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

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Math is Fun!

So I read this from the Washington Post this morning, "The number of interracial marriages in the U.S. has risen 20 percent since 2000 to about 4.5 million, according to the latest census figures. While still growing, that number is a marked drop-off from the 65 percent increase between 1990 and 2000." Okay, let's do the math. 4.5 million is a 20% increase over 3.75million. So there were 3.75million interracial marriages in 2000. That's a difference of - wait for it - 750,000. Okay, so 3.75million is a 65% increase over what? It's a 65% increase over 2.27million. That is an actual increase of - wait for it just shy of - 1.5 million. So there were 1.5 million interracial marriages in the 1990s and half that many in the 2000s.

Then the WaPo adds, "About 8 percent of U.S. marriages are mixed-race, up from 7 percent in 2000." Okay. If 4.5 million is 8% of all marriages, that means there were 56.25million marriages in 2010. And 3.75m is 7% of 53.57million, which must be the number of marriages in 2000. Right, because the total # of interracial marriages in 2000 was 7% and in 2010 is 8%.

Okay so let's do that math. How many additional marriages were there in the 2000s? Note that the total marriage stat takes into account death and divorce and new marriage as a "net" additional marriages. Well, total number of additional marriages in the 2000s evidently 56.25 million minus 53.57 million., meaning approx 2.75million additional marriages. Apparently, of that additional 2.75million marriages in the 2000s, 0.75million were interracial. That would meant that 27% of all additional marriages in the 2000s were interracial marriages.

Doesn't seem so small to me.


The most important election so far in 2010

Check out this news about Idaho. No, it's not another potato famine. The western 1/3 of the state (including Moscow, the university town) elected a Democrat in 2008 for the first time since the glaciers retreated out of Jellystone. That man, Walter Minnick, who votes like a Republican anyway, is on the top 10 targeted list for the Republicans trying to win seats in the House. Their candidate, Vaughn Ward, lost in the Republican primary to an unknown local. A GOP wave in the Fall - not if GOP candidates are being rejected by their own base. You have to recall that the GOP is always more top-down in its organization than the Dems: they tend to follow party directives and support establishment candidates with far more regularity. As one wag put it with primaries, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. Not in 2010, it doesn't seem.

Put together with what happened in PA-12 and various other races, it's becoming clear that voters aren't in an anti-Washington mood, anti-Obama mood or any of that spin: they want to vote for outsiders, period. A pox on both your parties. Compare this to 2008 and 2006 when DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Cmte) easily got its candidates through the primaries to the general almost everywhere. In 2008 and 2006, the GOP brand name was mud. In 1994, it was gold. The brand name isn't worth that much today, not by a long shot.

This bodes ill for incumbents, who are ipso facto establishment candidates, but not necessarily for Democrats only. In the Senate too, it suggests that Bill Halter (AR) and Sestak (PA) may do better than their establishment foes (the party-picked Boozman and Toomey) because they are perceived as rebels and giant-killers already. Both races are supposed to be easy GOP pickups right now. Don't count on it.

It's also not clear where Obama's popularity or lack thereof falls in all this. Is Obama the ultimate establishment figure? Not necessarily. His continuing popularity (in every poll except Rasmussen) is a testament to the fact that many Dems, at least, perceive of Obama as an anti-establishment candidate, as he was in 2008. This means that Obama campaigning for a Democrat may help turn out the base far more than, apparently, any GOP leader can do for their own party's favored candidates. What doesn't work is Obama coming in at the last minute to anoint the chosen candidate (MA Senate, NJ Gov, VA Gov) as the establishment favorite.

So this Idaho-1st district GOP primary confirms what we have been learning about why 2010 will not look like 1994. Dems may lose seats, but there will be surprising GOP defeats too. It looks good for Rand Paul and bad for Harry Reid. Good for Charlie Crist, who managed to go from establishment to outsider in a moment, by walking out of his party parimary. Good for anyone perceived as a rebel. John McCain is going to have the primary fight of his life in AZ. And the public wants action, not obstruction. The public wants to vote for rebels who will shake up Washington, not for filibusters. The result will be significant but not catastrophic Democratic losses - say 15-20 (mostly blue dog) seats in the House and 4 or 5 Senate seats.

In fact, if I were the DSCC or DCCC, I would consider finding ways to secretly promote insurgent candidates over incumbents in primaries, perhaps by defunding the incumbents or being nonresponsive to them. Andrew Romanoff for Senate in Colorado, for instance, should be the pick, not Bennett.

Think also of what this means: it means a more polarized Washington. Rebels are almost always (though not always, see WV) less centrist than the existing candidate. I predict the new Senate leaders in 2011 will be Chuck Schumer and Jim DeMint.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tensions Increase in Korea

Things are getting worse in Korea. I normally don't like alarmism but things are getting really hinky in North Korea. South Korea has taken the issue to the UN Security Council and cut off trade with North Korea (see earlier posting for the enormity of South Korea's share of North Korea's economy). In retaliation the North Koreans have severed ties with South Korea. North Korea's government has also said that South Korea "abrogated the agreement on non-agression." North Korea frequently plays brinksmanship but this is getting scary.

The US is going to be participating with joint military exercises with South Korea. I suspect this is largely an excuse to increase our military presence in the area (that's fairly transparent). One of the exercises is going to focuss on anti-submarine warfare. That's significant because it was most likely that a North Korean sub that sank the Cheonan back in March.

There are wide spread rumors that Kim Jong-il is not only in poor health but is losing control of the regime. In particular, he's having difficulty getting some of the military factions to accept one of his sons as the next Whacko in Chief. One theory is that the ship sinking was the act of some rogue element of hawks in the North Korean military. I'm not sure I buy that.

This attack fits a long pattern of unprovoked attacks by the North Koreans on various South Korean military, governmental and civilian targets. It also fits an overall pattern where North Korea uses violence and threats of violence with the goal of extorting some concession or other from either South Korea, the US or the world at large.

