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."

Friday, April 30, 2010

Deep Sea Drilling, the Oil Supply and the Environment

OK, I'm not an expert on oil drilling or the world's oil supply. But I have heard (on the radio, news etc), that one of the things that make some people say that world oil reserves are not going to start running out soon is the kind of new technology involved in deep sea oil drilling.

There is a lot of speculation about oil reserves under the Arctic Ocean (which is about to be conveniently less ice filled). To get at that oil - like the oil in the Gulf of Mexico - oil companies need to drill in really deep water just to get to the ocean floor, let alone down to where the oil is.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is looking to be the worst ever. The reason is because it is extremely difficult to cap broken well heads when they are under thousands of feet of ocean water. Does this crisis off the Gulf Coast give us a preview of things to come? Will these kinds of deep sea oil spills be more likely in the future as more and more deep sea rigs are built?

The specter this raises for me is a period of intensified sea drilling as oil reserves in the easy to get areas dry up. This, in turn, would lead to intensified environmental problems. The talk now is about a catastrophic environmental disaster even worse than that caused by the infamous Exxon Valdiz spill.

I think this incident shows that "drill baby drill" is not a realistic solution to our energy needs. As oil supplies level off and demand continues to increase, drilling in ever more difficult to reach places (with the related safety and environmental complications) will only increase the ultimate costs of the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels. But I doubt the "drill baby drill" crowd will care much about the environmental damage or see it as anything but a random fluke event.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Senator Crist (I-FL)

This is big political news. Charlie Crist, governor of Florida, has left the GOP and is running as an independent. He knows that Marco Rubio, a very right-wing Republican, will beat him in the primary this year. But Crist still thinks he can win the general. How? My guess is this:
1. Crist believes that as the economy improves this summer, voter anger will fade. Voters will start looking for candidates who aren't angry. That will lead them away from the GOP. Crist is a natural choice.
2. Crist's thinks defection will anger the partisan core, but not even the whole partisan base. That's probably correct.
3. Crist is betting that Rubio is bound to make some gaffes that will discredit him and allow Crist to be seen as the "real" or "serious" Republican, even with the "I" next to his name.
4. Crist is betting that he can get some Democrats to vote strategically for him if they decide that the Democrat, Kendrick Meek, doesn't have a chance of winning.
5. It's a fun gamble. If he wins, he'll be very powerful in the Senate, because he'll have real independent credentials.
6. He's an egomaniac.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Arizona Discussion

We have a couple of legal experts who participate in this blog either as contributers (Law Talking Guy) or frequent commenters (Seventh Sister). I'd like to hear their comments on this new immigration law in Arizona. Hopefully there are other legal types out there lurking in the ether who could contribute to a discussion here too. In particular I'd like their opinions on the following questions:

1) Supporters of the law say it's no different than laws already on the books in many states or in federal law. Critics seem to think aspects of it are obviously unconstitutional. They can't both be right. So how different is this law from those already in force and what are the major innovations?

2) There is a part of the law that says that individual citizens may sue the local authorities if they believe that the local authorities are not enforcing the law sufficiently. From an oversight perspective this is fascinating. I have never heard of a law including this kind of clause. It seems to be a kind of "notice and comment" rule on steroids. It would also seem designed to allow the "high demanders" set the bar for appropriate enforcement. My question to any legal types out there in the ether is this: How novel is this clause?


Monday, April 26, 2010

Wall Street Reform

We just had round 1 of the battle to reform the banks, and we couldn't even begin debate on it. Yay Senate rules! Now I don't want to talk about what's in the bill or anything like that -- I just want to cover how the major players are covering this story.

CNN: The graphic pretty well describes what happened, but the lead paragraph:

Senate Democrats failed to muster enough votes Monday to take up Wall Street reform, with a key Democrat voting with Republicans against the push to get the debate started.
screams "Dems suck!" more than "Republicans are obstructionists!"

At the New York Times the headline is "G.O.P. Blocks Debate on Financial Oversight Bill" but again: "Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster of the motion to proceed to the bill."

As long as everyone knows that the Democrats want to reform Wall Street and the Republicans don't, we're in business. I just hope this doesn't come off as "Dems are incapable of governing."


