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March 16, 2017

Shovel your own sidewalk, Pomeranz

So.

I was thinking about writing up something about sidewalk-shoveling. It’s very odd, when you think about it, that American cities have a policy that every building is responsible for clearing the sidewalk in front of it. In our inner suburb, where the houses all have driveways, clearing the sidewalk is just an add-on to the task we are already doing, but of course it all gets done haphazardly, some people (after some storms) clearing the full width of the sidewalk down to clean cement and others making a shovel-width passage over an inch of treacherous frozen snow-ice rocks. And of course some people are out of town for some storms and don’t clear at all; some people are just jerks; some houses (or stores) are vacant for some portion of the winter; some portions of some sidewalks don’t seem to be in front of anyone’s house particularly.

And, I mean, I see how we developed this policy, and I see that the obvious alternative—increased taxes to pay for the town to clear all the sidewalks—would not be without severe drawbacks. It’s a legitimate choice we made, to assess ourselves a sort of labor tax, with the option of paying private labor money instead. I don’t insist that the government needs to get involved with everything, and I certainly don’t think that efficiency should override what the populace actually wants. Still, it’s odd, isn’t it? Particularly since this is an obvious case where there are efficiencies of scale—I mean, on our block, probably every other family has purchased a snow-thrower of some kind, almost all of which are not in use at any given moment even during peak snow removal. At the very least, wouldn’t you think it would be more common for a block association or other group of neighbors to voluntarily chip in on purchasing a large snow-thrower for use on all the sidewalks and driveways? Again: I’m not saying there aren’t problems with doing that, but there are also problems with me having to shovel the damn’ sidewalk every time. Or for all our dog-walkers and schoolgoers and other pedestrians who are having to walk on those poorly cleared sidewalks today. And anyone who is reliant on a walker or a wheelchair or even a cane… well, our current system just shrugs and says it sucks for them, but whaddyagonnado.

So, as I say, I was going to write this all up in an actual essay for this Tohu Bohu, but it got all mixed up with my feelings about Our Only President’s budget blueprint, which reflects a desire to sharply reduce or eliminated funding for just the sort of communitarian projects that really do require government intervention. The sidewalk thing? Look, if we wanted to vote in Mayors and Boards who would implement that sort of thing, we could, but we don’t want to, and we get along just fine, more or less. Superfund cleanup? Not so much. EPA research? The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative? Energy Star? The Chemical Safety Board?

Look—I don’t think this budget (perhaps I should write ‘budget’ in quotes to indicate that Our Only President doesn’t really think of it as a budget) is going to be the actual budget of the United States. I don’t actually think that all federal funding for Legal Services will be eliminated. A lot of the stuff zeroed out in this bill—

In the chapters that follow, Budget highlights are presented for major agencies. Consistent with the President’s approach to move the Nation toward fiscal responsibility, the Budget eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to redefine the proper role of the Federal Government.

The Budget also proposes to eliminate funding for other independent agencies, including: the African Development Foundation; the Appalachian Regional Commission; the Chemical Safety Board; the Corporation for National and Community Service; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the Delta Regional Authority; the Denali Commission; the Institute of Museum and Library Services; the Inter-American Foundation; the U.S. Trade and Development Agency; the Legal Services Corporation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation; the Northern Border Regional Commission; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; the United States Institute of Peace; the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness; and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

—is stuff that Republican legislators and Mayors and Governors want funding for. This is an ideological document, not a practical budget. I think it’s ideological. It could be political. It could be tactical. It could just be ignorant. Whatever it is, it’s not passing Congress. Not even this Congress.

The quote I thought was most telling was from the White House Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney: “This is a hard power budget, not a soft power budget.” (That was in The Guardian’s coverage.) That’s… amazing. I mean, let’s not leave aside even for one moment the fact that we usually discuss hard or soft power in the context of our foreign policy, not as a means of subduing our own populace. And again, let’s not lose sight of the fact that soft power has been shown to be much more efficient and useful than hard power in actually achieving our national goals overseas (go ahead, ask me how that redintegro Iraq business is going). But take a moment and recognize that this was a statement given to the press as PR for the plan. They’re eliminating hundreds of programs, not all of which, admittedly are as popular as Meals on Wheels, but each of which has some thousands of supporters, and what they came up with to sell the thing is a line that I have to think will be heard by all of those people as toughen up, toots. We’re not taking care of each other any more.

And, you know, here’s the thing: we do take care of each other. My neighbor with the big gas-powered snow-thrower did, in fact, clear the sidewalk in front of my house as well as in front of his. People do, either on their own or through their churches or synagogues or Freemason lodges, deliver meals to elderly invalids, even without immediate government intervention. We donate stuff to the schools… well, teachers donate more than anyone, but parents chip in, too, as do local businesses. We make do.

But.

That has limits.

And really, we don’t fund Legal Services only out of charity. Don’t get me wrong: that’s a good enough reason. It’s the right thing to do. But it’s also a benefit to everyone when landlords know that there is at least a chance that tenants will get legal representation. It’s not really good for our legal system or anyone else to know that as long as your victims are too poor to afford a retainer, you can swindle with impunity. That’s not something that we can protect as good neighbors, volunteering our time.

It is, really, soft power, isn’t it? What holds our nation together. Not sheriffs with guns, or for that matter random vigilantes with guns. Not law and order, because as anyone who has lived through a riot can tell you, if enough people decide on disorder it cannot be quelled without more disorder. No, it’s soft power. The ability to persuade, co-opt and include. The sense that we are in it together, that we share preferred outcomes, even if we differ on details or means. Without that…

This budget as a document is saying to me: Everybody needs to shovel their own damned sidewalk. And yeah, OK, for the sidewalks, maybe we do, although even there, it seems to me there’s a better way. But there’s so much more at stake here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 9, 2017

Fun* with numbers again!

So, David Wasserman writes that Purple America Has All But Disappeared, by which he means that at the county level, margins of victory in elections are getting bigger. He writes that “if you feel like you hardly know anyone who disagrees with you about Trump, you’re not alone: Chances are the election was a landslide in your backyard.”

Now, Mr. Wasserman is scarcely the only writer who exaggerates the broader impact of real changes, so I don’t really want to peck at him specifically. I’m just writing about it as a recent example of a thing that gets to me about political science and stats and the people who write about them. Essentially, they take deviations from the historical path that are huge by statistical standards, and then apply those as if they were huge by social standards. Let me explain what I mean, using this article as an example, though it is scarcely the worst or the most irritating such.

In 1992, according to Mr. Wasserman’s data, 39 percent of people lived in counties where one candidate got at least 60 percent of the major-party vote. Now, a 60/40 split in an evenly divided country is a big deal—Bill Clinton got 53% of the major-party vote nationwide. In 2012, it was up to 50% of people living in such landslide counties, despite the election being even closer; in 2016 it was up to 61%. That is in fact a big deal and a big change, and totally worth studying—by political scientists, I mean. It’s also probably worth people like me, who are interested in our democracy, knowing. It’s a Good Thing, then, for Mr. Wasserman to write about it.

But if, instead of looking at the rate of change, you are looking at it how it affects the lived experience of people… I’m not so sure. Remember the numbers we’re talking about here: from 39% to 61%. That is, two out of five people experienced such landslides in 1992 and now three out of five do. What has changed is about a fifth of the population—or, to put it more accurately, 78% of the population lives in a county that either had no landslide in either year or had landslides in both.

Well, that’s not actually super-accurate, because over twenty-four years, there’s just a shit-ton of change. The student worker at the counter who voted for Hillary Clinton in our landslide county hadn’t been born when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. I was living in one landslide county in 1992 (the City and County of San Francisco, in fact) and a different one now. If we’re talking about the lived experience of people, it now generally involves moving from place to place, which in large part, I think, accounts for the shift Mr. Wasserman documents. But as important as it is to keep that in mind, let’s remember that we’re still talking about most of the counties unchanged.

And then: look at the claim about hardly knowing anyone who votes the other way. Remember that the landslide counties are counted as 60/40 splits, which is a big, big deal in terms of deviation from the national numbers, but is still fundamentally a three-to-two breakdown. Think about it this way: if there were twenty yard signs on your block, and eight of them were red, would you say there were hardly any red signs? You would not. I hope. Because that’s just not what hardly any means in people’s actual experience. And the change from 11 blue signs and 9 red ones to 12 and 8, or even to 14 and 6, does not constitute the formation of an impenetrable wall of homogeneity. 12 blue and 8 red (or vice versa) is actually a pretty good working definition of purple, isn’t it?

Aha! say the people who have actually read the article: Mr. Wasserman may exaggerate the shift in some counties, but he clearly states that “The electorate’s move toward single-party geographic enclaves has been particularly pronounced at the extremes.” And it’s true, the data show that the extreme landslide counties, by number or share, have increased far faster than the ordinary landslide counties. From 4% in 1992 to 21% in 2016, and that’s a huge rate of change—and I will again emphasize that this is a Big Deal and should be studied and noticed and talked about.

And yet… again, we’re talking about a change from one in twenty to four in twenty. 17 out of 20 people (or, if you prefer, 85%) did not experience that change. And that change was presumably a shift from a county going 65/35 to 75/25—a shift one out of ten neighbors. So emphasizing those counties, we might say that two out of ten people experienced a change that may have involved one out of twenty of their neighbors, and another one or two out of ten experienced a somewhat bigger change, involving one out of ten of their neighbors.

Most people experienced no such change at all.

Again: most people did not, according to the statistics presented in this article, live in counties that experienced any such monstrous shift in lived experience as Mr. Wasserman describes, that is, 5% or so fewer neighbors of the opposite Party. Some people did! Enough to make a big difference in who wins elections! Enough to make a huge difference in policy outcomes, in culture, in representation. More than enough to make it worth tracking and studying what’s going on. Way more than enough to change how campaigns should manage their resources. Just not most people, and at a guess, many of the ones who did experience that 5% change wouldn't even have noticed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 27, 2017

Not confirming but unconfirmed

Just a quick (I hope) update on yesterday’s confirmation note because I do want to spend the day with Kohelet if I can…

Charlie Pierce responded to Jon Bernstein’s note, and then Jon Bernstein tweeted a thread in response. Also worth noting is Matt Yglesias’ reminder that most Republican Senators voted in favor of most of Barack Obama’s Cabinet, with even the most contentious at the time getting nine R votes. None of them indicate a belief that there is a secret deal of any kind; they all pretty much take Sen. Warren’s explanation at face value. Which, as I said, I don’t.

Where Mssrs Pierce and Bernstein disagree, it seems to me, is that Mr. Bernstein considers policy guarantees to be at least somewhat valuable, based on the evidence that politicians largely do put effort into fulfilling specific promises, once they make them. Whether Mr. Pierce believes this about ordinary politicians or not is not clear to me (Mr. Pierce is a valuable writer and provocateur but not really a reliable analyst, in my opinion) but he clearly (“please to be stopping pulling my leg”) does not think that the notion applies to Secretary-Designate Carson. And that seems to me reasonable! He’s not aiming for a higher office, such that his ambitions would be hurt by breaking faith, and he’s not a career politician or civil servant, so steeped in cultural norms that breaking them would be a taboo. And the whole thrust of Mr. Trump’s drain-the-swamp campaign has been contempt for DC’s ISRVs; there’s no reason for an outsider like Ben Carson to believe that earlier Secretaries really did try to fulfill such commitments.

So what we’re left with here is some sort of prioritization of things that it is very difficult to put a valuation on. I mean, actually stopping a nominee is clearly valuable, but sadly, as it turns out, Our Only President’s Party has chosen to support him and his Cabinet nominees. We are, then, choosing between (a) a symbolic vote, or (2) an unreliable promise. Which is of greater value?

I am tempted to return to Kohelet and say that this is indeed r’ut ruach, wrestling the wind. We can’t know. But neither of those things are without value—I believe in the value of symbolic actions, of voting no, of standing athwart. But it’s hard to assess exactly how valuable those actions are. I also believe (with empirical evidence) that office-holders do act on specific promises. If nothing else, the career civil servants that staff the Department can use written promises to their advantage. Or the failure to fulfil those promises could be used rhetorically later on, as much as the no vote could. I have no idea how to assess and prioritize any of that stuff. It has to be done anyway.

I mean, that’s part of what’s going on with Kohelet in the first place, isn’t it? We have to do the r’ut ruach, despite the obvious fact that we, as mortal people, are unequipped to grapple with the unknowable. And yet, that’s what we have to do. That’s what we want our leaders to do (Senator Warren, not Our Only President, standing in for King Solomon in this analogy) and that’s what we do all the time. Humans, making snap judgments prioritizing unknowable outcomes in an infinitely complex world. Preposterous! And Constantly True!

There’s a kind of emotional whiplash in our politics right now, with inspirational pussy hats and preposterous executive orders, rogue park ranger tweets and horrifying legislative plans. If it seems like there’s an imbalance there, well, there is, but it’s a power imbalance, not an emotional one. When thousands of people take to the streets in Philadelphia to resist, it may be wrestling with the wind, but it sure as hell makes me cry. It’s exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting, and I certainly need some strength coming from somewhere to get through it all. I find that, sometimes anyway, in this notion that we are all Created with this near-miraculous ability to get through it all. To make those snap judgments—not always correctly, mind you—and keep grappling. Tolerabimus. My reading of Kohelet allows for there to be something that is not under the sun and therefore not futile, something that is in some sense worth doing all of this for. Your reading may be different; Senator Warren’s may be different. But we have to do it anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2017

Unconfirmed Suspicion

Just a point about Senator Warren’s vote to confirm Ben Carson—her explanation is risibly inadequate, and Jon Bernstein’s semi-defense is not very persuasive either—surely the risk of a dysfunctional Party is in one that primaries its legislators for being out-of-step on symbolic votes more than a Party whose legislators are, you know, in step on symbolic votes and don’t get primaried.

Still, and as a person who knows nothing whatsoever I feel I can say this aloud where people who perhaps might be expected to know things cannot, the obvious explanation is that Sen. Warren has traded her vote in this case for a Republican vote on (f’r’ex) Betsy DeVos. And part of that deal would be denying the existence of a deal. And it would be an excellent deal! Secretary Carson (ugh) was going to be confirmed by a Republican Senate Caucus that clearly doesn’t give a shit about anything of any kind. In general, Senators can trade symbolic votes for votes that change real outcomes, that’s excellent work.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no cost there, or that we shouldn’t be calling her offices to express our displeasure, or that we all just calm down. Don’t be calm! Now is not the time for calm! There will be time for calm someday, this I do believe, deep in my heart, there will be time for calm someday. But that day is not now. In fact, part of what would make such a hypothetical deal work is Sen. Warren taking a huge amount of heat for her end, very publicly. I’m just saying that (a) Elizabeth Warren is smarter than I am, and surely smarter than that Facebook post, that (2) trading votes is a normal part of government functioning, and I would dearly love to believe in the possibility of normal functioning of government right now, and (iii) that normal functioning of government always feels dirty and ugly.

Barney Frank said in his book that the important thing about a political event is that if, after it’s over, everyone feels better about themselves, nothing has been actually accomplished. I don’t agree with that—I believe in the long-term power of inspiration, demonstration and community—but it’s surely true that getting anything accomplished requires at some point some meetings that people would really rather not have had. I’m hoping Sen. Warren has been at some of those this week.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 18, 2017

Cabinetry

So. Back in 2005, Your Humble Blogger wrote (in reference to Condoleezza Rice):

On the whole, I think that the President of the United States should be able to choose the Cabinet he wants to govern with. Yes, the Senate should advise before it consents, but for me the bar for turfing a cabinet member has to be actual incompetence. Certainly, a nominee should not be dismissed for sharing policy views with her President.

I find myself thinking about that these days. I still, you know, agree with myself: a nominee should not be dismissed for sharing policy views with her President. I would add that another reason for blocking an appointment would be ethical questions—or I suppose the John Tower rule that we don’t really want a falling-down drunk in the Cabinet if we can help it, but perhaps we could include a basic sobriety in with competence. Anyway, thank goodness, that doesn’t seem to be an issue with any of this slate of appointments.

Anyway, I have been thinking—look, Betsy DeVos is unqualified by any sense of the term. But does she share policy views with the President? Does Our Only President-Elect have policy views? I’m not even convinced that Ms. DeVos has policy views, at least that I would call policy views. Yes, she wants to replace our secular public schools with privately-run religious instruction accountable only to shareholders and Divine Vengeance, but in terms of actually running the Department of Education, she doesn’t seem to have any notion of how she plans to do it or even what it is.

And to be honest—I haven’t really any idea of what the Secretary of Education does every day. I’m sure there a lot of politicking. I imagine there are aspects that are similar to running any large bureaucracy, making sure that information is gathered, that reports are done and delivered at the right time, that allocated money is spent, all that sort of thing. While I hope that granting waivers for individual districts is not done at the Secretary level, the boss should be providing some guidance for the criteria and stepping in on the toughest cases. When the various constituencies are leaning on her staff, she should be leaning back, or perhaps leaning with them, depending. Looking for people who should be moved up, moved forward or moved out. All of that sort of thing, in addition to advising the President on any Education-related issues that are becoming politically sensitive so that he isn’t blindsided, and most importantly advocating for the budget. Right? Maybe a lot of other stuff, too.

Is Betsy DeVos capable of doing all of that? Some of it? How much of it is affected by her loathing of secular public education? How much is affected by her contempt for Congress and legislation? How much is affected by her lack of experience in any public service job of any kind?

What gets to me, really, is that Betsy DeVos is so utterly and thoroughly unconfirmable that it’s almost difficult to put her in the context of the rest of the Cabinet nominees. And that drives me kinda crazy—I mean, if it were to happen that two or three Republicans were willing to break from the Party and block a nominee or two… let’s imagine this, shall we? This is a Party that nearly unseated John McCain in the last election. There are a small handful of what we might call moderates, and even those are not moderate in policy preferences, merely unwilling to use immoderate language and destructive tactics. If a Senator were to be willing to vote against a Cabinet nominee, specifically one who would then be blocked and have to withdraw, I cannot easily imagine that Senator being willing to vote against several nominees. That person would have to go back to his (or her) constituents and say: yes, I had to block so-and-so, but I stood united with the Party on this and that and the other. This nominee, however, was where I had to say no.

So, what I’m saying is, I can’t imagine that Senator taking that kind of heat to block Betsy DeVos. Rex Tillerson, I can imagine some Republican senator feeling so strongly about that he would join the Democrats to block. It’s just possible that something will turn up in the Jeff Sessions file that will make a different Senator or two feel like a vote in favor would hurt them more than help. But Betsy DeVos? And again, any Senator who joined the Democrats in blocking Mr. Tillerson or Sen. Sessions would be unlikely to join on multiple nominees, based purely on the political calculations. And any Senator who is likely to consider Betsy DeVos worth taking a political risk to stop is (I would think) going to find one of the other nominees more important and more worth taking that risk for.

I don’t know. I mean, the President-Elect is so incredibly unpopular that maybe the Senators will see less risk in bucking him on multiple fronts. I don’t know. But it sure seems to me as if Ms. DeVos is going to be waved through.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 23, 2016

Nostalgia for Crooks and Incompetents

So. I haven’t been blogging much about Our Only President-Elect, and I don’t know how much I will when he actually becomes Our Only President next month. I find that the internet already contains plenty of criticism and to spare, much of it better-informed than I am. I do find that every now and then I am half-inspired to write up my disagreement with some particular criticism of the man, but it doesn’t feel like a good use of my attention or yours to complain about people complaining the wrong complaints.

One of the things I haven’t seen, at least not really comprehensively, is the question of what real differences there are between Donald Trump’s actual appointees and the hypothetical appointees of whoever might have been the President-Elect had the Other Party not fucked themselves quite so badly. I’m thinking back to some stuff I said earlier about the importance of distinguishing between the more-or-less normal policies of the Other Party and the totally-not-at-all-normal nature of OOP-E. Distinguishing between the certainly normal notion that the Party that wins the election gets to staff the Executive and attempt to implement their policies and priorities, and the extent to which this particular P-E is choosing… well, the people he is choosing.

Compare Steven Mnuchin to Don Regan or John Snow. It seems to me he’s… a little worse. Not as experienced, not as capable of doing the actual job he’s being hired for, but not of a different kind altogether. In all likelihood, whoever the next president from the Other Party would have been, the next nominee for Treasury (from that Party) would have had an extensive background in the financial services sector, and I mean making money from it, not regulating it. The point is that there are appointments that I can totally imagine Jeb or Mario or Scott Walker making, and appointments that are just a little bit worse they would make, and appointments they would never make. So far, he hasn’t named anyone I thought was better than Jeb/Mario/Scott would have made, and some that are much, much worse. I think it’s both important and difficult to maintain a sense of how much the incoming Administration will be a Republican one. Important both because it’s easy to blame everything on one person (particularly when that person is so incredibly and obviously blameworthy to begin with) and because we of My Party will need to work with (as well as against) the Other Party in a future when Donald Trump is no longer a politician.

So. With that in mind, here’s a list of Cabinet (and some other Executive) appointments so far, not with my assessment of how the person may perform their duties, but with my assessment of whether I think some more mainstream President of the Other Party (essentially, Jeb Bush, Mario Rubio or Scott Walker) might have chosen them for the job. My categories are: Same, meaning I can totally imagine one of those guys picking this person, or someone enough like them to make no nevermind; Worse, meaning I think that this pick is along the same lines as I imagine the others of his Party would pick, but significantly worse in some measure (usually government experience, which OOP-E seems to think is actively bad); Nope, meaning this pick is not only awful, but awful from the Other Party’s point of view; and in theory Better, which I might have imagined might come up, given that OOP-E doesn't actually worry about aligning himself with Party policies.

Ready? Here we go.

  • Department of State: Rex Tillerson. Nope. Any normal Party candidate would pick someone with some diplomatic experience, and of course not someone who had business dealings with the Russians.
  • Department of the Treasury: Steven Mnuchin. Slightly worse. Probably. Just on experience, though, not on policy.
  • Department of Defense: James Mattis. Maybe slightly better? I don’t really know enough, but it seems like this isn’t a terrible choice, and that I might expect Rubio or Walker to pick someone out of AIPAC’s rolodex.
  • Department of Justice: Jeff Sessions. Worse. Worse personally, but pretty much the same on policy grounds.
  • Department of the Interior: Ryan Zinke. No, no, nope. This guy’s a scam artist and a nut, and not even reliable on Party Policy.
  • Department of Agriculture: No appointment yet
  • Department of Commerce: Wilbur Ross. Worse-to-nope. I would expect someone with legislative experience here to work on legislation, but on policy grounds this guy seems solidly in line.
  • Department of Labor: Andrew Puzder. Worse. And when I say someone is worse than I can imagine Scott Walker choosing on this point, I say it with some trepidation.
  • Department of Health and Human Services: Tom Price. Same. I mean, awful, but not, I think, worse than the other fellows would pick. And for whatever it’s worth, this guy knows his stuff, even if he’s on the wrong side of it.
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development: Ben Carson. Nope.
  • Department of Transportation: Elaine Chao. Same.
  • Department of Energy: Rick Perry. Same or maybe just a trifle worse. Would have been a perfectly good choice for Ag or Interior. As Energy… would a different Republican choose someon with a strong science background? I don’t see any reason to assume so.
  • Department of Education: Betty Devos. Worse. I’d like to say nope, but I’m not convinced. Or am I too cynical here? I mean, how much worse than Bennett is she?
  • Department of Veterans Affairs: No appointment yet.
  • Department of Homeland Security: John Kelly. Um, probably about the same? Or, maybe, different but not worse? The other guys could have picked someone who was all about the surveillance, rather than the border? Dunno. The Gitmo stuff, though.
  • White House Chief of Staff: Reince Priebus. Worse.
  • Environmental Protection Agency: Scott Pruitt. Same, I think. Seriously, though—the mainstream view within the Party is that climate change is a liberal hoax, and that the balance has swung dangerously far toward environmentalism. This isn’t Trump.
  • Office of Management & Budget: Mick Mulvaney. Same.
  • United States Trade Representative: Peter Navarro. Worse. But not necessarily by a whole lot.
  • United States Mission to the United Nations: Nikki Haley. Better, maybe? A good choice for HUD, and maybe for Transportation. No diplomatic background, which is odd. But for a position which has been held by John Negroponte and John Bolton…
  • Council of Economic Advisers: Larry Kudlow? I think this is just a rumor. Oh, Lord, I hope it’s just a rumor. The nope is strong with this one.
  • Small Business Administration: Linda McMahon. Noperooski.

There are some other appointments I should probably mention: the major nopes are Michael Flynn at the NSA and of course Steve Bannon as a “Chief Strategist”. Mike Pompeo at CIA is probably the same? White House Counsel Donald McGahn the same? I can imagine Jeb Bush having Carl Icahn heading some sort of advisory committee as well.

But the point is probably clear: There are two very serious problems. One is Donald Trump, and the other is the whole Republican Party. Anyone who could have won a primary in that Party would have nominated, I think, people like Tom Price or Mick Mulvaney or Scott Pruitt and people nearly as bad (and on policy every bit as bad) as Peter Navarro or Jeff Sessions or Steven Mnuchin. That’s amazingly awful. And then on top of that we have the actual President-Elect, whose actual appointments are largely in line with the Party but lack the experience to do the jobs they are being appointed for, and then on top of that we have the Party going along with those appointments, even if they weren’t the ones they might have preferred.

I don’t know what to do about that in the short-term. I don’t know what to do about it in the long-term, either, really—I think it’s important in the long term for our country to have a functional Conservative Party, but I haven’t the slightest clue how to get from here to there. I don’t know how to ameliorate the short-term disasters that will (an easy prediction) result from unqualified people running government agencies, and I don’t know how to prevent the long-term disasters that will result from our new norm of acquiescence to incompetence.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 29, 2016

Lies, Lies, Lies, yeah

I hate to be a gripeypants about people criticizing Donald Trump, but Jeet Heer in the New Republic wrote a piece called Trump’s Lies Destroy Logic As Well As Truth that has got so far up my nose I can’t get it out without blogging. So here: Mr. Heer is just wrong.

His thesis is this: we (that is, I think, the media, vaddevah dat means) must not stop at fact-checking Our Only President-Elect’s actual statements, but must show that they are logically incompatible, one with another, such that they couldn’t all be true. He compares OOP-E’s statements to kettle logic as a rhetorical technique. And it is worth acknowledging that the man is not consistent. This is, however, best seen in his flat denials that he said things that he did say, and was filmed saying—that is, in his lies, checkable lies subject to verification, rather than deduced from logical inconsistency. The fact that his comments are not logically consistent is neither the most important thing about them nor the most rhetorically persuasive refutation of them.

Particularly—and this is what got up my nose—when it isn’t true. Mr. Heer brings up two and only two specific cases. The second is foreign policy and Iraq: “Trump has variously said that he opposed the Iraq War before it started; that he opposed Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq; that America should have taken the oil; that he opposes putting more boots on the ground; and that America should re-invade Iraq.” These comments come at different times, though. There is nothing logically inconsistent between having said in 2003 that we should not invade Iraq, saying in 2009 that we should stay, saying in 2012 that we should not increase our troops there, and saying in 2016 that we should re-invade (to fight ISIS). There is no logical contradiction. There are lies—he did not, in fact, publicly state opposition to the invasion in 2003. There are bad policy statements, terrible policy statements and impossible policy statements. But there’s no logical contradiction between them.

The first, and the reason for the article, is a series of tweets about the election. In them, Our Only President-Elect claims (a) that a recount would not change the outcome of the election, (2) that there were millions of people who voted illegally for Hillary Clinton, and (iii) a popular vote election would have been easier for him to win than the one we actually had. Mr. Heet claims that there is an obvious contradiction in these three points, and for the life of me I can’t see one. Would the putative illegal votes not be counted in a recount? If they did, would they necessarily change the outcome of the election, that is, Donald Trump becoming President? If not, then what is the contradiction? The other one is even stranger— according to Mr. Heet, “saying that Trump is already the real popular-vote winner flatly goes against saying he would have been the popular-vote winner if that had been his goal.” But clearly the total vote was not the goal; the goal was electors. Mr. Trump is saying that in the counterfactual situation, he would have used tactics that would have resulted in him getting more votes that Ms. Clinton got, including the putative illegal ones. This is not a checkable statement, of course, but it isn’t in logical contradiction to the other.

The problem with the statements isn’t that they are inconsistent, it’s that there were not millions of people voting illegally. The lie is the problem. The problem is the lie. Well, and terrible policies are also a problem, and terrible policies are more likely because of the lies. It’s not the logic, it’s the lies and the terrible policies that result from the lies.

Mr. Heer claims that kettle logic is more dangerous than lies, citing the aforementioned invasion of Iraq back in 2003. Only he fails to show how the various arguments for the invasion were logically inconsistent—the problem, at any rate, was that they were lies, and terrible policies resulted from them. Their internal consistency or lack thereof had nothing to do with it. Proving—I should that put that in scare quotes, as “proving” that there was some logical inconsistency between the lie that the Ba’athist government was a clear and present danger, the lie that they were supporting Al Qaeda or were otherwise involved in the destruction of the World Trade Center, and the lie that the vast majority of Iraqis wanted the United States to bomb the shit out of them just makes the arguer look like an idiot. Mr. Heer is not an idiot, by the way; but this argument sure makes him look like one.

Why am I so worked up about this? I mean, fundamentally I’m on Mr. Heer’s side—Our Only President-Elect lies in a way that is different from the way that we expect politicians to lie, and we need to be able to talk about that in some clear way. He is trying to make a clear way. I just think it’s the wrong way, and a way that makes him look like an idiot. And, I suppose, I think it makes me look like an idiot as well.

Look, I do think it’s fairly simple. I spent several years asserting that the reason for the Republican Party’s devastating unpopularity was their cascade of failures. I may spend the next several years asseverating that the reason the Administration’s policies are so terrible is their cascade of lies.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 16, 2016

Further clarity on Presidential Advisors

As I was saying, Our Only President-Elect has the perfect right to choose his (or her) own advisers. If he chooses to be advised by his children and children-in-law, then asking for security clearance for them is perfectly appropriate. We don't actually know that he has done that, by the way, but it is completely appropriate to do the background check. If Hillary Clinton were President, I would want her to ask for an official background check for Chelsea Clinton, whether she would be a candidate for an official job or not. Should there be any reason why she would not pass such a check, well, that's an important thing to know.

Now, I think that there are excellent reasons to think that Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are terrible choices for close advisors to the President, including that none of them have any experience with government jobs, at least two of them have to my knowledge a habit of spreading racist propaganda, and they appear to all have vindictive temperaments. There are also good reasons for a President to choose advisors from a wider spectrum of backgrounds and views than one would normally expect to find within one's immediate family or even in-laws.

One of the things that I have found persuasive about Jon Bernstein's notions of representation and promise-keeping is that there is a sense in which candidates promise to be the sort of person were on the campaign trail. Or, I should say, that the candidates promise to continue to seem to be the sort of person they present themselves as. For the Presidency, part of that presentation is the selection of surrogates and advisors. I did not closely follow Our Only President-Elect's campaign, I'm afraid, but it certainly seemed to me that his children and Mr. Kushner were presented as being part of the inner circle that also included Mssrs. Bannon, Giuliani, Priebus, Conway, Lewandowski and Christie as well as Gen. Flynn and Dr. Carson, and (in a different way) Our Only Vice-President-Elect. While I dearly hope that circle will be widened and become more inclusive of different backgrounds and viewpoints, in relying on that circle he is, in this sense, keeping his campaign promise to be the sort of officeholder he seemed to be during the campaign.

As terrifying as that is. In a normal democracy, this is a Good Thing (and there are mechanisms to encourage it). In our new world… it is still best to assume that the President will be the Candidate, and to prepare for that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 11, 2016

Separate but connected fears

In our fear and our anger at the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States of America, we are, I think, muddling up some things that, while not exactly separate, are probably better kept distinct as we talk to the rest of the country who are not afraid and angry.

One is quite simple: Among Donald Trump's supporters are vicious people who have been attacking women, Jews, Muslims, LGBT folk and others online during the campaign. We are worried that those people will be emboldened by the election of someone they clearly consider to be their leader, and will escalate their abusive behavior. We don't want to walk around afraid that some countryman of ours will insult us, or for that matter, we don't want to walk around hearing other people being insulted and abused. We are also afraid of physical assaults, vandalism and destruction. These are legitimate fears, and some incidents have already been reported. Of course, there are always vile incidents, no matter who is President. I don't think we know that there were more these last few days than there were last week or in any particular stretch of three days over the last few years. Is it that people are now reporting them, or that reports are being more widely spread because they tie in with our fears, or is it that there really are more? I don't know. It's possible that the assholes who scream abuse at black women in the street or tell Latinos to go home have been doing so once every few weeks, when they are drunk or feeling belligerent, but will do so every few days now that they feel they can get away with it. Or that they will do no more than they always did except adding the name Trump. Whether it is more frequent or not, I am afraid that it will become frequent, become expected even, if Our Only President-Elect and his supporters turn a blind eye to it or encourage it. That is a scary country to think about living in.

Another is also quite simple: We are afraid that the Republican Party Platform will become the Government policy. We are afraid that the policies and priorities of the government will increase suffering. I believe this—limited access to health care, removed support for equality, the environment, military adventurism abroad, the abandonment of workplace safety regulations and other protections for workers, the building of a border wall, less oversight for food safety, housing… look, not to put too fine a point on it, I think Conservative policies, as their Party interprets them, kill people. That's why I am not a Conservative. I think it's important to highlight all of that as part of political discussion. It's vital, in fact. But it's part of that political discussion, and in truth, the Other Party won the election and gets to try to implement their policies. I don't mean that my Party should roll over and acquiesce, which would be not just immoral but terrible politics. We should fight against terrible policies, and we should fight them within the political system. This is not particularly about Donald Trump, or even Mike Pence. The policies I'm against have been the policies of the Party for years.

And a third is more complicated, and to me even scarier, and that's the one about Donald Trump himself. Because this is a dangerous man. He is ignorant, incompetent and vile. Not only did he never give any sign that he knows what the job of the President is, he actively campaigned on his ability to ignore limitations. His contempt for our political institutions was central to the campaign. I am afraid, really afraid of what he will do in office. He has promised to prosecute Hillary Clinton for crimes she has already been found not to have committed. He has promised that the military will commit war crimes. He has promised to start trade wars, to abandon alliances, to plunder the resources of other nations. He promised religious tests for entry into the country, and watchlists of potential troublemakers. While there are parts of that in the Republican Party platform, most of it is just him. He campaigned as a potential tyrant, at the head of a mob. I am very, very afraid of that. That's not usual. That's not OK. If Ted Cruz were elected president, or even Mike Pence, the policies would be dreadful and thousands of people would suffer because of that, but they wouldn't, I believe, have Senator Warren or Justice Sotomayor arrested on a FBI-created charge and removed from office. I truly believe that Donald Trump may do something along those lines. Or worse.

Now, I think some of the protests and posts and signs muddle up these three things in a way that isn't helpful. We can and must protest against the people making vile assaults on the vulnerable. We can and must protest against the Party in power implementing disastrous policies. We can and must protest against Our Only President-Elect and his contempt for our democratic institutions. We need to do all of that. But by muddling them up together, I think it has been easier for people to respond that it's all sour grapes from having lost an election. I think it makes it easier for people to dismiss the street level assaults as meaningless individual incidents. I think it makes it easier for people to ignore the possibility of real catastrophe coming from a fundamentally anti-democratic President.

Now, I do think that these things are deeply connected. I think the despair and fear that leads to street attacks is largely the result of Republican policies and has been fomented by Republican rhetoric. I think that Donald Trump's campaign of unlimited power for himself was based on white supremacy and encouraged street level violence in support of him. I think that we have all contributed to our cultural problems, in particular our constant deprecation of democratic self-government. I think that if Donald Trump does manage to take extra-Constitutional power, that success will rely on a terrified society in which street violence is rampant. I think that the Party Platform relies on unstated fears and invisible hate that the deplorables make visible.

I'll specifically say: misogyny as well as racism runs through all these things and makes them reinforce each other. There is no question in my mind about that. While I think it's important to distinguish between them, it's probably even more important to hold them together in that sense. Tactically, rhetorically, we need to address those separately. Culturally and morally, we need to remember that they are together.

One of the places they come together most clearly and (to me) frighteningly is in how our local police forces across the country behave in the next years. While (I assume) most officers are fundamentally interested in peace and justice, it has clearly and obviously been the case that white supremacy has played a dire part in the training and culture of the local police in many, many places across the country. We have been (belatedly) struggling with that. I worry that not only will that struggle be abandoned but that as those local forces are brought in to new actions against undocumented aliens, the gap between the police and the community will grow wider and scarier. The population—and we know there are already many people in many places across the country who are too afraid to call the police under any circumstances—may wind up in a vicious spiral with the police where each view the other as a dangerous enemy. Street violence against people of color may or may not be policed appropriately. Troublemakers of various kinds can be brutalized or let alone. This will, if it happens, be a combination of Republican Party policies (regarding training, civil-rights prosecution and funding for militarization as well as bringing local forces in to immigration enforcement), the actions of white supremacists (inside the forces as well as on the street) and Donald Trump himself encouraging it with his words and tweets as well as his actions and those of his Executive.

I wrote up three or four of my nightmare scenarios yesterday and then deleted them, more in an attempt to make myself feel better than as preparation for a public essay. I don't know whether it would help anyone at this point to make that stuff explicit and specific rather than the obvious fear that we have no idea what he will do or how he will respond to events, and that I don't see anyone with both the power and the inclination to stop him. These sorts of things are plausible only because Donald Trump has been elected President, without a Party, without experience, without knowledge, on a campaign of contempt for and rejection of our nation's institutions. That is what has been keeping me up at nights.

So I worry that when we quite correctly protest against terrible policies, when we quite correctly voice our outrage against the street actions of a relatively small number of deplorable people, we are muddling that up with the danger that I think is very real: the destruction of liberal democracy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 3, 2016

Democracy!

So. Y’all know that I feel strongly about democracy, right? As we enter the last week of a presidential campaign cycle, the powerfulest scene and show of the Western World, the swordless (I hope) conflict, or good or ill humanity, I think it’s good to take a few minutes, as many of us as can, and think about democracy. Not the candidates—the choosing, not the chosen. I’d like to challenge you, Gentle Readers all, to take a few minutes to think about democracy itself. What moves you about it? What problems do you have with it? How strongly do you feel about it? Why? What do you think democracy is anyway?

To me (and I know I have said this before) democracy is an attempt to create a self-governing and democratic populace. A populace capable of governing itself with the participation of all. Individuals, all, doing their part as they judge, shouldering responsibility not just for themselves and their families but for the whole nation. A populace that respects everyone’s part in it, equal in law as we are in housing the Divine spark of humanity, different each to each and everything connected to everything. Ever changing, ever succeeding, ever coming short, ever aspiring to more. Democracy is in some way fundamentally about the shortcomings of itself, because democracy is about continually remaking itself and making itself new, creating in every generation a new and more democratic people. It isn’t about good government, or honesty and integrity, or sensible policies. It isn’t about universal healthcare or a minimum wage or GDP growth or maintaining the bridges and tunnels—unless we want it to be. Unless we choose to govern ourselves that way. That’s the beauty of it. That’s why I love it so desperately and why I am moved, sometimes to tears, by the simple act of casting a ballot, the least and easiest of the forms of democratic participation.

The problem with democracy (and again I am aware I have said this before) is how to keep participating when you lose. Democracy is tough when you are in the minority, whether it’s on policy or culture or what. At some point, everyone winds up looking at the country and saying to themselves People are dying because my candidate lost. Or if not dying (and it so often is dying) then suffering injustice, bodily harm, violations of various kinds. Elections have serious consequences, and we all, each of us as individuals, have to figure out how to live with those consequences and keep participating. It will be a stark problem next week when fifty million people will have voted for the losing candidate; it has been a stark problem before and will be again. It’s a problem that is without an answer, too—the problem is fundamental in self-government, so long as people continue to be different one to another (and may that never change). The only response to it that I can see is to love democracy more. To cling to it, as ever-failing and insufficient as it is, and to commit to more (ever more) active participation in it. To simultaneously raise our aspirations and lower our expectations. To shoulder responsibility for governing ourselves, and to shoulder responsibility for failing to govern ourselves, and to should responsibility for governing ourselves again.

This will be a trying few days, and may be very, very trying for some time after that. It is my hope that I find some comfort, during those trying days, in my passion for democracy itself. Maybe you can find similar comfort in your answers: what do you think democracy is all about?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 2, 2016

Polls, performances, people

This YouGov post about their polling methods contains a very interesting point about polls: when things are going badly for a candidate, their supporters tend to stop participating in polls. That is, if there is some sort of tipping point for people who had been inclined to vote for Candidate X to now be less inclined, and of course that point will be different for different people, the tipping point for people to be unwilling to answer the phone to a pollster is a different point, and much more correlated with day-to-day news stories.

This makes a lot of sense to me. In particular, I think that many people, possibly most people who are willing to talk to pollsters in the first place, are engaging in a kind of performance, in which they tell the pollsters what they believe they are supposed to tell them. I have done this myself, back when I answered the phone. Or at least I answered strategically—I would push back against the premises, approve of unfunded mandates and massive deficits, and generally give the leftmost answer I could come up with. In Party politics, I always told pollsters I supported my Party unswervingly and that my Party’s officeholders were doing a great job. I might have complained on this blog or in my workplace or to my Best Reader, but not in a survey. Now, of course, I’m highly partisan, much more so than most people. But it makes a lot of sense that a fair number of people who are going to vote for Hillary Clinton (f’r’ex) or even have already voted for her will be less inclined to chat with a pollster when the main topics of discussion are depressing. They could give the performance, but they’re not in the mood.

And there’s a little more to it than that. People know what they are supposed to tell pollsters mostly because they hear it from elites. Sometimes, if there’s recent bad news, and particularly if the candidate and her surrogates aren’t quick with the talking points, people aren’t sure what they are supposed to say. I don’t mean that they are conscious of waiting for a script, or that they are thinking I can’t answer that survey until my masters speak, just that they are a little unsettled about the whole thing, haven’t quite come to grips with it. Maybe it’ll be a John Oliver line, or something Michelle Obama says, or a tweet from an opinion journalist, or maybe something in the news from their Senator, something will ease the discomfort, probably, and they’ll react just that tiny bit more openly to a call from a pollster.

I say they, but I mean we, really. If it’s less me than some, it’s not because I am more independent of thought but less; I assume that whatever I am thinking is already the Party Line, and indeed it mostly is. As I’ve said here, I have no great admiration for independent thinking on politics. Politics is about community action, and in large measure about community thinking as well. I like to contribute to that community thinking, in small ways, but am under no illusions that my insights are clearer than other folks’.

This is interesting not only because it’s a better model (I think) for how we respond to polls, but also because it’s a better model for our politics and ourselves. We tend to imagine, I think, that, our country is chock full of people making up their minds in the polling booths. It’s not. We put enormous prestige on our own independent thinking, giving ourselves an ideal of settling all our thinking in our own heads and then lining up behind the candidate that best matches that set of policy preferences. That's not the best way, and it's not what we do. Well, in the primary election it might be somewhat, although it would be more accurate to say that the country is chock full of people who don’t vote in primary elections. In general, and in general elections, we come to our policy positions through a murky, iterative feedback system of tribal identity, personal experience, temperament and rhetorical persuasion. That’s good! Or at any rate, perfectly fine. It would be better if more of us got involved in the Party stuff at any level beyond voting in the general election, but it’s our democracy and we get to choose, and one of those choices is letting other people do most of the work.

I’m less sanguine about confusing ourselves about the situation. If the race has tightened over the last week, it isn’t because some large chunk of the population was going to vote for Hillary Clinton on Wednesday and by Sunday has changed their minds and now plans to vote for Donald Trump. That didn’t happen, and it’s not terribly helpful for democracy to pretend it did.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 1, 2016

I'm Gonna Send My Vote to College

I suppose I could write a note about the Electoral College. I’m curious what y’all think of it.

On the one hand, it’s presumably a bad idea to have a unpopular method of selecting the president, just from the point of view of legitimacy. It’s also plausible that the system depresses turnout in non-battleground states, although I’m not convinced that a national popular vote would really encourage participation. And there are the nightmare scenarios, the 1876 sort of thing. So, yeah, there are problems.

On the other hand, there are reasons to stick with it. For one thing, the act of changing the election system is always fraught. The first cycle or two would be unpredictable, in a lot of ways, and I feel pretty strongly at the moment that unpredictability is a Bad Thing when it comes to selecting Presidents. The first Party that figured out how to manage a national popular election would be at a tremendous advantage, and I have no idea how that would work. Now, it’s also true that aversion to change is a problem and that we oughtn’t to live with problems just because we don’t want to change. The cost of change is one thing that has to be taken into account, though, and when it comes to something like this, I’d want to make pretty damn’ sure that the new system would be better than the old one.

Would it be? I have logistical qualms—it’s bad enough when one state has a too-close-to-call outcome and requires a recount; I can’t imagine a national popular-vote recount. I mean, let’s start with the beginning of the logistics: since our States run their own elections, the popular vote in each State would presumably be certified by that State, and the Popular Vote would be some sort of simple addition of those numbers. Frankly, that concerns me. Who would have the authority to institute a recount? Who would have standing to challenge a State’s certified count? What about standards for ballot certifications? Could one State challenge another’s standards? None of these are insuperable, but they aren’t entirely nugatory, either. In our current set-up, it’s unlikely that more than a few states would be close enough to require recounts, and unless the electoral college were close, those recounts would be relatively low-stakes. Yes, we’ve had an example in our lifetimes of a high-stakes recount, but (a) can you imagine recounting a hundred million votes across the country instead of just Florida, and (2) we probably tend to overemphasize the fact that we were alive for the 2000 election, and underweight the fact that there have been only three or four out of fifty-six presidential elections that were seriously hinky.

Alternately, we could jettison the state elections and have federal elections come under federal control. This is as feasible as getting rid of the Electoral College; it could presumably be included in a Constitutional Amendment that explicitly enshrines the right to vote. This is very appealing to me—we could have automatic national registration (or, more accurately, just voting without having to register) and a national registry that would reduce duplication and the potential for fraud. We could have national standards for ballot access and for (f’r’ex) absentee or mail-in ballots. We could institute a Federal Holiday, and lower the voting age, and possibly institute fees for non-voting like they have in Australia.

Of course, we could do all of that stuff while retaining the Electoral College, too. I mean, getting rid of the Electoral College is popular, so maybe that’s the way to get the other, less popular stuff done. But the actual Electoral College part seems like one of the lower priorities, to me.

And of course there are non-logistical drawbacks to a national popular vote election, too. Our newly national political Parties are not, so far, tremendously beneficial to governance, and I fear that a national popular vote Presidency would exacerbate that. While there are problems with the outsized influence of battleground states on policy promises, it’s not clear how a popular election would actually work—would the retail politics of town meetings and handshaking be an insupportably inefficient use of time? That wouldn’t be an improvement. Would the candidates pander purely demographically rather than geographically? Would the demands of a nationwide GotV increase the marginal utility of More Money?

There are possible positives and negatives; I’m inclined, by instinct, to think that the improvements are outweighed by the cost of change. I can’t really get worked up about it either way, though. Essentially, if it’s not a close election then the Electoral College and the popular vote will go the same way. If it is a close election, then the Electoral College and the popular vote would be fucked up in different ways.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 9, 2016

The latest outrage

I find myself perplexed and angry over the reaction to the latest presidential campaign news. Not at Donald Trump, or at least not more than I was before—he had bragged about his mistresses on the Howard Stern show, and been accused of pretty much exactly what he bragged about on that bus. I can’t say I was surprised. Nothing I have read about him led me to believe he understands anything about consent, or is in the slightest worried about whether women agree to his advances or not. So mostly I am perplexed that people are reacting in shock and dismay to information that was out there already, if not in such an obvious and boiled-down form. And I do know that rhetoric works like that, but still. If you supported Donald Trump yesterday, even reluctantly, how could this be the final straw?

And I’m angry about the denial that the kinds of attacks Donald Trump was bragging about are common, and certainly used to be incredibly common. In fact, getting away with grabbing a woman’s ass was one of the understood perks of business success. Fame and money meant, until very recently, that you could grope women with impunity, and we should really admit that about our culture—perhaps rape would get a person in trouble, but slapping a waitress’ ass or tearing a secretary’s stockings would not. And we all know that, right? We have seen movies and read books written in the middle of the twentieth century, right? Or even later—the most popular movie when Your Humble Blogger was in sixth grade was Porky’s, a movie whose understanding of consent is not significantly different from Donald Trump’s. That example is just dredged up out of my memory; I’m sure there are plenty of others. Benny Hill made a fairly frequent joke of attractive woman getting semi-accidentally stripped and then chased around; this was assault. Our culture is sick with it; if I grew up with it, so did we all.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have ever heard anyone flat-out bragging about assaulting women and getting away with it, but then, I don’t travel in such exalted circles. And then also, I’m notoriously liberal, and if a fellow were looking to score status off me, bragging about being such a big star that he could get away with assaulting women would not have the effect he was looking for. But I absolutely believe that men still brag about what they can get away with because of their fame and power and money, and that sexual assault is just one of those possible topics. (I’ll add here that Mr. Trump bragging that owning the Miss Universe pageant entitled him to bust into dressing rooms and see the contestants naked is a trope; there are too many whoops-through-the-dressing-room scenes in mid-twentieth-century movies to enumerate.) Maybe, perhaps, there’s a chance we could take this very strange cultural moment and point out that it isn’t just Donald Trump, and it isn’t just one instance.

The Hartford Courant’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton begins: The problem with this election isn’t that Donald Trump is racist. The problem is that we are. This seems to me exactly correct. Were we not living in a racist and misogynist culture, Donald Trump would not have been a celebrity, much less a major-party candidate for the Presidency. And without taking away his agency or his personal responsibility for what he says and does, in truth he is a symptom of our culture, not a cause. It’s important to remember that, because it’s important to remember that defeating him in November is a necessary but not even close to a sufficient condition for dealing with the poisonous water we are all swimming in.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 6, 2016

Fundamentals, Fluctuations and Feels

So. The election.

Your Humble Blogger has over the last couple of decades, been convinced that the fundamentals view of general Presidential campaigns is closer to accurate than the version that takes the candidates and their campaigns to be dispositive. The fundamentals are defined and weighted differently, but are generally some combination of the current president’s popularity, the state of the economy (usually its growth, measured over some period before the election), the time the current party has held the presidency and (for some models) the quantity of casualties in foreign wars. The actual candidates and campaigns sway a few percent of the vote, in this view, but the bulk of them are either partisans (either officially or practically) who will eventually vote with their Party or low-information voters who will mostly vote on how they feel about the incumbent President, whether they know it or not.

Now, I have to admit that I find this version persuasive because I find it appealing. It says that for an unscrupulous and ambitious rogue, the path to re-election is to avoid personal scandals that drag down personal popularity, avoid risky military adventuring, and implement policies that encourage widespread prosperity. In other words, govern well. In turn that their advisors, looking for jobs in a new administration or running for the post themselves, have the highest incentive to govern well and to pressure the President to govern well, that incentive being their ruthless and unscrupulous ambition. That’s how James Madison set up the system to work, that’s how I want the system to work, and so I want to believe that’s how the system in fact does work.

It’s not that simple, of course—for one thing, we saw in 2004 that an incumbent President can be fairly popular due to things other than competent governance and policy success. And I believe that Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 was made much easier by how well people thought he and the Democratic Congress dealt with the recession that was caused by his policy failures. Still, in general, the evidence does look persuasive that almost the entire electorate’s vote can be accounted for by the basic background partisanship, the economy and the incumbent’s popularity. At the moment, Our Only President is fairly popular, and the economy, while not great, seems to be in the sort of shape that makes me reasonably confident of victory.

So, look: it’s a month until the election. I know (or at least I hope) that y’all are passionate about the outcome. I surely am. I’m terrified that Donald Trump may become President of the United States, which could totally happen. But don’t place too much meaning on daily shifts in the polling and thus in the odds of winning. Places like FiveThirtyEight or The Upshot or even RealClear Politics will have daily updates that fluctuate over the month. There is an incentive for most of those sites to use a formula that is sensitive to those fluctuations rather than smoothing them. Frequent changes result in more clicks, of course, and also I would guess most of the readers want to know the daily ups and downs. I don’t think it’s wise. I think we’d be all much better off with the smoothed-out version. Frankly, I think the up-and-down is mostly responding to noise in the data; if a few polls are outliers in the same direction one day, the graph goes wild. But even if it were accurately informing you about who had a bad day and who had a good one, it wouldn’t tell you much about who is likely to win in November. That is largely baked in already, even if we don’t know it yet.

And even that, really, is not the point. The outcome of the election is important, but it’s not the point. Electing the right person (or not electing the wrong one, as in this year) makes an enormous difference in people’s lives. But it doesn’t change the big structural problems. Even if Hillary Clinton wins the election, if my Party fails to take the Senate, she will be unable to govern effectively. I’m worried that whatever happens, the Other Party will not recover from its dire dysfunction. The election is one factor in changing incentives and disincentives. But we’re not electing a President to solve our problems. And we’re certainly not electing a President to solve our problems while we sit back and neglect to participate. The Eighth of November will be very important; the Ninth will be important, too. And December, and January of 2017, and all the days to come. The fluctuating graph is a distraction from that.

By the way, Gentle Readers might be interested in a Twitter Rant from David S. Bernstein, starting with this tweet, in which he talks about the market logic of the dissemination of conspiracy theories into mainstream conservatism. This is scary stuff independent of the outcome of the election, and in some ways the market forces will be more compelling under a Hillary Clinton administration than a Donald Trump one—the market will be more lucrative, certainly. I’m not saying it would be worse for the country (or the world), but it might make it even more difficult to include the Other Party in governance, which is also bad. Not to despair, though—I’m trying (in part by ignoring those fluctuating graphs and hoping those fundamentals come through) to keep my balance on that keel as even as possible, giving in neither to despair or elation, and keeping my eyes on the rest of the calendar before and after the ballot-shower.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 27, 2016

About Last Night

So, last night’s event. One of the profs on campus held a debate watch pizza party for the students in his class, with other profs assigning it or giving extra credit, and my Best Reader and I went, in part to watch the thing in company and in part to show support to the profs. I tweeted a few of my observations at the time, for whatever that’s worth.

About half an hour in, I glanced over at my Best Reader, whose facial expression was that of someone whose skull implant was playing the Kars4Kids jingle on repeat. Shall we slip out, I whispered. A few… more… minutes, she responded, through clenched teeth. Fifteen minutes later, her facial expression was that of someone whose skull implant was playing the Kars4Kids jingle on repeat, but slightly slowed down, and in fact slowing slightly and speeding up slightly at random intervals. Or perhaps the facial expression of a woman who was being compelled to listen to Donald Trump. We left.

I found the event an unpleasant combination of grating, boring and exasperating. I admit that I thought Mr. Trump would do better than he did—this is one of the biggest reality-tv stars of the last ten years, after all. I had hopes for at least entertaining. He was not. Nor was Hillary Clinton entertaining—she was boring, she was (I hope) aspiring to be boring, she achieved boringness. Three or four words into her responses, the students at the event had lost interest (you can tell these things so quickly) and focused again only when Mr. Trump sniffed.

About those sniffs—it was clear that the microphone was picking up those sniffs and oughtn’t to have, and further that his people had no way of alerting him to the problem. That’s too bad, but —what? Sorry, Mr. Gore, did you say something? No? Just exhaling? Never mind, then. Clearly no-one has ever before had to live with a microphone problem like Mr. Trump’s.

And, really, it does seem like the candidate’s refusal to prepare for the debate (which the campaign leaked to the New York Times last week, in what I thought was an effort to sandbag but might actually have been high-level and trusted campaign staff whining to reporters about the boss) was to blame for most of what happened, and eventually, after YHB stopped watching, Ms. Clinton explicitly drew the distinction between a President who is overprepared and one who wings it. So that’s all right. There are policy differences between them, and I would like it if there were a little more policy discussion, as sometimes the very public commitment the candidates make can translate into actual policy commitment by an administration, but given that the choice this year is between Hermione Granger and Gilderoy Lockhart, it’s probably fine to focus on that.

I will say, though, that it really gets up my nose when Mr. Trump says that the Chinese are devaluing their currency. He says it quite frequently, and it isn’t so. The Chinese are engaging in currency shenanigans, yes, but to increase their currency’s value. What is it that annoys me so much about this particular misstatement? Partly, I think, is that that it serves no purpose. The truth would prop up his argument as well as the falsehood. Try this:

You look at what China is doing for country in terms of making our product, they’re devaluing inflating their currency and there’s nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight and we have a winning fight. Because they’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China and many other countries are doing the same thing. So we are losing our good jobs, so many of them.

What difference does it make? Why not use the right word? Either he doesn’t actually know what is going on with China and currency manipulation, which is plausible enough although it would mean that he doesn’t actually care about something he has chosen to make prominent in his speeches and debates, or he doesn’t know what the word devalue means, or he heard the fact in the 1990s (when I believe it was true) and nobody has been able to tell him that it has changed, or maybe he thinks that changing the line would indicate weakness despite it having once been accurate and now not, or maybe he thinks for some reason that devalue is more persuasive so he’ll use it whether it’s true or not, or I have no idea what the hell is going on.

And maybe it gets to me because there is, perhaps, there is an actual policy point lurking there—the Chinese do manipulate their currency, and that does have, on the margins, a deleterious effect on our economy, and we have, mostly, chosen to place a lower priority on that than on other parts of our relationship (f’r’ex, human rights, Taiwan, South China Sea, Korea, etc etc) and there is potentially an argument to be made that we should be making the currency stuff a higher priority. I mean, I disagree, I don’t think the currency matters more than the other stuff, but there’s potentially a policy argument there, and from the actual words the candidate says the solution is to have a President who consistently says devalue instead of inflate. It makes me so angry, I don’t know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 26, 2016

No-one's gonna get their kicks tonight

If I were involved in messaging for the Clinton campaign—and I’m not, and the people who are involved are actually very good at what they do—I would have spent the last week or more trying to subtly deflate the expectations for the debate. Not for my candidate’s performance, but for the importance of the debate, particularly the importance of this one event tonight. Mostly, I would never have anything come out from the campaign about tonights event that didn’t say something like tonight, in the first of three debates… or the first opportunity to…

Tonight’s debate appears to be Event Television—I have the sense, and I know this isn’t scientific at all, that a fair number of people currently supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign are expecting that tonight’s debate will be a game-changer, that, oh, Donald Trump will start crying or swearing or storm off in a huff halfway through. It’s possible, I suppose, because Donald Trump isn’t totally predictable. But the likelihood is that we will have something awfully close to the usual debate: an hour and a half of a joint press appearance, during which the candidates will say things they have been saying for months, possibly phrasing it slightly differently. Each candidate will say something the other side will find outrageous and/or untrue, but which at least most of the supporters will find defensible, if not ideally worded. YHB is planning to watch it at the University with a gang of students in a course on political activism. From the event description: Cheering and hissing the candidates will be allowed and encouraged. I support this! But it’s probably more drama than will really be called for.

Let me put it this way: I doubt that anything will happen that anyone who chooses not to follow politics will find interesting if it isn’t explained to them, and they presumably won’t choose to listen to the explanation. Each side will be outraged by something the other says. The unusual part is that there’s a strong possibility that some prominent conservatives will be outraged by something Mr. Trump says as well, and will not rush to defend it. There will be some who will defend it, though, so people who don’t enjoy following the details won’t know the difference.

My point is that the unrealistically high expectations are based on something Hillary Clinton has no control over: Donald Trump’s demeanor. Her campaign and her surrogates should not be ramping up the expectations that he will melt down, because they have no idea whether he will or not. Yes, it’s a possibility, far higher than any candidate in the time we’ve been holding debates. But it’s not certain. And if tonight is an ordinary (boring) event, they’re going to have a more difficult time getting people excited for the next two, which are just as likely as this one to be dramatic.

But my other point is that Hillary Clinton’s greatest asset as a politician is persistence. Well, and intelligence and what appears to be an unusual ability to build long-term individual working relationships, although you should take that one with the usual grain of campaign salt. But her political persistence is, I think, universally recognized. She is a tortoise, not a hare. The dramatic event is not for her. She started running for 2016 in 2009 and had won the nomination by 2013, at the absolute latest, and probably much earlier. Whether she really does think long-term (a desperately needed quality in self-government) or she is just too arrogant to concede defeat, she is not the sort of candidate who needs to or can stake everything on one night. That’s just not her. Donald Trump, yes, the season finale is where it all happens. Nobody in My Party should be saying things like Monday night is, to me, 75 percent of the rest of the campaign. They should be saying that Hillary Clinton is not about one television show, however high the ratings, and that whatever does or doesn’t happen tonight she will get up tomorrow and keep working.

And most important, they should say that this is what she would be like as President. That as President she would not be a reality-tv star dependent on the Big Night. That in office, she would be as persistent as she has been as a candidate, and that whatever Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping or Hassan Rouhani does isn’t going to throw her off her game. Hillary Clinton, as a candidate, should aspire to be boring, and to reassure us that she would be a very boring President. That’s her strength. Playing up a television show seems to me to be a mistake.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 21, 2016

Minds Made Up

So. There’s an election in a few weeks, and it looks as if it might be close.

Half a year ago, I noted that Hillary Clinton had been unusually famous for an unusually long time, for a Presidential candidate. I said that people had already made up their minds about her. At the time, her favorables were around 51/42; they’re now around 55/42 with a peak of 56/38 and a low of 50/45—in other words, we have, in fact, already made up our minds about her, or at least 90% of us have. Which is a lot.

Fred pointed out that Donald Trump has also been a celebrity for a long time, which is true. I still, at that point, didn’t believe he would be the nominee, but dang if he isn’t… well, his favorables back on February 3 were 34/58; they’re now around 39/57 with a peak of 36/57 and a low of 29/64. That’s a little more variability (and I, for one, have learned a great deal more about the man and his various “businesses” since February, tho’ in truth it hasn’t changed my opinion of him) but again it seems as if 90% of people made up their minds long ago and aren’t changing them.

This all seems very different to John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008, for instance. Sen. McCain’s favorables went from 48/38 to 62/30 to 33/34 to something around 53/45. Barack Obama was around 60/30 in February, and then went up and down before settling around 55/40 shortly before the election. If I’m reading the numbers right. Anyway, there was a lot more bouncing around—the percentage of people who made up their minds early was more like 60 or 70. Which makes sense to me, as that’s about the number of partisans minus the partisans whose refusal to admit they’re partisans includes not committing to the candidate until close to the election. This year I suspect a lot of those people were willing to at least express their feelings about the other party’s candidate.

Well, anyway. I mostly wanted to update the note about celebrity. And note, I suppose, that very few people at this point are going to be surprised by some story about Mr. Trump’s business shenanigans, or his lies, or his ignorance, or his horrible vicious bigotry. Nobody who currently supports the man’s campaign is going to change his mind because there is another example, more egregious than the last. And in truth, nobody who currently supports Ms. Clinton’s campaign is going to change her mind because of another example of (f’r’ex) untruthfulness, secrecy, hawkishness… or for that matter an incidence, fact or fiction, of illness or security lapse. We pass these around to ourselves because they are entertaining and informative, because they are a bridge to actual participation, and because, perhaps, on some level we can’t really believe that the other party’s partisans are so partisan as to support their party’s candidate despite this new piece of information that is so much like the last one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 14, 2016

Two Great Myths

So, I’ve been wondering, lately, about how we in this country—we white folk of the majority, in wealth and influence if decreasingly in absolute numbers—will manage to reconcile, going forward, our contradictory founding myths: equality and white supremacy.

We’ve only in my generation driven the white supremacist ideology underground. Our great development was the story we told ourselves of the crazy old uncle who spouted racist crap when he got drunk at Thanksgiving. That story defanged, deprecated and deplored the racism, taking away its authority. We convinced ourselves, culturally, that white supremacy was now old, that most un-American of things. We hoped that when the older folk died out, their nonsense would die with them, and so would anyone’s responsibility for doing anything about it. We knew better, we who grew up with a federal holiday honoring a civil rights hero; we could celebrate equality and the other one, embarrassed and ostracized, would simply fade away.

It won’t.

But now what do we do?

I have thought that the way to tackle the contradiction was by focusing on America as an aspirational ideal: we failed to live up to it, we have always failed in various ways, but the ideal of equality and liberty was not to blame for that failure. And at any rate striving to live up to that ideal was the important part, striving and failing and continuing to strive. It’s naïve, sure, but also inspiring, at least to me. Or, perhaps, it’s just a way I can reconcile the contradiction, or at least live with it. After all, it’s not really true that our Founders were striving for equality as I understand it; they believed that their heritage was superior to everyone else’s, and that the ability of everyone who didn’t share that (largely English, German and Dutch) heritage could participate in civilization only to the extent that they took that heritage on themselves. This was racist to them when someone felt that a person’s skin color or ancestry prevented them from fully taking part in that Anglo-Dutch heritage; the non-racists pretty much felt that anyone, given enough encouragement, could attend church, wear starched neckcloths, discuss the writings of Aristotle and become properly civilized. I know that history; we all know that. That’s not falling short of equality. That’s rejecting it.

One of the ways we have, in our generation and in the past, attempted to reconcile these two incompatible founding myths of equality and supremacy is to insist that people of color were and by rights ought to be happy about it all. Those who were ungrateful for the gifts of technology, civilization and white supremacy had to be silenced lest they burst the fragile illusion. Now the new illusion that white supremacy is ancient history is perhaps even more fragile, and our outrage when it is burst is even more sudden and shocked for being (mostly) non-violent. Angry black men (and Native Americans and Latinos uswusf) scare us, not just because the blood of the lash may still be repaid with the blood of the sword and the gun, but because it throws off our own sense of who we are. If their anger is just—if Colin Kaepernick is legitimately angry and is not alone in his anger, if the Native Americans at Standing Rock are legitimately angry and are not alone in their anger—then our balance of those two primal myths is a lie.

Which it is, of course.

But now what do we do?

Our instinct, us white liberal folk who believe in equality, diversity and hope… I think our instinct is to push away the problem into a basket of deplorables, those terrible people who are so openly and horrifyingly vicious to Mr. Kaepernick or the Standing Rock protesters or the immigrants with or without documents or a Moslem woman who was just walking down the street in New York, for crying out loud, to anyone who expresses anger at the continuing legacy of white supremacy, and to tsk ourselves better that we are not in that basket with the deplorables. And it’s true that there’s a basketful of deplorables in this country, a racist rump of ten or twenty percent, and right now of course they are getting to make all the noise and fuss. And we really do need to keep deploring, to keep that racist crap underground where it belongs. That’s important. But I think it’s not enough. We thought it was enough, our generation, that we could just make fun of our crazy racist uncles and shut them up when they were sober and that would be enough. It wasn’t.

Now what do we do?

In truth, I have no idea. I don’t. If we can’t, as a culture, accept that people are angry enough to kneel in silent protest during the national anthem… well, I don’t know. I just don’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 17, 2016

Could we Trump?

So. As the Other Party’s presidential campaign appears to descend into madness and chaos, I have been wondering about my own Party, and the state of our politics. As leaders of the Other Party are faced with the choice of repudiating their candidate or supporting an abhorrent and uncontrollable maniac, there have been a raft of articles in Left Blogovia asking what we would do in such a position. Largely, we are able to smugly but correctly conclude that we would never be in such a position. The question is, why not?

The answer is largely that as a matter of ideology our Party supports governance and largely (if sometimes ambivalently) honors public service in elective office, so conventionally-qualified candidates start out with a positive record to run on, rather than a negative one. The anti-government ideological stand on the right has, in this view, combined with the Tea-Party rejection of deal-making and thus of the Party’s political leaders who are responsible for making deals to make any candidate’s conventional qualifications a burden. You can, if you like, add as another contributing factor the financial incentive in the conservative marketplace to have a President from My Party, and probably a majority in at least one legislative chamber as well. This magnifies the drawbacks of being actually qualified, in terms of drawing support from that marketplace.

Another view (not necessarily contradicting that one, but placing different interpretation and emphasis) is that their Party has had difficulty drawing lines between The Party and The Fringe. Alex Jones is an example often given; Pat Buchanan is another. There is a fringe on both sides, of course, but my Party is often slow to allow it any sort of legitimacy. Too slow, perhaps, in the case of Black Lives Matter or even the Occupy movement, but in general for a Democratic politicians to pal around with conspiracy theorists or revolutionaries gets them shut out of the money and spotlight, and sometimes of support for re-election. Or, of course, not, depending on how you feel about BDS or Acorn (may their memory be a blessing) or even Planned Parenthood. There are certainly people who consider Planned Parenthood some sort of fringe activist group. They are wrong, but they exist. So maybe that question about delineating The Fringe is harder to see from one side than the other.