So what can the North Koreans do to cary out their threat? From a unit for unit capabilities point of view the North Korean military is not much of a match for the South Korean military and their allies (which include the US and Japan). What they do have is a lot of conventional artillery within shelling range of Seoul. But their tanks, aircraft and naval vessels are largely antiquated and possibly in poor repair. There are some exceptions in some showcase units but the bulk of the North Korean military is about 30 years past being obsolete. Then there are the nukes. North Korea probably has several weapons tucked away somewhere. What does all this add up to? It means that North Korean can't hope to win a military conflict with any of its neighbors. But it is more than capable of being a kind of national suicide bomber that kills thousands or even millions of people as its psychotic leaders go out in a blaze of glory.

I'm hoping that won't happen. I'm hoping that there are enough sane and rational people in North Korea's halls of power to prevent the worst from happening. But sometimes the worst happens despite the intentions of rational leaders. And when one side or the other in an escalating crisis thinks going to the brink of the worst is in their interest, wrong guesses about where the brink actually is can be fatal. This was one of the main points of the Fog of War.

Let me add that I think the Obama administration's work to reestablish the US reputation for being something other than a rogue cowboy state itself will work in our favor. China is the key. Only China can really hope to reign in North Korea. If we were to take the McCain/Palin/Cheney approach and try to confront China on this, my guess is that the Chinese would give North Korea a long leash just to prove a point. But with some semblance of credibility as a government willing to be reasonable, Obama can work behind the scenes chanels in ways that allow China to save some face.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Axis of Evilishness

So there's a typically brain-dead article in the National Review about Obama's West Point speech. In this article, the author says that Obama is speaking of a new internationalist order "on the heels of failures" in Iran and North Korea. This is right-wing blather has to be dissected. What failures are being discussed? First, apparently, the author thinks that the recent deal between Turkey, Brazil, and Iran is a sign of a "failure." The picture of Lula and Ahmadinejad holding hands is what is specifically what the author means by "failure." Is that a failure? Well, it depends on what you think "success" looks like. The author praises Bush II for having the guts to "go it alone" and use "American military might" to "win" in Iraq, creating a safer world. I would count it rather as a big success that Iran offered a deal that it refused two years ago, and the Chinese and Russians are STILL on board with new sanctions. Bush II never got anywhere with Iran.

Similarly in North Korea, Bush II presided over 8 years of saber-rattling that resulted in a nuclear-armed North Korea. That is his failure, not President Obama's. President Obama has been trying, through SecState Clinton's terrific efforts, to find a way to close the circle around North Korea through diplomacy. It is finally working.

But what of the term "failure"? It's not just wrong, it's wrongheaded. It expresses a past-tense over-and-done-with attitude. Nothing more you can do; a failure.

Nothing more except war or threats of war. And that's what it's all about. The far right, including the National Review, wants to use US military power to overthrow the regimes in Iran and North Korea, or to 'punish' them severely with military attacks. Or they want to threaten a whole lot of it. The belief that this will isolate Iran and NK, rather than us, is belied by the Iraq experience, of course. They are angry that Obama is not trying to intimidate our enemies. Anything else is failure.

This is why it was so important to defeat McCain in the 2008 election. McCain's foreign policy consisted entirely of wanting to attack Iran (or Russia). Same with Lieberman. They view real diplomacy as weakness or cowardice. This leaves almost nothing else. Sure, these neocons act as if there is another option short of war - they claim that if we just threaten and intimidate enough, we can get Iran and NKorea (or Russia, or China) to give in to our demands. But they know it's really about war. We can't send Perry's White Ships around the world again. You can't defeat dictators in the modern world by threats of violence. It just plays into their own domestic agendas, empowering hardliners and enraging patriots against colonialism.

What is the source of this fundamental misunderstanding about coercive diplomacy? Lack of empathy. Neocons don't know how to put themselves in the shoes of those whom they threaten. When they divide the world into "us" and "them", into "good" and "evil", they ascribe totally different motitvations to our adversaries. The resulting saber-rattling and gunboat diplomacy is premised on the idea that we can intimidate these lesser people. There is a tinge of racism about the whole enterprise, as if we liberals just don't know "how to handle them." Keep the wogs in their place, you know.

Imagine how the US would react if Iran threatened to attack an American nuclear reactor: would we lean towards accomodation or confrontation? Duh - confrontation. Here's the key insight that destroyed imperialism, the insight that changed both the attitudes of the colonized and the colonizers: they are the same as we. Iran reacts to intimidation just as we do, with defiance. This is why we lost Vietnam, because we never figured out that they were people with aspirations and motivations just like we have. And, of course, neocons still think we just should have tried harder, with bigger bombs. This is the meaning of the Iranian Revolution and all other anti-colonial revolutions of the past 60 years: Non-western peoples no longer believe in their own inferiority. As a direct consequence, imperialism doesn't work anymore. Saber-rattling is just as archaic as it sounds.


American Needle - A Victory for Antitrust Laws

A few hours ago, the US Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling in American Needle Co. v. NFL clarifying that for antitrust purposes, the NFL is not a single entity incapable of "collusion" with itself, but 32 separate entities prohibited from conspiracies or combinations in restraint of trade. American Needle wanted "in" on sports jerseys, but all 32 teams were locked in by league rule to a single manufacturer. That monopolistic arrangement is now dead.

The NFL players' association famously hopped in on the side of American Needle, going so far as to have the winning QB in this year's superbowl submit an editorial to various newspapers. (Note to ghostwriters: nobody ever uses the word "gridiron" outside of the sports pages where a thesaurus is presumed to be a substitute for erudition. Don't do it). The fear of the NFL players was that, if the NFL was successful, it would give the NFL a sort of antitrust exemption in dealing with them, potentially ending free agency as we know it.

This is a big deal because it's one of the first victories for antitrust law in the USSC in 20+ years. Every case has been restricting the scope of that law for decades now.

