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."

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Souter retires

Tell me this wasn't the first thing that popped into your head when you heard the news.

I like it much better when a Supreme Court Justice retires instead of, you know, dying. Because all anyone can talk about when a Justice dies is who his replacement will be. This way, we get to frantically figure out who the replacement will be and then later on, we can reflect on Souter's legacy. Unless you want to do so here in the comments, of course.

Nah, just kidding. Who's his replacement going to be?


Did Specter Switch Parties Over Souter?

I'm going to start a rumor, but I think there is real truth to it. Word comes today that Justice Souter is going to retire. Apparently at least one law blog noted that David Souter had not hired law clerks for next year, which normally is done about this time. I think Specter knew this was going to happen and knew that he either have to join a GOP filibuster of Obama's (pro-choice) nominee or lose his party's nomination, right then. Either way would likely cost him the seat in Pennsylvania. Now he can safely vote for cloture. The pressure is off. Moreover, by giving the Democrats a filibuster proof majority, he prevents the first ever judicial filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee and the potential nuclear threat revival from some years ago. Specter is known to value the traditions of the Senate.

Justice Souter will be missed. He is sometimes said behind closed doors to be the first gay justice. We don't know, of course, but we know that he was a voice for tolerance in a court that, under Burger and Rehnquist, was quite intolerant. His replacement will bring not just a tolerant and moderate voice, but a genuine progressive voice to the Court. There will be much more to say about Souter in the future. Suffice it here to say that he was the most dismayed of all over Bush v. Gore. He was a true believer in the rule of law.


Finally, a President Who Appreciates the Role of Science in Public Policy

The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) formally met with President Barack Obama this week. A member of that distinguished committee expressed privately to close friend of mine they were very impressed with Obama's diligence and commitment to science. I am told Obama actually read the articles and summaries he was given by the committee co-Chairs and arrived prepared to discuss them, whereas former President George W. Bush rarely if ever met with PCAST and never followed up.

President Obama's appointment of Nobel Laureate physicist Stephen Chu as Secretary of Energy made a lot of scientists sit up and take notice. And the President's announced intention to significantly expand federal funding for scientific research naturally has pleased the scientific community as well. It is gratifying to see that Obama takes seriously the role of science as one factor in determining policy.


Even More Gay Marriage News

I saw a link to this poll on Daily Kos.  Two important things jump out right away.  First,  support for equal rights for marriage among Republicans has tripled from 6% to 18% in the last month!  Second, support for marriage equality is now the position of a plurality voters overall.  

This does not look like the polls I'd expect to see prior to a massive backlash.  It's interesting that the numbers really didn't shift from the summer of 08 to March of 09.  In other words, this isn't an Obama effect or a backlash against the Prop 8 campaign's transparent bigotry.  Rather I think this is the response to the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling.  



I was on a flight from Sacramento yesterday, and one of the passengers waiting to board (this was Southwest) was wearing a "NoBama '08" T-shirt. He was a short, pudgy, buzz-cut, angry white college kid. He was also eager to pick verbal fights with people around him, including the old lady in the wheelchair who chided him "you don't wear that shirt if you don't want a reaction from people." He said things like "oh yeah, we'll get him out of there. Americans can only take so much socialism." And other talking points. The reactions of the onlookers varied from bemusement to shaking heads and knowing glances to one another. I got the impression his parents would have been embarrassed. The "socialism" comment got laughs from the onlookers. Now, this was a typical business/commuter flight where the average flyer is more affluent than the population at large. I suspect that my reaction was like that of most of the people around me. THIS is what the Republican party has come in California? The contrast between this angry dumpy kid to the enthusiasm of Obama's young volunteers is striking. This kid seemed pretty typical of the Teabaggers we saw on TV two weeks ago.

NoBama. No no no no. Given the bizarre "socialism" comments we keep hearing, it's not even clear what the Republican base is saying "no" to. Sort of like a baby crying when it doesn't want to go to sleep.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More Gay Marriage News

Both houses ofthe NewHampshire legislature have approved gay marriage legislation. It now goes to Governor Lynch to sign. Like most Democrats, he has opposed gay marriage in the past, but there is some expectation that he will sign the bill, since his party politicked so hard for it. Similarly, the issue is before the Maine legislature. Democratic governor Baldacci has also not mentioned his stance on it, but one thinks that if it makes it through the lege, he will sign it.

We may be at a sort of national turning point on this issue. Gay marriage is becoming an issue that Democrats feel they can support in blue states without fear of electoral backlash against them. It will be quite a thing for presidential politics if BOTH New Hampshire and Iowa have legal gay marriage in 2012.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Specter of a Filibuster

Senator Arlen Specter announced today that he is switching to the Democratic Party. Assuming Al Franken is seated, Dems will have 60 votes in the Senate. This means that the GOP cannot filibuster anything without gaining a Democratic vote. This is a political earthquake. It assures Specter of re-election in the Senate. I wonder what he got for it. Committee chairmanship, perhaps? This is a failure of both high and low politics. High politics is the stuff we like to talk about - ideas, tactics, strategies. Low politics is about people. Obviously he could no longer stand Senators Cornyn and McConnell, while he likes Harry Reid. The fact that Specter is a Democrat and not an Independent is even more telling. He is not just defecting - a la Jim Jeffords of VT in 2001 - this is a real fork-in-the-eye move.


Housing Market Games- Lessons Learned

I want to start a little series on house hunting in the current California market. There is something rotten in the state of Real-estate. I will use my story as an example.

The sad truth about today's housing market is that it is as corrupt as ever. As a prospective first time buyer I sense something is deeply amiss. Allow me a couple of anecdotes.

I live in one of the most expensive parts of California. And for years, middle class buyers were locked out of this market, in part by design. There was ample opportunity for affordable housing, but none of it came to pass because local developers and property owners were greedy. They want stock low to keep prices high. Not much has changed, just hat the greed has gone a little deeper.

Back in March I placed a bid on a bank owned property. The house had been listed in January for $345K. On March 21st, they dropped the list price to $279K. Four days later, I offered the asking price and was told that they had 4 offers on the property, one over the asking price. So I gave a last and best offer of $285K. I was "Outbid". However, was I? The reason I was given was that they other people had a bigger down payment. Therefore, the highest bidder is not necessarily the "winner"., nor is the guy who is most likely to close. Lesson 1 learned. The property is still on the market by the way, but in escrow. We will see what happens there.

The second lesson from this experience is that seller's agents, in an attempt to generate offers, are listing homes for a "bargain", but then generating little mini-auctions. Because of the pent-up demand, they can get slighly higher prices this way. Clever, good for the banks, but ethical? Oh, what am I thinking. . . if ethical were part of the equation, much of this crisis wouldn't have happened.