A third explanation (again connected with the others) places the blame on previous candidacies by unqualified dilettantes, or more particularly, the Party (broadly defined) treating such candidacies as if they were legitimate. In this reading, it’s Herman Cain’s fault, or the fault of people who gave Herman Cain a seat at the debate table. Or Alan Keyes. Or Steve Forbes. Or Pat Buchanan (again). Or Pat Robertson, back in 1988. The idea essentially being that if, in election after election, a Party’s leaders treat someone who lacks the slightest qualification as if he were a legitimate candidate, there is no reason for the Party rank and file to believe that conventional qualifications matter. And even in this election, it wasn’t easy for anyone to articulate why, in debates that had Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina on the stage, Donald Trump was not a legitimate candidate.

Digression, or rather a sort of Lemma: I should take a moment and say that I do not mean to equate a lack of conventional qualifications for the Presidency with uncontrollable and abhorrent mania. I do think that, on the whole, few uncontrollable and abhorrent maniacs manage to win federal or statewide offices and perform in them to a level that gets them any Presidential support. This is clearly untrue in the private sector. For a strong version of my claim: Dr. Carson, Ms. Fiorina and Mssrs Keyes, Forbes, Buchanan, Robertson, Cain and Trump were unlikely to ever win races to be Senator or Governor, and if they had, they would either have failed in those offices spectacularly enough to leave public life in disgrace, or they would have gained a certain measure of control—or the Party would have found a way to control them, which in a Madisonian system is just as good. You may wish to question this step of the argument separately, possibly referencing John Corzine. At any rate, it is both empirically the case and makes a kind of sense that filtering for conventional qualifications tends to filter out uncontrollable and abhorrent maniacs, even as it also filters out lots of perfectly sensible people. End Lemma.

Footnote to the above: Bernie Sanders is, I hope obviously, a conventionally qualified candidate, being a Senator with a long history of public service in elected office. End footnote.

The problem with this argument is that my Party has in fact had candidates who were lacking in conventional qualifications, but who were invited to debates and treated like legitimate candidates. Not quite as many, it’s true, but they exist. Let’s look at them.

Wesley Clark was treated as a completely legitimate candidate in 2004, despite never having held elective office and having no ties with the Party. His campaign was, predictably, a disaster, but that’s neither here nor there: the point is whether the average person who is influenced by my Party’s elite would be inclined to think that similar candidates should be treated as legitimate. I think we can pass on this one. While military leadership is not, strictly speaking, a conventional qualification for the Presidency, it isn’t unprecedented, either. I wouldn’t call it a good thing that his candidacy was treated with such deference, as there’s no question that it lowers the bar for what constitutes that level of military leadership. I mean, I don’t think General Clark would consider himself on the level of an Eisenhower or a Grant. Zachary Taylor or Winfield Scott… I think there’s an argument there, but I personally don’t think that Old Fuss and Feathers is what our Party should be aiming for. Just me, perhaps. Anyway, our Party is, in fact, vulnerable to a military-hero candidate who lacks conventional qualifications. Let’s not imagine that it isn’t.

I’m going to skip back to 1984 and 1988, and the Presidential candidacy of one of the greatest Americans of my lifetime, Jesse Jackson. There is no question that Rev. Jackson lacks conventional qualifications for office. There is no question that he was treated as a legitimate candidate. He participated in debates. He received (some) support from the party apparatus. Although his qualifications were questioned (as any candidate’s are) by his opponents, his policies and positions and his person were taken seriously. While in 1984, at least in the beginning, many in the Party saw his candidacy more as a tool for organizing the minority vote and influencing the platform, in the 1988 campaign, which was my first as a voter, he was clearly running to win the nomination. For which, as I say, he was not qualified.

Unless it turns out that there is a third kind of qualification, in addition to political office and military leadership. It is possible that leadership in the Civil Rights movement constitutes a real qualification for My Party. This would explain, for instance, treating Al Sharpton as if he were a legitimate candidate in 2004. I think a lot of people in My Party largely forget or ignore that that happened, and it totally did: Al Sharpton ran for president and was treated like a legitimately qualified candidate. Now, obviously he didn’t win or come close to winning, or come close to being even a longshot contender. But he did more or less what Steve Forbes or Herman Cain did: form a campaign, raise money, get onto the debate stage with the conventionally qualified candidates, and have no-one point out that he didn’t belong there by any stretch of the imagination. If there’s an argument that the Other Party treating Herman Cain as if he were qualified led to Donald Trump’s nomination, then Our Party treating Al Sharpton as if he were qualified was equally dangerous.

Unless, as I say, we accept that leadership in the Civil Rights movement is a qualification along the lines of being a U.S. Representative. I want to be clear that I don’t mean advocating for civil rights. I mean leadership within the Civil Rights movement, understood as the movement of the 1950s and 1960s spearheaded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This is, if you agree with me at all, a one-time and singular event, as if there were an understanding that military leadership in the Civil War was a very different thing than before or after. If that’s the case, then Al Sharpton has got to be just about the last person who slips in under the SCLC rule. (We could call it the Selma rule, which would be awesome, but Al Sharpton wasn’t at Selma, so.) If that’s the case, then we don’t need to worry about the signals the Party is sending about who can be taken seriously as a legitimate candidate.

Until the next time. Because in truth the reason why Our Party wouldn’t treat Warren Beatty or Michael Moore or Kanye West as if they were qualified candidates is because we don’t want to. If we start changing that, it changes. It’s foolish to think that Our Party is invulnerable. It is vulnerable to the same sorts of stresses that have broken the Other Party, and it is vulnerable to other stresses that I don’t know anything about. We could turn on our leaders as untrustworthy and then struggle to replace them for any of a variety of reasons, and then throw up our cultural hands in disgust and fall prey to an outsider. We could provide electoral incentives for our leadership to work against each other, rather than with each other. We could reject compromise as selling out and then fracture into competing interests. We could cultivate anger and fear for short-term political gain and then be unable to let go of the tiger’s tail. We could do something I can’t even imagine now, under stresses that don’t yet exist—millions of climate change refugees, the collapse of the international financial system, another economic depression, cultural disruption of one kind or another.

In other words, it’s not because My Party is filled with people who are fundamentally ontologically and morally different from the people in the Other Party. There are real cultural and ideological differences between the tribes, yes. And if we don’t want to be a broken Party that lets itself be hijacked by an abhorrent and uncontrollable maniac, we need to look to that culture and ideology, and see that it doesn’t take us there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 2, 2016

If you'd like to swing on a state

A quick election note: I recommend Pennsylvania Is Always Purple (And Other Electoral College Observations), a note by David A. Hopkins, a very acute (imao) political scientist who blogs at Honest Graft. His stuff is generally worth reading, actually.

I bring up this piece because it delineates some of the odd things about our time in American Politics. It’s a sort of paradox—on the one hand, swing states or battleground states or whatever you call Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virgina (and maybe some others) don’t actually swing independently of each other or the nation at large. If you figure there is some more-or-less true national swing, some number N such that Clinton’s share of the vote minus N equals Trump’s, then all states, including swing states, have a number k, such that for each state S, Clinton minus N plus k equals Trump. I should say that N and k can be positive or negative, and I should probably stop speaking in algebra altogether… the point is that Clinton will do seven points better in Connecticut than she does in the national popular vote, and twelve points worse in Alabama. And that k, that difference from the national average, is smallest in these swing states, largely due to the demographic makeup of those states. Broadly speaking, if Clinton gets 70% of the Latino vote, she will get 70% of the Latino vote everywhere, and the numbers in a state will be more about how many Latino votes are available than how well she does among Latinos in that state.

Did you follow any of that? Well, in short: there are swing states, but they follow the national trends just like everywhere else. They are just balanced close enough to 50% that the plus-or-minus of a candidate can sway the outcome one way or another, while in the others, the national difference is not going to be enough to push the state into the other column. Clinton would take Alabama if she won the popular vote by fifteen points, but it isn’t going to happen. So from the standpoint of an interested observer, you are better off looking at national polls than state polls; they will tell you more about the eventual electoral college outcome.

Unless you are deciding where to put resources for a campaign. The campaign should put its ad money in the swing states of course… even though the swing states, as I just said, don’t actually swing independently. So what does all that money actually do?

Well, who the hell knows? I believe that ads aren’t actually very persuasive, but you don’t need to believe that to believe that two campaigns running a lot of ads cancel each other out. And of course even if a superior ad campaign and GOTV and the rest of it move the outcome by only a tenth of a percent, that may well turn out to be the tenth of a percent that matters, if the election is close enough.

The paradox is that campaigns must spend the bulk of their time moving the parts that move least, by pushing on them in the spot with the least leverage. They don’t have any choice, of course. Presidential elections are fought locally but won nationally. And I don’t even believe that they are won or lost nationally in the campaign, in the usual run of things. They are won or lost by the incumbent party governing well or poorly, in the eyes of the national electorate. Which is as it should be.

All of which is the lead-up to saying this: if you are considering donating money to a presidential campaign, please don’t. Find one of your local races, or a Congressional race somewhere in the country. Those races are won locally, and the money might even do some good.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 28, 2016

The DNC

I am not planning to write up my Party’s nominating convention. I’ve managed to watch a fair amount of it, but it was difficult to take notes of the late-afternoon sessions, and while the evening speeches have been magnificent, I don’t know that I have anything much to say about them.

I do want to say something about the general political situation, though. I have told my story from 1988 before, back in 2007, in a note called I’m OK, You’re OK, We’re Screwed. The 1988 story, told in short, is that shortly before the election, I read pieces written as if from four years in the future, each candidate represented by a supporter as if they had won and were now running for reelection. The supporter of George H.W. “Poppy” Bush wrote as if from Elysium; the supporter of Michael "Drop off your turkey carcasses" Dukakis wrote as if from, I don’t know, Detroit. Things were hard at the close of the putative first Dukakis term, but they were starting to improve. I read the two columns and thought: That’s it. It’s over. We lose.

While I didn’t actually know much about how elections really work back then, I have to say, I was right. At that moment, the American public didn’t want hard work to turn around a country with ingrained problems, they wanted the illusion of peace. Now, there was a lot more to it than that, and it’s not as if a different column in whatever magazine I was reading would have changed the outcome of the election. So long as the country was largely feeling that things were OK, or (as I think) didn’t want to face those things that were lousy, the incumbent Party was going to win the election.

When I was writing that note, a year and a half before the election, I was wondering whether the country largely felt that we were screwed, or whether we wanted to elect a soothing President, who would tell us that things were OK. What happened that year was largely different: among other things, Barack Obama was the First Black President, and on some level there was the sense that just electing him would mean that everything would be OK. He was peddling audacious hope but not, if I remember correctly, soothing pap—but it almost didn’t matter, since we were so euphoric about the end of racism.

Sigh.

At any rate, what Donald Trump is trying to do seems to me very difficult. He is saying that things are awful, terrible, dangerous and nearly catastrophic. And he is saying that we won’t have to buckle down and work hard to fix it. He, it seems, will do that for us. I don’t know if I think the country will buy it. Either that things are awful (they aren’t—well, there are always things getting better and things getting worse, and we’re running out of time on climate change before our focus will have to shift toward living with the damage rather than preventing it, but the economy is meh-not-that-bad and crime is down and while of course Daesh is scary, terrorism is at a horrible-but-livable level, and while race relations are of course bad and tense, that’s not actually worse than it has been) or that he will fix them. In fact, it seems to me that in terms of my 1988 concerns, either the zeitgeist is reasonably satisfied at the moment, which is good for the incumbent, or Donald Trump will actually convince people that things are scary, which may well be good for the competent-manager type in the race. Which isn’t him.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 21, 2016

My Take On Trump

I don’t think I have written up my official Take On Trump for this Tohu Bohu. I don’t think it’s terribly likely to be correct, but this is what I think is going on:

First of all, I imagine that Donald Trump is one of those guys who thinks everyone else is a moron. Who believes, fundamentally, that everyone he comes in contact with is an incompetent, an idiot and a loser, a grifter and a moron, and that his correct and appropriate job is to gull them, take their money, and expose them for the frauds they are. I could certainly be wrong, but that’s my impression. When he (in a business dealing or any matter) judges himself to have come out ahead, that is the correct outcome and entirely to have been expected. When he comes out at a loss, it’s a bizarre anomaly, probably due to something being rigged, and is only temporary anyway, and (retrospectively) he didn’t come out at a loss anyway, it was terrific for him. I don’t know the man, but I genuinely believe that to be how he feels.

Second, I think Donald Trump got into the race in the first place to derail Jeb Bush. He has bad blood with the Governor from some land deals, evidently, and he didn’t like Our Previous President, and I think he initially talked about running as a way to attack Jeb Bush and prevent him from being the nominee. That’s not to say he hadn’t thought about it before, because he clearly did, but the thing that made him jump in to the fray this time was, I believe, the intention to knock Jeb out of the race. After which he probably expected to declare that he wasn’t going to run, after all, and withdraw before even filing paperwork to become an official candidate. He certainly didn’t at that point begin putting together an actual organization. No, I think he was intending to toy with the idea and then declare victory and walk, just like he did in 2012.

And then he led in all the polls. And kept leading in all the polls without spending any money. And I believe he thought this stuff is easy. He thought all those people who say this is hard are morons, looking for other morons to pay them for moronic advice. He thought I can do this in my sleep. And he filed the paperwork. And he went to rallies and got cheers and had a blast. And he kept leading the polls.

Now, my contention is that his lead in the polls and his following had more to do with people enjoying watching him on television, portraying the Donald Trump character, than with the Wall. Donald Trump was not the only candidate who could appeal to angry nativists. He was not the only candidate who could appeal to trade protectionists. He was not the only candidate who could appeal to the people who wanted, above all, to stick it to the Man. But he was the only candidate who could appeal to fans of The Apprentice, and we know there are millions of those. Probably, although it’s hard to be sure, more millions than there are angry nativists. Whatever the case, once he was in the lead, and with the utter dominance of the media—he is, I must say, extremely good at publicizing a brand, whatever his deficiencies as a real-estate developer—the angry nativists and isolationists and trade protectionists had no real reason not to drift into his camp. And I was hocking here for months about how the Party apparatus, particularly the seventy-odd Senators and Governors, failed to come to an agreement and endorse a candidate in a way that would indicate to the rest of the Party what they should be doing. And then Governor Kasich didn’t drop out when he had no chance of winning. Anyway, I’m not talking about why he won the nomination at this point, but I want to digress enough to make the point that (like any nominee) he benefitted from what other people in the Party did, both their mistakes and their strategic choices, as well as from blind luck. And I don’t think Donald Trump knows that. I think he genuinely believes that he won because he did everything right, and that all the people who gave him advice he didn’t take are morons and grifters. The he proved himself right and them all wrong.

And, you know, to some extent they were wrong and he was right. That’s fair.

But not everything the professionals said was wrong. Donald Trump, like any nominee, won despite a bunch of mistakes and screw-ups. And unlike the normal nominee, I don’t believe he knows that, or has anyone he respects that can tell him what those screw-ups were and how to avoid them in the future. Certainly, there is no evidence that he listened to people who know how to deal with the publicity surrounding a national party convention. He thinks those people are morons and grifters, and why would he listen to them?

So he let his wife give a (by the way, perfectly good) speech that plagiarized a speech by the incredibly popular First Lady from the other Party. That not only took publicity away from the point of the speech (Melania is capable of being a cromulent First Lady, and Donald is not a monster) and focused publicity on the disorganization of the campaign, but brought the aforementioned very popular Michelle Obama back into the discussion. Suboptimal. And yet, sure, every campaign has some cock-up somewhere. And sure, the Jumbotron going haywire in the middle of the show during broadcast time could happen to anyone. And yeah, the New York Times was going to interpret his interview for maximum outrageousness, so giving them an interview on the day before the big speech, the day that was supposed to be primarily devoted to introducing a Vice-Presidential candidate chosen for his exquisite cromulence, was dumb, but it’s not like the VP nominee is going to walk off. None of these things are going to drive away millions of voters. They are lost opportunities, and more than that, they are rookie mistakes of the kind that could have been caught and/or ameliorated by the professionals. The people who really do have specific knowledge of this stuff. The ones who may well be morons and grifters, but who are still good at their jobs.

My point is that (A) this particular screw-up was due to not having a large enough professional staff to do all the stuff that needs doing, and that (2) the lack of a real professional staff is due to the candidate believing that the people who know stuff are morons who don’t know anything, and (iii) I don’t see any reason to believe that the candidate will acknowledge the usefulness of a professional staff and start to gather one around him for the remainder of the campaign. Which, by the way, is four months. A long time to run a project without anyone who knows what the hell they’re doing on board.

And, of course, it’s a bit terrifying to imagine Donald Trump as President of the United States whilst still believing that everyone around him is a moron and a grafter. Who thinks that everything is really simple and easy, and any disasters are because other people are losers. Who will not listen to anyone tell him why a bad idea is bad, or how to make a simple idea into a complicated but workable one. And, of course (I say of course) he could still win the election. At a wild guess, his incompetence as a candidate will cost him not more than five points below where a generic Republic candidate would be, and that may well be enough to win. Heaven help us all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 19, 2016

RNC 2016 Day One Evening

So. I didn’t watch much of the RNC show last night; I was in rehearsal (about which perhaps more later) and only got home in time for the Network Hour. I stayed up later than I intended to, listening to speeches, and I can’t say it was a good idea. Still and all, I find myself with a few Things to Say about the evening.

First of all, before talking about any of it, I want to reiterate that I don’t think that a good convention or a bad convention makes a whole hell of a lot of difference in the outcome of the election in November. I’m not sure having a good or bad summer does. Most of us who will vote have already made up our minds (even if we aren’t yet willing to admit it in polls and surveys); most of the rest aren’t paying attention. Political scientists haven’t really been able to describe accurately the mental processes of people who make up their minds late in a Presidential election and vote, but I imagine that person dislikes politics, doesn’t enjoy reading or listening to political news, doesn’t enjoy thinking about politics, and yet feels a sort of responsibility to engage in the system at least as far as voting. I suspect that person listens to or watches a news broadcast a couple of times a week, largely because they feel they should, and then feels depressed about it all. They may watch the acceptance speeches of the two candidates, or more likely clips of them on those news broadcasts, but they won’t watch a week’s worth (much less two weeks’ worth) of political speeches, even the hour a night the networks carry. The conventions are important for a few reasons that have nothing really to do with this November’s election, and for some that do, but only the candidates’ own speeches are persuasive at all. So if I say that someone gave a good or a bad speech, or that an evening (much less an afternoon) went well or poorly, I don’t mean that it will sway the course of the election. Or even nudge it. I care about these things, and I judge them, and I could probably come up with some good arguments why, but I don’t imagine that this or that thing will lose the election for the Party. OK? All of which, I know, makes the point that you shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this note (or indeed any of the rest of the Tohu Bohu at all) but still, if you do read it, I want you to know what I mean.

Second, I thought the afternoon went quite well. Yes, there was a floor demonstration, and yes, they probably could have handled it better, but it was brief and there wasn’t even any photogenic scuffling. All of the articles describing chaos and insurrection were overblown and probably largely written beforehand. One good example is Noah Rothman’s The Foolishness of the RNC, which mixes good reporting and accurate analysis (imao) with overblown hype. It was barely a thing. In the meantime, there were twenty speeches, all of them saying all the things they were supposed to. It went well.

The other thing I want to say about the afternoon is that I quite enjoyed it. I don’t agree with their Party about what policies they want to put in place—to some extent, I don’t agree with some of their goals, and when I do share their goals I generally think their policies are not the right ones to get there. Still and all, I love that they are working to improve the country and I love that they care so much. I love political speeches, and I love political crowds. I love the way they are spotlighting women and nonwhite people in their Party. I watched the afternoon session and what I largely felt was a sort of affectionate hope. And exasperation, yes, and a certain defensive snarkiness, too. But at the end of the session, I felt pretty good about the idea of watching the next afternoon’s session.

Not so much the evening.

I got into the car to go home and turned on the radio in time to catch most of David Clarke’s speech. It wasn’t fun. Sherriff Clarke talked about how unsafe we all feel, every day, in our homes and on our streets…but I don’t! Crime is down, my town is safe, when I go into crime-ridden Hartford I feel safe because I am conspicuously unlikely to be assaulted. The fact—and it is a fact—that many black men in this country are terrified of being assaulted or killed by law enforcement officers has nothing to do with rising crime rates or anyone’s likelihood of being assaulted or killed by anyone else. And in fact, law enforcement officers don’t have, statistically, a hugely dangerous job, and are less rather than more likely to be killed in the course of their duties than they were a generation ago. As are we all, in the course of our lives, actually. And to accuse the Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movements of being the cause of a collapse of the social order, of being anarchists was outrageous. And the emphasis on not just the importance but the primacy of the rule of law, in that context, felt threatening to me. I did not feel, listening to Sherriff Clarke, as if he was part of the same immense political project as My Party, just advocating different goals and policies. I felt threatened.

Then, and this probably counts as a Digression, the NPR/PBS guys didn’t carry the next two speeches, but blathered on and on with analysis (or “analysis— as it was utterly devoid of any attempt to analyse anything) and nonsense for twenty minutes. So I didn’t catch the next couple of speeches. When I watch the conventions, I always do so from the Party’s website itself; no interruptions, no commercials, no interviews, no analysis, just the camera on the podium and occasional shots of the crowd in goofy hats. The RNC has an app for that, unsurprisingly, but also a YouTube channel. Use it. C-Span is also your friend, I imagine. End Digression.

So after missing a bit, the next thing that I really caught was Rudy Giuliani’s speech. Which was horrific to listen to. He began with thanking law enforcement officers, which of course I don’t object to, but in a triumphalist way by denying outright that there was any race-related problems with law enforcement officers at all. “When they come to save your life, they don’t ask if you are black or white, they just come to save you!” Is there another way to read this than outright denial that policemen have killed people? Well, perhaps, as he then said: “We reach out our arms with understanding and compassion, to those who have lost loved ones because of police shootings, some justified, some unjustified. Those that are unjustified must be punished; those that are justified, we must apologize to.” For what? For ascertaining whether there was justification? And then: “What happened to ‘there’s no black America, no white America, there is just America? What happened to it? Where did it go? How has it blown away?’” Here’s your answer: it has never been. Never. There has never been one America. Yet. That is our hope, yes, but there was no time in American history when law-abiding black men were not afraid of the police; there was no time in American history when the experience of growing up white was anything like the experience of growing up black. It didn’t go anywhere; it’s just a little harder these days to ignore that it has always been a lie. And when Rudy Giuliani repeated that lie, the crowd roared as loud as they did at anything all night.

And it went on from there. He is good at this sort of thing, I admit. He gets his audience cheering. His audience, I should say—I can’t imagine anyone outside the Conservative noetic field responding to his spittle-flecked demands for unconditional victory over Islamic extremist terrorism and his rictus-grinned warning that “There is no next election; this is it!” with anything other than perplexed disgust and a determination to avoid ever seeing him or hearing his voice again. Ugh. If I felt threatened by Sherriff Clarke’s speech, I was absolutely repulsed by Rudy Giuliani’s.

Then we went to a complete change of tone. The candidate himself walked in (with an over-the-top theatrical flourish that was miles less ridiculous than Bill Clinton’s 2000 corridor walk) to introduce his wife, which he did with a single sentence: “It is my great honor to present the next First Lady of the United States, my wife, an amazing mother and an incredible woman, Melania Trump.” That was it. There was no video biography with images of the two of them together, there was no biographical introduction, just that single sentence. Very odd. And then the speech itself was entirely devoid of the sort of cute anecdote or personal story that makes a speech from the candidate’s spouse or child memorable. I don’t know what it is about this candidate—Rudy Giuliani said that he was going to violate his promise of confidentiality to tell us about some of the things that Donald Trump had done for the city of New York, but then didn’t actually tell us any specifics at all. Melania Trump didn’t talk about how she met her husband, or what initially attracted her to the millionaire, or what the real man is like when the cameras are off. She talked very briefly about her parents and her sister, but didn’t tell any anecdotes about them, either. She mentioned the candidate’s parents, siblings and children, and said “ There is a great deal of love in the Trump family. That is our bond and that is our strength.” Which is lovely, but not really memorable. She talked about how persistent her husband was, willing to keep working for years just to get a project started, but she didn’t name any actual project. I’m sure there are such projects as she alluded to, or there are projects that could be described that way, anyway, and presumably she knows their names, but we don’t.

That said, other than the anodyne lack of specifics and a certain wide-eyed facial expression that read to me as stage fright, I thought it was a pretty good speech. Pleasant, dull, inoffensive, human. Nothing about it appeared liable to make anyone think ill of the candidate, and if many of us thought uncharitably that she was a vacuous bit of fluff chosen to look good on his arm, I don’t think that would turn a whole lot of people off. And I should clarify that I know nothing about her, and expect that she is both cleverer and harder-working than I am. I know nothing about the job of fashion model but it can’t be easy to rise in that field. Still, even holding to a stereotype of dimwittery, it pretty much went well. The crowd in the hall liked it, the immediate response on twitter and social media was largely appreciative. Success.

And then the mood changed back entirely, with Michael Flynn’s speech. This was another angry, hectoring speech not unlike Rudy Giuliani’s, only delivered with less skill. Of course, he had to contend with the delegates heading back to the hotel for the night, as the showpiece was over, but still, his broken-rhythm awkwardness was noticeable. I disliked his emphasis on crushing our enemies: “America does not back down from anyone or anything.” It’s the kind of resolve-based thinking that I associate with the neocons and their disastrous adventuring under Our Previous President. The chants of “Lock Her Up! Lock Her Up!” were ugly as well, as was his admonition “Crooked Hillary Clinton, leave this race now!” The rest of the stuff was a greatest hits of talk-radio nonsense (exceptionalism, bowing, apologies, political correctness, bathrooms, Benghazi of course and the email server, red lines, refusal to name our enemies, etcetera etcetera) combined with a withering contempt for Our Only President and everyone connected with him. It was exhausting to listen to… although it was also very late at that point, which may have influenced my mood as well.

And then I shut it off and went to bed. I kinda wanted to hear Senator Ernst, who started off promisingly, but I was tired and cranky and all done.

We’re a few minutes away from the opening of Day Two, and I will probably listen to at least a portion of the afternoon session, but I have to say I’m feeling a lot less expansively patriotic than I was at five o’clock yesterday.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 18, 2016

RNC 2016 Day One Afternoon

Well, and it turns out Your Humble Blogger did watch/listen to the RNC afternoon show today. I'll pass along my largely unedited notes:

Steve King: quotes Newt. Tries to get applause for Jesse Owens, but no-one was listening. Applause for RWR, though. "We are the thumping sound of an American heartbeat, pounding for change." Let’s make some noise!

Frank Jackson (mayor of Cleveland) Not a big round of applause for the Cavs. I find his accent odd and not very Cleveland, but I don’t know exactly why. Wikipedia tells me he’s got an African-American father. I wouldn’t know to look at him. Talk about community.

Armond Budish, Cuyahoga County Executive. A Democrat. SwatAlum.

The band is playing "Cleveland Rocks". They’re not bad, actually, although of course they’re a blues band of middle-aged white guys. I feel like I should know who they are. Now, they’re playing Eminence Front; I assume because it was the WWF theme back in the day. Maybe. Maybe it’s the only song they could think of with a "come and join the Party" repeat. Now the house is a-rocking, so I won’t bother knocking.

Jeff Larson, CEO of the Con. Did a nice bit thanking his family for supporting him as he spent all the time on work.

David Gilbert, host committee. Actually a pretty good speech, tbqh.

Resolution from the floor to thank and appreciate the RNC’s work, a young African-American man from Virginia. Kinda sweet.

Larry Householder. Former OH Speaker of the House, speaking to honor Voinovich and Bob Bennett (the Ohio one, not the Utah one). Worth doing. Now a video in their honor. Now a moment of silence and an In Memoriam name scoll. (Sharon Day, hosting)

Michigan AG Bill Schuette (pronounced Shootie). Talking about Flint, MI. "Justice is coming to Flint!" He’s running for Gov, I guess.

Matt Walter, Republican State Leadership Committee. So young. Must be older than he looks, though. Lots of states-v-DC stuff.

Linda Lingle, former HI-Gov. "The last eight years have been a wake-up call to American Jews." Says that Dems are divided on the legitimacy of Israel. Says that in four out of the last five elections, American Jews have voted for the Republicans "in increasing numbers".

David Avella, GOPAC. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is about local/state elections, seems to follow on from Matt Walter, not the previous speaker. Very shouty, this guy.

AZ State Senator Kimberly Yee. First Asian-American woman elected to the AZ State leg. Values of everyday hard-working Americans. Citizen legislator. Quite sing-songish, with awkward gestures. First mention of ’protect life’ that I caught.

CO state rep Libby Szabo (Latino) My American dream. Seems very serious, in contrast to last one who was more smily. "Never given to us; we earned it." Mention of Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit.

Alexandra Smith, Chair College Republicans. Wow, high energy, blinding smile. We are the new face of the Grand Old Party. Millenials cost us the White House four years ago. We are some crazy freedom-loving people! Too much old and not enough grand. Another mention of "top-down", there have been a lot of those.

Charlie Kirk, founder and exec director of Turning Point USA. Most diverse Presidential candidate field ever. Latino candidates, South Asians… young governors. Who is the party of youth and diversity? We are the party of youth and diversity. Not the democrats. He’s a white guy, by the way. Believes in meritocracy. Didn’t mention Trump.

National Federation of Republican Women video. Nicely diverse and so forth. Physical diversity. And then a whole bunch of white women in expensive-looking suits. In the final image of a bunch of folk, apparently all white. But mostly, just a clumsy ad.

Carrie Almond, president of NFWR. Donated such and so million volunteer hours. "Hillary Clinton does not speak for all women."

Missed Dennis W. Cook, head of Young Republicans. He’s married, has a kid. Just saying.

Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City. Republican mayors in 150 cities. Republican mayors are restoring the middle class. Republican mayors are restoring the American dream.

Ray Valdes, National Conference of Republican County Officials. I love his necktie. Not sure about the red jacket, though. More emphasis on the most effective government being local—sorry, closest to the people.

Band playing Rush’s "Limelight". I can’t even.

Video with Republican governors signing a poster saying "American Comeback". Pretty good, actually. Edited like an ad, but whatever. I know the theme that the answers are not in Washington is a long-standing one, but under the circumstances it really sounds like they are saying don’t look at the guy at the top of the ticket. Very long, but in the context of the convention it scarcely matters, since it’ll be followed by another speech anyway.

NRSC Chair Roger Wicker (Sen-Mississippi) Americans deserve to see greatness again because we live in the greatest country the world has ever known. Thirty-something Senate Bills signed into law this session. We’re connecting with young people on social media platforms which Democrats are ignoring. Opioid addiction. Zika. Repeal and replace! Refused to settle for gridlock. Stakes are high. Introducing Senator Pat Roberts.

Senator Pat Roberts. Talking about something I missed. John Wesley Roberts? Something to do with Bleeding Kansas, I think. His Great-grandfather? Wish I had followed it. Talked about Benghazi. Talked about, I think, gay marriage, identity politics, BLM as dividing the nation. Nice words for Pence. "We need a builder and a doer. We need Donald Trump." I’m afraid that’s the Old White Guy stereotype of everything going to hell these days, not like in the good old days. His great-grandfather’s days, I suppose.

Band again. Dunno what the first song was, but they’re doing "My Sharona" now. Putting tweets (I guess) up on the big screen, which is cool. Also much video of middle-aged white folk dancing to the band.

Greg Walden (rep-OR) . Chair NRCC. Talking about the House Republicans. ObamaCare. Democrats are the party of the failed status quo, especially on healthcare. Complains about public land stewardship.

Band is back with Bowie’s "Station to Station". "How Sweet it Is", mostly an instrumental, sax and B3. Then an instrumental I totally recognized but can’t think of what it is. Then "Stay with Me." Oh, of course, the bandleader/guitarist is G.E. Smith. I didn’t recognize him. Weak.

Priebus introducing the Credentials committee guy. I missed who it was. Not terribly interesting stuff. They aren’t refusing to seat big chunks of people. Makes some serious-faced criticism of some balloting and does some business. Priebus comes back and brings on Mary Buestrin (?) national committeewoman to do a resolution to adopt the recommendation of the committee on Permananent Organizations. Then she brings up Hayley Barbour.

"Stay with Me" "You Shook Me All Night Long" "Eight Days a Week". In truth, I don’t hate this band.

Steve Womack introduces chair of the rules committee, Enid Mickelsen. There’s a lot of shouting on the floor, but of course Womack says that the ayes have it, and then when they ask someone to make the resolution, there’s quite. Now there’s chanting of "Roll Call Vote", but it dies down after a while. Picks back up. Others chant "U-S-A". There’s a legit demonstration on the floor of the convention. CO delegation walks out. Band starts playing again. Well, that was fun. Womack comes back. Reminds the hall that it is absolutely critical that we are able to discern the ayes from the nays. Doing the voice again. Ayes sound like they are in majority, but who knows… Womack says the ayes have it. A break. Womack asks if anyone is seeking recognition. Bill Ryan (?) chair of Utah delegation moves for a roll call vote. Womack says 9 states requests, but 3 states dropped out. Chair finds insufficient support for a recorded vote.

Now to the platform committee. John Barrasso (Sen-Wyoming) "Who’s proud to be an American!" and the floor demonstration was over. "People are the ultimate resource." Mmmmmm, soylent green.

Virginia Foxx, on the platform. We the people, be the people. I like this speech. I mean, not the content, but the form. Ends with "May Gd continue to bless us all".

The picture. That’s a strange moment.

Mark Burns (a pastor from South Carolina) gives the benediction. A black man. Loves Donald Trump. "That we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party that keeps us divided and not united because we are the United States of America and we are the conservative party under God to defeat every attack that comes against us." "Protect the life of Donald Trump." Much fiercer than I think of a benediction as being, but whatevs, you know?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

It's Party Time!

As the National Conventions begin, perhaps I should write a quick note about what I expect from the next two weeks. I don’t expect that I will have the opportunity to watch, much less write up my Party’s afternoons as I did in 2004—we will see how much gavel-to-gavel my co-workers can stand. And I don’t expect that I will be watching much, if any, of the Other Party’s gathering. I will be in rehearsals in the evenings, so I will miss most of the prime time speeches, and frankly I doubt I will want to watch them the next day. I prefer the afternoon stuff anyway; much more fun and enlightening. And irritating, of course. There is that. I fully expect the person in charge of the music for my Party’s convention will be trying to make me angry the whole time, just as in previous cycles.

Anyway, the reason I am writing a note in advance of the opening is that some people appear to have exaggerated expectations of how disastrous the Other Party’s convention will be (see f’r’ex Trumpapalooza Should Be One Hot Mess of a Convention by Paul Waldman over at The American Prospect) or of how much better and more persuasive Our Party’s convention will be. I wouldn’t count on it. I would expect that this week’s convention will get relatively high ratings, will go smoothly and largely without incident in the hall, and that their candidate will get the usual poll bump afterward. The fact that nobody will drop their trousers on live television, that the candidate gives an entertaining speech that includes a few policy points, and that many hundreds of the other Party’s elites will support the candidate, in Cleveland and on television and radio will be sufficient. No-one whose vote is persuadable will notice that there are prominent people who declined to attend; no-one is going to have their view of the candidate’s stature and seriousness diminished. It will be boring, and it will be good for their Party.

Ours will be similarly dull, for the most part, I expect. I expect our candidate will give a workmanlike and dull speech that will be far, far too long; I expect she will get the usual poll bump anyway. I expect—well, confidently hope, I suppose—that someone will give a very good speech indeed, but I doubt it will be the candidate. Nobody will mention Chaka Fattah.

As for myself, I would be surprised if I am not moved to tears, in the event, by my Party nominating a woman for President of the United States. I will be moved by the pointed inclusion of non-white Party elites, of LGBT Party elites, of something like the full panoply of America—what I think of as my America. I fully expect that I will move towards real excitement about the prospect of a Hillary Clinton administration, of working toward the November elections and all the possibilities that the future may yet hold. I will quote Walt Whitman, at some point during the proceedings, and I will talk to my children about the creation of a democratic self-governing people, of how great it is that all these people come from all over the country in the attempt to make something happen, together, as a Party and as a nation.

In other words: I love this shit. I hope you can, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 14, 2016

My Grandparents were Illegal Immigrants

I feel it’s time to say this again: my grandparents were illegal immigrants. Three of them, anyway. And although I never discussed this particular aspect of their story, judging from when they came and where they came from, I’m sure they had the experience of being described by politicians as animals, refuse, criminals and scum. As a class, of course, not as individuals, which I’m sure was quite a comfort to them.

There were also Americans who welcomed them and helped them. America may never have been the goldene medina, but it was better than the Old Country. I am here because of the Americans who helped my grandparents, and my parents (the anchor babies) in their new lives.

I can’t really imagine what it is like for immigrants to our country from Algeria or Morocco, Lebanon or Jordan, Tajikistan or Azerbaijan, to hear Donald Trump talk the way he did yesterday. That’s just countries he didn’t name—he specifically targeted people from Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan (or "Afghan" as he actually said) and Somalia. While the group that included my grandparents were blamed for disease, depression and moral collapse, they were not blamed for mass murder. Oh, there were the occasional incidents, the occasional high-profile horribleness that led to fear and blame. But not like this.

And of course I feel worst of all for people who came to America for a chance to wriggle loose from orthodoxy, who felt that here in this country was a chance to choose for oneself what traditions to keep and what to discard. From the Old Country, America must seem like a land without limits, a land of continual reinvention. And so it is, sometimes and for some people. But then for such a prominent politician, supported by millions, to point at those people and say: Danger! That is what you should be scared of! It’s so predictable and it makes me so sad.

I don’t have a way to turn that sadness into anything useful at the moment. And of course it is mixed up with the other sadness, about the people killed and wounded in the Pulse nightclub, another group of Americans who Trump has blamed for his (mostly imaginary) wrongs. I can’t imagine, really, what it is like to be a Latino in this country today and hear Donald Trump urging everyone to live in fear of immigrants.

I have nothing profound to say about it. I am not afraid of immigrants, legal or illegal. My people were illegals; my people were feared and hated. I wish it would stop.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 10, 2016

Where to draw the line?

It occurs to me that (and I don’t mean this in a negative sense at all) many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, the younger ones particularly, are really only now for the first time wrestling with a fundamental question of democracy: what do I do when I lose? Whether it’s candidates or policy positions or whatever, we will lose as least as much as we will win. Someone born in, say, 1990 and growing up in a particularly political family might have suffered disappointment when Howard Dean’s campaign came to naught, but probably didn’t think about it very much, and besides at the age of fourteen didn’t have to decide whether to vote for John Kerry in the general election or not. Then, if that person picked Barack Obama to get his first actual vote in 2008, which is demographically likely enough, there was nothing but the taste of unlikely victory.

That person is now twenty-six.

I haven’t found a really good way to say it, but I have tried repeatedly over the years, here in this Tohu Bohu and elsewhere, to emphasize the idea that we need to find our way to enjoy voting for candidates while holding our noses at their terrible, terrible flaws. There’s no question that we elect flawed people, and I don’t just mean that everyone is flawed (which of course is true) but that sometimes we elect people who are dishonest, or corrupt, or greedy; sometimes we elect people who are vain, or ignorant, or close-minded. Sometimes those people are better than the alternative. Sometimes we elect people who actively work against some of the policies we hold dear. Sometimes those people are better than the alternative, too.

Everyone has to draw the line somewhere. I voted, once, for a Republican, in a local race where I thought the long-standing incumbent Democrat was a good-old-boy-network racist and sexist who seemed to have dedicated his life to preserving a status quo that worked just fine for white men and was actively terrible for everyone else. In that race, I felt that the Republican would do less harm than the Democrat, despite the fact that on official policy lines, I disagreed with the Republican and agreed with the Democrat on almost everything. I drew the line there. Every other time, I have held my nose and voted with my Party, but I held the line there.

Digression: OK, I voted Socialist instead of voting for Sen. Feinstein once, because it wasn’t going to be a close election and I wanted, at the time, to remind the Senator that she could really be a lot further to the left without hurting her re-election chances next time. At that time, I drew the line there. I don’t think I would do it again, in a similar situation now. For one thing, it didn’t seem to work. End Digression.

Two things about democracy. First is that everyone loses a bunch of elections. Primaries and generals and referenda and ballot questions and recalls. In every election there are a bunch of people—not quite half, but sometimes close to it—who voted for one side and have to live with the other. George Santayana, philosophy’s most overrated Spaniard, said that democracy only seems to work because everybody mostly agrees about everything they think is important, and then they don’t care very much about the stuff they do disagree on, so they can stand to lose elections. Other people claim that democracy works because people are surprisingly optimistic and patient, figuring that losing a particular election or three is a temporary setback which they are willing to live through because their correct ideas will eventually win out. My own opinion is that it is enough if we all believe in democracy. It is enough if we all think that democracy is more important than whatever else we disagree on. If we would rather lose an election than lose democracy; if the idea of having a benevolent dictator enforce the policies we really do think are superior fills us with outrage. Whatever notion you want to take up, if you want to participate in self-government, you’re going to have to find a way to live with losing a bunch of elections.

Second is this: whatever way you find to deal with losing a bunch of elections while still participating? It’s good. Whatever way other people find? That’s good, too. The point of democratic self-government—working toward becoming an equal and free people capable of self-government at every level—is that you don’t get to decide for other people where they draw those lines. If a Bernie Sanders supporter decides that their policy preferences would be best met by declaring they will vote Blue no matter what, or that they will vote Green this time, or that they will spoil a ballot by writing in Bernie Sanders, or ignoring the top line and working on the local races? That’s their call. Oh, you should (if you are such a supporter talking with other such) advocate for your preference. But if the whole Bernie Sanders movement were to react the same way—even the way that seems to me best—that would not be good. Not for democracy, not for real participation in self-government.

Who decides? That’s a great question about almost every aspect of democracy. Who decides the names on the ballot in November? Who decides primary or caucus, open or closed, early or late? Who decides whether a candidate should drop out or keep challenging? Who decides whether a movement should come in to the big tent or stay outside? And the answer, generally, is not you. Or rather, you get to decide for you. You can (and should) attempt to persuade your friends and neighbors and compatriots. You can work with the groups you are part of, but even for those groups, you need to be one voice in them. You can rejoice that the group is responding to everyone in it, not just you… or decide that the group’s path has gone too far astray, dissociate yourself from the group and join another. You need to decide that for you; don’t let me or anyone do it for you.

My first primary disappointment as a voter was Senator Paul Simon—I have had plenty of time to wrestle with what to do when My Party passes over an inspiring figure to nominate someone I find somewhere between uninspiring and a train wreck. The struggle is not new to me (nor, and this really is a digression, do I find it at all difficult to support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, which I find much more compelling than I did Michael Dukakis, or for that matter Bill Clinton (I was a Harkin supporter) or John Kerry; I remain perplexed by the strength of progressive antipathy to her) and I have to admit I have been unsympathetic to Bernie-or-Bust. But it hadn’t occurred to me how many of those voters were trying to draw that line for the first time. Good luck to y’all, I say; keep your eyes on the prize.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 8, 2016

Hillary Clinton: A retraction and an appreciation

So, I know Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu are a savvy bunch of sophisticates, but there are other people who are disparaging Hillary Clinton’s achievement at winning the nomination process (yes, it ain’t officially over until the convention, but it’s over enough to say she won) as they have been all along, largely by not giving her any credit for having dominated the race throughout the years 2009-2015. Which she clearly did. I am more impressed by her having won the 2016 race by the end of 2015 than I would be by her having beaten half-a-dozen mainstream well-positioned well-funded candidates in 2016. Ezra Klein over at Vox writes about how It’s time to admit Hillary Clinton is an extraordinarily talented politician, and how our reluctance to admit it is doubly gender-based. Not only do we hold women to higher standards than men, we discount the less “masculine” parts of political success, such as relationship-building and—I don’t exactly know what to call it, as persistence isn’t quite it, but let’s call it the same thing that so many women do and get little credit for: doing their damn’ job every damn’ day and then also making dinner, doing the dishes, making the kids’ lunches and checking their homework. I don’t mean that she is motherly or domestic or any of that, just that after twenty-five years, she is still going, doing today’s work today and preparing for tomorrow.

You know, eight years ago I wrote a list of more than a dozen women who I thought would be better suited to being the First Woman President than Hillary Clinton. I pointed out that the chances of any of them, or of any woman other than Hillary Clinton being elected by 2020, were essentially nugatory, so supporting a woman for President meant supporting the actual woman who was running, rather than withholding support because she was the wrong woman. Eight years later, I agree entirely with that assessment of democracy and choice, but I have changed my mind about the list. It’s a great list, a terrific list of women who might have made (in my opinion) excellent Presidents. But not the First Woman President. For the First Woman President, I want Hillary Clinton.

What changed my mind? Not the policy stuff, or her achievements in the meantime, or really any new information about her character. It’s that—unbelievably—eight years ago I was still somewhat naïve about how prominent women are treated in our society. Since then, we have had many women come forward with stories about what happens on-line and in person when any woman dares to take up space in public, as a candidate, a consultant, a journalist, a creative artist or just visible. The First Woman President, whoever and whenever that will be, is in for a shitstorm that will make Barack Obama’s presidency look like a picnic. The crap she will have to take will be unimaginable beforehand. It will be disgusting and vile, personal and horrific. And somebody, some woman, will have to take it.

Nobody is better prepared for that than Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Maybe nobody in history has been better prepared for the horrorshow that awaits our First Woman President, but certainly nobody now, certainly not any of the dozen women I listed or the dozen more I might list if I were writing such a list today based on policies and personality. Maybe that’s a terrible reason to support a Presidential candidate, but there it is. And maybe, with luck, the next one will have it a little easier.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 31, 2016

Veepstakes

I suppose it really is Veepstakes time. Sigh.

Dylan Mathews over at Vox writes that The real reason people want Elizabeth Warren for VP is that “The rest of Clinton’s options are very, very weak”. This is utterly wrong. I do think that, as he says, people want Elizabeth Warren for VP because she is well-known—they aren’t clamoring for people they haven’t heard of. But whoever gets picked will immediately become well-known; that isn’t an issue. The reason that it’s a good idea to pick someone who has run a national campaign before is not that the person is famous but that the person has been researched and is unlikely to have new scandals or problems. When the veep selection strays from that, there’s a risk of a Sarah Palin or Spiro Agnew or Geraldine Ferraro. Still not disasters electorally, I should point out, but not what the candidate really wants.

So. I came up with the list of conventionally-qualified Vice-Presidential candidates who have run national campaigns and not otherwise disqualified themselves. Ready? Bill Richardson, Howard Dean, Chris Dodd, John Kerry, Al Gore, Joe Biden. That’s six, and it’s a very very strong bench indeed. I am leaving out John Edwards, for obvious reasons, and Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich as well. Now, of those six, two have served as VP and might turn down the nomination, although that might doesn’t make the bench weaker. We haven’t had a top-of-the-ticket name on the second line before, but that doesn’t make Clinton/Kerry a weak ticket. Chris Dodd is… not a good choice at this time. Sorry, dude. Howard Dean and Bill Richardson are completely plausible VP candidates, as far as I know. I might even add Tom Vilsack to this list.

And there’s the rest of the bench: Julián Castro, who Mr. Matthews calls laughably unqualified, is in fact a Cabinet Secretary and former mayor of a large city. Yes, the mayor of San Antonio doesn’t have much power, but who exactly will vote on that basis? Also in the cabinet and a former mayor is Anthony Foxx, who probably isn’t on the shortlist, but would be a good person to mention in the places that people mention things. A further shortlist would, I think, include Gary Locke, Peter Shumlin, Patty Murray, Amy Klebuchar and perhaps even Chris Murphy, who is young, liberal and would be replaced in the Senate by a democrat of some kind.

Let me take a moment and look at the Vice-Presidential nominees in the modern system: Here’s the list of eighteen, if I haven’t forgotten anyone: Edmund Muskie, Spiro Agnew, Thomas Eagleton, Sargent Shriver, Bob Dole, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan.

  • Ran previous national campaign, excellent choices: George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Joe Biden, probably Lloyd Bentsen, probably Jack Kemp
  • Ran previous national campaign, terrible choices: John Edwards
  • No previous national campaign, Senator or Governor, excellent choices: Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, probably Edmund Muskie, arguably Joe Lieberman
  • No previous national campaign, Senator or Governor, terrible choices: Spiro Agnew, Thomas Eagleton, Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin
  • No previous national campaign, neither Senator or Governor, excellent choices: Dick Cheney (from the candidate’s point of view), Paul Ryan, maybe Sargent Shriver
  • No previous national campaign, neither Senator or Governor, terrible choices: Geraldine Ferraro

So, how is My Party’s bench compared to those people? Even leaving out the two of them who are on both lists, the other twelve people I’ve named (including Chris Dodd) are easily comparable to the sixteen people actually nominated. Probably as a group I’d say better, but then I would, wouldn’t I?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 25, 2016

Only a Day Away

So, I’ll be voting in the primary early tomorrow morning, and I haven’t decided how.

I admire Hillary Clinton greatly. She’s been a terrific political worker for the poor, for children, for women, for gun control, and for my Party for more than twenty-five years. She’s incredibly knowledgeable and experienced; she’s probably a better bet to be good at the job of presidenting than anyone else in the country with the basic qualifications. I think she’s earned my vote.

I admire Bernie Sanders greatly. He’s been something of an inspiration in the House and the Senate for twenty-five years, as a gadfly and as a voice against the Powers that Be. I was surprised by him winning the seat in 1990, surprised by him moving to the Senate in 2006, surprised by him running for President this year, and surprised by how well he did it. His policies are closer to my preferred policies than Hillary Clinton’s (or much of anyone else’s) and his priorities seems to be fairly close to my priorities. I admit that I was concerned, at the beginning of the run, that he lacked the organizational and, well, political skills to be good at the job of presidenting, but I am utterly impressed with his campaign organization and how well he’s done. I think he’s earned my vote.

Hillary Clinton is going to be my Party’s nominee, and I will be supporting her through the election cycle, and I hope she’s going to be the next President. That’s all pretty much done. But I could happily vote for Bernie Sanders—not as a protest against Hillary Clinton, but out of respect for Bernie Sanders, what he stands for and what he’s done. Well, and also as another little push to indicate to my Party where I stand within it. I could do that, and perhaps it would do some good. On the other hand, perhaps at this point it would be just as well to vote for Hillary Clinton, out of respect for her and what she has done and can still do. Maybe if Hillary Clinton wins Connecticut by some substantial amount, the Story of What Happened will be that she is respected, admired and supported within the Party, which she is. Maybe if Bernie Sanders wins Connecticut, the Story of What Happened is that Hillary Clinton lacks that respect, admiration and support, even if that’s not really what’s going on.

There’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter, much, who I decide to vote for tomorrow morning. One vote is one vote only, and the work of democracy is so much more than that. But one vote is still one vote, and it’s my vote, and the beauty of an election is that my vote is just as damn’ good as any banker’s or custodian’s or movie star’s vote. Each one counts. Everyone counts.

The work of democracy, as I was saying, is this bit, where we talk about our politics and our participation in it. I’m not looking for anyone to tell me news about the candidates—I have done research, and besides, I have been reading about both these candidates for twenty-five years, remember? I know they are flawed (boy, do I know it) but James Madison set up our whole system just so we could fill political offices with flawed people, because who else is there? Still and all, I’d like to hear what you have to say, if you’d like to share it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 18, 2016

Another quadriennial choosing.

As I was slowly writing a long note on the process of our Parties choosing nominees for President, I came up with an analogy that is totally and utterly wrong and that I think influences a lot of our take on the thing anyway. And it’s this: we see the primary process as being something like the regular season for which the championship is in November. And that’s not what is going on at all.

To elaborate somewhat… in our imagination of sports leagues, particularly sports leagues that have divisions or conferences or whatnot, the regular season serves to identify the Best Team in each league, and then the Best Team from the one league plays against the Best Team from the other league for the championship, and the winner is the Best Team in the World. That’s the baseball set-up, with the American and National Leagues, and it’s something like the Super Bowl set-up with the AFC and NFC, and it’s something like the NBA’s and NHL’s Western and Eastern conferences, as well, I believe. Between all of those, that’s a pretty prevalent model. You can argue, in each of those leagues, whether one division is stronger than another, and so whether one group of semi-finalists is better than the other, but in the end, it’s their best against our best, and may the best team win.

I have problems with that idea in baseball, at least insofar as it is understood to find out which team is the Best, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I have problems with it in politics. But really, the issue is that it’s the wrong idea entirely. Our nomination process is not about finding the Best President, the person who is best at presidenting. In part that’s because nobody is really sure precisely what skills exactly go into good presidenting, and as far as I can tell, the closer people are to the job, the more cautious they are about predicting whether a particular person would be good at it or not. Another part is the Parties are also looking for someone who will win in November, which may not be the person who is best at presidenting in January and following. Another is that there are policy preferences to be taken into account, which interact with (sometimes unpredictably interact with) the skills at presidenting aforementioned.

It is also for another and more important reason, which I will rant about at too-great length before the end of this note, so you have that to look forward to.

So if the process isn’t about finding the Best President, what is it about? Well, Richard Hasen at CNN wrote a note called Is Trump right about ’rigged’ nomination? in which he says:

The bottom line is that the party nomination process serves two different functions: First, it winnows down the field for a final set of choices on Election Day in November. Second, it determines who should lead political parties made up of like-minded people who have come together for a key political purpose.

This is very nearly right, I think, and very, very wrong. So let me say it a different way that I think retains the right part: First, it usually does the necessary task of giving us two perfectly acceptable candidates; and second, it occasions active participation in a corrective exercise within Parties.

The second part first, and briefly: the quadriennial struggle to name a nominee serves to get people active in the Party organizations and the quasi-Party organizations (most of the Party isn’t technically part of the formal Party, but Emily’s List, f’r’ex, or the Sierra Club, or even the NRA are properly understood as part of the Party, having appropriate influence and wielding such veto power as it can maintain, being a path for people who want to participate to do so) and wrestle over what policy positions are supported and which are anathemized, which advisors and elders are respected and which are put out to pasture, and other important aspects of organization. Including, informally and chaotically, what constitutes legitimacy and what confers it. In the US, almost anyone can get involved, and almost nobody can make much individual difference, and that’s an amazing and beautiful thing.

The first part, at length: While I don’t believe that there is a single potential Best President, I do believe that there are lots of potential terrible presidents, and that the process is supposed to eliminate those people. People such as Your Humble Blogger, and Herman Cain, and Lyndon LaRouche and Warren Beatty and Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton. And Donald Trump. And by terrible, I suppose I don’t mean objectively terrible, but viewed with prospective terror by a big share of the people. We don’t want to have someone like that in office. We do want to have in office someone who is seen as qualified and legitimate by a wide portion of the population. And further, we want the election in the end to be between two such people, so that whoever becomes President will have the active support of a majority of voters (or nearly) and the widest possible presupposition of legitimacy in office. Does it always work? Obviously not. But on the whole, we generally have a President beginning the term with the support of almost the entire Party, and with a perhaps-grudging acknowledgement on part or most of the other Party that the winner did in fact legitimately win, and apart from being very wrong on policies and principles, is a qualified and legitimate President.

We have had occasions where the nominee wasn’t supported by the Party—the reason we have conventions at all is because in 1824 the national Party failed to put over its nominee on the local machines, and came up with a mechanism for bringing those local machines into the choosing process. For most of the Country’s history in fact, the national Parties have been nothing more than loose and shifting alliances of powerful individuals and their supporters, while the real power has been in tight-knit, well-organized local machines. Over time, the nationalization of our politics and the dispersal of those machines has changed the balance of power, and the challenge of legitimacy has leaned away from party-selected delegates and back-room brokers toward primaries and popular votes, but the challenge is much the same: pick someone that everyone in the party can get behind. Avoid a candidate that will make any big chunk of the party rebel.

Not the Best, but the most widely acceptable. Not the Best, but perhaps the one with the fewest or least-organized enemies. Not the Best, but the one with the widest, if not the deepest or most passionate, support. Not the Best but perhaps the most Good Enough—that is, the one who the most different groups within the Party think is Good Enough, and who a good enough percentage think is great. The Okayest, who is the greatest for the most and the worst for the least. The one who best straddles the line between impassioned support of a small group of dedicated, thoughtful citizens out to change the world and the enmity of all of the other small groups of dedicated, thoughtful citizens out to change the world.

And here’s the thing: that’s wonderful. That really is wonderful! It’s democratic, it’s participatory, and it’s messy and screwed-up and kludgy and hella Federalist and wonderful. Democracy, as I keep saying, is an experiment not only in self-government but in making a people who can be self-governing. In a journey from silence to participation. The great—the unbelievably, implausibly great—thing about democracy is that I think that Joe’s an idiot, and Joe thinks that I’m an idiot, and Jan thinks we’re both idiots, and Jin thinks we’re all three idiots, and none of that prevents any of us from participating fully in out experimental self-government. We won’t always win. Jin will hardly ever win, if by win we mean get a result that Jin likes and Jan, Joe and I don’t, but Jin can be heard and be involved and frankly, if Joe and Jan and I don’t bother to get involved, Jin can win some, too. Which is wonderful.

What wouldn’t be wonderful, to my eyes at any rate, would be if self-governance was merely a matter of finding that one person who was Best Qualified for the Job. Imagine that there were such a human, that there existed someone who really was the Best. What would there be for the rest of us to do? How would that help us to become, as individuals and as a society, self-governing, equal and democratic? No, a nation that is self-governing is always compromising, always settling, always making do, always falling short, always voting for somebody we don’t quite like, always holding our nose, always voting anyway, always doing the best we can. That’s the beauty of it. Not the beauty of the best, but the beauty of good enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 22, 2016

Neither rare nor well-done.

So. Presidential election, two open primaries, lots of craziness and unprecedented stuff on both sides. It’s, um. Interesting. This is my eight cycle as a voter, I believe—I voted for Mike Dukakis in 1988, for Bill Clinton twice, for Al Gore and John Kerry, for Our Only President twice, and they are all different, they are all exceptions, they were all taking place in utterly new circumstances. But this one may be even more different than the others. We’re not new to the internet era any more; we have a candidate who was the star of a television show that gathered twenty-eight million viewers; we have (probably) the first woman to be the nominee of a major party; we have a substantial candidate with dozens of delegates who isn’t registered with his Party. Who the hell knows what’s going on.

I’m going to pick on Jonathan Bernstein for a minute, though. In today’s note (Trump’s Rambling Gets a Pass Again) he writes that the media in general haven’t really made enough of Donald Trump’s policy incoherence and ignorance. I understand his frustration. I remember him making a comment after one of the 2000 debates, when he said that pundits didn’t really have a vocabulary for talking about the kind of mistakes George W. Bush was making—they could easily talk about Al Gore’s shortcomings in the debate, but when the Governor of Texas appeared to be unaware of his own policy platform, they didn’t have any way to talk about it. I bought it at the time, but then, at the time (a) he wasn’t a pundit himself, and (2) there really weren’t all that many pundits. A few dozen, perhaps, commenting on politics and election. Reporters, yes, there were probably a lot more reporters in those days. But pundits, commentators and analysts, bloggers and tweeters and podcasters, all that sort of thing, well, it seemed likely enough that you could say something coherent about the group of them.

Well, things are different now.

Mr. Bernstein has written, several times, that the word establishment makes everybody stupider. I think that’s a valuable insight: when you read about an establishment or anti-establishment candidate, or the value of establishment support, or establishment money… well, and the odds that the writer knows what precisely what he means by the word are quite long, and the odds that you as a reader correctly infer what the writer intends are even longer. Looking back on my use of the word in this cycle, I have to admit that he’s right. I was stupider for using the word, and you, Gentle Reader, were stupider for reading it. I apologize for that.

But if that is true about the word establishment, it has to be a million times more true about the word media. What is Mr. Bernstein talking about, when he says that the media should call out Mr. Trump for his policy incoherence? News articles on the front page of printed newspapers? The networks’ nightly news half-hours? The 24-hour cable news channels? Sunday morning interview and round table shows? The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight? SNL skits? Blogs? His own blog? I have no idea what he means, and I don’t think he does, either.

And while I’m calling out Mr. Bernstein (who is, bye-the-bye, an excellent commentator on American politics, and if you are interested in that sort of thing, you should be reading his stuff, not mine) I should make it clear that it is not just on the topic of Mr. Trump that the words the media make everybody stupider. Frequently I see complaints that the media are not reporting on the Bernie Sanders campaign, the size and fervency of the rallies or the fund-raising or whatnot. I have no idea what those complaints are about, because I have no idea what media the complainers refer to. The New York Times? They report on Bernie Sanders quite often, including those topics. The networks’ nightly news? I don’t believe that the complainers watch those broadcasts enough to know what they do or don’t cover; I certainly don’t. The pundits? The comics? The talk show hosts? Possibly they listen to enough NPR to really have a sense of how many minutes that particular network devotes to each candidate, but if so, then who cares? It’s not like NPR, if they chose to violate some extensive news-organization cover-up devoted to pulling the wool over the eyes of potential socialists, would really change the cultural landscape.

In some seriousness, though, complaints about NPR would be moderately legitimate. Complaints about CNN, fine. Complaints about any one show make a lot of sense, whether it’s a radio news show or a comedy webcast. Complaints about a handful of similar shows, sure, particularly if there’s some actual numbers involved of what time they have spent on what. Complaints about a particular journalist, go get ’em. Ideally fact-based, sure. But complaints about the media are not going to communicate anything useful to anybody.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 14, 2016

I don't get it, I just do not understand.

If I am going to write about the Republican nominees again, and it seems I am, I should begin by clarifying that I have not been watching the debates or the speeches, nor researching policy positions, nor really paying much close attention at all. I know less than you do, Gentle Reader, by all odds, and if I have any insight that is unique it is probably wrong. Or if correct, a blind-squirrel coincidence. I am not writing to inform, Gentle Readers all. I am writing to share my experience of the universe we dwell in, hoping that you will share your experience with me, and we will all live in larger and more accurate universes for that.

I have watched about half-an-hour of one of the Republican debates (my Perfect Non-Reader had a school assignment, quite properly) and I have watched perhaps two or four “highlight” reels of others, none more than a few minutes long. I have viewed a few briefish excerpts from Mr. Trump’s rallies, but never a full speech. I have read recaps of all the debates, some of which quoted the candidates at some length, and I have read Language Log’s occasional notes about the candidate’s rhetorical tropes and syntactic idiosyncrasies. I have been engaged more than most people in the country have been, even more than most people who vote in primaries, but in an absolute sense, not so much. Having said that, I used to pay a lot of attention to the choosing of Presidential nominees, so I am putting my trivial new information into a somewhat extensive background of comparison, even if a lot of what I know is probably factually incorrect, when it comes to that.

Why am I starting this note with so many disclaimers? It’s because the observation I’m getting to is this: Donald Trump gives me the impression that he knows less about what the President does and less about the world of policy than I do.

Now, most candidates will make more or less preposterous claims about what they will do as President of the United States. The campaign trail is not conducive to sober talk about constraints and limitations. There are blithe assumptions that the legislature will pass the policy proposals as proposed without changes (or at all) and that the courts will rule in the executive’s favor. There are rosy economic assumptions and dire speculations, and a lot of hand-waving about details. Everybody does that. There are huge exaggerations and misleading circumlocutions and outright lies. But on the whole, I have the sense that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and John Kasich all know more or less what it is that the President of the United States does. I disagree with their policies. I think they misrepresent those policies. But I think they mostly understand those policies, and their preference for tax cuts that create deficits and for service cuts that exacerbate misery are real preferences that stem from real understanding of how the United States government works. And on foreign policy, while the neocons for instance believed that deposing Saddam Hussein would lead to a peaceful, liberal and pro-American region, which was crazy, they did more or less appear to understand how diplomacy works, what options are available to the President, what options are available to the leaders of other countries, what the main divisions and alliances are, and so on and so forth. Any one candidate in 2000 (f’rex) might have appeared wrong-headed or delusional on a few points, but within a context of generally understanding what was going on.

Donald Trump appears to have no idea, no idea at all, none, zippo nada eighty-six.

There’s a Richard Neustadt anecdote that everybody has been passing along, Harry Truman talking about the prospect of Dwight D. Eisenhower becoming President. Truman says: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” That quote made it into Bartlett’s, actually, and it’s worth keeping in mind. Donald Trump, if he were President, would find it not a bit like being a CEO.

But what interests me, what I find utterly bizarre and not a little compelling, is that the rhetorical strategy Mr. Trump employs is to give me the impression that he is unaware of that, and that he doesn’t care. When I say that candidates make preposterous claims, I mean that generally candidates exaggerate what they will be able to actually do, within a framework of what the President actually does. Mr. Trump goes the other way. He pretends (I have to think) to know less about the job of President than he actually does. He doesn’t bother learning the talking points about trade deficits or what the GDP has been recently or what our military does in South Korea or what the projections are for Social Security. This isn’t a matter of having strengths in one area and weaknesses in others, or of blanking on a thing he should remember. This is about presenting a persona who doesn’t know or care how anything works. Does he know, for instance, that our government does not put tariffs on individual corporations but on classes of goods? Does he know that European leaders were in favor of (and in large part negotiated) the non-proliferation deal with Iran? That the H1B and H2B Immigrant Visa caps are set legislatively and not by the executive? That the number of delegates required for a majority at the convention is neither arbitrary nor random? Does he know that China is currently propping up, rather than devaluing, the yuan? Or that the number of jobs in the private sector has been increasing (slowly) for years? Yes, of course, he must know at least some of those things. And yet for whatever reasons, he speaks and acts as if he does not.

I was already writing this up when I read James Fallows in the Atlantic say that Donald Trump may be the most ignorant person, about public policy, who has ever gotten this far in a presidential race. He later quotes an anonymous source claiming I have now been through dozens of interviews with Trump with a variety of interviewers, and I have never once—not once—heard him discuss anything, any subject of any kind, with any evidence of knowledge, never mind thought. None. Zero. Mr. Fallows does allow that Mr. Trump knows something about eminent domain, so he’s got that going for him. Still, it appears obvious to me and to many people, that Mr. Trump neither knows nor cares about what the President of the United States does or can do, what the current government’s policies are or why, or how the various branches and offices of the government work. It may not be true, but it surely is obvious. And whether it is true or now, Mr. Trump is making sure that people think it’s true, putting effort into appearing (or being) ignorant instead of pretending to (or gaining) knowledge. And I cannot begin to understand why.

I suppose it has something to do with the Donald Trump character he played on television for ten years. I didn’t watch it; I have no idea. But maybe actual knowledge wouldn’t fit well with that character, and changing the character would alienate his fans. It doesn’t seem as if the sweet spot of religious-Republican-poor-white that supports the man somehow prefers ignorance in candidates, unlike every other combination of constituents, or unlike every other man or woman they have supported in the past. Maybe! But I’d kinda require evidence. Unlike some people, I guess.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 8, 2016

Neither Necessary nor Sufficient

For the last several weeks, I have been tempted to post (or tweet) just the following sentence, by itself:

Bernie Sanders becoming President of the United States is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the success of the movement supporting him.

I haven’t done it, because it would be trolling, really. There’s no way that supporters of the Sanders candidacy read that and don’t find it dismissive. But I think it’s true, and not only do I think it’s true, I think it’s a really good idea to keep in mind. The truth part—I mean, obviously the President of the United States is the single individual best placed and most influential to promote policies and preferences that the movement wants. It would surely help. But it’s also obvious that if Bernie Sanders is elected President, he will have to deal with a legislature in which his views are a minority. Between the Other Party and the more conservative legislators of My Party, there is no chance that a Bernie Sanders package of bills becomes law without something else happening, something very very large. And, as well, if there is a very very large movement in this country towards a set of Social Democrat policies, enough to get a majority in the Senate to go along with them, then whoever is President will go along with them, perhaps not in the 2016 term or the 2020 term, but when that movement becomes too big to ignore. It matters a lot who is President, but it matters even more if there is or is not a movement of millions. Which is a thing Bernie himself says, and says often.

I’ll go on for a minute, although it’s scarcely necessary—look, I am on the left myself, as far as policy goes. I am thrilled that there is, or at any rate seems to be, a large leftish movement in this country. Occupy/99% has become a powerful rhetorical trope, and I think the Bernie Sanders and his supporters are moving it forward. The fact that electing Bernie is neither sufficient nor necessary to the success of the movement seems hopeful to me, a leftish movement should be about the people participating themselves, not merely replacing an indifferent elite with a benevolent one. Should Bernie Sanders be elected President and then—the Divine forbid—suffer a stroke before taking office, the election would not have been in vain, because the people in their millions (as there would have to be people in their millions in the movement for the man to have been elected) would keep pushing for the things they want done to be done. And that’s an awesome thing about democracy, and about our possible future.