The broader question is this: who is capable of conspiring with whom? It is axiomatic that one cannot be accused of conspiracy with oneself. Nor can a corporation and its wholly-owned and wholly-controlled subsidiary conspire. But where are the limits of who is considered just "one" person and who is "two or more"? The SC has adopted a functional, not formal test.

"Because the inquiry is one of competitive reality, it is not determinative that two parties to an alleged §1 violation are legally distinct entities. Nor, however, is it determinative that two legally distinct entities have organized themselves under a single umbrella or into a structured joint venture. The question is whether the agreement joins together “independent centers of decisionmaking.” Id., at 769. If it does, the entities are capable of conspiring under §1, and the court must decide whether the restraint of trade is an unreasonable and therefore illegal one."

Similarly, the court also ruled that NFL teams have good justifications for engaging in league activities together, such as scheduling and other coordination, and are not hamstrung by the antitrust laws in doing so.

"The fact that NFL teams share an interest in making the entire league successful and profitable, and that they must cooperate in the production and scheduling of games, provides a perfectly sensible justification for making a host of collective decisions. But the conduct at issue in this case is still concerted activity under theSherman Act that is subject to §1 analysis."

This is very, very good news. American Needle is an important corrective decision. Over time, the law tends to ossify. Formalism replaces real world tests as precedent grows. More and more cases are then disposed of by summary adjudication rather than fact-specific inquiry. This is a corrective that puts "common sense" back in the antitrust laws. It will create more litigation because it leads us back to fact-specific inquiries. But this is a good corrective also to Twombly and Iqbal, two recent cases that raised the bar for fact-pleading in federal court. Okay, the Court now seems to be saying, we will require more factual pleading for antitrust cases (and all federal cases, but particularly antitrust), but you will get to make your case about the real-world application of the law to the facts, and will not be trapped by various outmoded factual precedents that have hardened into formal fictions.

It is interesting also that this is both a unanimous opinion and written by Justice Stevens, probably his last unanimous opinion for the court. Clearly, the Court was of one mind in conference and wanted to make a broad statement that the application of antitrust laws here was not a partisan issue.



The Obama Administration has cannily taken up a Bush Administration proposal for a kind of line-item veto called "Rescission." The Republicans in the House voted overwhelmingly for it in 2006, when they controlled the house, with 35 Dems joining them. It never got a Senate vote.

"Rescission" is a rule that is probably constitutional. It does not violate the "presentment" clause as the line-item veto did. What Rescission does is create a special rule of both houses that allows the President to immediately submit to an up-or-down vote of both houses (*w/o filibuster*) a single chosen set of cuts (or "rescissions") to any spending bill that he has just signed. It really clears a procedural hurdle rather than creating a new substantive constitutional right in the executive. For bargaining purposes, this is a powerful tool, as it allows a simple majority to cancel a "deal" it has just made with a minority in the Senate to pass legislation. Its stated purpose is to remove earmarks. The hope is to trap Republicans into voting for the plan again. It may just work.


Remember Korea?

Well, most of our contributers and friends do. But I'm sure CNN doesn't. At least not today. As I type this there is no mention of the smoldering crisis in the Korean peninsula on the CNN website.

BBC news is covering it though. You may remember that on March 26, a South Korean navy ship, a corvette called the Cheonan, sank under mysterious circumstances in South Korean waters that are disputed by the North Koreans. After the usual round of denials and investigations we now know that the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. They even have "the smoking gun" of parts of a North Korean torpedo found inside the wreckage area of the Cheonan.

North Korea is continuing to deny responsibility and is threatening war if economic sanctions are imposed. CIA World Fact Book says that 42% of N. Korea's exports go to China. 38% go to South Korea. 57% of North Korea's imports come from China and 25% from South Korea. China has consistently been the shameless enabler of the North Korean regime. It would be nice if China began behaving like a responsible world power and started working towards making some changes in its rogue protectorate. But I wouldn't hold my breath. That leaves South Korea.

South Korea's government is furious. So is Japan's. The US response is one of clear reassertion of US support for South Korea but is more moderate in tone than the South Korean statements. The Chinese government is urging "calm and restraint" which I take as the response that they figure is the most pro-North Korean statement they could make without completely losing all moral credibility.

North Korea has nothing to offer. All they have is threats. These threats are serious. North Korea probably has several nuclear weapons. But even if those don't come into play, the South Korean capitol and largest city, Seoul, is so close to the North Korean border that North Korea could wreak havoc in the city with conventional weapons without conquering any South Korean territory. I've heard that the North Koreans have conventional artillery capable to shelling the city from the North Korean side of the border.

The problem in North Korea is that the country has been so badly managed that there little no basis of government other than a relatively small, closed, and apparently psychotic elite dominated by one family. The military has influence, certainly, but if they could take power, I'd've expected them to have done so long ago. My best guess is that China's government is the main impediment to a regime change from within in North Korea.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What's Up With Thailand?

In an earlier post, Bell Curve complains about the emphasis on trivia in the US TV news media. I sympathize. One complaint I've had lately is about the US coverage of the political violence in Thailand. There's lots of footage of troops on the streets and shooting at demonstrators but little in the way of explanation of WHY its all happening or what the issues of contention are.

I did a little research (nothing major) and came up with a few things. First, BBC's website has a good summary of the situation here. Basically, the fight is between populist rural supporters of former PM, Thaksin (red shirts). They are opposed by the current government of conservative elites with support from the urban middle class (yellow shirts). Both groups claim to be the true representatives of democratic Thailand. And both groups have played fast an loose with democracy. The yellow shirt crowd has encouraged and benefitted coups d'etat. The red shirt's hero, Thaksin, is a mega-rich telecom baron who is often accused of using political power to benefit his cronies and relatives. As near as I can tell this is a conflict between the authoritarian, urban elite that is not above using the military to impose order in their quest for economic development and a charismatic cleptocrat who uses populism to build a base of support among the poor.
I'm not an expert on Thailand so I could be wrong but this smells a lot like the conflict between Juan Peron and the conservative elites in Argentina in the 1950s-1970s.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Primary Night in America - May 18, 2010

