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."

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cloture Reform

The Senate is broken. The Republicans have now established that all legislation requires 60 votes except the budget which is exempt from the filibuster rule. This supermajority requirement is in contravention of the US constitution and exists exclusively as an accident of Senate parliamentary procedure. For the better part of two centuries the filibuster has served as a check on extreme legislative behavior by allowing a few senators to hold up debate for long periods of time. Since the filibuster stopped all legislative activity and required nonstop speaking, it was an extremely radical tool that required great personal effort.

Cloture - the ability to cut off debate - was not introduced until the 1917 century, where 2/3 vote was needed. This was reduced to a 3/5 vote in 1975 by the last Democratic supermajority (61 Democrats) but the requirement modified to be for 3/5 of all senators enrolled, not 3/5 of all present. This means that 60 senators must show up to vote; it cannot just be 3/5 of those in attendance. This is why you have to wheel in senator Byrd. And why Republicans like Senator Coburn publicly prayed for Senator Byrd's death. The 1975 cloture rule was coupled to a 'gentleman's filibuster' rule that allowed other senate business to go on if a bill was being filibustered. This was a mistake also. The result is that there is almost no cost to the minority party for invoking the tactic.

The easiest cloture reform to make would be to change it to 3/5 of all senators present. This, at least, would require the filibusterers to show up to vote! Another change would be to require a 2/5 vote (40) to continue debate, putting the onus exclusively on the filibusterers. These would not disturb the 60/40 ratio which would be the hardest to change. Evidently there is still a strange little rule requiring 2/3 vote to invoke cloture if there is a filibuster on a motion to change the Senate rules. So 60 votes isn't sufficient to change Senate rules. A deal could be struck about removing the filibuster for judicial nominees, which the GOP wanted.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

So the liberal intertubes are all atwitter over Mary Matalin saying president Bush Jr. "inherited" the 9/11 attacks:

Two things: first, is anyone going to call her on this? I say no. But second, even if someone does call her on it, I'm sure she will defend the statement. It's worth remembering that in the wingnut mindset, nothing was President Bush's fault. Bin Laden? Clinton should have caught him. 9/11? Security failings under Clinton. Recession? Clinton. So here's my prediction: if someone asks her about it, expect her not to deny having said it, or walk it back, but explain that it was "inherited" because it was bound to happen because of Clinton's foreign policy. Take it to the bank.


Revolution in Iran?

Thirty years after the 1979 revolution, another generation is rising up against a government marked - as was the Shah's - by brutal repression, torture, and lawlessness by the supposed authorities. After eight months, it has become clear that the demonstrators are not giving up, nor is the opposition. We do not know what is going to happen in Iran. The government evidently has the loyalty of the military still, which is sufficient to tamp down a rebellion. What we do not know is how greviously fractured the internal politics are at higher levels. The death ofMousavi's nephew and the trials for others raise the specter of internal purges among the ranks of the ruling elite.

Dissatisfaction among the elite is dangerous. For example, it was that very specter that really led to Khrushchev's takeover in the USSR after Stalin's death and relative liberalization.

Such dissatisfaction, when combined with a public resistance, is what leads to revolution. That is what led to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The same can be seen in France in 1789, in the British colonies in the 1770s. Iran can teeter and collapse within weeks if a substantial portion of its ruling elite essentially defect to the Mousavi side. And it appears that this sort of defection may be underway. We constantly hear of new support for the opposition, not further marginalization.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Very Merry Democratic Christmas

So here's the good news. The Democrats, who were elected above all on a policy of health care reform, have finally put bills through both houses. Although some wrangling remains, there is little doubt now that there will be a bill on the President's desk in 4-6 weeks. That is a huge victory for the Democratic party. Nothing makes for electoral success like legislative victories. That is why McConnell looked so grim Saturday morning. The strategy failed. He got nothing but defeat for his own party, and gave the Democrats a victory that Obama was willing to forego in favor of bipartisanship.

The other good news is economic. The GDP figures are turning around and housing prices are down less than 5% over last year nationwide, and are increasing in some areas. Unemployment is still at record levels, but the layoffs have decreased to a trickle and new hiring is now replacing them. Also, the stock market has recovered to where it was in September 2008. These trends should continue in a positive direction into 2010. I believe that by the summer of 2010- a politically crucial time - the public at large will believe that the economy is "recovering" and the the Obama administration will get the credit for it. The "right track" polling will show that voters will by and large believe we're headed in the right direction, even if we are not there yet.

This spells political disaster for the GOP. They've got nothing to offer but criticism. That works rarely - for example, if you're the Dems running agaisnt Bush in 2006 who had a monumental record of failure and the public believed him to be a big failure. It doesn't work when things are perceived to be going your way. What has the GOP shown it will run on in 2010 except "NoBama"? And what will that get them? Not much, since Barack Obama is the most popular politician in the country right now. Repeat that for emphasis, if need be. Despite all, despite his hovering-at-50% mark, he is more popular than anyone else on capital hill.

Also, word comes today that the DRCC (the House committee to reelect Dems) has three times as much money on hand as its Republican counterpart. Republicans have nothing to offer lobbyists because they have just sat out this legislative session. The strategy of stopping has failed. No influence over nothing, so no campaign contributions to the GOP.

In other words, folks, what we see in the polls today represents the nadir of Democratic popularity with 10% unemployment and (till this morning) little real legislative success to point to. It all gets better for the Dems from here.

House races are hard to predict, but extra Democratic cash means that they can afford to save the more marginal districts. Loss of a 10-20 house seats is not fun, but it's not that big a deal. Only blue dogs will lose, and that's not a great loss.

The Senate remains anyone's game. Dems should be able to hold Colorado, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, pick up NH and Missouri (both polling Democratic even now), and challenge Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida. That's +2D. Republicans must win both NH and Missouri, and knock over a couple Dems (possibly Delaware, Louisiana, and Colorado) to make a dent in the Democratic supermajority. Nevada looks bad for Reid now, but Reid has won that state for years and it's bluer than it has ever been. After Labor Day 2010, the Democrats will campaign joyously with their popular, Nobel-prize-winning President with a simple unified message: we've turned around the mess the Republicans left us, and we're headed in the right direction. To this, the tea parties, birthers, deathers, and NoBama will have little to offer in return, even in an off-year election that favors the old, decrepit, and conservative.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Schwarzenegger And Republican Welfare

Arnold Schwarzenegger is asking the federal government for $8 Billion or else... Or else he'll impose massive cuts in the California state budget. What does this really translate into? He wants the taxpayers of 49 other states to incur more debt so that he won't have to break his promise not to raise taxes on California's tax payers. This is absurd and it indicates the hypocrisy and intellectual bankruptcy of today's Republicans - even "moderates" like Schwarzenegger. He knows the cuts will be at best unpopular and at worst genuinely disastrous. But rather than return the tax rate to where it was before the series of tax cuts in the go-go 90s, he's gone begging to the federal government. In effect he's trying to force the rest of the country to balance his budget for him.

He's not the only Republican to do this. Alaska is the worst offender and Sarah Palin is their prophet. But the states that are most dependent on federal spending tend to be dominated by "conservatives" and Republicans. It's no secret that the South receives much more from the Feds than they contribute in taxes to the Federal coffers. Now Schwarzenegger wants to head down that path for the largest state in the country.

Republican policies, are simply unsustainable. It is impossible for every state in the country to work this way. Of course, it is possible (albeit hypocritical) for a handfull of small states to do so. But the country would be in real distress if California and other traditional contributor states start doing this too.


Monday, December 21, 2009


This can't be true, can it?

A self-styled Nevada codebreaker convinced the CIA he could decode secret terrorist targeting information sent through Al Jazeera broadcasts, prompting the Bush White House to raise the terror alert level to Orange (high) in December 2003, with Tom Ridge warning of "near-term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experience on September 11," according to a new report in Playboy.

The report deals another blow to the credibility of the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded terror alert system, and comes after Ridge's claim that the system was used as a political tool when he was DHS secretary.

The man who prompted the December 2003 Orange alert was Dennis Montgomery, who has since been embroiled in various lawsuits, including one for allegedly bouncing $1 million in checks during a Caesars Palace spree. His former lawyer calls him a "habitual liar engaged in fraud."
Really? You believed that Al-Jazeera broadcasts contained hidden messages from terrorists? And that this con artist could decrypt them? I mean, I believed that the Bush administration was as incompetent as much as the next guy, but this is hard for me to handle.

I would say "thank God the adults are in control now" but ... we still have that color-coded terror alert system, right? And we still can't bring water on airplanes? So ... we've got a ways to go when it comes to a rational approach to terrorism.