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Upcoming Elections in the UK

This is in no way intended to be mainly a "horse race" post about which party is polling how well or how the votes will translate into seats. Rather I intend to open the discussion about the big picture (ideological, policy, strategic) situation of the three main parties: Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats.

The Labour party of the Thatcher years was stolidly leftist in its outlook. They were beaten in one election after another and finally split when the moderate wing departed to form an alliance with the Liberals (Liberal SDP Alliance). This declind continued until Tony Blair and Gordon Brown orchestrated a decisive move centerward. Gone were the overtly socialist apeals and increasely irrelevant references to revolutionary rhetoric. Blair and Brown transformed the party into a modern, post-cold war, center-left party along the lines of major Social Democratic parties on the continent. Brown is continuing this moderate stance on domestic policies. But the Labour party faces two major sources of dissatisfaction with their continued government. First, the fallout from the 2008 global banking crisis makes it very difficult for Gordon Brown to campaign on his prefered image as a financial policy wiz kid. Second, the Blair/Brown closeness to unpopular US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan has allienated a significant portion of the Labour party's base. This base was already annoyed at the move to the center. Now the wars and economic problems are threatening to split the party's electoral base. On top of it all it's just plain difficult to run a party that bases its legitimacy on the provision of public services when the revenue isn't there anymore to distribute.

The Conservatives of the Blair era were in a similar kind of dissaray as Labour was during Thatcher's era. They cycled through leaders rapidly and without a clear direction. It was like a parade of former Thatherites who had been waiting in the wings for their turn and the younger and more dynamic Blair made minced meat of them. They failed to take advantage of the unpopularity of Blair's deployment of troops to Iraq because they were even more hawkish than Labour. Now they have a younger, more telegenic leader in David Cameron. Cameron has been making a big show of moving to the center politically too. But just as the election looms, his right wing base is demanding attention and he's having to throw them bones just when he most wants to seal the deal as a moderate, non-threatening Tory rather than a raving Thatcherite.

Enter the Liberal Democrats. Once one of the two major parties in the UK, the Liberals have been lurking on the fringes of British politics for the better part of a century. Lately, they've staked out ideological territory somewhere between the two other parties. After years of polarization under Thatcher and much of the Blair years, the Liberals are now finding the center rather crowded ideological territory.

But they have some distinct advantages and disadvantages over their rivals. First, they have no stake in the current mess. They were neither responsible for the Thatcherite period of deregulation or in positions of immediate responsibility during the collapse. Second, their leader, performed very well in a recent three way debate presenting himself as a credible alternative, with clean hands, that doesn't have to pretend to be a centrist. But they also have disadvantages (other than the electoral system which is a big part of the earlier related thread). First, one of their positions is that the UK should adopt the Euro as their currency (not a popular position to put it mildly). Second, the Liberal Democrats have to convince voters that they are capable of doing the job. It's unfair given how long the Conservatives have been out of power, but the Tories don't have answer that question as decisively.

On top of all of this is a big boost for the Liberal Democrats. Last year a widespread scandal hit the House of Commons regarding abuse of expense accounts by MPs from nearly every party in Parliament. While several Liberal Democrats got mixed up in it, a general "throw the bums out" sentiment can only benefit the smallest party in the game.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Liberal Democrats Surging in UK

Anyone could have bet that a good performance by Nick Clegg in last Thursday's UK PM debate would be awesome for the LibDems. US politicians have known for years that getting on stage with your adversary for a debate makes you both seem like equally reasonable choices. That's why frontrunners ditch debates and laggers beg for them. And nobody stood to gain more than perennial last-place LibDems. Now two polls have them in first place or just behind the Tories. They are moving in polls from about 20% to close to 30%. That's a mindboggling surge, a 50% increase in support or more. If the LibDems can catch the spotlight and the national imagination for the next 10 days, they could win the election. It would be similar to how Scott Brown in Mass. pulled ahead in the polls for 30 seconds, and that happened to be election day.