The biggest news, because it was earliest, was that Rand Paul, who comes from the libertarian wing of the GOP (that's putting it mildly) just won the KY GOP primary. What does this mean?
1. Well, the first thing it means is that the GOP electorate in KY is probably smaller than the GOP would like. In fact, the Democratic primary is having much higher turnout. With 60% of precincts reporting, there are about 300,000 Democratic primary voters and 200,000 Republican primary voters. Low turnout favors an energized minority.
2. Rand Paul is not a "christian" conservative. This is a defeat for the GOP establishment.
3. Also, it's a defeat for McConnell and his "no, no, no" strategy. McConnell, the other sitting senator from Kentucky, endorsed Grayson. A grassroots revolt by Republicans against their own party leaders can be spun as anti-Obama by TV spinmeisters, but it's a stretch. With Bennett's defeat, the word is that Republicans are not happy with their own party.
4. Democrats are enthused in KY. Rand Paul was the enemy they wanted, because he's so far "out there" compared to most Republicans, and he doesn't have the "christian" vote wrapped up either. We recall that Ron Paul is a libertarian fave (Rand's father) but that's a small % of the electorate. 10% is far above Ron Paul's support in almost every state. Rand Paul puts the KY seat in play, a possible Dem pickup this year.

So my thesis of a couple weeks ago is bearing out to some extent (ahem!). The Tea Party is not the forerunner of a big GOP wave, but just a division of an ever-smaller, ever more out-of-touch party. With an improving economy, expect the Democrats to become more optimistic over the next weeks and months.

In fact, Democrats went to the polls in large numbers today. Liberals turned out incumbent Specter in favor of Sestak for Senate in Pennsylvania. Democrats turned out to win the 12th CD, special election, for a Democrat after Jack Murtha's death - this was a seat the GOP thought sure to claim if there was any truth to a conservative wave out there. And in Arkansas, liberal Bill Halter with union and support is giving Blanche Lincoln a run for her money. The race is almost tied with 38% in.

This is not a nation that is voting against Democrats, against liberals, or against Washington. Poll numbers show that Democrats are re-engaging, and independents reconnecting with them, as the economy improves.

I have a thought that we are seeing something interesting. Neither party really expects control of Congress to change. Everyone expects the GOP to make up some ground, but not 9 Senate seats and 30 house seats. So neither party is showing the innate willingness to run centrists in order to win in November. Neither party is that worried about revolts or upsets either. With a growing feeling among party leaders that nothing is in the balance but individual fates, we are seeing a lot of playing to the base.

UPDATE: Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is headed to a runoff with Bill Halter, a man who was 10-12 points behind her in the polls just last week. With 52% of the vote in, she's only 2,000 votes ahead of Halter. The parallel to Sestak is astonishing. Both surged in the last 2-3 weeks as the Democratic electorate finally took the race seriously. I suspect the fact that Obama is very popular among Democrats shows here in invigorating Dems to turn out to support real Democrats, not the DINOs.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Cable news

This weekend I was in a hotel lobby with two TVs visible: one showing CNN and one showing Fox News. CNN was talking about Playboy's new 3D centerfold and Fox was talking about the Miss USA Pageant's "new sexier photos." Ugh, just kill me.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Palestinian Nonviolent Resistance?

News item from this morning's Washington Post: "We are definitely committed to a path of nonviolent resistance and defiance in the face of the settlement enterprise, and we are defiantly expressing our right to boycott those products and I believe it is working," said Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

What this refers to is the movement by Palestinians to boycott settler-produced and settler-sold goods. According to various sources, it is having a severe economic impact on the right-wing Jewish settlers who had helped support their communities by selling to the very Palestinians they were trying to displace. What the Palestinian authority is also seeing, for the first time, is a lack of international resistance to one of their strategies, even tepid support. Are Palestinians finally realizing that non-violent resistance is far more effective than terrorism or dressing in masks, waving AK-47s, and shouting slogans of hate for Jews?

What a massive change this could bring about in a very short time. There are two big reasons why there has been no Israeli-Palestinian settlement. One is the desire for a "Greater Israel" by right-wing religious Israelis that results in settlement provocations. The other is the continued acts of terrorism by Palestinians that convince the secular Israeli majority that Palestinians are just too dangerous to deal with. Nonviolent methods can totally change the equation.

A turn to nonviolence may be too much to hope for, but it could happen. I think it is possible to take the notion of "submission" (the meaning of the word Islam) and "jihad" (meaning struggle for faith rather than specifically armed conflict) to encompass nonviolent resistance, and it may turn out to be an easier change than anyone expects. The willingness to engage in suicide bombing suggests a cultural capacity for self-sacrifice that could be converted to more successful nonviolent tactics. We can only hope. As far as it goes, this boycott is good news. Nothing succeeds like success.


Net Neutrality and Models of Charging for Services

We ask our government to pay for, subsidize, or regulate access to lots of things, from the military to roads, bridges, schools, and, to some extent, the internet. We don't often talk about it, but there are several general models. Two I want to focus on are what I would call the "all-you-can-eat" model or the "a la carte" model. As the names imply, the all-you-can-eat model proposes that the goods be provided either free or with a fixed charge, while the a la carte model charges more for more usage, (however defined - see more below). The classic way to understand the difference (and the politics) would be to look at your landline phone bill from 20 years ago. All local calls are provided at one all-you-can-eat rate. You got charged the same $10 flat fee whether you had six teenage girls at home or you were a hermit. Long distance calls were charged per minute and for distance. No calls, no charge.

Which model is best for the internet? Thinking of the telephone bill is instructive. The establishment of local service fixed rate was required legislation for enactment in rural areas. Stringing 20 miles of telephone line to reach a handful of farms requires more expenditure per customer than stringing urban telephone lines where 20 feet can get dozens of apartment customers. Until the government required it, rural telephone and electrification did not take place. The a la carte model was too expensive to support rural service. The cost, of course, was spread out to urban dwellers in the form of very slightly higher costs for local service. Long distance calls, however, were all charged by minute and by distance.