Edited to add a title


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Strange Political Fight

While the Democrats are busy embarassing themselves over their handling of the health care reform package, you'd think national Republican figures would sit back and watch or at least chortle a little. But it seems Sarah Palin and Arnold Schwarzenegger are gearing up for a squabble over - get this - who has better "green" credentials.

This is a strange fight. I think it shows a couple of things. First, Sarah Palin is not a very sophisticated political strategist. She has one move, get on the front page by being "outraged" about something. In this case it may backfire. No one who cares about environmental regulation will believe that Sarah Palin is the leading green Republican. And the typical Palinista will not approve of her trying to be one. Why on Earth is she doing this? I believe it is because she can't resist picking a fight that gets her on the front page. She thinks that this is like squabbling with David Letterman or something.

Second, it shows the poverty of ideas in the Republican party. If their two most prominent national figures now (Palin and Schwarzenegger) are fighting over who does what on a Democratic issue, it is a good indication that they can't think of anything better to talk about. This would be like Obama and Clinton debating who is more committed to the pro-life stance. If the issues for 2010 are economic recovery and the environment, it favors Democrats.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Science, Statistics and "Tricks"

Before I begin let me say this. The capital of Denmark, Copenhagen, is pronounced "CopenHAYgen" not "CopenHAHgen." Neither is the Danish pronunciation of course. The Danish name for the city is Koebenhavn which sounds nothing like either alternative discussed previously. The "CopenHAHgen" pronunciation is actually and approximation of the GERMAN name for the city. But the brainless twits on CNN etc often insist on using the German pronunciation because they think it makes them sound smarter. But if you can't pronounce the Danish name, you should just use the English pronunciation.

Now, with the meeting in Copenhagen, there has been a bit of a media spasm about supposed fraud among scientists regarding their statistical analyses of climate change. This is based on a stolen email where a scientist refers to a "trick" he used to merge two data sets. I work with data often enough to have a good idea of what he was talking about and it wasn't fraud. What he was talking about was an open and transparent way to make two data sets collected by different research groups compatible. It happens all the time and as long as the researcher doing it is open about doing it and how they did it, there is no problem with it at all. But the climate change skeptics out there are using this story as an excuse to claim that climate change is just a massive conspiracy by elitist "scientists" who are just trying to make life difficult for honest Christians who haven't had their moral senses debilitated by an excess of indoctrination in "school."

Of course, this entry will have no influence on the people who need influencing. They will either never read it or dismiss it as ideological ranting. But sometimes it feels good to vent.


What to do with the Left Over TARP Money

So the news this week has been about how a number of the big banks have paid back their TARP loans early. Also there are a lot of TARP funds that never got dispersed. I think it comes up to something around $200 Billion.

The Obama administration and Congressional leaders of both parties are lining up their plans for this supposed windfall. Corporate interests want it to be used to offset a cut in the corporate tax rate. Democrats want to use it for another round of stimulus spending aimed at things like green technology, infrastructure and jobs creation.

I think both ideas are flawed. The complaints about corporate tax rates are a constant. They'd complain if it were only 1% and if it were 0% they'd insist on subsidies. The stimulus idea is politically driven by the need to appear to be doing something until the economy gets better. The problem there is that the first rounds of stimulus are still being dispersed and the economy appears to be on the right track already. So spending another $200 Billion could end up being overkill.

We should use the money to pay down our deficit. We borrowed it in the first place and while $200 Billion would be a small portion of the overall deficit, it would help. We're spending money left and right. For the most part, I think that spending is justified. I'm not some ideologue who thinks deficit spending is socialism or that government doing anything at all means that the next step will be that they put me in a concentration camp. But I do think that it is reasonable to argue that if we find that we borrowed a little more than we thought we needed, we should pay down the loan with the extra money.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Electing a Lesbian Bishop

I was a delegate to the 114th convention of the Los Angeles Diocese of the Episcopal Church in Riverside this past weekend where we "made history" by electing the first lesbian bishop. Unlike Bishop Gene Robinson, who famously remarked that he was scarcely the first gay person to be a bishop in the Anglican or Roman churches - just the first one to be honest about it - the list of female bishops is so short that we can safely say that The Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool is the first lesbian bishop in the Church. The vote for a new bishop is taken by orders, and a candidate must get a majority of both clergy and laity. There were 203 lay votes in favor of Glasspool on the 7th and final ballot, including my own vote.

Some clarification. In the Episcopal tradition, each administrative region or "diocese" has one "Diocesan" bishop. This is a bishop with a specific administrative responsibility for that diocese. In addition to the diocesan bishop, there may be more than one Bishop "suffragan." A bishop suffragan is sort of a bishop-without-portfolio: ordained and called to the episcopate but not given a specific geographic administrative function. Most dioceses do not have suffragans. Of those that do, it is rare to have more than one. The LA diocese, which is very large, has two. One reason to have a bishop suffragan is that a bishop by custom visits each parish at least once a year to preach and administer sacraments. With 180 congregations in LA, but only 52 sundays in a year, this task cannot be reasonably done by one person. A bishop may appoint an Assistant Bishop (usually from retired bishops) who is specifically a helper-bishop and who may be hired or fired at will. A Bishop suffragan is not an "Assistant" in this way (despite how the papers report it). He or she serves for life, just like the bishop diocesan. A bishop suffragan is more like a co-bishop. Anyway, that's who we elected.

The process for choosing our bishop was as follows. The nominations were opened for 6 weeks in mid-2009. Each candidate has to be given a full background check. For this reason, nominations from the floor of the convention are not possible. The 24-person "search" comission includes both lay and clerical members. There were 51 nominees, of whom 20 actually applied. Of the 20 nominees, the diocesan "search committee" narrowed the candidates to six by unanimous vote. These included one straight white woman, one gay white woman, one gay white man, one straight black woman, and two straight hispanic men.

Why did I vote for Glasspool? While not required anywhere to explain my vote, let me say that the reason was twofold. First, she was nearly a decade older and more experienced than most of the others. She was also one of only two who came from outside the diocese, which I regarded as a plus. We don't want to be too insular. With that being said, I was also delighted that by electing her we could make a statement to our own people about the final step of inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in our Christian life together. Poking my finger in the eye of the Archbishop of Canterbury was a minor, sinful pleasure.

The voting on the floor took place in two rounds over two days. The white, straight candidate (Diane bruce) was elected on the first balloting on the first day. That took four votes. Glasspool consistently came in second during that voting. Once Bruce was elected, the filed narrowed to five. The delegates split between Vasquez and Glasspool. The "gay thing" was scarcely an issue. In fact, the only lesbian clergymember who shared her vote with me was urging me to vote for Vasquez because she felt that he was an incredibly talented leaader who had been given short shrift because his English is so poor. The real discussion was whether to elect a secodn white woman or someone of color. The bishop pleaded with us to listen to God and not to try to "engineer" God's will. Some otuside the convention might have taken that as a plea not to elect a gay person; it was directed, actually, to those seeking racial diversity. The clergy settled on Glasspool by the third vote, but the laity did not. The laity twice voted for Vasquez with a majority, but the clergy did not budge. The crucial vote came after lunch on Saturday, when the clergy were preparing to leave. Typically, I understaand, the clergy has to leave the convention by Saturday afternoon to prepare for Sunday while the laity just take sunday off, so the laity usually can "hold out" and make the vote. We didn't - the laity prayed and reversed course, joining the clergy in voting forGlaspool on the 7th vote, the results of which were announced at about 2:45pm.

We all had to sign a testimony that we were present during the election. While this happened, the bishop led us in an impromptu singing of "Amazing Grace." The convention stood, sung, and wept. The bishop's own voice was cracking as he announced the election results, something quite amazing to see. As I left the convention hall to head home - sneaking out before the final devotional service of the day - I was astonished to see news reports of the vote coming out everywhere. Was this really so radical, to vote for a 55-year old woman from Baltimore who had been a priest for a quarter-century? My reaction to reading the Archbishop of Canterbury's terse reply on Sunday was unexpectedly furious. We are called to raise up our own leaders to preach the gospel. We know who we are. And it was liberating to express without reservation that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are a full part of our community, loved by God who created all of us as we are, in His/Her image. It is simply not the Archbishop's business to tell us how to respond to Holy Spirit.

I want to stress to you all that this was a surprisingly un-political convention. There was no opposition to electing a gay person in any evidence anywhere, at least no opposition on that basis. What I can assure you is that we left the convention with full and joyful hearts, in awe of the new things that God is doing in this world.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Welcome to the 18th Century

Parliament began fulfilling a judicial role in England in the period after the 12th century. The Commons (such as it was) was taken out of this role in 1399. With regular parliaments and an increasingly sophisticated judiciary, the house of lords gradually created special committees to handle what was now an appellate role. This was the state of affairs when the USA created its Supreme Court in 1789. In 1875, a provision was made for special lifetime appointments to the House of Lords for the sole pupose of being a judge. These were the first life peerages and created what were known as the "Law Lords." The Law Lords were increasingly professionalized. Now in the 21st century, the UK has finally done what its colonies were capable of in the 18th century: create a real independent supreme court. Hard not to be a bit snarky. This was authorized by parliament in 2005. It took its seat yesterday and began to hear cases. You can see at This is a parallel to . The new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom does not apparently have the right to declare acts of parliament to be unconstitutional. Well, there's still no written constitution, so what can you do?


