Wednesday, November 28, 2012

why Mitt Romney lost

A very telling op-ed here from Romney's chief campaign guru on the kind of moral victories Romney won. The piece begins with a bunch of tired campaign rhetoric you should probably skip: "from a small field in blah blah grew into A NATIONAL MOVEMENT..." Yawn. Later in the piece, Romney "captured the imagination of millions of Americans," whatever that even means. I guess Mitt Romney is Steven Spielberg or something.

What's helpful about it, though, are the things Stevens considers the campaign's great victories. First:

When much of what passes for a political intelligentsia these days predicted that the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan meant certain death on the third rail of Medicare and Social Security, Mitt Romney brought the fight to the Democrats and made the rational, persuasive case for entitlement reform that conservatives have so desperately needed. The nation listened, thought about it — and on Election Day, Mitt Romney carried seniors by a wide margin.
The only people who matter for "entitlements" are seniors? Then the much bigger tell:
On Nov. 6, Mitt Romney carried the majority of every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income. That means he carried the majority of middle-class voters. While John McCain lost white voters under 30 by 10 points, Romney won those voters by seven points, a 17-point shift.
 Those who make less than $50k/year aren't middle class, apparently. That should come as news to a tremendous number of people in that bracket. Also, it turns out that voters under 30 aren't important, just white voters under 30. I don't think I've ever heard anyone separate out the white youngsters from the rest, and that tells us something about how these people think. Who would even think to go there?

That's how the rest of the piece goes, finding different ways to say "black, black, black." "Angry bitterness." Barack Obama turned the Democratic party's "dependence on minority voters" into an advantage. "Charismatic African American." "A media that often felt morally conflicted about being critical."

I'm actually with Stevens in that I think rumors of the Republican Party's demise are greatly exaggerated. They lost by around 4 points with a strong incumbent and a weak challenger. They'll be fine. Nevertheless, how does one look at the subtext of this op-ed and not see that racism was a common thread binding most of the rhetoric of this campaign?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

the split decision

Remember how people were dreading a so-called "split decision" in the presidential election, whereby Mitt Romney loses the electoral college but wins the popular vote, as happened to Al Gore in 2000?

It actually did happen this year, just not to Mitt Romney. In the 2012 elections for the House of Representatives, Democrats received about half a million more votes than Republicans, but because of extensive Republican gerrymandering in 2010, Speaker Boehner still enjoys a roughly 30 seat majority.

30 seats, by the way, is not rough parity. That's a sizable majority by historical standards, bigger than any Newt Gingrich ever enjoyed during the halcyon days of the Contract with America.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Republicans are not one immigration bill away from winning the Hispanic vote

In the aftermath of President Obama's re-election, a lot has been made of the fact that not only did the Republican candidate receive a lower percentage of the African American, Asian, and Hispanic votes than they've gotten in a very long time, but that those margins appear to have been decisive. People are saying that the Republican party needs to moderate on immigration, and then it will suddenly be an attractive competitor for Hispanic votes.

On Up with Chris Hayes today, though, Hayes makes an important point: Hispanics have always been a Democratic constituency. George W. Bush secured 40% of the Hispanic vote, but that was the high water mark for the Republicans. Furthermore, exit polls show that on issue after issue, Hispanics are more liberal, not more conservative, than the country at large. People talk about Hispanics (and sometimes even African Americans) like they're a conservative demographic that just doesn't feel welcome in the GOP, but that isn't really the case.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

the big day 2012

EDIT (11/5/12): At this point, the day before election day, the polls have moved slightly in Obama's favor, to the point where he's much more likely to win the popular vote, if only barely. I'm now thinking it's going to be a rough tie, probably with Obama edging Romney by perhaps a point. Maybe I'm just falling for the groupthink, I dunno. In any case, none of the big aggregator guys think he'll lose it, and like I said, for me evidence trumps gut.

I did one of these in 2008, so I thought I throw up another "signs to watch for when watching election night" post now that we're in the last week and a half, far too late for any significant poll movement. A couple of notes about this election:

Currently all but one of the big-time poll aggregrator peeps are projecting an Obama re-election, but a squeaker. In fact, there's a significant chance of the Democrats getting karmic payback for 2000, with Romney losing the electoral college, but winning the popular vote thanks to ridiculous margins in the South, where he is on average the 22 point favorite.

In a perhaps correlated note, this is predicted to be the most racially polarized election since 1988.

For my part, I'm struggling between anecdote and data. Every indication I see in daily life, on Facebook, looking at individual polls, etc., shows Romney ahead. Everyone who does the math, however, seems pretty confident that President Obama has the edge. In the end, I'm going with the evidence and against my gut, predicting that Obama will indeed win re-election. That being said, I also think Romney will win the popular vote by about a point. As with the rest of our nation's history, the South will have to be dragged into modernity kicking and screaming.