Which is fair? Which is good public policy? Sometimes the answer is clear. Where the service wouldn't be provided at all without the cost-sharing of all-you-can-eat service, that model seems better. Where the demand is very small but intense, cost-sharing seems like subsidizing a special interest: few Americans wanted to share the costs for international calls that few made. Other times, the answer is just political. The all-you-can-eat model is not just about sharing costs - it's about opening access to all social classes. The cost of long distance calls made them out of reach for a large segment of the population except on rare occasion. The generation born in the 1940s and 1950s still views long distance calling as a kind of luxury although the cost has decreased a lot.

The a la carte model has one major flaw, however, and that is the potential for windfall profits and hidden charges. At first glance, charging more for a 3000 mile phone call than a 300 mile phone call seems fair - but, of course, it's all instantaneous for the electrons and there is no additional cost borne by the provider to match the extra cost charged to the user. When the ATT monopoly was broken, long distance charging and prices dropped dramatically to better accomodate the market reality. For cell phones, the pricing structure is radically different. The a la carte model also only approximates charging for usage, with the ability to cheat or overcharge. For the internet, the cost of bandwidth is not fixed, but relative - at any given moment, your downloading a movie could be hindering the net for others or totally irrelevant if usage is otherwise low.

We use all-you-can-eat funding for roads. It is worth noting that almost all the toll roads are in a handful of East Coast corridors where travel distances are shorter and roads were built by individual states without federal funding. Toll bridges too occur in the same situations, where there a local entity bears the entire cost of building the bridge, but wants to share the cost to other jurisdictions who benefit. In an aside, in conservative Orange County California, they experimented with toll LANES on roads with pricing that varied according to the time of day and relative traffic in the "free" lanes. This created the perverse incentive in the county not to improve the "free" lanes since they only earned money from the toll lanes if the free lanes were jammed. When it was discovered that the county had actually promised toll company not to spend any public money to expand roads to improve traffic flow for the non-toll-paying citizens, the gig was up.

The bad part about all-you-can eat pricing for the internet is that cost-sharing raises the minimum access charge for the occasional user. While all-you-can-eat service really help the college students and others who can afford $20/month and use lots, but couldn't possibly pay the $200/month they might be charged on an a la carte basis, it hurts the poor inner city mother who can't afford $20/month but might be able to afford $5/month for a small email box with no video/audio streaming allowed, if that is offered. The fear, and I think it is legitimate, is that we don't really have a competitive marketplace in the internet, so if providers were allowed to charge by bandwidth, this would be an excuse to dramatically increase prices for some users while NOT lowering the prices for other users. The $5/month plan wouldn't materialize, but $200/month internet bills would.

To my mind, this is what net neutrality is all about: it's not really about limiting access to content, but about making users pay a lot more for the level of usage that most are already accustomed to, in order to create new sources of profit to providers. The big companies' goal is to find a way to charge more to middle class and upper middle class people for the same service they provide at lower prices to those who can't afford to pay more.

So that's my take on net neutrality. It's about pricing, not "neutrality" of content, and it's crucial that we maintain the net neutrality model in order to prevent charging of oligopoly rents by providers.

This also explains why Republicans oppose net neutrality. It interferes with the potential for corporate profits at your expense.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Elena Kagan is a Lesbian

The title of this post is a joke. I have no idea whatsoever about Elena Kagan's sexual orientation. I just figured we'd get a lot of hits. If this is what the conversation is about, she'll be confirmed easily. So keep going, right wingers, keep pressing the "gay" thing. Maybe she should walk right up to Jeff Sessions and plant a warm wet one on his lips.


Midterm Polls and News

So we are seeing two trends develop. First, the polling data has stopped its rightward shift. Over the past six to eight weeks, the President's favorability buffer - the gap between fave and unfave ratings - has grown from about even to 3-4 points on the sunny side. So far, the main trend has been a reduction in unfavorability ratings rather than an increase in faves. Also, the slight GOP advantage in the generic congressional vote is again gone. If you take the Rasmussen polls out of the equation, which are slanted to the GOP given the "likely voter" definition the picture is even clearer. This trend is to be expected. We have health care out of the news, the economy creating jobs, hundreds of thousands of people re-entering the workforce (a sign of hope), and the GOP looking bad on banking reform, immigration, and the oil spill. My guess is that we've seen the GOP high-water mark already, probably in early April 2010. Whether this stabilizes or swings somewhat back to the Dems has yet to be seen. With improving economic numbers, I expect at some gradual deflation in GOP expectations and numbers over the next 5 months. Already, the polls are again showing a possible Dem pickup of the Ohio senate seat from retiring Voinovich (something considered fairly certain 12 months ago).

The other curious trend is in the primaries. Sestak may beat out Specter for the Dem nomination in PA and, in Arkansas, Bill Halter has already forced Blanche Lincoln to the left on banking reform issues. The lower enthusiasm #s for Democrats mean that the Democratic primary electorate is more liberal than it was in 2008. It is starting to show. On the GOP side, the Tea Party rise is pushing the median GOP voter to the right. It bears repeating that primary electorates are always more partisan than the general electorate, but this is a further deviation from the normal trend.

This means that the center ground is largely up for grabs in the midterms, and that's bad for the GOP. Why? Because that was their job. You can't win control of the US congress playing to your base - you have to play to the center. The GOP playbook of banking hard right just won't cause voters to change course. Worse, it allows President Obama to occupy the center ground, increasing his popularity to the ultimate benefit of his party. Put another way, Obama will pull the Dems back to the center, but the GOP has jettisoned its own counterweights that might have helped it do the same. I'm wearing my cautiously optimistic face now.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Electoral Reform in the UK?

Part of the deal for the Con-Lib coalition in the UK is a referendum on the Alternative Vote system. Here is an analysis of what the results of the recent election would have been under SMD (First-past-the post), AV (alternative vote), or STV (single transferable vote) systems. The Conservatives favor the SMD system. Labour has at times advocated the AV system and the Liberal Democrats have long advocated STV.