Anyway, as I say, this sentence has been in the back of my mind for a few weeks, and then yesterday I started thinking this:

Donald Trump becoming President of the United States is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the success of the movement supporting him.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 2, 2016

Random thoughts about the Other Party

OK, this has nothing to do with policy or well, anything, really, but I think it’s hilarious that Donald Trump’s campaign is purchasing millions of dollars worth of services from companies in his empire—renting the lobbies of his hotels, of course, for his rallies, but also disbursing money to Trump Restaurants LLC, Trump Tower Commercial LLC, Trump Payroll Corp, and my very favorite, Tag Air Inc. (D. Trump, CEO).

I don’t even think it’s unethical, really, and if it happens that a candidate owns a sign-printing company, why wouldn’t his campaign use it to print signs? It’s just that this particular candidate owns pieces of companies that do everything. And if he didn’t, it would be easy enough to buy one. If he doesn’t own a company that makes hotel maid uniforms, he probably ought to, and then why not use them to make all those hats?

Meanwhile, yeah, he’s probably going to be the nominee of the Other Party. It’s not my Party, I don’t have any dog in that kettle, but wow, that’s terrifying. I think this Hilzoy twitter rant is worth reading in its entirety, as are a lot of other, even scarier takes. I cling to the knowledge that for all the craziness, Donald Trump still gets about a third of the vote (OK, a bit more, but less than two-fifths) among Republicans who vote in primaries. Any of these doomsday analyses that purport to explain why Republicans vote for Donald Trump need to explain why most Republicans don’t vote for Donald Trump. Still and all, the Super Tuesday results were very bad for the Party—very bad for Marco Rubio’s campaign, obviously, but worse for the Party because it wasn’t bad enough for Marco Rubio to knock him out entirely. (This is Ross Douthat’s surprisingly insightful point) It seems obvious to me that if Marco Rubio dropped out today, Ted Cruz would be the nominee; he would easily get over 80% of the remaining delegates. If Ted Cruz dropped out today, Marco Rubio would probably get 70% of the remaining delegates, which would still be plenty to rack up a majority before the convention. They can’t continue to split the delegates 49/35/16, because the rules (correctly, in my opinion) start to force the bulk of the delegates into one or another camp with winner-take-all or winner-take-most rules. So I still think we will wind up with a candidate getting more than half of the delegates before the end. Still, if Donald Trump manages to grab half of the 350 delegates in proportional states over the next ten days (plausible!) and Marco Rubio remains stuck at 15%, he needs something like 80% of the delegates from March 15 forward, which is possible, but. The problem is not so bad for Ted Cruz; if he carries on with 35% of the delegates over the next ten days, he needs to beat 65% from when the winner-take-all states start, and 65% is totally plausible in a two person race.

So much of this cycle has been a lesson in how the primaries really did work for eight or nine cycles, if only by them not working like that now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 21, 2016

Three ways to go.

Well, and so, South Carolina has voted, on the Other Party’s Side, and then there were three. Or four or five. Depending on how you count. I wrote back before Iowa about scenarios that seemed plausible to me and unfortunately for the Republic, we are closer to the one where Donald Trump is the nominee than to the others. In part, that’s because Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio underperformed the 538 prediction for New Hampshire at that time. Then, after the New Hampshire primary, I wrote that most of the candidates did just about the least they could do to still remain viable. That part didn’t happen in South Carolina, in that Jeb Bush not only isn’t viable but isn’t running any more, and John Kasich isn’t, I think, really viable any more even if he is running. So things are a bit different than they were. Still, there’s a plausible scenario for each of the three remaining viable candidates, and I think they’re awfully close to equal.

First, Donald Trump. You don’t really need to sketch out a scenario for a candidate who comes in second in Iowa and then wins New Hampshire and South Carolina: he keeps winning, and comes in second where he doesn’t win. That’s pretty much it. I had pegged his ceiling among actual voters to be around 25%, and then 30%, and now it’s around 33%, and, well, maybe it’s 50% or 55% or 60% or more. Who knows? Certainly the implications of polls that ask second-choice seem to indicate a low ceiling, and one would think that his massive television celebrity would mean that people have had plenty of time to make up their minds about him, and of course he has insulted a large portion of his potential constituency, and as well he has never managed to do as well in places where the campaigns have run than he polls nationally, but on the other hand, people are very bad at predicting who they will vote for and why. The notion that Mr. Trump will eventually lose is based on the same sorts things that made me think Mr. Trump wouldn’t do as well has he has done, and those have let me down so far.

Second, Marco Rubio. This is an obvious path: Ted Cruz couldn’t beat him in South Carolina and therefore won’t beat him in Georgia, Oklahoma or Virginia, and the rest of the establishment will run toward him to make him the not-Trump candidate. Once Sen. Cruz drops out (after Sen. Rubio wins not only his homestate of Florida but also North Carolina on March 15) we discover that Mr. Trump’s ceiling really is about a third, and Sen. Rubio cruises to victory. The obvious establishment candidate wins. That’s barely even a story.

Then there’s Ted Cruz. This is a little harder to see, but not much. He needs Marco Rubio to make some sort of gaffe or put in a poor public performance somewhere (Another debate? Is there going to be another debate this week?) and then he needs to come in ahead of him in Georgia, Oklahoma and Virginia. Marco Rubio is 44 years old; he could very reasonably decide that this is not his year, but that he has laid a good groundwork for 2020 or even 2024, when he will only be 52, and that ending the campaign for the good of the party would get him some goodwill. At that point, it’s a two-person race, and while Ted Cruz would need to pick up establishment votes and money, he could well benefit from Mr. Trump’s inherent Trumpness.

I’ll add as well that there are now 52 Republican Senators not running for President as well as 30 Republican Governors not running for President, of whom a total of twelve have made endorsements of a current candidate. Any one endorsement may not be a big deal (some are bigger than others, of course) but there are seventy big-name endorsements yet to come (in addition to House leaders and retired statewide office-holders) and that’s a lot. I have been surprised by their slowness in this cycle, but we are approaching a point after which the endorsement will not earn the endorser much in the way of candidate gratitude, aren’t we? I am thinking, here, that Ted Cruz could particularly make use of three or four Senators going on to TV and radio telling people that this stuff about how everyone hating him is bullshit, that he is a dedicated, disciplined and passionate Conservative and they respect him for that as well as for his rough edges, and that they enthusiastically support him and endorse him. That changes the story quite a bit. Similar endorsements for Marco Rubio don’t change his story, but they might make it harder for Ted Cruz to change his story. Well, we’ll see, I suppose.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 11, 2016

no better than they should be in New Hampshire

The thing that strikes me about the results of the New Hampshire Primary is how many candidates did the bare minimum that leaves them with a plausible path to the nomination. Except Chris Christie of course; the New Jersey Governor did not manage that. And Carly Fiorina never had a plausible path to the nomination at all, and did not manage to create one, nor Ben Carson. But you could make an argument for all the other candidates.

First of all, the winners. Neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump had a really plausible path to the nomination before winning New Hampshire, and both needed not just to win but to dominate. Both had extremely favorable conditions (they are the nearly-local candidates, the demographics played to their strengths, and the smallness of the state makes organization and party-insider status somewhat less of a factor than elsewhere) and needed to prove that their supporters would actually turn up. They did! Both men have a much more plausible path than they did on Monday. Mr. Trump probably had a bit more margin; had he taken anything over around 30% of the vote, with a 15% plurality over second-place, he would have carved himself out a path. Senator Sanders, I think, really needed something close to the 60% he got for the Vermonter’s victory not to be dismissed.

On the Other Party’s side, Ted Cruz won Iowa, and should poll fairly well in the South, but if he hadn’t cracked 10% in New Hampshire, and without the support of Party elites, it would have been hard to see him surviving. As it is, a squeaker of a half-point third-place finish gives him what he needs to go on, but nothing more. John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are struggling for what looks like a single open place as the establishment candidate (or the candidate vetoed by the fewest interest groups, which amounts to the same thing) to survive to face Mr. Trump and Sen. Cruz in March and April. Because John Kasich did so badly in Iowa and is polling so badly nationally and in South Carolina, he absolutely needed to come in top of the three in New Hampshire by a few points, and did. Jeb Bush has more resources (in particular, more money) than Gov. Kasich and could survive finishing behind him, but absolutely needed to place ahead of Marco Rubio, and did. Marco Rubio, having beaten the other two in Iowa, needed to clear 10% and finish ahead of somebody, and did. None of those four were impressive at all, but neither did they rule themselves out, which may be enough, since they all did well enough to keep the others from being impressive, either. Also, Rubio-Bush-Kasich managed to total just a tiny bit more than Trump, which is just about the bare minimum the Party needed to keep from spending the rest of eternity throwing up.

As for Hillary Clinton, well, it’s plausible I suppose that she could have survived getting even less than she did. She has plenty of resources, and she’s looking for a story of bounceback resilience. Our Previous President got 30% in New Hampshire in 2000; Bob Dole got less than that in 1996. Those were still multi-candidate races, though. I’m thinking that anything below a third of the vote gets real ugly in a two-candidate race.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 3, 2016

A Known Entity

A thing that just occurred to me is that Hillary Clinton, as a putative nominee, will have been in the public eye for twenty-five years (or so) before the election in November. As a contrast, nobody had heard of Our Only President until he ran for President in 2007. Yes, I know, you remember his speech in 2004. When I say nobody, I mean nobody except political junkies and other newsnerds, and that is what I will continue to mean by it for the rest of the note. I could look up his name recognition numbers from 2006, but I feel pretty confident they were low. Our Previous President was the son of a President, so he wasn’t completely obscure, but I don’t think anybody knew anything about him, really, until he ran for President in 1999 or so. And before that was the Man from Hope, who nobody had heard of until he ran for President in 1991. So the last time that anyone took office who was properly famous two years before was Poppy Bush, who in 1987 had been Vice-President for a term and a half. Really, though, the better comparison is to Ronald Reagan, who had been really famous for decades, and a more or less polarizing (for the time) political figure for fifteen years.

Let’s go back to the losing sides: Mitt Romney was not an obscure figure, but I think most people didn’t know much about him, probably those outside Massachusetts and Utah couldn’t have named what he had done, and they hadn’t made up their minds about him in any sense. John McCain may well have been famous; I don’t know. Al Gore was of course famous in whatever sense you want to use. Perhaps a Saturday Night Live test of famousness. Bob Dole would have passed that test in 1994… maybe? Around the John McCain level, at least. Michael Dukakis was Clinton-level obscure before running. Fritz Mondale, though, was well-known, or at least, he was just about as well-known as Veep as he became during that election. I’m not sure SNL ever did Mondale.

Digression: Mondale and especially Hubert Humphrey are the best examples of why fans of Elizabeth Warren should be loudly rejecting the notion of the Senator accepting a Vice-Presidential nomination. Good legislators that became… well, let’s just say that nobody wants to be the 21st century Mondale. Nobody wants have an obituary that reminds people of forgotten accomplishments before the years of the peculiarly prominent obscurity that is the Vice-Presidency of the United States. Even Joe Biden, Lord love him, will be remembered as That Veep. It’s different if you think that there’s a real chance of the Presidency, eventually. Oh, hey, trivia question: who was the last Vice-President to go on to serve two full terms as President? End Digression.

The reason I find this interesting is that people know Hillary Clinton in a way they haven’t known a candidate since Reagan. They’ve made up their minds about her. She is, of course, loathed and vilified with a viciousness truly difficult for her supporters to believe; she is also very popular and widely admired. She needs no introduction. We haven’t had a candidate like that since Reagan, which is nine elections ago. I don’t really know what difference that will make, but it’s bound to make some sort of difference.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 1, 2016

First!

Eight years ago (or so) I wrote about how presidential elections are always exceptions. How the next president, whoever it would be (from that point of view) would be the first black president, or the first female president, or the first Mormon president, or it would be only the second time in a hundred years that we elected a president older than the previous one, or whatever. All presidential elections are exceptions, I wrote: If present trends continue, that will be the first time that present trends have ever continued.

This year (and I’m writing this on the day of the Iowa Caucus) we will elect the first female president, or the first Jewish president, or the first Latino president, or the other first Latino president, or the first president to have neither served in political office nor the military, or the first presidential sibling to be elected, or, I dunno, but I suspect that Chris Christie would be an exception, too, somehow, if I thought about it.

We are electing a successor to a two-term president, and of course usually the incumbent’s Party doesn’t win those elections, except it turns out that’s not true: going back a hundred years (for no good reason) James Cox lost for the incumbent’s Party in 1920, sure, and Nixon in 1960, but Poppy Bush won in 1988 and Al Gore won in 2000 (with an asterisk) before John McCain lost in 2008. Do any of those elections seem to have great similarities with 2016? And those five are the only times in a hundred years—going back to the disputed 1876 election doesn’t help much. And the time before that was Martin Van Buren in 1836, when the Whigs ran regional candidates for some reason. I don’t think either current Party will do that.

My point is, as it always is, that we don’t have enough presidential elections to build up a pattern that you can trust.

Somewhat of a Digression: The XKCD comic is illustrative (heh) but Mr. Monroe succumbed to the temptation for silliness. The problem with the Party’s-third-term kind of pattern is that they are persuasive. The business of left-handedness or middle-names or whatnot isn’t. His final fork, that either Barack Obama would be the first incumbent to beat a taller challenger or Mitt Romney would be the first challenger to beat an incumbent with a first name containing a k are designed to be ridiculous. And no-one with the surname Clinton has gone on to win the nomination without first losing the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. But in fact there are real and persuasive patterns at play, here, that are also not as predictive as we would like them to be. End Digression.

On the plus side, and this is the thing that I keep forgetting to enjoy, the odds are very good that Our Next President with be either a woman or a Latino. Tho’ not, alas, both.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 18, 2016

Sanders, Clinton, King

I was reading a note about last night’s debate, in which Paul Waldman writes that Bernie Sanders’s idealism and Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism clash in debate. The headline is more or less accurate. Mr. Waldman points out that Senator Sanders rejects incremental change as being, well, incremental, and Hillary Clinton rejects radical reform as being, well, radical. Gentle Readers will remember that I think it’s very important to have both arguments in the Party, to have powerful people in the Party who demand fundamental change as well as those who are willing to get their hands dirty and make whatever deals can be made in order to get things done that need doing. It’s not only that I find them both valuable, but that I feel that either approach works best with the other view powerfully articulated.

So when I was looking through the archive of Dr. Martin Luther King’s writings, as I do on this day, I had in the back of my mind this tension of radical change and incrementalism. And I was struck by This 1955 letter from the Montgomery Improvement Association to the bus line that became the focus of the boycott that was, in some ways, the start of the widespread Civil Rights Movement in this country. OK, well, in the Story that we tell ourselves of that movement, the bus boycott plays an enormous role. And you all know that story: Black folk have to sit in the back of the bus, until one day Rosa Parks sits in the whites-only front of the bus and is thrown off, Martin Luther King, Junior has a dream, and then segregation ends. It’s a pleasant story, innit? Y’all don’t have to be told that it’s more complicated than that.

Anyway, Rosa Parks is arrested on December 1, the boycott starts December 5 (here’s a leaflet and a speech from that day that is worth reading) and on December 8, there was a meeting between the Mayor, a representative of the bus company, and the Montgomery Improvement Association. The demands presented to the bus company and the town at that meeting, and then in the letter to the national bus company, are these:

  1. Courteous treatment by bus drivers.
  2. Seating of Negro passengers from rear to front of bus, and white passengers from front to rear on “first-come-first-serve” basis with no seats reserved for any race.
  3. Employment of Negro bus operators in predominantly Negro residential sections.

Not, you understand, a demand that black and white folk can sit anywhere they please. Not a demand that the black people of Montgomery be treated the same as white people, by law and custom. Martin Luther King is not asking, at this time, for the front of the bus. He’s asking that if there are empty seats, that people are allowed to sit in them. Incremental change, he’s asking for.

He doesn’t get it.

He gets Browder v. Gale: We hold that the statutes and ordinances requiring segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses of a common carrier of passengers in the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction violate the due process and equal protection of the law clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.. The Birmingham News quotes Rev. King as saying it is true we got more out of this (boycott) than we went in for. We started out to get modified segregation (on buses) but we got total integration. That was December 21, 1956.

It turns out that in practice, in the world, incrementalism and idealism aren’t all that easily separated. This year, on this year’s Martin Luther King Day, I will try to think about how the constant struggle for incremental improvement can be kept open to the possibilities of transformative change, and how the struggle for transformative change can be furthered by the constant demand for incremental improvement. I may yet vote for Bernie Sanders, I may yet vote for Hillary Clinton, but today I’m thinking about Martin Luther King.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 13, 2016

Cruz, Rubio, Trump

The 538 site has up some predictions for the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. As of right now, they project the Iowa results to be Cruz-Trump-Rubio; their prediction for New Hampshire currently has Trump-Rubio-Cruz. I don’t have much confidence in those predictions, but at the moment it seems clear that Donald Trump, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz will win the nomination, with very long odds for the rest of the field. A candidate can win the nomination without winning Iowa, or without winning New Hampshire, or even without winning either, but finishing fourth or lower in both? I don’t see it.

Three obvious scenarios if Iowa and New Hampshire run the way that they are currently predicted by 538:

  • The race almost immediately narrows to the three candidates (Ben Carson and Rand Paul staying in with negligible support) and Beltway Republicans jump in to support Marco Rubio. Fox and radio outlets amplify the endorsements, and Rubio’s polls shoot up. Either Senator Cruz or Mr. Trump finishes a distant third in both SC and NV, and then the story is ’can he survive March 1’. He can’t, as Sen. Rubio comes in first or second everywhere. The one who drops out endorses Rubio, and Rubio’s advantage in organization and establishment money over the remaining competitor gives him the edge on March 15 in IL, OH and of course FL. Still, it’s a close race and he doesn’t clinch until April 26, when he wins the Northeast decisively.
  • Trump’s voters never turn up. Cruz beats him soundly in Iowa, is within five points in NH (Rubio sandwiched between) and then crushes him in SC. Trump’s campaign dries up and blows away like Howard Dean’s. Maybe Trump declares an independent run, maybe he doesn’t, maybe he declares one but doesn’t bother actually running, but he’s through. Most of his supporters (the ones that vote) wind up in the Cruz camp, and while Rubio maybe wins a couple of primaries on March 1, at the end of that day Cruz has something like two thirds of the awarded delegates, and it’s all over but the shouting.
  • Trump’s voters do show up, and he wins. Cruz throws everything he’s got at him in IA and just edges him, and then gets crushed in NH and then in SC. Rubio never catches fire. The Party has to put together a four-day celebration of The Donald. In Cleveland. Someday, historians date the end of the long American 20th Century to that weekend: the last time anyone took America seriously.

That’s assuming that the 538 scores the trifecta in both places. Marco Rubio could still finish behind John Kasich in Iowa and be done, or he could win and be the front-runner. Trump could win both IA and NH or neither. In particular, the NH primary voters will know what happened during the IA caucus, which will change things—and you should keep in mind that a swing of five percent in a tiny group of voters could escape the polls altogether and make a huge difference in the outcome there. Still and all, those three scenarios look the likeliest to me, and as a story I have to say the middle one smells the most persuasive.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 15, 2015

Is the Party over?

A Gentle Reader writes:

Trump has long said he could run as an independent, and is not committed to the Republican party. Carson today threatened to leave the Republican party. That’s their top two candidates in the polls. The second place Democrat is a lifelong independent, not committed to the Democratic party. What does this mean for party organization and party identification if so many members of the parties don’t care about commitment to party, or at least don’t care about their candidate’s commitment to party? Does that disconnect matter?

In practical terms, I don’t think it matters at all. The candidates will be office-holders within the Party structure. If Trump does, in fact, run as an independent, I don’t think it will mean more than John Anderson running as an independent in 1980, and much less than Strom Thurmond running as an independent in 1948—both of the abandoned Parties in those years won the election, by the way. The Parties will probably mutate a bit to regain more control, but the Parties are always mutating to regain control, and I think the basic organization outline of the nomination race will be the same in 2019 as it is now (pretty much the same as it has been since 1980 or so).

It’s tempting to say it doesn’t matter in cultural terms, either. People hate the Parties, people always hate the Parties. People hate politicians, people hate Congress. Those are constants. On the other hand, I do think we have a… benchmark? A benchmark of sorts, where the Other Party, particularly, may have reached some sort of tipping point in their cultural dysfunction. I hesitate to say it, and of course it’s easier to diagnose the dysfunction in the Other Party than my own, but still: that Party has some serious problems. And in the current system, one of the ways that our Parties work out their problems is in the Presidential Primary system.

This is the time when various factions choose candidates to support or to actively work against. In My Party, the factions are usually pretty obvious: people who are focused on labor, the environment, income inequality, federal debt, social liberalism, national security, privacy and a handful of other topics jockey for influence. Various people influential with those groups sign on to one campaign or another. The front-runners attempt to co-opt the groups supporting other candidates, and in doing so shift the party’s policy center toward the most influential of the factions. It’s true that this time, Bernie Sanders isn’t part of the formal Party, but he certainly is part of the Party (having been elected by Democrats and having caucused with Democrats) and his support is largely (as far as I can tell) typical of this kind of campaign. I compare it with Bill Bradley’s campaign in 2000; it will have some effect on both the candidate and the Party’s center of gravity, but it won’t push the Party outside the Party.

In the other Party… well, the support for Donald Trump comes from three major areas, as far as I can tell. First and I think most importantly, a large number of people want to watch Donald Trump playing the Donald Trump character, as they have for ten years or so; his skills are extraordinary and undeniable, even if I have no idea what those skills actually are. I doubt another reality-tv star of his magnitude will run for President soon, so that faction is probably unimportant structurally. The second faction supporting him are angry nativists, and I think that Party’s center-of-gravity will shift toward angry nativism as a result, which is wonderfully democratic and all, but kinda scary. Still, that’s the point of these things, and I think can be accommodated within the Party structure quite easily.

Digression: I should add in here that I think angry nativism isn’t a long-term winner for the Party, and that the Party will eventually need to push it aside, but certainly it hasn’t hurt them electorally so far. I believe it will happen, like with the My Party and segregation, and perhaps Donald Trump running as an independent will be the spark for that struggle, but I doubt it. I also should say my sanguine confidence in the long term doesn’t mean I am not terrified that they will do an enormous amount of damage in the short term. I would like to have some great ideas for what to do to prevent or limit that damage, but I do not. End Digression.

The third faction is the one that may be a structural problem for the Party: they are the people who support Trump primarily because he is not a politician. They believe (somehow) that his supposed straight-talking and his uncompromising arrogance make him a better, rather than a worse, executive. They wouldn’t bother me much, except that they seem to be the driving force behind what I see as the real dysfunction in that Party: the extent to which their elected legislators feel that competent legislation and governance will be punished in the primary. In part, that’s because culturally, for this group, liberals—identified with the Democratic Party, particularly Our Only President and the leaders of the House and Senate—are dangerous criminals who are destroying our country. Since the two Parties have to govern together (even if one Party has a majority in both Houses and has the White House, our system allows the out Party a wide variety of veto points) that means that this faction will always consider their leadership to be betraying not only their constituents but the country itself.

I don’t think this is symmetrical, by the way. Sure, there are certainly people on our side that abominate the Other Party. Sure, there are people on our side that get outraged when our leaders cut a deal with the Other Party. There are now and then calls from Left Blogovia to run a primary candidate against those legislators of Our Party who vote with the Other Party too often, yes, but (a) there don’t seem to be all that many actually primary challengers, and (2 and more important) the incumbents don’t appear to be terrified of primary challengers, whether or no. I believe that the Other Party’s partisans also perceive that their Party is more dysfunctional than My Party, but I could certainly be wrong about that.

So the problem, as I see it, is that this faction within (or sort-of within) the Other Party cannot be accommodated democratically. The Party has to participate in government; any actual governance will make any Party actor ineligible (to this faction) for factional support. I don’t think this is the usual dream of an outsider, an Ike or a Ross Perot, coming in and turning the moneylenders out of the temple. Maybe it is, and it just feels different because it’s happening now. I hope so. Maybe this faction isn’t big enough to cause structural trouble; I don’t think it’s possible to extract its numbers from the other group supporting him in the polls. Maybe this faction will dissipate on its own when their Party takes the White House, as it is bound to sooner or later. Maybe not.

Our system (the state and federal branches with separated branches at each level, with first-past-the-post geographic elections and the concomitant two-party system with permeable parties and extended informal party networks) has been amazingly, astoundingly resilient over more than a century. It translates popular passion into slow change. The Parties keep themselves going by accommodating democracy; the democracy keeps itself going by accommodating the parties; the people keep themselves going by accommodating each other. An argument that this time they won’t self-correct would have to be pretty convincing, and I expect they will find some way through, but it’s not obvious how.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 6, 2015

Saying that (for Bernie!)

I have been noticing a bunch of friends on various social media platforms acting excited about Bernie Sanders running for President of the United States of America. Excellent! I’m a big fan of Senator Sanders, have been for years. He’s been one of the folk in the legislature who have policy positions fairly close to mine, and we don’t have all that many of those. I liked him in the House, where gadflies really belong, and I have liked him in the Senate, where he has adapted his gadfly role surprisingly well. Go Bernie! I totally support his run for President! I’m happy so many other people do!

Having said that… I suspect that the Bernie social-media surge is a lot like the various Republican surges last cycle: people hear a bunch of great things about an unusual candidate who seems to embody and support a bunch of people’s ideas about the world, and get all excited. Eventually, those people hear more stuff about the candidate, including the negative stuff, including the stuff that the candidate supports that does not coincide with their own views, and support fades back to little or nothing. There is no way—no way—that Bernie Sanders will be the nominee of my Party, this cycle or any cycle. Al Gore is a likelier bet.

Having said that… Jon Bernstein is, I think, right in his note arguing that a Bernie Sanders campaign can have substantial effects on a putative Hilary Clinton administration. If supporters of Senator Sanders compel former-Senator Clinton to say that she will, for instance, cut federal aid to for-profit colleges, or support union card-check elections, or commit to not raising the Social Security retirement age, she will say it, as all of those are mainstream policy positions within my Party. And despite the conventional wisdom, making candidates say they will do a particular thing makes it much more likely that the officeholder will do that thing, or at least attempt it. No guarantees, but it helps. It makes a difference when the Other Party’s likely candidates make promises to their base in response to the surges of Michelle Bachmann or Ben Carson; it makes a difference when My Party’s candidates make promises to me in response to a surge for Bernie Sanders. So surge away, supporters of Bernie! Surge like the wind!

Having said that… I don’t want to be a jerk about this, but as much as Senator Sanders holds policy positions that are closer to my preferred ones than Hillary Clinton does, I don’t think that Senator Sanders would be very good at what Mr. Bernstein calls presidenting, that is, the actual daily job of choosing advisors and managers and delegating tasks to them, balancing priorities, cultivating and maintaining relationships within the various branches of government, evaluating all of the information available to the President of the United States, and basically just getting things done. Maybe I’m wrong! But over the last three administrations, I have increasingly gone off the idea that I care about how exactly Our Only President agrees with me on policy issues, and become increasingly concerned about how Our Only President does the job of presidenting. I think that Hillary Clinton would be quite good at most of the job of presidenting, and I don’t think that there would be enough difference between them on actual enacted policy that it would make up for the gap. In other words, if right now I had to choose whether I would rather have Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders as the next President of the United States… I would choose Hillary Clinton.

Having said that… the whole make-her-promise aspect to the Bernie Surge only works if all of us in the surge maintain that yes, we really want Bernie Sanders to be President of the United States. If we admit that it’s just about pressure, it won’t be any pressure at all. So I should shut up about my opinion that Hilary Clinton would be a better President than Bernie Sanders—tactically, that’s a terrible thing to say. True, but terrible.

Having said that… do y’all really think that some significant percentage of voters support the federal government breaking up JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley? A deficit-supported trillion-dollar infrastructure program? Abolishing private health insurance? The federal government paying to shut down old power plants? Federal money for fiber-optic broadband for the poor? Returning to the old restrictions on ownership of media outlets? Fully-funded Universal Head Start? I don’t even know if some large percentage of voters would support the Access to Contraception for Women Servicemembers and Dependents Act of 2014. To be clear: Your Humble Blogger supports every one of those policy positions. I would be thrilled to learn that they were popular positions. Electing Bernie Sanders—voting for Bernie Sanders in the primaries—is not the route to making those positions more popular. It might be the eventual result of it, were it to happen, but not the path to it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 4, 2014

Election Day

In the absence of anything else going on in this Tohu Bohu, I will continue my tradition:

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 17, 2014

Our Lewinskys?

So, I know that it was a week ago and that the note fell in the forest without anyone paying any attention to it, but I was intrigued by Paul Waldman’s declaration of The Death of Dog-Whistle Politics. In it, he asserts that because there exists, on the internet, an army of bloggers and twitterers and reporters and pundits and hacks watching everything the other party does, it’s impossible to get away with the dog-whistles that were so frequent in the past. Or, rather, he’s not actually talking about dog-whistles at all, as he admits, because dog-whistles are things that everybody outside your base can’t hear at all, while the stuff he’s talking about is the stuff that the base loves but that drives everyone else away. His example is Rand Paul’s apparently random mention of l’affaire Lewinsky, which (as Karl Rove pointed out) is something up about which they should all just shut.

But then Mr. Waldman asks:

Which leads me to a final question: Why don’t Democrats have any Lewinskys? By which I mean, issues that they talk about amongst themselves, and that Democratic presidential candidates might feel moved to echo in order to reassure them of their ideological bona fides, but which are absolutely disastrous when put before the broader public. Sure, there are positions that many liberals take that might be too extreme for a general electorate. But I can’t think of anything that a liberal might stand up and say at a town meeting, whereupon a smart Democratic operative would say in an urgent whisper, “For god’s sake, don’t bring that up! Do you want to ruin everything?”

So. Without claiming that the two parties are symmetrical in how they treat their crazies, I myself have not only policy preferences but hobby-horses that qualify as Lewinskys by his definition. Let’s see… a National Health Service (or at the very least single-payer), war crimes trials for Our Previous President’s administration, nationalization of the telecomm and energy industries, the continuing baleful influence of Ronald Reagan’s terrible terrible terrible policies (particularly his unforgivable AIDS policies), the right to collective bargaining and the importance of federal government action to protect that, affirmative action to try to counterbalance systemic racism and sexism, confiscatory supertaxes on high incomes, restoring the Pledge of Allegiance to its original text without mention of the Divine, free condoms for high school students, and a huge jobs-works program to fix bridges and retrofit public buildings paid for by bigger deficits.

If I got up at a town meeting with a potential Presidential Candidate to talk about any of those things, would a smart Democratic operative cringe? Sure! At some of those meetings and rallies, I could probably get a good round of applause for at least some of those things (depending on how I phrased them) and make the Dem Op cringe even more. Does everyone in my Party support all ten of those? No! Are they in the mainstream of discourse? Eh, some of them.

But the interesting thing about this is that I could totally come up with a ten item list of things that would have made a smart Democratic operative cringe in 2004—starting with same-sex marriage—that are now considered part of the mainstream of discourse, and another list for the Other Party—I don’t know how I would start it, but maybe some sort of Federal Stand Your Ground law? Or maybe one of the Gilded Age “protections” against labor? Or some rant against LBJ? Anyway, the point is that the main stream doesn’t always flow straight, and that part of the reason same-sex marriage is legal across a good deal of the country right now is because people kept bringing up stuff that made smart Democratic operatives cringe. So if you want to ask Hillary Clinton or Martin O’Malley or Mark Warner about condoms at high school? Go right ahead and ask.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2014

Outside the Room

So. I imagine those of y’all that enjoy being outraged by outrageous things politicians say have heard that Mike Huckabee—former future President—said that, well, according to the Washington Post headline, Huckabee: Dems think women can’t control their libido. I’ll post the full quote, from a speech to the Republican National Committee:

Our party stands for the recognition of the equality of women and the capacity of women. That’s not a war on them; it’s a war for them. And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it, let’s have that discussion all across America, because women are far more than Democrats have made them to be.

As David Weigel pointed out in his report in Slate, this is the sort of thing that rattles reporters, but is not going to sound unusual to anyone who has been watching Huckabee. And as Jonathan Bernstein points out over at Bloomberg View (Mike Huckabee Falls in the Female Libido Trap), politicians love applause lines, and an applause line in one context sounds bizarre and offensive to people outside the room.

It’s the outside the room thing I found interesting. My initial reaction to the line was that it’s silly to say that Democrats insult women—most Democrats are women. The whole rhetoric is predicated on women being them, and positing a discussion across America between Republicans and Democrats about this third group. It was, in a fundamental way, mansplaining. My Party’s national committee—with Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in the chair—is not insulated in that way on that topic; the applause lines about women at a DNC winter meeting would not seem bizarrely out of touch to women who don’t follow politics.

Digression: When I say that most Democrats are women, I mean slightly more than half; according to Pew in 2012, it comes out to something like a 58/42 split among people who identify with My Party. However, keep in mind that while most Democrats are women is true, most Republicans are men isn’t. The Other Party is just about evenly split, with very nearly as many women as men—it’s the men who are sullenly refusing to identify with any political community that are throwing off the balance. On the other hand, there is a tremendous disparity in the officeholders—in the U.S. Senate, for instance, there are 16 Democratic women and 4 Republican women. There are four Republican women currently serving as Governor of a state, to only one Democratic woman, but still that’s a total of seventeen to eight in those high profile Senator-or-Governor positions. In the U.S. House, the disparity is even greater, there are 62 Democratic women and only 20 Republican women. And the disparity persists among nominees, as well, to the extent that a nominee for statewide office is high-visibility even when the odds of victory are long. Anyway, my point (I have one!) is that while it’s not true that most Republicans are men it is true that most high-profile Republicans are men, if not quite that Republican women are invisible. End Digression.

The thing, though, about the applause line is that the men (and the women) in the room are clearly thinking of ‘women’ as being outside the room. It’s possible to think of ‘women’ as being in the room when they are in fact not in the room, as we have I think all seen examples of tight-knit communities who fail at actual inclusion of actual people with all the will in the world. This kind of thing, though, comes from a perspective that can’t really imagine women in the room, and that’s why it sounds so jarring to the women and the men outside the room.

It’s a problem for politics, I would think. I mean, from an electoral point of view, you don’t want applause lines in the room to be the subject of widespread mockery outside it. It’s too easy for the other guys to raise money on lines like that, or use them in ads, or get them on the Comedy Channel News. Inciting widespread mockery is kind of obviously a flawed electoral strategy.

It’s more than that, though. What Gov. Huckabee is really saying, to the applause of the crowd, is that the people in the room don’t need to change their policy platform, and don’t need to change their emphasis or priorities, and certainly don’t need to change the makeup of people in the room. Those things, the former Governor is saying, are all fine. It’s just that his Party is losing the fight with my Party over this other group. It’s not unlike the What’s the Matter with Kansas problem—not the actual book but the discussion afterward, which largely went down the blind alley of if those stupid people were smart, they would be more like us. It wasn’t very persuasive to the people in question. And it didn’t lead to bring them even notionally into the room. It did eventually result in many Republicans wearing tricorne hats, but that didn’t help Our Party as much as you might think.

So while part of me is smugly amused by the trap that Jonathan Bernstein describes, part of me takes it more as warning than anything else.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 22, 2013

More Than Half, less than perfect

I have been meaning to write about the filibuster business. For those who don’t follow party politics, the Senate has just changed the rules to (essentially) allow a majority vote on confirming nominations (except Supreme Court nominations). It was a (mostly) party-line vote, with all the votes in favor of the rule change coming from My Party. The formal change in rules followed a change in norms of behavior; the Other Party chose to block every nominee put forward for the District Court, and indicated they would continue to do so as long as they could. My Party didn’t really have a good choice in the matter: they could acquiesce to a Minority Party veto not just on some nominees but on all of them, or they could eliminate that power altogether. Or, I suppose, they could have done something very clever, but nobody was clever enough to figure out a clever thing that the whole caucus could agree on.

I am a bit sad about this. Left Blogovia is for the most part chortling with glee, and I understand that. On the whole, though, it seems to me that this is another incremental measure that decreases the power of individual Senators and increases the power of Parties. And, hey, I’m a supporter of Parties. Political Parties are awesome! OK, maybe not awesome, but the benefits to a democracy far outweigh the disadvantages. I am in fact bewildered by how unpopular the concept of Political Parties are, but that presumably has something to do with how unpopular the actual Parties are, and I do understand that. Still and all: Your Humble Blogger supports Political Parties.

And yet, there ought to be room—in the Senate, for crying out loud!—for individual initiative, individual prioritization, individual deals. The filibuster and the hold, which worked by threat of filibuster, allowed a Senator or a small group of Senators to demand action on a particular thing in order to make business happen. Essentially, the Majority Party has to pay off a trouble-making Senator…which of course means paying off that Senator’s constituents, that is, getting the will of (a group of) the people done in the government.

Sadly, the whole thing reminds me of a little kid who won’t play properly with his toolkit, but instead saws notches in the table legs and whacks people in the shins with the hammer. Eventually, you have to take the tools away.

And, alas, I can’t even blame the Senators of the Other Party for acting like rotten kids. It became clear at some point that for any Representative of the Other Party to vote with My Party even on a procedural matter would be a betrayal of the trust entrusted to him by his constituents. Those voters didn’t want a hospital or a bypass or a federal courthouse, they didn’t want oversight over some particular regulatory matter, they didn’t want an Air Force Base or a contract for helicopter parts. They wanted some sort of ideological purity—not on any sort of Conservative ideology that I understand, but on the idea of standing athwart history yelling Stop. Not as the principle for a beleaguered magazine looking for readers, you understand, but as the principle for a legislative Party… And if these Senators have been elected to yell Stop, and anything else is going to be viewed—correctly, in my opinion—as breaking the most fundamental of campaign promises, and (perhaps just as important) if all the other Senators of that Party, all the opinion leaders, the radio hosts and state party chairmen and bloggers, all the potential primary candidates and PACs and think tanks, the whole Party and all its overlapping interest groups and organizations all are going to vilify a Senator for breaking faith with the wishes of the constituency… well, if you believe in democracy, you know, you have to have some respect for the way democracy has compelled those Senators to act in such an obviously crazy and counter-productive manner.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 5, 2013

Election Day

Not that today is the quadriennial choosing, or has a continent-wide shower of ballots, but that's no reason to stop a perfectly good tradition. And YHB always finds elections moving—the real work of democracy is done on the other days, but the elections are a lovely celebration and ritual, in addition to, you know, electing our legislators, our boards of education, our councilors and aldermen and selectmen, our comptrollers and our mayors and all the various elected functionaries of our government, so that then we can petition them, persuade them, listen to them and do all the rest of the year's work of democracy.

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 16, 2013

Squabbling nonideological factions

So. One of the things about being with My Party at this juncture in American political history is that My Party appears to be largely unified and the other appears to be in disarray. The Conservatives could justifiably use the reverse of Will Rogers’ line: they don’t consider themselves part of any organized political Party: they’re Republicans. And, you know, tee hee. Because we’ve been the disorganized wackos for long enough.

On the other hand, it’s perplexing to me, here on my side, because for much of the twentieth century My Party was disorganized and chaotic because the competing policy demands of its factions were real—in the short term, the demands of labor and of the environmental movement (f’r’ex) were at odds. There were real tensions between the anti-war faction and the anti-Communist faction, and of course between the very real regional priorities and preferences. Balance! The Party worked very well, of course, even with all the jokes.

At the moment, though, the Other Party seems to be utterly dysfunctional without having real factions. I mean, yes, there are factions, but where are the policy differences between them? Is there a significant difference on policy goals between Senator Cruz and Senator McConnell, or between Representative Bachmann and Representative Ryan? Not a difference in what they think they can accomplish, mind you, but in what they would do if they could? Is there a faction of the Republican Party that would not, for instance, abolish the Department of Education? Is there substantial support in that party for increasing federal support for unemployment insurance, or for keeping it at the same levels? Are there a lot of votes in that caucus against so-called tort reform? Are there a lot of votes for returning taxes to 90s-levels? Are there a whole slew of pro-choice Republicans in the Congress?

Even at the moment, when the party appears to be riven and the factions are sniping at each other in the press, I can’t see a lot of daylight between them. I’m not the only one to notice this. Jon Bernstein has been hocking about it for years. More recently, Mike Konczal over at the Washington Post Wonkblog writes that The Tea Party thinks it hates Wall Street. It doesn’t. There are others I can’t find at the moment, too, but also, there’s this from the Washington Post’s news article Senate leaders race to draft debt-limit bill after House effort collapses, by Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane:

He started the day by convening a 9 a.m. meeting of his rank and file, a session that opened with a prayerful group sing-along to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” But as Boehner began searching for items to attach to the debt-limit bill, his majority quickly dis­integrated into squabbling ideological factions.

Boehner’s initial proposal was to include two provisions that would have given conservatives some small measure of satisfaction in exchange for ending the government shutdown and raising the debt limit. One would have delayed a tax on medical devices that helps finance the new health-care law. The other would have ended employer-provided health subsidies given to lawmakers and members of the executive branch, who are required to join the new health-care exchanges.

But conservatives quickly complained that it wasn’t enough. The bill would not cut spending, they said, or reform entitlement programs, or erase a clause in the health law that requires employers to provide coverage for contraception. And it clearly would not achieve their ultimate goal of ending the program they call Obamacare.

The squabbling ideological factions have, as far as I can tell, the same ideology as far as policy is concerned. The actual policies—cutting spending, reforming entitlement programs (or “reforming” “entitlement” programs) reducing contraception and repealing the Affordable Care Act—are all fully supported by the entire caucus. As for the earlier offers, it seems to me that conservatives are also united behind (a) reducing the total compensation of federal workers, and (2) not implementing new taxes. And as far as I can tell, they are very nearly united against paying for programs in general, but my point really isn’t to take cheap shots at the Other Party. My point is that the factions described as ideological don’t seem to have anything to do with political ideology at all.

Frankly, the difference as it looks from here is that some small number of legislators from the Other Party believe in following norms of behavior, the bulk are happy to violate norms of behavior as long as they get something out of it, and then there are a handful who seem (as I say, from my point of view) to believe in violating norms of behavior as a principle, even when it costs them.

Which sure doesn’t seem very Conservative to me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 3, 2013

so dangerous, so reckless, so inherently destructive

I feel I have to pass this along, because, well, because the federal government has been shut down and that seems like a Big Deal. And some the students I talk to at my place of employment have asked things like why? and what the hell? and hunh?, and I don’t really have a good explanation for them. Specifically, the question that perplexed my acquaintance and flummoxed my attempt to answer was what it was, precisely, about the Affordable Care Act that made it worth this sort of fight.

I said it was an increase in the federal involvement in the market. I ought to have said it was an expansion of the welfare state, which is equally true and perhaps more effectively put. The student, however, was smart enough to note that there was already government involvement, and sure, this was an expansion but it didn’t seem like that big a deal. Not to shut down the government over. Which seems like a reasonable response—you can like the ACA or not, you can have policy preferences that are different from mine, but what is it about the ACA specifically—not Social Security or Medicare, not SCHIP or WIC, not unemployment insurance, not subsidies for vital industries—that makes this the place to make a stand.

Digression: I was going to say their Waterloo, but that’s not right. Not their Thermopylae, either. Their Marathon? Their Alamo? Their Lexington and their Concord? Their Stalingrad? It seems like I should know this and I’m not thinking of it: the battle where the defenders stand athwart and they don’t actually lose. End Digression.

So it turns out, in this internetty facebooky world, that a friend of a friend contributed to a thread where he said:

The ACA is so dangerous, so reckless, so inherently destructive that given the implementation dates of the law this is probably the last best effort to prevent it from become effective. At all costs it must be eradicated into oblivion. There have been 3+ years of shallow, weak, phony, ineffective at alternate legislative methods for it’s [sic] demise to no avail.

I was flabbergasted. Really? That destructive? And from a guy who seemed, at the internet remove, to be a pretty decent fellow. I’m kinda cheating him, really, making him look back with that possessive pronoun apostrophe, which is totally unfair as witness my own myriad of typos throughout this Tohu Bohu. I don’t know the man, of course, and the fbf he is fbfs with is a former castmate I almost never see, so it’s not like I can know what he’s like—but he’s a hockey fan (Red Wings and some ECAC team) and he likes Monty Python. And Rush Limbaugh. The latter of which is presumably telling him about the dangerous, reckless and inherently destructive Affordable Care Act.

This is what struck me about Paul Waldman’s not over at TAPped called What Happens to Conservatism When the Obamacare War Is Over? He notes that “Obamacare has swallowed conservatism whole”, that “this [opposition to Obamacare] is what it means to be a conservative”. I don’t know if he’s correct, but it does seem to explain a lot of the behavior and tone. At all costs it must be eradicated into oblivion.

Which of course leads Your Humble Blogger, a lefty from way back, to wonder how the conservatives of our world, the folk who like hockey and Monty Python and Rush Limbaugh, will react to being so totally wrong about Obamacare. I admit that it could be me who is wrong, and not for the first time, but if—as the evidence tells me is the case—Obamacare is just another bit of the mixed economy, a reaction a generation on to the development of health insurance in the first place, soon the be as matter of fact as the rest of the welfare state, then will those conservatives feel betrayed and cheated? Will they turn on the people who have misled them? Or will they forget all about it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 30, 2013

Legislating the triangle

Greg Sargent writes Our current governing crisis, in two sentences:

  1. Only one party is demanding major concessions from the other in exchange for keeping the government open at sequester spending levels—levels leaders of that same party have already declared is a victory for them—while the other party is demanding exactly nothing in exchange for doing that.
  2. Only one party is demanding major concessions from the other in exchange for making it possible for the U.S. to pay its bills—an outcome leaders of the same party have already declared is necessary to spare the country default and economic havoc—while the other party is demanding exactly nothing in exchange for doing that.

I think that’s a bit muddled, but essentially I agree with him: Our Party has not identified any particular policy preferences (other than the fulfillment of previously enacted legislation) and the Other Party has not identified anything in the policy arena that they are willing to give up (whether previously enacted or not)—they are willing to give up the leverage of holding the CR or the debt bill, but those aren’t, as far as I can tell, actual policy priorities of their Party—they don’t think, for instance, that we shouldn’t have a federal budget at all, or that we shouldn’t bring our laws into agreement with each other. Perhaps I’m wrong! Maybe that is what they think! But probably not.

It does, however, lead me to ask: if My Party were to suggest removing the debt limit as a separate piece of legislation altogether, would that be a concession of some kind? And if so, whose? I mean, as various people have been saying each time it comes up, the current legislation mandates a certain level of revenues, mandates a certain level of expenditures and separately mandates the maximum difference between those two. The usual method of dealing with that is to set that maximum to a number that makes it unnecessary for a period of time, and then to set it again, and again, and again. But we could make it unnecessary forever, couldn’t we?

I mean in some ways legislating the debt limit independently from revenues and expenditures is like legislating pi. Right? I mean the debt is whatever it is, and legislating it without legislating revenues and expenditures is like, I don’t know, putting a legal limit on the amount of snowfall in December? Legislating that the rain should only fall after sundown? Legislating that if a is less than c and b is less than c, then a and b must be less than each other? Or maybe it’s like legislating that the earth should continue going around the sun—until the legislation expires in a year’s time.

This is connected with a thing that Jon Bernstein has been on about: people in general don’t think of the deficit as the difference between revenues and expenses. They think of the deficit as spending on stuff I don’t like or as wasteful spending or even as a bad economy. They don’t, by the way, think of it as bridges and libraries or my uncle’s pension or clean food and water—which wouldn’t be any less accurate. So if the deficit is just some sort of bad spending-related thing then it makes sense to have a third piece of the legislation. If, on the other hand, the deficit is just defined by the difference between income and outgo, which it is, then legislating that amount is— at best, unnecessary.

And this is true, it seems to me, completely independent of what you think the proper level of revenue is, or what you think the proper level of spending is, or what you think the proper level of deficit is. It’s just a description. It’s not a policy at all. And yet, I can’t help thinking that getting rid of that unnecessary-at-best bit of legislation would be considered by everybody to be a concession by the Other Party to My Party. And a big one, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 24, 2013

How Can They Say That?

OK, I know I’m a partisan, but—

Imagine a specfic novel set in a place called, say, Demossia. The people of Demossia have created a floating city for their capital, a thing of strange beauty, forbidding aspect and tempting luxury. The glittering court of the city of Poubasson is comprised of space earls and augmendukes and whatnot, as well as a Star Executive who commands the legions of bureauclones and thundertroops and so forth. And, of course, the various viziers and privy counselors and psofficeholders of various kinds, all coming together in various and shifting combinations of ambition and idealism, greed and fear.

Until one day…

On the eve of the Star Executive’s annual departure for the Summer Station for rest and relaxation—this signals, of course, the doldrums in Poubasson, when the space earls retreat to their estates on their various moons and the bureauclones wilt in the humid air, dreaming of access to holographically cooled snowbeaches while they deal with the neverending stream of Demossian petitioners—it is discovered that the Grand Space Earl of the House Marq’servays has instructed the other members of his House to quarter the country rousing the rabble under the slogan Fighting Poubasson for all Demossians.

Now, I’m just asking—isn’t the Space Earl, kinda, sorta, you know, a traitor? I mean, isn’t the next part of the plot that the Star Executive sends the thundertroops to throw the Space Earl into the mekkadungeon, but he escapes to his fortress in the Impassable Mountains, and… I’m just saying that by announcing that you are fighting against Poubasson, you are declaring yourself the enemy not only of the capital but of all Demossia, aren’t you? Even if you claim to be doing it for Demossians. It’s the Demossians who made the glittering, floating, corrupt, distant, dangerous and degenerate place. And its enemies are necessarily the enemies of the people.

Because when (according to Roll Call’s Matt Fuller, who seems to have gotten his hands on one) put out a planning kit for its member called “Fighting Washington for All Americans”, Left Blogovia mostly mocked this thing with the idea of a Congressman leaving his office at the Capitol to go back to the district and beg voters to return him to that horrible, horrible place. This is indeed risible; when it comes to those things that sustain the American people’s affection and respect for our august legislature, the House Republican Conference was, to put it mildly, born and bred in that particular briar patch. So, yeah, funny.

But more to the point: Washington is America, even more than Poubasson is Demossia—we have sent our representatives to Washington for two hundred years to make it however we wish it to be. Is it awful? That’s on us. And since, in fact, Washington—This Town—is a magnificent mix of awful and awe-inspiring, of greed and fear and idealism, persistence and pragmatism and paranoia, of arrogance and humility and self-service—well, how could there anything more American than that?

So. I wish my Party would defend Washington. Not to defend the indefensible bits, the status quo, the historical awfulness, but to say: this glittering, floating, corrupt, distant, dangerous and degenerate place is Our Place; its enemies are our enemies, whether they are overseas or across the aisle. This city is America’s firstborn child and America’s mother, and any insult to Washington is an insult to all Americans. And we take that personally.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 18, 2013

Boy, oh, boycott

A couple of recent blog notes (well, this and this) on the movement for an organized boycott of the Ender’s Game film remind me that I have never written for this Tohu Bohu about the boycott as a political tool. In short, the idea of organizing to target somebody’s livelihood because of their political beliefs makes me very, very uneasy.

I’m not going to talk about this specific instance, so let’s take a hypothetical case: a person (we’ll call this person Chris Hypothetical) has a non-political business (let’s call it Hypothetical Medical Supply ’n’ Grill) that YHB would, in the ordinary run of things, pay for goods or services or both. I become aware that Chris Hypothetical is a major funder of BSPAC, a political action committee formed to advocate for the passage of Bad Stuff through the local legislature. In this hypothetical case, I am opposed to Bad Stuff, right? Anyway, let’s hypothesize that some organization—the Anti-Bad Stuff League—who are organizing a boycott of the HMS’n’G. OK? All nice and vague. I’m against the boycott.

Now, it’s true that a portion of the money I pay to the HMS’n’G winds up going through Mr. Hypothetical’s pockets into the BSPAC, and that it thus contributes to the likelihood of Bad Stuff passing. That’s all true, and it makes me to a certain extent responsible for the Bad Stuff. And the Bad Stuff can be real—it might include sapping funding from my kid’s school, or from my own employer such that I could be laid off, for instance. And that’s unpleasant to know, that I am helping to fund my own unemployment. So yes, that will affect how I feel about the HMS’n’G, and I may look around for another place to get my tasty smoked meat and gauze, sure. That’s true if I decide I can’t stand the jerky guy at the counter, too. But an organized boycott could bankrupt the man, close the doors of the place. Could ruin her. And I just am not willing to think of myself as living in a society where we ruin each other for our political beliefs—not even when he is working to ruin me and my family.

Mostly, though, it’s that boycotts smell to me like blacklists. If it’s OK to deprive Ms. Hypothetical of her livelihood for active support of BSPAC, then it was OK to deprive Dalton Trumbo and Lillian Hellman of their livelihoods for their support of the Communist Party. And it’s obvious enough to be self-evident that that sort of thing is scarcely going to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted—pressure on people to conform to the general mainstream is going to come up much more often than pressure to enforce any progressive catechism.

When could I support a boycott? Let’s take a different situation: instead of the HMS’n’G profits going to Chris Hypothetical and then to BSPAC, let’s hypothesize that HMS’n’G is itself engaging in business practices I abhor. It refuses to serve its tasty chicken sandwiches to minority customers, or it won’t sell those finger-pricker diabetes kit refills to HIV-positive people, or it fires any worker who gets pregnant. Then I very well might refuse to do business with them, and I might also support an organized boycott to shut down HMS’n’G altogether. I won’t buy their French Fries if they are selling defective blood pressure gauges to Medicaid patients. I will support an organized boycott, and I will tell my friends to support it, too. I would buy my steaks and suture thread somewhere else, even if the expense is greater and the quality is lesser. And if the doors close? Fine. Even better, of course, if they change their policies and stay open, and I can shop there again.

The difference, to me, is that I will support a boycott of a business because of their business practices, things that the business does as the business I would otherwise pay my hard-earned to. I won’t support a boycott of a business because the profit goes to advocate policies that I consider damaging and harmful. I may individually choose to go elsewhere, considering the various advantages and drawbacks and so on and so forth, but I won’t support an organized boycott.

Now, having said that, I can’t properly claim that there is a hard-and-fast line. I could come up with a different hypothetical scenario that falls in the middle, and I totally reserve the right to make decisions based on cases. In any of those cases, though, I start from the point of view that boycotts because of where the profits go make me very, very uneasy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 25, 2013

Voting, Right?

I spent quite a few minutes today trying to explain to my Perfect Non-Reader (of this Tohu Bohu) why I disagreed with the Supreme Court’s action today striking down the enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act. Fortunately, the field on which she and her elementary-school classmates played soccer was on a (fairly gentle) slope.

I do want to point out the two-party political context (other than the obvious one, which is that after each party broke in half over civil rights, My Party became the party of Civil Rights and the Other Party became the party of opposition thereto) in the attitude to voting itself: the Other Party is concerned about overvoting, and My Party is concerned about undervoting.

Now, is the Other Party actually, really concerned about overvoting? I don’t know. Practically, they have introduced measures to combat it. Requiring voters to have IDs, reducing the number of polling places and the times they are open, reducing or eliminating the provisions set up to ease registration, opposing funding to voter-registration organizations, aggressively purging registration rolls, disenfranchising felons. And rhetorically, they just seem really upset over the possibility that people are voting who oughtn’t be voting. Or that somebody is voting two or three times under different names. They talk and act as if they are convinced that overvoting is a huge, huge deal.

My Party, on the other hand, opposes the ID requirement because the idea that somebody who is legally entitled to vote might be unable to do is so appalling to us that the overvoting problem just pales in comparison. The idea that a handful of people will have their franchise taken away because they didn’t know about the registration requirement until too late is terrible, so we want same-day registration, even if that means some sneaky guys will get two votes, and we support voter-registration drives, even if that means that somebody is putting Mickey Mouse on the rolls. The idea that somebody, somewhere is choosing between standing on line to vote or getting paid for work is outrageous, so we support vote-by-mail and early polling hours. And, of course, the idea that the bulk of the vote is being miscounted by a machine reader is nearly the ultimate terror for our conception of democracy.

It’s a mindset, an instinct. I think it correlates to the universe we see—I really don’t think there is much overvoting in America these days, and it’s pretty obvious that a whole bunch of us don’t vote. But mostly, it’s this mindset, and the mindset is largely independent of any actual empirical evidence quantifying which is a more or less frequent issue at the moment.

And I think it comes down to something fairly simple: how do you feel about somebody being denied a vote? And how do you feel about somebody casting a fraudulent ballot? Which one of those makes you burn?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 29, 2013

It's perception all the way down

An interesting philosophical matter lies behind a note from Jonathan Bernstein called No Available Fix for Politician Paranoia, mostly coming from a note by Ezra Klein called Did I get the money-and-politics debate all wrong? Mssrs Bernstein and Klein (and Schmidt) note that while money doesn’t win elections, the belief that money wins elections causes people to act as if money wins elections, and these actions are themselves much of the problem that we would have if, indeed, money did win elections.

To clarify: Campaign fund-raising is important but has rapidly diminishing returns. Many—probably most—candidates raise more money than is actually useful in the campaign, and would do almost exactly as well in the election if they raised only four-fifths of what they did raise. Or less. Hard to be sure, but that’s what the scientists say.

On the other hand, the fear of being outspent is a powerful motivator—and I’m not just saying that it seems like it might be a powerful motivator, but that people are seen to act as they would if they were motivated by the fear of being outspent. They spend all their time raising money and hanging around with potential donors. For freshman in Congress, focus is on raising money is how the Boston Globe headlines Tracy Jan’s story, which points out that the DCCC suggests that your United States Representative spend four hours a day fund-raising. Four hours a day. Four hours spent making the case to those constituents (and non-constituents) who have money; four hours a day listening to the concerns of people with money. Even leaving aside the quid-pro-quo possibility, that’s a problem for democratic representation.

So. The problem isn’t that the incumbents need money—the problem is that the incumbents believe that they need money, and act on that belief, and so most of the money wins elections harm actually does happen, even though money does not, on the whole, win elections. There is no problem, but the perception that there is a problem is a problem, so there is a problem. And since the belief that is causing the harmful action is not based on direct observation but on a sort of cultural assimilation, it’s not as if the problem can be solved by simply pointing out the facts of the case.

It’s similar to a thing I used to say about the deficit: the deficit isn’t a problem, but there is a perception that the deficit is a problem, and that perception is a problem even if there isn’t a problem to be perceived. It’s like Oakland: there may be no there there, but they still beat the Giants four to one. Fortunately, the perception of the deficit problem has so far only resulted in poor policy choices such as any Congress might make. It could be worse. The bond vigilantes, too, could be real—or, again, the perception that they are real could lead people to act as if they are real, which would mean acting like bond vigilantes, which would, kinda, make them real, even if they are only doing it out of fear of imaginary real ones. Right?

With the campaign finance issue, it also has a second-level sort of effect, where a non-serious sort of person who declares that much of the money is wasted will not get the backing of the serious-minded folk at the DCCC or the other well-connected networks. Emily’s List, f’r’ex, will not bother giving money (and it’s worth pointing out that early money is like yeast in part because of those diminishing returns and in part because everybody acts as if money wins elections) to somebody who hasn’t shown herself to be a viable candidate by raising money, which, as you know, wins elections. Or doesn’t. Whichever—but the Emily’s List endorsement means more than just money, it means press and persuasion and elite suasion, all of which probably have better returns than the money does. But you need the money to get that stuff, right? Or you’re a fringe candidate.

In fact, money-raising correlates as well as it does to candidate viability because the causality is the other way around. People want to donate to a candidate they think can win, because (a) they don’t want to waste their donation, and (2) they want to feel like a winner. A candidate people think is viable can raise a lot of money, and people think a candidate is viable because she can raise a lot of money, and you can see why these incumbents believe that money wins elections by the time they get to DC.

So. Practically, under all of this, is a different sort of real problem that has very little to do with the raising or spending of money on electoral campaigns. And it’s not the fact that the relatively few people who control most of the wealth in this country have disproportionate influence over politicians through campaign donations. If you somehow made the campaign donation thing null and void, they would still have disproportionate influence because they control most of the wealth in this country. the idea that the famous 1% who own a huge share of the wealth outright and control much of the rest through corporate and financial holdings are somehow not going to have disproportionate influence is… touching.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 15, 2013

What we want is to pay for what we want

Your Humble Blogger gets really cranky about things, you know? Here’s one of them: when people talk about the two Parties and their positions on the budget, particularly when we are in the lead-up to yet another Deadline with a Bad Law booby-trap, they are likely to suggest that the Other Party wants spending cuts, and My Party wants revenue increases, and that therefore a compromise will have some spending cuts (for the Other Party) and some revenue increases (for My Party). This talk is typical even for Left Blogovia, as in Greg Sargent’s GOP approach to sequester jumps shark:

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats unveiled their own replacement plan for the sequester today. As expected, it contains roughly a 50-50 split of cuts and new revenues via the closing of various loopholes enjoyed by the rich and corporations.

So here are the politics of this in a nutshell. Democrats want the sequester to be averted through a mix of roughly equivalent concessions by both sides.

I understand, as a practical matter, it makes sense to talk about it. It gives the impression, though, that Our Party is simply pro-revenue. This, I think, feeds into what Paul Krugman calls the mirror-image fallacy, that since the Other Party knows they want lower taxes, we must (in their eyes) want higher taxes. And in point of fact, I think (and many of us in the Party think) that total revenue levels should be higher than they are now, but not because I like high revenues. No. I like the things that the money is buying, and I am willing to raise revenues enough to pay for them.

Digression: Actually, I feel much the same way in my own life. I would gladly make less money (by working fewer hours, or even at a different job), only I want to use more money for various things. Including investments (or savings, which are at this point investments) as well as bread and roses. And actually, the investments are really only so that I can have more bread and roses later. I’m not maximizing revenues, I’m balancing spending (on things I want) with revenues (which are generally obtained through unpleasantness of some kind). While it’s clearly an error to confuse household incentives with government incentives, I suspect that my instincts on money, bread and roses for my own use have something to do with my instincts on government policies. End Digression.

So the compromise here is that the Other Party wants spending cuts, and My Party wants fully-funded programs. Or, even more accurately, My Party wants bridges and tunnels, subsidies and grants, courthouses and officers, railways and airports, hospitals and medicines, power and water, inspectors and regulators, markets and money, and all sorts of things. Well, not all sorts—we like subsidies that encourage consumers to buy low-energy refrigerators and insulating windows, and we don’t like subsidies that encourage energy companies to despoil the land. But on the whole, it’s not wrong to say that we like fully-funded programs.

So, instead of calling it a compromise between cuts and revenues, we could say it’s between cutting programs and funding them. The problem is that we can’t then call it a 50-50 split between cutting programs and funding them—that compromise doesn’t cut our spending in half, so the cuts are a small percentage of the total funds. On the other hand, the 50-50 thing isn’t really working out very well as persuasive rhetoric, now, is it? Not much of a loss. And we could probably call it a 50-50 split between program cuts and new funding for programs, if we had to use that even split language.

And, of course, this is all complicated because the Other Party wants to more than a hundred billion in funding from the budget, but doesn’t want to talk about cutting anything popular, like most actual programs. So Eric Cantor talks about a $266,821 political science grant. Awesome! We’re .0002% there! Even the whole budget for grants in the social sciences is $250 million—leaving only $99,750,000,000 left unspecified. When we point out the Other Party’s intransigence when it comes to paying for popular programs, they shrug and say that they are in favor of those popular programs—it’s those other unpopular ones they want to get rid of.

Well, and that’s politics, too. It’s My Party’s business (and my business) to try to nail them down to some actual policy preferences. We don’t have to accept it, but we can only fight it by actually fighting it. And while we’re at it, we don’t have to accept their frame around the budget fight, either. We don’t like new revenues, and higher taxes isn’t a victory for us. Having the things those taxes pay for—the national bread and roses—those would be the victory.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 4, 2013

Success! At Failure!

So. Y’all know that Your Humble Blogger is a liberal, right? A big government, New Deal, pro-union, liberal liberal. This means that you, Gentle Reader, should take anything I say about the view of the world from the Right—or even the Center—with a grain of proverbial, because I’m looking at it from way over here.

But I have to wonder about the response to last week’s economic news. Did you see it? The news, essentially, was that over the last three months of 2012, the economy was not growing at all—shrinking, in fact, by a tiny, tiny bit. Not, you know, enough to be a Contraction, but on the wrong side of zero. This negative number is largely because of huge cuts in military spending, according to what I read—I can’t find the note right now (it’s not the fairly technical notes by Jared Bernstein or Ezra Klein), but somebody said, essentially, that the private sector is doing just fine, but the public sector is not. The takeaway from those technical posts (and also, of course, from Paul Krugman) is that cutting the federal budget has a contractionary effect on the economy as a whole. And that’s the correct liberal attitude, as far as I can tell: we want the economy to grow, and we’re perfectly willing to make that happen by increasing the federal budget.

Which means that, from the liberal point of view, it’s terribly frustrating that the Other Party is criticizing Our Only President for this contraction. Greg Sargent writes that … in a rational world, what should be glaringly obvious is that the belief that this [news] gives the party “leverage” highlights how absurdly incoherent the GOP message about the economy has become. Steven Benen says that the Republican National Committee seemed inexplicably giddy after the GDP report was released—even though it’s now blisteringly obvious their agenda would undermine economic growth. From the more-or-less neutral (if excitingly biased toward stupidity) Politico, it’s Obama’s GDP headache (or, according to the URL, his nightmare) and the politics are unambiguously terrible for Barack Obama—meaning, from their point of view, that the Other Party are attacking him and his policies on it.

But here’s where I get into trouble trying to see this from the other side: isn’t this good news for them? I mean, they have accomplished a substantial cut in federal spending—a big one this quarter but as those articles have been on about, a huge one over years—and the GDP didn’t even go down much. If the news is, as I said before, that the private sector is doing just fine, but the public sector is not, then those persons who want a smaller public sector are… winning! Flat GDP is presumably a fine result, if it is comprised of growing the Good Part (in their eyes) and shrinking the Bad Part (again, in their eyes). Isn’t it a success story?

That’s what I thought about when I saw Ed Zelinsky’s note And the winner is… George W. Bush. Mr. Zelinsky is writing about the tax cuts, where our current “permanent” tax code looks a lot more like Our Previous President’s code than the preferences of either his predecessor or the man currently holding that office. And, for that matter, the Observer story on Robert Reich and Inequality for All brings up how the so-called Conservatives have actually implemented a great deal of their anti-government policy platform over the last ten to thirty years.

You know, fifteen years ago or so, I was writing (or thinking about writing, anyway, which come to the same thing, right?) about how the social conservatives were failing to achieve their actual goals. The old norms—more accurately, what they thought of as the old norms—were being demolished despite the Religious Right’s political ascendance. And what I wrote, or meant to write, was that each new outrage, rather than showing the impotence of the politicians, seemed to increase their standing. The less they actually achieve, the more they seem to be needed. That’s great for the leaders, but not so great for the followers.

As for the money, though… liberals have been making the case for years that Our Party wasn’t actually achieving much. And they’re right, of course: inequality expands, the social safety net rots, workers’ protection withers and even where we have tremendous achievements, like the Clean Air Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, enforcement is uneven and often skewed toward the moneyed interests. Are we in the same position? Are we trapped into supporting our leaders all the more for their every failure?

I don’t think that’s right. For one thing, the Left in this country, such as it is, doesn’t so much support My Party anyway. Maybe votes for it, grudgingly, but doesn’t donate or volunteer in the same way. For another, I do think that we have been holding our legislators to some actual achievements (the Affordable Care Act comes to mind). And then, well, I really don’t think that Our Party has developed the public rhetoric of grievance and persecution to the extent that the Other Party has. That is, over the last thirty years or so, the rhetorical position of the Other Party has been that white Christian heterosexual men are under attack, for various definitions of under attack, and that the Party is, just barely, protecting them from the worst of the terrible onslaught. And I do think that keeps them from celebrating their successes.

Which is where I was headed, by the way. The reaction to the success of the policy platform—public-sector decline with private-sector growth—fits much better into their litany of disasters than their successes. I think Left Blogovia fell into that rut as well, treating this news the way they did.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 27, 2013

About Last Week

If you’re like me, and who isn’t, every couple of hours over the last several days, you murmur Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall and grin like a crazy person. Or burst into tears. You know what my favorite part is? It’s that the controversy in that triple is in the inclusion of the queers and cross-dressers as our forebears right along with the obviously great Americans like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis. You know? The uncontroversial ones. The controversy is whether our gay rights heroes belong in that pantheon with Frederick Douglass and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

So. The other thing that I have been revisiting every few hours is a photograph that Wonkette included in their post A Children’s Treasury of Old Handsome Joe Biden Inauguration-Day Greatness, God Love Him, which I have shamelessly stolen and captioned.