Recently, I became mildly interested in a second property. This one was listed as a short sale (meaning the bank is willing to take less than the asking price) for $299K. It needed quite a bit of work. So I offered $250K. My realtor talked to the seller's agent who couldn't offer much information about the property because "she had so many, she didn't know which one that was." But she did say no offers had been made on the property. We offered $250K the same day. However, suddenly, at the same time, a second offer came in. We were outbid. We were told that the other people offered more money. Humm . . . an obscure house suddenly generates so much interest? Coincidence? Part of me doubts it. I hear this story too often.

My realtor has had clients who made as many as 22 offers and were outbid every time. Somewhere, there is collusion to keep prices high. And perhaps things aren't as distressed and we think. I think people in the biz here are loath to let a house go for under $300K. I have friends who have been looking for a year and a half and not been able to land a home after making several offers. Yet we are hearing how banks want to unload all these homes at all costs, but the reality seems to be different.

And no one does a thing to clean these places up. I am not talking about spending money, but something as simple as picking up the trash in the yard would improve the street appeal. In one yard, I found a dead dog, unburied. My realtor tells me that banks have no idea that their agents aren't doing their jobs in this regard and I am surprised the neighbors aren't squawking. Having a crappy looking yard doesn't help them either. But then, many of them are probably so underwater that they could care less.

People are still flipping houses as well. One house went for sale at $273K. Then three months later, was resold for $293K with improvements made.

This is what needs to change. 1) Houses should be sold for the list price. This is how we purchase everything from cars to groceries. The price on the tag is what you pay. 2) The amount of all bids should be disclosed. In what other auction environment do you NOT know the highest bid?

There is no transparency in the housing market, and there is tons of abuse. My search continues, but I am finding that it as slippery as college admission. When you aren't accepted, you have no real idea why. From time to time, I will post an update.


Learning and Persuasion: Rationality and Experiential Learning

The "torture" post just below led me to make a larger comment about how "the public" comes to coclusions about things. My understanding of the development of "Conventional Wisdom" and "Public Opinion" is about learning, not persuasion. Let me explain what I mean by learning versus persuasion. Persuasion is a reasoning process that can take place, theoretically, in an instant. Persuasion is what this blog is about (on a daily basis, although you might later agree with me that its larger purpose is to promote learning). Persuasion is about deductive or inductive reasoning, or it may be about emotional connection - it's about rhetoric and reasoning. Persuasion is essentially a static process.

Learning, by contrast, is a dynamic process that requires time. Learning proceeds from the belief that a person at time A may not be able to understand a concept, but may later be able to at time B. Hegel has something to say about the way the mind learns: he posits that you cannot go from A to Z directly, but MUST proceed through the intermediate stages of understanding along the way. The mind must, he argues, adopt and then later discard stages of understanding as it proceeds to superseding stages of understanding. This broad and somewhat bastardized reading of Hegel is useful here to distinguish leraning from persuasion.

A related concept is "Bayesian updating." This concept- which RBR can speak about - is not necessarily theoretically arrayed on either side as learning or persuasion. It can denote merely learning new information and updating one's preferences, or it might mean acquiring new understanding through experience, thereby updating one's preferences. I want to put a bracket around this concept unless RBR can say more about it that helps, since it may confuse more than help. It may or may not be a useful way to think about this. But it is crucial to realize that even something so rational as game theory can allow for experiential process learning. I'm not arguing against rational-actor assumptions, but against a particular "hard" rationalist view of them.

My argument about torture, in short, is that the public needs to learn; it cannot be persuaded. Learning requires digesting narratives. (forgive the pomo talk). Learning takes time. That is why the TV show "24" was so deadly. It provided a narrative that torture was necessary and effective. [I joke sometimes that "drama is more important than truth." It's only half a joke. Greeks understood that drama was a way of condensing the time of learning by allowing the audience to participate and experience the learning of characters on stage. This is what liturgy is about too, but I digress].

I will make the same argument about negotiations. Negotiation/mediation between opposing parties is not merely a process where we put our cards on the table and discover an optimal solution. At a radical, rationalist place, some people take this view. Some game theorists may simply decide that negotiation is about finding this optimum. Others may take a different approach, since game theory is a flexible tool. I believe that negotiation requires learning. The positions of both parties need to evolve, and evolution requires time. Persuasion alone will not accomplish the change. Solutions are not just rhetorically, but literally unthinkable until the opposing parties to a conflict undergo experiential learning about the other. Crucially, what changes is not just the information available to parties (which could theoretically be downloaded instantaneously) but the ability to process and combine the information to seeing new possibilities.

Experiential learning posits that the solution to a problem may not be visible ex ante, at least not to the parties involved. Note that I am not saying that it takes a while to persuade people to see the truth. I do not mean to present a static image of sweeping away cobwebs or the scales from the eyes. I am talking about seeing with new eyes.

Whether solutions to problems are visible ex ante to scholars considering the issue is another matter. I think the answer is yes. This is not a mystical process about coming to know the unknowable. But the problem is that one cannot persuade one's colleagues easily, because one must make statements about where the parties will be in the future that seem unrealistic and impossible now. In other words, a scholar may be right, but will not be believed by his colleagues. He may have to teach them.

The Obama administration believes in collecting parties together "at the table" to talk. He is not suggesting that they merely explain themselves, but that they explain themselves to each other, and allow their own understandings to change. I urge anyone interested to read Uri Savir's discussion of the Oslo process in 1994. It's called a peace "process" for a reason, I think. Not because it takes time to persuade, but because the parties need to experience and learn.

Matchmaking involves this sort of prescience - to see in the parties what they cannot see for themselves.

I am reminded of Mark Twain's wonderful comment that, "When I left home at 18, I thought my parents were the stupidest people on earth. When I returned four years later, I was amazed at how much they had learned." You can't persuade teenagers; you must allow them to learn for themselves. The same holds true of public opinion, I believe. The meaning of history, race relations, gender relations- so much of our culture wars are about learning, not persuasion. It's why our politics is one of hoarse shouting, futile persuasion. And this is why a generational gap develops too, I think. Each new generation has different experiences than the one before it - starts at a different place.

So these are thoughts on a big debate in academia applied to some narrow political issues. I wanted to spend a half hour (when I should have been working) doing this. Now I need to shower and go to work.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

We Don't Need a Truth Commission. We Just Need the Truth.

There are solid political reasons why President Obama would rather not publicly investigate further the former Bush administration's policy of torture. I get that. While it would be satisfying to hold former Bush administration officials to account for their role in this appalling story, however, it is far more important for President Obama to tackle personally the underlying cultural attitude that torture can be justified--and I am disappointed he has not done so in a more forceful and unambiguous manner. I would like to see him deliver a prime-time, Presidential address where he makes the following five points.