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Once More Unto the Breach

The President's new Afghanistan strategy has been announced. The details are known. Send another 30,000 troops there at breakneck speed, try to turn Afghanistan around, then begin the transition back to Afghan forces leading the war effort in 18 months. Republicans mostly are happy, but some criticize the end-date and others (like George Will) want to leave now - they want, in other words, to do the very "cut and run" that was so derided in Iraq.

Is this going to work? I don't know. Here's the good part. The good part is that we are establishing limits to our involvement in Afghanistan. No open-ended commitment. The whole idea of having an exit strategy is to be sensible. Everyone knows that there is no such thing as an open-ended commitment by the any major power to fight a foreign war like this. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan (USSR) etc - we know the rules. So does the Taliban. In other words, we are finally learning what guerrillas and insurgents have known all along: wait long enough and the foreign power (the USA here) will leave. That is a known fact. Pretending otherwise deceives only ourselves, not our enemies.

So we need to have a strategy that can work within a limited period of time. Let me ask a larger question: given that no open-ended commitment is ever really possible, is there another military strategy we could realistically embrace other than trying to put Afghani forces in a position to secure their own state against rebels? Is there, at the end of the day, any counterinsurgency strategy other than forming a new workable political arrangement that commands sufficient resources to defend itself without foreign intervention?

The good news is that, unlike Vietnam, we are not supporting a very unpopular puppet government against a popular nationalist guerrilla movement. Karzai probably would have won the runoff. Certainly, he has wide backing among important groups in the country. And the opposition is not pro-Taliban either. So the political arrangement can arranged as planned, by bringing in more elements to the existing governemnt. And Afghan forces are willing to support their own government. The key to securing Iraq was buying off - literally - the Sunni insurgents. We can do much of the same in Afghanistan.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tired of Thomas Friedman

Yes, Tom Friedman (NY Times columnist), we got it. Globalization is the way of the future. It's here to stay, it's coming. And imagination and information, not "traditional" economic or political resources like capital, labor, land, or military force, will dictate the future. Fine. I heard the same thing in college 20 years ago with the Fukuyama "End of History" people trumpeting the end of ideological development of the world. This is all part of a conservative bent in scholarship. Sure, it would be nice, they say, if labor could be honored or if we could shop locally, but that's just pie-in-the-sky. Buy from Walmart and China and don't apologize. "Creative destruction" is just what's gonna happen. And in the end, a rising tide lifts all boats. Or most boats. Or the boats of those who learn how to sail, so go back and reinvest in your own personal education.


But we're sitting at the trough of a worldwide recession. The middle class in America invested in the stock market and real estate like they were told to, trying to "provide for themselves" while voting for politicians who dismembered the retirement/pension safety net and stood idly by while the cost of education and health care spiraled out of reach. Tese "suck it up" sentiments all come from safely tenured professors or - like Friedman - media personalities who have "made it." People who are safe, in other words, from the destruction of "creative destruction." So I'm getting tired of it all. Globalization is not a replacement for the social contract. Let me repeat: globalization is not a replacement for the social contract. Yes, globalization is going to happen and, yes, free trade will ultimately be superior to distortions caused by trade restrictions. But that doesn't mean that we should just give up on trying to improve our society through political action. Far from it. More than ever we need our political institutions to set policy goals and work through, with, or around institutions of private wealth to achieve them.

Those goals: 1. Universal childhood education. 2. Universal medical care. 3. Equal access to post-secondary education for all. 4. Good housing for all. 5. Personal safety. 6. Human rights. 7. Good jobs with good pay and good vacation for all who are willing to work. 8. The security of knowing that high medical costs or unemployment will not ruin you and your family and leave you destitute or homeless. 9. Safe, high-quality food at affordable prices. 10. A secular state that provides freedom for expression of all religions and philosophies, except for those portions of the religion or philosopihes that demand intolerance of one kind or another, where the expression can be tolerated but the intolerant behavior must be restricted. 11. Family-friendly workplaces and schools that coordinate child-rearing with work schedules and do not discriminate against "mommy track" or "daddy track" in hiring and promotions. 12. Justice. 13. Access to justice. 14. Safe working conditions. 15. An end to hunger, homelessness, child labor, human trafficking, and sexual exploitation. 16. Respect and dignity for the elderly. 17. The right to make choices about one's personal destiny, including with respect to reproduction, health care, end-of-life care, and death. 18. The right of persons belonging to a minority group to be free of oppression by the majority. 19. Democracy. 20. No permanent aristocracy of wealth. 21. A clean environment and an end to global warming.

None of these things will come from globalization alone. All require political action. We know this not just from philosophy, but from experience. We have tried the "pure free market" approach, and it doesn't work. It will provide none of these things.


Closing my eyes and crossing my fingers

Well, it's better than all that. The Senate got 60 votes to proceed to debate on health care, although 4 of those votes (Landrieu, Nelson, Lieberman, Lincoln) were votes to begin debate, not votes to approve the current state of the bill. Three of these have threatened to filibuster the final bill if it contains a public option, although all but Lieberman have been more cagey in their statements. Snowe (R-ME) opposed this stage, but her positions are increasingly well known. She may end up being more persuadable than Lieberman.

Why is this a good sign? The next scheduled vote is the one that matters: cloture, ending the GOP filibuster. Joining the Republican filibuster on this central bill is the ultimate act of betrayal and noe that these four will be loath to engage in, no matter what they say. They saw what happened to Joe Wilson. They will get worse from the left if they do the equivalent to giving Obama the finger. What these four have really signaled is their willingness to be persuaded or - more realistically - to be bought off. This suggests the bill really can pass.

What remains to be seen is what the amendments will be and what the angrier Democrats on the left will demand as their price to stay on board. It irritates rank-and=file dems to no end that a few of their colleagues, by claiming to be moderates, can extract concessiosn for the same vote that the rank-and-file does for "free."

With the Republicans (except maybe Snowe and Collins) exiting the debate altogether except to throw darts, the action is entirely on the side of the Democratic caucus. This is what many of us talked about last year. Reaching across the aisle is not a relevant skill; building consensus on the Democratic side ofthe aisle is. If you want to know why Obama let Pelosi and Reid write the bill, this is why: Rahm knew ex ante that the Republicans were never going to participate, so all the supposed Obama bipartisanship was irrelevant. Too bad. The Republicans have allowed the birther/deather/teabagger minority to steer their ship. Hopefully, to steer it into a pile of rocks. When the economy improves - and it will do so - they will discover that it was only 10% unemployment, not their own criticisms, that were weighing down the President's popularity.


Friday, November 20, 2009

It's the Government's Money, not Yours

For years, conservatives have complained that Democrats don't understand that the government's money is really taxpayer's money. They make little political jibe about it. It's not the government's money, it's your money.

Funny how, when it comes to federal restrictions on abortion, we see 180-degree turn. The Hyde amendment prohibits federal funding for abortions. The current Senate health care reform bill would allow a person to purchase private health coverage with government subsidies that would pay for an abortion if that part of the coverage that pays for the abortion comes out of their own premiums.

Pretty good, right?

Suddenly, it's a new tune (from the AP):

"Abortion opponents say Reid's bill circumvents Hyde. For example, they say that any funds a government insurance plan would use to pay for abortion would be federal funds by definition — even if the money comes from premiums paid by beneficiaries.

"All the money the government has starts out being private money," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life. "Once the government has them, they're federal funds."

This is not just a simple case of hypocrisy. It shows that the "pro-life" movement really understands that by restricting the use of the people's money, they are imposing their own religious dogma on the rest of society.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Just When You Think It Can't Get Any Worse

UC undergraduate fees are going up by yet another 33% (not pictured here properly). I was a UC undergraduate student at the far left of the chart, and saw the dramatic rise (percentagewise). So fees will soon have more than quintupled in 20 years. That is horrendous. It was possible for people to work their way through a UC from the 1940s through the 1980s, and thousands did, particularly when the UCs expanded from 2 to nearly 10 campuses in the 1960s. All that is over. While $10K may not sound like that much it is well beyond the ability of any 19-year-old to save during the year. That doesn't include paying for room and board at rates that are at or above market rate and buying hundreds of dollars of textbooks for three "quarters" each year. You have to add $10K to share a *triple* room, or $12K for a double room per year. This includes 19 meals per week - in other words, two shy of the full "three squares."