MO&JB.jpg

Because that’s how it is in 2013.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2013

Eighteen is three sixes

Your Humble Blogger invites you to look at this list:

  • Bill Frist
  • Rick Santorum
  • Olympia Snowe
  • Spencer Abraham
  • Mike DeWine
  • Fred Thompson
  • Rod Grams
  • John Ashcroft
  • Craig Thomas
  • John Kyl

Ugh. That’s a list of all those persons elected for the first time to the US Senate in 1994, eighteen years ago. The other thing about those persons is that none of them are in the Senate today.

Now, it’s a bit of a trick, since Jim Inhofe was a freshman Senator in 1994. But other than Sen. Inhofe, the other ten Republicans? Gone.

See, YHB was doing the biannual note about Senate Seniority and looking at who entered a fourth term this year. And the answer is… nobody. Not counting partials, anyway. When I had looked two years ago and two years before that, pretty much half the Senators were in their first or second terms, and another quarter in their third term. Now? The aforementioned Senator Inhofe ranked 18th in seniority, having served two years of a special term, two full terms and (so far) four years of his fourth (or third full). The next most senior is Ron Wyden, who took over Bob Packwood’s seat in 1996 and is two years into his third full term. Of the 13 new Senators in 1992, only three remain: Dianne Feinstein (in a special election), Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray. Year of the Woman!

Also of interest among the outliers: Tom Harkin has announced that this is his last term, as has Jay Rockefeller. I also don’t expect John Kerry to be in the Senate past next week, so that’s three of the top ten gone. In a couple of years, Barbara Mikulsky will soon (please the Divine) be number eight on the list! Maybe higher…

So. Using my old set-up: 67 Senators are in their first or second terms, having served less than twelve years so far. That’s a huge increase, isn’t it? And as I say, only 18 have served more than eighteen years, which is a huge decrease. In the house, only 40% have served more than twelve years, and 74 have served more than eighteen—that’s pretty close to the 18% of Senators. And down substantially in just a few years.

This is probably about demographics more than anything else, but it makes a difference in how the place is run.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 25, 2013

Keynes, Keynes, Keynes

So. Jamelle Bouie over at TAPped wrote a pretty good note called Why Balance the Budget? It’s carrying on from Matt Yglesias over at Slate who asks Why Would You Want To Balance the Budget in 10 Years? (which is a response to Larry Summers in the Washington Post writing America’s deficits: The problem is more than fiscal). Both excellent questions, when applied to our federal government. Now, I have often grumbled a bit to myself about a thing that comes up often in discussing the federal deficit or debt that Mr. Bouie does: he says The government isn’t a household and therefore you don’t have to balance your budget the way a household does. But he doesn’t—and people rarely do—explain what the differences are between a government budget and a household budget that specifically apply to this case. And I was going over them and thinking about writing a note about them when I realized that when it gets down to it, this argument that households ought to balance their budgets is not very convincing. Take a deficit of, oh, 2% of the household revenue? For that $50,000 household, that’s a thousand bucks on the credit card at the end of the year. That’s not a disaster, is it?

Digression:It’s actually really important, in thinking about household budgets, to realize that for people who purchase houses or cars, their debt is likely many times their revenue. We, for instance, borrowed five times our annual revenue when we purchased a house. We’re paying it back, month by month; I have no idea what it would mean to “balance” our household budget while ignoring that. This is another way in which the federal government is different from most households: it has paid off its first mortgage. On the other hand, you don’t have to own a home, so looking at a household that rents and uses public transportation is more likely to be helpful in this comparison. End Digression.

So. If a household makes $50K and spends $51K, in our world, they are likely to be doing just fine after a year. After seven years, if you’re getting somewhat decent annual raises, you’re making nearly $60 and spending about $61,200—you’ll have a credit card balance of just over $7500, and you’ll be right around the average household credit card debt in this country. Visa ain’t gonna cut you off at this point, you know? Still, it can’t go on forever, right? Probably only for, oh, ten years? Fifteen years? Between when you are thirty and forty-five? So the question is, how bad is it to hit forty-five with no savings and a debt of just over 10% of your income?

The answer is—well, it’s not great, but it’s not all that bad. The fifteen grand is costing you (mostly because if it really is credit card debt, you’re paying something like three percent of your income in debt service—that’s a grand a year you could be spending on hookers and blow, you know) but it isn’t in itself going to destroy your life. As long as the credit cards will keep giving you credit—which as long you have a good income and pay that minimum balance could be forever—you could keep on going, paying out a trifle more than you take in, until—well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?

Pretty much there are three things that can happen to you, in the long run. One is that your revenue will eventually decrease—you’ll have to retire. If you’re lucky. If not, you’ll laid off, or you’ll get hurt, or you’ll have to take a pay cut, or your income won’t keep pace with inflation. Something like that, if you live long enough, will eventually happen, and that’s when all that debt will come back and bite you in the ass.

The second thing that might happen is death. Possibly early death, in which case the unbalanced budget will never hurt you at all! Oh the other hand, perhaps early death isn’t the most positive outcome… still and all, it’ll happen sometime. So that’s one on the don’t worry about your household deficit front against the first it’s bound to bite you one.

The third thing isn’t as definite as the first two. I mean, you’re bound to die, eventually, and if your revenue hasn’t decreased by that time, it’s going to pretty much stop right then. But the third one, which might not happen at all, is that you might have a child. And that, well, that changes everything. All the risks, all the rewards, all the things you might save up for, all the dangers to be avoided. Everything.

But… nations don’t have children to provide for. Nations don’t die. And while it’s true that even nations sometimes have their income temporarily drop, they don’t retire. So when we say that the nation isn’t a household, what we mean at the very least is this: nations don’t die, nations don’t retire, and nations don’t breed. And, sure, nations can print their own money and invade other nations and impose tariffs at the borders and so on—really, there aren’t very many ways in which a nation is like a household. And as I hinted at in the digression above, an annual Balanced Budget rule would be a nonsensical idea for households anyway, if you are counting houses and cars and such. But it really, really, really is a nonsensical idea for governments.

And even for households… well, I’m not saying I would advise you to spend more than you take in, but I’m saying that the arguments against it are long-term arguments. You should be thinking long-term, of course, but that’s every bit as true about diet and exercise and all that cal as it is about deficit spending.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 2, 2013

It's a trap!

Your Humble Blogger had thought that the one lesson that was there for the learning, gleaming in the muck of the last few days of legislative charcuterie, was that this business of setting up a Deadline with a Bad Law booby-trap was no way to run a proverbial. And yet, as Jon Bernstein alludes to, it is likely to continue for the next two years at least.

Perhaps this was inevitable, once the Other Party realized that they could fuck with the debt ceiling. That is, the debt ceiling is in itself a Deadline with a Bad Law booby-trap; our legislature used to simply avoid the booby-trap before the deadline, and that was that.

Actually, now that I am thinking about it, the Alternative Minimum Tax is a Deadline with a Bad Law booby-trap, and that has always worked just fine. Similarly the doc fix. I suppose some people assumed the sequester was just another DwaBLb-t. Maybe in a legislature with two functioning legislative Parties, the DwaBLb-t is—well, still stupid, obviously, but a minor irritation of stupid, like the business about that and which. On the other hand, in a legislature with two functioning legislative Parties, wouldn’t it make sense to just stop with the Bad Laws?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 7, 2012

Next?

So. Pleased and all that so many people voted—turnout is still uncertain, a bit, but it looks like it wasn’t down much from four years ago. Sixty percent? A trifle more? In that general realm, anyway. Disappointing, sure, on an absolute basis, but also on an absolute basis there were more than a hundred million votes counted. A hundred million votes! Think about that as an organizational challenge for a moment. Wow.

And I’m happy, of course, that Our Only President won re-election. He has done a pretty good job, probably as good as any President in my lifetime, particularly at disaster avoidance, and I am reasonably confident that he will continue to do a good job. And, of course, I think Our Party’s policies are, in my opinion, much better for the country. So that’s all good. And speaking of Our Party and its policies, we kept control of the Senate, so that’s all right, and we have some Senators who I think might have a shot at being really great Senators, so that’s all right, too.

But the House… so, here’s what I want. I want Nancy Pelosi to announce, sometime between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, that she is not running for re-election in 2014. Then I want our caucus to back her to be our Minority Leader for this Congress, and simultaneously to begin grooming people for 2014. And I want those people to be young.

I mean, young-ish. I’m thinking someone younger than Xavier Becerra. Ideally, younger than Eric Cantor. Which means giving somebody—a Jim Himes or a Linda Sanchez or a Ben Lujan or someone—a lot of experience in a big, big hurry. Which is a Good Thing.

I think Nancy Pelosi is a great woman who did a great job as Speaker and as Party Leader. I think it’s great that she kept her position after My Party lost the House, that we didn’t repudiate her or blame her or make her the scapegoat. I would have been thrilled if we had won back the majority and given her the gavel again. Since we didn’t, and since we will eventually need a new Leader for the House Caucus under some or other circumstances, better or worse, I would like to avoid or a sudden and unprepared-for vacancy or a nasty battle to force her out of the chair. What I’d like to see is a nice, slow transition to someone who has a long future to look forward to and plan for.

Why talk about this today? Why, on a day devoted by My Party to schadenfreude, talk about easing out a Representative who has done such a terrific job?

Because democracy is what happens the day after the election.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 2, 2012

Partners!

As we head into the last few days before the election, I am finding it increasingly difficult to keep in mind that the Other Party is My Party’s partner in politics. That is, the Parties are working on the (essentially political) project of governing; we have of course very different goals and methods, but we are in the same business. I don’t mean this in the sense that the two main parties are conspiring to keep the moneyed interests in power and prevent real democracy, but in the sense that the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics are partners in the basketball business.

We can look at it like this: roughly a third of the country will vote for Our Only President, roughly a third will vote for Willard “Mitte” Romney, and roughly a third will not vote. The first two have more in common with each other than with that final third of free riders: the voters are going out of their way to do something for our country.

I don’t want to overstate this. I do think that the Other Party, as many of them as are elected, will attempt to enact policies that are actively harmful. They will increase suffering, misery and death. I’m not kidding about that—I think that the Other Party’s policies, if enacted, will increase both the quantity and the severity of suffering, and that there are people who will die sooner. I think that My Party’s policies are better. That’s why I’m in My Party and not the Other Party.

I think—I have so little contact with people in the Other Party, but I think that they have much the same feeling about My Party—that is, that they feel that if their policies are enacted that they will decrease suffering, misery and death. In this, they are wrong. And I am right.

I’m not kidding, you know. I’m really not. This stuff is important—there are young women who will get or not get appropriate and inexpensive medical care from Planned Parenthood, there are soldiers who will come home on feet or on prosthetics, there are teachers who will have or not have enough textbooks, there are parents who will or will not be separated from their children by deportation, there are natural disasters for which FEMA will or will not be prepared, there are workers who will or will not be crushed by machines that violate OSHA standards, there are homeowners who will or will not lose their homes, there are children who will or will not get subsidized breakfast (and whose immune systems may be effected as a result), there are husbands who will or will not be legally married to their husbands and legal fathers to their children, there are prisoners who will or will not be tortured. Elections matter. My Party’s policies are different than those of the Other Party, and that matters. I will vote for My Party all the way down the line, and I think you should vote that way, too.

But I am aware that people who vote for the Other Party—most of them, at any rate—could come up with an equally damning list. I would consider that list nonsense (it would start with Death Panels, I imagine), and they would consider my list nonsense. My point isn’t that in such a situation we are each equally right and equally wrong—I am not kidding about being right—but that they are wrong in an attempt to serve the United States, and thus are my partners, just as my more wrong-headed co-workers are still my co-workers. They are my partners, and if you are joining us in this attempt to serve the country they are your partners as well.

It’s also true that we probably define United States differently, and there again I feel very strongly that my inclusive, aspirational, egalitarian idea of America is a better one. I am voting for that, too. And it’s also true that the Other Party has several people who clearly are not interested in minimizing suffering and death at all, or who at any rather prioritize that far below maintaining the power and influence of the powerful and influential. They even have people for whom the suffering of certain Americans is a positive benefit. Alas, My Party also has some lunatics in it. My current workplace, fortunately, doesn’t have such lunatics, but I honestly have worked in places with some lunatics that appeared to be actively attempting to increase misery around them. Sigh. I try to make sure that My Party doesn’t put those lunatics into leadership positions. I wish I felt confident that the Other Party did the same. And I’m sure most of them do—I know that some, at any rate, wish that we did a better job at it.

And so it goes. There are so many reasons why I support My Party and not the Other Party, so many ways in which I find the Other Party’s platform appallingly wrong and dangerous. I get furious at their leadership—Willard “Mitte” Romney, of course, and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, and a hundred or so legislative officeholders, and another few dozen party leaders in the issue groups, the press and entertainment. And maybe another thousand or so of the craziest state legislators. But there will be seventy million other people voting on Tuesday for the Other Party (and seventy million voting for my party); the ones that infuriate me are a tiny percentage of that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 31, 2012

Safe States Count!

Your Humble Blogger is, reflexively, a defender of the current electoral system. I would guess that many Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu are not. Either they would prefer direct election of Our Only President, or they feel that the election cycle is too long or too expensive or too this or too that. Yes, there are problems—primarily, in my view, the choice of individual electors to ritually cast the actual ballots for the states—but on the whole, I think we have a pretty damned good system for the country we actually live in. So my irritation with those who deride the American system may be over the top. Bear with me.

One thing that comes up a lot is the idea that it’s unfair (for some definition of unfair) that the election will be decided by a handful of voters in Ohio and Virginia. One version of this is the wonderful Jon Carroll, who in a column called California - too blue to matter said:

So if you’re a Californian and you vote for Obama, big deal; your vote has already been registered, accounted for and then discounted. If you’re a Californian and you vote for Romney, your vote has, by contrast, already been registered, accounted for and then discounted.

The general tenor of this (and many others—I don’t mean to single out Jon Carroll, but he writes it well, and I could easily find the column) is that it stinks to be in a blue state or a safe state generally. The implication is that nobody cares what you think. This is wildly, egregiously, epically wrong.

How wrong is it? Imagine that Willard “Mitte” Romney were to win California’s votes. Election over, right? There is no way that Our Only President wins re-election without winning California. California is absolutely indispensible. It’s a fucking bedrock.

I live in Connecticut—Connecticut votes for Poppy Bush in 1988 and Poppy Bush becomes President of the United States of America. If Connecticut votes for Willard “Mitte” Romney in 2012, then Willard “Mitte” Romney becomes President of the United States of America. Is there any question about that? There is not. I tell you this: no pundit anywhere has published their prediction of the electoral map that has Our Only President winning the election without winning the state of Connecticut. Our votes are so fundamentally valuable to the re-election campaign that nobody anywhere is even considering how he can go about winning without them. He can win without Ohio, he can win without Colorado, he can with without New Mexico, he can win without New Hampshire—but if he can’t win Connecticut, he can’t win. Period.

And if you are in the Other Party in Mississippi or Georgia? Same deal: if your guy loses your state, he loses the country. That’s how important you are.

Now, people are going to say, sure, but there is no way that Georgia’s electoral votes are going to go to Our Only President, or that my own Connecticut will go for Willard “Mitte” Romney. And that’s true—except that it isn’t, of course, true at all. Connecticut went for the victorious Republican in 1988, as I said up there, and Georgia for the victorious Democrat in 1992. Remember 1984? Or 1972? Republican candidates have lost Arkansas three times out of the last nine—and lost the election each time. New York has voted for a victorious Republican three out of the last nine elections, but a Democrat has not won without New York for a generation. So if Our Only President was going to sail to easy victory or plummet to abject defeat, then those safe states wouldn’t be safe at all.

Still. Assume that they are safe, because in short-term practical terms they are safe for 2012. What does that mean about Connecticut’s electoral power? It means that no-one unacceptable to Connecticut Democrats can be the nominee of our Party. When Jon Carroll says that the votes of Californian Democrats have already been registered, it’s true, and that’s a profoundly powerful thing. California Democrats are so freaking powerful that their preferences are taken into account even before the primary campaigns begin. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? That’s a big deal. That’s not a discounted vote, that’s a vote with one hell of a multiplier.

Now, if you are working for a campaign, sure, you want to use your resources where they will do the most good, and since Connecticut and Arkansas are already baked into the proverbial, we are further away from the nearest field office and may not get so many telephone calls. But the money isn’t being spent where the votes are the most important, they are being spent where the votes are the hardest to predict. And frankly, while those unpredictable votes will be the ones in the balance on November 6, they will not be the ones anyone will be paying the most attention to on November 7, or on January 20, or over the next years.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 19, 2012

Party Music!

So, Your Humble Blogger was, as so often, browsing through the Naxos Music Library for something pleasant to listen to at the desk, when suddenly I came across Music for Democrats. In case you thought it might refer to lower-case democrats, who appear to be members of My Party merely because the American Patriotic Classics label uses upstyle in its album titles, they have thoughtfully placed a donkey on the cover. A rather cross-looking donkey, actually. The other one has a kinda sulky-looking elephant.

But here’s the thing: the music is the same. It’s the same album, being sold under two covers. Not a particularly good album: military band arrangements of some typical patriotic songs (“The Star Spangled Banner” , “The Stars and Stripes Forever” , “America the Beautiful”) some more obscure marches (“National Spirit March” , “President Garfield’s Inauguration March” , “The Presidential Polonaise”) and some more recent tunes (“This Land is Your Land” , “Gd Bless the USA”) all recorded by various military bands of our armed forces. But the same.

Yes, the United States Air Force Singing Sergeants sing Woody Guthrie on both albums. No, they don’t sing all the verses. On either album.

So, here’s my question. On the one hand, this is some sort of bizarre attempt to make a buck off people’s political tribalism. And a lazy attempt, as well. I mean, it wouldn’t be that hard to come up with some actual Music for Democrats and Music for Republicans, with only a trifle of overlap. Even within the military-band stuff, it should be possible for a clever person to come up with something vaguely humorous.

On the other hand, you could look at it as a fundamental insight: people in the Other Party can listen to the same music as the people from My Party. Republicans can listen to Woody Guthrie; Democrats can listen to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Political preferences do no have to dictate our tastes in music or art. We do not blacklist songs for being politically incorrect—or we don’t have to.

On the other other hand, there really are tribal differences between Republicans and Democrats. The Parties exist for a reason, and people do join them and stick with them (or abandon them) for reasons, and those reasons do not have to be completely unmoored from culture, either.

Mostly, though? It’s just so lazy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 17, 2012

BFoW

You know, I keep thinking about the binders full of women story, and I think that while David S. Bernstein’s post corrects the falsehood, there’s a lot of important context that he lived through and has explained so often that he left it out of the post. So I’m going to try here.

In April 2001, Governor Paul Celucci left town for no apparent reason, leaving the Lieutentant Governor, Jane Swift, to assume his duties. She became the first woman to act as Governor of Massachusetts. The first woman elected to any statewide office had been only two years previously. There hadn’t been a Massachusetts woman in the US House for twenty years. None of the leadership positions in the state legislatures were held by women. Dapper O’Neill had been cracking hostile and abusive misogynist jokes on the Boston City Council up until 1999. The political culture in Massachusetts was profoundly, pervasively sexist. But through a succession of flukes, there was a woman acting as Governor.

And Willard “Mitte” Romney—who had no traditional qualifications for the job, who had never shown he could win an election, who didn’t even live in the state—threw the incumbent off the ticket so he could assume the nomination to which he was entitled by birth, bank account and balls. Or so it certainly appeared at the time. Women were outraged. Not so much because of Jane Swift, because nobody really liked her, but the way it all came down seemed so ugly, and was all of a piece with the culture as a whole. Remember, there wasn’t even a bench of women who had been groomed by either Party to grab nominations, leadership positions and column-inches. Among appointed positions, less than a third were women, and most of those in lower-profile positions. The nominee did wind up with a woman as his Lieutentant Governor, although there as well, Kerry “Murphy” Healey had no traditional qualifications, which highlighted the state of women in Massachusetts politics even more.

It was in that context that MassGAP, the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project came together to recruit women to apply for government appointments (thus the name) and to work with whichever candidate won (My Party’s candidate was Shannon O’Brien, the aforementioned first-woman-to-be-elected-to-statewide-office) to increase the power of women in the state.

Their work has not been very successful.

MassGAP does continue to provide binders full of (resumés detailing the accomplishments of) women to the newly elected Governor. The numbers are not higher than they were ten years ago. The bench of women with traditional qualifications for the higher offices is barely higher than it was ten years ago. Gradual progress, yes, but gradual. This seems to me true of the world outside Massachusetts as well; gradual progress for women, but gradual, and with setbacks.

As for the nominee of the Other Party, I am perplexed by his untruth. His statement from last night’s debate, in case you are aching to read it again, was in response to a question about pay equity for women:

Thank you. And important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men. And I—and I went to my staff, and I said, “How come all the people for these jobs are—are all men.” They said, “Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.” And I said, “Well, gosh, can’t we—can’t we find some—some women that are also qualified?” And—and so we—we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, “Can you help us find folks,” and they brought us whole binders full of women.

The main untruth was the claim that he went to women’s groups, rather than them coming to him. He is also claiming, as far as I can tell, that his closest advisors were a bunch of chauvinist assholes, which doesn’t really look good for him, does it? And, of course, what Mitt Romney is describing is taking action, affirmatively, to address a longstanding social problem, which he doesn’t seem to support in a general way (and more importantly, neither does his Party). But even when you correct for all of those, what is still missing is that it was Willard “Mitte” Romney turfing Jane Swift that sparked the outrage that led to the existence of the binders in the first place.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 16, 2012

Twenty-One

If I put a bunch of political crap into an ordered list, will it look like a syllogism?

  1. Incumbent presidents are really hard to beat, unless
  2. The economy is crappy.
  3. The economy right now is crappy.
  4. But probably getting less crappy.
  5. So it will be a close race between the incumbency and the crappyosity, with the incumbency probably slightly more powerful, but only slightly, and only probably.
  6. There are more than 60,000,000 people who will vote for My Party’s Nominee, and more 60,000,000 people who will vote for the Other Party’s Nominee, and there isn’t anything either campaign can do about that. There are probably something like 15,000,000 people who will vote and who may yet decide to vote for one candidate or the other.
  7. Of those fifteen million, probably five million will vote for Our Only President, largely because they have heard his name and something good about him.
  8. Of the remaining fifteen million, probably another five million will wind up either voting against Our Only President because the economy is crappy or voting for him because it’s getting somewhat less crappy. My guess is most of them will be swayed by the crappyosity. Although,
  9. The economy is differently crappy than it has been for a very long time, so those voters may be more confused than usual about whether it really is a crappy economy or not.
  10. Which may leave more people than usual open to campaign-based persuasion, particularly on the crappyosity question.
  11. In sum, a lot of stuff which ordinarily doesn’t matter, like a debate performance or a commercial or a poster design, might matter this time.
  12. Because doesn’t matter in US presidential elections means sways less than a million people, more or less.
  13. And usually those things don’t all align, so if there are ten doesn’t matter kinds of things, four break for the incumbent and six for the challenger, so the challenger in the end picks up only two million votes, which
  14. ain’t enough.
  15. Usually.
  16. So even if the don’t matter events this cycle have so far split (Our Only President won the conventions, and the Other Party’s Candidate won the first debate, and the Olympics didn’t seem to favor either, and the assassination of our ambassador is as yet unresolved, and so on and so forth), that doesn’t mean that the Other Party’s Candidate won’t make a bunch of mistakes in the next three weeks leading to a nice five-million-vote margin for Our Only President.
  17. Or vice versa.
  18. Which means that you shouldn’t panic overmuch about Your Candidate’s performance in the debate tonight.
  19. Even though a bad performance might conceivably, possibly, in a close election, be the difference between winning and losing.
  20. And nobody will ever really know how many votes any of the doesn’t matter things will have shifted to one or the other candidate, because there are so many of them over the course of the election, and their cumulative impact is small.
  21. At least if you are narrowly looking at the election returns, which is a mistake. Democracy is what happens every day, and things said in the debate might conceivably become part of the Story of What Happened (so much more important than what happened) that narrows or expands the field of political discussion and its patterns over the next generation.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 12, 2012

The New Suit and the Old Hand

On the vice-presidential debate—if Your Humble Blogger was one of those surrogates of my party that is asked to go on television and radio and blogs and such and describe an incredibly biased view of the event, here’s what the message would be:

Congressman Ryan reminded me of one of those management consultant types who comes into a business with his nice suit and his expensive haircut and his fresh MBA and tells everybody how they can increase stakeholder profits if they leverage dynamic incentives by managing impactful quality prioritization, investing in the performance of new models of competency, and flipping globalized innovation to achieve peak synergy. And Joe Biden was like the guy who has actually been running the shop floor for the last forty years, who’s just going that’s a bunch of stuff!

I have thought since the winter that Governor Romney appears to embody all the negative stereotypes of management consultants, and that since I think a lot of people hold those stereotypes, my Party should be exploiting that for all we’re worth. I hadn’t realized that Representative Ryan could be seen to embody those stereotypes as well, despite never having actually been a management consultant. Still, there he was, explaining to Joe Biden how legislation works, talking about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to a guy who was in the room with them when they were negotiating. The idea of the guy who knows nothing about the business coming in and telling the boss how to improve profits by laying off anybody who knows anything—that’s a powerful image, and I don’t think it’s unfair to paint the Other Party’s candidates that way.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 4, 2012

About Last Night

I suppose if I’m going to write anything for this Tohu Bohu again, I should write something about last night’s debate. I usually call them simultaneous press appearances rather than debates, but that thing last night was something closer to… well, not a debate, surely, but a discussion or an argument or something. I don’t know. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good for Our Only President’s re-election chances.

Not that it is likely to make much difference, really. Or rather, it is unlikely to make much direct difference. If the press have decided that they are sick of the lazy mendacity of the challenger’s campaign, the Story of What Happened (which, remember, is always more important than what actually happened) will be that Mitt Romney shook the Etch-a-Sketch. If they have decided that they want people to continue to pay attention to their reporting and opinion pieces, the Story of What Happened will be that Our Only President slept through his alarm. I expect both stories will kick around for a few days; we are now waiting to see who salutes them. The Story of What Happened will very likely sway a bunch of the low-information undecided “independent” voters, very few of whom were willing to sit through ninety minutes of exactly the kind of dull, detailed policy discussion that they have been avoiding all summer to remain low-information.

Where the debates do have an effect, evidently, is in the longer run. There are tens of millions of voters tuning in, almost all of whom have already made up their minds about who to vote for, and this is an unusual chance for the candidates to speak to them at length. The candidate can signal what he thinks is important—tax breaks, investment or the deficit; the economy, jobs or national security; health care, infrastructure or gay marriage; liberty, equality or fraternity. Last night, for instance, Our Only President talked a lot about teachers and education within the context of his Race to the Top program; should he serve a second term, it’s very likely that he really would protect that program and seek more funding for it. That tells us, as partisans, that (for better or worse), that we are backing education reform these days. On the other hand, Our Only President barely mentioned an energy policy at all, and notably refused to defend federal investment in green energy. So clearly we aren’t all excited about that.

Obviously, that has limited effect—the Democratic base is, in fact, highly skeptical about Race to the Top and also keenly interested in energy policy. But it does indicate to us where the Administration is, and thus where we need to put pressure if we want it to move. But within the delicate balance of what we want and what he wants and what he wants us to want, the tens of millions watching the debates make the words into very public touchstones for the Party’s future.

What concerns me, then, about Mitt Romney’s performance is that not only did he utterly repudiate the Mitt Romney of the Republican Primaries, but that he seems to have done so with only the most muted complaint from his Party. This was a Mitt Romney who bragged about his time as Governor of Massachusetts! What was the over-under line on mentions of Massachusetts, because he wound up with 5, just counting the word, and in his closing statement said he would put in place the kind of principles that I put in place in my own state. He talked about his bipartisan credentials. He talked about common ground. He talked about the necessity for regulation, and he talked about caring for those that have difficulties, those that are elderly and have problems and challenges, those that are disabled. We care for them. In a conversation about domestic issues, he very specifically did not mention abortion, the so-called defense of marriage, immigration or guns. I don’t know what the Tea Party heard last night, but it can’t have been reassuring at all. And yet, it appears that they don’t mind.

I think this is more than the usual running-to-the-center. I could be wrong; I am scarcely in a position to tell. But it smells to me like this is a Party and a candidate who have unhooked their expectations from their rhetoric altogether. Which means that if Mitt Romney does take the office he is seeking, which could well happen, he may feel himself unconstrained by the kind of political stuff that usually constrains him. By the will of the Party as given force by the party actors, donors, officials, press and patronage climbers of all kinds and made manifest within the rhetoric of the candidate. You know, by democracy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 13, 2012

Less than Zero

Y’all know how I feel about the deficit. Right? I don’t give a crap about it. The U.S. federal debt would have to be crazy, much bigger than it is now, in order to cause real economic problems. And to the extent that I care about the debt at all, it’s clear to me that the engine for reducing the deficit (and therefore the debt) is through a combination of economic growth and price inflation, not through spending cuts or revenue increases. I don’t have much objection to revenue increases—I would object to them during really bad economic times, sure, but during good times if we want to balance the budget by raising taxes, that’s fine with me. As far as I’m concerned, the real benefit to a high rate of taxes on the super-wealthy is to mitigate the problem of the existence of the super-wealthy—it is a problem that there are fifty thousand people or so with so much wealth, and therefore so much influence over the institutions of power, that they can choose viciousness and destruction with impunity. Reducing their power by reducing their wealth (relative to that of the country at large) (at least at first the country—one could make a similar argument about the fifty million or so people who can treat the world’s institutions of power with contempt, and that would probably include Your Humble Blogger and all the Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu, and that argument would be entirely correct, too, but admit of even less practical correction) would be the main reason for a millionaire’s surtax of 75% or so; balancing the budget, if it happened, would merely be a side benefit.

But there it is: I am far from the mainstream of political thought.

What is the mainstream of political thought? It seems to me that we have three large tributaries.

  • Most of my Party currently feels that deficit spending during a recession or a war is a regrettable necessity, and that in peaceful, prosperous times we should run a surplus to reduce the debt accordingly. The balance should be balanced not year to year but over a longer period, with various groups competing via legislative compromise for what spending there is. This means that there are a few policies that are higher priorities than Deficit Reduction (reduction of unemployment below 6% or so, widespread access to health care, mitigation of the worst aspects of poverty particularly for children and the elderly, national security) but that many preferred policies (education, housing, immigration, etc) that get put on the back burner when they are in conflict with this multi-year concept of budgeting.
  • There are a handful of real Deficit Hawks (or what Jonathan Bernstein calls deficit idealists) who think that the government should reduce the debt to zero and keep it there, even if it means that their policy preferences do not get put into place. These come from both Parties (and outside them, to the extent that people outside the two Parties are relevant) and while one can say that their consistency is a jewel, like a jewel it is amazing how much some people are willing to give up for it. On the other hand, it does seem that many elite opinion-makers believe themselves to be in this group, and say lovely things about the other people they think are in this group.
  • Most of the Other Party currently feels that deficit spending is morally indefensible, and that it ranks as a priority well below any other of their other policy preferences. Furthermore, they consider compromise with political opposites morally indefensible Thus, when their policy preferences concerning immigration, national defense, taxes, regulation, energy, education, family law, climate change, poverty, national security or any other topic are in conflict with deficit reduction, they must rhetorically claim that they are not in conflict, and that in fact higher spending on the military, for instance, or a stricter immigration law, or a lower top tax rate, leads to deficit reduction through economic growth. Or through righteousness. Or something.

There is your Left, Center and Right on the topic. I am not even in the Left—except to the extent that you can stretch the Left one out to the point where the back-burner preferred-if-there’s-no-deficit-problem part is very nearly empty. I’m closer to the opinion I see on the Other Party, where I am happy to reduce the deficit except when it interferes with my actual policy preferences. But it isn’t symmetrical that way, at least not for the last twenty-odd years. And it’s symmetrical the wrong way for me—someone in the Other Party who doesn’t give a crap about the debt can ignore everything that Paul D. Ryan says about the terror of being crushed under the debt burden, knowing that he will never, ever, ever give up on one of his Party’s policy goals to reduce that debt. For Your Humble Blogger, it’s the other way around—no matter how much Our Only President may agree with my on one or another piece of policy, I cannot know whether it will be put on the back burner in order to satisfy the higher priority of deficit reductions.

Ah, well. It’s a democracy, is what it is.

For further reading: Larry Bartels on the Fiscal Facts of Life and Paul Waldman on Phony Hawkery.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 9, 2012

The Tax Fiasco

A thing about the tax fiasco that hasn’t, I think, been sufficiently highlighted by Left Blogovia is that Harry Reid isn’t accusing Willard “Mitte ” Romney of a crime. He’s saying (that his source claims) that Mr. Romney quite legally paid no income tax for ten years.

By the way, things like this note, which does focus on the legal nature of the tax minimization, gets too hung up on whether Mr. Reid really has a credible source. All we would need for that, really, is somebody who was investing in (or considering investing in) Bain or one of Bain’s deals, who asked whether the tax set-up was kosher and was told Hey, we’re all clean here—Mitte hasn’t paid any income tax at all for ten years and the Governor! I find it totally plausible that some big-money Dem was, at some point, putting money into a Bain deal and was told that by somebody at Bain. Which isn’t really relevant to the foofaraw, when you get down to it.

What is relevant to the foofaraw, I think, is that Willard “Mitte” Romney (a) is very, very rich, (2) he gets richer and richer and richer, in quantities that most of us would find absurdly large, without (evidently) doing any paid work whatsoever, and (iii) the amount of taxes he pays, while quite likely very large in absolute numbers, is probably fairly small when viewed either as a percentage of his wealth or as a percentage of the increase in his wealth. I would like to know, myself, what his net worth was when he (ahem) left Bain in 1999, what it is now, and where all of that new money came from during those years of unemployment or unpaid employment, and how much tax he paid on that new money. But I doubt that he cheated. And even if you might possibly suspect that he would be willing to break the law, or (as with the undocumented workers his landscaper hired) people working for him might break the law to his benefit but without his knowledge or approval, that’s not what Sen. Reid said.

What Sen. Reid said that is that he didn’t pay taxes for ten years, and that he would be embarrassed to admit it, because it would look so lousy. There were (according to Politifact, which was disliked the Senator’s statement) more than twenty thousand people with income over $200,000 that paid no income tax. Of course, Willard “Mitte” Romney made twenty times that $200,000 mark in 2010—and by made, I mean reported as Adjusted Gross Income, which is a different thing than the difference in wealth from one year to another. Still and all, it’s not only possible for rich people to pay no income tax but actually done, and done by twenty thousand people a year. Not to mention that it’s plausible that either Sen. Reid or the putative source said didn’t pay taxes and meant something more like paid 1%. Which has the trouble of being, you know, next-to-nothing, while still being a gigantic fuckload of money. If you could buy my house with that nothing, it’s not nothing—but it’s also nothing, in terms of what the federal government might expect to take in from the extremely wealthy.

Which leads me to point out… what is also relevant to the foofaraw is that during all that time, Senator Harry Reid has participated in and presided over a legislative body that sets the rates at which people pay taxes. He was Whip from 1999 to 2005 and Leader since then. His views on the relative tax rates of millionaires are important. His views on the differing rates of capital gains and earned income are relevant. His views on the rules governing retirement accounts, shell corporations and trust funds are relevant.

In other words, if a very wealthy man paid no taxes for ten years—or even very little in taxes—then it’s Harry Reid’s fault.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 2, 2012

Why is Marc Thiessen so awful at writing columns?

So, it’s not like I care what Marc Thiessen has to say about anything. Let’s be clear about that. When you become known primarily as a torture apologist, well, that’s pretty much that, right? Still, I found this perplexing in his Washington Post column called Why are Republicans so awful at picking Supreme Court justices?

Another factor is that liberal Supreme Court nominees can tell you precisely how they stand on key issues and still get confirmed. In her 1993 confirmation hearings, Ginsburg declared the right to abortion “central to a woman’s life, to her dignity” and was confirmed 96 to 3. Breyer declared abortion a “basic right” and was confirmed 87-9. Imagine if a conservative nominee said the opposite? Their confirmation battle would be a nuclear war.

Liberal nominees can simply affirm liberal positions, while conservatives must speak cryptically in terms of their judicial philosophy.

In other words, if a nominee were to state in a confirmation hearing that he utterly rejects the state of the law as it now stands and vows to overturn decided precedent, specifically to take away reproductive choices that women now take for granted, overturning a decision with widespread popular support, then there would be a nuclear war. Which I think is a terrible metaphor, by the way. The nominee would just lose the vote; hardly anyone would have to die. Still, yeah, if a nominee said that sort of thing, the vote would go against them. Whereas, evidently, Mr. Thiessen thinks that a nominee should be able to spout unpopular views that conflict with settled law and have that play no part whatsoever in the confirmation voting.

Really, can I say? Liberal nominees, and I am going to use Mr. Thiessen’s term even though I have written before about the contemporary view of Ruth Bader Ginsberg as a moderate, do get to clearly talk about how they agree with popular decisions and still be confirmed. Shocker! Conservative nominees do not get to clearly talk about how they would prefer to take us back to a Gilded Age view of federal power, dismantling popular and longstanding federal programs, and still be confirmed. Shocker! I am baffled by the difference between how these two types of people are treated by the Senate.

It’s not entirely about the left and right tribes, by the way. I’m not sure that a liberal nominee could, at this point, be confirmed after testifying that he would like to overturn Gregg v Georgia, agreeing with Justices Brennan and Marshall that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. The Senate doesn’t tend to get all excited about confirming people who will overturn popular decisions on either side.

But here’s the question, and perhaps it’s worth thinking about. Does Mr. Thiessen know perfectly well the difference between reaffirming popular decisions and overturning them? Does he mistakenly think that Roe v Wade is unpopular? Is he knowingly using a spurious argument because he thinks this sort of thing is persuasive? If that’s it, who does he think would be persuaded by this sort of thing? Or is this kind of thing just a smokescreen for branding Justices Ginsberg and Breyer as liberal, and by extension branding other Justices as liberal as well, hinting that this is out of the mainstream, despite their actually mainstream views?

I guess what I’m saying is that I am baffled by the idea that there could be any point to these paragraphs whatsoever. I mean. The straightforward interpretation, the other-audience interpretation, the whole thing. It seems to me that anyone reading this, a Conservative or a Liberal, anyone who might possibly be reading an op-ed sort of column in the first place, would read this and think what a maroon!

Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe he’s really this dim, after all. I mean, he did write speeches for Our Previous President.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 13, 2012

I Call Bullshit

OK, while Your Humble Blogger is on about the ACA and bullshit—you know how I’ve said that the phrase judicial activism is the ne plus ultra of bullshit? I think that may be wrong. I think the phrase small business may be the ne plus ultra of bullshit.

I don’t know if y’all have heard the story. It’s being presented as a gaffe, I guess, and maybe it is one, and I suspect if you follow political blogs, you will have heard it. A reporter at a local ABC-TV affiliate in Iowa asked Our Only President about a small business that “ had to close, and move 111 jobs to Wisconsin, because of health care reform you put forward”, and Our Only President was all, like, hunh? Because there isn’t any part of the legislation in the actual Affordable Care Act that placed any obligations on small businesses yet, other than, I suppose, reporting on some stuff to qualify for the new tax credits. Well, and there are some other reporting issues, I believe, but (a) some of those are not really part of Obamacare, even if they are part of the actual ACA legislation, and (2) some of them aren’t actually part of ACA at all, but went into effect at the time ACA was in the news. But it’s seriously unlikely that anybody was put out of business because of new obligations in the ACA.

And, in fact, the business that the reporter names in his story, Nemschoff chairs, in Sioux Center, did not “close”. It did consolidate factories, which resulted in fewer jobs in Iowa (and more in Wisconsin), and if you are in Iowa, that’s a bad thing, but there’s a difference between a business closing and a factory closing—and since part of the point of the ACA is that there won’t be so much difference in state regulations, it really seems unclear why that would happen “because of health care reform [Our Only President] put forward”.

Except, well… did you click through to the Nemschoff site? Because it’s actually Nemschoff Healthcare Furniture, and while the spokesman denies that the factory closing is related to health care reform, he did say that one issue with the decreased demand for his chairs may be that instead of just implementing the damn’ reform already, the Other Party is throwing a shitfit, so nobody knows what the fuck is up. That last bit is a paraphrase. But I’m guessing a close paraphrase.

Anyway. Left Blogovia has been on about all of that, how when Willard “Mitte” Romney says that this episode shows that Out Only President is “out of touch” in fact Our Only President was completely correct, and more, that when a reporter asked him a question that contained an incorrect premise, he spotted it and responded correctly. So there.

But what got me all riled up was that the reporter said small businesses like it was a magic incantation, and even while being correctly skeptical, Our Only President said “it’s tough running a small business no matter what.” And you know? I’m sure it is. But the small business we’re talking about—Nemschoff—have you clicked through yet? Because down in the bottom right corner, you may notice that Nemschoff is A HermanMiller Healthcare Company. Yes, Herman Miller, the worldwide furniture corporation with more than a billion dollars a year in net sales. That’s your small business.

Any time you hear anyone say that small businesses drive employment in this country, or that small businesses are the backbone of the economy, or even that we need to provide more tax breaks to make small businesses more competitive, remember that Nemschoff Chairs, the small business who had to close their Iowa plant and move to Wisconsin, which wasn’t because of the ACA anyway, is A HermanMiller Healthcare Company. And a small business, too boot. And, here’s another thing: they’re one of the good guys. At least, as far as I can tell, they are reasonably good corporate citizens, making actual products and selling them, and so on and so forth. And even there, the idea that we need to make them more competitive as a small business is just utter, utter bullshit.

Do you know what else is a small business? Every McDonald’s franchise in the country is a small business. Well, probably not every one, as I guess a guy who owns ten of them is probably no longer a small business under the law. Unless, I suppose, he owns two small businesses that each own five, because I can’t imagine it would be hard to do that and still qualify for small business loans and small business tax credits and small business salt-of-the-earth stuff. And fine, whatever—a lot of those guys are great people, treat their employees as well as they can as McDonald’s owners, donate a lot of money, fund scholarships, sponsor teams, all that stuff. Good on them. But I’m not going to go all teary-eyed about them as the backbone of the great American rugged individualism, and they sure as hell don’t need government support to be competitive against—who? Other McDonald’s owners? Other small-businessmen running pizza joints and taquerias?

What I’m saying is that while the whole premise of the question was a lie, the whole fucking premise of the whole fucking conversation is the biggest pile of bullshit you ever laid eyes on. And the it’s bullshit when Our Only President talks about investment in small businesses, too—that investment in all those franchises is getting sucked right up to the corporation, and the investment into Nemschoff is getting sucked right up to corporation, and that’s not even starting in on the hedge fund managers who are their own corporations. And it’s all, all, all bullshit. It’s not the backbone of the economy. It’s bullshit. It’s not the driving force of employment. It’s bullshit. It’s not the Real America. Do you know what it is? It’s bullshit, is what. Bullshit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Words, words, words.

I can’t remember what set me off this time, so I don’t have a link, but about ACA/Obamacare… it’s the mandate that’s unpopular, right? Most of the other provisions are popular, and why wouldn’t they be, and the mandate is what pays for them, more or less the bribe we give to the insurance companies to make it all work. I know, it’s not even close to a bribe, but I’m just saying: the rest of it is the stuff everybody wants, and the mandate is the stuff we have to have to get the rest of it. Right?

But what polls badly, I assume, is the word mandate. We have some negative connotations with it. Even funded mandates don’t seem like a good thing, and of course we assume now that the word before mandate is supposed to be unfunded, which is actively a bad thing (and probably is a bad thing) so mandates are bad. Even more than that: if it’s mandated that you must have health insurance, and you have negative connotations with health insurance companies (and who doesn’t), it sure seems like the law is forcing you to spend hours filling out paperwork, sharing embarrassing personal details, and waiting on hold to talk with intransigents jobsworths in customer so-called service. That’s not going to be popular at all.

The thing is, though, that as far as I can tell, the law does not actually force you to have health insurance at all. You can choose not to. You just pay a sort of premium to stay outside the system. It’s called a fine, in most of the things I have read about it, and that’s not the sort of word that tests well, but essentially, you pay a certain amount of money and you can exempt yourself from the mandatory health insurance. Which means it isn’t exactly mandatory. It’s opt-out, with an opt-out fee.

Which means that in essence, unless I am vastly misunderstanding this, we are just raising the taxes on uninsured people. And helping people become insured, and making sure that they are really choosing to be uninsured, and insisting that insurance companies are willing to insure them, and having all the other good stuff, and also: raising taxes on uninsured people. Would that be more popular than a mandate?

If you still don’t like it, how about this: since any time you have two different levels, you can arbitrarily decide which of them is the benchmark, what we are doing is giving a tax break for people who have health insurance. You can call it a mandate, or you can say that people who have health insurance will pay less in taxes than people who choose not to have health insurance.

That doesn’t seem to me like a lie. And it doesn’t seem to me like it would be horrifically unpopular. It would be unpopular with the people who don’t want to pay for health insurance, sure, but that’s because the entire policy is designed to eliminate the free rider problem, and the free riders aren’t going to like the policy no matter what it’s called. And people who don’t like the actual policy, that is, the people who know what the policy is and don’t like it, well, people have actual policy preference that are different one to another, which is what makes governing interesting and fun. But for most people who only have the vaguest notion what ACA actually is, and are really only half-listening to the pollster anyway, I suspect that you could change the poll answers pretty easily. You could just announce: instead of a mandate, the new Obamacare plan has a higher tax rate for people who choose not to enroll in a health care plan and a tax break for everyone who has health insurance.

Some Gentle Readers (who haven’t disagreed with me about it from the beginning of this note) are now asking themselves or their nearest and dearest, why don’t they do that? Why don’t they artificially inflate the poll numbers of their signature legislative achievement? Here’s another question, though: why should they bother? The policy is what it is; when it finally gets implemented people will have real feelings about it. In the meantime, it doesn’t actually make much difference whether people like part of it but not the other part. And, I suspect, even if they liked all the parts individually, it might well not move the numbers on the whole thing together. In the meantime, I’m sure somebody would screw up the new language, because people always do screw up the new language, and it would be a hassle. While people writing speeches should craft their words carefully, and it’s generally worth paying attention to the connotations of words as much as their meanings, the real point is that the policy—people who choose not to pay for health insurance will pay a higher tax than those who choose to pay for health insurance—is not going to be unpopular just because it’s called a mandate. Rhetoric matters, but that doesn’t mean that the polls accurate reflect the way it matters.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 9, 2012

Not About Bribery

I’d like y’all’s opinion of notion that I started noodling with due largely to Jon Bernstein’s commentary on the marginal value of campaign dollars. The idea, obvious enough, is that while an incumbent president’s reelection campaign can raise gazillions of dollars easily enough, it is also that campaign that will find it hardest to actually change votes with its expenditures. Almost everyone in the country knows the President of the United States, or at least they think they do, and neither ten ads nor a thousand will change their minds at this point. At the other end of the scale, it’s hard for a city councilor to raise money for a State Assembly seat’s primary, but since almost none of the voters know anything about either the city counselor or the sitting Assemblyman, there’s a lot of room for persuasion. This is the sort of thing that seems obvious, and is obvious, once you think of it, if you do think of it.

This is not to say that if you are looking to influence policy outcomes, you should never donate to the reelection campaign of an incumbent president. You can make more of a difference in a primary campaign for a seat in your State Assembly, but then if your candidate wins election, that person will only make a little difference in the seat. Individual state legislators are not terribly powerful, and in many states the sum total of a rookie representative’s power is in voting for the Party Leadership. And in general campaigns, people at the top of the tickets (Governors, Presidents, etc) can have coattails, too. So you may want to pick your spot along the spectrum of ambition, where your preferred candidate is already well-known enough to be running for (and have a chance at winning) a somewhat powerful position, and yet a blank enough slate to a good portion of voters to make the campaign money useful in persuasion.

And, of course, if you don’t have a very large chuck of money ready to donate, you can get a bigger effect by aggregating your money together with other people’s money, often through some sort of issue or interest group. The aggregation drawback is that the people need to agree on which candidates to support at which levels, and it’s easier to sell your organization’s donors on somebody they have heard of—and by the rule I was talking about up there, the more the donors have heard of a candidate, the less useful their donations are. And, of course, the more money your group spends on deciding which candidate to donate to, the less you have to donate.

Digression: When I talk about donating money, here, much the same applies to donating time and effort. It’s not quite the same, but much of this stuff applies to phone bank hours, going door-to-door, yard signs and even conversations with acquaintances. Even the concept of aggregating is applicable, although of course there are things that more easily transfer across the country (money, telephone calls) and things that don’t (yard signs, conversations). One of the odd things in 2008 was the way in which people in Connecticut could make campaign calls from their home lines to Indiana and North Carolina through the campaign organization; this kind of donation isn’t entirely lossless but it’s impressively close. Anyway, if the money-in-politics stuff squicks you out, you can substitute phonebank work, if you like, or I suppose there could be some sort of organized Patch-bombing. End Digression.

Are you still with me? Jon wrote about Money and 2012 over at his Plain Blog, and made a point that so far (and we’re a good way through the primary cycle) most of the Big Money has been going along partisan lines, rather than based on issues. I don’t know how accurate this is (he’s not a reporter, and doesn’t go through the reports and make calls the way a reporter does) (or at least the way I imagine a reporter does, and the way some reporters actually do, right?) but it brings up this notion that I am going to finally start asking about. Ready?

Could issue-based groups do some serious work in cross-party primaries to nominate heterodox people? Here’s what I mean: Find an open US House seat that is most likely going to be in the Other Party’s hands after the general election. Find a member of the Other Party who is willing to cross the line on Your Issue. Dump a million dollars into the primary campaign. By the time the general election comes around, you will probably have two candidates who agree with you on your issue, or perhaps three candidates, two of which will split the Other Party’s vote, which is even better. Most likely, though, you now have a U.S. Rep who (a) knows that your organization gave her some absurdly high percentage of her campaign budget for the primary, and (2) already is in sympathy with you on one issue, and is certainly going to be willing to chat with you about your more general concerns.

The problem, as you’ve spotted, is that in today’s political world, it’s not going to be easy to find that person in the Other Party who agrees with you on that one issue, while having that one issue be important enough to raise a million dollars on. Abortion rights, for instance, is almost certainly out now, while this sort of thing was fairly common for those groups a couple of decades ago. Similarly, marriage equality is out at the US House level (tho’ more useful and potentially more doable at the State Senate level in a blue state) as are collective bargaining, climate change preparation and (probably) immigration. My idea is Net Neutrality—I don’t think that enough primary voters in the Other Party care about Net Neutrality to make it impossible to find a plausible Mayor or State Senator who either already supports it or is willing to support it. And it’s a reasonably important issue, which may well see legislation come up soon; it would probably be worth diverting a million dollars of Presidential Re-Election money (of low marginal utility anyway) to change the text of that legislation or have an additional aisle-crosser on it.

And, given the current rules, it should be possible to set all this up behind sufficient dummy screens that the voters in the district won’t know why such-and-such a group supports the candidate in question, while the candidate in question would very much know why. Which would have the desired effect, I would think. I’m guessing the money could be raised, and I think that is probably the best issue for the pin. What do you think?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 31, 2012

So many meanings, so much paint

The Official Portrait of Our Previous President has been unveiled and added to the collection at the White House. It’s hideous.

Official Portrait 43

The reason I am bringing it up is not because it’s hideous. There are a number of hideous Official Portraits in the White House. If this is the worst of them, it’s at least close. William J. Clinton is very nearly as bad, or perhaps just a trifle worse. No, the reason Your Humble Blogger brings it up is because on the wall behind the man is his favoritest painting ever. As he said at today’s press conference:

In the portrait, there’s a painting by W.H.D. Koerner called, "A Charge to Keep." It hung in the Oval Office for eight years of my presidency. I asked John to include it, because it reminds me of the wonderful people with whom I was privileged to serve. Whether they served in the Cabinet or on the presidential staff, these men and women -- many of whom are here -- worked hard and served with honor. We had a charge to keep and we kept the charge.

Your Humble Blogger has written before about the entertaining history of the painting. It’s now, I think, a fairly well-known story. Does Our Previous President still not know it? Does he not care?

Somehow, I love the fact that in the official portrait of that man, there is a painting on the wall with such a rich combination of meanings. He thinks the fellow in the painting is keeping his charge, staying on the rocky and steep path. I think the fellow in the painting is moving from town to town, pillaging whatever he can find. Are we both right? Can we both be right? Can one painting illustrate both stories? Does the hymn fall into the non-fiction category, any more than the Saturday Evening Post story it first illustrated?

What does it mean that Our Previous President, such a firm believer in the resolute and fixed, has as a touchstone an item of such conspicuously unfixed meaning? And use it as a touchstone, have it actually work to increase his resolutions and fixations.

This wouldn’t work in fiction, boys. It’s got too damn many levels.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 29, 2012

Something's Coming, I dunno what it is, but it is, gonna be

So. I don’t know if y’all have read the Mark Halperin interview with Willard “Mitte” Romney in the upcoming issue of Time—I promise I am not going to make this Tohu Bohu over into a a complaints-about-Mitte blog for the next five months, really I’m not. I just sometimes see stuff and want to point it out…anyway, there have been a bunch of people in Left Blogovia posting about various things in the full transcript. There are a lot of things in it, actually, that reward the snark, as one would imagine of any interview with a newly crowned presidential candidate.

I also think that its dangerous for one’s understanding to read this stuff looking for the Real Person that lies behind it, or for the clues to what the candidate Really Thinks, or the cracks through which the Real Candidate is visible. That way eisegesis lies.

I do have to point this out, though. Mr. Halperin has asked about the automatic cuts in spending (including defense) that are scheduled for January 1, 2012. If Mr. Romney wins, does he want the Congress and Our Only President to address those cuts between the election and January 1? The Governor says he does not. Actually, he says “Of course not.” Mr. Halperin then, quite reasonably, follows up to ask if it wouldn’t be a problem for large-scale cuts that Mr. Romney opposes to take effect almost three weeks before Mr. Romney is sworn in.

Nah.

His response: “Well actually if I’m lucky enough to be elected the consumers and the small-business people in this country will realize that they have a friend in the White House, who is actively going to encourage economic growth, and there will be a resurgence in confidence in this country and a willingness to take risks, to invest, to add employees.”

In other words, just the fact of his election will be enough to encourage economic growth, without actually passing or implementing the policies that he says people will want. He believes that if he is elected he will improve the economy before taking office. No wonder he thinks that it makes sense to count job losses in January 2008 as taking place under Our Only President. He is taking credit for economic growth in November and December 2012.

I don’t blame Mr. Halperin for not asking the next question, which seems to be obvious:

Governor Romney… do you have a Plan B?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 26, 2012

culture and values

I know this is late and all, but I can’t let it go. Here’s a quote from Willard “Mitte” Romney’s speech to Liberty University on May twelfth:

The American culture promotes personal responsibility, the dignity of work, the value of education, the merit of service, devotion to a purpose greater than self, and, at the foundation, the pre-eminence of the family.

The power of these values is evidenced by a Brookings Institution study that Sen. Rick Santorum brought to my attention. For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2%. But, if those things are absent, 76% will be poor. Culture matters.

OK, first of all, saying people with no education, job or spouse are often poor is not altogether a shocker. But what he is really saying—I should say, what I infer that he is saying—is that poor people are poor because they had sex without first having obtained job, education or a spouse. This is not so. Had they remained unemployed, uneducated single virgins, they would have been poor. Childless and poor. There are childless poor, you know, and many of them don’t have full-time jobs. Some of them do, which is another issue, but many of them don’t.

And, in point of fact, many of the people (such as Your Humble Blogger) who had all the middle-class advantages also had sex when we were teenagers. Some of us were prepared, and used contraceptives of one kind or another, which is also part of American culture (I’ll get to that), but frankly some of us were idiots and got away with it, or were idiots and got pregnant and didn’t carry to term, or, perhaps, were in the quarter of unwed unemployed teenage parents who are not poor. Because we had those middle-class advantages. Because the sex didn’t cause the poverty. Because the sex isn’t even a symptom of the poverty.

I haven’t let go of this almost two weeks after the speech because it seems to me a terribly mean-spirited, blind and arrogant thing to say. The college graduates listening were able to congratulate themselves that they had not done The Thing that makes people poor. If they were listening (it was, after all, a commencement speech) and took it to heart, what it taught them was to treat the poor with contempt and hostility: they are poor because they were irresponsible; they were irresponsible because they lacked American values. The poor are always with us, but they aren’t really with us. They aren’t even really American.

And that’s what gets my goat—it’s not a surprise to hear someone from the Other Party slagging the poor. It makes me angry, but it doesn’t surprise me. It seems to be an article of faith, in the Other Party, that the poor deserve no better than poverty (with the possible exception of infants and very young children, and maybe virgins in their early teens) and the rich deserve no less than riches. It’s wrong, and it’s despicably wrong, and it happens all the time, and I wish My Party would express more outrage more openly about it. But this context—that the poor have rejected American culture in making themselves poor—is really loathesome.

Willard ”Mitte” Romney doesn’t get to decide what American Culture is or is not. He is no longer—and never ought to have been—the haircut monitor who protected the straights from the hippies. The hippies were American culture, which promoted love, community and terrible smells. American culture promotes shallow celebrity worship and prideful ignorance; American culture promotes sexual redefinition and radical inclusion. American culture promotes arrogance, greed and war; American culture promotes humility, liberality and peace. American culture is a big thing. Culture matters, yes. But the Other Party doesn’t get to draw a line around some fabricated, abridged, narrow subset and say that it owns American culture and that everything else is foreign.

Because the thing that the nominee is on about, to the extent that it exists—the culture of poverty, promiscuity and crime, the inner city infantilism that he may have experienced in the occasional film and thinks he recognizes when driving through Jamaica Plain—to the extent that it exists, that is American culture, too. What else is it? Where did it come from? Where was it created? If you think there is such a culture of poverty, then it is surely as American as apple pie.

There will be a lot of rhetoric, this summer and autumn, that will hint at who is really American and who is not. Some of it will hint; some will be far beyond hinting. Not all of it will be racist, either, although it will be hard not to see race in it, too. Some of Left Blogovia will call it out; I hope some of our elected officials and surrogates will call it out. I hope to call it out, too. I hope you will call it out, too, Gentle Reader.

Because ultimately, American culture is what we all say it is. If we want a radically inclusive American culture, a Walt Whitman culture, a democratic culture, if we want an American culture, we have to be it ourselves.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 1, 2012

Passing the milestone in reverse

So here’s my question: is it wrong to find this funny?

The recent hiring of Richard Grenell, Mitt Romney’s openly gay foreign-policy spokesman, represents a breakthrough in the world of Republican presidential campaigns.

Which would make the slightly-more-recent resignation of Mr. Grenell a… breakback in the world of Republican presidential campaigns? Or is the funniest part when Molly Ball writes that “Some activists cautioned that Romney shouldn’t be given too much credit”? To Ms. Ball’s credit, her update is called Romney’s Gay Spokesman: So Much for That. Tho’ I would say that the tone of the piece is not sufficiently shamefaced for being taken in so completely.

The correct answer to the question I started with is probably that it’s not wrong to find it funny, so long as I keep in mind that it isn’t funny at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 28, 2012

Parties being Parties

The news that a bunch of leaders from The Other Party got together on January 20, 2009 (according to Robert Draper’s new book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do) to sketch out a plan “to not just win back political power, but to also put the brakes on Obama’s legislative platform” has been causing a minor uproar in Left Blogovia.

I want to say this: If Mitt Romney wins the presidential election on November Sixth, I sure as hell hope that leaders from My Party get together well before January—Monday, November 26 is open—to discuss ways to win back power and to put the brakes on Mitt Romney’s legislative platform.

Understand this, too: if the economy is good, and there isn’t an international disaster of some kind, it’s very likely that Our Only President will be reelected to another term. Such a scenario would likely lead to a sweep of the legislative houses as well, and might be a rout. Which means that a Mitt Romney presidency would begin at a moment of terrifying vulnerability for our fellow Americans, and that absent some sort of coherent action from My Party, a legislative agenda that I believe would reduce the protection for the more vulnerable of my compatriots would become law. Putting the brakes on that would be a Good Thing.

What that would mean would be in large part the topic of discussion. I would hope that the leaders of My Party would come up with something better than the stuff the Other Party has been doing, something more responsible and reality-based and rational. Sure. But in theory the Other Party could have done that, too. The problem isn’t that the Other Party was scheming to prevent what they saw as a destructive political agenda from being implemented. The problem isn’t even that they attempted to prevent any political agenda from being implemented, although that was destructive and wrong. The problem was that in order to win back political power, they chose to promote people who incite hatred and fear, and they chose to lie, and they chose to let loose the worst elements within the Party, and they chose to make unrealistic promises, and, well, this is what I wanted to say: I hope My Party’s leaders do meet as a cabal to win back political power and put the brakes on the Other Party’s legislative platform, and I also hope that they act honorably and responsibly. I’m not appalled that the Other Party did the first of those, and I already knew that they didn’t do the second.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 25, 2012

Funny/Not Funny

So, here’s something I thought of today whilst watching this bit from Late Night:

Ready for my point? I thought so.

I think that a few years ago, when Our Previous President was in office, the audience for this sort of thing would have preferred to see Will Farrell portraying the President than to see the President himself. Now, the funny part is that it actually is Our Only President on the show. Part of that is the times, I’m sure, but part of it is that, well, Our Only President is that cool.

Also, for those who missed it, here’s Our Only President with the White House Blues All-Stars:

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 17, 2012

Deficit Fraud, still

I was going to write about Paul Ryan’s budget fraud, but it turns out I already did. Pretty much everything I said there about Rep. Ryan, his party, the deficit, the debt, the budget, health care costs… I still think it’s all true. I haven’t changed my mind about the situation, and the situation hasn’t changed.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 13, 2012

More fun with Politifactuality

So. Your Humble Blogger has been cranky of late about—well, actually, I’ve just been cranky. But what I’m writing about started with Mitt Romney starting to use in his stump speeches and on the web site the line that “Women account for 92.3 percent of the jobs lost under Obama.” The utterly useless Politifact (about which YHB has ranted before) called it mostly false. Greg Sargent over at the Washington Post outright called it a falsehood in a note titled Keep an eye on the Big Lie. The NBC political blog First Read asks Does anyone believe, with a straight face, that nine in 10 job losses over the past three years have been women workers?

Y’all know where I’m going with this, right? Yes. Mitt Romney’s claim happens to be true. You should believe it, with a face as straight as you like, because nine in ten job losses over the past three years have been women workers.

It’s not a lie.

Now, it’s being used in a misleading manner, sure. Mr. Romney seems to be implying that this disparity in job losses stems from some action of the Administration, either through deliberately destroying jobs for women or through a particular kind of neglect that happened to affect women more than men. In fact, many of those job losses were in the first couple of months of Our Only President’s administration, before his policies had come into effect. Mitt Romney has not identified what particular policies he thinks led to this disparity, nor is he saying how he (or anyone) might have done anything differently that would have led to fewer job losses among women in those first three months of 2009. So it winds up being a kind of free-floating fact-without-context, much like blaming Our Only President for the batting collapse of England’s cricket team in the Test Series against Pakistan last year. The argument is crazy, but the fact is, well, a fact. Not mostly false, not a falsehood, not a big lie.

And then, when you look into the fact further, you see some things I find interesting. For one thing, it had never occurred to me that the curve of job loss and job recovery would find women trailing men in both parts of the curve. This seems to be one of those things that economists know (or “know”) but aren’t common knowledge. So there’s that. And, when you think about it, it makes some sense that layoffs hit factory workers and construction workers first, and then, if things are still bad, the support staff goes (perhaps as the whole business goes under). Given the gender breakdown as things are at present, then, the curve would be pushed to one side. The inauguration of Our Only President coincided (mostly coincidentally) with the beginning of the turnaround in jobs, so it happens that women’s job losses were still going up at that moment, while men’s job losses had crested. That coincidence of timing is not, perhaps, all that Interesting, but it’s still a fact.

It also seems to be the case that the bulk of the disparity comes from a disparity in public sector job losses. Women make up a disproportionate number of public sector workers, and the layoffs in 2009 were largely in the public sector, as states reacted to revenue losses by cutting their costs. This means that the disparity in the first three months of 2009 was in fact a partisan issue: it was largely due to the Other Party’s policies prevailing, and to my Party’s policy’s being stymied. Had more of what we called stimulus money been made available to the states, or had just more money been made available to states, or even had more Democratic legislators in more states found more ways to pander to the public sector unions, then fewer women would have lost their jobs during that time. Mitt Romney doesn’t talk about that.

The thing that really drives me crazy, though, about this whole thing—other than seeing people whose other stuff I want to trust call a true statement a lie—is that the campaign, in cherry-picking a statistic to make a (to my mind) fraudulent case against Our Only President, managed to find one that is technically true, but which nobody would believe. As the NBC people said, it doesn’t pass the straight-face test—not because it’s false, because it’s not, but because it’s implausible. Literally incredible. This is heightened by the ethos problem that Mitt Romney is known to say things that are not, shall we say, operative at a time other than the speaking of them. As a result, the reaction people have to Mitt Romney (or his surrogates) making an implausible statement is, I would think, simple disbelief. This isn’t very persuasive. I would imagine that the campaign wants people to hear “Women account for 92.3 percent of the jobs lost under Obama” and think This is a failed presidency or even I may be willing to support an anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-equality candidate because job losses disproportionately hit vulnerable groups (or just because job losses hit their own demographic). I think that instead people hear “Women account for 92.3 percent of the jobs lost under Obama” and think No way, he’s making shit up again.

What’s the incentive, then, for Mitt Romney to stop telling outright lies? When Politifact or Steve Benen treat outright lies the same as artfully-misleading truths, where’s the incentive to stop with the outright lies?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 22, 2012

Mock the Budget

Your Humble Blogger has been reading Ed Miliband’s response to the Tory Budget, which he delivered in the House of Commons yesterday. It’s a lot of fun—I should probably find the video somewhere, just to see what he actually said, to compare to the as-prepared version. Successful British politicians tend to be quite good at that on-the-fly rewording that I find so fascinating… Anyway, the Conservatives presented a budget in the UK at more or less the same time that our own Conservatives presented a budget, the main difference being that their Conservatives (a) have full control over their government, and (2) are somewhat Conservative, at least some of the time. The main points are the same, though: Millions will be paying more so that millionaires can pay less. Also, An unfair Budget built on economic failure.

My initial reaction, as often happens when a Brit makes a powerfully oppositional speech, is to wonder why we don’t have anybody who can make speeches like that. Of course, we do—if I want to listen to Barney Frank or Bernie Sanders or Maxine Waters or any of a number of fiery speakers. Even Nancy Pelosi, who generally tries to adopt a moderate tone, has been known to catch fire on occasion. Even Our Only President can bring it to the Other Party, if the occasion is right. They do happen.

Of course, it’s also easier to make fiery speeches denouncing the Other Party when you they are the government and responsible for all their policy failures; we can denounce Rep. Ryan’s intentions, but when we denounce his failures, it takes some explaining about exactly what parts of his plan have been tried, and how they failed, and which parts haven’t been tried but are like other things that have been tried, and now they failed, and rhetorically it just isn’t as impressive as blaming the Government for GDP growth under 1%, or for a Business Growth fund that opened six offices and funding a total of six businesses. You know? I remember this stuff from when we were the out Party, and it was full-throated stuff, too.

And there’s the other thing, which is that the British politicians are simply working in a different rhetorical field. There are different ways to phrase things, different sounds, and of course in a parliamentary system, differences of status and class. But just on a wording level, the quote above would have to be Millions of people will be paying more so that millionaires can pay less, which still isn’t bad, but isn’t quite as good.

On the other hand, the recurring rhetoric trope of the speech that claims to define a test for the budget in the Chancelor’s own terms, and then describes how the budget fails that test—that trope would be very successful, I think, in discussing Rep. Ryan’s budget, and the plans that Mitt Romney has. Although, of course, neither of those plans have any details, so it’s harder to make specific claims about their failures. Still, their budgets, to paraphrase Mr. Miliband, destroy the claim they made about who they are and what they believe.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 21, 2012

Mitt, Mitt, Mitt

From Mitt Romney's victory speech last night:

We once built the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam. Today, we can’t even build a pipeline.

I mean, yes, as Charlie Pierce points out, he doesn't seem to understand that he is praising two massive government works projects. And, obviously, the opposition to the XL pipeline is not based on the engineering—everybody knows that we are capable of building the pipeline. Although of course if the pipeline is built to Hoover Dam standards, including the corner-cutting that led to huge leaks, I think people will not be very happy.