1. Torture is wrong. Torture is always wrong. Torture is never justified under any circumstances whatsoever. Torture is not necessary; it is just evil. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

2. Torture is surprisingly ineffective, and when it does work, it is slow. Case in point: they waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed 183 times over the course of a month and they still got little or no actionable intelligence from him. In the real world, if you need information from someone quickly, the last technique you would want to employ is torture, especially in those concocted "ticking time bomb" scenarios of "24."

3. There are better interrogation techniques that produce faster, more reliable results than torture. For obvious reasons one should not go into details, but as an example there are certain clever psychological tricks that work very well to get people to talk, typically by playing on their emotions. And you would be astonished how much one can learn simply by providing a conducive setting and a sympathetic ear. Many fanatics have an overdeveloped sense of self-importance: They are secretly eager to brag about what they know and privately desperate justify themselves to anyone who will listen.

4. Torture is bad policy. Al Qaeda was never afraid of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. Instead, those became Al Qaeda's best propaganda, their best recruiting posters. Torture has tarnished America's reputation around the world. An American policy of torture also greatly increases the likelihood that captured American soldiers will be tortured in retaliation. Torture is also highly illegal under both American and international law and has been so for decades.

5. Former President Bush lied to you about torture. Although in these difficult times we know we cannot afford squander the nation's effort and attention on hearings and prosecutions, we cannot afford to mince words either. Under President Bush's direct orders, Americans tortured hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, at Abu Ghraib, at Baghram Air Force Base, and at secret CIA prisons around the world. Hundreds if not thousands more were sent to be tortured in other countries under a policy of "extraordinary rendition." As memos, facts, and figures come to light we will publish them. Only by doing so can we put an end to this dark chapter in American history.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Transparency and Paternalism

A penchant for transparency, some are calling it a "radical transparency" is becoming a theme of this administration. The effect of the Chicago School is making itself known this way. Transparency in this context means that the solution to many problems posed by the legislative process or the market is more information. So rather than forbid certain mortgage practices, the goal is to require more up-front disclosure of true risks. Rather than forbid earmarks, require that their authors be disclosed up front (query whether credit for earmarks is always bad). Rather than forbid abusive credit card practices, require up-front disclosure in "plain language." (Similarly, the approach to torture at first glance was to disclose information, not punish). The idea is that the marketplace - whether the marketplace of ideas or the market for any good or service - will move away from bad practices if there is more information. Consumers and voters can, in other words, be trusted. The position that one should ban - rather than just order disclosure of - exploitative or abusive economic practices is often called paternalism.

There's an interesting divergence between political and economic transparency. Those who favor term limits are justly accused of being paternalistic. Their message is: stop me before I vote for an incumbent again. Voters, in their view, must be forced to discard incumbents. Transparency (publicizing that they are incumbents) does not prevent their re-election. Yet those same (conservative) people often resist economic paternalism. Liberals, like me, often favor protective economic legislation but resist cramping political choices. (The justification for my position is that the power dynamics in economic relationships are largely absent in the voting booth).

Does transparency work? In one almost definitional sense, we know it does not. By placing the onus on the consumer to navigate the shoals, you guarantee that some will fail. Some will miss the disclosures, fail to understand their import, or undervalue the risks. For reasons of poverty and liquidity, some will make choices they otherwise would not. Advocates of transparency say this is the price of freedom. Maybe so. The other serious concern is that the power relationships in the economic sphere may render disclosure moot. What does disclosure matter about credit cards if the few remaining banks issue credit cards with the same terms? What if the terms you want are simply not offered? What if - as is normally the case - everything is presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Ever tried to negotiate with AT&T or your health insurer? Can't be done. Take it or leave it. Transparency is not working if all it does is tell you exactly how you are being screwed.

I think the Obama administration should be less afraid of the charge of "paternalism" and a bit more skeptical about the ability of the market to drive out bad practices through better information. Their hearts are in the right place, believing correctly that if transparency can work, it is a better choice than paternalism. But we should be realistic, too.

Think of this example as typical. When you drive into a car parking lot, you get handed a ticket that spells out the terms of liability (basically, they won't take any responsibility for your car not being stolen in their unprotected lot). Negotiating with the teenager or immigrant manning the booth - if there is even a person at all - is not possible. You either park there or not. All the lots will have the same pre-printed tickets. There is no option except to park on the street. Where street parking is limited, as in big cities, you basically find yourself with little or no choice but to accept those terms offered. This (sometimes called a "contract of adhesion") is a failure of transparency. Even if the parking lot were ordered to place its theft statistics in big numbers on a banner on the front, that might deter some, and might encourage some improvement, but not much overall would change. You still could not negotiate and still have too little choice. This is where government needs to step in to make a decision, possibly, to require that parking lots acccept liability for theft (or not).


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jane Harman's Wire Tap Flap

So a few years ago, I voted for a Libertarian candidate instead of Jane Harman (D-CA) because of her support for the passages of the Patriot Act that allowed for warrant-less and secret searches of people's book purchases and library records.  Now Jane Harman is outraged, OUTRAGED to find that she was secretly wire tapped.  The problem is that the conversation that was recorded has her offering a quid-pro-quo with some AIPAC (Pro-Isreali lobby) guys in which she would intervene in some investigation of their being involved some espionage stuff in return for AIPACs support for her being named Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (she did not get the job and the accused Israeli agents are up for trial soon).  

So there are a number of things going on here.  First, schadenfreude over seeing Jane Harman get victimized by exactly the kind of abuse of power she was supporting when I voted against her.  Second, this may lead to clear evidence that the Bush administration was using wire taps to monitor political opponents (i.e. senior Democrats in Congress).  Third, it appears that Jane Harman is corrupt.  Assuming Jane Harman is still in office at the end of her term, I hope the Democratic party targets her for a strong primary challenge.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Redding v. Safford

So the US Supreme Court today is hearing a case as to whether it is acceptable for a school official to perform a strip search on a 13-year-old girl to search for ibuprofen pills (Advil) based on an uncorroborated tip from the girl who, it turns out, was actually responsible for bringing the unpermitted pills to school. Justice Kim Wardlaw of the 9th Circuit (en banc) wrote "of course not." Even the dissenters did not agree the search was reasonable: they wanted to announce henceforth that such a search would be considered unconstitutional, but that the school officials should not be held liable for breaking a "clearly established" rule. In this posture, it goes to the US Sct. (It's kind of crazy - do you need a Supreme Court case before you realize it's not okay to strip search a 13-year-old girl to find something that is neither dangerous nor illegal?).

