to ease the Russian Bear's concerns. However, for the time being, Russia looks less like a mature power, and more like a state that risks being lost in its own, lonely remix of the Cold War while the rest of the world moves on.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Whither the Republican Party?

I have been dreaming of this day since early in Bush II's first term.  That was when it became clear that the Religious Fundamentalists had moved past being a major faction in the GOP to being THE DOMINANT faction in the GOP.  That development was a terrible turn of events for the party and the country.  The 2006 election and the election last night has dealt a devastating body blow to that incarnation of the party.  But will the Fundies (aka "Bigots for Jesus") relinquish control of the party and its platform right away?  No.   We are in phase one of the recreation of the Grand Old Party.  

There are currently no Republican House Reps from New England.  None.  Nada.  The pundits are fond of saying that a party cannot hope to be a majority party in this country unless it can compete in all regions.  As the GOP has been expunged from New England, the party has become increasing Southern and Religious in character.  The fiscal conservatives represented by prominent conservative intellectuals like Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Buckley, George Will etc along with elected moderates like Hagel, Ridge and Collins have been shoved aside within the party.  Religious conservatives like Bush, Dobson, Huckabee, and Palin have been flexing their muscle throughout the last 8 years and in the recent election cycle.  With the increasing Southification of the GOP, their relative power within the party will only rise.  

Those Religious movementarians are now faced with a choice...First, they can moderate their social values litmus test approach to party loyalty and reconcile with moderates and fiscal conservatives.  But this option risks giving up control of the party for good and possibly losing considerable influence over the party's policy positions.  It also risks alienating their local constituents who may see compromise with different kinds of conservatives as "selling out."

Second, they can retrench within the narrowing boundaries of their party, thereby keeping their local constituents happy but giving up any chance of regaining a national majority.  

My guess is that they will go for option 1 for at least the next 2 years.  If Palin is serious about contesting the party's nomination in 2012, this retrenchment could go on for 6 or 8 years.  CORRECTION:  I meant to say the GOP will go for option 2 for the next 2 years at least.

But when the Republican party emerges from this painful process, I have high hopes that they will again become a reasonable political option for thinking people.  I would like to have a viable choice in case the Democrats go nuts and try to ban international trade or something.


Don't Count Bush Out!

Bush and his friends are like little vandals leaving ugly tricks for the new administration. And they have another 77 days to wreak more havoc!

Here is a sampling from the New York Times . THey aren't going to make it any easier for Obama to succeed in his first 100 days.


[Expletive deleted] yeah!

(Warning: the links contained in this post all contain bad language)

This very simple, stupid post over at TPM pretty much sums up how I feel right now. Very proud of my country for doing the right thing. The downside is, now I can't get this song out of my head.

The South Park creators and I have some very different views. But they're still pretty funny.


Highlights of 2008 State Elections

Democrats have unified control of NY State government, taking the NY Senate away from the Republicans.

Democrats captured the Nevada Senate and have a veto-proof majority in the Nevada Assembly. (Democrats also captured all three Nevada congressional seats).

Democrats took control of the Pennsylvania lower house, splitting the legislature.

Democrats took control of the Wisconsin lower house, and now have unified government in Wisconsin (both houses plus governor).

Democrats gained one seat in each chamber in Alaska, achieving a tie in the Alaska Senate and 18 of 40 in the lower house.

Democrats took control of the Ohio lower house, splitting the legislature.

Democrats achieved veto-proof majorities in both houses if the Connecticut legislature.

In California, Democrats gained one seat in CA Senate and two in the Assembly. California Dems are now 1 vote short of 2/3 in the Senate (26-14) and four short of 2/3 in the Assembly (50-30). 2/3 is needed to pass a budget.

Rhode Island is now a one-party Democratic state. House: 70-5, Senate 33-5.

Republicans took back control of both houses of the Montana legislature (one was previously tied, the other in Democratic hands.

Republicans took control of the Tennessee lower house.

Republicans took control of the Oklahoma Senate (they already control the lower house).

Pre-election composition:

Post-election composition:

(From the National Conference of State Legislatures)


Proposition 8 and Existing Marriages

Interpreting Proposition 8 under The California Constitution

Presumption Against Retroactivity
Under the California Constitution, there is presumption against retroactivity. The Supreme Court of California must decide if Proposition 8 is to be applied retroactively to bar existing marriages.