How far we have come from the Master Plan for Education that Governor Pat Brown, Jerry Brown's father, implemented 40 years ago.

I quote from that famous report below. The report, which recommended to maintain "tuition-free" education, cited with approval this statement by the President of the University of Minnesota about "the desire of some organizations and individuals to raise tuition and fees to
meet the full operating costs of public institutions of higher education:"

"This notion is, of course, an incomprehensible repudiation of the whoIe
philosophy of a successful democracy premised upon an educated citizenry.
It negates the whole concept of wide-spread educational opportunity made
possible by the state university idea. It conceives college training as a personal
investment for profit instead of a social investment. No realistic and unrealizable counter-proposal for some vast new resource for scholarship aid and loans can compensate for a betrayal of the “American Dream” of equal opportunity to which our colleges and universities, both
private and public, have been generously and far-sightedly committed. But
the proposal persists as some kind of panacea, some kind of release from
responsibility from the pocketbook burdens of the cherished American idea
and tradition. It is an incredible proposal to turn back from the world-envied American
accomplishment of more than a century"

That, however, is the essence of Reaganism as we have lived it for the past 30 years. The attempt to shift the entire burden of education onto the students. I urge you all to reflect on how radical this once-standard view would be today. Most of our public discourse about education assumes it is "personal investment for profit" instead of a social investment, which is why the cost is put on the students themselves. We need to go back, seriously back, to the ideals of the immediate post-WWII era that understood that public education was not socialism, but a longstanding American tradition.

Sadly, this is what it is coming to. The result will be greater class disparity and, what is worse, a general decline in the fortunes of the American people as a whole.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009


So there is a whole lot of phony outrage over President Obama bowing to the Emperor of Japan. The outrage is calculated to play in Ohio and Michigan who unfairly blame the woes of the American manufacturing sector, particularly auto manufacturing, on the Japanese (rather than the incompetence of the American managers, who deserve the blame).

This is not the first time Obama's approach to royalty has come under scrutiny. For deference to the Saudi King, he is berated by conservatives (who try to forget the total abject toadying of the Bush family for the past 40 years). Same thing for Michelle Obama's embrace of the Queen, regarded as an affront to the British because... wait for it... it was not deferential enough. Bottom line, there is nothing Obama can do that will not be criticized by the right-wing press. Best to ignore them and concentrate on any audience that matters. In this case, the audience was the people of Japan. For them, bowing to the Emperor is like standing at attention when the US Flag is saluted. This was regarded as entirely appropriate by them, and as a sign of respect for Japan only. The interpretation of the bow as some sort of subservience to royalty is simply off the mark. It is noteworthy that the only context where an American ought to be observe some symbolic lack of deference to monarchy - with our former monarchs in Britain - the President played it correctly.

Moreover, the bow tothe Japanese Emperor was a magnanimous gesture because everyone knows that Barack Obama is - by far - the more popular and more powerful of the two leaders. He is the nobel prize winner for peace unlike, er, the present Emperor's father. Also, Obama's relative height meant that any less of a bow would not actually lower his head below the Emperor's, which was kind of the point of the gesture. The trick was to make the bow respectful, not mocking or clumsy. That was well done. Anything else would have been a bit insulting, really. By contrast, Dick Cheney's "firm handshake" in 2007 is indicative rather of Cheney's lower standing in the world and his own insecurity. It is also very clear from the facial expressions of the Emperor and Empress that they were absolutely delighted, an image seen all over Japan. Isn't that the whole purpose of meeting these figureheads in the first place?

So, congratulations to the protocol folks at the State Department for getting it exactly right. A symbolic gesture of respect to the Japanese people through a bow to their Emperor, genuine respect to the Chinese by engaging Hu as if it were a superpower summit. By the way, the London Times heartily approved in an article very much worth reading. Note that the conservative Times also approved of the embrace between the Queen and the First Lady at the time, noting with a sort of hushed awe that the Queen embraced Michelle back.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Justice at Last!

What excellent news comes from the Attorney General this morning: Khalid Sheikh Mohammend and four other plotters connected with the 9/11 attacks will be tried in federal court in New York. This is eight years in coming, and a half dozen years after these criminals were apprehended. It is about time!

The Republicans are outraged. Atty General Mukasey (formerly a federal judge in New York) claims that this is a reversion to a pre-9/11 mindset that refuses to acknowledge that we are "at war" with terrorism. Of course this is false. Shifting from trials in military commissions to trials in real courts has nothing to do with the tactics and strategy employed to defeat terrorists. The reason for the outrage is the fear that Bush and the neoconservative legacy will be further undermined. The trials will, they know, bring out real details about the torture inflicted on these accused persons.

I am excited. This is the chance we have been waiting for since the 9/11 attacks, to show the world what American justice is really all about. I hope the courts do a good job. The conservatives who oppose this have really emboldened the terrorists. Their message is, "You terrorists are too big, scary, and powerful for our meager institutions. Not soldiers or criminals, but a terrifying new hybrid. We will change our values and principles to accommodate you, because they are too weak." This Attorney General and this President say otherwise. America and her institutions are strong enough to handle these terrorists.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Taking on Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck is getting more and more powerful, and this is a problem for this country. Thankfully, some are taking him on with vicious parody.

First, you might have seen Jon Stewart's send-up on The Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The 11/3 Project
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

And recently, South Park did one too. I hope this helps raise "Glenn Beck is dangerous" awareness.


Monday, November 09, 2009

The Cold War Ended 20 Years Ago Today

If one can point to a particular date on which the Cold War ended, it would be November 9th, 1989. Twenty years ago today, the East German government lifted travel restrictions on its citizens and they responded by practically ripping down the Berlin Wall with whatever hammers, axes and picks they could find. Events moved so rapidly that fall it was nearly impossible to keep up. You can see it in the eyes of some of the E. German border guards in the video clip. They're stunned, in shock. They don't know whether to be upset that their authority is now gone or be thrilled that they too are free for the first time in their lives.

When all this was happening, I was coincidentally taking a course on the politics of the Soviet system. At the beginning of the course things were already starting to happen. Our professor asked us when we thought Germany would be reunified. None of us, including the professor thought it would happen within the next 20 years. Most of us thought it would be 50 years. As it happened, it was all over bar the shouting by the end of that semester and the last official i's were dotted and t's crossed in a little more than a year.

I think too, that the European Union played a significant role in the speed of the reunification. Both Thatcher and Mitterand were reluctant to allow a rapid reunification. The EU provided a safe context in which a reunified Germany could emerge. In a very real sense, the presence of the EU meant that E. Germany wasn't only merging with W. Germany but with all of Western Europe. That fact made Thatcher's World War II era language of "Anschluss" sound a bit silly (referred to reunification by the same term used to describe Hitler's annexation of Austria instead of by the term the Germans on both sides were using "Wiedervereinigung"). It also gave Mitterand a way to see how he could work an angle for French benefit out of the whole deal.

From a German perspective, it meant that E. Germans were in the EU for 14 years before their Polish, Czech and East-Central European neighbors were admitted. The advantage in that is easily visible. I visited the former E. Germany a couple of years after reunification and it reminded me of the worst hit parts of the "Rust Belt" in the American Great Lakes area. Friends of mine who now live in Germany (one in Berlin) have told me that parts of the former E. Berlin are quite fashionable neighborhoods now. Progress in Poland the Baltics (based on my own visits there) has not been nearly as pronounced.


Friday, November 06, 2009


Unemployment formally has befallen more than 1 in 10 Americans. Including underemployment, we are looking at closer to 18% by most reports this morning. 1 in 5 Americans are having enormous trouble with their personal economic situations. This is a really, really big deal.

But it's not a new development. We hit this number, more or less, in April after four months of losing almost 700,000 jobs per month (you may not remember this figure because the reported numbers were initially smaller, but all were adjusted upward). By July, job losses had slowed to about 200,000 per month. This last month 190,000. This is a significant number because job losses happen every month even in the best economy. What is supposed to happen also is new hires. That's not happening yet. So we're seeing fairly normal loss numbers (according to Labor Dept spokesman last month), but not fairly normal gain numbers yet. Combined with economic growth that is now occurring in a GDP context, including the manufacturing sector and others, it is largely good news. Economic activity is returning. Factory orders are going up. Housing prices are, in some areas, beginning to rebound.

Of course, politically, all eyes are on the 2010 elections. In presidential elections, the "table" for the election is largely set by mid-summer. In offyear elections, the table gets set a bit after labor day. By this I mean that the public gets a fixed idea of what the state of the world is, and of what issues matter to them, by late September. After that, candidates can't argue about how the world is, they can only argue about what they will do about it. Recall in 1992 that the economic recovery began quite obviously in September 1992, but Clinton could run on recession because the public wasn't going to change its perception. So the real question is whether the public perceives that the recovery is underway by September 2010. Probably so.