The initial press reports are not heartening. Apparently Justice Breyer made comments about changing for gym class and getting stuff put in his clothes. Har har har. This is why we need more women on the Supreme Court.

The arguments seemed to be about whether a strip search is justified without evidence that something is in the underwear. As if a tip "she's got advil in her bra" would justify this outrage more than just "she's got advil [somewere] on her." Nobody on the Court seemed particularly bothered that the search was for something as innocuous as ibuprofen. This is because the conservatives do not want to undermine 'zero tolerance' policies that prohibit all drugs on campus, even those that 13-year-old girls sometimes take for headaches or cramps. And of course, their children are sent to private schools where such outrages never happen, so they need not confront the reality of watching a granddaughter humiliated like this. "Zero tolerance," it has been properly said, is as stupid as it sounds. It should be obvious that before a state official has a constitutional right to consider an intrusive search of a minor child, the object of the search must be something that poses actual danger to someone.

Justice Breyer: do you know why 13 year old girls get cramps, and why they might not want some principal poking around in their private business? Thank heavens that in seven states, including CA, a strip search is per se forbidden by schools (Cal. Educ. Code s. 49050.). (A search for dangerous substances must be by police under normal rules of law). FYI, the proper response to someone trying to peer into your 13-year-old daughter's underwear begins with a hockey stick to the face. You thought Kelo v. New London pissed people off? Wait until this comes down wrong.


Obama and the Axis of Stupid

So, there is quite the furor here in the States over President Obama's public overtures to the Castro Brothers in Cuba, Ahmadinejad in Iran and Chavez in Venezuela.  Republican critics are fond of crying that this "legitimizes" these rogue leaders.  But here they completely miss the point.   By making public overtures Obama is actually backing these bozos into corners.  And so far only the Castro brothers seem smart enough to realize it (you don't stay in power for half a century without learning a thing or two about politics).  

Here is how it's working. For years Bush has lead US policy from a position of intransigence and unreasoned bellicosity.   For years leaders and constituencies that might be open to taking our side on a variety of issues are repelled by this.  And all eyes are on the US waiting for it to get real.  In a stark reversal, Obama makes a public show of being reasonable and compromising.  This throws all the eyes back onto to the tyrants mentioned above.  If they respond by making their own moves towards reconciliation and compromise, great.  But if they respond by trying to take advantage of percieved weakness by the Obama administration, they look like the intransigent and bellicose ones.  

Of these three tyrants, only the Cubans have responded with talk of returning compromise with compromise.  Very clever.  If they play it right, the Castros might just be able to have some modicum of influence over the identity of their successors.  They are not young men and their time in power is limited at best.  They must be thinking a great deal about not just their own mortality but the future of their party, movement and regime.  

In contrast, Chavez and Ahmadinejad responded by reverting to type.  Chavez responded to Obama's rather mature approach to the Summit of the Americas by handing the President a copy of book about the history of war and oppression in Latin American in an obvious attempt to make it appear as if he's teaching Obama something about a tragic history.  Of course, Chavez didn't say that the room smelt like sulphur after Obama left (which he did say after Bush gave a speech) so I guess this is compromise of a sort by his standards.  

Ahmadinejad went into a fairly predictable anti-Semetic/anti-Isreali rant at a UN conference about ending racism.  Because of his presence and influence on the conference, a number of countries chose to join the US in boycotting it: Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland.  Now, the payoff for Obama's strategy though came when another group of European governments, including UK, France and Finland walked out in the middle of Ahmadinejad's speech.

The result is that Europe and the US are now rather publicly driven together in opposition to Iran's government.  Ahmadinejad could have made the US look bad by showing up to the conference and playing Mr. Nice Guy.  But he's too stupid. 

I've heard stuff on TV and radio that Ahmadinejad is going up for reelection soon and the Iranian economy is in trouble with lower oil prices.  So it may be that Ahmadinejad is willing to sacrifice sound foreign policy for the sake of populist appeals designed to squeeze out just enough votes back in Iran to stay in power...hmmmm, sounds familiar, sounds a lot like Bush-Cheney-Rove politics to me.  

LTG and I were talking last night about some other positive developments in Russia.  So far, Obama has been in power for only 3 months and already he appears to have radically altered US foreign policy and is already starting to see some positive returns.  So far so good!


Monday, April 20, 2009

Impeach Bybee!

The New York Times has called for Judge Bybee, a Federal Judge on the 9th Circuit, to be impeached. It's particularly annoying that this piece of fascist filth is on the 9th Circuit because that is the Circuit most known for progressive rulings (right, LTG?). Two days later this call has been picked up by a senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler (D-NY). Nadler is the Chair of the Constitution subcommittee.

We can't impeach Bush or Cheney now that we've already voted their party into oblivion. And it may not be practical to prosecute these bastards. But we can impeach this asshole, Bybee, that no one has heard of! He's a member of the F-ing Mormon Church too! I bet he contributed money to Prop Hate too.
(upon correction from friends I have edited the above drunken statement in an attempt to direct my ire against the organizatin rather than the faith).


Deep thought for the day

Alex P. Keaton would be vehemently opposed to federal funding for stem cell research.


Bush Administration Lies about Torture

The NYTimes this morning reminds us that in 2007, a Bush appointee in the CIA said that Abu Zubaydah agreed to cooperate after only 35 seconds of waterboarding. Nobody ever stepped foward to clarify the statement. The purpose of this statement, which we now know to be false, was to convince the American people that (1) waterboarding was very rare and (2) that it was effective. We now have word that Mr. Zubaydah was subjected to waterboarding 83 times in a row. Apparently Kahlid Muhammed was waterboarded over 180 times. This is sadism. The lies show a guilty conscience. To paraphrase the Simpsons, "This time, you didn't just cross the line, you threw up on it."

I think it is becoming more imperative to put Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bybee, Yoo, Bradbury and other co-conspirators under oath to find out what they knew and when they knew it. It is all too tempting to suggest that they be treated in the manner they declared lawful, but that is just childish. It is also unnecessary. It is not important, however satisfying it may be,to have these cruel and deceitful people acknowledge their sins. What is important is that these men be tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. President Obama and AG Holder have already taken significant steps to describe their era as a "dark period" and to use the powerful words "never again."


Saturday, April 18, 2009

World's Biggest Jerk: New Title Holder?

Since the retirement of George W. Bush the "honor" of being the biggest jerk among the World's leaders has been available for anyone to claim.  Apparently, a strong challenge for the position has been made by France's President, Nicolas Sarkozy (who flunked the 6th grade and washed out of graduate school in political science). Over lunch on Wednesday, he said that US President Obama (former chief editor of Harvard Law Review and professor of Law at the U. of Chicago) was "not always up to the standard on decision-making or efficiency"  Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero (a law graduate) was "perhaps not very intelligent" and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (a former Physics professor) "Had no choice but to come around to my position."  