No, my initial thought was that if you have some reservations, Gentle Reader, about the possibility of unintended and unforeseeable consequences to the environment, comparing the XL pipeline to the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam does not seem to me to be calculated to ease your fears.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 14, 2012

Put down the brooms, boys.

I don’t want to make this Tohu Bohu into a constant stream of reminders will not be the nominee this year, but I get cranky. There were four delegate contests yesterday. When the headline is that Rick Santorum swept, there’s an implication that he won all of them, even if the headline then goes on to say something like swept the southern states. That’s just not how we use the word sweep. But that’s how the New York Times was using it this morning, and how NPR was using it.

And, you know? The headlines would seem to imply, wouldn’t they, that Rick Santorum got more delegates yesterday than anyone else. That’s not so. Mitt Romney picked up 43 delegates (according to the Times delegate tracker) and Rick Santorum acquired only 36. Mitt Romney needs 50% of the delegates, and has 495 of the 926 delegates so far allocated, or 53% (again, according to the Times, which is somewhat more aggressive in estimating the allocation of delegates); he continues to make it more and more likely that he will be the nominee.

Not that it was a good day for the Romney campaign. Far from it—yesterday was one more chance to wrap it up and clinch the thing, and he didn’t do it. Now he’s telling an interviewer in St. Louis that he wants to get rid of Planned Parenthood; the longer that people believe that it’s a competition, the more stuff he will say that will be used against him in the trial general election. Of course, the longer that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are in the news saying he’s not a hard-line conservative, the more that people will think of his as the moderate in the race, which may be to his advantage in the general election. Or not.

Actually, I think this nonsense in the primaries is far more important—the general election will mostly hinge on whether the economy continues to improve or starts to stall. If the economy looks terrible, then Mitt Romney will be seen as a moderate; if the economy improves, he will be too conservative to risk with our future. Actually, most people won’t be swayed like that, and most voters, even, will tend to keep their views constant over the next few months, but among the 5% or so of Americans who have votes that could go one way or another, that’s the sort of thing that will happen. In the primary, though, Mr. Romney will be making some specific promises (such as getting rid of Planned Parenthood) which if he wins in November, groups will put pressure on him to attempt to carry out.

Which means, in the end, that the more people vote for Rick Santorum in the primary, and the more states Rick Santorum wins, the more a a Mitt Romney administration will look like a Rick Santorum administration. That’s the way our system responds to the will of the voters, that’s the system working. If any Gentle Readers are not yet persuaded to join a Party and vote in a primary (and otherwise support candidates in primaries), let Rick Santorum’s supporters convince you. Their candidate did not actually sweep anything yesterday, but there’s a pretty good chance that some of their policy choices will be laws in a few years.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 9, 2012

Not Gonna Happen

Rick Santorum is not going to be the Republican nominee this year.

Now, I don’t really have any objection to people writing notes analysing the delegate math, but everyone should keep in mind that it’s not going to happen.

Look, here’s the thing. There are two possibilities: either Rick Santorum drops out at some point, or he doesn’t. If he does drop out, then from that point on, Willard “Mitte” Romney will get ninety percent of the delegates, and will easily get to 1,200. Seriously, there isn’t going to be a problem, as long as Mr. Santorum withdraws. So the other possibility is that Rick Santorum doesn’t withdraw.

Now, even then, the likelihood is that Mr. Romney will have enough delegates for a first-ballot win. If it’s close, if he has 1,000 or so, some uncommitted delegates will be found to end the thing, because everyone will want it. Or, of course, Mr. Santorum will (as Secretary Clinton did) call for Mr. Romney’s nomination by acclimation, and it will be acclaimed, and no-one will ever need to count the delegates, because for everything you are reading now about delegate math, remember they didn’t bother counting them four years ago.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum do wind up somehow with around 950 delegates each, if Mr. Santorum does much better than he has done so far and Mr. Romney much worse, there is no way on this Earth that the resulting deadlocked convention would result in Mr. Santorum’s nomination. Remember, in this case, nine hundred and fifty delegates will have been chosen specifically to prefer Mr. Romney over Mr. Santorum. And vice versa, of course. But is it possible to imagine that these roughly equal groups of delegates will be persuaded to change over to the person their candidate has just beaten?

No. It is just about possible to imagine a deadlocked convention, and it’s just about possible for a deadlocked convention to result in nominating someone who hasn’t been on the various ballots. I mean, that isn’t going to happen—Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie are none of them going to be the Republican nominee this year. But Rick Santorum really, really, really isn’t. I promise.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 29, 2012

Just My Imagination

So. I was reading and article about voter information and voter mapping (Do You Know What Your Voter Wants to Hear?, by Abby Rapoport over at the American Prospect) and I started wondering about tailoring the political message to the amazing amount of available information.

That is—y’all know that (unless you act to prevent it) Google knows your life in incredible detail: your telephone number, your street address, your workplace, what roads you drive on, what movies you like, what books you read, what sports team you root for, and so on and so forth, as well as all that information about your friends and family, too. Right? And they are scarcely the only ones with much of that information. It’s out there.

So. If a political campaign wants to have that information about voters (and other people), it can get it. Our Only President’s committee to re-elect knows plenty about me just from what I have told it, enough I’m sure to put me into a quite specific category of male forty-ish web-savvy political junkie and father of two, owner of a house in a heavily Democratic suburb, and should be able to guess our household income to within twenty percent, at worst. It might get some of that wrong, but probably not wildly wrong: I imagine an algorithm that shakes down the millions of us into a couple of hundred categories and I’m a P7 or something, and maybe I should really be a P6 or a Q7, but I’m within one or two. And maybe it knows that I share the household with a C8. Why wouldn’t it? A lot of that is just taking my name and address (from when I asked them to send me a free bumper sticker) and correlating it with some public information about me; they wouldn’t even have to dig through my internet history for most of it.

Now, presumably they are going to send me the P7 emails, and they will send my Best reader the C8 emails, and some of you will get H6 emails, and some of you will get D3 emails, and so on and so forth. Why not? So if Eric Cantor says something terrible, the campaign may send me an email to try to raise money off the idea that Eric Cantor must be stopped, because I know who Eric Cantor is. But it may not bother sending me the email that it would send to a current AFSCME member based on something that the head of AFSCME said, or something about women’s rights, or something about the decline of our urban centers, or something about being in a swing state or an open congressional district. And all of this makes perfect sense, right? Does it make you uncomfortable at all?

What if—and I am sure that the committee to re-elect is not doing this at this time—they send out an email that is mostly the same, but perhaps my email says We will never waver from the vision that unites us and yours says We will never retreat from the vision that unites us and my Best Reader gets one that says We will hold firm to the vision that unites us. Because they have found that P7s really like that term, while C8s are very sensitive to things phrased in the negatives, and D3s respond well to subtle references to the military. Does that make you uncomfortable at all? Remember, the software exists to do all this stuff, and lots of people think that kind of word-level stuff is important in persuasion.

OK, now—what if they tailor the web page? They could put a cookie on my browser that tells them I’m a P7, and when I go to the web page, the banner picture that randomly comes up happens to be of a father and kids in a suburb, and the three issue boxes on the top happen to be about Net Neutrality, the intransigent House caucus of the Other Party, and the Mortgage Exemption. When my Best Reader goes to the site, though, the banner picture that randomly comes up happens to be of a group of professional women meeting with Our Only President, and the issue boxes are about the ACA’s coverage of contraception, and the Mortgage Exemption, and the plan to make college affordable. And it’s not random, of course, it’s that P7s see different things than C8s. Does that make you uncomfortable? Or is that just smart campaigning?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 27, 2012

What Makes Him Sick

I keep saying that my Party tends to nominate people for the Presidency who really know how to connect with the populace on religion, people like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—and the Other Party tends to nominate people who simply aren't comfortable with religious language, people like George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain.

Of course, this is preposterously false, but it's every bit as true as the opposite, the conventional wisdom that the Other Party has some monopoly on faith talk, or that my Party just isn't very good at it. Of course the victors will have connected better with the American People on religion, as they will on most other topics, and the causality is probably backwards. People connect with the winning candidate because the candidate is winning, and that's terrific for making an audience receptive. It's also true that (f'r'ex) Bill Clinton used to read Scripture in his bedroom, Jimmy Carter is I think still teaching Sunday School, and of course Barack Obama got in a lot of trouble for going to church on Sunday. On the other hand, John Kerry simply would not stop going to Mass, even when every communion would provoke a news story about the protesters and bishops who wanted to deny the man, and his churchgoing didn't mean that he communicated well with people about religion or anything else#8212;tho' I think we would remember much better communication skills had he won Ohio.

I bring this up because The 1960 Houston Speech is back in the news. That's the speech where John F. Kennedy said that (a) Catholics and Jews should be eligible for the Presidency, and (2) that should he be elected president, he would not request or accept instruction on public policy from the Pope. And further, that he believes in an America “where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source”.

Rick Santorum read the speech, he said, and it made him want to throw up. He reiterated that nausea on ABC's This Week yesterday, and I'll quote:

I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion. That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate. Go on and read the speech. I will have nothing to do with faith. I won't consult with people of faith. It was an absolutist doctrine that was abhorrent (ph) at the time of 1960. And I went down to Houston, Texas 50 years almost to the day, and gave a speech and talked about how important it is for everybody to feel welcome in the public square. People of faith, people of no faith, and be able to bring their ideas, to bring their passions into the public square and have it out. James Madison—

I really wish George Stephanopoulos had not interrupted him there. I don't think he was going to tell my favorite anecdote about James Madison and the separation of church and state, and I am pulling the quote from The Founders Constitution, where he argued that we should not let people put on their Census forms that their profession is 'minister' because the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who, and who are not, ministers of the gospel. Still, I think we have enough, here, to go on with: Mr. Santorum believes that the speech President Kennedy gave articulated a vision where faith was not allowed in the public square. And he did so, calling himself a Catholic and going to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to do it.

Now, it turns out that Rick Santorum is participating in a tradition of interpreting this speech as denying that a pluralist society includes people discussing their faith in the public square. It's worth looking at Romney v. Kennedy by Anthony Lusvardi, SJ, which lays out the Conservative interpretation:

Kennedy speaks in absolutes. For him, religion is purely one’s own “private affair” and has nothing to say to the great political issues of the day—the spread of Communism, poverty, health care, education, patriotism. These are “real issues,” Kennedy says, and “they are not religious issues.”

This isn't crazy. It's a misinterpretation, I think, bearing in mind that the speech was given in 1960, and that was before Engel and Abington ruled (correctly) that public schools could not include Bible-reading and liturgical prayers in their curricula. The furthest I could go with interpretation is that President Kennedy may have felt that faith was too large a part of the public policy sphere at that time, a time when the public school day regularly began with Scripture, and when no Catholic had ever been elected to the Presidency, and many people argued, in the public sphere, that only Protestants should be President. Personally, I think that the speech is saying that religion is, as he says, a private matter, and that one's policy positions will of course be informed by one's religious teachings, but that when it comes to making workable policy, you need actual policy arguments. The spread of Communism may be a religious issue, in the sense that it will affect religious practice and so on, but that doesn't mean that the policies to be implemented to halt the spread of Communism are matters of religious dicta. If you can't convince people of other faith traditions or none that your policy is a good policy, regardless of its religious influences, then you are doing it wrong.

Which is fundamental to our concept of pluralism. Mr. Santorum seems to want a kind of Marketplace of Ideas for religion—some Gentle Readers of this blog have gently mocked YHB for believing at all in a Marketplace of Ideas, but I certainly don't believe in a Marketplace of Ideas for religion. I certainly don't think that there is One True Religion, and I don't think that everybody getting together to argue out their religions is likely to lead to anything good. I don't thinking people of different religions coming to the public square and making their case on religious grounds is at all in keeping with the pluralist idea. I mean, it seems obvious to me that what happens then is that the people with minority beliefs lose, and policies are imposed by the religious majority, based on that religious majority, rather than being based on policy preference. If, instead, people of faith come to their policy conclusions, and then leave their Scripture behind and come into the public square to argue policy cases on policy grounds, then we meet more equally, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Sikh and Hindu, atheist and pantheist and monotheist, to discuss how to live together without adopting one another's religions.

This is what Rick Santorum meant, I can only infer, in his own Houston speech (which alas was given to a friendly audience of co-religionists rather than (as the 1960 speech) to a skeptical if not hostile group outside his faith tradition, a very telling change, in YHB's opinion) made on the fiftieth anniversary of John Kennedy's, when he said “All of us have an obligation to justify our positions based upon something that is accessible to everyone irrespective of their religious beliefs.” Or: “A vibrant, fully clothed public square; a marketplace of believers and non-believers where truth could be proffered and reasoned, and differences civilly tolerated.” This vision, then, is not different from John Kennedy's. Where it differs from what I understand John Kennedy to be saying is that Rick Santorum's vision is of “a mutually strengthening interface of church and state”; John Kennedy does not seem to say it is the job of the state to strengthen the church. Any church. Nor do I.

I do think it's worth talking about all this—that's what I want to have hauled in to the public sphere. I want to make it clear whether we, as a country, want to keep that public sphere free of religious argument—not that there is no place for religious argument, but that the discussion of policy for us all is discussion for us all, “where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials”, and “where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

That, it seems, make Rick Santorum want to throw up. Which is why, I think, Rick Santorum is one of those Republicans who just don't seem to connect to Americans with religious talk.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 20, 2012

The Levers of Power

Your Humble Blogger as been following the Other Party and their shenanigans at some distance lately, only desultorily picking up the details on their assaults on collective bargaining, health insurance and education, so my impression is quite likely wrong. I do want to pass along that impression, so y’all can sharpen it or correct it, or otherwise give your impressions, so as to improve my perception of the universe.

Here’s the thing: you know the observation that Thomas Frank made, back in Kansas, that many working-class conservatives consider their cultural conditions to be essentially political, but their economic ones to be just business? If the Super Bowl engineers an offensive halftime show, that’s a political matter that you want your political representatives and pundits to weigh in on, but if the factory closes, well, watcha gonna do? In this way, Mr. Frank argued, the Other Party had managed to get people to vote against their current economic interests, in favor of upward distribution of wealth. Not everybody agreed with him, but I think the basic point, about what people thought about politics, was probably valid—and certainly interesting.

And if it’s true, of course, it’s bad for my Party. Not because my Party is on the wrong side of a cultural divide; if the Other Party wants my Party to be the Party of the Pill, we will win a lot of votes. No, it’s because Our Party sees factory-closings, workplace conditions and wages as essentially political matters, and if people don’t, it will be difficult to govern from that perspective after we win elections on the cultural stuff.

More specifically: an employee and an employer negotiate their relationship. In many cases, possibly most cases, the negotiation is Hobson’s Choice: you can have the job under my conditions, or you can walk. The employee accepts this much wage, this much vacation, this kind of health insurance, this much contribution to this kind of pension, these hours, these working conditions, this kind of clothing, this kind of behavior on the job, this amount of work, etc, etc, etc, or finds employment elsewhere. Now, in many jobs those things are in fact negotiations, either on hiring or later—you can ask for a raise, for instance, or for more overtime, or for an assistant. Often, I am told, those things are far more negotiable than the employee realizes. But for a lot of people, most of it isn’t negotiable, other than the choice to walk away. The leverage isn’t in balance at all; the Best Outside Alternative (to use negotiation jargon) for the employer is to pick up another application off the stack, while the Best Outside Alternative for the employee is to sell the house and move back in with the parents. Obviously, this isn’t true for all employee/employer relationships, but it is true for a lot of them. And the employees who are otherwise privileged are likelier to have more leverage; the people who are have less savings, education and connection have less leverage here, too. Inequality, breeding inequality.

Now, one of the things that employees can do in these negotiations is seek for more leverage outside the basic employer/employee relationship. Collective bargaining is one. A publicity campaign is one way, particularly for unsafe working conditions. And government regulation is one.

I get the sense, from the comments that I see, that many people who call themselves Conservative, find it completely illegitimate for worker to seek to improve their working conditions in these ways. They seem to think that the employment contract is in some way only legitimate if it is individual. It’s wrong, in their view, for employees of Church-affiliated universities to ask the government to regulate provisions of their insurance; the employer has its conscience and the employee can seek work elsewhere if she doesn’t like it. It’s wrong for unions of public employees to work to elect people sympathetic to their concerns, they say. It’s wrong for various do-gooder organizations to run campaigns against Apple or GE or Wal-Mart.

I completely disagree with this, of course. I think it’s great when we elect people who are willing to get involved in the workplace. I think it’s fantastic that the administration is laying down the proverbial on the Pill being a part of health care. But then, I think that the factory-closings are a fundamental political issue. I don’t want the government in my bedroom or my synagogue, but I sure as hell want them in my workplace. Not everyone will agree with us on that. Mitt Romney, for instance, and his management consultancy buddies, want to increase the leverage for management by taking away leverage for workers, and heck, hiring management consultants is one of the levers that management rightly uses. But it surprises me, always, when people don’t see this as a political battle, to be fought in large part by electing as many people as possible who agree with whichever side of the issue you are on.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 2, 2012

Give him the hook

Maybe I should write something about Mitt Romney and the gaffe.

First of all, what the hell is a gaffe, anyway? And why does it have a silent e on the end? What’s wrong with a good old-fashioned gaff? What are we, Frenchmen?

Well, gaffe comes from the French, who evidently use it more or less the way we do, as (according to the OED an instance of clumsy stupidity. I think it landed here in the bed created for it by the e-less gaff as in blow the gaff, to reveal a secret, or stand the gaff, to, as the OED puts it, receive severe criticism. It’s possible that stand the gaff and blow the gaff are not actually connected, except in the sense that gaff was loud and course talk, or possibly merry talk, all the same as guff or gab.

Anyway, I bring up stand the gaff to point out that a gaffe, properly speaking, is not just a verbal blunder as one might think from a narrow definition, but anything that causes a strong negative reaction as if it were a verbal blunder. Taegan Goddard’s definition over at his political dictionary requires that it causes embarrassment, although he also requires that it be an unintentional statement, which I think is not necessarily the case. Was it a gaffe when Our Only Vice-President said that the Affordable Care Act was a big fucking deal? Yes. Was it unintentional? Well, he didn’t mean for everybody to hear it, so I suppose it wasn’t intentional in that sense, but was what he meant to say, and it was true, besides. Was it a gaffe when Senator McCain said that the fundamentals of the economy were sound? Yes. But it was completely intentional. Was it a gaffe when Barack Obama said he had visited fifty-seven states? No, because nobody heard about it or cared. Was it a gaffe when Jessica Simpson told the Secretary of the Interior that she liked the way Secretary Norton had decorated the White House? Yes and no; it certainly wasn’t unintentional, exactly, and it’s hard to believe that she could have been embarrassed at that stage, but people did react to it with mockery and scorn.

This is why I agree with the first of Greg Marx’s Three Thoughts: We need a better typology of “gaffes”. As he points out, there’s a big difference between a gaffe such as I like being able to fire people, where the media take a half-sentence out of context, a gaffe such as I’m not concerned about the very poor, where the wording accidentally says something the speaker did not intend to say, and a gaffe such as Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process; let it run its course and hit the bottom, where he conveys his meaning quite accurately, but that communication turns out to be embarrassingly unpopular.

When Our Only President, back before, said that people in the small towns of the industrial region “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”, it was clearly a gaffe. When he said that he had visited fifty-seven states, that was a gaffe. It would be helpful, in the future, to know if we’re talking about something closer to the former than the latter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 30, 2012

Politi-fun! Politi-fancy! Politi-flame!

Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write something about this Politifact business. For those Gentle Readers who don't frequent Left Blogovia or scour the web for political misinformation, Politifact is a web site set up by the Tampa Bay Times to grade the truthfulness of politicians and pundits. Left Blogovia has been hating on them recently because (first) they chose as their Big Lie of 2011 the claim in a DNCC ad (and elsewhere) that Republicans voted to end Medicare, and (B) they graded Our Only President's SotU claim that In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs first as half-true and then as mostly-true.

First, there's this: Politifact's ratings stink.

There is, however, some useful or at least informative stuff in the articles that accompany the ratings. If you were to read the article about the SotU claim, for instance, you would find the information that “During that 22-month period, the number of jobs grew by almost 3.16 million”. Sure, if you just look at the meter, you would think that the statement was only mostly-true, but if you read the article, you would find out the actual number. So that's all right, Gentle Reader.

And furthermore, they did the exact same thing when they fact-checked Mitt Romney's ad about Rick Perry's record as Governor of Texas—he said that there were a million Texans out of work, that the unemployment rate was the highest in twenty years, and that unemployment doubled, and they called it half-true, despite all three of those statements being entirely accurate. Again, if you read the article, they will tell you that the ad is accurate; if you don't, you won't find that information out.

So I don't think that the problem is entirely a structural bias against Democrats. That argument is somewhat persuasive—in order to maintain an image of non-partisan disinterest, they avoid having a massive imbalance of lies on their site, and since there actually is a massive imbalance of lies, they are compelled to make up lies on the other side of the scale. There may be some of that, and I do think that they probably were concerned that giving the Big Lie to a liar from the Other Party for the nth consecutive year would have been awkward. But I think the structural bias is actually to keep the truth-o-meter needle away from the bright green. After all, if politicians largely tell the truth, there's no need for Politifact. If you go looking for lies and you are willing to include half-truths, omissions, exaggerations and ungrounded implications, you will find them. And you will convince yourself, and possibly others, that you are doing a great service, because there are so many to find. So having decided that any politician taking credit for anything that happened while he was in office is telling a half-truth, they can happily post that truth-o-meter over and over again—and the actual data is in the article, so they are conveying all the right information. Right?

The question, then, is what possible service Politifact is engaged in. I mean, their page simply states that they “help you find the truth in politics”, as if that was obviously sufficient. You want to find the truth in politics, don't you? So Politifact is here to help.

Only—why is it important that people know the truth in politics? Is it, for instance, that people need a certain amount of accurate information to be free and self-governing? Is it that people mean less if the elected officials do not do what they promised as candidates? Is it that power cannot be checked if its use is secret? What's actually going on?

I believe that the Politifact project was started as an attempt to shame politicians into telling fewer lies. That's my guess; I don't know for sure. The project creates negative consequences for lying, which should mean that politicians will only tell lies if the gain is greater than the loss, and the higher you can make the loss, the fewer lies. I think that's the idea, and it's not a stupid idea in the first place. I don't think it works for a variety of reasons (mostly that politicians can delegate the outright lies to surrogates in the media who actually reach a lot more people than the politicians do) but as an idea, it makes sense.

I'm not sure they see, though, that having an expansive view of lying, which is exactly what is going on with their truth-o-meter, works directly against that purpose. If your meter only comes up orange when I give a completely accurate statistical statement, then why would I bother? I'm not going to get a green anyway, and frankly everybody around me is constantly getting oranges and reds and flamey-wameys without experiencing any real retribution, so seriously, what do I care if your truth-o-meter will call my statement half-true or mostly-true? I mean, Mitch Daniels got flamey-wameys for saying that nearly half of all persons under 30 in this country didn't go to work last Tuesday, when the statement was completely accurate, if utterly irrelevant. Of course, you would know that it was accurate if you skipped the truth-o-meter and read the article. So that's all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 23, 2012

Another Ethos Problem

Your Humble Blogger is having a bad Google day, and is just going to give up and write this note without the links. Apologies for that, Gentle Readers, but I wanted to make this point before I forgot about it entirely.

The point is sparked by a thing I heard on NPR (I think, tho’ I can’t find it now) where a fellow from the Wall Street Journal said that Mitt Romney needs to not only defend his tax returns and his investment history, but make an affirmative case that his success in business is the story of his prospective success in the White House. That is, he has to explain that he succeeded in business because of his particular skills and talents, and that those skills and talents, when applied to government, result in success—in job creation, to use the political term of the day.

This sparked in my mind, because I have had a few conversations recently where I felt compelled to point out that Mitt Romney was really, really good at making money. He went very quickly from somebody’s kid to somebody to reckon with, and did it (as he has pointed out) without going into his father’s business (not counting politics—I’m talking about his moneymaking skills, here, which seem to be awesome, not his political skills which are… arguable) and without his father staking him to massive start-up capital. Not that I am discounting the advantages he had being his father’s son, but it does seem that he made better use of those advantages than any other comparable famous person’s kid, when it comes to making money. He made a lot of money.

And I think it’s totally legitimate to argue, as my Party will, that his focus on making money for himself and his clients was to the detriment of working-class folk like you and me. I believe that’s true, actually. I also think that his careers show that he thinks that government should not act to protect the little guy from the powerful people (or corporations); he thinks that the emptor needs to caveat on his own, and that goes for everybody and everything. I don’t like what Mitt Romney did in the private sector, and given the opportunity I would have put in place laws and regulations to prevent much of it. Those are not in place, and weren’t at the time, and so he applied himself to his goals quite legally, and as I have been pointing out, quite successfully. I don’t admire that, but I do recognize it.

Here’s the thing, though. When I say that he is very, very good at making money, and when the fellow I can’t find says that he needs to explain how those skills will help him in the White House, I have to admit that I have no idea what those skills actually are.

Many jobs that I know I couldn’t possibly do, I still more or less have a sense of what the job is like. It might be wrong, probably is wrong for many of them, but still I think I know what skills and talents would make for a successful, f’r’ex, cop. Or President of the United States of America. Or schoolteacher. Or obstetrician. Or community organizer. Or bank president, or attorney, or software engineer. I might, I suppose, have some idea what skills Mitt Romney might have used to be successful in his years at Bain Consulting—I have met with management consultants, and while frankly I think it’s ninety-eight percent bullshit, I understand bullshitting isn’t a skill that everybody has. But the real moneymaking, as I understand it, was in the private equity business. And I have no idea at all what skills Mitt Romney actually used in the private equity business. I don’t think it’s just investing—as I understand it, the investing part (analyzing possible investments to estimate return, probability of success, etc) is a minor part of the private equity business. I just don’t really know what skills it takes to make money in that business. Negotiation? Persuasion? Timing?

I’m not trying to be snarky, here. I really don’t know. That’s a problem for Mitt Romney, isn’t it? Or is it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 15, 2012

Which Side Are We On?

Gentle Readers will probably already have heard about the Great Girl Scout Cookie Boycott of 2012. Not the one where a bunch of troops in Ohio have decided not to bother raising money to go to camps that the state council has sold, but the one where an sex-negative group called group called Honest Girl Scouts is pressuring the Girl Scouts to eliminate sex education and break off with WAGGGS, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, who are (according to this group) associated somehow with International Planned Parenthood, who also engage in sex education. So, as far as I can tell, the HGS group’s primary concern is that some teachers, leaders and other responsible adults might educate other people’s children about sexuality.

My Perfect Non-Reader is a Girl Scout; she sells cookies. It’s possible that somebody will not only refuse to purchase her cookies (as many people do, of course) but tell her that it is because of the boycott. It seemed like a good idea, then, to prepare her for such a conversation.

Which began with the immediate news cause—evidently this HGS group has been calling for a Girl Scout Cookie boycott for some time, but they are getting a lot of attention right now due (I think) to their video in which a girl in Girl Scout regalia calls for the boycott because of the inclusion of a transgender kid (in an entirely different troop in a different state). This business of transgender inclusion has been a bit of a hobbyhorse of the Right for a while (Fox pushed the news back in October as did The National Review and The Washington Post in November and The Daily News in December among other places). So we had to start by talking about the idea of a kid being transgender, and explaining in brief what that might be like, and discussing whether she felt her troop would include a transgender kid who identified as a girl, and whether they ought to. My daughter immediately came to the conclusion that it would be wrong to exclude the kid, but wasn’t absolutely sure what her troop would do, or even how she would feel about it herself, if it actually happened. But she was shocked that anyone would call for a boycott, to punish all the troops across the country for what one troop did, whether it was the right thing or not. In fact, she couldn’t understand at all why somebody in California would want somebody in Connecticut to refuse to buy cookies because of something somebody did in Ohio.

Which, I’m afraid, led me to explain a bit about tribalism. Because the thing is, really, that whether the Girl Scouts are providing sex education or not, whether they are forcing girls to hang around with cross-dressers (which of course they are not), whatever actually goes on in the actual meetings, the Girl Scouts are a liberal organization, on my side of the tribal line. Because they are Girl Scouts. And Girl Guides. I suppose it would be possible for an international organization of girls, led by women without any man at the top of the heirarchy, to be on the other side of that tribal line, but it would be difficult and would need to be deliberate. The Girls Scouts are not that group.

Not that they are wild-eyed leftist bomb-throwers, or man-hating separatists, or radicals of any stripe, but they naturally and admirably emphasize the ability of women to succeed on their own terms, and that in itself puts them in my tribe. They emphasize inclusion over exclusion, they value egalitarianism and community, they teach girls to run businesses and be kind, to reach their potential and help people, to be prepared and do a good turn daily. Doesn’t that sound like they are the kind of people who would educate children about sex?

And, to be fair, at least a little bit, I do understand that parents are upset that any organization might bring their kids across that tribal line. I know plenty of people who have crossed the tribal line themselves, and have awkward relationships with their parents on the far side. I don’t want that for my family. I worry, honestly, about the Zionists at my daughter’s Hebrew School, some of whom have associated themselves with people who have associates in the other tribe. I worried about the Girl Scouts, at the beginning, mostly because (like a lot of people, I expect) I get the Girl Scouts mixed up a bit with the Boy Scouts, who are on the other side of that line, alas.

Anyway, as YHB was explaining this, My Perfect Non-Reader interrupted to say Wait a minute, this is about politics!. I had to say that it was kinda about politics. It certainly isn’t not about politics.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 10, 2012

A coincidence of timing, but I don't think it's just me

Your Humble Blogger can’t help but respond to the now-famous Mitt Romney quote about how much he enjoys firing people. Of course, as Greg Sargent points out, Romney didn’t really say he enjoys firing people, but then Poppy Bush wasn’t really amazed by supermarket scanners in 1992. It’s wonderful how these stories that match up with our previous mental images of the candidates retain their power. Bill Clinton didn’t shut down LAX for an hour while he got a haircut, either, but that one kinda went by the wayside, because Clinton is vain and arrogant didn’t fit the jokes about Big Macs and Astroturf in the pickup bed. Al Gore didn’t really claim to invent the internet, but that story fit our view of him as self-aggrandizing crank, so it stuck. Mitt Romney does come off as almost a caricature of a heartless investment pillager, so I think this one could stick. Not that he can’t win, even if it sticks, but it’s the sort of thing that sticks.

But really, I wanted to talk about what he actually said, which was that the good thing about competition in the health insurance industry is that the buyer has choices, and “if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them”. What he likes about the system we have (as compared, presumably, to a single-payer or nationalized system, since that aspect remains unchanged under the Affordable Care Act) is that if you are dissatisfied with your insurance, you can fire them and get new insurance. That’s what Mitt Romney likes about the way Americans pay for health care.

Now, just yesterday Your Humble Blogger received a letter from the insurance company that handles my bills, which I will for the sake of clarity call EvilRatBastardHealthAssuranceandInterCapCareCo. YHB had sinus surgery last Spring to relieve incapacitating headaches, and as the surgeon was up my nose to his elbows, he found that the path would be made easier by proceeding with a septoplasty, which would have the additional benefit of clearing the passages for my future breathing pleasure. ERBHAaICCC had pre-authorized the polypectomy, but the surgeon has not planned on committing sinoplasty (tho’ he had warned me that he might decide to do it, and I signed off on it just in case) so I did not discuss this aspect with the ERBHAaICCC employee over the telephone beforehand. In the event, it was done, and the bill was sent in the natural order of things, and ERBHAaICCC denied it, which is evidently also in the natural order of things, enough so that I was not told about it at the time. The surgeon’s office appealed the ruling, and the appeal was upheld. By, according to the letter I received yesterday from ERBHAaICCC, a urologist.

Anyway. I’m sure that it will all get resolved, and eventually the surgeon’s office and the insurance company will come to an understanding. I feel quite confident that I will not, in the end, have to pay for the surgery out of my pocket. I also expect that I will be spending hours of my time dealing with this, that my HR department will be spending time dealing with this, that some poor sap at ERBHAaICCC will be dealing with this, and that more hours of time will be spent at the surgeon’s office—the surgeon himself has already spent nearly five minutes in my presence dealing with it, and if that doesn’t sound like a lot of wasted time, the man operates in people’s heads for a living. That’s five minutes that could be much more valuably spent elsewhere. The same is true I hope (if to a lesser extent) for me and for the HR and ERBHAaICCC lackeys.

My point is that at the moment I would love to be able to fire that insurance company. When Mitt Romney extols the joy of firing incompetents, I have to say that I would get great pleasure, myself, out of telling ERBHAaICCC that they have fifteen minutes to put their things into a cardboard box before the security guard will come to escort them all out of my life forever. It would only make me sad if somehow the door hit their proverbials on the way out. Good riddance to bad insurance company, that’s what I would say.

Only, obviously, that’s not an option. I mean, for one thing, firing ERBHAaICCC, vaddevah it means to fire one’s insurance provider, would not get the outstanding bills paid. Secondly, as is common in my experience, I can’t make any changes to my family’s employer-based health insurance for another nine months, when there is a one-month window of opportunity. Third, as is also common, I do not have a choice of employer-based group policies; should I withdraw our family from our employer-based group policy, I would have to find an individual family policy, at tremendous cost. Fourth, as health insurance is a seller’s market under the system that Governor Romney extols, it is plausible that I would not be able to find a family plan that would cover our needs at all. Fifth, if I did have a choice of ERBHAaICCC, WellPoint, Cigna, Aetna, UnitedHealth, WellCare, Kemper, Blue Shield, Humana, American National, Assurant, Coventry, HCSC, or a dozen other major health insurance providers, everything I have heard tells me that I am just as likely to have to waste hours chasing down shit like this in any of them. Firing ERBHAaICCC just means hiring some other ERBHAaICCC, so it doesn’t get me anything.

And here’s my question: what percentage of the residents of this country are in my position, and would absolutely frickin’ love to fire their health insurance provider and can’t? How many of us are stuck in crappy jobs because that’s the only way to remain insured, and we still think that our insurance provider are crooks, cheats and incompetents? How many of us would look at Mitt Romney’s actual thought and respond that he is more out of touch than Poppy Bush at the supermarket?

I could rant a bit more, but I have to get back on the phone with HR, now. I’m sure you’ll excuse me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 2, 2012

You really ought to give Iowa a try

Your Humble Blogger has been getting very cranky about the Iowa caucus stories in Left Blogovia. Of course, our Party (to the extent that the denizens of Left Blogovia have a Party, it’s my Party, too, and we’ll all cry if we want to, which we usually do) will be running the Incumbent unopposed (well, effectively unopposed), so we can all have fun writing about the Other Party and what they are up to. And that isn’t what has been making me cranky—depressed, yes, which is one reason why this Tohu Bohu has been dormant recently—so much as the articles that purport to tell us readers what is Going On. Today, Paul Waldman, who is so often worth reading, writes Mommy, What’s a Caucus?, where he mocks the Iowa caucus for being nonsensical and non-representative. It made me cranky enough that I’m going to write the next bit, which is YHB’s own What’s Going On blog note, which may make y’all cranky, too. Well, there it is.

Here’s what is Going On: Three years (or more, in some cases) ago, various people started running for the nomination of their Party for the office of President of the United States. Most of those people are no longer running for that nomination. Why? We don’t know in every case, but the odds are good that most of them simply were unable to gather the resources to make it plausible that they would get the nomination. Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Tommy Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Thaddeus McCotter, Herman Cain, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Gary Johnson, George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Buddy Roemer, Tim Pawlenty and Jeb Bush all did more or less the same thing, gathered more resources or less, and all of those people (and possibly others) were knocked out during the invisible primary. That’s at least sixteen people who have already lost. They did not lose because Iowa is nonsensical or non-representative; had they gathered enough support outside Iowa to compete in Iowa, they would be competing in Iowa.

We are left with seven candidates (there are more still more-or-less running, but I think we can call them minor or fringe candidates in a way that the seven are not) with significant multi-state campaigns. This is still too many candidates for a party to choose between; David Bernstein likens the process to choosing a new refrigerator or dishwasher, it being much easier to choose from two or three than to do all the research on all the all the possible brands and models, and what his brother Jon calls party actors do the job of salespeople (and manufacturers and distributors and so on). At any rate, we now have seven, and it’s too many, so some are going to have to go.

Now, while the Iowa caucus is the beginning of the voters voting, in some sense of voting, it’s not the start of the voters participating in that winnowing process, because the voters are party actors. Not all of them are, of course, as it’s possible even for an Iowan to go to the caucus without doing anything else in the process whatsoever, but mostly the Iowans who will be participating tomorrow have already been party actors over the last few months. Some of them have been volunteering for one or another candidate, calling up friends, wearing a button, talking to their precinct captains, donating some money, or just going to one rally instead of a different rally. Or sitting in a diner when the candidate comes in, and speaking to a reporter about it. There has been a cumulative effect there—Tim Pawlenty could very likely have been more successful had the more individually powerful party actors (big-money donors, endorsers, available staff and consultants and so on) seen that cumulative party action going his way. It’s possible for a candidate to be doing really well in Iowa (or New Hampshire or South Carolina) but have the rest of the national party actors reject him, too. But mostly the job of Iowa and New Hampshire is to cut the field down to something manageable.

The final act in Iowa comes this week, when the party actors act as voters with an opportunity to finally reject a few more candidates. If, for instance, Mitt Romney fails to come in the top three, which is possible, it will tell the rest of the party quite a bit about how people react to him at election time. If Rick Perry fails to come in the top three, which is very possible indeed, it will tell the rest of the party quite a bit about how people react to him at election time—which won’t be a surprise, really, in his case, but will still be more information. And so on and so forth.

So. This is another piece of information, another case of party actors telling each other things about candidates, just like the debates and the straw poll and the appearances before interest groups and the diner stuff were pieces of information. It’s a big piece, but it’s not determinative. Whoever it knocks out will be knocked out because the rest of all that party action put them in position to be knocked out by a poor showing this week. If the rest of the party action puts a candidate in a good position, a poor showing in Iowa will still be bad, but the candidate can recover, like Bill Clinton and Poppy Bush did. And if the rest of the party action is against a candidate, an Iowa win will only grant that candidate another look—and if that look brings more party action against the candidate, then what you have there is a losing candidate.

Which means that all the stuff you have seen (or ignored) about how Iowa and New Hampshire are hijacking the process with non-representative early voting is crap. Taking Iowa Bob, a guy who votes in the caucus but does nothing else—doesn’t watch the debates, doesn’t donate or volunteer, doesn’t go to speeches and rallies, doesn’t answer phone polls—as a dictator of the process is completely misrepresenting the case. Iowa Bob’s fondness for Mitch Daniels or John Thune is just like Nebraska Bob’s fondness for Rick Perry or Jon Huntsman. Or mine for, oh, Tom Harkin. Iowa Bob has a few more choices on Election Day, but those choices are still constrained. True, Iowa Bob has had the opportunity to more of an impact over the last four years, but so has Nebraska Bob.

All of which is to say, the Iowa Caucus is a Big Deal, but even given that, it’s neither so big a deal as to render Iowans capable of hijacking the nomination process nor is it some sort of separate event that is best understood out of the context of all the stuff that has been going on for years and will continue for months.

All of which is really to highlight my real point, which is that elections are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy, and trying to understand a democracy and a democratic society by looking at elections is like trying to understand a car by looking at the steering column. And trying to influence a democratic society by focusing on elections is as fundamental a mistake. Always vote—and then keep working, as Party Actors or outside the Parties, in whatever ways come to hand but most of all in the conversations you have with your friends and neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances, precinct captains and carpool parents. Not just to win the next election, but to make a better more democratic country and a better, more democratic people. Don’t let yourself get distracted or depressed, but keep working and keep working and then keep working.

It ain’t much, but it sure beats the alternative.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 19, 2011

Ethos, Porthos and wait a minute, that's not right.

YHB read a couple of things recently that seemed to fit together, although I haven’t been entirely sure how. One of them is Charles Pierce’s note called The Carterization of Barack Obama, which made (among other points) the connection between Our Only President and James Earl Carter as what he calls redemptive candidates, candidates who promise to improve things by the very fact of their election. This is terrific for election, but terrible for re-election, as it turns out. It turns out that four years later we still have to deal with race issues, or corruption in government, or the residue of misbegotten wars. The redemptive president is boxed in by their claims of redemption, making it difficult to make the rhetorical shift to a new story.

I put that with Greg Sargent’s note on The Centrist Dodge, in which he points out that Tom Friedman, among other celebrants of bipartisanism of course, is confined in his own rhetorical box, when policy positions he supports are taken up by one party and not the other. He is stuck either supporting a partisan position, or rejecting his own policy proposals because they are insufficiently bipartisan.

So connection that struck me was the connection between the rhetorical boxes, the identification of the person speaking (the ethos for us rhetoric nerds) with the argument, and the ways in which that identification constricts the public speaker when it is no longer useful. It isn’t restricted to presidents and pundits, of course. It’s a problem of rhetoric in general, and in particular in political rhetoric. On the other hand, it’s a strength of rhetoric, or rather, of the way we deal with rhetoric as consumers. I’ve hocked here about the argument ad hominem and the way in which we have allowed our justifiable distaste for personal abuse to confuse us concerning the connections between the argument and the arguer.

Digression: That bit about our distaste for personal abuse is a joke. End Digression.

While Your Humble Blogger obviously wants Our Only President to be re-elected, I can only consider it a strength that speakers in general can’t just don and doff personae like domino masks, being an outsider or an insider, an expert or a regular joe, a righteous battler or a serene compromiser, for their moment-to-moment persuasive desires. It’s certainly not impossible to change your ethos, but it takes hard rhetorical work, and more than that, it often takes actual change in the world. If Our Only President had presided over a return to full employment, it would be easy for him to change to a competent achiever, and he would have earned it. Without having earned it, Our Only President will have to find some other ethos. Similarly, Paul Krugman has largely shifted from an identity as a disinterested social scientist to a partisan political commentator by engaging in partisan political commentary; his arguments are more persuasive to some and less to others because of it.

To retreat from that a little bit, though, I should acknowledge the tautological nature of the thing—we will know (f’r’ex) whether Our Only President is considered to have earned the identity of a defender of the little guy if people seem to be persuaded by his arguments given with that ethos. Nor can the ethos be disconnected entirely from the rest of the argument—the policies themselves carry some weight, and the ways in which they are put, and so on. We won’t know, after the election, exactly why it turned out why it did, any more than we know exactly why 2004’s election turned out how it did and not the other way. We will know some of the parts of it, not all, and we won’t know which bits were redundant and which amplified each other and which cancelled each other out. Jon Bernstein (over at the plain blog) likes to say that lots of stuff matters at the margins, but that in a close election, the margins matter. That’s true of persuasion generally—people aren’t going to be persuaded by Tom Friedman’s nonsense just because he has a history of bipartisan moderation (vaddevah dat means), and in fact it’s more likely that they will give credence to his bipartisan ethos if they already find his arguments persuasive, but if it’s close, the margins matter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 8, 2011

Election Day 2011

Tohu Bohu's annual tradition always seems a trifle awkward in the odd-numbered years. I voted for my town council, town clerk and town board of education, which is scarcely the powerfulest scene and show of the Western World. Nor is there a final ballot-shower, where we are counted together as a nation. Still, it's good to celebrate this hemisphere's teeming humanity, the still small voice vibrating, the choosing not the chosen.

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 14, 2011

Dear Occupant

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t written much about Occupy Wall Street and the surrounding events. I don’t really have much to say about the rallies—my initial reaction, like a lot of Left Blogovia was that it was silly to Occupy Wall Street, that whatever the intentions of the ralliers, the effect would be that of trustafarians, riffraff and DFHs trying to resurrect the sixties. Which, of course, is how it was portrayed by a lot of people, particularly at the beginning. On the other hand, I am fond of trustafarians, riffraff and DFHs; I am not myself inclined to camp out at rallies, but I am glad that other people do. I am an old lefty by policy preference, as y’all know, and an old Tory by my inclination to complacency and comfort. I want firebrands out there, enduring mild discomfort in the name of the Left.

As it happened, many of the ralliers endured more than mild discomfort, and endured, and then people started joining that were not trustafarians, riffraff and DFHs but political activists and even the newly politically active. It’s awesome! Plus, I can still enjoy it from the comfort of my broadband. So that’s all right. Also: never underestimate the effect of long-term unemployment on a person’s willingness to spend a long time protesting. I don’t know how many of the folk at the various rallies are long-term unemployed, but I’ll say that with thirty millions looking for work, some will be willing to spend those incomeless hours at a park downtown holding a sign and griping. Remember the bit about enlightened self-interest holding the line on surplus labor? No? Nor anybody else, I suppose, but those who forget history are condemned to read quotes from Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, and let that be a lesson to them.

So anyway, with all the wry self-mockery and so on, I really am impressed with the OWS movement, but there are a couple of cranky points that I have to make about the rhetoric. Because I am cranky that way.

First and most important is my sense that Occupy Wall Street was a goofy title when it wasn’t clear that the rally would last more than an afternoon. As a week-long event, it is an extremely clever name, and is they manage to keep a presence in the neighborhood for months, it will be a powerful name indeed. Part of that power, though, comes from the sense that one group occupies another, alien group with hostile intent. The implication is that Wall Street is foreign territory (which, you know, it is, at least in a rhetorical sense, as in the Wall/Main rhetoric that has been going around for decades) and while there is the hope of someday integrating it into the rest of the country, for now, at any rate, it is not to be trusted, not even to be treated with, only to be occupied.

So that’s all right, that’s not making me cranky. What is making me cranky is that the Hartford sympathy-rally is being called Occupy Hartford; that there is an Occupy Boston and an Occupy Atlanta and an Occupy San Diego, and none of those places should rhetorically be occupied. It would be one thing if we could easily identify the financial districts of all those places and use those references, but of course they would mean nothing to anyone outside the city—I vaguely remember the Montgomery Street addresses of some bank headquarters in San Francisco, and I would probably recognize the Chicago district from the V.I. Warshawsky novels, but that’s about it. I don’t even know what people in Boston call the financial district: State Street? Anyway, that’s clearly a non-starter for a national movement. But why not just call it Occupy Wall Street Hartford? Or even Hartford Occupies Wall Street? Because the idea is not that the occupiers are coming to destroy American cities and the American way of life. And even if the 1% live in other places across the land (and of course many of them have houses and apartments in lots of places), the rhetorical place of residence is the Wall Street, allowing the rest of us to include ourselves in that unoccupied 99%.

Speaking of which, My eyesight isn’t very good and I surf the internet on a crappy netbook with a bad screen, but frankly I could make out the hand-lettered signs if I could be bothered to wait for them to load and then squint. And I’m in the whatever-percentage who don’t have to use an automatic reader or translator; the rest of us can’t read your text at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 11, 2011

He's my President and I support his idiotic policy preferences

Your Humble Blogger is just wondering, today, how many of the seventy million people who voted for Our Only President feel that he and his office are representing their feelings on the deficit and the economy, and how many feel he is more of a deficit hawk than they would prefer, and how many feel he is less.

The Party is, of course, divided between deficit pragmatists, who feel that deficit spending is one of many tools the federal government has for Getting Things Done, and those deficit idealists who don’t. I am, as y’all know by now, a deficit pragmatist, leaning toward the end of that spectrum that feels the actual costs of running high federal deficits are low, certainly when compared with other tools, and that we would be better off not worry about it. Left Blogovia is chock full of deficit pragmatists, these days, although it should be pointed out that with the Other Party talking so much shit these days about the deficit there is an understandable and largely laudable tribal instinct to reject the shit and talk sense. Still, the Party is, for the most part, led by people who seem to act as if a balanced budget is either an important priority or a pleasant goal—I can remember very few legislators speaking positively about increasing the deficit, even whilst pushing policies that have that effect.

The Other Party is, of course, against budgeting altogether, and has been for more than a generation, and the result of that is that when they get influence over policy we run larger deficits. And it is possible to wonder how many of the sixty million people who voted against Our Only President feel that their party is more or less where they are on this topic, but frankly I don’t care about that at the present time. I’m wondering about my own Party, which is mine, and which is in some sense negotiating for as trustees for me and people who think like me.

See, Our Only President again stated that he wants a lean government, which I emphatically do not. He is rhetorically positioning himself (for the moment) between the other Party’s rapaciousness and his own’s liberality; I wonder, however, to what extent he really is between, and to what extent he is plumb spang in the middle of a Party that I and Left Blogovia see from the edge.

I don’t think I would find my answer in polls that ask whether people are worried about the deficit, or feel that it’s a high priority, or any of that—I don’t think that polling on policy questions is very helpful generally, and certainly not on the deficit. And I don’t really know that it would show up as support for the President either in the general ratings or in approval for how he is handling the economy. I certainly wouldn’t tell a pollster at this point that I disapprove of how Our Only President is handling the economy, though I would have preferred it be handled more, well, more liberally. What I would want, really, is a specific question on the agree or disagree lines with I agree with the President about the relative importance of federal government revenues, spending and borrowing—but even then, I wouldn’t trust the answer. Still, I wonder.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 6, 2011

Invisible, that's what they are

Jon Bernstein links to a very interesting interview over at CJR called How to Understand the ‘Invisible Primary’, in which Hans Noel explains his view of the primary campaign. If you have been reading Mr. Bernstein’s stuff, none of this will really come as a surprise to you, but it’s worth reading on its own. I do have a couple of things to add, from the point of view of a partisan blogger who is not really active in any of the Party organizations.

For one thing, while I understand that Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Noel and other political scientists are attempting to describe the universe as it exists, I think they are doing themselves a rhetorical disservice by leaving aside the ways in which we primary voters experience the campaigns—and more important, the ways in which we experience these sorts of articles about the campaigns. We know that by the time we vote the practical choices have been narrowed down to one or two people. We are aware, on some level, that our choice is either to support the presumptive nominee or to reject that person. If we aren’t in Iowa or New Hampshire, we have all had our preferred candidate drop out before our state votes. Probably everybody in Iowa and New Hampshire has had that happen as well. At the very least, we’ve had the experience of pulling a useless protest lever, knowing that the guy we don’t like will win anyway.

I am, by the way, speaking as an aged veteran of six primary campaigns, including one uncontested incumbency—seven and two, if you want to count this one already. I would be willing to say eight and count the 1984 run, where I had opinions but not a vote; I may even have had opinions in 1980, but my recollection of support for Ted Kennedy may well be later invention. I don’t remember supporting a particular candidate in 1976—I may well have held a sign for Mo Udall, but at parental behest, not out of conviction. Still, anyone growing up in a family that pays attention to politics (and that must be eighty percent or more of eventual primary voters) probably has dim recollection of a candidate whose brief hopes with the nomination sparked a fondness disproportionate to the candidates actual chances. Anyway, my point is that I believe most, probably a very large majority of primary voters in any cycle have, like me, been through it before enough times to know that the candidate we cotton to right away will fall by the wayside before Super Tuesday.

So we know. But when we are told Y’all don’t matter that much it gets our hackles up. At least mine—does it yours, Gentle Readers? There’s a hint that we are deluding ourselves; we aren’t, we really aren’t. We are incredibly frustrated by the whole process and we don’t like being told these hard truths as if our frustration is wasted. In fact, our frustration is (and I think Mr. Bernstein and his associates would agree) a vital and important part of party-building and of the whole process, in terms of who gets the nomination as well as who leads the party and who gets to govern and how. Our frustration is part of becoming the democratic nation we want to be. The system doesn’t work without it. And I think that we would find it a lot easier to read and think about these kinds of articles if that were acknowledged as part of the rhetoric.

I had a couple of other points to make, too. I do think that we in Left Blogovia had started to pay attention in the last cycle to who was working with and for the candidates (as well as big money folk such as Charles and David Koch); this does need to be expanded. I think David S. Bernstein (brother of the aforementioned Mr. Bernstein) (and I should probably repeat, for any Gentle Readers newish to this Tohu Bohu that I have known the Bernstein Boys since they were so high, love them dearly, and so on and so forth) does an excellent job of this in New Hampshire—he identifies several people who he thinks are key, and reports when they seem to be jumping one way or another. This is the sort of thing that local reporters can do very well (if they have local papers that pay them) and then other news organizations can use that reporting to get the information out. But what I think would be interesting is if the dozen or so most influential people in Iowa and the dozen or so in New Hampshire get named and spotlighted, will it make their eventual influence greater or less? How will the observation influence the observed? Because the thing about the invisible primary is its invisibility, which makes it possible for such-and-such a labor leader or fund-raiser or legislative committee chair to deliberate and collude and conspire and otherwise act outside the gaze of the public. If reporters start to report on the most influential people in the invisible primary, and those people have assistants who will leak rumors (as they do and will), and the big news of the day is not what slight variation on the stump speech some candidate made in a diner in Mason City but the endorsement of some State Senator who last cycle brought in half-a-dozen other endorsements with her and who is married to the guy who runs the company that makes the commercials—Senator Publiceye may not be able to bring in the other endorsements and the free and cheap media time in those conditions. Or they might, but I don’t think it’s obvious.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 29, 2011

The Debt Ceiling, or, fuck the heck?

So. The news is still on about the debt ceiling, so I just wanted to throw something out there—for a while, I kept hearing the credit card analogy, that this was like increasing our credit card limit, or alternately like this was paying off our credit card bill. It seems to me that the credit card analogy actually goes something like this:

You have a credit card, and in addition, you are the bank that issues the credit card, both. You (as the consumer) went to BiggieMaX and bought ten thousand dollars worth of stuff. The clerk at BiggieMaX put the credit card through the machine, and you (as the bank) told them that it was approved. Now, as a consumer you actually only had a maximum line of eight thousand dollars, but as the bank you were able to waive that maximum for yourself as a consumer, because frankly you are always borrowing more and more money, and yet you make a pretty good living and have always paid up on time. Plus, you have known yourself since you were small, and you are good people. So you assure the BiggieMaX clerk (through the machine) that this is an approved transaction.

Now, you (as the bank) are having a board meeting trying to decide whether to actually pay that money to BiggieMaX. Yes, you (as the bank) authorized the purchase, and yes, you (as the customer) did walk away with the goods and take them home. But really, now that it’s Monday, doesn’t it seem like a lot of money?

Now, I’m sure that credit cards don’t work like that, and I’m sure that the government doesn’t work like that—but we have already agreed to spend the money, and we have already put the full faith and proverbial that we will pay that money, and we have largely already received the stuff the money is for, and now we are seriously trying to decide whether to actually pay it? Seriously? I mean, seriously?

I don’t think that governments should be run like businesses, on the whole, and I’m not even convinced that businesses should be run as businesses, but… seriously? We’re seriously unable to get legislative agreement that we should pay for the things we have already bought?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 16, 2011

War Powers

Your Humble Blogger notes that legislators are finally making a bit of a fuss about this whole War Powers thing. There’s an interesting Interview with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) over at the Foreign Policy blog, and an entertaining note by Jack Goldsmith saying that The Boehner Ultimatum Makes No Legal Sense over at Lawfare.

For those Gentle Readers who don’t pay attention to procedural stuff, or who live in a country set up differently than these United States, here’s the problem in a nutshell: The Constitution gives the power of declaring war to the legislature specifically to prevent the President from haring off on misadventures on his own, but since the era of Declared Wars is over (if it ever really existed, which not so much), we have effectively transferred that power to the President. That is, the President is not allowed to formally declare war, but doesn’t need to formally declare war to engage in it. The Legislature passed a War Powers Resolution forty years ago, over a presidential veto, that in theory prevents the President from engaging in a protracted war that the Legislature does not want. In practice, the Legislature has no means by which to prevent the President from engaging in a war except refusing to fund it, which would unacceptably endanger our servicemen for a political act. So the President can and does ignore the War Powers Resolution, or can comply with it if it seems politically helpful, or can straddle the fence by doing something that isn’t quite complying but isn’t quite not complying, either.

So. Here’s the problem: The Legislature does not want to do anything politically risky. They certainly don’t want to declare war. They don’t, in fact, want to keep to themselves the full responsibility for deciding which wars to fight. They do want to restrain a President from haring off on unpopular wars, but they don’t want to be responsible for restraining a President from haring off on a war that may turn out to be unpopular but may not. The War Powers Resolution is useless for this.

Ten years ago or so, I used to feel quite strongly that we needed to scrap the War Powers Resolution for that reason, and to start again with something else. I was persuaded that doesn’t actually work, because of the other problem: there is no remotely plausible sequence of events where the Supreme Court of the United States takes the command of the armed forces away from the Presidency. That is, if the Legislature felt that the President was in violation of the War Powers Resolution or any other similar statute and took that feeling to the Supreme Court, it would not and probably could not do anything about it. They aren’t going to send our boys home. They aren’t going to put the President in prison. In all probability, they are going to say that it’s a dreadful situation and should not be held as precedent, but the President must continue to command.

So here’s my suggestion: amend the Constitution to explicitly allow the Legislature to remove the President in displeasure for the conduct of foreign wars. I would have the mechanism be essentially the same as impeachment: a majority of the Lower House and two-thirds of the Upper House. It would be clear, however, that no crime needs to have been committed for removal. Evidence would be presented and discussed, certainly, but in essence, the President would be subject to removal simply because the Legislature wants him gone. Incompetence, overreach, adventuring—and even if the Legislature had made a Declaration of War or had otherwise authorized the military engagement in question.

Of course, it would never, ever happen. Politically, it just wouldn’t. But then politically, what are the chances that the President will engage in a protracted and unpopular military adventure and then stay in office long enough for any of this to matter? We have seen the Legislature and the American People accede to the President’s judgment over and over again, even if there are later regrets, or later denials that they played along. The transfer of authority from the Legislature to the President happened in the hearts and minds of the Legislators and the voters first. That’s the reality—the President will decide who we invade and how long we stay. All my solution would do is acknowledge that and prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 5, 2011

Four Score minus six years ago

From The New deal; an analysis and appraisal put out by The Economist in 1937, following the re-election of FDR:

… A good case could undoubtedly be made for an Opposition which, without hiding behind the letter of the Constitution, would accept the paramount necessity for a broad economic and social policy and set out to correct Mr Roosevelt’s mistakes. But the only way of voting Mr Roosevelt out would have been to vote the Republicans in, and the Republicans have never shown any desire to be this sort of Opposition. Under Mr. Hoover their policy was one of non-intervention so long as that was possible, and when non-intervention became humanly impossible, it was a policy of helping the men and institutions at the top of the social and economic heap in the hope that this help would “filter down” to the bottom. “Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity,” says Mr Roosevelt, “than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

p. 148

That’s The Economist talking, not me. That’s science.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 15, 2011

No Lean Land

Our Only President gave a pretty good speech this week—oddly enough, without very many good sound-bite quotables—laying out in some measure our Party’s priorities for the upcoming budget battle. I’ve just got around to reading the thing, and I was struck by one metaphor:

Indeed, to those in my own party, I say that if we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have an obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments. If we believe the government can make a difference in people’s lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works—by making government smarter, and leaner and more effective.

Being in Our Only President’s Party, I’m going to respond to this, or to one part of it: the idea that the government should be lean. Because it seems strange to me that lean is now a good thing.

Of course, for much of the development of our language, leanness was considered a bad thing because it indicated scarcity. It is, in fact, the seven fat cows that indicate plenty and the seven lean that indicate famine. Shakespeare is as happy to mock a skinny man as a fat one, with the added hint that the lean-faced men, the lean raw-boned rascals, the wrinkled, lean old men are not to be trusted. However, while when applied to people leanness is at one end of a spectrum that is bad at both ends and good only in the middle, when applied to land, leanness is the outright opposite of good. Lean land is famine; Famine personified is described as lean. Wadsworth says that civil war leaves a land lean, poor and dismantled of all its fruits and wealth. Lands are lean where rivers do not run, says the proverb. As time goes on, the term is applied to weak and feeble fuel: lean coal doesn’t burn well, lean ore has little yield, lean fuel won’t give much oomph. Lean times, lean seasons, lean souls, lean wits. Leanness is not a good thing.

And, of course, lean meat is tough and tasteless. Yes, it’s better for you than the fatty stuff, and by the early nineteenth century there were people arguing in favor of a diet of lean meat, but even there they acknowledged that the diet was one of ascetic self-restraint. Toward the middle of the twentieth century the idea that lean meat was an unmitigated good thing started to spread. And then, in the eighties, came the idea that a business should be lean. That worked out well.

Look—I don’t want to live in a lean and feeble land, and I don’t want to eat lean and feeble meals, and I don’t want a lean and feeble government. I want to live in a fertile and growing land, I want to eat rich and tasty food, and I want a government that is muscular, healthy, and above all liberal. I don’t want a diet government. I don’t want skim-milk protections and rights. I don’t want a forlorn and ragged safety net. I don’t want an education system that has to be pounded flat before it can be swallowed. I don’t want a transportation system that doesn’t have enough to hold it together.

So I say to the leader of my Party, who happens to be the leader of the free world, that I reject his suggestion that we measure the works of the government by the thinness of our generosity. If we believe the government can make a difference in people’s lives, we can measure that difference in excess, in larding the plates of the poor with richness, in filling the begging bowl until it runs over, in making commitments not because we can afford them but because we must afford them or we cannot live with our lean and hungry selves—and because our generosity of spirit flows out into our fellow men unchecked, the milk of human kindness like fresh cream, the staff of life smeared with schmaltz. I do not want the governing metaphor for my governing body to be that of small-souled, mean-spirited, gaunt-cheeked, hollow-eyed, rake-thin, calorie-counting, watery-souped, withered, wrinkled, and wretched leanness. I want a government with a belly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 5, 2011

Deficit Fraud

In case any Gentle Readers are distantly following politics—that is, enough to have heard a few things but not enough to have heard more than a few—let me pass along the info that Paul Ryan is a fraud. That shouldn’t be a surprise, of course. I mean, it shouldn’t be a surprise that YHB thinks a member of the Other Party is a fraud; they aren’t all frauds, but they come pretty thick on the ground over there.

But Rep. Ryan is claiming to be serious about long-term planning to reduce the federal deficit. This is not so.

[Your Humble Blogger wrote a lengthy and completely accurate argument ad hominem but eventually, reluctantly, removed it from the draft of this note. The burden was, essentially, the man has always been a fraud, so it’s fair to assume he is still a fraud, without some evidence to the contrary.]

OK, so much for the argument ad hominem. How about the actual Path to Prosperity? Well, as Jonathan Bernstein points out when he asks But are Paul Ryan’s numbers real? the numbers in that document are, well, transparently phony. The Economist chortles over a claim that unemployment will be at 4% in 2015, which they describe as “laughably overoptimistic”, and for good reason. It’s not like Rep. Ryan proposes going out and actually hiring people until we reach that goal; it’s just a straightforward fantasy.

Furthermore, the policy document has no ill effects from the drastic budget cuts, mostly because there aren’t actually any drastic budget cuts. The document simply assumes that come benchmark time future legislators will come up with perfectly obvious ways to cut the budget without laying off anyone, diminishing demand, cutting services, or otherwise having any intercourse with reality whatsoever. The major specific proposal in the document appears to be a plan to reduce the health care costs of seniors in the future by simply refusing to pay for them. This would transfer the burden of the government into society, which as they are pretty much the same thing, wouldn’t solve any actual problems. It would create some, sure. But solve? No.

Look—if you are worried about future deficits in the federal budget (and you’ll notice that nobody is seriously making the claim that the current deficit is a crisis, just that somehow we must Act Now or future deficits will be an unsolvable crisis), the problem you are worried about is health care costs for a surprisingly large number of millions of people who will be productive members of society and the economy if and only if they receive incredibly expensive medical care.

Once again: there will be millions upon millions of people who will be able to work, produce, teach, consume, innovate, garden, drive, read, etc, etc, etc, on the sole condition that they get medical help which they will not be able to afford individually. I believe this is true, and I think this is largely new, or at least new on that scale, as that proportion of the population.

From the point of view of the federal deficit, it matters who is going to pay for that care. From the point of view of society, it matters whether all those endoscopies and CAT scans and MRIs and joint replacements and prescriptions and laparoscopic cystectomies are going to happen. If they are going to happen, and we haven’t found some way to make them cheap, then they are going to be a tremendous drain on the economy, whether they are a direct drain on the government treasures or not. And if those costs are a tremendous drain, then that will affect the revenues collectible, and if they aren’t and instead all those millions of people either die or become relatively cheap invalids then they aren’t producing at the rate we would otherwise predict, and that will affect the revenues collectible. What I’m saying is that if you don’t touch the fundamental issue, then even if your numbers aren’t transparently phony, they are still phony.

Now, keep in mind that I don’t actually care about the budget deficit. I do care about people getting health care. So my take on this is different from a lot of people’s takes, and presumably is different from Paul Ryan’s. I try to be aware of that. I wouldn’t say he was a fraud if he simply disagreed with me on those two preferences. I am saying he is a fraud because he claims to care about the budget deficit, but has and is doing things that will make it much larger, and has done and is doing nothing that will make it smaller. That seems… fraudulent somehow.

And before I shut up about this: while it is true that federal budget projections show that over the next half-century the only serious problem is health care costs, that is because the projections do not show anything that we don’t currently predict as part of the budget. So, for instance, a dramatic increase in the scarcity of resources—water, oil, coal, zinc, rare earths, etc, would have a tremendous effect on the federal budget and the deficit thereof, but since we don’t know if they are going to happen, they aren’t in the projection. A dramatic decrease in the scarcity of those resources similarly would affect the numbers. If oil were to triple in price in the next decade, that would drive the budget enormously. But that’s crazy! How could the price of a barrel of crude triple in a decade? That’s absurd, and clearly not worth talking about, right? And we can all assume that potable water demand and supply will remain entirely entirely stable for, oh, fifty years at least. Right? There’s no possibility that large-scale desalinization will suddenly make much, much more water available; and of course no chance that there will be less. So let’s focus on health care.

Oh, and refugees. Certainly nobody is predicting that global climate change will result in an extra two hundred million refugees within that fifty year period, and if it did, how could that possibly have any effect on our budget?

And of course even without participating in the invasion of some sovereign nation overseas, which certainly isn’t going to happen, there’s the entirely predictable costs of national security such as enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya, or the Ivory Coast, or Madagascar or Venezuela—no, we can safely predict our military budget for fifty years out and our refugee budget and our resource budget and our health care budget and then cut services and benefits and eschew stimulus and most importantly allow the wealthiest people to keep hold of what they have without fear of needing to share that wealth. And claim that it all is a serious attack on a serious deficit crisis.

Or we can claim to. If we are frauds.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 22, 2011

Losing by Winning

Amongst all the Wisconsin shit that makes Your Humble Blogger's explode is this: if Governor Walker wins this battle, ten years from now the only thing that will have changed is that state workers will be making less money and have fewer protections. There will still be budget battles, and I rather suspect that politicians of the Other Party will still blame the public's employees and other members of the working class, while continuing to propose breaks for corporations and the wealthy. By the way, if y'all haven't been following this, the budget crisis in Wisconsin is largely phoney, which ain't a surprise, is it? Nor is it a surprise that, to the extent it exists, it is an artifact of the Other Party, which has a decades-long track record of fiscal irresponsibility at the national level.

But my point. Because I had one. If Governor Walker wins, and it becomes difficult-to-impossible for public workers to organize, he won't pay the cost. Nobody (other than people who have been labor supporters all along) will blame him if there's another teacher shortage in ten years, or it turns out that the newly-privatized service doesn't actually dispatch emergency vehicles to where they are needed, or various records are missing or stolen by temporary clerks working for minimum-without-benefits, or any of the other entirely predictable things. These will be presented as unpredictable aberrations, and will be used by local radio hosts to argue about how awful the gummint is.

On the other hand, if Governor Walker loses, and the workers retain the right to bargain collectively, then in ten years, or twenty, or thirty, every time the budget gets tight for any reason at all, more than half of the state will believe it's because Governor Walker was thwarted in his attempt to rein in the lazy, corrupt, selfish unions. Seriously. If some Comptroller embezzles twenty million and gets away to Brazil with it, a year later the budget crisis will be because Governor Walker didn't break the unions. If climate change causes Lake Superior to vomit up super-monsters, and then they battle the radiation monsters from Indiana in the streets of Wausau, wiping out the entire state's economy when it turns out that Liberty Mutual wasn't insured against monsters, legislators will say that if we had just listed to Governor Walker, we would have plenty of money for rebuilding. And people will believe it.

Look, I hope that I'm proved wrong. I mean, obviously, I hope that because I hope that Governor Walker and his Party will lose, and that the workers will retain their rights. I hope that they are celebrated for that victory throughout the generations, and that on Labor Day every year, everybody in Wisconsin comes together at the great picnic, where Governor Walker himself (and eventually his children and his children's children) goodnaturedly joke about their past wrongheadedness from the dunktank. I'm just saying. The political deck isn't stacked that way.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 17, 2011

Don't Worry About the Deficit

Your Humble Blogger should probably join Left Blogovia in saying the things that aren’t showing up in the news and analysis of politics just now.