Still, I'm very discouraged by the way this election turned out. The last thing our country needs is a super-close, racially polarized election centered around the first African American president. No matter what happens, the result will foster long-term resentment within a major demographic of the populace for years to come. Sadder still is the fact that, despite all the whining about how terrible the candidates are, this year both the Democrat and the Republican tickets are better than average. President Obama can boast a list of achievements in one term that most presidents this side of Lyndon Johnson would envy, and Mitt Romney, as cynical and plutocratic as he is, is the best candidate the Republicans have nominated in 16 years at least, and perhaps longer. Both are intelligent, accomplished, pragmatic, and make serious efforts to work with the other side of the aisle.

Since I always say elections are no fun if you don't take a crack at predicting them, I'm predicting 271 EV for Obama to 267 for Romney, with Romney winning the entire south, including VA and FL, along with IA, CO, and NH. It's pessimistic compared to, say, Nate Silver's odds, and Silver's odds are pessimistic compared to most others, but I think white independents are going to break strongly for Romney, putting him over the top in the old Confederacy and in states without a lot of minority voters.

All this being said, remember: they're not saying Obama is going to win. They're saying he has around an 80% chance of winning. I'm going to roll this die, and I'm telling you chances are it's going to come up somewhere between 2 and 6. But I could roll a 1!

EDIT (11/5/12): If you're interested, Ezra Klein has pulled together a great roundup of all of the final predictions of the various big-name poll watchers. Apparently I am pessimistic; the only person matching my prediction is NYT professional conservative Ross Douthat. This will also give you a sense of how little Jim Kramer is taking this seriously (not a bad idea, honestly), and what a nutball Dick Morris has become.

Here's what specifically to watch for on Election Night:

6:00pm ET: Polls close in the eastern time sections of Indiana and Kentucky. There is no chance of Obama repeating his 2008 miracle in the Hoosier State, but my old congressman, Joe Donnelly, amazingly has even odds of beating Jim "God intended for that to happen" Mourdock for the open Senate seat once held by Dick Lugar before he got teabagged. I'm not normally sanguine about Democratic prospects in Indiana, but Donnelly outperforms the polls every time he runs for office, and the latest polls show him up slightly. I don't know what kind of mojo he uses, but it works.

If Lugar had not been primaried, Donnelly would never have had a prayer. If he wins, he should send Michele Bachmann a box of chocolates. Like Tea Party primaries, you never know what you're going to get.

7:00pm ET: Polls close in a slew of southern states, including most of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, and also in Vermont. Virginia is the one to watch here, as I don't think the networks will be allowed to project the winner of Florida until the panhandle polls close an hour later. If President Obama carries Virginia, it becomes very difficult for Romney to pull off the upset. Still certainly possible, but it makes both Ohio and Florida must-wins for him.

There's also a very close Senate election in Virginia between Tim Kaine and George "Macaca" Allen. Yeah, I know, they're considering voting for that guy. Kaine has the slightest of leads, but it's so close it's really a tie. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) are expected to win easily.

7:30pm ET (aka "The Big One"): Polls close in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. As Tim Russert famously said, "Ohio, Ohio, Ohio." There's about a 50-50 chance of Ohio deciding the presidential race, and it's almost certain to if Mitt Romney carries Florida, as is expected. If Barack Obama wins Ohio (where's he's currently up by 2.2%) and carries all of the states where his current margins are higher than that, he'll get his 270 electoral votes.

It's somewhat possible for Obama to win North Carolina again, but it's unlikely enough (Romney +3 in the current Nate Silver aggregate) that we're into "systemic pro-Romney poll bias" territory. That's unlikely indeed. It also means Obama supporters can start celebrating, because there's no way the president carries NC without racking up 270 on the way there.

In the Senate, Sheldon Brown (D-OH) holds a slim but consistent lead, and Joe Manchin (D-WV) is a lock for re-election.

8:00pm ET (aka "Le Deluge"): Polls close in Alabama, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, the Florida Panhandle, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, eastern Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas outside of El Paso. Unless things went horribly wrong for Romney along the way, this should be the first point in the night where Obama starts raking in the EVs. If the Republican party is still winless in the Senate at 7:59, it's almost certain that Harry Reid will remain Senate Majority Leader for the next two years.

This is the first point where there is a realistic chance of either Obama or Romney gaining an insurmountable numerical advantage, and you probably don't need me to tell you which state can deliver it. If one candidate wins both OH and FL -- either candidate -- it's time to pop either the champagne or the Wild Turkey; this baby's over. If the president carries Florida, it becomes all but impossible for Romney to catch him, even if Romney wins all of the other typical battleground states. It will require an upset in Wisconsin for Romney to get back in the game.