Although British electoral math is kind of funky because of how the constituency boundaries are drawn, it is looking increasingly like the LDers could claim a share of power. This would be a terrific thing for Britain, I think. It has been a very long time since any British government has commanded much more than 40-45% of the electorate. A hung parliament would produce a coalition representing likely 60% or more of the vote share. The LibDems would probably get some of their most favored legislation too, some of which I support, such as bills protecting the right of trial by jury (under heavy assault in UK today) and walking back from some of the anti-terror legislation that Tony Blair put in during his I-wanna-be-Bush period right before he converted to Roman Catholicism and really went off the rails.

It wouldn't just be neat to have a hung parliament for a politico like me. It would be great for Britain to have some check on Labour that isn't the Tories.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Will the Tea Party Matter?

If the GOP becomes synonymous with the Tea Party, the GOP would lose big-time. The Tea Party, as various evidence of polling data is showing, is to the right of the median voter by quite a bit. On some issues, like immigration, the Tea Party takes particularly divisive stands. On the other hand, the Tea Party is the big political story of 2010. It's where all the energy is. Its organizers have taken pages from the Obama 2008 playbook and have generated national movement enthusiasm. In many ways, the Tea Party reminds me of the Howard Dean movement in 2004 in terms of its political salience.

But the Tea Party isn't socially conservative, meaning it isn't all about fundamentalist Christians. Its members include many people with libertarian sympathies, and the anti-government message works as well for reproductive rights and gay rights as it does for gun rights and states' rights. It's sort of a populist movement in inspiration, something that crops up repeatedly in American politics, and that often plays in rural areas.

Will the Tea Party, then, translate into votes for GOP candidates in the Fall, even though those candidates are often hard-right social conservatives? It might. But I suspect it won't be too significant. The Tea Party isn't really well organized and it suffers from the fact that its roots are in disaffection and alienation, not great building blocks for continued political involvement. If the GOP is the Party of No, the Tea Party is the party of "Hell No." Well, that only gets you so far. The public votes for candidates, not against them. I expect large numbers of Tea Partiers to disgustedly sit home in the Fall of 2010 when the see GOP candidates who don't totally mirror their views.

I suspect that the high tide mark for the Tea Party will be the GOP primaries. And most of the "Tea Party" candidates will not win those primaries. After that, we will see the GOP try to coopt the enthusiasm while it cools. And as the economy returns and unemployed Tea Party members get jobs and go back to whatever they did before the Tea Party.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Some Thoughts on Polish Politics Post Crash

Hi Everyone,

I thought I would give some thoughts on Polish politics in light of the recent tragic plane crash.

First, some basic background. Poland is what political scientists call a "semi-presidential" system in that it has both a President and a Prime Minister. In the Polish case, the Prime Minister is the main authority in government. That means that although the President and his enterouge were killed in the crash, the Polish government remains largely in tact. There were some senior officials killed but none of them had the rank of cabinet ministers.

Second, even more than Poland the big victim of this deadly crash is the Law and Justice Party. Law and Justice Party is a right wing populist party. They have a strong tendency towards nationalism, homophobia and misogyny. The party was founded by the late President Lech Kaczynski and his identical twin brother, Jaroslav. Jaroslav is currently the leader of the party and has served as Prime Minister. I've heard stories that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder once met with Jaroslav and later ordered his security guards not to let the then Polish Prime Minister "within rifle shot" of him again.

Law and Justice is like the most extreme faction of the Republcian party in the USA. At various times, officials from the party have used their power to persecute individual homosexuals and Gay rights advocacy groups. They've also abolished the Polish agency tasked with ensuring that women are not discriminated against in the work place.

This is a nasty party. And these brothers are nasty little demagogues. My fear is that this tragedy will lead Poles to transform Lech Kaczynski and his brother's legacy into one of martyrdom. The reality is that these two are a national embarassment for an otherwise impressive country.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Polish President and Several Senior Government Officials Die in Plane Crash in Russia

This is something of a stunner. The Polish Presidential aircraft crashed near Smolensk in dense fog. The list of senior officials killed is long and shocking: The President, First Lady, the chief of the national security office, the Chairman of the Polish central bank, the deputy Speaker of the lower house of parliament (the Speaker of that house will take over as interim president until a special election is held), the deputy minister of defense, the chief of the General Staff, and the deputy leader of the President's Law and Justice Party (a right wing populist party with controversial positions on a range of issues).