Under AV, Lib Dems would gain largely at the expense of the Conservatives. But Labour would stay about the same. The substantive result would have been a more balanced coalition between the Lib Dems and either Conservatives or Labour.

At the same time, it appears that a referendum on AV would have a chance of passing. Reuters reports that about 60% of British voters support some more proportional electoral system. AV is probably the smallest change in that direction that could be proposed. It would - in elections like the one we just saw, strengthen the junior partner in a coalition. But in a really decisive shift of support, it might still allow for a single party government.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Britain's New Government And the Deal That Made it Possible

So the UK has a new, Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron. Now for the rest of the government. I had put my money on the Conservatives forming a minority government (i.e. a situation in which they cut some sort of deal with the Lib Dems that stopped short of giving the Lib Dem's any cabinet ministeries). The speculation in the London Times is that the three top jobs in the new government, PM, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Foreign Secretary will all be held by Torries. In comparison with similar coalitions in Continental countries, this is a very lopsided agreement in favor of the senior member of the coalition (the Conservatives). In most countries a coalition will set up the leader of the largest party as the PM and the leader of the second largest party as either the Finance Minister (called in the UK, "Chancellor of the Exchequer") or Foreign Minister (called in the UK, "Foreign Secretary"). Instead the top leaders in the Lib Dem party are going take what amount to junior ministerial positions: Deputy PM and Chief Secretary for the Treasury. For all three of the top jobs to go to the senior partner in the coalition suggests that the junior partner had very little bargaining leverage.

It is possible though that the Lib Dems got their holy grail. There were reports yesterday that the Conservatives had lately become open to the idea of a referendum on instituting the alternative vote system. This is not quite the STV system that the Lib Dems prefer (see previous post) but it is similar. The main difference is that in STV, there are multiple members representing each district whereas in Alternative Vote systems there is only one member (the voters still rank order their candidates). Alternative Vote is sometimes called "institant runnoff." This is the electoral system that the Labour Party has sometimes advocated. If the Lib Dems got that kind of concession I could understand them being willing to give up the important ministries.


Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Liberal Democrats and Single Transferable Vote

So the bargaining begins. Right now, the Liberal Democrats are considering an offer of cooperation from the Conservatives. So far the Conservatives have not come out with an unambiguous offer of cabinet seats but seem to be hoping for Lib Dem support of a Conservative minority government. Labour has also reached out to the Lib Dems offering themselves as a partner should talks with the Conservatives break down.

So what are the Liberal Democrats going to set as their price? The conventional wisdom is that they will push hard for at least a referendum on changing the electoral system from the current Single Member District system (SMD, aka "first past the post") to a more proportional Single Transferable Vote system (STV). There is a famous (and slightly humorous) explanation of the Lib Dem proposal by John Cleese here. In that video, he refers to STV as "proportional representation. While STV is more proportional than SMD it's not a straight transmission of the share of the vote into a share of seats (which the proportional representation systems used in most continental European countries more or less do). STV is used by Ireland.

What would happen to the UK if the Lib Dems got what they want and the referendum approved a change to STV? Well, it would likely benefit the Lib Dems! In STV, voters can rank order candidates in multi-member districts. If a district has 4 seats, the 4 candidates with the most preferences win seats (see links above for detailed descriptions of how that gets determined). In Ireland the three biggest parties tend to get slight bigger shares of the seats than their first place vote shares. The smaller parties get smaller seat shares and vote shares but the difference is typically far less than we observe in SMD. You can see a summary of the latest Irish elections (including a report of the seat share percentage and vote share percentage) here.

In practical terms such an electoral system would likely make the Liberal Democrats frequent participant in government coalitions. The two biggest parties, Conservatives and Labour, would be big losers in such change. Under the current system (since 1979) the winning party in the UK has typically won about 40% of the vote but well over 50% of the seats. This year the Conservatives only won about 36% of the vote and fell short of a majority of seats. Any system that imposes more proportionality on the system would be bad news for any party that thinks they have a regular shot at being the top vote getter.

Just playing around with some naive numbers here: In 1979, the year Thatcher swept to power, the Conservatives won 43.9% of the vote and won 53.4% of the seats. In a more proportional system many voters would likely transfer their votes to smaller parties instead but if we simply use the 1979 vote shares are guide we can see that Labour and the Liberal Democrats had more than 50% of the votes together. Imagine a British political history with no Thatcher. Alternatively, Thatcher would have had to get the cooperation of the more moderate Lib Dems. If STV (or PR) had been used in 1979, it's likely that either there never woud have been a Prime Minister Thatcher or she would have been hamstrung by the need to form a coalitoin with a more moderate party. That's the kind of impact we're talking about.


Friday, May 07, 2010

UK Elections Results

OK, so the results are coming in now. It looks like that after all the hype abou the rise of the Lib Dems they fizzled. With 648 of 650 constituencies reporting, the Lib Dems increased their vote share slightly but have actually come in with 5 fewer seats than before. Conservative: 305, Labour: 258, Liberal Demcorats 57, (see BBC link for smaller parties and updates).

In general this is a rough day for Labour. They took a real pasting. But the Conservatives are far short of what they need to form a single party majority government. At the time of this posting, they are way below the 326 seats make a majority. The Liberal Democrats do have enough seats to get the Torries up over 326. But given the dissapointing performance for the Lib Dems, they are unlikely to want to force a new election soon (the ultimate threat that would back up their negotiating position in a coalition).

On the other side, if all the even marginally left of center parties formed a coalition lead by Labour, they could get up to 329 seats. That would be Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Social Democratic and Labour (N. Ireland, mainly Irish Catholics who are more moderate than Sinn Fein), Greens (yes they won a seat), and Alliance Party. But this is unwieldy to put it mildly. It would also be unseemly. British voters clearly spoke out against Labour. Labour lost 91 seats (at the time of this posting). It's a possible outcome but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

At this point, I'm betting that the Torries will form a minority government alone and dare the Liberal Democrats to force a new election by helping defeat a vote of confidence. In any case, I'm also betting the UK will have another election sooner rather than later (possibly before the end of the year). As I update this (at about 11am EST), there are reports that Cameron, the Tory leader, has made some sort of vague overtures to the Liberal Democrats that stop short of an open offer of cabinet positions in a coalition government.