In fact, the danger for the Democrats is that the existence of economic recovery becomes a non-issue by the summer. "What have you done for me lately" is a real danger. So, ironically, it is worth it to the Dems to not proclaim "victory" until the Summer.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

Conventional Wisdom in Politics

So we keep hearing that VA and NJ always or often vote against the President's party in the subsequent year. At, they have a chart showing this happening 14 of 16 times since 1980. So let's push it further. Here are my thoughts:
1. If VA or NJ voted against the incumbent president's party but consistent with that state's vote in the previous year's presidential election, the election shows continuity, not a shift against the president's party.
2. Does it matter what happened before 1980? I don't see why 1980 is a cutoff for measuring unless we know something happened, or unless we with to hypothesize that some change must have happened in 1980.

Here are my expanded data:

Year Prior Pres Elect VA Vote Pres VA Gov NJ Vote Pres NJ Gov VA NJ
2009 D D* R D* R 2 2
2005 R R* D D D 2 1
2001 R R* D D D 2 1
1997 D R R D* D 1 0
1993 D R R D* R 1 2
1989 R R* D R* D 2 2
1985 R R* D R* R 2 0
1981 R R* D R* R 2 0
1977 D R R R D 1 -1
1973 R R* R R* D 0 2
1969 R R* D R* R 0 0
1965 D D* D D* D 0 0
1961 D R D D D -1 0

The coding is: 2 means state voted against incumbent president and changed its party preference from the previous election. 1 means the state voted agaisnt the incumbent president but consistent with its prior presidential electoral vote. 0 means it voted for the incumbent president, consistent with its prior presdential electoral vote. -1 means that it voted for the incumbent president and inconsistently with its prior state vote agaisnt that president.

What we see is (1) the pattern is not so strong as remarked and (2) it really only relates to a handful of elections.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Election of 2009, cont'd

So Republicans won a governor's race in Virginia for the first time since 1997 and recaptured the Governor's seat in New Jersey from the very unpopular Corzine, albeit probably with barely 50% of the vote. Good news for the GOP, sort of. But in the nationalized contest in NY-23, the Dems are going to pick up a House seat from the Republicans, and the Maine anti-gay referendum remains too close to call at this hour (No has led most of the night, but it's still early). For reasons that are hard to fathom, at the same time, we see medical marijuana in Maine passing by over 60%. War on drugs is over. War on love still being waged by conservatives.

2009 will go down as a split decision, between D and R, but a big loss for social conservatives. The only social conservative to win, McConnell in VA, only did so by pretending he wasn't. Sarah Palin also is the big loser. Her public endorsement of Hoffman in NY-23 was a bust. The endorsement that mattered was the unknown derided Scozzafava (Republican, but pro-choice and called a RINO by the blackshirts of the party) dropping out to endorse her Democratic opponent over the weekend.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Election of 2009

2009 is an off-off-off year election. The voters are going to the polls for statewide races in NJ and VA, and in congressional elections in a handful of open districts, where only NY-23 is attracting any attention. If you only knew that unemployment was at record highs and that the party in power in Washington (Democrats) was also the incumbent party in both VA and NJ governor's races (and connected with NY-23 where the President picked the incumbent Republican congressman for the Sec of the Army, thus leaving a vacancy), you would predict the president's Democratic party to lose. You would double down if you realized that Virginia's race featured no incumbents - and the NJ Democratic incumbent Corzine is an ineffective former Goldman Sachs multi-gazillionaire tainted by association with a sick and widespread corruption scandal including the illegal sale of organs who also raised taxes on a lot of people. That is what is going to happen - the Republicans will win these races, in all likelihood.

But you would also predict that all the major candidates of the out-of-power party - the Republicans - would be running against Barack Obama and ideologically against Democrats and liberalism. That is not happening.

In Virginia, the Republican candidate who actually could have quite first-rate right-wing credentials is running as a centrist, making his pitch not to his base, but to swing voters in Northern Virginia. In New Jersey, the Republican candidate is running with ads quoting Barack Obama, and there is a third party candidate (Daggett) who is spoiling the race as a centrist who is pulling votes from the Republicans. In NY-23, a safe GOP district, a 3-way race developed between a centrist republican, a Democrat, and a "Conservative" party member. The conservative party member will likely win buoyed by a civil war within the national GOP ranks over whether to support him or their own less conservative nominee.

So what does this mean? It means that these 2009 are not playing out a referendum on Obama or the Democrats. It means that Republicans who think that 2009 victories point to an ideological tilt or to 2010 victories are mistaken at their peril. With unemployment at levels not seen for more than a quarter century - and in some places, not since the Great Depression - you would expect the party in power to take a beating. But Barack Obama is still over 50% in popularity and conservatism is showing no signs of expanding its appeal to the electorate, an electorate which still wants more government action, and an electorate that is not voting on social issues. The GOP quietly put the tea party nonsense away when the real campaigning began after Labor Day.

In Maine, there will be referendum on whether to block the legalization of gay marriage authorized by the legislature earlier this year. It is running "too close to call" in every poll, and Maine's Republican grandees - Snowe and Collins - are keeping mum about it. The referendum has seemed to be a waste of time to most Maine residents.

In January 2009, Barack Obama made a bargain with the American people: support me and I will fix the economy. In 2010, with the economy on the mend, expect to see his and his party's fortunes soar again. 2010 will be the national referendum on Obama; this 2009 election is not shaping up to be a national referendum. The GOP has avoided making it that, for good reason.


Abdullah Abdullah to Boycott Runoff

Abdullah Abdullah is going to boycott the run off in Afghanistan.

OK, I'll get right to the point. I've always thought that boycotting elections was a sign of weakness. Why boycott an election if you think you're in a strong position? Even if it's going to be rigged, you get your people out there, rev them up, and set up a wave of protests against the rigged election like happened in Iran recently. By boycotting the election you are essentially saying that the best chance you have of getting attention is by quitting. That's not a sign of strength.

Abdullah Abdullah looked very strong after Karzai was forced to participate in the run off. But by pulling out, it makes it look like he expected to lose and expected that his supporters would not support him in challenging the outcome.

It's unfortunate that Abdullah has done this to put it mildly. By doing this he implicitly admits that Karzai really is the stronger candidate but publicly acts to undermine his legitimacy. I can't see how you could justify this as being good for the country except if you think that bringing down the entire democratic structure (such as it is) is preferable to working to reform it.


Friday, October 30, 2009

The Hague and a Failure of Justice

If I hear one more time on NPR that Radovan Karadzic has "refused to attend" his war crimes trial, I am going to deliberately run over a small animal. Mr. Karadzic is not in a hotel. He is in prison. He can be forcibly taken to the trial and, if need be, manacled to his seat.

Something is seriously wrong in the Hague. Milosevic's trial was four years and counting when he died. The Karadzic trial is expected to last two years. This is excessive, surely. Equally bad, they seem unable to punish anyone. A woman was convicted of war crimes and sent to Sweden where, apparently, serving 2/3 of your sentence is considered good enough for government work. Plavsic is, therefore, already returning home to a heroine's welcome in Belgrade. What has happened in a place where the trials exceed the punishments in length?

Here in the USA, we have some experience with excessively long civil and criminal trials, but they are not fixtures in the system. Their emergence has been unexpected and the judiciary is trying to figure out how to tamp it down. Not so in Europe, it seems. The Hague operates like most European courts.

I get the sense that the European civil law system, as a whole, is totally broken, perhaps beyond repair. Criminal trials routinely take years. There is no right to a speedy trial in Europe, it seems. In Italy, you basically have to be convicted twice before you can be sentenced. French Appellate courts (courts of cassation) have the power to remand, but not to reverse - meaning that decisions are interminable.

The liberal sentiments are so excessively written into the law that accused persons -like Karadzic - are treated like honored guests. The contempt power of courts seems nonexistent. Punishments are bizarrely lenient. I am not advocating the overcrowded rape-and-murder factories of our American prisons, most of which are rightfully condemned by international human rights organizations. But there must be some middle ground between 25-to-life in Angola for murder (or the death penalty) and 5 years in a Swedish spa.

Part of the problem, I fear, is that the Euro-lawyering profession itself is undereducated. European lawyers need only the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. Judges also are not chosen from the practicing bar, but are specially and separately trained in college and -also- have the equivalent of a 4-year-degree only. They are by design just bureaucrats. This means that the academic study of law is insufficiently integrated with the judiciary. In the USA, judges and experienced lawyers routinely participate in academic legal discussions.

I have tried for some time to figure out why the European justice system works so badly, and I am finally convinced that Europe needs a judicial revolution.

