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.