Pennsylvania is the other big battleground, but Obama's lead there is pretty solid. If he loses the Keystone State, it's definitely over, but frankly if it's this bad, we will almost assuredly have already gotten an Ohio-sized hint to that effect.

The president has a slight lead in New Hampshire, but it's wildly unpredictable and very, very white. Expect an upset here.

Senate-wise, this hour will feature several unopposed Republicans and a bunch of Democratic blowouts. It also features a couple of races were supposed to be close, but the Republican candidate faded down the stretch, including Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren now appears poised to unseat Scott Brown, and Missouri, where Claire McCaskill has a pretty safe lead on Todd "legitimate rape" Akin.

If Donnelly has already won in Indiana, at this point the night will feature two separate Senate races the Republicans should have won, but lost due to rape-related adlibbing by teabagger candidates. That may be especially relevant when we learn the final tally in the Senate.

Pay attention also to a close contest in CT, where Democrat Chris Murphy has a tiny lead on Linda McMahon of WWE fame.

8:30pm ET: Polls close in Arkansas. You won't notice; everyone will be talking about Florida.

9:00pm ET: Polls close in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, the rest of Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, the rest of South Dakota, the rest of Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Colorado is a true swing state this year, and it's anybody's guess who'll win it. Wisconsin is the one place Romney has a shot at stealing a normally reliable blue state. If Romney lost Ohio, Wisconsin is one of his last avenues to the White House. If he lost Florida, it is his last avenue.

There's also a scad of close Senate races at this hour, in Arizona, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Fisher in Nebraska is one of only two Republican Senate candidates currently leading in an opposed race. She's leading the execrable Bob Kerrey, so as long as it doesn't cost the Democrats the chamber, I'm happy to give that one to the GOP.

10:00pm ET: Polls close in Iowa, part of North Dakota, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, part of Oregon, and Utah. Iowa and Nevada are up in the air, but both lean very slightly Obama (+2 and +2.8, respectively). They have the same number of EVs, and they are the final significant states of the 2012 presidential election. In all likelihood, Obama will need one of them to win re-election.

There are also two knife's-edge Senate races here, in Montana and Nevada. Jon Tester (D-MT) is ever so slightly ahead; Shelley Berkeley in Nevada is ever so slightly behind. If Democrats won all the Dem-leaning contests up to this point, they'll control the Senate next session no matter what happens at 10pm. If they win all the toss-ups including these two, they could control as many as 57 seats.

11:00pm ET: Polls close in California, the rest of Idaho, western Oregon, Washington, and Hawai'i. There won't be any surprises here. If the Obama campaign took care of business in the rest of the country, he'll be declared the winner right at 11. If he didn't, we'll already be watching his concession speech by this point.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

conservatives are weird

Supposedly the conservative media circuit is going absolutely gaga over this video as the big "game changer" they've been looking for. I don't get it. I tried to guess from the Youtube comments, but I can't make out any point underneath the cesspool of generalized obscenity. Something about Obama being a racist because he magnifies his African American accent when talking to African Americans and gave a shout-out to Reverend Wright in 2007.

People can be really, really stupid.

Today is the first day of "Obamacare" for the hospital system

Ezra's on the case:
There are two big parts of the health reform law going into effect today. One penalizes hospitals if patients are re-admitted to the hospital within one month of a visit for a condition that should have been dealt with on the first trip. The other seeks to redistribute higher Medicare payments to the hospitals that are delivering better care.
 He goes a little deeper into the weeds in his post. For my part, I've always been skeptical of models that target low performing organizations and cut their funding, whether in terms of hospitals or schools. If the organization is suffering from some problem that inhibits the quality of their output, whether bad management or perverse incentives or incompetent personnel, isn't cutting their funding only going to make things worse?

Nevertheless, speaking of perverse incentives, putting hospitals on the hook for delivering bad care is a great idea. I would have preferred a system that spends a little more money and audits the hospital in an effort to pinpoint the problem, but the ACA is about broad directions more than perfect solutions.

The perfect is the enemy of the less bad

Conor Friedersdorf and some Facebook political identity test have set off a conversation in the last week or two about whether liberals should vote for Obama. Drone warfare is traumatizing the citizens of Afghanistan something awful, and as we have discussed here before, Obama has been surprisingly bad on civil liberties, chasing down whistleblowers to a degree unmatched even by the Bush Administration.

Still, I have a few thoughts about this sentiment:

1. First of all, just to get it out there, Conor Friedersdorf is not a liberal; he's a right-leaning centrist with libertarian sentiments. Thus, there is an element of concern trolling going on here. Friedersdorf doesn't approve of much anything the president has done, including all the stuff liberals are (or should be) gaga over, so of course he doesn't plan to vote for Obama!