Now, I am *not* arguing that the American system needs to be adopted. I do believe the American system is better overall, but it has enormous faults too. The core of the American system - the adversarial system - need not be imported. But a few reforms seem necessary.

Part of the problem is that Europe's professional judges lack the disinterested impartiality of jurors, and the lack of an (unpaid) jury means that there is no incentive to finish trials quickly. Some form of citizen participation in criminal trials would be a great help.

Also, the American judicial system is by and large dominated by the bar, which has proven to be a pretty good thing in criminal law for a few interesting reasons. Our system is adversarial, the bar is overwhelmingly civil, not criminal, and prosecutors play very little role in it. Most of the elite lawyers' participation in criminal matters is pro bono representation of indigent defendants or theoretical advocacy. So the judiciary is more acccused-friendly and is a counterweight to the legislature and executive that are pro-prosecutor. The European bar needs to organize itself. Having judges selected from the bar, rather than through special schools with no professional exposure involvement to the bar, is crucial.

Europe needs to create post-university law schools with special training and specialized academic faculties, not just have a law department as part of the poli sci department. The 3-year law school is most useful because the third year is the place where academic study of law can really take place after a couple of years of intensive training.

Above all, Europe needs to construct and independent judiciary. The Napoleonic-era desire to make courts into mere bureaucratic adminitrators of Napoleonic-code justice (mere instruments of the code) is a failed experiment. The independent judiciary with its own contempt power and political power is the better model. Judicial power, feared and hated by French revolutionary reformers as tied up with King and Pope, needs to be restored and reinvigorated.

This is not bash-Europe day for me. What Europe must not lose in this process is its great desire to protect human rights. But the system is out of balance and, I fear, by design. The most visible part of the european justice system, the Hague, is a total fiasco. Thousand-page indictments and multi-year criminal trials have to stop. Due process cannot become an end in itself. It is not necessary to adopt an adversarial system with its philosophical constraints, but something must be done to alleviate the problem that the judges are charged with the roles of investigating, prosecuting, and defending the rights of the accused all at the same time. Shifting some of these burdens to a more profesionalized bar and leaving the judges to manage the efficiency of the system (ah, docket and calendar control!) will do a great service.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What is the EU and What is it Good For?

Hi Everyone,

A recent story in The Economist wonders aloud who will "wake up Europe." They decry eight "wasted years" and seem annoyed the the EU has not become something much more or at least different than it is today. But what I found interesting about the article was that it didn't go into a lot of detail about what the EU was or what The Economist wanted it to become or why.

These are important questions if we are to set appropriate expectations and define measures with which we can judge how well the EU has met them. So what is the EU? The European Union is a confederation of democratic states with varying periods of complete sovereignty prior to joining the EU.

First and foremost, it is a free trade area with a a common currency (used by most of the member states that have been in for more than 5 years) and an increasingly integrated economic market. This degree of economic integration is largely possible because of the high degree of regulatory harmonization that has taken place in the EU over the last half a century.

More than half of the regulations and laws that govern the day to day lives of Europeans are passed at the EU level rather than by the governments of the member states. These regulations are pass by a directly elected European Parliament and a Council of Ministers made up of the elected Cabinet Ministers of the member states.

So that's what it is. What's it good for? This system has unified the economies peacefully that countless kings, dictators and generalissimos have tried to unify through war for more than 2000 years. The EU has formed the keystone of a regional system in Europe that has preserved a more complete peace for a longer period of time across a wider cross section of the continent than any other international arrangement in history.

In my opinion, if the EU does nothing from now until the end of time it will be playing a critical and beneficial role in the lives of Europeans. It doesn't need to be a super state or a world power. It doesn't need to be a counter weight to the USA. It doesn't need to have a President. Even if the EU completely stagnates and ceases all change and institutional development, it will be fulfilling its most important role... establishing a peaceful and democratic order in which individuals may prosper and be happy. Everything else is just details.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Joe Lieberman is Such an Asshole

Joe Lieberman said today that he will filibuster Harry Reid's bill with the opt-out. So much for party unity and all that. It's all about Joe, all the time. It looks like we will have to do this with Snowe's vote, not with Joe. He makes me angrier than all the Republicans. Does anyone remember now that Joe Lieberman was Al Gore's running mate for the Democratic nomination in 2000? The Democratic platform that Lieberman ran on called for guaranteed access to health care for all children and allowing persons 55 years or older to buy into Medicare. It also called for Universal Health Coverage.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Momentum for Health Care Reform

The logic of elections and political power is finally bearing itself out in the health care reform debate. With control of the white house and large majorities in both houses of Congress, including 60 votes in the Senate, it was always within the power of the Democrats to pass sweeping reforms. It also has been their biggest issue for 20 years. This is what Democrats, what Obama, were elected for. So it is not too surprising that they are in a position to get it done.

What is surprising is how well it is working. Pelosi, Obama, and others did not lose their nerve (not so sure about Reid - he was better in the minority by far). And we are now on the verge of getting the legislation to the floor. What's better is that the question is now now "will there be a public option" but - likely- what kind. Moderate Dems are realizing that there is no way to demand cost containment but oppose the public option at the same time. Snowe is looking for a compromise. On the Democratic side, the question is whether Landrieu (LA), Nelson (NE) and Lieberman (FU) will vote against the whole package if it has a public option of some kind. The expectation is apparently now that they will "work against" having one, or work to water it down, but will not oppose the legislation altogether if one is included. It helps a lot that the Dow is at 10,000 and next week the numbers will come out showing the Great Recession is officially over, and that economic growth has resumed. True, there is still lots of pain, but the belief that things are going to improve - i.e., HOPE - is what elected the Democrats in 2008, and will bring them renewed political victories in 2010.

All this is not inside baseball. It is all about whether we will finally get health security for Americans, or whether we will continue to live in a country where most people's health insurance covers too little, and where we have no real choice (most of us get a "choice" of the one plan our employer offers -I can "choose" only one PPO or one HMO, for example). The irony is that only government employees really get more choices these days.

This is a big deal. So far, the President has done a bad job of selling the bill, but it's getting better. The insurance industry has helped out a lot. Private for-profit health insurance has committed atrocity after atrocity, and their unpopularity is a millstone around the neck of their GOP allies.

This is phase one: passing the bill. Phase two is capitalizing on the reform politically in 2010 and 2012.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This is Who, RBR

To answer the question RBR just posed - who is the anti-gay-rights initiative in Maine appealing to?

Well, today, the Vatican announced that it would provide a special mechanism for whole Anglican parishes or dioceses to join the Roman Catholic church en masse and retain some of their Anglican traditions - such as the book of common prayer - and their married clergy (but not bishops who are married, or priests who are [openly] gay, or ordained women). This bears some resemblance to the Eastern Rite and Uniate churches - the churches with married priests and Orthodox (not Catholic) rite that for historical reasons make obeisance to the Pope and are included in his RCC fold. As Catholic as you wanna be.

As a liberal Episcopalian, this is rather good news. Instead of dividing my house, the conservative reprobates can just leave. By sucking up the hardest core of conservatives, it will drain away the driving force behind talk of schism. Remove the agitators and the support for schism becomes shallow indeed. This will probably kill the Anglican"covenant" movement too. Lose the far right and the rest can find common ground. Go in peace, friends (but definitely go).

On second thought, however, it's a strange move for the Roman church. Apparently, only two things are important to being a Catholic (1) proclaiming fealty to the Pope and (2) excluding women and (openly) gay persons from full membership in the community. This is not much of a Rock now, is it? To say that these two issues are so much more important than all the others is, in the end, pretty sad. It is another betrayal of Vatican II which embraced modernity, if not (yet) liberalization of these issues.

It also is a setup for failure. As has been pointed out by many, the "market" doesn't need another church to exclude gays or subordinate women. That niche is oversubscribed. And if that's how you define yourself, then your congregation is just going to gradually grow old, male, and die. You can say a lot about homophobia, but you can't call it a growing movement. The more the Roman catholics tie themselves to heterosexual patriarchy, the smaller their future will be. There's a reason why the leadership on anti-gay issues is increasingly among protestant fundamentalists. It thrives only in a sealed terrarium of religious intolerance.

Of course the biggest issue is not the "gay" issue, but the "women" issue. Gays are only - at most - 10% of the population, and openly gay Christians are a much smaller percentage of the whole. Women, however, are a solid majority of churchgoers everywhere, and definitely the majority of active members.

Here's the rub: the Vatican's new position today has nothing to do with the holy Spirit, and everything to do with conservative politics. If I were trying to keep people from giving the gospel faith a chance, I couldn't think of a more devious strategy.