Gee, this sounds a lot like the kind of dismissive BS Bush and Cheney would say about people who they felt intellectually threatened by.  Obviously, France would never elect a jerk exactly like Bush but Sarkozy is like the French version.  An aristocrat who does well at politics but has never really proven himself in academic pursuits.  A man who seems to "know what he knows" and have little interest in learning more from others.  

It's so nice to not have Bush.  Poor France though.  Hopefully, the Socialists there will get their act together and defeat Sarkozy.  


Friday, April 17, 2009

More about Torture

Former CIA director Hayden and Former Atty General Mukasey -both Bush era toadies- published an article today lambasting the decision to release the torture memos. Their really ignorant article is premised on the idea that (1) torturing a few people is okay and (2) torture is necessary to get important information. Both are totally false propositions.

Finally, in a great harrumph, they write, "Those charged with the responsibility of gathering potentially lifesaving information from unwilling captives are now told essentially that any legal opinion they get as to the lawfulness of their activity is only as durable as political fashion permits. Even with a seemingly binding opinion in hand, which future CIA operations personnel would take the risk? There would be no wink, no nod, no handshake that would convince them that legal guidance is durable. Any president who wants to apply such techniques without such a binding and durable legal opinion had better be prepared to apply them himself."

And of course, that was the point of releasing the memos. No public servant, no military man, no CIA agent, should ever look to a wink, nod, or handshake that phony legal cover for their actions will protect them. If these two are right that federal interrogators will not undertake torture because they are afraid that they will be held liable someday, no matter what slimy legal opinion the president's lackeys gin up for them, Amen to that!

I pray that Mukasey and Hayden are right. For the good of our country, and for the protection of all of us.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Torture Memos

Here is a link to the Bybee torture memo. It outlines ten forms of coercive interrogation, including waterboarding. It is thoroughly disgusting. I am sick that the author, Jay Bybee, is currently a sitting federal judge. Read it for yourself. It reads the prohibition on torture out of existence. Here is the subsequent one, authorizing even more horrific techniques, including dousing a person repeatedly with 41 degree(F) water for 20 minutes without drying or rewarming or sleep deprivation of up to 180 hours (7.5 days).

Thank you, President Obama and Attorney General Holder, for releasing this to the public. Never again.


Vatican Vetoes US Ambassador?

This had better be a false report. According to the Daily Telegraph, the Vatican claims it has squashed President Obama's desire to appoint Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to the Vatican on the grounds that she is pro-choice. This is very wrong and offensive. It must be bottled up in the Senate somewhere.

The US constitution explicitly forbids any religious tests for office, which means that a pro-life religious stand cannot be required for any office, including ambassador to the Vatican. We also do not have any tradition of bending or weakening our values to suit others in such appointments. It is unacceptable to preclude Jews or women from being ambassadors to Arab countries. During Apartheid, the US sent a black amabassador to South Africa - Ronald Reagan did this in 1986. It is particularly important, when dealing with the Vatican, to have someone who is able to represent the interests of the United States, not merely a pious church member. Among the other things the USA supports - against the wishes of the Vatican - are the following: the right of men and women here and abroad to have access to contraceptive devices and engage in family planning, no-fault divorce, no gender discrimination, the death penalty, the right to die (in some places), and toleration for gays and lesbians unions and anti-discrimination laws for gays and lesbians (in some places). We must not allow any foreign government or a single religious leader to demand that any ambassador to them disavow some or all of these values. Shame on the Obama administration if it gives into such pressure.

We really need an ambassador in the Vatican who will deliver sharp words when the Pope opposes condom distribution in Africa despite the horrific AIDS epidemic there, not someone who will kneel, kiss his ring, or even applaud. We need someone who will tell the Pope that it is not "okay" to promote holocaust deniers. Angela Merkel cannot be the only one with balls here.


Copper Pennies for China

I found this article from the Telegraph interesting. China is buying metals, a lot of them, copper in particular. The thought is that they are looking to protect themselves from dollar dilution as we print more dollars to cover the current economic crisis. From China's point of view, it is a smart move to make.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Letters of Marque?

Apparently Ron Paul thinks we should handle piracy by issuing Letters of Marque. The Constitution explicitly empowers Congress to issue these letters, which are essentially writs empowering a private person to act as a naval vessel and attach enemy ships. This is yet another reason why Ron Paulistas are unsuited for government in the 21st century. Can you just imagine the uproar it would cause if private vessels flying US flags were chasing all over the African coast attacking any other private boat that they claimed was engaged in piracy? And, of course, some of these freebooters would screw up and need to be rescued by the US navy anyway, or be taken captive themselves. Other than being cheap, this is a terrible, terrible idea.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why I love Tax Day

April 15th is the date that income tax returns are due. It is wisely scheduled as far from election day as possible. Tax Day is awesome because it brings out the idiocy of the loony right. They are having Tea Parties right now in various places, which Paul Krugman (I think) has termed "Astroturf" - fake grassroots efforts. (FYI, the tax protests of the American revolution were not protests against high taxation, but about a very small tax on tea imposed by a distant Parliament in which they had no vote. The issue was political, not economic, but conservatives generally misunderstand history, for the same reason they disdain "ivory tower" education).

So far, of course, Barack Obama's administration has managed to lower taxes on most Americans and raised them on none. I, for example, am looking forward to the new tax credit for buying a new car. And most wage earners will see a dip in the withholding starting this week. Odd time to protest the level of taxation, huh?

But it's not about that. It's about nutso time on the Far Right. Tax Day is for conservative/libertarians the equivalent of shouting creationism in a crowded university. Today, for example, Texas Governor Perry is endorsing a "Sovereignty Resolution" with another wack-o theory about the 10th amendment and states rights. The amusing Texas state resolution orders the Federal Government to "cease and desist" from taking actions beyond the 10th amendment. It is not at at all clear what this is aimed at, since the 10th amendment is just a rule of interpretation, not a substantive provision. But what could the Federal government be doing that is so ultra vires? Torture? Secret spying on Americans without warrants? Um, no - conservatives like that stuff. They are upset, it seems, about unfunded mandates for unemployment insurance contained in the economic stimulus package. I barely typed that without yawning. The resolution demands that "all compulsory federal legislation that directs states to comply" be repealed. (FYI I refer these fine gents to the Supremacy Clause and the 14th amendment, plus some 200+ years of supreme court precedent). And these people claim Obama needs focus?