First: Nobody cares about the deficit. This is, of course, not fully true—but as a matter of the Will of the People, the deficit consistently polls as a fairly low priority.

B: Lots of people do say they care about the deficit, but most of those people don’t really care very much about the deficit. Or, rather, most people who say they care about the deficit don’t really care very much about the gap between the federal revenues and the federal expenditures. They care about other things that they call the deficit, or they care about the policies that they believe (sometimes baselessly, sometimes with reason) must follow an actual deficit, or they feel that they ought to care about the deficit, or they think that the deficit necessarily implies moral turpitude on the part of legislators or bureaucrats. Or that they think they ought to care about the deficit, or that somebody has told them that the deficit is super-important, or (most of all) that they are simply expressing disapproval of the government generally. That’s all fine, but from a political point of view, it would be a mistake to think that closing (or narrowing) the gap between the federal revenues and the federal expenditures will please those people.

III: Independent of the opinion and priority of the populace (and democratic representation and all that cal), neither our national deficit nor our national debt are at dangerous levels at this time. We could tell that, presumably, by the bond market, which is where the debt is sold and where the real trouble, if there is to be any, will surface. We can predict that if current trends continue, they will be at dangerous levels within a generation, but of course current trends never do continue. Nearly one in ten people looking for work being unable to find it over the last year is an actual problem, both with politics and policy. The deficit is a potential problem. While potential problems need attention as well, it’s not usually a good idea to exacerbate actual problems with your solutions to potential problems.

Also: To the extent that the current trends abovementioned are worrisome, not only is the cost of health care the primary factor, it is essentially the only factor worth sweating over, by a factor of something silly like five to one over other entitlements (see the CBO Director’s Blog on the long-term budget outlook). Thus, any policy that does not address health care spending is not addressing the projected deficit. Again: any policy that does not address health care spending is not addressing the projected deficit. No austerity plan, no tax reform, no grand bargain.

Penultimately: In the short term, a largish chunk of the deficit is caused by the evaporation of revenues attributable to (a) our reluctance to collect taxes from people who have incomes, and (2) our inability to collect taxes from the large number of people who (because of the hijjus job market) don’t have incomes. While I am not bothered about this, particularly, it is true that any policy that does not increase spending on employment and collection does not address the short-term deficit.

In conclusion: Current estimates have the ratio of bullshit-to-reality in talk about the deficit to be well over 1,000 to one. This is not significantly higher or lower a ratio than at any time in my political memory, but the ratio means that the increase in the absolute quantity of bullshit broadcast has not accompanied a visible (or audible) increase in the quantity of reality broadcast.

Not altogether unrelatedly: Current long-term budget projections do not include the cost of slashing CO2, or of refugees from parts of the world where resources will be scarce, or underwater. Of course, climate change might be a myth, or alternatives to coal and oil may be provided free gratis, or all the refugees may go elsewhere. But then, it’s possible that magic pills may be free gratis, or that the bird flu will quickly and cheaply kill the elderly and vulnerable, or that the singularity will happen, or that the invasion of Iraq will, in fact, pay for itself. But you know? Probably not. So to make it clear: we are filling our news and legislatures with babble about The Deficit, which may be an actual problem in forty years, long after the projected tipping point for doing anything about something which is projected to be a catastrophic problem.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 26, 2011

Response to the Response

Your Humble Blogger has not (yet) listened to the State of the Union Address, nor yet the Republican Response, nor the Tea Party Caucus Response.

About that last one—David Kurtz over at TPM joked about it, joking about CNN having broadcast Bernie Sanders or Russ Feingold giving a separate SotU response in 2007. Not only did that not happen, but it’s hard to even imagine it happening.

Why is that? Is it because of the inherent corporate media bias that creates collusion, even if not intentional, to prevent anti-corporate political views from being aired? Well, ok, yes, that actually is a part of it. But mostly it’s because there is nothing remotely comparable to the Tea Party caucus on the Left.

Remember that Michelle Bachmann founded the Tea Party caucus, and was wagging the dog well over a year ago, when she started a rally that her Party’s legislative leadership wound up compelled to attend. That makes her news, and it makes her Caucus news. I can’t blame CNN for reporting that news.

Of course, some Gentle Readers are thinking back to 2003 and 2004 and thinking that there was, in fact, a political movement that was drawing crowds to rallies all over the country. And it’s true. If, in 2004, some Democratic legislator had become identified with the anti-war movement, and then had used that identification to demand that all the leaders of the Party at least pay lip service to the anti-war movement, and then had declared that he was giving his own response to the State of the Union, then I suspect that CNN would have broadcast that response. Perhaps not. Perhaps the bias really was dispositive.

Or, perhaps, things would have been different had the anti-war legislators had the balls that Michelle Bachmann has.

Although even that would not have prevented or shortened the war. Any more than Michelle Bachmann’s speech will cut the spending of the federal government or repeal the Affordable Care Act. So there’s that, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 21, 2010

In the town where I was born

Your Humble Blogger was born here.

Worth reading the other side, which puts a lot more emphasis on the Mercy Care Plan, which provides medical care to poor people without fully depriving them of the rights of individual conscience.

I should just add, though it isn’t specifically relevant to today’s news: when I was gestating (o those halcyon days), my sister, if I have the story right, was diagnosed with one of those diseases that is very bad for pregnancy; my mother was of somewhat advanced years for those days, and would (she later told me) not have wanted to bring the pregnancy to term had the disease (whatever it was; I want to say whooping cough, but TSOR tells me that one isn’t particularly bad. Measles?) spread to her. She looked in to the state of things in those pre-Roe v. Wade days, and it was clear to her that being fairly well-off and fairly well-connected, she would not be forced to carry the pregnancy to term. But it was also clear to her that without those connections and some spending money, she would not have a choice. That appears (from later conversations) to have had a substantial impact on her political sense. I mean, she was already very politically active and what we now call high-information and as a Mawrtyr she was certainly pro-women’s lib, but I think that she saw that issue very differently after that personal experience, and saw a lot of other issues as being connected with that one, as well. Which they are, of course.

I am glad my mother did carry the pregnancy to term, and if she hadn’t, well, I wouldn’t be too upset about it, would I? But here’s the thing: she got and was able to get good medical care.

And so should everybody else.

I’m not claiming to know the rights and wrongs of what happened at St. Joe’s and with Bishop Olmsted. I will, however, with her permission, pass along my Best Reader’s reaction that she would be a lot happier putting her own care in the hands of somebody who refused the See’s ultimatum than in the hands of somebody who agreed to it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 19, 2010

Get Debbie Downer.

Your Humble Blogger is finding it difficult to express my feelings about the United States Senate and what happened there today [now yesterday]. For one thing, yes, I am pleased that the preposterous policy that allowed certain people to serve in the military only under the condition that they lied about their sexuality—I am glad that policy is no longer the law. Or, rather, I am glad that there is no longer a law compelling that to be our policy; the policy itself is still in place, and will be until the Executive Branch fixes it. But yes, there was a terrible, nonsensical law, and now it’s gone. Whew.

On the other hand, of course, a minority of the Senate blocked the passage of the DREAM act, which in some sense typifies the Senate these days: it’s a reasonable, bipartisan manner of correcting some screwinesses in our immigration system. It’s not a terribly urgent matter, but it also isn’t a terribly controversial matter, one would think, and as policy it seems to have widespread support—including in the Senate itself, of course. And yet, the political incentives are such that there was very little chance of it passing, either today or in the near future. Depressing.

It’s also the case that I am at least a trifle ambivalent about the triumphant repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. As civil rights achievements go, it’s… minor. It may lead to more legal equality later on, and there is every reason to hope it will, but in itself, the ability to serve in the military is not that high up on my equality-and-liberty list. Frankly, the policy is so crazy and self-defeating that I have to see its repeal more as a victory for common sense than for gay rights. Marriage, yes, that is a Big Deal, and it’s amazing and wonderful to me that my home state of Connecticut has legal same-sex marriage. It would be an even bigger deal to see those marriages acknowledged federally. Protection against discrimination in hiring, promotion and retention would be a big deal. And in education as well. Most people—most gay people—go to school, have jobs, marry. Most people don’t serve in our volunteer military. Thank goodness.

I mean, yes. Of course I’m happy that the repeal passed. I’m happy for some thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the military. I’m happy for their friends and lovers. I’m happy for the straight people in the military who will have one fewer bullshit rule to deal with. I really am.

But as a great civil rights advance? Meh. Maybe my reaction is because I don’t have any friends in the military now. I’m spending my time in a University, and conditions for gay people in that University don’t seem to be much better than they were twenty years ago. Oh, they probably are, really, but they don’t seem to be, and they surely aren’t enough better for me to get giddy over our country allowing—potentially allowing!—gay men, lesbians and bisexuals to go to Afghanistan.

Mostly, I’m afraid, I am too depressed about how slow-moving the march to equality is, and how difficult it is to move even one inch—seriously, our policy is to deport people who have served with distinction in the military because their parents brought them over illegally as infants?—for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to bring a smile to my face. And, I suppose, there’s this: it was clear that after we were betrayed by moderation yet again (mostly by the Senate), it was necessary for my Party to have some new achievement to bring home, and this one was it. And my asshole Senator got it done, and deserves the credit for it. But also the blame for the other, and I don’t think the trade between a new tax cut for the wealthiest people in our country is a good one. If it were federally recognized marriage, yes. National protection against discrimination in employment, yes. But the Marines? Well, and you take your victories where you can get them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 9, 2010

Betrayed again! Curse you, moderation!

Your Humble Blogger feels it somehow incumbent on him to comment on The Deal. Because everybody else is commenting, and because nobody that I read is saying the stuff that I would say. Which, alas, is the same stuff I always say in this situation.

What I’ve been seeing falls into two categories. First, there are a bunch of people who feel (rightly) that this deal is terrible for the country and terrible for progressives, and also feel (wrongly, imao) that Our Only President is to blame for this terrible deal. Second, there are a bunch of people who feel (rightly) that Our Only President got pretty much the best terrible deal he could get at this time, and that there are lots of other people who should shoulder far more of the blame, including (a) Senate Democrats, (ii) House Democrats, and (3) the American People, who persist in electing a bunch of people from the Other Party (and a handful from Our Party as well) who persist in sacrificing just about everything to the Grail of minimizing taxes on the wealthy.

But here’s the thing—a pretty fair number of pixels have been spilled in the latter group of posts on correcting the first group of posts. I think this is wrong.

That is, I think the first group—the Obama-blamers—are wrong in their analysis, but the second group—the Obama-defenders—are wrong to say they got it wrong. That’s largely because I don’t think the first group are engaging in analysis, so much as activism. And while blaming Our Only President is wrong as analysis, it ain’t wrong as activism.

It’s actually really, really important for people on the Left to cry out that we have been betrayed! betrayed by moderation! Again!

There’s been some interesting discussion lately (at Jon Bernstein’s Plain Blog, among others) about policy negotiations and party politics. Mr. Bernstein suggests that many constituencies within my Party’s broader coalition have specific policy goals that they want met, which means that you can’t buy them off with symbolic votes. That is, for many of the people in the Other Party who give time and money in support of their candidates, it is enough that their officials vote the right way, even in a losing cause. For those of us who care about Labor, we want (f’r’ex) card check passed, not just voted on. For those of us who care about GLBT rights, we wanted the military to accept gay recruits; we aren’t going to be happy with a symbolic vote. We want Cap and Trade—well, we’re not real excited about Cap and Trade, but we’re certainly furious that two years of Our Party in charge of two branches didn’t give us any serious policy, just symbolic votes. And we didn’t just want health care passed, we wanted it to cover everyone and provide a check on private insurance; we had actual policy preferences. Because of those actual policy preferences, are Representatives are likely to accept 80% of what we want, because after all, that is 80% of what we want.

I don’t know if that’s true, or if that’s a real difference between the Parties. I don’t know that, in the end, we are more likely to withhold votes or donations or energy from incumbents who nobly fail than the other Party’s incumbents. But I do think that there has been, over the last three decades or more, a substantial difference in how loud we squeal when we don’t get what we want. And I think we should squeal louder.

Look—Our Only President did a cost-benefit analysis of some kind, and decided that this was the point he wanted to be at. And I trust his judgment on that, honestly. He’s certainly in a better position to judge it than I am. But what I can do, what you can do, what Left Blogovia can do, is to increase the cost of giving up what we want. We can holler like stuck pigs when we get only 30% of what we want. We can make it clear that part of making that deal is listening to us scream our heads off. And we can make it clear to everybody that we will give our incumbents hell if they make deals that stink, even if it’s a smart deal to make. Even if our analysis is that it was the right deal for our people to make. We are going to stay unhappy and we’re going to make a lot of noise, and sooner or later we need to be bought off with some real policy, if only to shut us the hell up.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 5, 2010

More outliers in the Senate, or rather fewer

A couple of years ago, Your Humble Blogger looked up the Senate Seniority list and wrote about Outliers and typicals. I was surprised at the time to discover that half of all Senators were in their first or second terms, and another quarter were in their third. There were 26 who had served more than eighteen years, with Sen. Akaka being the 26th in seniority, having been appointed just before the 1990 election.

Now there’s a new list. Sen. Akaka will be 21st in seniority come this January. Senators Byrd and Kennedy have died, of course, and Senators Dodd, Specter and Bond will not be returning. Of course, another two years have passed, so we have to count down: the question is how many Senators will have served more than three complete terms. The group first elected in 1992 is down to three, after Senators Dorgan, Gregg, Feingold and Bennett dropped out. They are about to start their fourth terms, so they line up after Sen. Akaka. Sen. Feingold got a seniority edge because she was in a special election (which was on the same day as the general, but she got sworn in first), so it’s a tie between Senators Boxer and Murray for 23 and 24. The next on the list, Sen. Hutchison, has served just under three full terms.

In other words, the situation hasn’t changed very much. More than half the Senate is new since 1999, that is, has served less than two full terms; about three-quarters have served less than three. The outliers have changed, of course. Pat Leahy was elected to his seventh term; only Daniel Inouye is in his eighth and no-one is working on a ninth. There were five Senators in their sixth terms two years ago; now Chuck Grassley has joined them.

I wonder who will be the next outlier, though. Who is the next fifty year senator, or forty-five, or even forty? Who will be elected not only to a seventh but an eighth term? Carl Levin? He was born in 1934; in 2014 he could be re-elected at only eighty, but could he be re-elected again in 2020? Dick Lugar was born in 1932 and if he wants to run in 2012 is sure to win. Could he be re-elected in 2018 at the age of eighty-six? Or Orrin Hatch, who will be only eighty-four? Thad Cochran would need to win in 2014 and then in 2020, when he will be only eighty-three. Max Baucus would only be seventy-nine in 2020, but a strong Republican in Montana might well beat him. And there’s Chuck Grassley, who would need to win in 2016 and 2022, when he would be almost ninety. Maybe—and I don’t know that I would put money on it—John Kerry will stick around the Senate for another three terms, winning his eighth in 2026, when he will be a spry windsurfing eighty-three.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 16, 2010

Marking Ears

I note that everybody is suddenly talking about The Earmark Game; the Other Party claims to be agin them, although of course only the bad ones.

Since it makes no sense whatsoever for Congress to give up the ability to allocate certain sums of money for certain projects (presumably ceding that authority to the Executive), the question is not whether but how the Other Party will walk back from that promise.

My thinking? Make a new term for those allocations. The important thing is that we avoid connection with ears, with marking, and with pork. And with barrels, I suppose. Ideally, it would be something dull and technical sounding (like earmark used to be).

So now, Congressmen can no longer insert earmarks for pork barrel projects like the Bridge to Nowhere, but must direct funds to important projects by introducing a preset. Or, if the project is more than ten million dollars, it will require a antemonetized expenditure rider. Or perhaps a scheduled pro-reserve.

The great thing about this is that while it is certainly worthy of mockery, they could abolish earmarks, which as they are currently applied have lots of problems with opacity and corruption, and then institute presets and scheduled pro-reserves that are transparent and have some ethical guidelines and oversight. In fact, it may be that the only way to institute an open system for the legislature to allocate funds for local projects is to abolish earmarks—and then create antemonetized expenditure riders.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 15, 2010

Democracy, Deficits, Duplicity

Your Humble Blogger is cranky about the New York Times. Specifically about the gimmicky gadget that says You Fix the Budget online.

First of all, I am no deficit hawk; perhaps I should write a whole note about how wrongheaded I find deficit hawkery. That isn’t this note, although Gentle Readers would do well to keep in mind that I am cranky in large part because of the blithe assumption of the NYT that the budget is broken unless costs match revenues exactly, year after year, for the projected future. Had the assumption been that the deficits should be kept to approximately the current percentage of the GDP, or that the projected budgets should have a buffer for unprojected deficit spending at need, or that debt service be kept to a certain percentage of projected revenues—any of that would likely have spurred me to discussion of the wrongheadedness of the details, and I might well have missed the bigger crankiness. But I was cranky about the whole thing, and with everyblogger posting her own solutions, my crankiness has focused on the bigger issue.

Which is this: the whole exercise works in the paradigm that the deficit is not a political problem. You are encouraged to fix the deficit. Fine, you can do it easily. I haven’t seen anybody posting a note throwing up their virtual hands and saying I can’t possibly fix the deficit, it’s too hard! No, it’s easy to make the numbers work. The problem is making the politics work. If you could cross out the budget bits you don’t like and could raise the taxes and cap the spending and otherwise make the little dots go blue, then you could balance the budget—but then we wouldn’t be living in a democracy. Heck, I could just draw a bunch of circles and arrows and declare the budget fine with a deficit of 6.8 gazillion dollars, but that wouldn’t be democracy either. The point—the whole point, for fuck’s sake—is that people disagree on their preferences and priorities, and that we have to bargain and negotiate and compromise, and then we have to win elections with the people who have made those compromises or we have to win elections over the people who have made those compromises, and then do it all again next year because everybody is a year older (or dead) and has new preferences and priorities.

This is most obvious in the easy way we can balance the budget in 2030 by pretty much knocking back Medicare. Health care is the source of two-thirds of the long-term deficit problem., and of pretty much all of the deficit problem that isn’t amenable to raising taxes as a solution. So. All we have to do is decide, now, to get rid of most of the Medicare costs. Simple!

Oh, and then we have to prevent people from voting, in the next twenty years, for legislators who support increasing Medicare. That would be about 80% of the legislators people actually do vote for, by the way, and that’s currently, with most of the baby boomers not yet eligible for its benefits. In twenty years, when the last of the baby boomers would have become eligible for the benefits—and will start to incur massively increasing health care costs regardless of Medicare benefit caps—I would think that getting a Medicare increase through would be, oh, no more difficult than it was the last time—under a Republican-controlled legislature and White House, remember. Particularly as we would be starting from a nearly-balanced budget, so who is going to vote for deficit hawks? Am I right? Or am I not wrong?

There are three possibilities, as I see them. One is that we really could act now to prevent people from having what will be their policy preferences later, through drastically reducing democratic participation. Two would be some sort of plague (or war or pestilence or climate change) that wipes out a goodly chunk of our middle-aged populace with minimal cost for chronic or emergency care. Mass graves: excellent for reducing the deficit. Three would be finding some way to control health care costs while still providing health care, thus making diminished expenditure on the part of the federal government politically palatable.

Oh, there are other possibilities. We could wind up taking most of the money we pay for chronic health care and care for the aging out of private funds. But if the point of deficit hawkery is that we are nationally borrowing from our children’s children, I don’t see the answer being individuals borrowing individually from our children’s children. This is, of course, one of the reasons why deficit hawkery makes no sense to me: nations don’t have children.

But that’s another story. This story, the story the NYT is peddling, is about how there is a fix to a budget that is broken, and the answer is to take it away from that messy old place where people fight for their interests and their policy preferences an priorities and just make the grey dots turn blue. As a Walt Whitman Democrat, that story makes me sick.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 3, 2010

What it all means, or doesn't.

Your Humble Blogger doesn’t have much to say about yesterday’s election. It was what it was: my Party had an unsustainably large majority in the Senate, and were bound to lose some of it, and held a bunch of House seats that were on the edge anyway. I mean, it’s a Bad Thing, for the country, because I think that my Party (disappointed as we often are with ourselves) has much better policy ideas than the Other Party, but it is always a Good Thing when we have elections and people who are voted out of office leave office to be replaced by people who were voted into office. Democracy. It works that way.

I am trying to avoid reading too much about what happened, and am particularly trying to avoid hearing or reading any analysis about why and how and whatnot. I am curious about a few numbers, but too lazy to find them out, so if any Gentle Reader has any of these, please let me know.

  • Defectors: What percentage of people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 voted for a Republican for the House in 2010? My guess is that it is very, very few. 5% maybe? A lot less?
  • They’ll pass: Of the people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and did not vote in 2010 (many, many people), how many did vote in 2006?
  • The Swing: Given those numbers, what percentage of the country as a whole can be said to have abandoned their previous support for my Party?

If it isn’t obvious, I am very skeptical of the idea that my Party alienated people by overreaching or passing unpopular policies or even by failing to pass popular policies. I think my Party set themselves up for this wave election by (a) winning two consecutive wave elections, thereby giving themselves a lot of seats to lose, and (2) being the in party when the economy is really bad. Furthermore, we set ourselves up to lose midterm elections in bad economies very badly because our constituency doesn’t vote as consistently as the Other Party’s constituency. There are more of us, but more of us pass on the midterms.

I would like to say, though, that of course I am skeptical of the idea that the country realio trulio rejected my Party. It’s my Party. I recognize that my skepticism is born of desire and belief, not empirical analysis. That’s why I would like to know the numbers.

Of course, we won’t really know those numbers. The exit polls are just polls, for one thing, samples rather than full info, and for another, people are not unlikely to lie or even just misremember who they voted for two years ago. And they people doing exit polls don’t get to ask the people who didn’t vote yesterday whether they voted in 2006, even if they would report it correctly, because the people who didn’t vote yesterday weren’t there to ask. You could look at demographics, and locations, and likelihoods, and that sort of thing, to get an impression. It wouldn’t be terribly accurate, but it would be better than what I got now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 2, 2010

Election Day, 2010

Not quadrienial, but the midterms are still America's choosing day:

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Download the mp3

October 24, 2010

What I meant to say

Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write a note about misspeaking in politics. There have been a bunch of examples recently, what with us being in an election season. More political talk means more screwups in political talk, and more reporting of screwups that might otherwise go unnoticed. The problem, actually, is that I am so slow as a blogger that by the time I sit down to actually write my thoughts out, there has been another incident that throws another new light on everything.

The other thing about YHB is that I tend to be very sympathetic to the person making the speech error. This is in part because I make plenty of speech errors myself, but it is also just because I tend to use my imagination to think about what the person intended to say, and how that got screwed up into what the person actually said. Which is not to say that I am always and utterly forgiving—sometimes that process leads me to believe that the speaker either (a) harbors some deep and unfortunate assumptions that have come out through the process of misspeaking, or (2) fundamentally does not get the social concerns that makes the particular misspeech so wildly offensive.

For instance, Rick Sanchez. Rick Sanchez was talking “ elite Northeast establishment liberals”, and how they exclude—wait a minute, I mean he was talking about “those left wing elite northeast establishment guys”, and how as a Cuban-American, he felt that they not only excluded him but looked down on him, and slotted him into the idea of Hispanic, and he resented them for it. And when Pete Dominick, who was interviewing him, pushed his buttons about Jon Stweart being a minority, too, he said that the guys who run the networks, a bunch of LWENEEGs, were just like Jon Stewart. Meaning, I’m pretty sure, that being Jewish was not, in itself, enough to exclude you from the LWENEEGS—that enough of the LWENEEGs were Jewish or had grown up amongst Jews and that the Jon Stewarts of the world had submerged their Judaism in LWENEEGdom that there really isn’t any cultural difference within the LWENEEG community between Jews and non-Jews. Which is probably not altogether accurate as an observation, but viewed in relative terms, I’m thinking a lot more bialys than boliche.

On the other hand, while he may have meant to say that, what he actually said sounded an awful lot like the Jews run all the networks, and he certainly ought to be aware that statements that sound an awful lot like the Jews run all the networks have a certain history in this country, and that statements that sound an awful lot like the Jews run all the US networks has a certain history in the wider world. Rick Sanchez should have heard that connotation, when it came out of his mouth, and should have found some way to correct it or dissociate himself from it. And when he didn’t hear it, or didn’t care, and didn’t dissociate himself from it (and his interviewer, while of course goading him, did give him plenty of chances to do so), I think it is predictable and even reasonable for people to think that Rick Sanchez doesn’t see that history as a problem, and perhaps doesn’t mind being associated with it. And then it seems reasonable not to trust the man. So—yes, I do not think he meant to say that Jews run the media, but I do think that his error in speech and his reaction to that error is revealing about his attitudes.

Compare that to the bizarre series of misunderstandings and misstatements concerning the WDEL debate between Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons. I haven’t seen an official transcript, and the on-line transcripts are suspiciously non-identical, but as far as I can tell… Ms. O’Donnell’s supporters feel that their candidate trapped Mr. Coons into betraying that he is unaware that the phrase separation of church and state is not in the Constitution, and the supporters of Mr. Coons feel that Ms. O’Donnell betrayed that she is unaware that the First Amendment to the constitution prohibits the Congress from passing any establishmentarian laws. I believe, from what I saw, that Mr. Coons avoided the trap, but Ms. O’Donnell sprung it anyway, making her look foolish—but then, I count myself among Mr. Coons’ supporters, so you have to take that for what it is worth. At any rate, in making her misstatement, Ms. O’Donnell merely revealed her belief that almost anything short of actual Federal establishment is permissible under the First Amendment, and that the idea of separation is one she is skeptical about. Which is her stated belief anyway, and was clear in the context of the whole discussion. So this misstatement is just a silliness of the sort that will happen to anybody who talks as much as a Senatorial candidate or political journalist is compelled to do.

Now, when The Sage of Wasilla allows something to go out under her name that confuses two states and their Senatorial candidates, that is also a silliness that doesn’t reveal anything about the way she thinks—but in that case, it is legitimate to ask if it reveals something about the way she runs her business: there seems to be a QC problem somewhere. If she had confused the two in an interview, it would have meant absolutely nothing. But in (pixel) print, stuff can be proofed before it goes out. And should be proofed. And proofed by people who have had enough sleep. It’s hard to believe that campaigns don’t work like that—I know they don’t, but I still find it hard to believe.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 21, 2010

Soaking you and me

One of the themes going around Left Blogovia these days is a sort of mockery of the people who are making more than $250,000 a year, but who don’t think of themselves as rich—and view the prospect of the tax hike that was enacted under Our Previous President and the legislature under the Other Party with a sort of anxiety normally reserved for the middle third of monster movies, after the first disappearances and deaths but before we have whittled our cast down to the named characters. This is part of Blogovia’s push (quite reasonable push, I should add) to have our current legislature force a vote on cutting taxes on only the first $250,000 of income, and allowing the aforementioned tax hike to sunset.

Three talking points, by the way, for those that don’t follow these things: (A) yes, these tax hikes were legislated under Our Previous President (and his secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents), (2) under the new tax cuts that My Party is pushing, everybody who pays taxes will get a tax cut, and (iii) those who make more than $250,000 a year will have their taxes raised from what they were last year under Our Only President’s plan, but will also have their taxes cut, because of the way brackets work. The upshot will be that the break-even point will be something like $270,000—but I’m making that up, and I’m sure there are calculators on-line to get a real number. But the point is that earlier legislation set up these tax hikes, and current legislation is poised to cut taxes for everybody who pays income tax from where that legislation had it, while a small number of people will see their tax share rise from what it was last year.

The discussion point is about those people. Most of us in our party call them rich people; not everybody agrees with that. Particularly, it seems that many if not most people who make between $250,000 and $500,000 a year don’t consider themselves rich, and feel that a soak-the-rich policy will mistakenly soak them. Left Blogovia does want to soak those people, probably feels that the marginal tax on that money should be closer to 50% than 35%, and thinks that anyone who is making over a quarter of a million dollars a year and is complaining should be mocked with all the viciousness and snark that the Blogosphere can spare.

The main target seems to be a fellow named Todd Henderson, who is guilty of writing a remarkably smug blog post (reposted on Brad DeLong’s site after he took the post down, presumably tired of being vilified) in which he claims that he is not the super-rich. He also made the mistake of misspelling Brad DeLong’s name in a later post. Not really wise, although of course the sort of eror Your Humble Blogger makes all the time. Mr. DeLong writes that Mr. Henderson seems to feel that he ought to be able to pay off student loans, contribute to retirement savings vehicles, build equity, drive new cars, live in a big expensive house, send his children to private school, and still have plenty of cash at the end of the month. I think this is the really important point. Other people (including Mr. DeLong himself and John Scalzi are focused on the interesting issue of why Mr. Henderson and many like him do not feel rich, but for understanding what is going on, I think that quote covers it.

Here it is: If I have a big house, and my kids go to private schools, and I have retirement savings, and I have a new car, and I have someone come in to clean the house every now and then, and I pay somebody to cut the grass every now and then, and if I have a nanny for the kids, and I have a vacation every year (or two), and go out to eat or to concerts or to ball games, then I am a rich man, in political terms. We are not mistakenly targeting people like that with our soak-the-rich policies, we are deliberately targeting people like that. Because they can towel themselves off with thousand-dollar bills, if they are soaked too much.

In point of fact, YHB and my Best Reader own a smallish house in a goodish neighborhood with a biggish mortgage, mow our own grass but were able to pay someone to powerwash the vinyl siding, go out to eat a couple of times a month, go to concerts or shows three or four times a year, have a vacation twice a year, eat like princes, have decent health insurance (including dental and prescriptions), save a very small amount toward retirement, have a car that is less than five years old (barely), we are (still) paying off our student loans—and we do all that on a household income less than a fifth of Mr. Henderson’s. Depending on how you count our income, as we do get some assistance from family and so on, but still.

And we are rich. I mean, we’re not rich, but we’re rich enough, and we probably aren’t taxed enough to pay for all the things I want my federal, state and local governments to provide. On the other hand, I would have been happy not to have, you know, invaded Iraq. So there’s that. And, frankly, I’m not absolutely convinced that the proposal is the better policy. There’s an argument that we shouldn’t let taxes increase for anyone while we’re still slowly digging ourselves out of the recession. And another that we shouldn’t cut taxes for anyone while we’re still digging ourselves a bigger deficit every day. But if the argument is that we shouldn’t raise taxes on people like me, because I’m so nice, well, the problem with that argument is that it’s crap.

And here’s the thing: we are going to run the government on the backs of the wealthy because that’s where the money is. It’s why we swim in the pool and not in the puddle on the deck. And if you are in the top half of the richest country in the world, then you are rich, like I am. And if you are in the top quarter, then yes, we are looking at you to shoulder more of the burden. And if you are in the top tenth, then our soak-the-rich policies are aimed right between your eyes. And if you are in the top twentieth, then, yes, even if it really will make your life worse, and maybe even make life worse for your lawn guy, we want to hike your taxes.

Did you think—did we all think—that we were going to get ourselves out of the recession and balance the budget without hurting anyone?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 16, 2010

Many Hands make Long Blog Posts

The big question in Left Blogovia right now is whether it is Good or Bad for My Party (or the country, or the world) to have the Other Party nominating a bunch of loons, grebes and assorted waterfowl to the Senate. There are a bunch of different ways to look at it.

On the one hand, there is the point that nominees chosen for ideological purity will be less electable than nominees chosen for, well, electability. It appears to be true that in Delaware, for instance, the polls are showing good things for the Democratic nominee. This way of thinking says that, essentially, if it helps elect Our Team, then it’s a Good Thing. As you would expect (if you have been hanging out in this Tohu Bohu for a while), this is very much me.

On the other hand, there is the point that in reality the nominees in a statewide general election don’t matter very much. The important things are the economy, the popularity of the President, and the demographic makeup of the state. In Kentucky, for instance, things don’t look so good for the Democratic nominee. Given that, having the Republicans nominate a bunch of boobies, gulls and skimmers just means that the Senate will have more waterfowl in it, and that’s a Bad Thing, both for My Party (because it makes it harder to get anything done) and for the country and the world (because it’s more likely that something really bad will get passed). As you would expect, given my concerns with process and so on, this is very much me.

On the other other hand, there is the point that actually, there isn’t that much difference between having Tom Coburn or a great auk in the Senate, as that whole Party is going to vote the same way on just about everything anyway. And if they are trading an incumbent with some seniority and a bit of clout for some short-tailed shearwater with a loud squawk, so what? Are they going to push that Party’s agenda to the right? Is it going to have a more radical platform? Frankly, that doesn’t seem very likely to me, so here I am in this camp.

On the other other other hand, one of the things about the Senate particularly is that it is set up to maximize the individual clout of crazy Senators. As Jon Bernstein said on Election Day, “it will matter who the 60th most liberal and 60th most conservative Senators are, as well as who will be the 50th/51st most liberal and conservative Senators”. I would add that it matters who the most liberal and conservative Senators are, at least to the general discussion of policy options—I think Bernie Sanders and his insistence that single-payer be at least mentioned in the process made some slight difference in the outcome of the legislation, even if it didn’t, you know, actually persuade anybody that he was right. Maybe I’m wrong about this Overton Window stuff, but maybe I’m not, and if the Window includes a recently hatched set of chicks that are clucking about, well, whatever those people are clucking about, then, well, then this is very much me over here, too.

Has that cleared it up for everyone?

In conclusion, then, we can clearly see that it is either a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, or possibly neither, or conceivably both. So I have an idea, just to test this thing out. It’s too late for this cycle, though, so I think Our Party should just keep it in mind. All right? Here’s the idea. We nominate a bunch of crazy wild-eyed leftists. I don’t mean liberals like Barbara Mikulski. I mean people who make Dennis Kucinich and Maxine Waters look mainstream. People who couldn’t have been nominated to a House seat because they were too far left. Marxists, free-Mumia types, candidates who had been operating the puppets for the street theaters, the Pacifica guests, the up-against-the-wall-motherfuckers. You get it? Just for one cycle, we go absolutely apeshit and we nominate the turkeys and dodos and peckers and tits. As an experiment, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day, I guess

Your Humble Blogger is feeling, alas, uninspired today. I do like to write something about Labor Day, about Labor that is, but as I say, I am feeling uninspired.

I guess I have a question, which is this: given that Labor Unions used to provide the function of informing a large number of people about current political activity and how it affects them, who do you see potentially taking over that function? I am looking for something more specific than ’blogs’; blogs may be a tool for informing people, but the existence of blogs has not, it seems, done much to keep large numbers of people informed. Nor would I expect it to—people who aren’t watching the news or reading the newspapers or otherwise keeping informed one way or another are not likely to be reading political blogs. Nor is there any easy way to find a blog that will (as your Union meeting used to) tell you how such-and-such a piece of legislation will affect you at your workplace or in your town.

I suspect that many people are being informed by their churches, and by people associated with those churches, so that’s one possibility. I suppose that it’s possible that employers will take up the task, being freed up to do more of that by the Citizens United decision. It’s somewhat easier, in this internetty age, for one passionate person in an extended family to do it, although, you know, we delete those emails, don’t we?

I’m not just talking about political mobilization, but—y’all see the surveys that come out that show that half the country doesn’t know the names of any Supreme Court Justices, or who the Speaker of the House is, or what party their Senators and Representatives are from, or what bits of legislation have recently passed or are up, or all that sort of thing. This vacuum is a Bad Thing, clearly, not only because it is a terrible block to making a democratic society, but because it leaves people very vulnerable to the untruths of demagogues. I don’t expect everybody to be a political junkie, and I don’t expect that everybody will want to vote, but basic civic knowledge used to be more widespread than it is now. I am persuaded (obviously) that the narrowing of political knowledge is because of the narrowing of union membership. Union membership, which wasn’t always entirely voluntary of course, meant a certain amount of political talk which also wasn’t entirely voluntary (in the sense that you couldn’t escape it, not that you were compelled to voice a particular position, although of course the latter did happen now and then). It wasn’t a perfect system for creating a democratic society and a democratic people, but it was a damned good one. I don’t see what replaces it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 19, 2010

Down, down in the spam locker

This Tohu Bohu gets a lot of comment spam. Well, a lot—I don’t really know how much constitutes a lot, relative to other blogs of its circulation. But it seems like a lot to me.

The bulk of the spam falls into three categories. First are the comments that are obviously and upfront about directing people to some web site where they can consume pornography or pharmaceuticals or fancy watches that cannot be distinguished from other fancy watches by people who know nothing about fancy watches. Those are irritating and annoying, but straightforwardly so. I delete them and forget about them. There isn’t anything to think about, other than the small amount of time wasted keeping them off the blog.

The second and much larger category are the comments that appear to be from people who have happened on this Tohu Bohu and are impressed by it. Upon closer inspection, they are linking to some other site, presumably to optimize themselves to the top of search results. This is very dispiriting to YHB—My Gracious Host finds the flattering comment spam makes him feel good, but I get very depressed about all those false compliments. And even more depressed about the fact that I have trained myself to assume that any comment similar to I like your blog! is spam, and delete them all without checking. What if sometime, somebody somewhere actually does like my blog, and tries to say so, and I delete the thing without looking at it? My poor ego!

The last category are comments that appear to be comments about current events. This only started quite recently, but since I have become quite mechanical in deleting the other ones, most of my spam-killing time is spent on these. Generally, some of these refer to some Big News of the last few days—a celebrity scandal, often—and while they may be misspelled or grammatically nonstandard, they have the appearance of actual comments. I can tell that they are spam by (a) the fact that they are in response to notes that have no connection to the content of the comment, (2) the fact that they are (usually) on notes written years ago, and (3) the fact that the identical comment is submitted to different notes with different names attached. Not actually all that clever.

By the way, one of the things about having two email addresses is that often some piece of email spam that manages to come up with a sufficiently apropos subject line, so that I might be inclined to believe its disguise and open it, comes to both addies simultaneously with different sender names. That’s a bit of a giveaway, isn’t it? Actually, fairly often a bit of spam comes to the same email addy five or six times with different sender names but the same subject line. I might possibly fall for one, but I’m not going to get five emails about leaving something at my desk or cancelling lunch plans, am I? Less is definitely more, here, spammers.

Anyway. The reason I’m bothering telling you so is that in the last three or four days, this Tohu Bohu got spammed with dozens of notes about the Cordoba House, AKA the Ground Zero Mosque. As it happens, YHB, like so many fools, wrote something on the Ludicrous Kerfuffle a few weeks ago, so it wouldn’t altogether shock me to have some stranger drop by and try to set me straight about a few aspects I got wrong. However, these notes were spam; they were not written in response to my blog, were not an attempt to communicate, and were not going to be published if I could help it. Whoever put out the spam, though, did so by attempting to imitate what one might call a real blog-commenter, which meant that more than a third of the notes that came in were full of vicious and hateful bigotry. Insults directed not only at Our Only President (who is in some sense fair game, being a public figure) but at Moslems and at their religion.

Now, here’s the thing. I know that this is spam. I know that whoever typed in the note, or cut and pasted it, or caused it to be randomly chosen out of recent blog comments elsewhere by some randomizing software, I know that the spammer does not mean the insults or believe that they are true. Or care, probably. They sent notes on both sides of the issue, presumably making it look as if people were engaging each other on a topic of interest, and that the one thing that these various folk agreed on was the importance of linking to a purveyor of pornography. And, you know, I support pornography. I’m a big believer in it. I’m not offended by that part of it.

But my emotional reaction to these comments was severe. I found it deeply distasteful even to look at them enough to delete them. I can’t really justify having such a powerful negative reaction to the spam; it’s only spam, after all. And I am aware that there are—oh, shall we say ten million Americans who foolishly think that Moslems are evil, that mosques are Bad Things, and that We (vaddevah dat means) are and should be at war with Islam (vaddevah dat means, too). It’s distressing whenever I come across such people in Real Life or on the Internet, but I am not, in fact, coming across dozens of such people when I log in to this Tohu Bohu, I am just coming across comment spam. And yet, it feels as if my Tohu Bohu has been invaded by jerks and bigots.

Of course, if there’s something worse than a spammer pretending to be a bigot for the pathetic pecuniary advantage that he thinks spamming this blog will give him, it would be a politician pretending to be a bigot for the electoral advantage he thinks that will give him. Or the ratings advantage. Or book sales. But somehow I expect that, and it feels safely far away, despite the fact that these people have actual political power to make laws and change people’s lives, and potentially to result in Americans and other humans being deprived of their civil rights, their liberty, or their lives. I do get outraged by that, I really do, and I should take advantage of this Tohu Bohu to say it again. But that’s a kind of outrage that I can feel good about and even enjoy, to be perfectly frank about it. This comment spam just makes me sad and angry, and I don’t enjoy that at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 11, 2010

Behind Closed Doors

My Gracious Host posted a comment about the same-sex marriage controversy in which he hoped to be Simplifying one part of the same-sex marriage debate. He breaks down the arguments against same-sex marriage, and points out that in every case, they rely on an assumption, often an unspoken assumption, that it is bad to be gay, and that it would be better if there weren’t so many gay people. If you don’t mind that people are gay, and particularly if you celebrate the differences in sexual preferences and romantic partnership, person to person, which is all part of what makes the world interesting and fun, then not only are you likely to support same-sex marriage, but the arguments against it make no sense to you.

Another occasional GR of this Tohu Bohu is award-winning journalist David S. Bernstein, who in his blog post Gays Head For The Supreme Court tells an interesting story about “ a conversation I had with a leader of a religious anti-gay organization in the South, right after the Goodrich ruling in Massachusetts in November 2004. […] [H]e said that this was inevitable after the Lawrence v Texas Supreme Court ruling overturned anti-sodomy laws the previous year. […] [U]nless homosexual relationships could be defined as outside the boundaries of legal conduct, there was really no justification for denying marriage certificates to same-sex couples.” (I’ve snipped quite a bit, and there’s more to the note about the current situation; Mr. Bernstein does stellar reporting and writing about the conservative money machine, and quite likely knows more about the various groups in the background of the Republican Party than any liberal blogger in the country.)

Anyway, those two made a connection in my mind with something I wrote ever so long ago, between Lawrence and Goodrich, which was that It seems obvious to me that if same-sex marriage becomes legal, that there will be in the future more and better same-sex sex. Jed and I were at the time talking past each other a bit, and may still be doing so. His point (I think) is that there are lots of people who are unwilling to say that they think that it is bad to be gay, and are even really unwilling to think that they think that it is bad to be gay, but are still working from that assumption in being persuaded that the state should only license marriages with two people and one penis. To some extent, the note in Mr. Bernstein’s blog speaks to that idea: if the state has no reason or right to deprecate gay sex, then the arguments against gay marriage collapse. This fellow is in total agreement with Jed’s post, only of course disagreeing with him entirely.

But then, I stopped to wonder: is that really what Jed’s post says? Because Jed does not define being gay in terms of sodomy. In fact, he doesn’t define it at all, other than to explicitly state that he is including “ lesbian, or bi, or whatever”. That’s an excellent choice on his part, and I certainly don’t intend to define it here in this Tohu Bohu. But it’s worth wondering whether the idea of being gay and the idea of same-sex sex are, in fact, the same idea. Or, rather, to what extent they are the same idea, because clearly they are not. Nobody, for instance, questions whether Dr. Jeffrey John is gay. He is gay. He does not have same-sex sex, or any sex at all, evidently. Similarly, there are Modern Orthodox Jews who refrain from sodomy, specifically, because of the halachah, but who are in same-sex romantic relationships and consider themselves, and are considered by others who know them, to be gay. On the other edge, there are plenty of people who have had same-sex sex but who do not consider themselves to be gay; it’s a bit of a joke, but it’s a good joke because it is so recognizable.

So. Where am I going with this. Nowhere, really. I just find the distinction interesting.

And I wonder if the distinction means anything to the various categories of people who oppose same-sex marriage… for the people who think that being gay is bad or that it would be better if there weren’t so many gay people, is it the sex they object to or is the rest of the gayness enough? I know that lots of men find sex between two men to be disgusting—lots of people find two men french-kissing to be disgusting, which wasn’t technically sodomy by the law before Lawrence, was it? And I should probably point out that something doesn’t have to be morally wrong to be disgusting. For instance, people eat green peppers in restaurants—right there in restaurants where normal people are trying to have dinner without throwing up—and while of course it would be better and purer country if this were legally deprecated and so on, it isn’t a moral failing on the part of pepper-eaters, technically. They can do what they want in the privacy of their own diningrooms, as long as I don’t have to see it. Or hear about it. Or, particularly, smell it. I’m just saying: a social norm where the eating of peppers (though legally decriminalized) simply never came to my attention, due to people constantly watching their every statement and action and implication, in order to give a false but pleasing impression.

OK, got off on a tangent there. What I’m wondering about, really, though, is whether there are a fair number of people who would not admit that they think gay sex is morally wrong, but would admit to thinking that it is gross, and that the more of it there is, the worse, from their point of view. And I still maintain (Jeffrey John notwithstanding) that legal gay marriage will lead to more and better gay sex, but maybe, maybe, it isn’t all about the sex.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 10, 2010

Primary Day in the Nutmeg State

Well, and I voted today. It’s the primary here in Connecticut, and we have a couple of reasonable races. For the most part, I have no strong feelings about any of the candidates; I will happily support whichever of them My Party nominates today against the Other Party’s nominees. I wound up having slight preferences in each of the four races, though.

Actually, that’s not quite true. The two fellows who are running for my Party’s ballot line for State Comptroller are very different indeed, and I would much prefer the liberal guy to the conservative. That’s not to say I wouldn’t vote for the conservative guy against the Republican, who will undoubtedly be even more conservative (although the Republican nominee seems to be one of those guys who hangs around on the ballot without really running, so the primary is perhaps more important), but that was one where I could really make the case that one guy was much better than the other.

The big race, of course, is the Governor’s, where two perfectly good candidates are running, and I would be happy with either. I came down on the Dan Malloy side, ultimately, not because I think Ned Lamont would be a bad Governor, but because I think Dan Malloy will have a bit of an easier time working with a difficult Legislature in difficult times. And for Secretary of the State, I went with the younger, slightly more left-leaning fellow rather than the old party hack—I usually go with the party hack (as I did at the top of the ballot), but I was persuaded by this guy. Plus, it’s always nice to vote for somebody who isn’t white, you know? Not that the color thing is a criterion in itself, but like I keep saying about the Bechdel test, there’s a cumulative thing going on, too.

Which I should probably put in a different way, something like this.

Today, in four candidates, I voted for a woman, a (n open) homosexual, a Jew, a Latino, and a grandparent. Doesn’t that sound like a bucket full of diversity?

Today, in four candidates, I voted for three white people, three men, three Christians, three (open) heterosexuals and four married people. Doesn’t that sound like a bucket full of privilege? Well, three-quarters full or more.

I’m perfectly happy voting for Dan Malloy—I’ll be perfectly happy voting for Ned Lamont in October, if he wins today. I don’t mind voting for the straight white Christian guy. I don’t mind voting for the straight white Christian guy two or three or four times. But I will admit that it’s nice to have a bit of a change, now and then.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 27, 2010

Rainy Day Congressmen No. 12 & 35

So, Colin McEnroe's blog pointed me to this YouTube video called Reefer Rob. It’s a sort of political attack ad aimed at Rob Merkle, who is running for the other Party’s nomination to run against an incumbent in the US House here in Connecticut (well, in the Fourth District; I am in the First—Go John Larson!). The point of the ad is that Rob Merkle was caught with a joint in his pocket ten years ago (when he was 32), down in Florida where his father was a prosecutor, and wasn’t charged.

But the real point is to sing “Because I Got High” with the lyrics changed to talk about Rob Merkle, and show a bunch of dope-smokers.

But here’s the thing: it seems to me, and I want to point out that this is just my reaction, it seems to me that this video is not going to work. I don’t mean that it’s going to change anybody’s mind, because of course that’s not what it is supposed to do. And maybe it will make Rob Merkle into Reefer Rob Merkle, a total joke who can’t be taken seriously, which is what it is supposed to do.

But—I’m thinking of two groups of people: people who find pot-smoking to be a Bad Thing, and people who would find this video funny enough to share around. Is there a lot of overlap there? I mean, I don’t really know. The people I know, whether they have actually inhaled or not (and I have never smoked a joint, inhaled or not, as it happens) generally think of pot-smoking as anything from Cool to laughable; I don’t think I know anybody well who would be outraged by a thirtysomething guy with a joint. And it seems to me that my friends and the people like them are exactly the people who would find the video funny, recognizing the images and the music (although presumably if Your Humble Blogger is familiar with a song that came out after 2000, every fucking person in the whole world is familiar with it, right?) and generally being amused by the idea. Not that I find it hilarious, you understand, just amusing enough to watch through to the end, and then to mention to, well, Gentle Readers through this Tohu Bohu.

Now, of course, very few people in this group that I’m talking about, the ones who might find the video amusing, are likely voters in a Republican primary in Connecticut’s Fourth District. That’s because there are very few voters in a Republican primary in Connecticut’s Fourth District. But those people who are going to turn out to vote, and who are going to donate to a Republican candidate, and go to rallies and put up signs and all that—is it just a total stereotype of mine that I have a hard time imagining those people watching this video on YouTube, being amused by it, passing it on?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 15, 2010

Two words: Referen. Dum.

Your Humble Blogger went to the polls this morning for a budget referendum. Y’all know I hate these, right? What happens is that our duly elected City Council (often around two-thirds of the vote, although it’s a wacky system) and especially our duly elected Board of Education (much the same) get together and come up with a budget, and then a group of anti-tax zealots get 6% of the voting rolls to sign a petition, and we have a referendum. Then we have an election, in which perhaps 20% of the town votes down the budget (with perhaps 15% supporting it) and the whole thing goes back to the Council all over again.

Jon Bernstein writes about Democratic Frustration, which he describes as having two major types (in a very large Madisonian democracy such as ours): frustration over losing, and frustration over winning. Frustration over losing is obvious: people work hard at this democracy thing, and still somehow more people vote for the other guy. It’s crazy. Frustration over winning is less obvious: your Party gets in power, and the policy outcomes are not what you wanted. This is a non-Madisonian feature: winning the election but losing the referendum. Or it’s only sorta Madisonian, Madisonian wannabe. Part of the Madisonian system is a brake on purely majoritarian rule, and the budget referendum is certainly a way for a passionate minority to have influence. On the other hand, the genius of Madisonian politics is to make the politicians themselves responsible to their constituents, or out they go on their proverbials on the next Election Day.

This system doesn’t do that at all—neither Council nor Board members have faced any sort of electoral retribution for occasioning constant referenda with their budgets, because a very large majority of the town’s voters support their priorities. The cynical incentive is for those elected officials to produce a phony budget, a fat budget that (presumably through deceptive tricks if not outright dishonesty) makes them look good, without suffering the consequences of having to enact it. The blame for the cuts goes to the Taxxcrazy Association, and then the second budget is the one with some responsibility and seriousness. In fact, I have been impressed by our local officials not doing that—they put together a serious and responsible budget, a bit skimpy to my taste, that pays for itself with a small tax increase and keeps the schools running with at least a few tasty treats now and then. This year, both Parties agreed on the budget—and we’re having a referendum anyway, and I suspect the outcome will be the same as the previous years.

Of course, what makes this a Madisonian feature is that it is a stumbling block put in place through a democratic procedure, a way for the individuals who made up the government to advance themselves through guaranteeing the citizens the right to be thwarted in their policy preferences. And do you know who is at fault? You haven’t been paying attention, have you. It’s the fault of the teacher’s unions, of course. Everything is the fault of the teacher’s unions. If there’s one thing we know about the Founding Fathers, it’s that they would have hated teacher’s unions. Or something.

Well, there it is. Despite everything, I still enjoyed voting this morning. The whole family, getting on the vote boat, and even if I can’t justify calling it the powerfullest scene and show of the Western World, O Best Beloved, it is still moving, in it’s way.

And while I’m on Mr. Whitman, look what NPR personality and Hartford Courant columnist Colin McEnroe posted last night: Choosing Day. You don’t think Mr. McEnroe is a Gentle Reader of this Tohu Bohu, do you?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 8, 2010

Fiction or Journalism?

Y’all have probably already seen the Christopher Beam note over at Slate called The Only Politics Article You’ll Ever Have To Read: What if political scientists covered the news? I think it is intended to be a joke, but I’m not sure; all I know about Christopher Beam is that he is Alex Beam’s kid, which I think makes him the Christopher Buckley of, er, something. Journalism? No, not journalism. Something, anyway.

The point, if you haven’t read it and aren’t inclined to click through, is that all the stuff that political journalists write about is considered by political scientists to be meaningless crap.

At the same time, Obama’s job approval rating fell to 48 percent. This isn’t really news, though. Studies have shown that the biggest factor in a president’s rating is economic performance. Connecting the minute blip in the polls with Obama’s reluctance to emote or alleged failure to send enough boom to the Gulf is, frankly, absurd.

The thing is, while it’s phrased in a lighthearted way, it’s pretty much correct, and journalists not including the stuff that he so jocularly is either tremendously ignorant or tremendously dishonest—I should say, I rather expect that it’s self-delusion, rather than deliberate deception. There are a lot of incentives for journalists (and even more so pundits and analysts) to stay in denial about the ways in which so much stuff that is easy to report and fun to read has nothing to do with the actual processes of government.

While I’m at it, I wanted to ask Gentle Readers if their estimate was more or less the same as mine: in this 2010 election cycle, counting both primaries and the general election, what percentage of the eligible voters in this country will go and vote against an incumbent they had previously voted for in a previous election for that office? I mean any office, anywhere on any of the ballots in this cycle?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 4, 2010

Blame the President

Your Humble Blogger hates to defend David S. Broder, who really is a perfect example of blinkered Washingtonism, what Left Blogovia calls The Village mentality. But the problem with his Op-Ed called Is President Obama’s Carter moment nearing? is that it is, on the whole, correct. Oh, there’s stupid stuff in it. But where, f’r’ex, Dave Noon is wrong, in my arrogant opinion, is that like with Jimmy Carter and the Hostage Crisis, the practical ability to do something useful has little to do with the popularity of the President.

Look, everybody who follows politics knows, must know, that the President takes the blame for all the bad things that happen while he is in office, and gets the credit for the good things. We know that. If the economy is good, the President is popular. If the Congress can’t pass legislation, the President is unpopular. It isn’t fair, the Divine knows, but it is how it is. If you don’t like it, don’t run for President. The problem is that while everybody knows the general rule, it is one of those general rules that it is difficult to remember to apply to specific situations. When we hear that Our Only President’s popularity is down because a bunch of oil mining and development and refining companies screwed the proverbial, we respond that it’s unfair. Well, so it is unfair, we knew that. The question is how to respond to the unfair situation.

And it’s not as simple as people blaming Our Only President for things that are outside his control. I’ve gone on about this before, I think—the way polls are reported and discussed makes it seem as if Jane Q. Public has a rating for Our Only President, which is updated whenever Ms. Public learns something new about him, his policies, his speeches or his actions. That just isn’t so. Ms. Public does not respond instantly to a news story by thinking hm, I suppose now if somebody surveys me I will respond that I disapprove of the way the President is handling the oil spill, but still approve of the health care plan and the stimulus, and yet I think the country is going in the wrong direction. Perhaps you should write that down, Ms. Public, so you are prepared for the call.

No, that’s not how people are. My guess is that people are more or less evenly split between (a) people like me who will tell the pollster whatever we think makes our Party look better than the other one and so never have to make up our minds at all, and (2) people who make up their minds at the moment the pollster asks. Well, and the other group, that doesn’t answer pollster’s questions. Still. Since the swings in the popularity of the President are driven almost entirely by that (2) group, their answers will be as dependent on their mood at the moment of the question as by data analysis. This isn’t a Bad Thing: if things are generally going well across the country, then more people, on the whole, will be in a good mood at a moment when a pollster is calling. Bad economic times will play in to this more than anything, of course—people who have lost their jobs or are afraid of losing them are more likely to be in a bad mood when the pollster calls. But a persistent bad news story? Also a downer.

This is all independent of what Our Only President has done correctly or incorrectly, of course. I mean, I think he should have been more aggressive about cleaning up the wrecked bureaucracy beforehand, getting more inspectors on the ground, etc., particularly as there was potentially money available for it. And it doesn’t seem like the federal government has been doing a good job at the part that they should be best at, which is coordinating the cleanup efforts in the various localities (and possibly coordinating payment for the shrimpers and them as well). But if he had been doing a great job at all that stuff, it very likely wouldn’t have prevented his popularity from taking a serious hit for this, and possibly preventing him from continuing with his legislative/policy momentum.

Which is the real problem with David Broder’s historical analysis: Our Only President has not wasted his massive legislative majorities, so even if he does become unpopular over something that isn’t his fault and he can’t make better, he will still leave with some accomplishments.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 25, 2010

Who will pay?

If YHB were a better blogger, you know, this post would be full of links. First of all, I would link to the radio show I was listening to (a week ago, perhaps? If I were a better blogger, I would have written this that day), and then to the fellow who was on it, and then to other people making similar statements, so that it was clear that there was something to be on about. But I can’t remember who was interviewing who, on what show, and frankly I can’t be bothered to search for other people saying similar things. So you should take this with a grain of salt—perhaps I imagined the whole thing.

But I’m pretty sure that a legislator from my Party, a member of the U.S. House, I think, was asked about raising the liability of oil companies when they poison the world. And this person, this legislator, said that we do want to raise that limit, so that any company that was proposing to do offshore deep drilling would have to set aside an enormous sum of money to clean up any damage they caused. And the interviewer, who I am pretty sure was a NPR or APM anchor at one of their top news shows, asked this legislator whether that was worth the rise in gas prices at the pump, because of course the costs would eventually be passed on to the consumer.

And the fellow just muffed it. Just utterly muffed it. Said that he hoped the added safety incentive would mean that there wouldn’t be more spills, so that would be all right. And it seems to me that is a terrible, terrible answer.

But I’m not sure if my immediate answer was the right one. That is, I know it’s logically right, but I don’t know if it’s persuasive. Mine went something like this:

The clean-up is going to happen. We aren’t just going to wade in crude. So the money is going to be spent. What I’m asking is who is going to spend it. Now, you are right that if the oil companies spend the money, then that is ultimately going to come out of the price of gas. But if they don’t spend the money, and we spend it ourselves, through the government, then that money is going to come out of your taxes. The money isn’t going to be magically created, just because we want to spend it; it is going to come from somewhere. You will pay at the pump, or you will pay in your withholding, or if the money isn’t spent and we don’t clean it up, then we are really going to pay.

I mean, the basic truth of the matter is that if you can’t pay for it, you shouldn’t do it, and that is true about drilling as well as everything else. And if that means nobody can afford to do it, then nobody can afford to do it, and it shouldn’t be done. I’m always amazed by the feeling that companies have a right to do business even if they cannot possibly pay for themselves, and that when the government demands that a company pays for its own debts, it is the government that is running the company out of business.

But what struck me about the whole thing was that the interviewer seemed to be working under the assumption that either the public would pay at the pump or they wouldn’t pay at all, and the legislator seemed to let that go. And that’s a problem for my Party, not just for this piece of legislation, but for the ongoing purpose of the Party. And in this case, it was my Party, acting in accordance with its principles, that was against paying for a solution through taxation, and for private industry taking care of it. And the fellow just let that opportunity pass. Gr.

Unless, of course, I’m misremembering the whole thing. But I’m still cranky about it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 20, 2010

Richard Blumenthal, Al Gore, and Your Humble Blogger

Your Humble Blogger has been both busy and unproductive lately, which is never a winning combination. As a result, I have got very far behind my intentions for this Tohu Bohu, not just on the Book Reports (which is really getting out of hand) but on notes of more topical or wide-ranging interest that I mean to talk about. With the Book Report, although I may have forgotten what I intended to say by the time I get around to logging them, they aren’t really topical notes, and can wait. With news items and political commentary, if I don’t get around to noting them within a week or so, I may as well not bother, as y’all will have moved on. Ah, well.

And, of course, sometimes the story has moved on. I might have written a note just after reading the NYT article about Richard Blumenthal and his military service, and that note would have been very different from the note I would write today. Am writing. Hope to finish. Anyway.

Any of y’all Gentle Readers in the Nutmeg State, that is, those who will have to make up their minds to support Mr. Blumenthal or not in his Senatorial campaign, should probably be reading Colin McEnroe’s blog (even if y’all don’t like his radio show, which I don’t much either, alas). Mr. McEnroe appears to be very well-connected within the state government and what remains of the crew who report on it; he also is a bit crazy, which gives him the opportunity to call things as he sees them. It’s a great combination for a blogger.

Anyway, for those who haven’t been paying attention, Richard Blumenthal has been Attorney General of our State for twenty years, during which time it was quite difficult to get a photograph of state leaders without Mr. Blumenthal in it. You know? A terrific AG, and terrific at getting in the news, and all. So, when Chris Dodd moved to Iowa, and we needed a new Senator, Mr. Blumenthal decided to be that Senator, and the deal was pretty much over at that point. Only the other day, the Times reported that Mr. Blumenthal had been claiming that he served in Vietnam, when in fact he did not.

It turns out that it’s more complicated than that. What seems to have been happening, over a period of years, is that Mr. Blumenthal found a formula for saying things that were not false but which gave a false impression. He was in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1970-1975, stateside and part-time, and only joined after his deferments ran out; this not a dishonorable record, but it is not serving in Vietnam. However, it is, technically, serving during Vietnam, it is being in uniform when the soldiers were coming back from Vietnam, and saying those two things are accurate but without the context misleading. Of course, it depends on who you are speaking to. If your audience knows your actual record, and you say you wore the uniform when ‘we’ returned from Vietnam, they will know that you are referring to the attitudes that civilians had toward all veterans at that time, or at least the attitudes that many veterans seem to have been convinced that civilians had (the actual story is much much much more complicated than that)(of course). But if you don’t know the actual record, the audience may well draw a different conclusion.

This is fairly common. It’s not lying, but it can certainly be deceiving, and the speaker should be on the hook for it. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for me in a Senatorial candidate, but it needs to be taken into consideration. The habit of saying things that are true in the sense that they are not false, but that lead listeners to believe things that are false—well, that’s not a good thing. And the thing is—if you are running for elective office, you are going to have to say a lot of the things you say not just once but many, many times, and unless you have tremendous discipline, you are going to wind up straying from your usual formulation. If you do have that discipline, of course, the press will call you robotic, so that doesn’t necessarily help. But if you stray from your careful choice of words and say we instead of they or even in some cases just switch the order of your clauses, you can wind up saying something that is outright false. And get caught doing it.

All of this reminds me very strongly of Al Gore. You all probably know both the first and second versions of Al Gore and the internet. The first was that Al Gore laughably claimed to have invented the Internet, as one of a string of bizarre lies. The second was that the media made up the story that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, as one of a string of bizarre stories they made up about Al Gore’s ‘lies’, none of which were true. The second version is not true either, of course; it was more complicated than that. Mr. Gore certainly never claimed to have invented the internet, true. What he did was take credit for the creation of the internet. While you could argue that he deserves some small portion of credit (he supported federal funding for the project at an early stage), the phrasing was designed to be technically not false while giving the impression that he deserved much more credit than he actually did. And, in fact, there were a string of such phrasings; he was in the habit of using language in that way (including some recent examples that I can’t bring to mind). This is not uncommon among politicians—not just seekers of elective office, but corporate politicians, academic politicians and jockeys of all heirarchies. One difference, though, is that most people don’t have to keep making their claims in speeches, town halls and interviews over a period of months or years, many of which are recorded and searchable.

I hope that Mr. Blumenthal learns something from this experience more than that the New York Times is out to get him. I hope that he understands that he is responsible not only for the technical truth or verifiability of his statements, but for their connotations. That as a Senator, he will carry responsibility not only for what he implies but for what people infer. No, he can’t control it. Neither is he free of responsibility for it, and he should watch what he says accordingly.

I should, when I have time and energy, connect this to the fad for so-called fact-checking, which I hope y’all are taking with a grain of salt. But that will have to wait. For now, really, I’m just observing that when Left Blogovia first condemned Mr. Blumenthal for dishonesty and is now condemning the Times for, well, dishonesty, the truth is it’s more complicated than that. But in interest ways, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 16, 2010

The Perils of the One-Party Town

So, Your Humble Blogger lives in a one-Party town. It’s my Party, so that’s not so terribly bad, although I do think it is bad for our officials not to have serious opposition. Not as bad as the other Party winning elections, but still.

The State of Connecticut also thinks it’s bad to have one-Party towns, so we passed legislation that says, if I understand it correctly, that elected town governments (council, selectmen, whatever) can be no more than two-thirds made up of members of one party. This leads to odd elections, which YHB has written about before.

I was complaining in that year about the crazy Republican who got himself onto the council with 31% of the vote. He served, in his way, for one term, and then got voted out of office: this time it was him that got edged by 200 votes or so by the third R. Actually, his percentage of votes went substantially up from 34% to 39%, but all the Republicans did better last year in percentage terms as well as in actual votes. Not enough to, you know, compete with my Party, but better. This year the top R vote-getter came within a thousand votes of the bottom D.

Anyway. The point is that this fellow, who we will call Joe, ran for Town Council, won a seat with 34% of the vote, and then ran as an incumbent and lost, with less than 40% of the vote. Oh, there was one thing he did in between—he was his party’s nominee for U.S. Representative. He got trounced, of course, ending up with all of 26% of the vote.

I bring this up now, because it seems that he is going to be his Party’s nominee again. Which would not be at all interesting, except that this clown has another kind of Party involvement. The guys with the hats with three corners. You know. Tea.

Now, probably what will happen is the same thing that happened before: nothing. But it strikes me that he is a prime candidate for one of the Tea Party PACs to use as a patsy. Here’s a prominent Democrat, caucus chairman in fact, very liberal. Quick, send out a national fund-raising letter. Raise a million dollars for the patsy’s campaign. Spend that million on direct mail, of course using the direct mail company that is owned by the directors of the PAC. It’s a million dollars in their pockets, and all they have to do is give the poor clown a volunteer campaign manager of their choice. In fact, he’d probably be thrilled at the result: national attention, big fund-raising, he would look in some ways like a real candidate, with the light behind him anyway. And what with things being bad for incumbents this year, who knows? He might get 35% of the vote.

So, what YHB is wondering is this: should we here in his town do something about this? I mean, I hate to see it happen, I do; I hate to see it happen anywhere (and it is going to happen a lot this year, I tell you what) but I really hate to see it happen here. It’s fraud, essentially. The local clown is the equivalent of Florida real estate—he turns out to be a swamp, and all the locals know he’s a swamp, but they aren’t going to try to sell him to the locals. They are going to try to sell him to the rubes. And I don’t want the rubes buying this swamp. Not that I care all that much, I suppose, whether the money is in the rubes’ pockets or in the pockets of the direct mail barons—no, I do care, because the direct mail barons are going to use that money to fleece more rubes, and in doing that they are doing a lot of damage to our country’s political culture. But I’m not motivated, honestly, by a desire to do dirt to the direct mail barons, who after all have forty or fifty more choices for patsies this cycle. Really? It’s just that I don’t want it to happen here, in my back yard.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 16, 2010

Better Red than read, or something cleverer than that

John Scalzi posted Yet Another Reminder That When You Call Obama a Socialist Actual Socialists Think You’re Ignorant as a Gerbil, which linked to Ask the card-carrying socialists: Is Obama one of them? by John Blake. Gentle Readers of this blog will be unsurprised to discover that (a) people who call themselves socialists consider that socialist is a word with a meaning, and (2) they don’t consider that meaning applies well to Our Only President and his policies.

Surprise! I don’t particularly like Mr. Blake’s tone in the piece, which is a combination of isn’t that cute, an American Socialist and isn’t the tea party movement full of morons together with we’ll ask both sides and then shrug, as independent verification of a claim is beyond the purview or indeed abilities of a journalist. Still, I’m glad there’s something there, you know? The proverbial mainstream media (or corporate broadcast media, to use a more descriptive term) doesn’t often point out that there really are left-wingers in this country. We’re Here! We’re Red! We’re Not Going Shopping! In Fact, Many of us our Trouble by the Entire Concept of Personal Property! Although Others of our Brethren consider a well-regulated Market in Inessentials a Positive Thing!

Anyway, what struck me was this sentence about how the Health Care Plan is viewed as socialist by the Right, but that the Left doesn’t see it that way: They [socialists] wanted a national "single-payer" health insurance plan with a government option.

Now, if you are like me, the first thing that will strike you is that the sentence makes no sense. A single-payer system does not have a government “option”, it is a government insurance plan. It’s possible, I suppose, to have a single-payer plan with a private option, but I haven’t heard anybody talking about that.