A WWII Vet Speaking About Equality For Gays In Maine

This is a great clip of a WWII vet speaking about whether or not Gay people should have the same rights as anyone else. This is yet another demonstration of why the current incarnation of the Republican party is so marginalized and likely to continue to be so until it undergoes a revolutionary purge of the Religious fanatics that dominate it today. If they can't win over an elderly, white, male, war veteran on a social issue who are they appealing to? The fringe of the fringe? Hate mongers?


Monday, October 19, 2009

Run Off in Afghanistan

So the President of Afghanistan did not really win reelection outright in the first round after all. With enough fraudulent votes for Karzai invalidated to drop his support to about 48%, Karzai will now face a run off against Abdullah Abdullah, a former member of the Northern Alliance and former Foreign Minister of both the transitional government and Karzai's government.

Abdullah Abdullah was a close associate of Ahmad Massoud who was assassinated by Al Qaeda on September 9, 2001. Now, the Northern Alliance guys are not pussy cats. There are accusations of human rights violations and several of the "tribal warlord" types in the north-west don't really like them. But this faction does have long standing ties to Russia, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Turkey, Iran and India. Those could prove be useful contacts for the next Afghan administration - and their American allies.

I think this is a great chance for the Obama administration that they will accept democratic outcomes even if they are inconvenient. First and foremost because I doubt Abdullah Abdullah will be terribly unfriendly to American policy objectives. And what's more, if the US had resisted this or quashed it (probably what the Bushies would have been tempted to do), it would have fatally linked us to an illegitimate and increasingly corrupt and unpopular Karzai. This way, whether Karzai wins or loses the US can at least plausibly claim some neutrality in the election and hopefully reinforce the legitimacy of who ever the winner of the second round is.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Gay Rights March on Washington

There was a significant but not overwhelmingly important gay rights march on Washington today. It will not be more impressive than West Hollywood or the Castro district (SF) on Halloween. There is no doubt that many in the gay community want gay rights to become the civil rights issue of the 2010s. This march was part of that. Notably, Barney Frank was not on board with the march. As we know in California where gay rights groups are divided as to whether to bring an initiative for gay marraige in 2010 or 2012 - and they are idiotically having their fight through the press- the gay community is VERY internally divided.

Who can be surprised? For decades and generations, the gay community has been divided between those who were more out or more in the closet. The community has divided mightily and personally on strategies of infiltration, collaboration, or confrontation. In this respect, the gay community is more divided than the black community ever was - since for blacks, the ability to just "fit in" and be hidden was never an option.

My strong inclination is to oppose, at this time, a nationalization of the gay rights movement. first, it has been organized on the local and state level for the last 2 decades, and it has been very successful. Second, gay rights groups do less well the larger the forum of contest is. The biggest success is at the local level, then smaller states, then larger states, then nationwide has been the hardest of all. I agree with Barney Frank in principle that the state-by-state movement is working well and should be continued.

Here's my thought: Imposition of equal rights by federal fiat will ultimately be necessary in the benighted South run by its Republican-Baptist theocracy, but it will be a much harder and more politically expensive battle if the East, North, and West are not yet fully on board. Even national issues are really more local than they seem. I am heartened, for example, by the fact that Senator Reid just wrote an open letter to President Obama demanding repeal of don't ask-don't tell in the military. A mormon senator from Nevada? Well, Nevada is trending Democratic, is very libertarian in its social policies, and Harry Reid wants gay money from California next door. Which he will now get, I presume. But this is really about local positioning by Reid, not really about national policy (since Obama is not expected to move in that direction quickly and Reid is not really expected to push him - this is about positioning Reid vis-a-vis Nevada and California).

So maybe big marches on Washington should be postponed for 5-10 years. March on Sacramento first.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why the Census and Redistricting Really Matter

There's an excellent post by Tom Schaller on that contains a number of nuggets of neat information. The post is about the "generic congressional ballot" (GCB) which is a nationwide aggregate survey of party preference in congressional elections. The question is simply "will you vote D or R?" We are so far away from the 2010 elections that only the broadest trends of red/blue have any vague predictive value now. My personal take on election polling is that polls more than six months out are as useful as predictions of the weather - on a particular day - six months out. Right now the GCB is trending more Republican than it has since 2005. But, as I like to point out, unemployment is at 10% and the Democrats are slogging through very hard agenda items in Congress. Next summer, with a year of legislative accomplishments behind them and a recovering economy, I would expect the GCB to tilt Democratic again.

Most politicos are waking up to the fact that the conventional wisdom that the president's party loses seats in the midterm elections didn't hold true in 1998 or 2002. In fact, other than big-change elections in 2006 and 1994, there has been no such "natural" drift in midterms for almost 20 years. Many things affect what may be a change, but here's the basic analysis: we no longer have coattail driven presidential politics, where the president's personal popularity sweeps in a set of reps who would never have won otherwise, and who therefore lose in midterms. We have presidents and parties much more politically aligned and polarized than in previous years. Thus the presidential popularity and vote share more closely match congressional vote shares. The 1994 and 2006 elections were examples of the president's unpopularity being reflected in Congress.

What is fascinating is the comment by a noted pollster that, in this decade, he simply subtracts 2 from the Democratic column in the GCB because Democrats are concentrated in fewer districts. Because of the GOP advantage in statehouses in 2000-2001 redistricting period (and the unbelievable mid-term redistricting in Texas later), Democratic-voting districts are more democratic than Republican districts. So much is the tilt that pollsters simply discount some Democratic strength in polling. Remember that the main use of gerrymandering is to arrange a situation where your party has 51% majorities in most districts, leaving the opposition to have supermajorities in a few districts.

Now realize that - despite this - the Democrats have surged to big electoral majorities in the House in 2006 and 2008.

So in 2010, we will see another round of redistricting. Odds are that, unlike 2000, the Democrats will control the process in Ohio, Iowa, California (somewhat), Colorado, and New York, and will have acquired some veto power over the process (e.g., control of one legislative house or governor's seat) in Virginia, Montana, and Nevada. This will make the House trend more Democratic in the next decade. The big question is what happens in Texas. Texas will get up to 4 new seats depending on how the math is figured. 3 is likely. Right now, the Texas lower house is split almost 50/50 for the first time in years. Dems have been reorganizing and gaining strength there as internal migration and demographic change in Texas has brought in non-Texans from around the USA and minority groups, including the Katrina refugees. If the Democrats can take over a legislative chamber in Texas in 2010, this will be very huge.

Note that the Senate is not gerrymandered. So with advances in gerrymandering technology (data and computers) the Senate has become almost more responsive to changes in national politics than the House.


Friday, October 09, 2009

This is going to drive Republicans NUTS

Hi Everyone,

By now you have probably heard that President Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009. I guess he will be going back to Scandinavia again. This time with a more successful story line.

It is extremely telling that the Nobel committee compared awarding the prize to Obama to their award to Gorbachev. They see Obama's presidency in the context of the over throw of a tyrannical system - namely Bush's approach to world politics.

This award is certainly as much a slap in the face of George W. Bush and his approach to foreign policy as it is a recognition anything Obama has accomplished in the first several months of his presidency. As such, it will drive Republicans UP THE WALL. There will be a chorus of complaints about how Obama isn't really serving American interests but the interests of lilly livered lefties who would give aid and comfort to "terrists."


Wednesday, October 07, 2009


I found this interesting.

The US government has relaxed its control over how the internet is run.
It has signed a four-page "affirmation of commitments" with the net regulator Icann, giving the body autonomy for the first time.
Previous agreements gave the US close oversight of Icann - drawing criticism from other countries and groups.
The new agreement comes into effect on 1 October, exactly 40 years since the first two computers were connected on the prototype of the net.
"It's a beautifully historic day," Rod Beckstrom, Icann's head, told BBC News.
First of all, I didn't even know the U.S. basically ruled the internet like that. Second, some people seem to think this doesn't fix any of ICANN's problems.

Third ... does this affect day-to-day life on the internet at all? Can someone give me a primer?


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The NRA is Dishonest and Sleazy

I just got - four minutes ago - a "push poll" from the NRA. They called my office, identified themselves as the NRA taking a one-question poll, and asked me what I thought of "the UN scheme to ban all guns in America." I curtly informed them that this was a place of business. I would have told the volunteer calling me that she and her organization were being incredibly dishonest, sleazy, and were originally formed to defend the KKK, but why bother. They're not right in the head, they are armed, and they seem to know where I work.

That's how the NRA operates, people. Total dishonest sleaze.


It Was Only A Matter Of Time

Iowa's supreme court recently ruled that Gays have the same rights to get married as anyone else. Iowa has a history of trying to entice its expatriates in California and other places to come back to Iowa. Iowa has a far lower cost of living (especially relative to average wages) and something of a youth and brain drain problem that state leaders have been trying to reverse for years. But this ruling is encouraging some people in Iowa go after people who may never have lived her before. A handful of tourism boards in Eastern Iowa set up shop at Gay Days in Disneyland advertising Iowa as a place to get married and live in peace and equality. The link above is to a news story from the biggest city in that part of the state, Cedar Rapids.