I love this stuff. Tax Day is the conservative equivalent of a G8 summit: when all the crazies come out. These are the people who argue that the 16th amendment (allowing the income tax) was never really ratified (so they don't have to pay?), that flags with or without fringes in courthouses mean something, that West Virginia isn't really a state, that the Fed is illegal because it doesn't use gold specie, that private clubs can be "militias" under the second amendment, that Texas uniquely has the right to divide into 5 pieces and/or secede, and a whole host of other half-baked legal theories ginned up by autodidacts. This is what irrelevance looks like when your party is devoid of centrists.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Finally! Change in US Cuban Relations!

I am very happy to see on CNN's website that President Obama has lifted travel restrictions on people with relatives in Cuba to Cuba!  This is not normalization.  And restrictions on the rest of us are still in place.  But it may be the first step.  To say that this is long over due would a monumental understatement.  

I think this has only been made possible by Obama's sizable victory in the election.  Had he taken the strategy taken by Gore and Kerry (i.e. a "big state" strategy) he would have been dependent on Florida.  But because he built such a broad coalition both geographically and ideologically, he can afford to risk defeat in Florida by taking this step.  

This is great!  I hope to hear more along these lines over the next few years!  


Yo Ho Ho and another Kind of Bailout

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the horn of Africa is finally hitting the spotlight in the US, for the predictable reason that one of our own was nabbed. Apparently, paying millions in ransom money had become a common practice for many shipping companies. It begs the question: why pay millions in ransom instead of hiring security forces? What is the cost of a hiring six or seven men to take shifts on watch with guns compared to the ransom? Why not delay shipments for a day or two to go in convoys and share the security costs among ships? Leaving aside the free rider problem, why is the cost of paying ransom ever considered a cheaper option?

The craziness is that shipping companies routinely send hundreds of millions of dollars of merchandise around the world at sea with just a dozen or so unarmed men as the only protection. Nobody does that on land. Why? Basically, it seems they expect the taxpayers of the world to pay for naval protection for them. Or they just don't mind the risk they are putting their employees through. There are currently a dozen ships under pirate capture in this area right now, according to almost every major news source. A dozen. And they are still sending unarmed and unprotected ships through there one at a time. If there were a dozen buses on I-95 currently being held hostage by gangs of bandits, I suspect that bus traffic would die down a bit.

I think that NATO or the other leading naval powers need to call in the heads of major shipping companies and tell them to take reasonable steps to pay for their own protection on the high seas as part of fighting piracy. Convoys and armed personnel are a good start, so are longer routes out to sea. Then the naval forces can concentrate on protecting the convoys and shutting down pirate operations. Asking taxpayers to do this over and over again is just another kind of bailout.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Exceptions to America's Urban vs Rural Politics

The little debate that LTG and I had about the political culture of the upper midwest got me thinking about something.  For the most part American politics is increasingly dominated by an urban vs rural dynamic.  Most of the states with large urban populations vote for Democrats most of the time.  Most of the states that are mostly rural or small towns vote for Republicans.  Even within states you can see this pattern.  In most maps of recent presidential election results you can see high percentages of the Democrat in countries in which major cities are located and high percentages for the Republican in counties with no cities.  Some good examples of this patter would be California and Kansas.  Check out the county by county maps from the New York Times election results page here.  You can zoom in on the state you are interested in and change the election year with a handy sliding scale device.  In the California map you can see the the densely populated coastal areas are largely voting Democratic (the major exception being wealthy, suburban Orange County).  You can also see the large Republican vote shares in the more sparsely populated interior counties.  Kansas is even more striking.  You can see that most of the Democratic votes are concentrated in and around Kansas City.  The little blue county just SW of Kansas City is the county where the University of Kansas is located.  The blue county due south is a swing county that goes for either party (barely) depending on the year.  You can see a similar pattern in Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Florida, Tennessee, and even Utah and Texas.  In Texas (famous as a Republican stronghold), Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin stick out like sore thumbs.  The clump of Democratic counties along the border are due to large Tejano/Latino populations.  

There are some notable exceptions however.  One is the upper midwest.  Check out Iowa or Minnesota.  In those states there are some rural counties that vote consistently for Democrats.  Another exception is Oklahoma where even Oklahoma City and Tulsa (both fairly large cities both with large Universities nearby) vote for Republicans.  Mississippi and Alabama have some rural counties voting for Democrats and these counties mostly are those with large African American populations (this part of the South is one of the few places in the USA where African Americans are still living in numbers in rural areas).

The NY Times map is really fun too.  You can look at the "county bubbles."  You'll notice that there are very few large, red bubbles and few small blue ones.  You can look at the county shift and see that Obama did better than Kerry did in most of the country except for a swath of the hill/mountain South and Louisiana/East Texas (where large numbers of poor blacks were displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita).  

I'm not sure what explains all these exceptions - there are probably different reasons for the exceptions in each case/region.  But they are noteworthy.  These patterns may be interesting for the ongoing struggle for marriage equality and other social issues.  They may point to urban areas that - despite being relatively cosmopolitan - won't be tolerant of marriage equality (like Oklahoma City or .  On the flip side they MAY point to rural areas that won't be quite so intolerant.  


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Literalism at its Finest

I read a number of articles today about Birkat HaChamah, the "Blessing of the Sun" - a ritual that happens once every 28 years on the vernal equinox, celebrating the Sun returning to the spot on the very day when God created the earth some 5600 years ago. The first thing you might notice is that the vernal equinox was more than 2 weeks ago. That's because this calculation of dates was apparently by a 3rd century Jewish scholar who was no better at his job than the Romans at theirs. The Julian Calendar is gradually falling behind with too many leap years. We have been on the Gregorian Calendar in the English-speaking world since 1752, which required skipping 10 days in the Calendar. There was no such revision of the Jewish calendar, however. So you have to add 10 days. For the same reason, Orthodox Christmas is on January 7th. (Orthodox Easter is another whole kettle of fish).

The next thing you might notice is the supposed Jewish belief that God created earth on the vernal equinox. Bishop Ussher, Anglican bishop of Armagh in the 16th century famously calculated that earth was created on October 23, 4004 BC. Yet the Washington Post blithely repeats that the "Old Testament" says the world was created on the vernal equinox. Obviously the Old Testament (or Torah) doesn't say that in so many words, or the good Bishop would have noticed.

Why October? Apparently the bishop put the date of creation on the first Sunday after the autumnal equinox. Hmmm. The autumnal equinox is September 21, more or less, but again you have to add those 10 days. That still doesn't get you to October 23. But Bishop Ussher cleverly (?) realized that to calculate the date in the Gregorian calendar, you had to add those pesky extra days also for the 4008 years before the regular addition of leap years began. Hence October 23, 4004.