This is probably the official end of Gordon Brown's political career (the de facto end came when Tony Blair left him with a tarnished Labour legacy and weakening political position back in 2007). Now begins the factional infighting within Labour over who will take over the leadership.


Thursday, May 06, 2010

We are NOT Greece

OK, so many of you have probably heard about the fiscal crisis in Greece. You can find a timeline of the way the crisis unfolded here. The upshot of the situation is that the conservative party that governed Greece for most of the last 10 years flat out lied about the size of the country's debt and deficit in relation to their GDP. Last year, the new center left government revealed the true numbers and all hell broke loose.

Now, as this crisis unfolds you hear a lot of talk from the most populist talking heads on CNN, FOX etc arguing that the current deficit spending in the US is leading us to some sort of inevitable Greek like catastrophy here. But I contend that this simply alarmist jingoism and these people are pushing it for partisan political reasons. In this post I will list a number of reasons that WE ARE NOT GREECE.

1) Size matters. Greece is a relatively small, poor country with shaky economic foundations. According to the CIA world factbook, about 15% of the Greek economy comes from tourism. Another 3.3% of it comes from direct aid from the EU in the form of ag subsidies and structural development funds. In contrast, the US economy is dependent on neither source but is instead a large and diversified economy with sizable service sector and industrial sectors. Basically, the Greek economy looks more like Hawaii's or Alaska's (minus the oil) than like the rest of the USA.

2) Americans are better citizens! One of the problems Greece has is a very low rate of compliance with tax laws. That is, Greeks simply cheat on their taxes on a massive scale. The result is the Greek state's capacity to raise public revenue is seriously hindered. That is not the case in the US. As much as people like to joke about fudging their returns, Americans are a law abiding bunch. Part of that is because our government is better at enforcing the tax laws.

3) Checks and balances mean honest government. One of the reasons the previous Greek government was able to flat out falsify their national books is because Greece has a unicameral parliamentary system combined with an electoral system that tends to produce single party majority governments. Combine that with relatively disciplined parties (unlike American parties) and you get a government with virtually no one watching over their shoulders. In contrast, the United States has numerous conflicting partisan and institutional actors watching and reporting on spending and budget issues. It is politically impossible to imagine a situation in which some President or small group of Congressional leaders could falsify the books and get away with it. The national accounts are required by law to be revealed to too many people who have a vested interest in exposing such misdeads by their political opponents.

4) We don't spend or borrow nearly as much! The current Greek debt is about 113.4% of their GDP (from CIA world factbook). The popular reaction to the deficit reduction strategy in Greece has been violent and deadly. The US debt is about 52.9% of our GDP and it is provoking a vigorous political debate about how (not whether) to reduce it (from CIA world factbook). In any given year about 50% of Greece's GDP is taken up in government expeditures. In the US less than 20% of the GDP is taken up with government expenditure. What's more, there are some indications that US economy is beginning to recover from its part of the global recession. That is not the case in Greece. In Greece, the indications are that the economy will continue to shrink.

For all these reasons, I believe talk about the US going the way of Greece is little more than partisan hyperbole.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Free Speech

This Onion article is patently ridiculous.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted with the majority, wrote a concurring opinion in which he made little mention of established court precedents but emphasized that he himself had viewed materials "way, way nastier than this stupid play."


Writing in dissent, however, Justice Antonin Scalia contemplated the limits of the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

"The court has an interest in protecting meaningful human communication, which is jeopardized when every other word out of someone's mouth is 'F this' or 'F that,'" Scalia wrote. "In practice, such an expansion of free expression becomes far too unwieldy and large to accommodate."

To which Justice Ginsberg [sic] immediately replied, "Yeah, that's what his mom said."
Are you really suggesting that there's an issue for which Scalia and Thomas would not both vote the same way? Ludicrous.


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Torture and Terror Suspect Capture

So it took the NYPD, FBI et al about 48 hours to arrest their suspect for the failed car bombing in New York City. Some Republicans (like McCain) are claiming this as a victory for the Patriot Act and other Bush era distortions of constitutional rights enacted "in response" to 9/11. But consider this. This guy was arrested based on a tip from a couple of witnesses (the street vender and the people who sold the SUV to the suspect) and some old fashioned gum-shoeing. No wires were tapped. Jack Bauer didn't have to torture anyone and feel bad about it after.


Revenge of Maurice Duverger

In the 1950s, Maurice Duverger demonstrated and had his name applied to a fact of plurality electoral systems with single-member constituencies (like the USA and UK) that they strongly favor the establishment of a 2-party system. We know from many other experiences in life that in any selection with only one winner, there is very quickly a front runner and a single best runner-up challenger. Then everyone else more or less has to pick sides. For curious reasons, the UK is not quite a two-party system. The Liberals and Tories were the two main parties in the late 19th century into the 1920s, when Labour managed to oust the Liberals and create a new duopoly. The Liberal Dems never went away, however. Now they are possibly in a position to create a hung parliament.

How to explain this? Why isn't the UK electorate swinging decisively to the Tories and the anti-Tories, with just one party taking up the slack? How do parties like BNP and UKIP ever get elected over the Tories in those right-leaning districts? I wonder if the answer is the lack of independence of MPs. In the USA, each representative can attune himself or herself to the interests of the district, as can each challenger. In the UK, they can't - they are all tied to a single national platform. Imagine if, in the USA, all Republicans had to adopt the policy stands of the Georgia GOP: opposed to gay marriage, civil unions, gays in the military, in favor of school prayer, ban all abortions. Well, that party woudl be shut out of much of the country where more liberal Republicans can win today. Imagine that the Dems were all required to favor gay marriage and demand gun control. They too woudl be shut out of large areas. there would be a place for 3d and 4th parties to rise. Indeed, the lack of cohesion ruling parties in the USA - whether the fractious Dems of today or the fractious GOP of 2002 - is an indication of the issues that create space for third parties in the UK electorate.