The second thing, for me, was that I doubted the Socialists did support a single-payer system along the Canadian lines. That would still leave privately-owned hospitals and labs, profit-seeking doctors and clinics, and a dislocation between the workers and the means of production. In fact, when I looked up the platform of the Socialist Party on Health Care, it supports “salaried doctors and health care workers, and revenue derived from a steeply graduated income tax”. That is, socialized medicine. A National Health.

So is Mr. Blake simply wrong? I mean, how could a reporter who had a specific task to talk to socialists about their support or opposition to particular policies get this one so utterly wrong? Well, there is an answer: socialists, being people, are different one to another, which is what makes Party meetings so interesting and fun. Frank Llewellyn of the Democratic Socialists of America, in a note called Socialism And The Politics Of Fear says “American socialists (and many more non-socialists, including 86 members of Congress) support HR 676, John Conyers’ Medicare for All single-payer national health plan, which would replace the private insurance industry with a government agency but would preserve personal choice of physician and hospital care.” Well, there you go. Some people who call themselves socialists (admittedly, DS, which are like socialists who believe in—well, the old line is that if Socialists don’t like cats, then Democratic Socialists don’t like cats but are fond of kittens) are in favor of single-payer. Other than the oopsie about the option, Mr. Blake is OK. Which just goes to show.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 13, 2010

Judicial nominations and the filibuster, revisited

It has been a month shy of five years since I wrote a note called talk about the subject of the conversation, in which I detailed the circumstances where a minority legislative Party in this country could be expected to block a judicial nominee. I pointed out that in a situation where the President comes from the majority party, the minority may well want to block a nominee, and has the right to try. I said, “The question is when should a minority exercise that right, and the answer must have something to do with the nominees themselves.”

I still think that’s true. I thought, at the time, that the Democrats failed to make a case for the nominees themselves being so bad as to justify the block. They came off fairly well politically, I think, although of course they did allow some pretty bad judges and justices to be confirmed. But they have lost several confirmation battles (including yesterday’s withdrawal) and have another Supreme Court nomination (or maybe two) on their hands this summer.

It is true that the Republicans lost badly on Justice Sotomayor, and did so while (coincidentally, not causally) following my advice about making the nominee battle about the nominee. There were a lot of reasons for that, but primary among them was the obvious fact that Judge Sotomayor was a mainstream middle-of-the-road jurist, an impressive person generally, and the Party that wanted to block her nomination is far, far from the mainstream when it comes to what people want in a Justice. Alas, they are not far from the mainstream of the actual Court, but this is a court that is widely disrespected and disliked, so there’s that. The point is that by picking a nominee that the public would support, Our Only President took away the minority party’s option of blocking her.

Let me go into that a moment longer. The reason the Republican Party has been so unpopular is because of all their failures. That is true. It is also true, however, that the Republican Party is simply unpopular on policy grounds; a plurality of Americans support the Democratic policy positions on a large number of substantial issues, and the Republican policy positions on very few. The Democratic Party won the Presidency, of course, and the majority of the House seats, and sixty fucking Senators, which is a huge, huge number, and more than half of the Governor’s seats, in part because the Republican Party had been led by a secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents for a decade, and in large part because the Republican Party was simply offering no solutions that people wanted. Or, more accurately, the people who wanted the Republican Party’s offerings were outnumbered by the people who wanted those of the Democratic Party. And although the generic Representative ballot looks good for the other side now, the self-identification polls still look like they have for a long time.

Why is that important to this discussion? Because when we talk about the subject of the discussion, that is, when we talk about the nominees themselves, we will very likely be talking about a person who is right in the mainstream of America (from a political standpoint). It is possible, of course, that Our Only President will knock my socks off with some wildly lefty nomination (there are still lefties in the law schools, I’m told), but that seems unlike him and unlike our Party. When was the last time a Democratic President submitted a nominee that was to the left of the leftmost sitting Justice? Arguably LBJ in 1967, although you could argue that Justice Douglas or Justice Brennan were more liberal in their thinking than Justice Marshall, in which case the answer is FDR in 1939 or so. I’m thinking, here, about the reputation at the time of the nomination, not the eventual reputation of an Earl Warren; for our purposes, I’m just saying that it seems to me unlikely that Our Only President will nominate anyone much to the left of Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Stephen Breyer, notable pragmatists and cautious liberals.

What that means to me is that if the Republicans attempt to block the nomination(s) and to talk about the subject of the conversation while doing so, they will lose. This is not a Robert Bork situation, or a Charles Pickering. Or even a Samuel Alito situation, where the record was on the edge of the mainstream. And if you don’t have a legislative majority, and you don’t have popular support, while it’s still possible to block a nominee, it’s very, very unlikely and comes at a tremendous cost.

Which, I think, contains in it a lesson for any political Party. Which is (a) do not allow yourself to be led by a secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents, and (2) either keep your Party platform within hailing distance of the public, or move the public within hailing distance of your platform. It ain’t all about the base.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Added: I wrote this on Saturday and evidently failed to post it. In the meantime, a couple of things have come up: Jon Bernstein wrote a note called Wanna Fight, in which he details an analysis in favor of the kind of nominee I predict OUP will choose. Left Blogovia has, in general, seems to have lined up to support a truly liberal nominee (although I haven’t seen many actual names). I want to make a couple of distinctions, as long as I’m writing about the general topic. There’s a difference between advocating for a liberal Justice and promoting an analysis of the politics of nominating such a person. I think (along with Mr. Bernstein) that such a nomination is unlikely, and could quite likely not pass the Senate under current circumstances. I don’t know if nominating a liberal and not getting that nomination through the Senate would be bad for Our Only President’s policy aspirations; I don’t know if the Robert Bork situation turned out badly in the end. But it’s certainly possible that the Republicans in the Senate will successfully block a nomination.

But, again, there’s nothing wrong with Left Blogovia saying that they want a liberal Justice, and that they will be disappointed with a moderate. We should do so. There’s no downside to advocating; if we actually get a liberal, it’s good for our country (as we perceive these things, being liberals ourselves), while if (as I predict) we get a moderate, we have helped the political framing and whatnottage.

But my point up there is that it’s an advantage to any Party to be able to talk about the subject of the conversation, that is, the nominee herself and the policies and philosophy of the Party as they affect the actual government of the nation. Since we can do that, I would rather see Left Blogovia concentrate on advocacy than analysis.

March 23, 2010

Bee Eff Dee

My first response will not surprise Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu: Joe Biden was right. This is a big fucking deal.

Nor will my second response surprise GRs, I think: it’s more complicated than that. I mean, yes, it is a big fucking deal, but it’s not like it is done, particularly. There’s an awful lot of work left to be done with it, not just with the Senate patch but successively, from year to year. The main thing is that there will now be a perennial battle about how we fulfill with the national responsibility to ensure (or insure) access to health care, or how well we fulfill it, rather than if we fulfill it, or if that responsibility exists at all. But, like early childhood education, the perennial battle may be answered with cheaply and shoddily, which ain’t much of a legacy. So, yes, a big fucking deal, but the deal ain’t done.

I don’t know if y’all will have predicted my third response, although it is pretty predictable: Where Theodore Roosevelt promised a Square Deal, and Franklin Roosevelt promised a New Deal, and Harry Truman promised a Fair Deal, the new social contract is the Big Fucking Deal. I am totally liking that, and totally using it. I am hoping that it fulfills its promise: a sequence of programs aimed at fundamentally changing the protections that the federal government can offer individuals against the vagaries of illness, unemployment, homelessness, and natural disaster. That would be a Big Fucking Deal indeed.

And fourth—does it seem odd to have anyone use the phrase big fucking deal in a positive sense? I mean, yes, Joe Biden is a dialect unto himself, really, but in my experience, the phrase is always, always, always used negatively. When you say that something is a Big Fucking Deal, you are saying that it is not important. Even more so, of course, with the initialism version, which I have used more frequently, but still: if we are going to use the phrase to describe things that are important, I’m going to need to recalibrate my profanity meter.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 21, 2010

219 > 212

I should probably say something profound or something about passing a Health Care Finance Reform bill. It’s, um.

Well, let me say this: If you had told me, in, oh, 2005, that within five years we would have passed a Health Care Finance Reform that would, essentially, expand health insurance to cover everybody (or very nearly), with subsidies for those who cannot afford it and regulations to prevent the insurers from denying insurance to those who need it most, or kicking out those who cost the most, well. I don’t think I would have believed you.

And, of course, in 1995, if you told me it would take fifteen years, I would have been sadly disappointed.

Still. Not bad. Not bad. But as with any kind of democracy: now’s the time to really start work.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 16, 2010

Counting on history

I found myself wondering, as I picked up the census envelope this afternoon, whether I had written about the census before. It turns out I have not. Not altogether surprising, really, since ten years ago I hadn’t started blogging yet. We don’t do these all that often, it turns out.

And I started thinking that it is a bit odd, isn’t it, that the census is actually mandated in the Constitution. I mean, yes, it does make sense from a practical standpoint, given that many of the arguments had to do with the varying levels of population and population density in the States. I don’t know anything about the history of it, but it’s not hard to imagine that there were, in the Constitutional Congress, differing views about exactly how many people there were in Virginia (and how many “people”), and that it was considered important to (a) have an actual enumeration, (2) to have a plan for before that enumeration is completed, and (iii) to have a plan for after you have that enumeration. And somebody would realize that the different rates of population growth would give them and their State more power soon, if the Census were retaken, and managed to slip in a plan for a new Census later.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine that the language might simply say that an enumeration must be done from time to time or even that reapportionment, whenever it is agreed is necessary, must be preceded by an enumeration. At any rate, instead of what we have, a mandated ten year cycle, the Census could have been at the discretion of the Legislature.

And if that was the case, if it was not absolutely compulsory on the clock but could be postponed from year to year, and it figured to cost ten or fifteen billion dollars, and would, when completed, mean that some Representatives would lose their seats, and other departmental budgets would have new requirements (mostly more, but with always the risk of less), and that whatever happened, it would be change, and always at least a trifle unpredictable…

Would we ever take a Census again? In our system, with it’s myriad veto points and methods for delay and obstruction, with the magnificent Madisonian self-interest appeals and incentives that keep the old eye on the re-election ball, with any proposal on the timing of the thing being subject to partisan politicking and public demagoguery, can you imagine it would ever pass?

I’m just thinking about it, since at the moment, of course, reapportionment seems likely to be Bad for My Party, as the last one was, and since My Party is in the majority, they would not be well-advised to spend ten billion on it, in a recession and a war (or two). And if it was Good for My Party, the Other Party would throw a fucking fit if they tried to ram it through. I mean, some of them are having a fit anyway, but you can’t do anything about that; some of them are going to be crazy about whatever shit happens.

Just a thought. No real point to it. My instinct is generally to resist those kinds of restrictions, as if the Legislature isn’t doing some combination of what the people want and what responsible governance requires, there is an electoral remedy. And maybe my imagination is just wrong on this, too influenced by the politics of the moment. Still. That’s what went through my mind.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 24, 2010

Curious, bi-partisanship

I am wondering how much credit the Democrats in Congress (or Our Only President) will get for bipartisanship in passing a Jobs Bill. For those of y’all who aren’t following the minutae, the vote in the Senate was 70-28, with the Nelsonator crossing the aisle to vote Nay and thirteen of the forty-one Republican Senators crossing to vote Aye.

The interesting thing about this, and about how it plays out in the minds of the masses, is that there was a so-called bipartisan bill that was the subject of some (evidently) serious negotiations between Sen. Baucus and some Republicans. Majority Leader Reid made a point of pissing on that bill. As well he should have, as the bill stunk. So the Democratic Leadership achieved a bipartisan vote without doing any serious bipartisan negotiations. Do they get credit for that?

On the other hand, the bill itself is mostly tax cuts, evidently, and not all that many of them. It’s not like the bill that replaced the negotiated bill was a partisan bill, as these things go. There was every reason for a Republican to vote in favor of it, particularly if it was going to pass anyway—not much risk against a pretty good reward, that reward of course being the ability to go home and take credit for job creation and tax cuts. Whoo Hoo! So sure, the Democratic Leadership brought to a vote a bill that was likely to attract some support from across the aisle. Do they get credit for that?

Figaro, in a note on the topic, claimed that bipartisanship was an oxymoron. That is, since partisanship meant doing things for the sake of the party, rather than (or at least in addition to) for their own sake, bipartisanship meant doing things for the sake of two parties, which doesn’t make any sense, since in our system anything good for one party must be bad for the other. This is a clever observation, but it doesn’t actually describe politics. There are lots of things that are good for both parties, and usually when you have the support of a majority of each party (as the first Patriot Act did, I think, and most confirmation votes, and so on) it has that bipartisan support because it is for the good of both parties in addition to being popular policy.

Digression: Since bi specifically denotes two, one could also reserve bipartisanship to refer to efforts by the two parties to support the two-party system and diminish the support or influence of any other parties at their expense. This behavior does exist, and would be a perfectly good definition for the word, if it weren’t for the fact that the word already exists and has a different meaning. You would have to pay it extra to take on the new meaning, and then you would presumably have to pay your readers and listeners extra to accept it. End Digression.

What’s interesting is that I really don’t think that a third of the Republican Senators thought it was good for their Party to cross the aisle and that the other two-thirds disagreed. Nor do I think that they thought it would be good for their Party to have a third of it cross and the other two-thirds stick. No, I think this vote was based on the personal political calculations of the individual Senators for their own benefit. As well as on policy grounds, of course, but I’m not talking about those here.

But—I wouldn’t be surprised, if the general approval of their Party was improved by this example of co-operation. My prediction is that in six months time this vote will be remembered, if at all, as an example of the Republican Party’s willingness to work together with their opposites to Get Things Done. And the amusing part is that the analysis will be wrong in so many ways that it will almost be right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 12, 2010

Three things without links

Just a few quick points pertaining to recent political discussion and language:

I got a call from Rasmussen recently, and told the automated pollster that I thought Our Only President was doing a great job, and that I felt strongly about that. Now, that is not exactly descriptive of my feeling—I am not exactly disappointed, but he hasn’t made me chuckle every day, either. But (1) I don’t mind misleading Rasmussen, who has no intrinsic right to know my precise opinion, and (b) I am aware that the results of these polls will be used for political purposes, and for my political purposes, it is better if the results are presented as Our Only President having high approval ratings. Similarly, I said good things about every proposal, action or inaction of my Party in the Legislature (hah!) and bad things about every proposal, action or inaction of the other Party (well, sure). When you read the report of this or any other poll, keep in mind that the citizen respondents in a democracy are political actors with agendas of their own that may just possibly outweigh their responsibility to give pollsters correct information.

On another topic, can we just be clear that Mirandizing someone does not grant them any rights at all? Any person has exactly the same rights whether they are Mirandized or not. Mirandizing them just informs them of their rights. If, for instance, it were later found that a Mirandized suspect was not entitled to legal representation, the erroneous statement on the Miranda card would not be held legally binding. And if a suspect were not informed of a right to counsel, and were in fact deprived of a right to counsel, the courts could (and do) hold that they still have that right. I should correct the above statement, though: we have held that one of the rights people (not citizens, people) have in this country is to be informed of their rights, so while Mirandizing them doesn’t grant them any new rights, it concretizes a right they are held to have.

I do wish news writers would not refer to people as missionaries unless there is some evidence of actual missionary work. Actually, I’m not sure that I like the idea of the press referring to the people in as missionaries at all, unless they are entitled to it by some formal authorization from an established institution. In the case of the Haitian baby-snatchers, it seems obvious that referring to them as missionaries is taking their side in a case where facts are very much in dispute. Alleged kidnappers sounds harsh, but would be nearer objectivity. American citizens arrested for kidnapping might work for me. Dunno. I’m not absolutely convinced that it would be accurate to describe the orphanage business as missionary work even if there was, you know, an actual orphanage, but in the absence of an orphanage, I’d certainly try to avoid the loaded term.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 7, 2010

It's Question Time!

Your Humble Blogger will stick a tiny toe back in the waters of political rhetoric for a moment to respond to the demand for a US version of the PMQ. Now, I yield to no-one in my love for the PMQ. I think that was the topic of this Tohu Bohu’s very first Puff Piece lo these many. And in that, I said

Now, not much is actually done in that time. I doubt any opinions change, no compromises get hammered out, and any subject that gets brought up is touched on in the shallowest manner possible. There’s a lot of party squabbling, a good deal of point-scoring, some grandstanding, some petty beefing, and above all, muttering, nodding, coughing, and foot-shuffling. It’s not the finest hour for the Mother of Parliaments, but scarcely the worst; it seems to mostly be a diversion, almost an entertainment.

And it is entertaining. In the last seven years or so, however, there has been an increase in available political entertainment, to the point where I’m no longer sure we need more of it. And, as Jonathan Bernstein points out, the presidential press conference, with a Q&A, is an American tradition that serves much the same purpose, and has essentially died over the last decade. That’s a shame, even with our current press, and a POTUSQ wouldn’t make up for that.

Here’s the benefit of a POTUSQ, as far as I’m concerned. First, it would be entertaining, and specifically it would be entertaining for me. Second, it would be to a limited extent prevent a President allowing himself (or herself) to be totally insulated from criticism. A President can allow his people (particularly his Chief of Staff) to filter his information to the point that criticisms of his policies and politics are made to seem fringe and unsubstantial. I think it’s a Good Thing for a President to be reminded, now and then, that there are a large number of serious, patriotic and intelligent people who think he (or she) is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. Third, um. Not a lot of third.

It’s hard to see how it would lead to better legislation. It’s hard to imagine it really changing the policies of either the Executive or the Legislature. It certainly doesn’t do that in England, where they have had it for ten thousand years, and where in theory a PM who doesn’t Q well can be turfed at any moment. It is possible that it would actually make negotiations over pending legislation more difficult, although in the current circumstances that’s not really possible.

I suppose, after a few years of POTUSQ and perhaps similar GQ (er, that doesn’t work at all), we may start to choose legislators, in part, due to their ability to ask entertaining questions of our executives. I mean, as compilations of those questions would appear on the web at campaign time, and quite likely on television, too. This would be, in general, bad for incumbents, which would make our elections more entertaining as well. On the other hand, it would distract and detract from actual legislating which has never been much fun to televise. You know?

Just to clarify: I’m not against Our Only President or any of Our Future Presidents choosing to answer questions from the Legislature. I’d be happy if that become the norm, so that any President who avoided it for more than a couple of months was derided as cowardly and out of touch. I’d be happier if that supplemented (rather than supplanted) the norm of answering questions from the Press, however defined. It’s all good. I just don’t expect that it would be anything more than entertainment.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 22, 2010

Senator for life plus ninety-nine

You know what just occurred to me today? It occurred to me that if the Republican Party really were interested in expanding health care financial coverage to everybody (or nearly) and if Senator-Elect Brown were the sort of person who has or could recognize really good legislative ideas…

Then he could very easily get a health care finance reform bill passed, with overwhelming support, and in doing so would almost certainly guarantee himself re-election in Massachusetts forever.

That would be the dead hand of James Madison high-fiving the world, wouldn’t it?

I mean, no, of course the Republican Party have no interest in reform of any kind, and if they did, they would still rather kill it than have it pass under the Democrats. And there is no evidence that Senator-Elect Brown is the kind of legislator who is interested in, you know, legislation or legislating. Or, evidently, remaining Senator for more than two years.

Actually, to be fair, he is quite likely to win re-election anyway, and he may be counting on that. But seriously, if he walked in to the Senate on Groundhog Day with a Edward M. Kennedy Memoral Universal Health Care Act that had four Republican co-sponsors and that the Democrats could (however grudgingly) endorse, is there any chance he would ever lose an election in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? That he won’t do it seems to me conclusive evidence that such a Bill does not exist and will not exist so long as the Republican Party is led by the current gang, both the elected officials and the broadcast and direct mail tycoons.

It just seemed worth saying.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 19, 2010

Election Day for some of us

Your Humble Blogger will not be posting the Whitman today. It’s not Election Day here, for one thing, as the various emails I’ve been getting are mistaken about my being a resident of the Commonwealth (although likely enough I haven’t been taken off the rolls, now that I think about it). It’s not Election Day across the country, so there will be no ballot-shower from coast to coast. But I would guess that something approaching half the Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu live in the Bay State, so I would like to recognize that today is Election Day for them, and hope that they enjoy it.

Not likely?

Look, y’all know how I feel about nose-holding and voting. And I’m not going to attempt to persuade you to vote for Martha Coakley—one of the advantages of an exclusive little blog like this one is that y’all have already calculated the benefits and costs, and we don’t have to pretend that I know any of that better than you do. Although I should probably say that if you are considering voting for Ms. Coakley without holding your nose, you should probably do a little more research.

What I’m concerned about is that Gentle Readers may be so disgusted by all the stuff surrounding the election that they will not take a moment or two to enjoy the election itself, the choosing not the chosen. Remember, as you vote, that your vote counts the same as anybody else’s vote, not more nor less. Not more than the person who you judge to be an ignorant dupe, not less than the person who considers you to be an ignorant dupe. Not less than the millionaire, not more than the guy who cleans the millionaire’s executive washroom. Not more than the unemployed millionaire, not less than the union-protected MBTA driver. All the same.

All coming together to have an equal say, for one day, in the governance of the country, that is, in choosing a Senator to do the work of legislating and compromising, of log-rolling and earmarking, of bluffing and standing on principle, of being Senator so you don’t have to. Or so that one woman can’t, the one who was gratuitously rude to the poor sap at the coffee counter—and both of those votes count, and count the same with yours.

Oh, there are problems with the system, all right, serious problems that have a serious impact on your life and even more on other people’s lives, good luck to them all. There are problems with your system, too. And with mine. Particularly with mine—I was gratuitously rude to someone the other day myself, and my vote is still as good as anyone in this Nutmeg State of mine. And no, that’s not a reason for complacency, not a reason to rest, not a reason to lord it over the places on this earth that have their own systems with their own problems and charms. But it is a reason to take a moment, even on a day when you find yourself voting for Martha Coakley—or on even on a day when you find yourself voting for someone else on a ballot that has Martha Coakley on it.

By the way, those of you that want to follow turnout and rumour would probably do well to follow Shorty-nominated political microblogger David S. Bernstein over the course of the day. That’s my recommendation, anyway. Please comment with your preferred source of Election Day not-quite-information, as well as (for Massachusetters) your Election Day experiences. There will be an award for best description of the stench coming off the ballot, but only for those who are wearing a sticker that says I Voted!.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 13, 2010

The Upper House

There has already been plenty of mockery in blogovia about Thomas Geoghegan’s Op-Ed about the filibuster. I don’t really understand the article at all. He seems to hold that the inferred sentiments of individual founders (in op-ed newspaper columns, yet) should have more constitutional weight than the actual text of the Constitution itself. But I’m not terribly interested in the question of the filibuster’s theoretical Constitutional status—the possibility of a Supreme Court finding the filibuster unconstitutional in the next ten years seems utterly remote to me.

Nor, really, am I interested enough in the filibuster itself to defend it or attack it. Twenty years ago, if I remember correctly, I saw an out round in an APDA tournament where the gov team posited removing the filibuster, and it was viewed as a tight case—not like blind-people-should-get-hunting-licenses, but the feeling at the party was that the opp was screwed. Ever since then, I have felt a grudging fondness for the filibuster, not based on its merits but on that debate party.

I do think that it would be possible to reshape the rule to prevent a determined and disciplined 40-vote bloc from stopping all progress in the Senate while still allowing a passionate minority to extend debate indefinitely in unusual cases. Allow, for instance, a limited number of such delayed bills at once, while not allowing a bill that is being filibustered to be withdrawn without a vote. Or something. The Senate can make its own rules. That’s in the Constitution. If you figure out what you want the filibuster to do (extend debate indefinitely while the passionate minority has a chance to whip up public sentiment against a bill, to prevent a majority coalition from steamrolling through changes of which the public is unaware) and what you want it not to be able to do (effectively create a supermajority Senate, with little public awareness of individual filibusters), you can figure out rules to make it happen for a while, until people figure out how to game it and you have to tweak it again. Those parenthetical aims, by the way, are mine; one of the problems of the Senate is that I don’t think there are fifty out of a hundred who can manage to get their parenthetical aims to overlap, but that’s an electoral problem, not a constitutional one.

No, the thing that interests me, at the moment, is the whole idea of the slow-down Senate. There’s no question in my mind that the Madisonian purpose of the Senate is to prevent the House from going nuts. The House is susceptible to sudden waves of public opinion, has (potentially) a higher turnover from one year to the next, and is liable to suddenly proclaim some crazy shit. The Senate’s job is to look at stuff and say yes, no or maybe; to have a longer institutional memory, and to finally go along with the stuff that looks likely to last. Does it do that job? Sometimes. Sometimes not so much. It’s politics.

In 1995 or so, maybe 1996, I remember feeling a sense of awe that the Madisonian system was working so well. The Republicans had taken back the House, the long shift from post-war liberalism to anti-government resentment was in one of its swells, we had a centrist President who had not shown a real spine for negotiating, and I was seriously afraid that Newt Gingrich and his Party would go nuts. And do some extent, they did go nuts, but very little of their Contract with America got actually legislated, and that was largely because the Senate slowed everything down to the point where the more obviously bad ideas were, well, obviously bad.

In 2010, or rather in 2009 and continuing, Democrats and the left are feeling frustrated with the Senate’s slowness. This is quite right. We should be frustrated by the slowness of the Senate, and we should do everything we can to speed up the pace. Probably including getting rid of the filibuster altogether, certainly altering the rules to increase the cost of filibustering—but the point isn’t that the Senate should be trying to speed up the pace, or that the Senate Democrats should be trying to speed up the pace, but that the country should be trying to speed up the pace. The Senate is constructed to slow it down, almost independent of the actions of the Senators, organized or individually.

This is the point I keep coming back to, and I don’t know if I can make it properly because (of course) I am somewhat ambivalent about it anyway. But I’m inclined to think that it is a Good Thing to have those structural slow-downs, and to have to overcome them with a combination of popular support and painstaking rolling of logs. It is a Bad Thing when it is slowing down good legislation, or legislation that at least improves government, but it is a Good Thing when it is slowing down bad legislation responding to momentary passions and prejudices. Weighing the costs and benefits is not easy. Certainly the filibuster, specifically, has been and likely will be used mostly to slow down good legislation (and has generally been only able to slow it down, not block it, particularly when against public opinion), and I can’t really defend it in its current form. But the Senate is loaded with weights to slow down legislation—the six-year term, for one thing, and the committee system, and the calendar, and the geographic distribution. And the original idea to have the Senators chosen by the state legislature was designed even more strongly to have sober grandfathers representing their states and their honored traditions (who may well have been the radicals of twenty years previously, but there is nobody more hostile to new change than Young Turks grown old and respectable).

I guess my point is that we are in an unusual moment in Party Politics—a huge, huge majority in the Senate, largely aligned ideologically rather than divided geographically, with a majority in the House, with the White House as well. It is a moment for great ambitions. It won’t last. It is the moment that a Party should have a glint in its eye. And it is the design of the Senate to take the glint out of the eye, to turn a moment that anything is possible into a month where something is practical. Which, as it is my Party, and it is my moment, is a Bad Thing. But it has been the other Party before, and will be again.

On the other hand, none of those lovely Madisonian procedural niceties is getting prenatal vitamins into the bloodstreams of pregnant mothers. The people who are out of work are still out of work, and the idea that perhaps someday the factor that is working against them will work in favor of the things they like, when they have been dropped out of society and its comforts, well, that idea won’t keep them warm at night. And, of course, when there are millions of refugees from low-lying countries that are under high-lying water, under air that is 500 or 600 ppm carbon, those refugees may or may not benefit from the Senate being slow to victimize them in the panic of nationalist fervor, because who knows? We may not even have a Senate at that point.

So, for all those people who are furious at the Senate, I think you are right, and I certainly don’t blame you for your anger. In fact, I encourage you to broadcast that anger high and wide; it’s the best possible thing. But when Left Blogovia (and others) calls it the World’s Most Dysfunctional Deliberative Body, what I think they are missing is that the Senate is functioning just fine—it’s doing just what is supposed to do. And I can’t say I’m happy about it, but I see the point of it. The parts are designed to work together, and Left Blogovia’s doing its job and the Senate is doing its job, and with any luck, we’ll eventually improve the level of health care (and reduce the level of expenditure on it), eventually, eventually, eventually.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 23, 2009

constantly confronted

I keep meaning to mention that Jonathan Bernstein has a blog. Some of y’all may know him—he’s David S. Bernstein’s brother, for one thing—and he’s a social acquaintance of mine from way, way back. He is a political scientist, and his blog is about politics, mostly current politics, although he does have both a background in theory and experience working on Capitol Hill, which occasionally provoke a really informative post. He also has (probably not by coincidence) an attitude toward representative democracy that is very near to YHB’s own.

Here, for instance, is something I completely endorse: To be active—to really engage—in democratic politics means constantly being confronted with just how different everyone is, and how much that feels right and important and necessary to you is going to be threatened.

Now, as y’all know, I think the fact that people are different, one to another, is what makes the world interesting and fun. But I do understand that it also makes the world complicated and confusing. I think Jon is right that what makes real engagement in politics so frustrating in a democracy is that you cannot escape that difference for a day or an hour.

On occasion, and even sometimes in this Tohu Bohu, I say to people that if I could appoint a President, anyone that I thought would be the best at the job, I wouldn’t do it. I would rather have a crappy President elected than a great one appointed. The point being that democracy is more important to me than good governance, and in a democracy, one person’s good governance is another person’s waste, fraud and abuse. And just because I’m right, doesn’t mean my rightness has any more weight than another person’s wrongness.

This means that the health care finance reform bill that now seems very likely to pass is not going to be my bill. I suppose that is easy for me; my bill was so far off the table that our Socialist Senator didn’t even introduce it. I think it’s a lot more frustrating for people who thought for some reason that the House Bill (leaving aside Sen. Stupak’s Amendment) was their bill. Or for people who have not (yet?) adjusted to that confrontation with political difference, and learned to celebrate it. Or for people who prefer good government to democracy.

Which I understand. I mean, it matters that this bill will not achieve Health Care for All. It matters that the redistribution of wealth that surrounds health care is in a direction that is bad for people. It matters that we have not really tackled the problems of private insurance as they affect people’s health. It matters that the resources within health care are so badly distributed. It really does matter. And when I am faced with somebody who tries to avoid paying out-of-pocket on a cold and then goes to an overburdened ER which is not able to treat their pneumonia—and maybe gets another infection on top of that—it isn’t all that much relief to mention that she lives in a democracy, where votes count equally, whether they know anything about health care or not. Or that the Senate is designed to slow down the pace of change, a feature that made me extra-happy in 1995 and 1996. Or that I really do think, in the long, long run, that the battle is for the broad sympathies of the culture, and that we are winning it, slowly, slowly. Slowly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 23, 2009

A Retort Contest!

So. There’s this Health Care Finance Reform Bill. Y’all have heard about it? And it’s immensely complicated, largely because—You know how the Big Dig attempted to take a major highway that ran on an elevated road over Boston and put it instead through an underground tunnel, and do it without ever shutting off traffic on that highway? The plan here is to take a way of paying for health care in this country that (a) leaves ten percent of the population without any way of paying for needed care, (2) taints an enormous chunk of medical decisions with bizarre structural incentives, both financial and procedural, that result in diminishing actual health for more millions of people, and (iii) diverts lots and lots of money from business and households that are more productive than the insurance industry into that industry, to take that way of paying for health care and alleviate the excesses of it without shutting off traffic to the insurance companies. It’s doable. But it’s very expensive, complicated, time-consuming, and chunks of hospitals will probably crush people’s cars for years to come difficult to oversee.

So the bill is two thousand pages long. It’s a big stack of law. I mean, it’s not all that big a stack of law, when compared to other law, but if you have a basic contempt for legislation (as most Republican legislators seem to have), the big old lump of law is bad in itself. But Paul Waldman (in asking Please, Enough With the Length of [the] Bill) has covered the substance of that already. I’m just hear to talk about the rhetoric.

This was a quote cleverly designed to make the news: “This [stack of paper], twenty pounds is the size of many people’s turkey next week. That’s what most people in North Carolina think about the bill, too.” That’s Senator Burr of NC (video), in a press conference thingy that did not allow any supporter of the Bill to immediately respond. So I’m opening it up as a Retort Contest for Gentle Readers!

My Best Reader actually started it off with

And most people in North Carolina would be thankful for health care, too, if they could get it.

My entry is

I guess the Senator hasn’t been to a food pantry lately. There are a lot of people in his state who won’t be able to afford a twenty-pound turkey, much less health care. But we can do something about it.

Let’s have yours. Rules: You do not have to actually support the Bill to enter the contest, but the Retort should be from the point of view of a supporter. The Retort can be crude, profane or obscene, but it should be to the point. Dick jokes are OK, as are jokes involving the name, background and colleagues of the Senator from North Carolina, but should be connected somehow to the Bill. Let’s keep it to, oh, fifty words or shorter, ideally. And entries will be taken (via comments on this note of course) until the end of the day on Wednesday, so feel free to pace up and down coming up with just the right mot.

The judging will be by a panel of Undead Zombie Celebrities (Zombie Cicero! Zombie Barbara Jordan! Zombie Williams Jennings Bryan!) who will give points for brevity, wit, savvy, viciousness, unanswerability and sweet, sweet brains. The prize will be—should YHB come up with an actual prize? I’m in a good mood, I just might.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 13, 2009

And there's no center there

I don’t think I ever actually posted a response to My Gracious Host’s note Okay if we do it, awful if they do it, in which he decries the use of double standards in political argument, saying Sometimes each party uses argument X to support the things they like, and says that argument X is ridiculous when the other party uses it to support the things they like. The comment may seem straightforwardly reasonable, but it made me feel all defensive, and I half-wrote two or three different responses to it. I think I deleted them all without finishing them, as none of them were particularly scintillating.

My point, in all of them, is that the situation he describes is much more frequently only the appearance of that situation than the reality. For one thing, each party has several people in it, and often the process-focused people within the party will not touch argument X even when it is in their favor, and will hock on about the ridiculousness of argument X when it is being used by the other party, and then different people within the party will happily use argument X when it works and leave it alone when it doesn’t. This gives an impression of hypocrisy, since it’s often hard to remember which party spokesman made which arguments at which times, but I don’t think that it holds up on examination. And again, seeming symmetry is very rarely actual symmetry when it comes to politics. Republicans in the Senate, f’r’ex, were willing to support using the reconciliation process when they had a majority but not sixty votes, and are appalled by the suggestion of the Democrats doing so now. On the other hand, the Senate was at the time passing a budget, which is (more or less) what the reconciliation process was designed for, as opposed to a health care finance reform, which is a massive and entirely new legislation effort. I don’t hold the position myself, but it’s neither dishonest nor a double standard to posit that reconciliation in the Senate is OK for certain kinds of bills and not others. In other words, the arguments have the same structure but different content, and the content does matter.

None of which is to say that Jed is wrong in his point. Sometimes the situation really does happen, and even more than that, it’s fair to suggest that if it appears to be happening, particularly if the Good Guys are doing it, well, it’s worth looking into with a skeptical eye. Yes? While keeping in mind that appearances are proverbial.

So why am I writing about it now, after all this time? Your Humble Blogger complained, a lot, about the high-handed way the Republicans ran the Senate (and the House, but more so the Senate) when they were in charge under Our Previous President. There were two aspects that I found particularly galling—well, three, one of which was the bit where the Senate Leadership would negotiate and then the White House would come in at the last minute and tear up the deal. That isn’t happening so much now, but the other two are worth looking at. One was the majority-of-the-majority rule, where the Party leadership would not allow a vote unless the Majority Caucus supported it, even if there were enough in his Party that would join the Opposition on a specific matter to make a majority in favor of the thing in question. And the other was the 50%+1 rule, that if you had a majority that was bigger than that, you could push the bill further to the Right (as they were on that side) until you lost a few more supporters.

And, of course, on the face of it, that’s what My Party is doing, now that we are in power. Or, and this is more so the case, when My Party failed to stop the Stupak Amendment (a vicious hunk of shit) from coming to a vote, it went against the majority-of-the-majority rule, and I would have preferred that the leaders of My Party keep to that rule in stopping the damned thing. And then, with the Bill itself, we crafted a Bill that would pass by the narrowest of margins.

Is this a symmetrical situation? Not entirely, of course, because the fundamental asymmetry is that we are right and they are wrong, and so nothing will ever really be the same on either side. There is also the passing of time: when the Republicans took over in 1994, there were still the leftover bits and pieces of the Old Way, with conservative Democrats in the South, liberal Republicans in New England (and New York, a bit), and a variety of regional and industrial coalitions possible. The Republicans, in part through the governing in the way I’ve talked about, accelerated the sweeping away of those coalitions in favor of true national Party structures. Now, there are no more than a handful of Republicans in the Senate or House worth being bipartisan with, and the remaining moderate Democrats stand out by themselves far more.

There’s also a fundamental asymmetry to the Party structures, in that the Republican Party tends to pick leaders that are to the right of the median for their party, whilst the Democratic Party tends to pick leaders that are to the right of the median for their party. (Note, by the way, that the how-people-vote-on-bills ranking does not work for people in leadership positions, who will vote with the Party as leaders more often than they otherwise might—the fact is that Harry Reid is right-of-the-middle, Dick Durbin to the right of him, and in the House, Nancy Pelosi is just-to-the-left, Steny Hoyer just to the right, Jim Clyburn a bit on the left) (the point being that I’m exaggerating, but not much; Democrats tend to pick leaders in the middle of the caucus, rather than to the left) (which is not to say that the more liberal members do not gain tremendous amounts of power through committee chairmanships and so on, just that they don’t get to be Leader or Whip that often) (I’m comparing them to Mitch McConnell amd John Kyl and John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Mike Pence on the other side, btw) (I’ve forgotten where I was or what punctuation to use, so I’m delaying closing this preposterous series of parentheses). A bill that gets the support of Harry Reid is not going to be the symmetrical opposite of one supported by Mitch McConnell or Bill Frist, is the point, however many votes it winds up getting.

And then there’s the fact that the Health Care Finance Reform Bill is still to the right of the country in many ways. The legislation that the Republicans passed earlier in the decade was way outside the mainstream. So there’s that asymmetry as well.

But then, the real asymmetry is this: it’s OK when we do it, it’s awful when they do it.

I mean, seriously. I’m sure there are people on the other side who have lots of reasons why it works in the other direction, and when our side is pushing partisan legislation through driven by the left of the left it demolishes the whole procedural whatsit. But they are wrong, you see. And I am not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian

November 8, 2009

Wagging the Dog

So. Michele Bachmann, who is as crazy a gadfly as needs to be in the Republican House Caucus, called a rally in DC for last week. Some thousands of people showed up, and—this is the key news—Their Party Leader in the House, the Whip, a former Leader and Whip, and a dozen or so other members of the House all came and spoke. As Joshua Micah Marshall points out, this was not a Republican Party event, organized by and under the Party leadership. This was a Michele Bachmann event, organized by and under Americans for Prosperity and Fox News.

In other words, the tail is wagging the dog.

This isn’t a new analysis. Nobody who follows Party politics in this country is surprised to discover that there is a division between the establishment Republicans and another powerful group of movers and shakers. The NY-23 Special Election for Congress that increased the Democratic majority is another part of that story, and it was right up at the top of the news. I think David S. Bernstein in the Boston Phoenix is on top of it with his election analysis: Doug Hoffman was a patsy for fund-raisers who didn’t care if he won or lost—and care even less about governance or legislation—but could and did use the media, direct mail, and talk radio to raise money for themselves in his name. The Party went along with it, knowing that their interests were being ditched, because they had no choice; as Mr. Bernstein points out, a question of credibility. The Party establishment doesn’t have any.

So when the tail wags, the dog has to wag, too.

Why do I care? I mean, it’s not my Party, let ’em cry if they want to.

Mostly, I care because (a) as a matter of principle, it’s a Bad Thing to have a Political Party controlled by profiteers who don’t care whether the Party is elected or passes any legislation, and (2) it’s a Bad Thing for my Party not to have an Opposition that is at least somewhat responsible, and (iii) these profiteers are willing to increase the amount of nationalism, racism, sexism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, fear, hatred and resentment in the country in order to increase their profits, and I am opposed to the increase of those things, which make the world worse.

And there’s another thing: while I do believe that Alan Keyes and Tim Phillips and Ralph Reed are cynically manipulating the rabble they despise in order to fill their pockets with pelf, I don’t know that I believe that Michele Bachmann is of their ilk. We have certainly seen the manipulated rabble, the ones who believe the bullshit, rise to positions of real power. Which is scary.

Your Humble Blogger wrote this note a few days ago, and in the interim, I have had pause to reflect, and the question I have paused on was this: am I a concern troll? After all concern trolling, at its most basic, is giving electoral advice to the Party you want to see lose. And it generally takes the form of advising the Party to abandon its core principles, its base constituency, and its policy positions. In my defense, I am not really giving advice, and I am rambling here in my own blog rather than on some site frequented by Republicans. Still, here’s the question: if Dennis Kucinich had called a rally in favor of Single-Payer and against the current Health Care Finance Bill (which I am happy to see passed the House while this note was resting), and if several thousand angry people showed up ranting against capitalism and the vicious, dangerous insurance companies, and if Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn felt they had to attend, wouldn’t I be ecstatic? How would I react to someone who talked about it showing that the Party was being held hostage to a group who were uninterested in winning elections or governing?

Two responses to myself come to mind. First, there is the simple fact that there does, really, exist a multi-million dollar industry on the other side, and there does not, really, exist a comparable one on mine. I could be wrong about that—I know about the industry largely through David S. Bernstein (at the Boston Phoenix, and in conversation, because (I have disclosed this before) we know each other socially, and have since Hector was a pup), and Mr. Bernstein is a liberal, which might conceivably have led him to overlook or conceal such an industry on ‘our’ side or to exaggerate the differences. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think the facts really are different, one side to the other.

And, of course, there is this: Rep. Kucinich did not get on MSNBC (or whatever), did not get thousands of people to rally, and the Party leaders did not feel they had to pay any public attention to him or to other gadflys of the left. If those things happened, while I might personally be ecstatic about it, I would hope there would be very serious discussion in the Party about the possibility that, you know there was a problem there, and also, you know, I would want to make sure I wasn’t standing under any of the flying pigs.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 4, 2009

Disaster

Let’s be clear about this, since we’re all girls together here, and there’s nobody listening: yesterday’s election results were a disaster for Our Only President. I don’t mean that the populace at large has rejected his policies. That’s crap. The populace at large doesn’t know what his policies are, and when the do know, they like ’em just fine. Nor is the contrary story of what happened accurate, that the fact that the individual voters based their preferences on local issues rather than national trends means that this isn’t a disaster for Our Only President. No. Individual voters based their preferences on local issues rather than national trends, and that means this was an utter disaster for Our Only President.

Now, when I say it was a disaster—obviously, he’s still a favorite to win re-election in three years, if the economy picks up at all. But he is trying to get some policies in place, and he has to work with people to do that, and if Senators Baucus and Nelson and Landrieu and Nelson and Collins and Snowe and so on and the Blue Dogs in the House, curse them, feel that Our Only President was weakened by the election results, then he was weakened by them, and that’s the end of that.

But look: the Governor of New Jersey is an unpopular scumbag. He is also a pretty good Democrat who supported the President in a bunch of ways. His opponent ran, essentially, on the platform that the Governor was an unpopular scumbag, that the voters associated his name with failure and corruption, and that whatever he was, it wasn’t that. This was, unsurprisingly, a successful campaign, as Gov. Corzine was reduced to saying that although he was, in fact, an unpopular scumbag, the other guy was a scumbag too, really, and, um, look, isn’t that Our Only President? And in the end, the people who were probably willing enough to vote for the unpopular scumbag on the D line never made it to the polls.

Why is this a disaster for Our Only President? Look, the main leverage that the President has in negotiating with unpopular scumbags in the Congress is that he can get them re-elected. That he will stand on the stage with them at rallies in the week before the election and they will look less unpopular and less scummy (or baggy, depending). In particular, if he can get a bunch of people who like Barack Obama more than they like anything else in politics out to the goddamned polls on the first Tuesday in November, that’s gold for an unpopular scumbag with a D by his name.

But he can’t.

Or at any rate, he couldn’t yesterday. And I don’t see any reason to think that he will be able to next year, unless Things Change, and unfortunately, the main Things that would have to Change involve passing legislation through the defenses of some Senators and Representatives who have just seen how little he will be able to give them. Which means, if things were working normally, that our Senate Leader would have to trade more actual stuff to get their support. Only, just as a coincidence, our Senate Leader is an unpopular scumbag himself.

Or, perhaps, I’m just cranky, because if Our Only President had put his ass on the line in Maine, he would have one victory to show off, and a lot of people would be free from a particularly nasty and unnecessary bit of vicious discrimination. But hey! Come to Connecticut. Where our unpopular scumbag of a Senator is very likely to win, even if Our Only President was weakened yesterday, and where two lovers can get married today.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 3, 2009

Election Day, 2009

I do this every year, not quadrienially, so here it is:

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Download the mp3

This year it may not be the powerfulest scene and show, but the local nature—the only thing decided today in my neighborhood is which of the candidates of the minority party will fill the slots reserved for the minority party by charter on the school board and town council, where all the people I voted for are certain to get in—just emphasizes the ways in which electoral politics are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy. It is, if you will allow me the metaphor, the visible manifestation of invisible democracy; it is our American sacrament (secument?). Whether your vote matters or not, your voting matters, even in an off-year. And to quote Mr. Whitman again: Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote. Cross-stitch that on a sampler and hang it on your wall; it may be the most American thing ever said by the most American man who ever lived.

Or, if that's not the America that exists, it's the goal America, the Langston Hughes America, The land that never has been yet—And yet must be, which after all, is the real America anyway, which has always been more aspiration than actuality.

Go vote. Be part of that aspiration. Go vote. The act itself the main. Go vote.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 21, 2009

The L Word

I learn from Bill Donohue in the Washington Post that not only am I one of a vast network of Secular Saboteurs, but I am a sexual libertine as well.

Libertine! If only I could be louche, but I will settle for libertinism.

I believe that Mr. Donohue’s post was actually printed in the Post; I haven’t seen a printed copy of that newspaper for a few years, myself, and they don’t indicate a page number on that link, but I don’t suppose it matters, really. The point is that it’s about sexual libertines, who (according to Mr. Donohue) run the world (but don’t procreate—breeders evidently are doin’ it wrong), motivated most of all by a pathological hatred of Christianity.

No, stop laughing. You depraved saboteurs and your shoes—well, us depraved saboteurs, anyway—may think it’s all about the flesh, but it’s really about the Spirit. We are termites, libertine termites, and, um, that’s a bad thing, you see, because, on the whole, it’s better to have repressed termites, or just termites with very low libidos. Right? On the other hand, religious conservatives are like rabbits, who presumably have high libidos, or at least short gestational periods, and don’t walk their dogs, because rabbits walking dogs would be against Scripture, like multiculturalism and scrubbing. Scrubbing, very bad. Also bathing. Cleanliness, evidently, is metaphorically quite far from the Divine.

OK, just for fun, here’s us, according to the column: nihilists, saboteurs, libertines, malcontents, elements, radicals, anarchists, menaces, students, Yaleys (now that’s a low blow), secularists, activists, blasphemers, artists, masters, charlatans, zealots, and termites. We scrub, we club, we tear, we annihilate, we wage war, we attack, we pervert, we hate, we shudder, we seize, we politicize, we denigrate, we insult, we bash, we harbor, we bash, we lie, we ban, we punish, we are flagrantly insubordinate, we walk dogs and bathe and (this is the great part) we are losing the culture war. Which you can tell by the way we are in charge of everything (seriously, “the gay activists are in charge” of the Democratic Party) and still “In the fight over gay marriage, the scorecard is 30-0”. He doesn’t say which way, though.

Yeah, see, that’s the thing. We are too busy being sexual libertines to get gay marriage legalized in Vermont, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and somewhere else, can’t think of it, begins with a C. It’ll come to me. Sorry, too busy to look it up. Libertinism really takes it out of a fellow.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 7, 2009

Laboring under

A few weeks back, Mark Schmitt wrote about Left Without Labor, saying that while it was difficult to conceive of a progressive movement without organized labor at its core, that did seem to be what was happening. And in many ways, he says, it’s good that the coalition of professionals, young people, women and minorities can win without the working class. That makes the Republican strategy of splitting off the working-class whites, playing on resentments of lost privilege, less effective. Still, as he points out, while Joe the Plumber was a fake, it’s a problem if our Party is not the party of “the real Joes, Josés, and Josephines of the working middle class”.

I agree with him on that last part. I believe in organized labor. The folks that brought you the weekend, you know. And that brought you, oh, workplace safety standards and overtime pay and so on.

So as easy as it is to get fired up by Barack Obama, when he works a crowd, for Labor Day this year I’m just going to send you over to the Blog of Frequent Name Changes, where a Gentle Reader has gathered some good foot-to-behind stuff.

I think the lesson of Labor Day this year is that you gave to get out and work for it. Right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 2, 2009

The Merit of the Fathers inherited by the daughters, even

The news that Bush daughter Jenna Hager joins TODAY staff has set off a blogstorm about meritocracy and whatnot. Glenn Greenwald has an uncharacteristically short but characteristically caustic note about it called It’s time to embrace American royalty. Broadly speaking Left Blogovia is whacking Conservatives over the head with their (perceived) hypocrisy in combining inherited privilege (and outright nepotism) with rhetorical support for meritocracy and disdain for preferences and support, particularly in connection with Justice Sotomayor and her personal history.

Um, and they are right so to whack. My contrariness isn’t so overdeveloped to disagree. I mean, rhetorically they are right, and I think this sort of situation emphasizes the extent to which (a) there exists an elite connected to the Republican Party, who use their connections and status for their own personal gain, and (2) the members of the elite are startlingly, wildly and deliberately out of touch with people outside that elite. Meaning you, sister, and meaning me.

But I am sufficiently contrary to note that some of the residents of Left Blogovia fundamentally misunderstand the difference in worldview between Conservatives and Progressives. Or at least pretend to, and pretend to convincingly and not to much point. So I am going to talk about merit, meritocracy and Conservatism as I understand it.

Digression: Andrew Cline over at Rhetorica has several times complained about his local newspaper having op-ed space devoted to columns labeled From the Left and From the Right, which he says encourages a fact-free partisan pissing match. He is probably empirically correct; I am certainly not going to read the columns in question to find out. But my contrary defense of the idea of such columns led me to make the point that it would be really wonderful for a newspaper to devote space to detailed explanations from the Left and Right of how their differing worldviews and biases interacted with the policy urgencies of the moment. That is, how (f’r’ex) support of the proposed health care reform followed from a Liberal viewpoint, and opposition from a Conservative one. That would be a tremendous benefit for readers, most of whom don’t (I think) really get how the two Parties do have fundamental differences that lead them to come to different conclusions on most policy matters, and that leads to differences in how people’s lives actually work, depending on which Party is in power at which time. Oh, there are lots of variations, and people can certainly start from the same assumptions and come to different conclusions on particular issues, but on the whole, there is a Left and a Right, and it matters.End Digression.

Here’s the question I’ll be talking around: Can a person inherit merit? Which of course demands the question: what is merit?

You see, when we talk about meritocracy, I think we are talking about different things, Liberals and Conservatives, in large part because we have different ideas of merit. I’m going to make a stab at what those ideas are, on both sides. My ideas of Conservatism are based more on Clinton Rossiter than Newt Gingrich, but I think that when it comes to the worldview, the underpinning biases, Mr. Rossiter has great insight coming from a largely historical view of his own. And for the Liberal end, I’m going with my own biases, largely, I’m afraid, so y’all will have to supplement, correct and clarify.

A Liberal view of merit: Merit is derived largely from an accumulation of good actions; the appropriate metaphor is a ledger or bankbook, in which deposits to your merit are made in the form of accomplishments, and withdrawals in the form of failures. Thus, a person will have different amounts of merit at different times; the Peter Principle (people will rise to a level of their incompetence) is a kind of guiding spirit. There are, however, characteristics commonly associated with merit: intelligence, persistence, discipline, compassion, honesty, and so on. In looking to see if someone has merited their position, you would attempt to judge those qualities together with their record of accomplishments and failures.

A Conservative view of merit: Merit is derived largely from adherence to an inherited value system; The appropriate metaphor is not a bankbook but a seal of approval. While it is true that a meritorious person will backslide or stray, the mark of merit is the return to traditional values. These values include honesty, discipline, intelligence, persist, compassion and so on. Application of those values is often associated with success in business or other endeavors. In looking to see if someone has merited their position, you would take into account their record of accomplishments and failures together with their fundamental values and character traits.

A Liberal and a Conservative talking about merit may talk for a long time in the large overlap without ever realizing they are talking about different things. And then suddenly a Liberal will be astonished that a Conservative seems to take breeding into account, as if being born into a good family is an accomplishment. Or a Conservative is perplexed that a Liberal seems to thing being raised by a single parent in an impoverished ghetto is a good thing. But where do you get your family values from, if not a good family? And isn’t overcoming obstacles an achievement?

Liberals, or at least progressives, tend to knock the idea of meritocracy as being blind to antecedent benefits and burdens. Conservatives tend to knock the idea of meritocracy as being a front for quotas and officiousness. I think the Liberals are correct, of course, being a Liberal myself. No surprise there. But we still knock meritocracy.

While, of course, supporting it. Meritocracy is the baby that shat in the bathwater. We can’t quite bring ourselves to throw it out. It would be such a lovely baby if it didn’t smell so bad. And, you know, you can clean it! But then it starts to stink again. Oh, well. It’s cute, and maybe someday it’ll grow up.

Another Digression: while many Conservatives are not racist as such, or even xenophobic as such, Conservatism my its nature preserves the ISRVs, and if those ISRVs are racist or xenophobic, then preserving them is racist and xenophobic. And even of they aren’t racist or xenophobic in attitude, the preservation of the status quo is very likely to be racist in execution. If, for instance, a good family is important to inculcating good family values, then the Conservative will place great emphasis on good family. Unless you are willing to do a lot of work to eliminate the natural pattern-matching that misleads you into thinking that good families look alike, you are going to have racist misperceptions. And even then, simple arithmetic is going to preference the majority. It takes a commitment to actively fight racism, that is, it takes active affirmation to effect a Conservative view of meritocracy without a racist result. Sadly, in our country, only a tiny minority of Conservatives believe in that kind of ongoing affirmative action. End Digression.

My point, to get back to it, is that Conservatives can certainly believe in both meritocracy and nepotism. There is nothing necessarily hypocritical in that, so long as you understand what is meant by merit. On the other hand, it’s not clear to me what merit could be inherited by the great-grandchildren of Prescott Bush at this point.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 17, 2009

Victory through defeat

Last Spring I could have looked at the candidate’s policy proposals in detail, but (as Mark Schmitt put it so well) within the campaign context, it’s not what the candidate says about the issues, it’s what the issues say about the candidate. It’s easy for analytical types (such as YHB) to fool themselves into thinking they are voting for a policy platform, but of course the moment the candidate takes office, those policy proposals will become subject to all kinds of changes. Which is as it should be. So my recollection of the public health policy and health finance debates in the primary is extremely vague: John Edwards was supporting something universal and relatively progressive, Hillary Clinton was supporting something not-quite-universal and not-quite-progressive, and Barack Obama was in the middle.

That may not have been true. That’s my recollection now of my impression at the time.

I bring up my vagueness now, because my impression of the current state of the debate is dependent on that earlier sense, which may be wrong. Be that as it may, I’m going to tell y’all about my current impression and then throw it open for y’all to get me back on track. Because, you know, it’s a blog.

Here’s the thing: I think Barack Obama is not very progressive on economic issues. There are aspects of governance where he is very radical, aspects where he is worrisomely Conservative (to me), but on economic issues he seems to be, well, happy with Larry Summers. You know? Bill Clinton-ish, not Teddy Kennedy-ish. By instinct and inclination, I mean. Of course, circumstances dictate the actual policies a person will support at any time. Bill Clinton had prosperity to deal with, and dealt with it accordingly; had he been president with ten percent unemployment and serious financial structure problems, he would have dealt with that differently, I suppose.

So I’m not convinced that Barack Obama was ever personally persuaded that the public option—essentially a Medicare for All option—was important to him. I don’t really know. It’s awfully tempting to try to read the minds of politicians and claim that people you like are really in favor of policies you like, even though they never support them and occasionally vote against them. It’s also tempting to claim that all of them are in the pockets of Big Bidness and have no principles or even preferences other than whatever gets them the most money for their next campaign. I try to avoid that, generally. Still, it seems to me as if the bill we’re going to wind up getting in October or so will be a lot like the bill the Barack Obama of the primaries would have liked: largely an extension of the status quo with enough government intervention to ease off the pressure for fundamental change of the resource-profit structure of the system.

This is infuriating to me, of course, because I would like to change the system altogether. The idea of a quote-unquote reform bill that seems designed to funnel money to the insurance companies seems outrageous to me. The idea that with a majority in the House and sixty fucking seats in the Senate and a Democratic President we still can’t nail the insurance companies to the wall is depressing. We’re not going to get a bigger majority in the Senate; it’s astonishing that we have twenty more than the other Party now. We’re unlikely to get Senators within the Party that are much further left; we’re certainly unlikely to get Senators from the other Party that are much further left.

Unless, of course, there is a basic change in the national debate.

Which is how it should work. When there’s a big change (and I suppose health finance reform counts as a big change, as it affects not only people’s health care but their employment conditions, mostly) the change has to be broad and deep. We have to talk to each other about it, rather than waiting for the candidates to direct it.

And yet… haven’t we been talking to each other about it for twenty years? I mean, isn’t the huge Democratic majority in part due to the national conversation about health finance coming around to the idea of nailing insurance companies to the wall? I’m not sure how much further we can go on that road. Hmph.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to whine about the bill in this note. The point of this note is that it seems to YHB that Barack Obama has an astonishing ability to make getting beaten in the legislature a useful step in getting the policy he wants. And on one hand, that’s clearly problematic for the Party and the future of the democracy. And on the other, he is getting Presidential policy through the legislature, which ain’t easy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 28, 2009

Trapped! We're trapped!

I have been listening, now and then, to National Public Radio. Not all day, and not for very long at a time. And I haven’t (thank the Divine) been watching news on television, either cable or broadcast. So I don’t really know whether this has been going on and I’ve been missing it, or whether really nobody is saying this. But I have heard people interviewed who are on the radio to support my Party’s health care reforms, specifically people who support the public option, and they are asked what will be different if the health care reform gets passed. And I haven’t heard any of them say anything like this.

Well, the main thing, for most of your listeners, is that if they change jobs, they won’t have to worry about their health insurance. If your job stinks, but your current health care is decent—and there are a lot of people like that—the public option would make it possible to back to school, or to start your own business, or to work for a non-profit for a while. If you have a good job with good insurance, this reform won’t change that. If you have no insurance, this reform will make sure you do have insurance, and—can I be honest, here? Even if you think you don’t need insurance, this reform puts you in the pool. I think that’s a plus. But the big difference between our plan, that has a last-resort option for public insurance, and the current plan, or whatever plan the Republicans are claiming they have, and we haven’t seen it yet and I don’t think we will—the difference between our plan, Terry (or Renee or Neil or whoever), is that nobody will ever again be trapped in a lousy job because their children’s insurance is being held hostage.

Am I wrong? Aren’t there about fifty million people who have had that conversation with someone, where their niece or their old college buddy is talking about what they would do, but they need to keep their health package? I think the people that you have to convince, to get poll numbers up to the point where legislators feel pressure they can’t resist, are people who have decent health insurance themselves. The political plan has been to emphasize that you could lose your health insurance, but (a) that hasn’t been working, and (2) many people don’t really think that bad things will happen to them, until they do. I don’t mean to say that they should altogether stop that line of attack, because it is, after all, true—your employer could go bankrupt, after all, and lots of them do—but I think the trapped-in-a-lousy-job line is a persuasive one, and one that fits a lot of people’s worldview.

Particularly, I would think, people who listen to NPR. Which is why I am griping about not having heard it. I’m hoping that it’s just been one of those coincidences, that the moment I shut the thing off and go in the house, somebody is on about being trapped by their health insurance. Or it’s on television pundit shows, which I am unwilling to watch even to correct my impression of this.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 23, 2009

Getting Away With It

So. Y’all know about this birther business? You know, this thing where lots of people believe that Our Only President is Constitutionally ineligible to be Our Only President, because he was not, in fact, born in Hawaii, as all available public and private records indicate, but was in fact born on the mooooooooon?

I read David Bernstein’s politics blog in the Phoenix, mostly because I know the guy from way back, but also because he seems to be one of the people who gets things right about national politics, as evidenced by his often predicting things which later happen. And he doesn’t write all that often, so it’s not that big a deal to keep up with him. And (although I don’t generally read his commenters anyway), he generally gets very few comments. Until he wrote about Birthers In The Mainstream, and got umpty-’leven comments, not all of them entirely whatsit. You know?

And I started to think: Really, there are only two possibilities. (One) The man was born in Hawaii. (Bee) He got away with it.

That’s it, right? I mean, there is no chance—zero chance—that any evidence now produced is going to remove the man from office before the end of his term. If this really is a conspiracy big enough to fiddle with the records that would have to have been fiddled with, and hush up the people who would have to have been hushed up, then he got away with it. End of story. If you suddenly discover a film of his birth, in Guayana, together with the attending midwife’s sworn affidavit, his fingerprints, a lock of his hair (for DNA sample) and the Archangel Gabriel willing to witness that when he tapped him on the upper lip, it was not in US territory, then all you are going to get yourself is an unmarked grave, my friend, because if this guy is that good, then he’s better than you are.

What do these guys expect to happen? I mean, is there any possibility that a court, any court, is going to exercise some sort of jurisdiction over this in such a way to get the man out of office? The US Supreme Court have already looked at the matter, you know. Or do you think he’s going to sit still for an impeachment based on this? After the last twenty years of American politics, do these guys really expect that the US House is going to impeach, and the US Senate convict, because there is doubt that the President was born in the US? And if there is evidence, do you think the President of the United States has insufficient power to hush it up? When it has already been hushed up during a year-long presidential campaign?

I am, in some ways, serious. Most of my friends on the left believe that the Presidential Election in 2000 was stolen (at least in the will of the electorate of Florida was, in the majority, for Al Gore, and that therefore the electors from that state should have cast their ballots for him, and thus he should have been sworn in as President, and not that other guy). On the other hand, by January 20 or so, most of us, almost all of us, I think, had accepted that it was over. That he got away with it. That there was no evidence, obtainable at that time, that would cause him to step down, or would cause his removal from office on that basis. We may still have been outraged, some more than others, but it’s not like we thought anything would come of it.

And insofar as it’s conservative media titans (to use Mr. Bernstein’s phrase) that are talking about this, they don’t think anything will come of it. They can make money off of it, they can whip up their people with it, they can take some focus off other issues by talking about it, and that’s good enough for them. But I have the sense (perhaps wrongly, of course) that the Vardibidians of the Right, the bloggers-and-bullshitters who care about politics but don’t make a career out of it, they really think they are on to something here.

My point is not that the whole thing is egregious nonsense. It is. Obviously. To me. My point is that even it is all terribly, terribly true, so what? It’s over. He got away with it. All the more reason (from their point of view) to distrust the man, but do they need any more reasons? There are plenty of them for sale, I tell you what.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 16, 2009

Rhymes with 'Spies Cantina'

Your Humble Blogger would just like to make it clear: I know nothing about constitutional law, or law of any kind, so there's that. But I do think that, in many cases, a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences will reach a better conclusion than a white male.

Can I break it down just a bit, for a rhetorical flourish?

  • I believe that there exist wise Latina women. I have met two or three that I can think of off the top of my head, which may not sound like a whole lot, but is probably right in line, percentage-wise, with other groupings of ethnicity and sex.
  • While I agree with Judge Sotomayor that there can never be a universal definition of wise (that line was actually a reference to Martha Minnow, is intended as a critique of the wise old men and wise old woman line, and is the sentence before the famous one in the speech), a decent working definition of wisdom would probably be “agreeing with YHB on the substance of issues”. Given the demographics, the polling data, and my own policy preferences, it seems likely that wisdom would be fairly common among Latinas.
  • It's not clear to me that, in the context of judicial whatnot, a better conclusion necessarily means the overturning or upholding of the lower court decision. It might well mean that the decisions a wise Latina puts her name to will be better written than those of the white men. The Latina judge will (very likely) have a wider range of experiences writing to a wider range of audiences, and will therefore be less likely to trap herself in legalese. No, not really. I'm just kidding on this one.
  • I believe that there exist white males. Further, I think that white males who grow up in this country largely share certain overlapping experiences of whiteness and maleness. Not all the aspects of those experiences will be the same. If there are, say, a thousand typical aspects of whiteness and maleness, very few white males will have experienced all thousand of them, but very few white males will have experienced fewer than, say, three hundred of them. As a result, any two given white males will likely have quite a few of those experiences in common, but it is possible that the two will not have any in common, while still having plenty of whiteness and maleness. Therefore, the category does make sense.
  • Many of the common experiences of whiteness and maleness of which I speak are negative ones, that is, the experience of not experiencing some aspect of nonwhiteness and nonmaleness. In my personal experience as a white male, there have been many of those. Also, my experience is that it is much easier to recognize those after they have happened than while they are happening, whilst the correlating positive cases of nonwhiteness and nonmaleness are easier to recognize while they are happening. And, in fact, it is fairly easy to ignore them altogether. Two people who have shared experiences that neither of them has ever thought about for a moment still share those experiences, however (this speaks further to the existence of the category).
  • Further on the existence of the category: If I (a white male) were presented with the hypothetical list of a thousand experiences of whiteness and maleness, I might very likely focus on the hundreds of those experiences I have not had. However, as I understand it, most people who do not belong in those categories are more liable to focus on those experiences on their own hypothetical lists that they have had. I have much the same instincts as a member of a religious minority. Thus, while whiteness and maleness are in some sense categories like nonwhiteness and nonmaleness, they are in another sense entirely different.
  • As those categories do exist, and, in fact, roughly correspond to actual things in an actual world with actual history, the sentence A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences will reach a better conclusion than a white male is significantly different than the sentence A wise white male with the richness of his experiences will reach a better conclusion than a Latina woman. The logical correspondence between them does not make them similar in content. It is possible that either statement could be uttered by a racist, but the utterance would mean something very different in either case.
  • The categories exist, and there are people in them. The statement is comparing the categories, not the people. This is problematic. However, the problematic nature of such a comparison does not mean it can't have more of a positive nature than a negative one. So there.
  • Within the context she originally was discussing, and within its context, we need to look at the overlaps of groups and categories. The question of the day is not whether a wise Latina woman will come to better conclusions than a white man, but whether a group of nine Justices that includes a wise Latina woman will come to better conclusions than a group of nine white male Justices. This seems to be obviously true, even if we assume the wisdom of the white male Justices in question. While there are limits to the practical possibility of racial and gender representation in a small group, and there are limits to its value even to the extent that it is practicable, there is a value in a diversity of experiences.
  • The general truth or applicability of this version of the statement should not be held to automatically mean that any specific Latina would bring greater marginal value to the Supreme Court than another specific white man, or than a white woman, or a South-Asian man, or any other combination of race and gender. The specifics of the individual are very important. However, the specifics of the individual would need to be argued as specifics. This does not invalidate the general statement in any way.

One of the things that I have experienced that is (as I understand it) common amongst minorities is the pressure to speak as a representative of a group, in addition to as an individual. I grew up with that experience without really understanding it: as a Jew, when I did something, it reflected on Jews everywhere, bringing shame or pride, or providing explanation or bafflement. I thought of it as a Jewish thing, to the extent I thought about it at all. It wasn't until I was an adult of sorts, in college, that I experienced pressure to represent the group of males or white people or even white males. I was baffled and angry about it, when it happened. Surely it was not only unfair but utterly preposterous to be tasked with that stuff. And it is, of course, although the unfairness and preposterousness felt very different than the (logically similar) unfairness and preposterousness of the previous experience. A bunch of Senators and commentators seem to be feeling baffled and angry by Judge Sotomayor, and her very interesting speech. Which, by the way, I would like to quote from a bit more to bring this note to a better conclusion:

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

I accept that, too, and I welcome it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 7, 2009

Spending More Time with your Attorney's Family

Your Humble Blogger lived in Massachusetts when William Weld resigned as Governor to pursue (but not catch) confirmation as Ambassador to Mexico. I lived there when the next governor, Paul Celucci, resigned to actually serve as Ambassador to Canada. During that time, I attempted to formulate a Theory of Political Resignation that went something like this: an elected official cannot ethically resign his post except to accept a higher office, or if earlier ethical lapses make resignation the lesser violation of the public trust.