Why 4004 BC? Well, Ussher agreed that Jesus had to have been born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. So he believed that the earth was created 4000 years before Jesus' birth, more or less.

Why the autumn? Ussher assumed that the year had to begin in autumn because that is when the Jewish New Year takes place. For some reason, this reasoning escaped Jewish scholars. One gets the impression Ussher never asked any of them.

Ussher also believed that earth was created "in the evening" of that date - he means October 23, 4004BC as if it were in the Jewish calendar, starting at sundown. OK, sundown... where? And was that with or without Daylight Saving Time?

There's only one reasonable reading of the biblical injunction by God for us to count to seven, then take a break:As a species, we're terrible at math.


Hurrah for Secretary Gates

Secretary Gates has proposed huge slashes to military weapons programs. For a full cataloguing of what he will slash and what he will add see Gates Starts Huge Acquisition Shift at

Suffice to say: it's about time! I think Gate's program is pragmatic. I know many on this blog were skeptical of Gates when he was allowed to stay on as Secretary of Defense. But he has proven himself capable and he has the respect of the military. He is frustrated with weapons programs that take on lives of their own (Anyone ever seen Kelsey Grammer, Cary Elwes, and Richard Schiff in the Pentagon Wars? I often feel like Richard Shiff's character), that are kept alive so that some general can get an extra star, and so that contractors can compete for the largest pool of the DoD budget.

The wars of the future will not be conventional. The last conventional war we fought was Gulf War I and before that, it was the Korean War. And even conventional militaries are using non-conventional fighting methods. It is time that we got real about what is necessary.

Now many of Gates' proposals may not be adopted. No congressman wants to loose jobs in his district, especially during a downturn. But many of those jobs, I suspect, will just shift to new programs rather than disappear completely. And some his proposals are limits rather than cuts. He is limiting controversial F-22 buy at 187 planes ($141 mil a piece), which is 4 more planes than the Air Force said it would need. This is the most expensive weapons program going at the moment.

There are some very good things in his proposal. He is increasing spending on medical research for wounded soldiers, increasing special forces, and he is taking 11,000 contractors currently supporting DoD acquisition and making them regular government employees. It's about time! Now if we can spread that across the rest of the DoD.

If Congress approves these changes, then at best, the proposal will be budget neutral. However, it is necessary. I am not a military hardware expert, but from what I read and what I do know, I think it's a good plan.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Some Thoughts on the ELCA and Social Issues

With Iowa's Supreme Court unanimously ruling that a 12 year old anti-marriage equality law violated the state's constitution followed quickly by the Democratic leadership in the Iowa Assembly quickly and firmly shooting down a knee jerk attempt by some Republicans to amend the Constitution, there may be questions about the important cultural features of the upper midwest and how they may relate to this.

First, what is the upper midwest.  Really, I'm talking about Minnesota and the states that border it (Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota).  Nebraska is a kind of border area.  The Missouri River valley upstream from Omaha Midwestern but the further west you go in Nebraska the more western you get.  Really, the same can be said of the Dakotas too.  These states have large populations of Norwegians, Swedes, Danes and Finns mixed in with a population dominated by Germans.  It is interesting to note that people in this part of the country not only come from non-English speaking cultures but they are still aware that they aren't Anglo-Saxons in the strict sense of the word.  You won't find many people in this region self-identifying as "American" when asked about their ethnic heritage.  Scandinavian languages can still be heard in the smaller towns' nursing homes.  Churches in this part of the world still gave sermons in languages other than English well into the 1970s and 80s.  These characteristics differentiate this region from other parts of the country and even other parts of the midwest such as Illinois, Michigan, Kansas or Missouri.  

I'm not going to talk about some vague historical or cultural connection between Scandinavian Americans and their famously progressive cousins back in the old country.  Rather I am going to talk about one of the most important social institutions in the upper midwest, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America or ELCA.  The ELCA was formed in the 1980s when a handful of organizations based on the old immigrant churches combined.  ELCA predecessor churches had their roots mainly in Scandinavian churches in America but also included many German churches.  The ECLA is currently in "full communion" with the Episcopal Church.  So right off the bat you get the impression that it is part of the progressive branch of Christianity.  

Churches that are now in the ELCA have been ordaining women since the 1970s - about the same time as Episcopal Churches started doing it.  The ELCA has Bishops who lead "synods" and about 10% of the Bishops are now women.  

With regard to Gay rights and marriage equality, ELCA official doctrine is that gay Christians are welcome to join the community but that Gay Pastors are expected to be celibate.  However, the ELCA has officially stopped disciplining any pastors that violate this rule and the rule is due to be revisited this year.  Their cousins back in Sweden and Denmark already recognize gay marriages (although Swedish and Danish laws do not go beyond civil unions).  I'm not a practicing Lutheran so I don't know how much contact there is between the American and Scandinavian churches but I know from talking to my Grandmother's generation that if I were to say "they say it's OK in the Danish Church", they would give that some serious thought.  

Most Scandinavian Americans in the upper midwest were raised in ELCA churches if they aren't currently members.  This is important because although Scandinavian Americans make up a declining share of the populations of these states, they still make up a disproportionate share of the local elites.  Mayors, city council reps, Assembly reps, local business leaders are more likely to have Scandinavian names than those ethnicities share of the population would justify.  And these people have been going to churches that have been among the most progressive churches in the country.  What's more, ELCA churches in this region have expanded their membership beyond the Scandinavian communities.  

So we are talking about a region of the midwest where going to church every week doesn't mean the same thing that it means down in Kansas.  In most cases, I'm of the opinion that churches are forces for backwardness and intolerance.  But there are some notable exceptions.  The American Episcopal churches are one.  Unitarians are another, as are Quakers and Lutherans.  

Sure there are Lutherans down south.  But they don't run the place.  Up here Lutherans are like the Episcopalian elites are in New England.  


Even closer to Senator Franken (D-MN)

Today the last absentee ballots were counted by the Minnesota three-judge panel assigned to hear the Coleman election challenge. Franken gained about 90 votes. His lead was 225 votes; now it is 312. With this conclusion, the Minnesota court is expected to issue a final ruling in Franken's favor within a day or two. Coleman will have ten days to find some ground to appeal. The appeal will likely be filed immediately. In other words, the appellate process should start this week or early next week. I suspect that process will conclude swiftly this month with an order from the MN Supreme Court essentially directing that the governor sign the election certificate.


Vermont Recognizes Gay Marriage

The Vermont legislature voted to override their Republican Governor's veto this morning to legalize gay marriage! I admit I got a little "verklempt" when I heard the news--I was stunned. Vermont is the first US state to grant marriage equality by legislation rather than by judicial fiat. And the lawmakers did so in style, mustering the 2/3 majority necessary to overcome a veto.