What is rare in the UK is that any single district has three competitive parties. While it happens, reports indicate a lot of local duopolies. that's what we would expect.

Why do US parties cohere better than UK parties into duopolies? Another feature is the presidency which has long been the organizing force behind national parties even in the 19th century when the Senate was unelected and in non-party caucuses. The presidency is such a winner-take-all prize that it helps organize national coalitions. In the UK, this does not happen because the legislature chooses the executive.

So I ask you, how might we test this? Imagine if, in the USA, it were much harder for representatives to adjust themselves in one of the two legislative houses. It is. Witness the Senate versus the House. The Senate cannot be gerrymandered and Senators are more likely to address national audiences. This may help explain why we see "independents" as a regular feature of the Senate, but not in the House. Also in New York we see four parties - D, R, Conservative, Liberal - which create local duopolies but are permitted to co-endorse candidates and therefore run statewide tickets. If we ever want a third party in the USA, then, we may have to create rules that allow multi-party endorsements of candidates, something that was once the case in many US states.


Saturday, May 01, 2010

Beyond the Liberal Democrats

The coverage of next week's election in the UK is dominated by the story of the surging Liberal Democrats. But there are a clutch of small parties with regionally concentrated support that could end up playing at least a big a role after the election as the Liberal Democrats. But the press barely mentions them. Indeed, the polls that Nate Silver at bases his UK election forcast on don't even report individual results for these smaller parties. In his defense, Silver does explain that his forcasts have the Conservatives doing so well that they would not need the Liberal Democrats to form a government but could, instead, rely upon several of these smaller regional parties and right wing parties. So who are these parties? Here is my off the cuff explanation of who they are and their place in current British politics.

Scottish National Party: Back in the day they were laughed off as the "Scottish Nose Pickers" they are a serious player in Scottland now. With the establishment of a Scottish parliament (by Blair's Labour government), the SNP has emerged as a serious electoral force at the regional and local level. Ideologically, they are a center-left party that also advocates greater autonomy if not outright independence for Scotland. A particular concern for the SNP is that Scotland benefit more from the North Sea oil industry than they have so far. While nominally nationalists, it would be a mistake to think of this party as a right wing group. They currently have 7 seats in the House of Commons. The SNP is not a likely coalition partner for the Conservatives or supporter of a Conservative minority government. (update/amendment: Even if the SNP did go into coalition with the Conservatives, they would likely force similar compromises as the Liberal Democrats).

Plaid Cymru: This is the Welsh national party. They currently have 3 seats in the House of Commons. Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru is primarily concerned with regional autonomy from London. They work closely with the SNP (and are in the same party group in European Parliament). They are generally center-left in outlook but prefer to emphasize other dimensions (such as Welsh autonomy). In recent elections, they have added a significant environmentalist element to their platform. Plaid Cymru is not a likely coalition partner for the Conservatives or supporter of a Conservative minority government. (update/amendment: Even if Plaid Cymru did go into coalition with the Conservatives, they would likely force similar compromises as the Liberal Democrats).

Democratic Unionist Party: This is a party the Conservatives might count on for support in the House of Commons. The party was founded by Ian Paisley. They currently have 8 seats in the House of Commons. This is a right wing, socially conservative party of anti-Catholic, sectarian protestants (especially Presbyterians). It would be fair to place this party to the right of the Conservatives on many policy dimensions.

British National Party: The BNP is the classic, stereotypical far-right party in the UK. They are anti-immigrant, anti-EU, protectionist, anti-market, right wing extremists. This is the closest thing to a fascist party in the UK. They currently have no seats in the House of Commons. However, Gordon Brown's recent "I didn't know the mic was on" gaffe referring to an elderly Labour supporter as a "bigot" after she complained to him about immigrants (at about 1 minute 30 seconds into the video) may play into the BNP's hands. Parties like the BNP seek support among the working class demographics that used to be Labour's base. Brown's comments may lead to a spike in BNP support. I doubt they'll get many seats but if they got a couple of seats here or there, they and the DUP could provide some support for a minority Conservative government.

United Kingdom Independence Party: UKIPs raison d'etre is opposition to the European Union. Most of their early leaders/members were dissafected Euro-skeptical Torries. While Euro-skepticism is not inherently right wing or left wing, UKIP comes at it with a decidely right wing populist tone. That said, where the BNP presents itself as anti-market and protectionist, UKIP presents itself as both nationalist and pro-market. In American terms you can think of the BNP as something like a cross between the KKK and Pat Buchanon's supporters. UKIP would be more like the faction of the Tea Party crowd that go nuts for Ron Paul. Of course Ron Paul has better manners than many UKIP leaders. Here is a youtube clip of a UKIP Member of the Euroepan Parliament displaying his diplomatic skills (my apologies to any Belgians or Greeks who watch this, I in no way agree with the gentleman's views about Belgium or Greece). There are currently no UKIP seats in the House of Commons but the ongoing crisis in Greece may boost their support. It is worth noting as well as that the Liberal Democrats are easily the most solidly PRO EU party in the UK. Anti-incumbent voters who are also anti-EU, may well turn to UKIP. Like the BNP, they are unlikely to win many seats. But also, like the BNP, if they did win a seat here or there they would be a likely source of support for a minority Conservative government.

So where does this leave us? Well, if Nate Silver's projection is on to something, it means that the Conservatives would need a huge year for the DUP, BNP and UKIP to really have a shot at keeping the Liberal Democrats out of government. That's possible. The implications would be at least as shocking as a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. If DUP, BNP and UKIP end up being the king makers it would put the UK in the same catagory as Austria, Italy and Denmark where mainstream center-right political parties have been willing to depend on the far right to stay in power.