The Poles made the mistake of flying a plane designed and built in the Soviet era: a TU 154. This plane has the NATO designation of "Careless". The Russians are saying the crash was caused by pilot error. But this plane has an average to poor safety record. There certainly a lot of incidents of catotrophic failures on this plane (like the entire fuselage suddenly breaking apart in mid air). Of course the weather conditions are sufficient to explain the crash in this case but given the purpose of the trip and the nature of the Presidents' supporters I doubt that will be universally and easily accepted....

The delegation was flying to Smolensk to memorialize the thousands of Polish military leaders and intellectuals who had been murdered by the Soviets at the Katyn forrest in 1940. The supporters of this President are Poland's answer to the Tea Party crowd around here. Let the conspiracy theorizing commence!


Friday, April 09, 2010

Farewell, Justice John Paul Stevens

A great figure prepares to exit the stage, Justice Stevens. For 35 years, he has been a fixture in the Supreme Court, a man already on the court when the youngest justices were still in law school. Appointed as a consensus nominee by a moderate Republican (or what we used to call just a Republican) his tenure shows the rightward drift of American politics. He has moved somewhat to the left on some social issues, while the Reagan Revolution and the end of the Cold War pushed new right-wing activism. Stevens was right-of-center when he was put on the court. The suggestion that he drifted left is overstated. He still thinks burning the flag should be illegal. Stevens was never really a liberal.

His exit will have an interesting impact on the court. When the chief justice is in the majority, he assigns the opinion writing. When he is not, custom dictates that the senior justice in the majority does the assignment. That person will be Scalia. Of course, Scalia and the Chief are unlikely to be on different sides of too many issues, certainly not the big ticket ones. So this means that if there is to be a non-conservative majority, it will be led by Kennedy, the next-most-senior justice. He will be able, by joining the 4 court liberals, to choose who writes the opinion. In short, this move makes Kennedy an even more powerful central swing vote than he is now. After all, if Roberts wants Kennedy to join him on 5-4 splits, he may have to let Kennedy write the opinion, since he WILL get to write the opinion if he joins the four liberals (all this assumes that Obama's nominee will be cast as one of the liberals).

Unfortunately, there is a lot of negative press about Kennedy, some of it deserved. The worst rap on him is that he is self-aggrandizing and self-important, something this new stature will not discourage.

Stevens also was the last justice to review cert petitions independently. The other eight participate in a "pool" where only a single law clerk (or two) will write and circulate the memo on cert petitions for all to review. Institutionally, this is probably a poor idea, since it cuts down on the best part of having 9 justices: nine viewpoints.

Everyone expects Ginsburg to follow suit soon and retire, leaving Breyer as the most senior "liberal" on the court, with three Obama appointees in tow. Will Kennedy retire? Scalia?

Why is the Supreme Court so important now? Why do we allow ourselves to be governed by nine unelected judges-for-life? I think you can look at the Senate filibuster as a substantial cause. If the political branches of government are stopped up, like a clogged sink, the water spills elsewhere. The kitchen doesn't become a water tank, though, the water flows out through some unexpected route. It could be worse. As Jefferson wrote in 1776, "He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within."

That phrase is what haunts me, "the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation." It means that there is no such thing as anarchy, and no such thing as permanent stalemate in government. Government happens one way or another. Litigation is not as good as legislation by a longshot, but it beats revolution. So farewell, Justice Stevens. I wish your passing from the scene were less momentous.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Not So New South

Many of my Southern acquaintances like to claim that the South has been transformed since the bad old days of lynchings and juries freeing KKK murderers etc back in the 50's, 60's and 70's. These "It's a New South" claims have some evidence in support when you look at urbanization and industrialization in some pockets of the South. But then we get news stories like these:

The Republican Governor of Virginia recently declared April to be "Confederate History Month." His declaration praised the "sacrifices" of Confederate troops but made no mention at all slavery. I'm sure he doesn't have Fort Pillow or Andersonville in mind either.