Also today, the Washington D.C. City Council voted unanimously to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. (Note that Washington D.C. is not part of any US State, so it decides these things separately.) And all this of course follows Iowa's historic Supreme Court decision four days ago. As LTG says, all eyes now turn to look across the river from Vermont to New Hampshire, where their House has already approved gay marriage and their Senate will take a vote in the next couple of weeks.

This is another good day.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

New NATO Chief

Hi Everyone,

NATO just picked a new General Secretary, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.  Rasmussen was the candidate supported by the US and opposed by Turkey and several Eastern European members of NATO.  I guess the US still has some influence after all.  

Turkish opposition was linked to Rasmussen's opposition to Turkish entry to the EU and the Danish cartoon issue which many politicians in Muslim countries have used a political cause celeb.  But they eventually went along with Rasmussen's appointment.

Rasmussen is a member of the Venstre party.  Venstre means "Left" in Danish but the party is actually Liberal.  That is, they support smaller government and secular, progressive social policies.  Rasmussen's foreign policy while governing Denmark has been characterized by close ties with the US.  Danish troops are serving in Afghanistan and had been serving in Iraq as well.  Rasmussen's appointment probably means Obama will have an ally at NATO HQ in rallying the other NATO countries to deploy more troops to Afghanistan.  

Leading members of the Danish Venstre party are jockeying to replace Rasmussen now.  One of the leading candidates is also named Rasmussen (no relation).  If it's him, it would mean that Denmark will have three prime ministers in a row named Rasmussen none of them related to each other.


Friday, April 03, 2009

Iowa Recognizes Gay Marriage

The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of gay marriage today. RbR indicated over a year ago that this was the likely outcome of the case, but I did not believe a state in the US "heartland" would do so anywhere near this soon. I have rarely been so pleased to be wrong! Hooray for Iowa! The tide is moving slowly but surely our way.

With Iowa starting on April 29, three US states will recognize marriage equality as fully as they can: MA, CT, and IA. (Without federal recognition, however, the marriages are not actually fully equal.) There are also some partial successes current and on the horizon: CA has stopped performing same-sex marriages, though currently recognizes those performed last summer, and the legislature has twice approved it (governor vetoed); NY will not perform same-sex marriages, but will recognize those performed elsewhere; and the VT and NH legislatures are expected to approve marriage equality in a matter of weeks, although both governors are expected to veto the bills.

With Sweden starting on May 1, seven nations will recognize full marriage equality: Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Norway, Sweden. There are also some partial successes current and on the horizon: France and Israel recognize foreign same-sex marriages for many purposes, but will not perform them; Portugal's government has promised to legalize same-sex marriage if re-elected later this year; and in Iceland the government under caretaker Prime Minister Sigurðardóttir (the first-ever lesbian Head of State) is also seeking to legalize same-sex marriage, although they are very unlikely to do so before the May elections.

There will be setbacks in this fight too. But today--today is a good day.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Mrs. Windsor and Mrs. Obama

So it looks like there's a bit of royal brouhaha about the Queen (of England etc.) putting her arm around Michelle Obama, and she reciprocating by putting her arm around the Queen. It's about a two-second interlude, but it is the Youtube moment of the G20 summit. Can any of our English or Australian subjects of the Queen tell me what the big deal is? As a citizen of a republic, I am culturally baffled. It's not as if anyone goosed her.


They Concern, Thank God, Only Material Things...

In his First Inaugural Address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the following:

"In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return."

That second sentence is wonderfully inserted there. As bad as it all is, FDR is saying: it's only money. Of course, he knew that poverty could cripple the spirit as well, and become more than a material problem, just as joblessness and foreclosure in the middle classes can lead to despair, suicide, violence, spousal and child abuse. But FDR meant to argue that the economic depression was primarily one of institutional economics, not the result of a personal, spiritual, or cultural failure by the American people. In a country with a puritan heritage, we often ask secular or religious variants of "why is God punishing us?" when these things happen. The tendency is often to look inward (or at one's neighbor) rather than at institutional or external causes. When I studied abroad in Russia in 1992, many people expressed to me there the feeling that "communism failed because we are failures." This was not a helpful attitude. It made the political space for ultranationalists and racists who promised to make people feel good about themselves again.

Around the world and on this blog, people have wondered whether this is an economic crisis or really the result of moral and cultural failings in the United States. Many in Europe seem to be urging the latter reading. They seem to say that it is America itself that is failing, including the ideals of individualism, home ownership, the "American Dream" and all that. I think that is both self-righteous and inaccurate. The most striking thing about traveling around Europe today is how much more it looks like the USA than it did 20 years ago. Starbucks, McDonalds, and tract housing developments did not force their way into Europe.

As in FDR's time, we should be focusing on economics. However, I have argued, and I think FDR would have argued too, that there are also personal attitudes to this depression that need to be overcome. The same attitudes of the 1920s were repeated in Reaganism in the last 30 years: from alpha-male bankers (a phrase that still amazes me) to investment bubbles, we abandoned sober, grownup capitalism for adolescent behavior. I think it is useful to separate broad-brush cultural critiques (e.g, blaming all this on American individualism) from more specific attitudinal critiques (e.g., that the anti-regulatory school of conservatism was at best naive, at worst complicit).


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Senator Stevens Vindicated?

In a shocking move, the Justice Department has asked that the convictions against former Senator Stevens (R-AK) be vacated. I am disturbed because it is readily apparent that if the case had not been brought, or had been dropped before the election, he would almost certainly have been re-elected. Given the embarassment this causes to everyone involved, it is hard to imagine any attorney general doing this unless he were certain that the prosecutorial misconduct was manifest. It is harder yet to imagine a Democrat vindicating a Republican ex-officeholder under these circumstances, unless it were a foregone conclusion.

So what happened in the Stevens case? The real question left is whether the prosecutors were motivated by the "game" of the trial (to win, win, win at all costs), by the lure of publicity, or by political motivations. Political motivations of a partisan type seem unlikely, as it was the Bush-appointed justice department that prosecuted Stevens. Was there some internecine Republican problem with Stevens? There is no evidence of this.

I think at this stage, the most reasonable conclusion is that the Stevens case was exemplary of the Bush/Ashcroft/Gonzalez/Mukasey justice department: shoddy work by poorly qualified attorneys, the convictionthat the ends justify any means, and the belief that accused persons are all guilty criminals who don't deserve rights.

What's worse is that Stevens probably is guilty of concealing these "gifts" (read: bribes) anyway. What a shame.