This is a really great idea and I hope it works.


Monday, October 05, 2009

Deep Thought

I bet that if I drugged and raped a 13 year-old girl, I wouldn't get 100 Hollywood big shots rushing to my defense. Just a guess.

How is this an issue they should be defending? And Woody Allen ... you probably should have sat this one out.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

So Much For the Decline of the Left

So with a series of elections among the wealthy countries of the world since the 2008 crash, there have been some high profile defeats for the traditional center-left parties. The center-left got beaten badly by the center right in the EP elections earlier this year. Then there have been some bi-election embarrassments for the British Labor Party that have many pundits all but writing that party's reelection chances off completely. Then the German Social Democrats were crushed in the elections there at the same time that the pro-market FDP surged to their best electoral result ever. One could be forgiven for thinking there is something seriously wrong with the center-left - or at least something has gone wrong with their relationship with voters. But two elections in wealthy countries are bucking this trend. In Japan, the center-left managed to unify and form the first single party government other than the LDP in Japan's post WWII history. And today, PASOK won the elections in Greece.

So what does this all mean? Probably not much in the way of consistent partisan shifts in among wealthy democracies. Rather this is probably all just a "throw the bums out" phenomenon. Especially in countries where the 2008 financial collapse has cause serious problems, voters are just reacting against what they perceive as the incumbent governing parties' responsibility for the economy. One thing I think is safe to say from this, any declines in the electoral fortunes of any center-left parties around the world are likely due to the idiosyncrasies of local politics (especially when the center-left are the incumbents going into the election) rather than any world wide reaction against the welfare state or taxes in the face of the recession.


What the Irish "Yes" on Lisbon in do over vote means

Yesterday, the Irish Republic held a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. (If you don't trust the EU to be objective about the treaty, check out the wiki site here.) Last time, they had a referendum on this Treaty, the Irish voted "No" (53.4% against). This time they voted "Yes" by a HUGE margin (67% in favor). The Czech Republic and Poland have yet to ratify but won't be doing so by referendum so their eventual ratification can be expected to be smoother. So this vote means the Lisbon Treaty is likely to be the law of the EU sooner rather than later.

The Lisbon Treaty is designed to implement many of the institutional changes (changes in the application of voting rules, changes in how majorities are measured in the Council of Ministers, new positions for foreign policy spokesperson and new "President of the EU" who will be largely a figure head) that were included in the now failed Constitutional Treaty. The best feature of this treaty, in my view, is that it will codify a new means of determining a majority vote in the Council of Ministers. In the past, majorities of various types in the Council were calculated by a system of weighted votes with each country's weight in the Council carefully negotiated to produce an acceptable (to the national governments) balance of influence among the various member states. This is all well and good but it required extensive renegotiations of the decision making rules every time a new member state joined. And it could potentially require renegotiation as political, economic and demographic conditions in the various member state change (remember that the Eastern Member States are changing very rapidly right now). Imagine if the US had to rewrite Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution every time a new state joined or the demographics in the country shifted.

The new method will be based on the number of governments voting together and the percentage of the EU population they represent. This updates itself automatically so this new method can become a permanent fixture. This alone is a huge improvement over the status quo and should have argued forcefully for the treaty's ratification.

The creation of the "President of the EU" and the "Representative for Foreign Affairs" are largely ceremonial. Neither will have much in the way of real political influence. But these features are what are drawing much of the anti-Treaty attention. The Foreign Affairs rep in particular would be allow to propose foreign policy missions but these would only be approved through unanimous vote of the Council so such proposal power isn't likely to be much beyond a media event that could start a debate but not - in of itself - constrain any member state government.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wills, Inheritance, Marriage, and the Social Cost of the Law

I just read a piece in the Washington Post that floored me. NFL player Sean Taylor was murdered in November 2007. The piece is about how his 49 year old mother inherited nothing, and how that has left her in dire financial straits. Apparently he used to hand out gobs of money to relatives and bought property for her she cannot afford now. He left $5.8m largely to his daughter, who is now 3 years old. A few lessons are clear:

1. If you depend on someone for your livelihood, consider purchasing life insurance. That's what it's for.
2. Intestate succession is not all that complicated. Here's the basic order of inheritance (who gets your stuff) if you die without a will: (1) spouse + children (2) parents (3) siblings (including half-siblings but not stepsiblings) (4) grandparents (5) aunts/uncles (6) cousins. These are degrees of kinship most people can remember easily. The basic rule is that if there is even one person in the class, they get it all. The next class gets nothing if there is one person in the class above.
3. The rules are a bit complicated between spouse and children (most common issue). The general rule is that spouse gets half, kids get half, although most states give the spouse a certain amount of money (like $50,000 or more) before kids get any. In a community property state like California, the spouse gets all the community property first before splitting separate property (if any) with kids). For most people in most states, these rules mean that unless you have some significant wealth, effectively 100% goes to the spouse even if you have kids. The bottom line is your spouse will get between 50% and 100% of everything if you have kids, 100% if you don't.

4. Note the holes in the rules. The following persons, among others, are nowhere in the line of succession: stepparents, step-siblings, girlfriends, boyfriends, fiance(e)s, unmarried partners of either gender, persons in civil unions except where the definition explicitly extends to inheritance, people you call "uncle" who aren't, uncles and aunts who are related by marriage rather than blood, and pets.

5. Illegitimacy no longer matters. It used to be a complete bar to inheritance. There is still an issue of unrecognized paternity, however.

Unfortunately, Sean Taylor had a kid, but no spouse, something becoming all too familiar. Had he died before the child was born, his mother would have inherited all $5.8m. Had he been married to his child's mother, she would have received 50-100% of the estate. As it stands, the kid gets everything and the kid's mother nothing. This is one of the reasons why marriage is important. And Sean's mother also gets nothing. I read this article and felt ill. Sean Taylor was a very wealthy man and father who left everything to chance. That is callous and irresponsible. I feel sorry for his girlfriend more than his mother. The mother should know better than to depend on a child for income; a girlfriend with a baby should expect to be taken care of.

Know the rules. Prepare. Life insurance may be more important than a will. Remember one thing about all succession, with or without a will: two classes always inherit above all others: (1) government (2) creditors. Life insurance generally (and for obvious policy reasons) allows you to avoid those.

Similar issues arose with Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, where unsettled property rights have effectively impoverished and disinherited thousands. There is a great hidden class discrimination and social cost to our system of legal inheritance borne by those who don't hire lawyers to draw up wills and don't, at least, get married and create legal relationships that way.


Monday, September 28, 2009

German Election Analysis

Or rather analysis of a German election...

In this past weekend's election in Germany (wikipedia has a nice results table here), the CDU-CSU lost fewer seats than the SPD and the FDP gained more seats than the Greens and The Left. This means that the next government will have the same Chancellor, Angela Merkel, but will have a much different overall composition. Where as most of the ministers in the outgoing government were from the SPD, this new coalition will be mostly made up of CDU-CSU ministers with a strong dose of FDP representation.

What does that add up to? Well, the Merkel has been rather publicly calling for re-regulation of financial markets as a response to the recession. My guess is that the FDP (a party known for its strong neo-classical liberal ideology) will resist that. Merkel also sought to make the war on terror a campaign issue. There again, the FDP may prove a less cooperative partner than anticipated. The FDP is staunchly libertarian in its ideology. I have a hard time seeing the FDP going along with re-regulation of financial markets or a more aggressive stance on the "war on terror" stuff.

Why did this result come about? Two reasons leap to mind. First and most importantly, whenever there has been a grand coalition (CDU-CSU and SPD) the smaller parties have gained at the expense of the bigger parties. That has certainly happened here. Both the CDU-CSU and SPD lost seats. Second, the left got creamed in the middle of a recession and an atmosphere of widespread criticism of capitalism. The FDP (the most pro-capitalist, anti-regulation party in Germany) won their biggest vote share and seat share in their history. But is this result really a rejection of Social Democracy? Maybe. But I think it is really a surge in voting based on nostalgia for the Wirtschaftswunder of the 1950s and the relative prosperity of 60s which was orchestrated by a series of CDU-CSU/FDP coalitions. Germans may associate the FDP with competent economic management because of that and the FDP have been out of government for a very long time. Germans, especially Western Germans, may want them to come in an reestablish the glory days.

AMENDMENT: The CDU/CSU did not lose seats. They did lose vote share but because of the nature of the German electoral system and rules governing the proportionality of the Bundestag, the CDU/CSU actually gained seats despite winning a lower percentage of the vote.