This is actually fairly tricky. I mean, the obvious rule is that if you are elected to a term of office, you are obligated to fulfill that term. On the other hand, I think that it’s pretty widely understood that if, f’r’ex, a Senator is appointed to the Cabinet, that’s an opportunity and a responsibility that overrides that obligation. I think most voters understand that, and consider it reasonable.

It does leave open the question of what constitutes a higher office. This is where the Theory comes in. I think there are tiers in our national government that help to some extent but there are still substantial judgment calls to make. For instance, clearly the Presidency and the Supreme Court are the top tier; I would consider anyone under that level who resigns to take one of those jobs justified. The next rank down are Senator and Governor, and they seem to me to be more or less on the same level. Which makes it a judgment call: William Weld ran for Senator from the Governor’s office, and was willing to resign to take the other job. I might make the call the other way, but it’s not clearly wrong that way. Generally, because of the two-year terms, US Representatives aren’t faced with resigning their seats to take new jobs as Senators or Governors, but it can happen and that seems to be clearly OK. And, as well, a State Legislator of any kind resigning to take up a federal post seems reasonable. And there are others that are very vague: a Lieutenant Governor who becomes an Ambassador, a Judge who becomes a US Attorney or a State Attorney General, that sort of thing. Judgment calls.

And then there’s the question of whether it’s ethical to resign an elected office to run for a higher office. Bob Dole resigned his Senate seat when he was nominated as the Republican candidate for President in 1996; I don’t know that it wasn’t a violation of his promise to his constituents. On the other hand, both Barack Obama and John McCain effectively suspended their Senatorial work during their campaign. Was it less of an ethical breach to stay in the Senate but not work at the job, coming back to vote every three or four months? What about Christopher Dodd, who continued to work in the Senate but became essentially inaccessible to his constituents here in Connecticut, moving his family to Iowa in pursuit of a longshot primary campaign?

But those are not resignations, and I don’t know how much they help with a Theory of Political Resignations. A Resignation is a violation of the public trust on a different level. When Newt Gingrich resigned his House seat after winning re-election, because he was going to be ousted as Speaker of the House, that was astonishing to me. He just walked away from his job. And nobody seemed to mind.

Well, and now Sarah Palin seems to be walking away from her job. Those of us who dislike her (for whatever reasons) find her stated reasons incomprehensible and bizarre. Joshua Micah Marshall, over at TPM, says that the only conceivable explanations are scandal and insanity.

I get the sense, though, that those of my countrymen who admire Governor Palin think that she is, in fact, resigning to take up a higher office. That office is unelected and self-appointed, and is essentially Movement Conservative in Chief. Much of the tone, both hers and from the (admittedly very limited) supportive reaction is that actually governing a state is a crappy job that she just wound up in, and she would be crazy to stay in it when she has a chance to make a difference on the national stage.

And this is where my Theory of Political Resignation falls to the ground. Underlying the theory is an assumption that Governor, or State Senator, or Mayor, or Judge, are terrific jobs, even if they are crap to actually do, that they are respected positions and worthy of respect, and that people who run for those jobs and ask for our votes for those jobs and take oaths of office to serve in those jobs actually want to do those jobs.

I mean, yes, they are often stepping-stones to some other job, and I fully expect that my State Senator, for instance, will have an eye on congressional, but then, I have half an eye on another job at the library while being perfectly happy about my own job. I think you can be a very good State Senator, and fulfill all your obligations as State Senator, and respect the job of State Senator, and still intend to run for the first available place that’s higher up the ladder. And then you can feel good about having done a good job at that level, while still feeling it was a stepping-stone.

I’d like to think that this was a Republican Party problem, and in fact I do think that it is a Republican Party problem, of the generation that was told that bullshit about government being the problem (which was, for the Reagan/Bush/Dole generation, always bullshit to front the unpopular policy positions they held that required government assistance for industry) and somehow believed it. I think there are a lot of Republicans who run for office simply to keep Democrats out of office. Having accomplished that, I think some of them find themselves less than persuaded that they are doing valuable work by governing or legislating. Still, to the extent that it is a Republican Party problem, it’s obviously not a problem typical of the Party. Most Republican office-holders serve out their terms. Very few resign, and even fewer resign without some obvious reason. And I suspect that it’s a small subset of the Republican Party that does see Sarah Palin as having a legitimate, ethical, reasonable path to resignation with a year and a half left of her term. But perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

The point? I suppose I should get around to having a point. Hm. Oh, yes. The point is that I think that my Theory of Political Resignation is worth talking about, because if you run for office, you should have some idea of what your constituents expect of you, and your constituents should have some idea of what you expect of yourself. A question such as Under what circumstances would you consider it appropriate to resign the office you are seeking? may seem like a dumb one, but it’s only dumb if we’re all working with the same Theory, and the only way to know if that’s true is to argue about it a little.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 26, 2009

Betrayed! Betrayed by centrism! No Justice, no peace!

I feel as if I should post something about Judge Sotomayor; this used to be one of those pundit blogs that commented on politics all the time. And also because I remain ambivalent about Left Blogovia generally. On the one hand, there is a certain pride that my neighborhood tends to be both independent and rational. On the other, there’s a certain disappointment that we don’t immediately start hollering about betrayal and wishy-washy centrism.

Here’s the situation as I see it: The Big Blogs of Left Blogovia (let’s say Kos, TPM, Eschaton, for a Big Three) are viewed as pushing from the Left. From a strictly evidence-based point of view, this is preposterous, but that’s the Story, and that’s how it goes. If all three set up a howl immediately after the announcement that the Left had been abandoned by that moderate-in-sheep’s-clothing that we call Our Only President, and that he had passed over some handful of preposterous and underqualified socialists in order to appease the mushy middle, that would be a Story. And that’s a Story that the Press tends to eat right up. It would make it even more difficult for the Right to howl that Judge Sotomayor was an unreconstructed liberal activist, which for the sake of clarity I would like to point out she is not, by any evidence-based point of view, not that it matters. Well, it wouldn’t make it more difficult for the Right to howl that, but it would make that particular Story less appealing; the story that Our Only President has once again smoothly sailed between the hard place and the proverbial is a proven seller, and they surely do like proven sellers.

Instead, what to they do? They try to outline her positives and negatives, point out that she is extremely well-qualified by the criteria that have been in use recently, and declare themselves satisfied. And then MoveOn sends out an email passing along the White House’s talking points! I mean, really. These people seem more interested in honest discussion than in gaming the system to score political points.

And the thing is, I’m half serious. Well, not half. A third. A fifth. Something like that. Because, after all, the political points can (even if our Senators sometimes forget this) be cashed in for actual legislative achievements that make actual changes for actual people. Or to get some bottoms on the bench that will improve actual people’s actual lives.

Of course, if the Big Three (plus MoveOn, LGM, Pandagon, Crooks and Liars, ThinkProgress and a handful of others) were to take on the role of the talk radio conservatives, I for one would stop reading them. So there’s that.

As for me? Well, the Judge appears to be fully qualified, and although she is far from my ideal candidate, I would say she looks likely to be an improvement over Justice Souter, who was a pretty good Justice. The main drawback, as has been discussed, is what seems to be a tendency to defer to the executive branch and law enforcement, and a squishy view of freedom of speech. Still. Mainstream jurisprudence, solid on women’s rights and reasonable on labor, and of course personally inspiring. I’m afraid I support Our Only President in his wishy-washy moderation, here. But where’s the political capital in that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 30, 2009

Truth, Reconciliation, mob violence (choose two)

Just a quick note—as I was chatting with a twenty-one year old who isn’t particularly into politics and I said something that I realized was my own thought rather than being related from some other blog. So I thought I would expose that thought here for sharpening and whatnot, because, you know, it’s a blog.

Somebody had made a connection to this young person between the current situation in the US regarding torture (and also extraordinary rendition, and some other things) and the situation in South Africa in the 90s, after apartheid was overturned. So I said that part of the goal of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, there, was to prevent gangs of vigilantes dragging random white people into the streets and beating them to death. This was also true, to a greater or lesser extent, in some other places around the world in the last two decades that have had unpopular gangs of miscreants suddenly deposed after a long period of oppression. When somebody leveled an accusation of collaboration, there was no chance of a trial by an independent judiciary; angry mobs would tear people to bits, the innocent and the guilty together.

This was particularly dangerous in South Africa, where of course the Afrikaans and English were easily spotted because of that pink skin thing. And because the decades of misrule had left the economy of the place in a position where even wiping out the guilty (and there were a lot of guilty, depending on your definition of guilt) (and there were lots of good reasons for those angry mobs to have expansive definitions of guilt) would result in increased misery for everyone down the road.

Now, it seems to me, just my own perception of the universe informing me here, that the situation in the US is not like that. We have people in the government who committed crimes (note: I don’t say who have allegedly committed crimes because I am myself alleging it, rather than simply alluding to the allegations of others), and others who collaborated and others (I’m guessing) who have been accused of collaboration who are innocent. So far, we have not had a problem with gangs of vigilantes pulling former White House operatives into the street and beating them to death. Or beating them at all.

We don’t need Reconciliation. We have a working judiciary (OK, that’s a whole different argument, but let me maintain that for the purposes we are talking about here, our judiciary works reasonably well) and I can’t see any harm in beginning prosecutions. Sure, it makes some sense to keep an eye on things, and if it gets crazy, and people are finking on each other out of spite and malice rather than legal pressure, and if the masses are being whipped up into a dangerous mob ready to tear apart any judge who shows impartiality, pull the collaborators from their cells and hang them from the willow across the way, well, I suspect we can change our path before that happens.

In the meantime, the purpose of any commission looking into crimes of the last administration should be determining who committed crimes and prosecuting those people in a court of law. That’s it. That’s how the country works. Yes, there needs to be prosecutorial discretion, the purpose of which is to better prosecute people who have violated our laws. If the Congress is looking into having that prosecution coming from outside the Justice Department, well, there are arguments for that, although I ain’t persuaded at the moment.

The argument that we need to have reconciliation rather than prosecution, though, seems to assume that we were oppressed by tyrants and have been only shakily liberated, and that fending off civil war and civil violence is the top priority. That is not the case, thank the Divine. As furious as I still am that our Federal Executive was in the hands of a secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents for eight years, I remain on the whole glad that, for instance, Irv Libby wasn’t strung up from a lamppost.

Or am I way off on this Truth and Reconciliation Commission reference that I hear people making? Do they mean something else by it altogether?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 21, 2009

The biggest cup of tea in history

Your Humble Blogger has surprised himself by having something to say about the Tea Parties. I haven’t been writing about politics much lately, largely because after reading the political blogs that I read, I generally don’t feel I have anything to left to add. Oh, I disagree, now and then, but for some reason Left Blogovia hasn’t been provoking me to write my own shit lately. Probably a good thing, in general.

I do feel, though, that a lot of Left Blogovia has got hold of the wrong end of the Tea Party stick. It seems to me that the general feeling has been amused contempt, along with a certain glee that the Right (if that’s what they are) is no better at holding protest rallies than the Left (if that’s what they were), with perhaps a dash of resentment that the protests came off a lot better on TV than they ought to have.

Oh, right, and the dick jokes. I liked the dick jokes. Well, technically I suppose they were scrotum jokes, but I think they fall into the same category, right?

Anyway, much of Left Blogovia has portrayed these protests, scheduled for April Fifteenth, the day taxes are due, as tax protests, and then mocked the protesters for protesting tax hikes when most of them are presumably getting tax cuts this year. I mean, statistically, it seems likely. The other aspect that has been repeated endlessly is that Boston Tea Party was protesting Taxation without Representation, while these Tea Parties were protesting Taxation with Representation. Before I begin griping, let me acknowledge that from a political or persuasive point of view, that is a good response. It emphasizes two important points: (1) The Democratic Congress and President have cut taxes on almost all taxpayers, and (b) the Republicans are so unpopular (because of all their failures) that they lost the elections, and now the Democratic Congress and President are substantially more popular, because of their successes. So that’s fine. The portions of Left Blogovia that consider themselves to be rhetorical support for the Party, in much the same way as Talk Radio considers itself to be rhetorical support for the Other Party, are pushing that frame, and that’s a good thing.

Since this Tohu Bohu is a nice boutique blog, meaning that YHB has no wider political influence, I can go back and forth between pushing the frames I think are politically useful and actual rhetorical analysis. And it seems to me that if Left Blogovia really thinks that the Tea Partiers are, well, like their caricatures of them, then they don’t really get America and American politics.

Back, oh, a long time ago, when the trope in the public media was all about how the crazy fringe who opposed the invasion of Iraq were proved wrong by how easy and quick it had gone, YHB wrote a post about the various reasons various people opposed the war. And I put myself in the category that I thought was probably the largest, the Bush-haters. This was the group who felt that whatever else was going on, simply the fact that the invasion would be headed by that group of crooks and incompetents was enough to be against it. I felt at the time, and still feel, that it was a perfectly reasonable position.

So a lot of the anti-war rallies and protests wound up muddling their messages, largely (looking back) because a fair amount of the Bush-haters felt that it was perfectly reasonable to bring up the fact that the administration were a bunch of crooks and incompetents, along with various other historical grievances. And the people who didn’t share those grievances were, unsurprisingly, not persuaded by giant puppets of Uncle Sam blowing the House of Saud. Just as tying a bunch of teabags to a tricorne hat didn’t strike Left Blogovia as particularly persuasive.

I’m getting to a point, now. In case you were wondering.

Here it is: A temporary and moderate tax cut or tax raise is irrelevant to people who think that the Federal Government as grown far outside its proper bounds. In fact, by fulfilling his campaign promise to cut taxes on 95% of the people who pay taxes while increasing the scope of the Federal Government to deal with our economic problems, Our Only President has set up enormous pressure to raise taxes (or at least revenues) when the immediate economic crisis is over in a few years (touch wood). If you feel very strongly that America pays too much in taxes and that our Federal Government is far too active in our economic life, now would be an excellent time to protest. And if your examples of why the Federal Government intrudes too much in our economic life are restrictions on firearms and a lack of restrictions on abortion, showing that They Cannot Be Trusted, then those would make excellent topics for signs.

Not persuasive signs, I’ll admit. But I can see why somebody would think they ought to be persuasive, just as I can see why somebody thinks the giant Uncle Sam puppet ought to be persuasive. And some of the stuff (like the NAFTA Superhighway and the re-education camps and the gummint going into people’s houses to take their guns and the one-world-currency and weather control) really isn’t happening, which, you know, makes the people at the protest look bad. There’s some of that, too, at the protests on the Left, although I have to say not as much. Or, rather, I would say not as much based on incredibly biased and limited reports of the protests, which isn’t fair, either.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 15, 2009

Only One Man can save us now

Your Humble Blogger was just asked, by a recorded message over the telephone, whether “marriage between only one man and one woman should be legal in the state of Connecticut”. I froze. I mean, I would be against making marriage between only one man and one woman illegal. That seems harsh. On the other hand, since the National Organization for Marriage, which paid for the robocall, would probably represent all the yes responses as being from people who oppose gay marriage, it would be bad to inflate that number. But then, responding yes would clearly label me as a moron, right? And it’s possible, just, that the yes responses would be used as some sort of they want to ban heterosexual marriage strawman, and I don't want to contribute to that, either, do I?

After a few seconds of silent panicking, I heard the machine say that the survey would terminate if they didn't hear yes, no, or repeat, so I stayed silent and let the thing sign off.

I remain a bit perplexed, though. I mean, assuming that the writer and the voice actor meant to ask whether I thought that only marriage between one man and one woman should be legal, how did they screw up the sentence? It’s not like the other way reads better, in fact, it was so obviously screwed-up that my response was to the screwed-up word order, rather than to the content of the question. Or, perhaps, I’m still a stickler, underneath. Which should still be legal, in the state of Connecticut.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-V.

February 5, 2009

Where are they?

So, look. I don’t get macroeconomics, and for all I bleat about it, I can’t say I really get national politics, either. But where are the Governors? Here in the Nutmeg State, the Land of Steady Habits, our illustrious Governor has come out with a brutal budget, and the towns are coming out with brutal budgets as well, because it’s a brutal time. And as a brutal time, brutal budgets are going to feel particularly brutal—Left Blogovia has been hocking about public transportation cuts just at the time when people can’t afford alternatives. My own home town is considering (or talking about considering) cutting back to half-day kindergarten, purely as a cost-cutting measure, which of course will add day care costs onto the burden many of us are sweating.

Meanwhile, our Federal Legislators are considering a stimulus bill that started moderately large and is being whittled down—and much of the whittling is being whittled out of aid to State and Municipal budgets. And where are the Governors? And the big-city Mayors? Why aren’t they on television Sunday morning and on my radio in the afternoon saying We’re doomed! Doooooooomed!

OK, my own Governor is a Republican, and presumably has little interest in getting this recovery bill passed. But there are lots of Democratic governors, aren’t there? And Mayors? Who can talk about the libraries they will have to close, the roads that they won’t be able to resurface, the kindergarten schedule they will cut, the bus stops that won’t have buses, the homeless shelters, the help lines that will go to answering machines, the DMV offices that will cut hours or staff, the job agencies that will be laying off staff, all of that stuff, particularly on the kind of street level thing that people don’t think about.

To take me and my town, off the top of my head, in addition to this kindergarten business, there’s the project to replace the traffic lights with some sort of futuristic LED or something that will cut the electricity budget by twenty thousand dollars a year or something, but the money has to be put out up front, and this isn’t the time. There are the swimming pools; I expect the hours for those will be cut, or the season, or both, and the fees will go up, almost certainly past the point we are willing to pay for a season pass. We already have surprisingly few field trips in the schools, we may have fewer next year, despite being located near the state Capitol, an Opera House, a good symphony, an excellent regional theater, the Mark Twain House, the Noah Webster House, and the Wadsworth Atheneum. All of which (including the Capitol, viewed as a historical/cultural destination) will undoubtedly be tightening their budgets for next year. The branch libraries will be closed on Sundays this summer, I expect, so we will have to find some other sort of activity. Free activity. The Elmwood Center will have, at a guess, fewer classes, and more expensive ones; my Perfect Non-Reader may not get to the Cheerleader Day Camp she wants this summer. Parking will get more expensive, as will, probably, permits of various kinds; if we had budgeted to get the work done on the house this summer, we would have to rebudget, I suspect. The bus system, already terrible. The budget for detailing police to help with traffic problems, conceivably; that could get ugly. The general budget for police, particularly for traffic calming but also for general patrolwork.

And I live in an affluent suburb.

Yes, we screwed up by not investing as heavily as we might have done when the money was good, but I think our situation is fairly typical. And our town can appeal to the State for help, but the State is broke. And both the town and the State are prevented, structurally, from borrowing heavily either to spur economic activity or to alleviate its citizens misery. Which leaves the Feds.

So, if I were managing the passage of this package through the Senate, I would have every Governor I could get onto as many screens and speakers as possible, talking about how this and that could be done, if only the bastards on the Hill would get off their asses and vote.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 3, 2009

Outliers and typicals, in Congress

T’other day, Atrios linked to the Wikipedia list of current Senators by seniority, and I was surprised by the list. Before I link to it myself, so you are guessing and not skipping ahead to find the link and check, how many current Senators would you guess have been serving for two full terms? How many for three? How many for more than three?

OK, here’s the list. Two terms would be the ones elected in 1996 and taking office in 1997, eight of them, to add to the 39 with greater seniority making 47 with at least two full terms. Less than half. Three terms would be the class of 1990, right? None of them are left, but Sen. Akaka was appointed just before that election (and re-elected in that election), and he is twenty-sixth in seniority. Just over a quarter.

That surprised me. Half the Senate is in their first or second term and another quarter in their third; it’s more complicated than that due to partial terms and all, but still. Looking at the remaining quarter, many of them were elected in the eighties, people like Harry Reid and John McCain (in their fourth terms) and Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd (in his fifth term). Carl Levin, Thad Cochran and Max Baucus just started their sixth terms, joining Dick Lugar and Pat Leahy. And Daniel Inouye is in his eighth term, Ted Kennedy is in his ninth (with the first a partial), and Robert Byrd is in his ninth full term.

What I’m seeing is that most Senators serve one, two or three terms, and that there are a few more who serve a bit longer, and then there are a small number who sit for more than thirty years , and a very small number who sit for fucking ever. Because of the seniority rules and norms of the Senate, the quarter who are around for longer than the others accumulate more power and prominence, so I hear a lot more about those guys, and then my image of "a Senator" becomes somebody who has been there for thirty years. That’s not the typical Senator, although it’s the typical committee chair.

That made me think about term limits in a different way. I’m still against them as basically anti-democratic, but if the point of limiting service to, say, three terms is not to limit the power of incumbency to win election but to limit the power of those outliers like Dick Lugar and Carl Levin, it makes more sense. Sure, those Senators’ constituents are happy with them, but it looks, on the face of it, as if it’s likely to be detrimental to the Senate as a whole to have those atypical Senators gather all the power in their hands. Of course, a much better solution would be to modify the seniority rules. But since the rules are largely in the hands of those outliers, it could certainly be awkward.

In the House, the situation looks much the same, except perhaps more so. Half have been in for less than ten years; three-quarters less than eighteen years. An eighth for twenty years or so, and only 25 got to the House in 1980 or before. Those 25 outliers, though, include 10 of the 21 committee chairs. The seniority system isn’t as powerful in the House, but still, it’s not only that a group of six percent of the house has half the chairs—after all, only 21 people can be committee chairs, so that will be five percent anyway—it’s that the group of six percent are obvious outliers.

And one of the effects is that group of outliers comes to seem less like outliers and more like the typical case.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 29, 2009

Buy Partisan

So a quick question about politics. It seemed likely to me that all the Republicans in the House were going to vote against our stimulus package, and that’s what happened. Given that we have a President who both campaigned on avoiding partisan politics and appeared to take seriously the idea of sitting down and talking with the other Party, any support from that Party would be viewed as proof of Our Only President’s post-partisan credentials. Although it might have been in the interests of one or two Republican Representatives to cross the lines and burnish their own post-partisan credentials, the discipline of that Party over the last fifteen years or so works against that, both in providing examples of the hammer coming down on such ‘moderates’ and in replacing such Representatives, either with Republicans who disdain bipartisanship and therefore gain nothing by engaging in it, or with Democrats. What’s left of the Republican Party in the House isn’t as vulnerable to such temptations, and then the Party did their job of whipping the vote into shape. I don’t blame them for that, except of course that as far as actual governing goes, it stinks.

But as we so often observe about politics here in this Tohu Bohu, there’s what happens, and then there’s the story of what happens. So what’s the story here?

There are two obvious and competing storylines, it seems to me. One is that Our Only President, for all his post-partisan rhetoric, when the rubber hits the road is the same old partisan politician doing the same old partisan things. The other is that Our Only President put this and that into the package and took this and that out of the package, all in negotiation across the aisle, but when the rubber hit road, the Republicans turned their backs on the whole thing.

So here’s a question to Gentle Readers all. Which story about what happened are you hearing? I don’t mean what actually happened, which is (surprise!) more complicated than that. And I don’t really mean which story are the specific outlets reporting, as some are reporting one and some the other, just as you would expect, and the some are having people on to argue it back and forth, just as you would expect. I will say that the cable news people are pretty obviously going with the one that’s good for Republicans, but again, that’s what you would expect. No, what I’m interested in is, as far as you can tell from the general zeitgeist, which story is becoming the story? Have you heard actual humans talk about it without being paid to do so? If so, have they settled on a story?

The power of rhetoric is, at heart, the power to tell the story of what happened, often before it happens. If Our Only President loses this one, it’s a bad sign.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 20, 2009

Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep No More

One of these days, about twelve o'clock/this old world is gonna rock.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 19, 2009

Martin, Barack and Josiah

To celebrate the combination of Martin Luther King day and the Day Before, here's a quote from the Reverend Doctor M.L.K., Jr., from a speech on April 10, 1957 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Oh, this is a period for leaders. Leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity. Leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause.
Oh, Gd give us leaders. A time like this demands
great leaders.
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy
Leaders who possess opinions and will
Leaders who will not lie
Leaders who can stand before a demagogue
and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking.
Tall leaders, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
in public duty and in private thinking.

And this is the need, my friends, of the hour. This is the need all over the nation. In every community there is a dire need for leaders who will lead the people, who stand today amid the wilderness toward the promised land of freedom and justice. God grant that ministers, and lay leaders, and civic leaders, and businessmen, and professional people all over the nation will rise up and use the talent and the finances that God has given them, and lead the people on toward the promised land of freedom with rational, calm, nonviolent means. This is the great challenge of the hour.

And if we will do this, my friends, we will be able to speed up the coming of this new order, which is destined to come. This new world in which men will be able to live together as brothers. This new world in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. This new world, which men will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks. Yes, this new world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. This new world in which men will learn the old principle of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They will hear once more the voice of Jesus crying out through the generations saying, “Love everybody.” This is that world. Then right here in America we will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the Pilgrims pride,
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring.

The quoted poem is Josiah Gilbert Holland's “Wanted”; fairly freely paraphrased. I suspect that Mr. Holland would be somewhat surprised to have found his words in Rev. King's mouth, and in my mind not only today, but tomorrow, when another tall man, sun-crowned, answers our desperate need for leaders, and tells us again that this is that world.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 15, 2009

Trivia Question, complete with (probably correct) answer

So there’s been a bit of a blogsnit about Justice Alito skipping lunch with Our Incoming President. It’s true that snubbing the President-Elect because he voted against your confirmation whilst in the Senate seems petty and small. And if it’s true that there’s a Supreme Court Justice who will not walk one the same side of the street as the Senate Office Building, it calls into question his ability to interpret the Constitution.

But it is an awkward thing, when you think about it. And I did think about it, and I wondered—when was the last time a President came into office while there was a sitting Supreme Court Justice against whose confirmation he had voted? Clearly, it must have been a while. It’s hard to compare Justice Alito’s behavior against the last person in his position, when that last person is… well, neither Our Nearly-Erstwhile President nor his father served in the Senate, nor did the sandwiched Man from Hope. Nor Reagan, nor Jimmy Carter, nor Gerald Ford. Richard Nixon did, but somehow I hadn’t realized that he served only two years; he did not vote on any of Harry Truman’s appointments. Which means that we would have to go back to Lyndon Johnson, who voted for Potter Stewart and John Harlan, as did John Kennedy; the others during that time were all voice votes. Truman’s entire Senate career was under FDR, so I assume he wouldn’t have voted against those nominees.

In fact, unless I miss my guess, the previous Supreme Court Justice (before Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito) to greet as new President a man who voted in a roll call against his confirmation in the Senate would be Louis Brandeis and Warren Harding. Then-Sen. Harding definitely voted against confirming Mr. Brandeis in 1916. I don’t see any other possibilities in the last ninety-two years.

The President before Warren Harding to have sat in the Senate was Benjamin Harrison, who presumably would have voted against Grover Cleveland’s nominees in 1888, but he was out of the Senate as of March 1887. As an extra bonus there, Benjamin Harrison would have sat in the Senate alongside Lucius Lamar (1877 to 1885).

Andrew Johnson would be before that, and the nomination of Nathan Clifford in January 1858. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the 19th-Century Justices refused to meet with the Presidents from the other Party, particularly if the Justice was pro-slavery, the vote before the Civil War, and the post-Civil War President was, you know, Andrew Johnson. Actually, I’m not absolutely certain that Andrew Johnson voted against Nathan Clifford’s confirmation. He was representing Tennessee in the U.S. Senate in January 1858 as a Democrat, but he was a War Democrat; Then-Pres. Buchanan was a Democrat, but a doughface. The vote was 26-23. But I haven’t been able to find out who voted which way, and there were 66 seats, so a fair number of people didn’t vote at all. And there were 20 Republicans, who may have all voted against the pro-Slavery Democrat, or perhaps some of them didn’t vote, but at least one Anti-Slavery Democrat must have voted against his party, but was it Andrew Johnson? Gentle Readers with access to the Congressional Record from 1858 should let me know.

It doesn’t look as if James Buchanan voted against any Supreme Court candidates that were confirmed, although I don’t really know anything about his relationship with the rest of his Party in the Andrew Jackson/Martin Van Buren years. Similarly, Franklin Pierce would presumably have voted with his Party, so it looks like His Accidency John Tyler would have been the previous nay-voter to meet a Justice as President, presumably Roger Taney in 1836—wait, no, John Tyler had resigned his Senate seat on February 29, and the vote on Roger Taney was on March 15. And the earlier ones were voice votes or losers.

So. Trivia question: How many times has a Supreme Court Justice served with a President who voted against his confirmation whilst in the Senate? Answer: Once definitely, maybe twice. And twice more on Tuesday. Unless, of course, I've screwed up my research.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Cabinet Work

I was asked a while ago what I thought of Barack Obama’s designated Cabinet. As I’ve been the one hocking about the importance of a President being surrounded by good people rather than by a secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents, I suppose it’s a reasonable thing to expect me to pass judgment on this crew. So. Here we are, and I am indebted again the the CQ cabinet watch for the list and certain insights. I’m going alphabetically, and shallowly. Remember, these are the initial reactions of a blogger who has not been paying close attention recently.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack There seem to be two reasonable reactions to this choice. First is to point out that only Nixon could go to China, and that perhaps only Tom Vilsack can battle King Corn. The other reaction is Yyyyyyiccch. I lean to the second. CQ had not put the Governor on their short list; Our Incoming President could, it seems, have done worse.

Attorney General Eric Holder I don’t have much feeling about Mr. Holder, who seems qualified. He doesn’t seem to be a crusader, but there’s no obvious evidence that he is an incompetent or a crook.

Secretary of Commerce Bill Richardson, of course, was Our Incoming President’s choice, and although I yield to no-one in my admiration and fondness for Gov. Richardson, that appears to be because there’s no need to yield. Not really a traffic jam at the intersection of fondness and admiration in Bill Richardson Square, is there? It’s still possible that Austin Goolsbee will slip into the Cabinet here, and I would just like to point out that (a) I once attempted to rhyme Austin Goolsbee’s name in a song, and (2) I’m fairly sure that in four years on the APDA circuit together, we never once were placed in the same round.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Meh. I see the point of it, of course, and I should probably point out that Secretary Gates is not, by all available evidence, a member of the s.c. of c.&i., but I have to say I would have preferred somebody else there. It is my hope that after overseeing a withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, handing over the permanent military installations to the Iraqis and pigs flying in formation around HappyLand’s Cloud Palace, Secretary Gates retires to spend more time writing his bitter, rueful memoirs.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan The advantage of a hoops-buddy of OIP being given charge of education is that it is likely that issues at the department will be brought to his attention with some frequency. On the other hand, I don’t see that Mr. Duncan will have much clout. On the other other hand, I’d just as soon see federal interference in local school retreat for a little while, other than just handing over great big overflowing buckets of money. We still do that, right?

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu The only question I have is whether Mr. Chu will have the political chops to get things done. I’ve never heard anything bad about the man, and symbolically speaking it’s a wonderful choice, but not only is the Secretary of Energy going to be busier than a one-legged man in a four year ass-kicking contest, the Secretary of Energy is going to be in an ass-kicking contest over the next four years, and I just hope he’s got good shoes. And two legs.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Daschle I don’t much like Tom Daschle, but certainly OIP signals with this appointment that he is serious about reforming the way we pay for health insurance and health care. A strong choice, and that’s a good thing, and a choice that shows (unsurprisingly) a respect for legislation and legislators and the legislative process, which may work well since whatever happens will have to get through the Congress.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano Meh, Meh. I’m not convinced that her heart is in the right place. In my secret heart of hearts, I cherish the delusion that OIP will abolish the DHS, which was a terrible idea and should be recognized as a panicky power-grab with disastrous consequences. Admittedly, there’s never been any inkling whatsoever that OIP recognizes that, and this choice fits into the mainstream of thought on the topic, rather than my own comfy fringe.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan I’m a big believer in the federal role in Housing and in Urban Development, so there’s a sense in which I’d love to have seen him give the thing to Barney Frank, along with enough real power and money to tempt him to take it, but as that was just never going to happen, I don’t mind giving it to a successful bureaucrat with an architecture degree. I haven’t seen Big Ideas about Housing from OIP, but then I haven’t been looking.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar The worst thing about Sen. Salazar is that he was part of the Gang of Fourteen Assholes. That’s bad enough.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis She’s a fine symbolic choice, and I don’t have any question about her being good in the position, neither a crook nor an incompetent. On the other hand, I’d love to see somebody with serious clout in this position, somebody who knows where the bodies are buried, someone like Dick Gephardt. On the other other hand, the problem with picking people with clout is that it prevents fine symbolic choices who are also perfectly good picks.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton This choice of course has expanded to fill all available conversational space, and I don’t really have anything to add to what’s been said. I still don’t understand why she wants to do this job, but good luck to her.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood Another symbolic appointment, and although I would love love love to see somebody truly powerful and connected here, I am reasonable. It’s not a bad choice, all things considered, although part of the symbolism is that OIP doesn’t think the Department of Transportation is at all important. Sigh.

Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner No surprises here. Nothing particular to say, except that it is unfair the extent to which I suspect that he will turn out to be both a crook and an incompetent. No basis for it, other than the whole Kissinger and Associates, IMF, Citigroup stuff. Which ain’t beans. In fact, you know how four years ago, I said that one way to distinguish between candidates for the nomination was to ask yourself which ones would nominate a Jack Snow? Tim Geithner strikes me as Jack Snow. I hope I’m wrong.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki Knockout choice. Talk about an ass-kicker. This choice (and Gen. Shinseki’s agreement to it) showed OIP’s imagination, persuasiveness and smarts. The question of course is whether those things will do much good, but it’s still kinda nice to see them.

Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Lisa P. Jackson Jersey in the House? Say Yo! Seriously, what they hell is with EPA and New Jersey? And is it clear that serious Environmental Policy (that is, everything relating to climate change) (that is, everything) is not going to be in her hands?

Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag In case it hasn’t been absolutely clear, this is yet another signal that OIP wants to work with the legislature, and with people who work with the legislature. That’s a good thing. And this guy seems honest enough, for an economist.

Trade Representative Ron Kirk Hey, he’s the black Jack Snow! No, that’s totally unfair, but seriously, this is not a guy I want to be in the room when the economic policies get made. Not a crook, not an incompetent, he’s a pro-business Democrat who lobbies for energy companies. Again, I hope I’m wrong about this guy.

Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice Seems fine. Not a crook, not an incompetent, and (importantly) not a loose cannon. I’d rather have a negotiator (since the Secretary of State will not be one), but that’s my preference, not OIP’s.

Director of National Drug Control Policy Did you know the Drug Czar gets to be in the Cabinet? That’s just crazy.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel Never say anything bad about Rahm Emanuel.

Vice President Joe Biden Nine months ago, I didn’t like Joe Biden; he was one of the guys way down low on my list of Good Democratic Senators. And I’m still cross about the Bankruptcy Bill. But he’s grown on me, and I like the idea of him sitting in on important policy meetings.

So. To sum up. I’m not knocked out by most of the choices. He’s put his most powerful people in Health, State, Defense and Agriculture. I’m focused on Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. That doesn’t mean that nothing will get done in those areas; remember that Our Erstwhile President chose Rod Paige as Secretary of Education and pushed through a huge (and devastating) change in our elementary education system.

By the way, when CQ went and gathered short lists of three for each of seventeen chairs, they wound up including the eventual choice in only seven of those lists. What that says to me is that either Congressional Quarterly are totally out of touch (which is possible, but not terribly likely) or that Barack Obama made up his appointments with an eye toward something different than the CQ informers were thinking. I suspect that much of the difference in thinking was that Barack Obama is unusually focused on making a cabinet that he believes will work well with the Congress, specifically with the Senate.

On the other hand, there are people who could well come out of the Cabinet and run for Governor or Senator (I’m thinking Hilda Solis, Shaun Donovan, Arne Duncan, Lisa Jackson, even Steven Chu) if there’s an opening there. It’s not a group of elder statesmen or ivory tower academics and authors. And certainly I don’t think that he’s gathering a secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents. It’s a perfectly reasonable Cabinet for a man who has been positioning himself as a perfectly reasonable President. Can he achieve greatness by making that greatness seem perfectly reasonable?

… we’ll see, won’t we? But I don’t think anybody’s ever gone broke through overestimating Barack Obama.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 25, 2008

Please join me in this humble rant

About a week ago, in a restless night of troubled sleep, I had a dream that I’d like to tell you about. Comfy?

In this dream, Francis Heaney was upset because he kept being quoted in magazine articles and on blogs as an example of a liberal who was disillusioned with Barack Obama because the Cabinet was shaping up as moderate-bipartisan. I was trying to reassure him and his Brooklyn hipster friends that it was perfectly okay that the mainstream press was erroneously reporting that Left Blogovia was bitter at Barack Obama’s sensible moderate stances, because it made Our Next President’s progressive policies appear to be moderate, and thus more likely to become the actual policies of the actual government.

The conversation didn’t go well. Mostly, Francis was on about how he knew that President-Elect Obama was putting together a pretty good cabinet, and hadn’t betrayed the Left at all, and was just upset at being misquoted, or having his words twisted anyway, which made him look like an idiot. He was focused on the dishonesty of it, and how he was being portrayed as wild-eyed and ignorant, and he didn’t see why all of that was perfectly all right because it had some theoretical marginal modicum of rhetorical use for the Party. Meanwhile, one of his hipster friends was arguing that Barack Obama really had abandoned the progressive netroots, and that she really was upset about it, and that my point about how Left Blogovia wasn’t really upset was totally wrong, and also my point about how it would help get progressive policies in place was totally wrong, because the appointments showed that Our Next President wasn’t really interested in progressive policies. And I kept trying to make my point to each of them, or rather to both of them, which wasn’t working, because when I made a particularly good point about the Cabinet’s progressive cred, Francis dismissed it, saying he knew all of that and it didn’t mean that the press should lie about him, and when I made a particularly good point about how even if it sucked for him it built up this useful-but-phony idea of Left Blogovia for the White House-to-come to triangulate against, his hipster friend objected to being called phony and argued against the progressive cred of the appointees.

I should probably add that Francis was wearing a dark blue suit, or maybe a silk shirt in a solid dark blue; something totally outside his rather famous fashion sense, anyway. And his friend was a young woman with short brown hair and no visible tattoos or piercings, making her equally improbable as a Brooklyn hipster, I suppose. It was a dream, you know? And I don’t think I’ve seen Francis face-to-face in twenty years.

Anyway, over the last couple of days, in real life, I’ve been musing about this idea, which is that Left Blogovia, if we really want to help Barack Obama enact progressive policies whilst looking like a centrist, has to do its part by screaming and yelling about how we’ve been betrayed, and how all of our people are getting shafted, and where are the progressives in the cabinet? The problem with all of that is that much of Left Blogovia is made up of people who are neither incredibly stupid nor aggressively dishonest. I’m not saying they’re a race of philosopher-kings, but frankly, I think the idea of working the ref seems a little distasteful to most of them. They pride themselves on knowledge and insight. Like Francis (in my dream), they would rather not look like idiots, and frankly none of them seem to have the kind of identification with the Party or loyalty to it to take one for the team. Nor is that sort of thing shown itself to be an effective way of getting or keeping a Left Blogovian readership. I mean, yes, you can attract readers with blistering (or snarky) attacks on the DNC or Hillary Clinton or Harry Reid, but (a) attacks on Barack Obama from the left haven’t been a real advantage so far, and (2) stupid made-up craziness hasn’t been a real advantage so far.

So there’s kind of a strategic problem, I’m thinking. And then Barack Obama invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Now there really is something for Left Blogovia to get outraged about. No dishonesty needs to be involved, nor do we have to pretend that something is important when it isn’t important. Yes, this invitation is of only symbolic importance, but it is of major symbolic importance, and some of the folks in Left Blogovia are particularly good at expressing the ways that symbols (like who is asked to speak for the country at what times) have real consequences in the lives of real people. And others are just really good at sifting through the record to find abhorrent comments by people who like to make abhorrent comments. And others who are just really good at snark. Well done, Barack Obama! You successfully pissed off Left Blogovia, realio trulio pissed ’em off! Well done, you big jerk!

Er, except, oh shit, it doesn’t work if I say well done. And really, it only works if we really do express our anger—and please understand that I really am angry about this, and for all of that dream conversation I sure wish he hadn’t invited that man to speak at our inauguration. The man has said horrible things about some of my favorite people in the world, and deliberately intended to deprive my countrymen (and incidentally, my friends) of their rights. He has made bizarre, violent and seemingly ignorant comments about our foreign relations. He has lied, again and again, about matters of public policy. He has supported intolerance and hate. He is bad, bad, bad, and I am seriously outraged that he will be representing America at the inauguration of Our Next President, and that the aforesaid inauguration will happen under his benefice.

Now, you knew all that stuff, Gentle Reader, I’m sure. But here’s my point: you should be saying it. If this is a careful political maneuver by Barack Obama, it works only if the people who are outraged by it on the Left say so, get out of the chat rooms and into the streets, and make it clear that Barack Obama is far, far, far from the Left on many important issues we hold dear. If it is not a careful political maneuver, but a careless misjudgment of Rick Warren, it is even more important that those of us who are outraged declare our outrage, and do so in the strongest terms we can.

My feeling, particularly between the triumph in November and the Inauguration in January, is that on the whole we should give Our Incoming President the benefit of the doubt. We should remember that he has many constituencies to negotiate, and has to actually govern as effectively as possible, which means compromise. I try to remember that he is a very smart man, who again and again during the campaign did or said things (or chose not to do or say things) against all the advice that I was muttering at my screen, and again and again his campaign succeeded. I think we should keep hope alive, not only for the future America and the future world that we want to see, but for the success of this incredibly important man at an incredibly important moment.

Sometimes, though, that hope and that benefit should not translate into shrugging our shoulders at the most perplexing and infuriating decisions. Sometimes we need to rant and rave, not despite that hope, but because of that hope. The election is over, but our democracy is not; we voted (we all voted, didn’t we?) and some of us donated and made calls and marched and put up signs and registered voters, and our work is still not done. Nor, please the Divine, will it ever be done. And it seems to me that our work today, and over the next three weeks, has to include a large amount of ranting about Rick Warren.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 17, 2008

Shoe shoe shoe, baby, don't cry baby

Your Humble Blogger is hoping to get a couple more Book Reports done, and we are within inches of having a full set of Cabinet Nominees for me to appreciate, but none of that is going to get a note written tonight. Sorry, Gents. This week’s notes were far too long, and now I can’t get back in the typing mood. Plus, there is much to do around here away from the keyboard. So.

So. I’ll just mention, that if anybody had told me, oh, eight years ago, that the fellow who was going to be Our Only President for the next two terms—two terms!—would be in a country we had invaded and occupied, and some crazed local journalist would fling his shoes at the President of the United States in anger and contempt, and that much of the world would (a) react with sympathy for the shoe-flinger, and (2) immediately believe the unconfirmed and biased report that the shoe-flinger had been severely beaten in prison after being dragged away, well… I didn’t like the guy, and I remember thinking that he would be a lousy President, but that it probably wouldn’t be all that bad, certainly not worse than Ronald Reagan.

And if you told me that not only would our standing around the world be so low, but that a good portion (possibly most) of the population of this country would react with sympathy and would believe that report… and that I would react that way as well…

Look, he’s the President of the United States, and as I’ve been saying, he’s the only one we’ve got (for a while yet, anyway). I should take the insult to the President at least somewhat as an insult to this nation (which it was), and should bridle at the idea that people should fling shoes at the President. And I do bridle at it. Don’t fling shoes at the President, people! Just don’t do it! No more!

Whew. I managed to work myself up to it. It wasn’t easy, though.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 11, 2008

Corruption, infamy and shame

Your Humble Blogger is probably on record somewhere around here as not being particularly concerned about corruption in my government officials. I mean, I don’t like it, but I am willing to accept a certain level of it, if the officials are also doing their jobs. The image of Mayor Curley, f’r’ex, sitting in the front parlor of the house in Jamaica Plains (built with kickbacks and ’donated’ labor and outright bribes) taking a line of petitioners and promising them government jobs in return for votes—well, it ain’t quite James Madison, but the subway got extended. How many times have I told my African Dictators joke?

Anyway, most corruption is a matter of scale, as far as I’m concerned. Favors, gifts, jobs for nephews, fund-raising, arranging a meeting, dropping hints about future private-sector positions. Your Humble Blogger is happy to wink an eye at that at one level, but when it gets up into the five or six digits, or seven, or eight, that’s a different matter altogether. If I hadn’t disliked Diane Wilkerson (unfairly, but if she had done a damn thing about flood abatement in the Fenway when I lived there, I might have cared if I was being unfair), I would have pointed out that she only took as much cash as she could stuff into her bra. Yes, put her in cuffs, but seriously, that’s the level of skimming (and meddling in who gets what liquor licenses) that doesn’t really change much in the big picture.

Selling a Senate seat? A trifle different.

You know, when Joshua Micah Marshall mused about a State Corruption Contest, allowing his reader to point out that the final three are undoubtedly Alaska, Illinois and Louisiana, he immediately got gazillions of emails from people outraged that their own states (Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Arizona) were deserving of that final cut. And my thought, as a Nutmegger, was that thank goodness all we had was our last Governor having served a short prison term and he’s now out. Well, and the Senate Minority Leader asking the mob to beat up his granddaughter’s boyfriend. And the mayor of Hartford having his countertops done by the company that was supposed to be paving Park Street, which company never quite got around to sending him all those invoices (or pulling permits, for that matter). And the same for some of the Hartford city council. And the mayor of our biggest city being a cokehead. And the previous one getting convicted on 16 federal racketeering charges. Oh, and I forgot about the current Governor’s chief of staff who claimed not to have read the memo that banned leaning on public officials to lean on their staffs to attend fund-raisers, and then it turned out that she had written that memo. Oh, and the thing where a staff attorney for the State Ethics Commission forged a letter of complaint against the last Governor’s political enemy. But nothing really serious.

So now I’m wondering—do y’all think there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of corruption scandals in the last twenty years? Or is it the Recency Illusion, and most of this sort of thing gets forgotten very quickly? Or have our standards for corruption become stiffer, so that the sort of thing that would never have made the papers a generation or two ago now are prosecuted in court?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 18, 2008

Here's a chair, there's the door

Some Gentle Readers will be aware that YHB lives in the Elm State, and thus is represented in the United States Senate by the interesting Chris Dodd and the …even more interesting… Joe Lieberman. OK, he’s an asshole. Not Senator Dodd. The other one. You know, the one that couldn’t win his primary as an incumbent.

Well, and it seems as if my Party has decided to make him chair of the Homeland Security Committee, because he was already there, and it would be a lot of work to put somebody else in charge. Or something. Because he is the best possible person to head up a Senate Committee on Homeland Security. Because he has shown terrific judgment on all those issues. No, wait, he hasn’t shown good judgment. And he’s an asshole.

I know some GRs think of me as a process-obsessed old centrist party hack because I occasionally break into singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” and am all in favor of letting the Senate be the Senate. But seriously, it’s people like me, who call themselves Democrats and want to be part of our Party that should be the most outraged by this. Here I am, trying to convince y’all that there is value to thinking of yourself as part of a Party, as part of a Party that stands for something and has a history and is on the right side of policy questions. And then you get to put that shit-eating grin on your face and ask me is that the party that put Joe Lieberman in charge of Homeland Security and left him there? And I have to admit that yes, it is.

Of course this is obnoxious because after all he is in the Senate because he ran against the Democratic Party and its choice. Then he chose to support the person who ran against the Democratic Party and its choice for President. And in doing so, he not only supported that candidate but other people who were running against Democratic Party candidates for other office. And did so while, as Colin McEnroe puts it, acting like a snake. For all of those reasons, our Party should have repudiated him and taken away his toys purely as a punitive measure.

Aside from the whole election campaign, though, the man has shown shockingly bad judgment on Homeland Security issues for years and years. He has consistently backed terrible laws; he has supported the worst excesses of Our Only President and his secretive cadre of crooks and incompetents; he has shown in the committee, on the floor, on television and on the stump that his ideas about Homeland Security are not just opposed to the Party Platform (which, again, he has repudiated in the context of the campaign) but utterly without merit of any kind. And then on top of that to support John McCain for President on the grounds that his Homeland Security policies and abilities were superior to those of Barack Obama… well, I just can’t imagine defending my Party giving him that chairmanship.

If we were to put him in charge of Labor or the Environment or even Health policy, it would be bad for Party discipline and seem to work against the idea that our Party does stand for anything or take its platform seriously. But it could be defended. Not as a really good choice, but as a practical political matter, claiming that the benefits of perceived magnanimity and bipartisanship outweigh the costs of perceived weakness and lack of principle. After all, it is true that John McCain and Joe Lieberman have between them cornered the market on bipartisanship to the extent that anything the two of them support is bipartisan within the common cultural conversation, and anything the two do not support is partisan, whether either have support from other members of the two parties or for that matter support from anyone else in the country. Let alone whether they might be good policies. It’s astonishing, but it’s true, and we go to govern with the Sunday public affairs television we have, not the Sunday public affairs television we want.

But Homeland Security? The only conceivable way to make this anything but an utter disgrace and disaster would be if President-Elect Obama and Senator Reid have a secret plan to abolish the grotesque mistake that is the Department of Homeland Security altogether, taking its tasks to the appropriate departments of the Cabinet and the appropriate Committees of the Senate, leaving Sen. Lieberman in the Chair of a worthless toothless and newsless void of a Homeland Security Committee, with the utmost personal humiliation involved in the timing and passage of the change.

No, that’s not going to happen. But I can dream, can’t I?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 10, 2008

Staying at home, baking cookies and getting a Masters

OK, I’m just saying. There’s a lot of talk about how Michelle Obama is a professional, with an advanced degree, just like Hillary Rodham Clinton was, and that there are lots of dangers for a First Lady who is a professional with an advanced degree. With “an impressive professional background”. While Our Lame Duck First Lady was only, you know, a librarian.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 6, 2008

I suppose I could have called this one Ever Forward as well

In among the various things that happened in that election thingie earlier in the week, our Question One, proposing to hold a state constitutional convention, went down to crushing defeat. I mean, crushing. 59%-41%, at latest count. Whew.

For me, the key thing is that this means we will continue to have every state law undergo legislative deliberation (being not hasty in judgment), rather than having a dozen initiatives on the ballot every November. I loathe initiatives. Have I mentioned that? I love representative democracy. And I loathe initiatives. Do you want to see our sample ballot? Two questions, and then I just fill in the little oval next to the people with a D by their names, and I’m done. Of course, it’s more work for those people with a D by their names, when they get to the State Senate or the Assembly, which is why I vote for them.

Anyway, for y’all who don’t vote in Connecticut, the thing that seems newsworthy, but that I haven’t seen talked about quite so much, is that this convention was the only chance that anti-marriage activists had to prevent homosexual marriage from becoming legal in Connecticut. And it failed. And from the limited amount I could tell, the question failed largely because people did not want the anti-marriage activists from potentially taking over such a convention. So this was a tremendous success for marriage, not only legally but socially. We win.

And when I say marriage, of course, I don’t just mean my marriage, which is doing quite well, thank you very much. I mean the right of couples to marry, whether they have two, one or zero penes between them. Or how often. I’m sorry that in California, the county clerks will have to keep checking the pants of people who want marriage licenses. The passage of the California penile code is a serious matter, and I feel terrible for those married couples who have the wrong number and will have to whip it out in court, or whatever will happen to them.

Why not come to Connecticut? We have three more seasons than you do, and you will be able to cross the state border in at least one direction without giving up any rights. I have to put in my pitch for the Elm State over the Bay State, because we are, um, well, look, one of their Democratic Senators has severe brain damage, while one of ours, oh right. OK, how about this: when our sports teams suck eggs, we get rid of ’em. That’s right, none of this waiting for eighty years and then being insufferable about it. We gave our National League team two years, and the second year we made them play their home games in Brooklyn. And the Whalers, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 5, 2008

Ever Forward

I would like to write a note about the experience of voting, of watching the news about the voting, about watching the returns, about waking up this morning to the news. About seeing the hand-lettered Yes We Did sign while I was driving home from dropping off my Best Reader at work. But the thing is, I keep bursting into tears. It’s not a very dignified way to blog.

A couple of days ago, I watched one of those videos, those little YouTube movies where people sing and play instruments and we can watch intercut shots of celebrities, news images and unknown photogenic people, and it was really, really moving. And I thought that one of the things that this election would be about, culturally, is whether people who looked at that video saw America. That is, whether people saw a fat bald black guy with ptosis, and said, that guy is an American. The guy with dreads. The old white woman with the butch haircut. The black woman with the funky haircut and the ripped Black Sabbath T-shirt. The Asian woman. The hulking young black guy in the Texas sweatshirt. The English rock star who wears sunglasses inside. The little white kid with the snow shovel. The slightly effeminate Jewish Hollywood actor. The old black woman with the flag over her head. The old black guy in the uniform. The hostile-looking Latina. Those mobs at the rallies. The immigrant families in those old photos. That kid holding the We are America sign. Martin Luther King, Junior.

Some of us who look at that video and said this is who we are, this is us. And, I’m afraid, some of us look at that video and see outsiders, troublemakers and aliens. Some of us couldn’t look at the two candidates and think that one is like me, and that one isn’t. But it turns out that a lot of us, an awful lot of us, can look at them and think that one is like me, and that one… that one is also like me.

Over at TAPPED, Adam Serwern writes that We’re All Americans Now. I think that’s why I keep crying. We really are all Americans now. Two hundred and eleven years ago, our forefathers, and I mean all our forefathers, even those of us who aren’t in any way descended from any of them, brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And it seems that every generation or so, we make this nation new again, a new birth of freedom. We are all Americans, now. All those people in the video, Barack Obama and John McCain, Abraham Lincoln and Reverend King, Your Humble Blogger and that kid with the sign.

Today, every American citizen and millions of people who aren’t American citizens now, and maybe never will be, can look at Barack Obama, and look at the people who filled Grant Park, and the ones who danced outside the White House, and the ones who were booing in the Biltmore, and we can say this is all America. All of it. There isn’t any need to shut anyone out. This is our home. It’s our country. And when I say Yes, we can, what I mean is this:

We’re Americans. We can do anything.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 3, 2008

Tomorrow, and the next day

Your Humble Blogger is trying not to get too obsessed with tomorrow’s election. I like elections, but there is the danger that the election becomes the graven idol of democracy, if you know what I mean. So I thought I would just write a little note pointing out that we have, in the United States, accomplished an enormous amount already, and will need to accomplish a lot more after Wednesday, no matter who takes office in January.

I do wish that the tremendous popular movement and organization that Barack Obama and his associates had gathered were focused slightly less on his election and his person, and a little more on potential policy outcomes. If we elect Barack Obama and don’t push for a sane health care and health insurance industry, it won’t happen. If we elect sixty Democratic Senators, and don’t push for a sane foreign policy, a sane relationship between our nation and the rest of the world, particularly the countries who (to quote Sen. McCain), don’t like us very much, it won’t happen. If we elect three hundred Democratic Congressmen, and we don’t push for sane and urgent action on climate change, our atmosphere and our oceans, our energy needs and our energy habits, it won’t happen.

But if we do push for those things, they might. And we have institutions, now, that will allow us to push together. We have symbols, now, to guide us together. We have the rituals, now, that will keep us together. And we have the values, now, expressed for us, to us, and with us, that have brought us together and will bind us together.

So when you go out tomorrow to vote, Gentle Reader, or if you have already voted or even if you aren’t a citizen of our United States and can’t vote, enjoy the election, the marvel that is a nation coming together to put a group of people out of power without having to shoot them. Elections are marvelous miracles, and we should enjoy them. But they aren’t the work of democracy. Wednesday, and Thursday, and December and January and February, and every day is the work of making ourselves a free, self-governing nation, a steward of the world (who isn’t?) and a good and fitting home of the brave.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 31, 2008

Predictions! Distractions! Ablutions!

Your Humble Blogger came across Focus on the Family’s Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America (pdf you betcha) and meant to bring it to Gentle Readers as a sort of Hallowe’en spooky scary scarespook frightener. The Dr. Dobson’s gang created “a picture of the changes that are likely or at least very possible if Senator Obama is elected and the far-Left segments of the Democratic Party gain control of the White House, the Congress, and perhaps then the Supreme Court.” The Supreme Court is particularly important, as in the scenario not only do Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Paul Stevens resign almost immediately, but Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia are also replaced by October 2009. Yes, ten months, four Justices. At least very possible.

And then the crazy really starts.

But the thing is, being a terrible blogger and all, YHB read the thing and then went and washed the dishes and drew moons for the Youngest Member and in the hour since I read it, I’ve gone from wanting to snark my heart out (you will notice that Focus on the Family approves of the idea that religiously affiliated adoption agencies should close down rather than place children with same-sex parents, and then whines about secular agencies not placing children with bigots and zealots) (OK, I can’t resist one more snark—during the four years of a foreseen Barack Obama adminstration, Russia invades and occupies the Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria) to having a moderately serious point, albeit one I am repeating from four years ago.

So. This projection includes terrorist attacks on four American cities, killing hundreds of people. Hundreds! OK, enough with the snark. I suspect that we’re going to have the usual round of people who are appalled, appalled, by the idea that someone would have the temerity to suggest that the likelihood of terrorist attacks is dependent somewhat on who is President. This man Round would like it on record that he Objects.

Look. If you really think, if your best judgment and all the information you have, leads you to believe that a terrorist attack (or a Russian invasion of Poland) is more likely under one candidate than another, then of course you should say so. We should be talking about that sort of thing as an important part of the election.

Let’s get logical for a minute. Begin with the fact that we have been spending a lot of money and a lot of effort on preventing terrorism. We have been taking our shoes off at airports, we’ve been opening bags and going through scanners. We’ve turned over library records and store receipts and phone logs. We have put up with prison camps, torture and surveillance. Most of these things are under the direct control of the President of the United States, and most of the rest are under the indirect authority. There are, as I see it, four possibilities. First, there’s the possibility that all of those things we’ve been doing to fight terrorism have had no effect whatsoever and will have no effect in the future, because it doesn’t matter who is President. Second, there’s the possibility that Sen. McCain will institute policies that will be more effective than Sen. Obama. Third, the other way around. Fourth, that the danger of terrorism in the US is so low, in the scheme of things, that even though the chances of hundreds of people being killed would be greater under one candidate than the other, the change is insignificant when compared to the effects of different policies on health care, the economy generally, foreign policy, the environment and preparation for natural disasters.

OK, there’s another possibility that just occurred to me, and that’s the judgment that although it does make a difference who is President, these two candidates have policies on terrorism that are so nearly identical that the choice has little effect on the future in that respect. That may even be true, this time. Certainly the candidates have spent very little time (that I’ve noticed, and I do tend to notice this stuff) detailing the differences in their policies, or claiming that their policies would be more effective than their opponents.

And why is this? Well, can you imagine Jim Lehrer asking Do you think the odds of a terrorist attack would be greater under you or your opponent? No. It didn’t happen, and YHB can’t imagine the outcry if it did happen. Why not?

YHB takes the position number four up there, the one that says that terrorism isn’t really that big a deal, and shouldn’t dictate our policies. I have felt for the last seven years or so that I am way out on the fringe on that one. Am I wrong? Do people agree with me? Why? And if they do, why don’t we stop turning over our records and torturing people and taking off our shoes?

As crazy as the letter from 2012 is, and it is very crazy indeed, the part that doesn’t seem crazy is that Dr. Dobson is saying what he thinks about the danger of terrorism. Or, of course, he’s pretending to believe that crap, but that would be false witness.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 30, 2008

Proposition Null

Your Humble Blogger is big on representative democracy. Y’all know that, right? It won’t be a surprise to Gentle Readers to hear that the initiative process gets right up YHB’s nose. I mean, seriously. Not just on high-minded principle, although of course I’m right on the high-minded principle, but on the pain-in-the-ass criteria as well. Unless it’s a high-minded principle that I should be able to vote without bringing in a sample ballot fully marked out so there’s some chance of getting through it in five minutes or less.

Anyway. Here in Connecticut, the land of the elm and the home of the whatsit, we do not have initiatives, because we elect legislators to, you know, legislate. That’s their job. At least I assume that’s the whole point. Anyway, there is here as everywhere a big chunk of people who want to write laws but don’t want to get them actually passed by a deliberative legislature. So.

In Connecticut, for good and sufficient reasons, we poll every couple of decades to see if we want to hold a Convention at which all limits are off, and everything is up for grabs. It’s on the ballot this time around, and it looks like it may pass, and largely because people want to amend the state constitution to allow for initiatives.

Do y’all remember how I occasionally defend the ad hominem argument? That is, sometimes it’s a good idea to take into account not just what the argument is, but who is making it. The people pushing this Constitutional Convention are a coalition of (a) initiative fanatics, (2) social conservatives, and (iii) tax crazies. If it would be a good idea in the abstract to have a constitutional convention to deliberate amendments, it would not be a good idea to let these three groups into that convention. And they would be in that convention. I don’t think, in the end, we would amend the constitution to ban homosexual marriage and curtail abortion rights, but it would be on the agenda, and it might well pass. And the initiative probably would pass, and the tax crazies might just get us our own Prop 13.

So, if any of y’all vote in the Elm State, please vote no on 1.

The Voter Information Guide for the state of California is 144 pages. The State of Connecticut has a ballot question guide that lists every ballot question in every town in the state and it’s only six pages long. In San Francisco, there are the 12 state propositions and 22 local propositions.

And if you like, here’s my idea for a poster. Here’s the sample ballot for San Francisco: a vote for yes on 1. Here’s the sample ballot for Hartford, a vote for no on 1. I know, it’s trying to persuade on the pain-in-the-ass side, not the “bypass […] legislative scrutiny ” side (to quote from the League of Women Voters of Connecticut), but it might just point out the consequences of the vote.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 19, 2008

Unreal

With apologies to Adlai Stevenson, it may be true that all real americans will vote for Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin, but thankfully, he still needs a majority.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 16, 2008

Ooh, it burns me up

Well, and since watching that last debate (which was not a pleasant experience, although occasionally opening the laptop and checking the baseball score improved it a lot), I have been ruminating about persona and Presidential politics.

People (including YHB) have roundly mocked the idea of voting for the candidate you would like to have a beer with. And that’s a Good Thing; once the idea got out into the big old marketplace of ideas, it deserved to be mocked. But after watching the debate last night, it occurred to me that if a pollster asked me which candidate I would rather have a beer with, I might well take that as a sort of shorthand or signifier, or perhaps more accurately as a euphemism for which candidate I find least annoying.

I was thinking, again, about this idea I’ve been hocking about all summer, that there are a variety of audiences for political television, debates and conventions and speeches and such. There’s a sense in which the key audience for a debate is the undecided voter; most truly undecided voters will not watch the whole debate, but will catch bits and pieces of it through broadcast news and entertainment shows over the next few days. I should add this time the possibility that an undecided voter will catch bits of it on YouTube or other on-line sources; I think the number of people who (a) are undecided as of three weeks before the election, (2) are going to bother to watch YouTube clips, and (iii) will bother to vote is pretty small, but anyway. But we’ll include them in with those undecided voters who may be swayed by the debates.

I was trying to imagine what it’s like to be part of that group. They don’t find politics entertaining; if they found it entertaining, they would almost certainly have decided by now, and if not, they would have found so much other information that the debates would be the least of it. They do find it important, because they do vote. So I’m guessing that they find all discussion of politics unpleasant, in a range from annoying to disgusting. They watch the evening news or the Today Show, and when something comes up about politics, they grimace and shrug and roll their eyes. Now, that’s going to be at its worst during the campaign season, when there are going to be lots of clips and sound bites and whatnot, but throughout the next four years, one of these guys is going to be President, and that means that one of those guys is going to be on the TV every few days with a sound bite or photo op.

So on one level, if that was who I was, I would be inclined to vote for the guy I found the least annoying. The guy I wouldn’t mind (as much) seeing on the TV two or three times a week. The guy I wouldn’t mind (as much) having a beer with, if it came to that.

Now, as I say, I think that it’s important to mock that idea, because I think that it’s important that people do feel a little guilty that they don’t put a little mental elbow grease into their own governance. And to some extent, the guy who is the most annoying is likely to be annoying because he’s short, or he has a funny accent, or his face is annoyingly expressive, or he repeats himself a lot, or he’s from a different ethnicity, or he’s a woman. And that’s bad for democracy and bad for the government. But often the guy who is the most annoying is annoying because he is stubborn, or he seems indecisive, or he doesn’t listen to the moderator, or he keeps blathering on about stupid things, or he is contemptuous of women, or he dismisses as unimportant the things that really make a difference in the life of the undecided fellow. And those things can be a reasonable heuristic for the same things that high-information voters (such as YHB) base their highly informed judgements on. I mean, not to be all Blinky, but people really do have remarkable capacity for making snap judgments, at least to the point that those snap judgments are often the same as the highly-informed judgments that they come to after getting all that information.

On the other hand, Al Gore really was annoying. So was Our Only President, of course, but I could very easily imagine somebody just dreading the idea of having Al Gore on the television three or four times a week, totally unrelated to any policies or capabilities. And John McCain is annoying, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 7, 2008

Incorrect Reporting of the Process, probably right about the sleaze, though

Can I get this off my chest? It’s all over now, and there’s no particular point to whining about it, but you know how all the news articles said that in order to get the Seven Hundred Billion Dollars through the Senate, they had to add A Zillion Dollars in Sweeteners? That’s a lie. Or it’s as close to a lie as dammit, so in effect, it’s a lie.

And an obvious lie. I mean, aside from everything else, it isn’t even plausible that anybody came up with all the pork-barrel crap in that bill between the House vote and the Senate vote. Seriously, is it within the realm of imagination that a tax break for children’s wooden arrows was negotiated with the Senators from Oregon and inserted into the bill in order to get their votes? And if it was, why did they only get one Senator to vote yes? Was the other Senator holding out for another ten bucks an arrow?

No, look. What happened was this: it is blatantly unconstitutional for the Senate to pass a financial rescue plan that hasn’t already passed the House. All money bills must start in the House. That’s the rule. But the House wouldn’t pass it, and the Senate would. So they cheated.

They took the hundred billion dollars in tax breaks that they already had sitting there and stapled the seven hundred billion dollars onto the back of it, and pretended that it meant that it wasn’t a new bill at all, just a little change in the old one. That’s pretty sleazy. And of course as a result instead of the tax break stuff getting passed on its own, or getting rejected, it was held hostage to the so-called rescue plan (one of those interesting grammatical structures in that it wasn’t a rescue, and it wasn’t a plan, but it sure was a rescue plan) so that anybody who wanted to vote for the pork-barrel stuff had to vote for the plan, and veezy verzy. That’s pretty sleazy, too. And yes, the Senate did just happen to have sitting around a bill for hundred billion dollars in tax breaks for exporters of wooden arrows for toy bows and other worthwhile causes, just in case some controversial bill or other needed to be attached to something nice and porky. That’s pretty sleazy as well. But it’s how the Senate works, and none of it’s a particular surprise.

And I’d also like to say this: if this business of “larding up” the seven hundred billion dollar pork roast is that contemptible, surely the two groups who escape such contempt are (a) Representatives who voted for the bill without the added lard, and (2) Representatives who voted against the bill with the added lard. In other words, there are about twenty people who could seriously be identified as having voted to pass the bill because of the sweeteners. They mostly belong to one political Party, I can’t remember its name, something associated with unpopularity and failure, though.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 6, 2008

Three-Card Monte, or, Musical Chairs

Gentle Readers have undoubtedly been waiting for me to blather on again about the candidates for President and the people with whom they surround themselves. What? No? Where’d everybody go?

Perhaps y’all are headed over to Congressional Quarterly’s site, where you can play with their Cabinet Maker. The link there is to the Republican version, which is the one I found really interesting. After all, Barack Obama is running as a Democrat; for all his post-partisan rhetoric, all the stars and hacks of the Democratic Party are available to him. Not so the Maverick. One consequent of actually betraying your party over and over again is that somehow the bench of people on your side gets mighty thin. And then there’s the fact that Our Only President has surrounded himself with a secretive cabal of incompetents and crooks, and that he and the Republicans in the Legislature are so tremendously unpopular because of all their failures. Anybody he picks from that crowd is tainted with the stink of mixed metaphor failure and unpopularity. And yet, who else is there?

So when the CQ reporters cadged together a Top Three for each seat, for five out of the 14 seats they had to include the current occupant in their list. Now that’s change we can believe in.

And can we talk a little about the fact that James Woolsey is on their Top Three for both Secretary of State and Secretary of Energy? No? How about that James Woolsey is clearly the best of the three for State? Seriously, the other two are Joe Lieberman (Asshole-CT) and, believe it or not, John D. Negroponte. Negroponte, Woolsey, Lieberman. Can somebody ask John McCain to comment on that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.


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