Annulment or Retroactivity?
The California Supreme Court may decide that question is not whether Proposition 8 is "retroactive" but whether it should be interpreted as an annulment of existing marriages. It is presumed that the text was not intended to alter other provisions of the constitution unless it expressly said so. California Supreme Court ruled in May 2008 that homosexuality is a suspect classification. This means that a rule targeting homosexuals cannot survive unless it is narrowly tailored to its goal and supported by a compelling government interest. This Supreme Court is likely to find that there is no compelling governmental interest favoring the application of Proposition 8 to annul existing marriages.

If the California Supreme Court decides that, as a matter of state constitutional law, Proposition 8 does not annul existing marriages, there is no federal question presented, and no US Supreme Court review should follow.

If the California Supreme Court decides that Proposition 8 annuls existing marriages, the California Supreme Court must then analyze whether such retroactive application would comport with the federal constitution. That decision will be reviewable by the US Supreme Court.

Application of the Federal Constitution

Separation of Powers
Annulment of marriages is a judicial function, not a legislative function. If the legislature were to consider a "private" bill to annul a marriage, the Courts would almost certainly find that an unconstitutional invasion of judicial power. Legislative divorce or annulment is not permitted under our constitutional system. Although it is not a bill of attainder (which is explicitly barred by the text of the constitution) the same functional argument about separation of powers bars legislative action to declare a marriage, divorce, annulment, adoption, parentage, paternity, or any other matter of family law traditionally entrusted to the judiciary. This may be the strongest argument against annulment of marriages that were valid when entered into.

Equal Protection I
While homosexual status is not a "suspect class" under the Fourteenth Amendment, there must still be a rational basis for deciding that valid gay marriages may be annulled by legislative fiat. The Court may find that where there is no defect in the validly issued marriage license, the marriages cannot be annulled simply because the partners to that marriage are both of the same sex.

Equal Protection II
Under Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court said that "animus towards homosexuals" was a constitutionally impermissible basis for legislation, and struck down Amendment 2 to the Colorado constitution (passed by citizen referendum) that was intended to wipe out all antidiscrimination laws in the state that protected gays and lesbians. The California Supreme Court held that because the State of California already offered gay couples, through a sweeping domestic partnership act, all the rights and privileges of marriage, there was no rational basis to deny gay couples the right to call it "marriage." The US Supreme Court may agree that "animus towards homosexuals" is the only basis for denying couples the name of marriage (while otherwise granting them all benefits of marriage), and strike down the law. Note that this argument does not require states to create gay marriages or civil unions: A state need not extend the rights and benefits of marriage to same sex couples, but where it does so, it may not arbitrarily deny such couples the right to call it marriage.
This argument would invalidate the Proposition 8 in its entirety.

Vested Rights Doctrine
The "vested rights" doctrine has its constitutional basis in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (and the "takings" clause of the Fifth Amendment). It holds that once a person has acted in reliance upon a validly issued government permit, the government may not revoke that permit without due process of law or (in the case of an affected property right just compensation). If you break ground on a building with a valid building permit, for example, you are "grandfathered" in. Similarly, a person who has established a right to welfare benefits cannot have them taken away by arbitrary action. Similarly, I would argue that in California, gay couples received marriage licenses that were valid when issued, then were married in reliance upon these licenses. There is, in other words, a due process problem with summarily revoking those licenses without notice and an opportunity to be heard.

How will this proceed?

1. The Attorney General (Jerry Brown) will issue an opinion, probably stating that Proposition 8 does not affect any marriages that were valid when entered into in California.
2. The AG's opinion will be challenged (regardless), and that challenge will end up with the California Supreme Court.
3. The CA Supreme Court will likely agree with one of the rationales advanced above to bar application to existing marriages.
4. If the CA Supreme Court does not uphold existing marriages, or upholds them on a basis that otherwise presents a plausible federal question, (i.e., if the CA Supreme Court rests its decision on federal rather than state constitutional law), the case will move to the US Supreme Court on federal constitutional grounds.
5. At the US Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy will be the likely tiebreaking vote. He is a Californian who authored Romer v. Evans. That bodes well for advocates of equal marriage rights and for those with existing marriages.