Then we have Congressman Broun (R-GA) who made reference to the "War of Yankee Agression" in his critical remarks about health insurance reform. What's next beating Senator Feingold (D- WI) into a coma on the floor of the Senate over his vote in favor of health care reform?
What does this have to do with the price of eggs you may ask? Well, I think it shows that the Republicans are "doubling down" on Nixon's Southern Strategy. It means they are not serious about amending their rhetoric or positions to be more broadly competive on a regular basis outside the narrow demographic of White rural, and Southern voters.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Frank Talk about Midterms

So, Nate Silver over at posted this very useful chart:

What does this tell us? The conventional wisdom is that the president's party loses seats in the midterm election. The chart shows us that this has happened quite a bit in the last 60-odd years. But it also is not a very compelling set of data.

What I notice is that since 1982, significant losses in midterms have happened only twice. Both - 1994 and 2006- coincided with a toxic atmosphere where the incumbent president was monstrously unpopular. Both also had structural implications. In both cases, party centrists were turfed out in favor of the other party. In 1994, Southern Democrats lost out to Southern Republicans, even where both were conservative. Brand name, not ideology, won the day. Similarly in 2006, centrist Republicans were turfed out in favor of moderate Democrats. Again, a bad party brand name was crucial.

Going into 2010, then, I would ask (1) how unpopular is Barack Obama compared to Bush and Clinton respectively and (2) how toxic is the "Democratic" brand name compared with the "Republican" brand name. Neither question indicates much similarity between 2010 and 1994 or 2006. In 2006 at this time, Bush was running at 32 favorable, 60 unfavorable. It didn't improve for him, either, in the runup to November. In 1994, Clinton went from being about 50/50 in April 1994 to the low 40s approval, 50+ disapproval by July, and it stayed there till November. Obama, by contrast, is at about 50/50 today. Will that go down? Can't tell for certain, but the nascent economic recovery is a strong arrow pointing the other way. I should note also that in 1982, Gallup showed Reagan at his nadir in popularity with an annual appproval rating of 43%.

Similarly, the generic ballots were much worse for the incumbent party in 1994 and 2006. The generic ballot (D v R in congressional races) also was lopsided in the double-digits in favor of Dems all year long in 2006. Data is harder to come by for 1994, but I have seen a number of archived polls with the generic ballot +10GOP in October 1994. By contrast, today, the generic ballot is also nearly even.

The 2010 numbers are just not particularly toxic numbers for the Dems by comparison with 1994 and 2006.

In fact, one can look at the entire post-WWII series and take issue with whether midterm elections 'usually' cause significant losses. 1974 was the watergate-payback year. 1966, payback for the civil rights act. 1958 and 1946 were recession years. My thesis here is that the incumbent party may have some disadvantages in the midterms (the opposition is more energized and the incumbent party's GOTV efforts will be lesser in an off-year) but that's not historically a very big mover of elections. What in an off-year is that the election becomes a referendum on the president and his party. As it stands in April 2010, the result is likely to be mixed. Obama also has a number of arrows in his quiver that could push the trend more favorably. He's got nothing particularly unpopular that he needs or wants to do for the rest of the year, and the economy is likely to improve, redounding to his credit to some degree.


Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Dying Miner

Woody Guthrie wrote a moving song about a dying miner using his last bits of breath and strength to write a farewell note to his family. I couldn't find a link to the original song performed by Woody Guthrie so this version will have to do. I encourage you to listen to the song. Guthrie wrote it about an infamous mine disaster in 1947 in Centralia, Illinois. In that fire, 111 miners were killed after inspectors had warned Illinois officials numerous times about safety violations in the mine.

The mine disaster in West Virginia has a very similar back story. This mine in West Virginia was busted for hundreds of safety violations - a huge jump in violations, by the way, after the Obama administration came to power (suggesting that the Bush administration let a lot of things slide). Now, Republicans would likely say that the Democrats over enforce. But given the disaster in this mine, it sure looks like over enforcement is NOT the problem.

There is a line towards the end of Guthrie's song

Please name our new baby Joe
So he'll grow up like Big Joe
He'll work and he'll fight
And fix up the mines
So fire can't kill daddy no more