2. Conor Friedersdorf is not only not a liberal, but if I recall correctly he's also too young to have been suckered into this line of thinking in 2000. I wasn't too young, and I and many other idealistic rubes cast votes for Ralph Nader, which as we all now know turned out really to have been a vote for George W. Bush.

Sure, if you had told me at the time this would be the result, I might not have cared. After all, what does it matter which Republicrat gets into the White House, right? Except, as Kevin Drum points out today and which I've argued with others about since that fateful year, even if you make the worst possible assumptions about an Al Gore Administration, there would be one indisputable difference between it and what really happened: we would never have gone to war in Iraq. The Iraq War was a project of Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives, one which there was no reason for Gore to have any investment in. That's hundreds of billions of dollars, 4000-ish American troops, and Lord knows how many civilian lives that would have been saved had a few hundred Nader voters in Florida and/or New Hampshire voted more realistically.

I want to emphasize here, again, that we didn't know George W. Bush was going to be the disaster he turned out to be. He ran as a borderline isolationist, saying in one debate that he didn't believe the US should be in the business of "nation-building." He was an unremarkable governor, not good but not particularly bad, either, aside from his zeal in signing death warrants. He talked up a big game about "compassionate conservatism," about reaching out to Democrats. By all appearances in November 2000, a Bush Administration really wouldn't be all that different from an Al Gore Administration. 

Fast forward to 2008. I knew some LGBT and ally voters who considered not voting for Obama because he seemed squishier than they'd like on gay rights. I'm not sure any of us would have guessed that he would end Don't Ask, Don't Tell by the end of his 2nd year in office, and would become the first president to support marriage equality by the end of his 3rd. Meanwhile, we know from John McCain's reaction that he would never have signed DADT away.

What I'm saying, I guess, is that the major party candidates are generally more different, and your vote means more, than the cynics would have you believe, and often in ways that surprise us. While it really is impossible for Jill Stein to win the White House herself, it is certainly possible for her to hand it to Mitt Romney, just as Nader unwittingly did for George W. Bush. It turns out that the primary consequence of a vote for Nader was a vote for the Iraq War, while a nose-holding vote for Barack Obama was a vote to end DADT. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

back to the future: who is middle class?

Here we are again: Barack Obama is running for president and we get mired in a debate about what constitutes "middle class."

I'm definitely less comfortable than I was four years ago drawing lines between the classes. I'm more cognizant now of the fact that people's income levels shift dramatically over the course of their lives, one key fact among many that Romney clearly is clueless about in his ignorant, elitist tirade against "the 47%."

Last time we talked a lot of median incomes and buying power and whatnot, but I think our whole conversation missed a crucial point: class is about much more than income levels. Either that, or in our society people frequently move from working class (college) to middle class (first job) to upper middle class (highest position) to working class (retirement) over the course of a lifetime. If that's the case, then "class" is nothing but a shorthand for how much you make at a particular moment, with no identifiable indicators of culture or power or anything else.

The point of "class" as a political concept is its connotations of privilege or the lack thereof, or as a sociological concept, in its connotations of a distinct sub-culture. The fact that we can't adequately define our classes, can't point to many things that are obviously exclusive to this or that class, is a good thing. The fact that the few things we can point to generally have a racial subtext is, obviously, less good. Conversations about privilege are mucked up by the prominent role of racism and modern-day segregation in shaping American attitudes toward each other, and the homogenizing forces like television have flattened cultural distinctions between classes.

I still think this it's ridiculous to put those making $200k/year in the same class as those making $40k/year. These two groups live worlds apart. Beyond that, it's harder to say.

Monday, September 17, 2012

the United States will not be pulling out of the Middle East, sorry

Steve Cook's great article on why the United States will remain the dominant diplomatic force in the Middle East is a helpful corrective to the talk about us losing influence that's become chic as of late. As a voting public, we're pretty ignorant on foreign policy; thus the old joke that war is God's way of teaching Americans geography. I don't think many people understand why we continue to have bases in the Middle East, and from what I can tell there are very few talking heads interested in explaining it. That is, of course, aside from those who think we should just shut the whole thing down and those who think we're waiting for Jesus to convert Israel to Christianity. I suppose the main reason for that is it's complicated, and there are both good reasons and bad reasons. Yes, we are there for oil. Yes, we are there to protect Israel. Yes, we are there to keep peace. Yes, we are there to plant and nurture the seeds of democracy. We're also there, however, because virtually no other countries want to be there, and the one other one that really does (Russia) is, in fact, a force for authoritarianism and brutality in that region. Our allies, meanwhile, benefit from our presence there. In fact, in terms of foreign policy the Obama Administration has greatly clarified this last point for me, the role of our allies' dependence on us in our foreign policy. As we discovered during the Libya conflict, the reliance on NATO and the Soviet Union for all foreign conflict for 50 years means that the US military is the only entity in the world capable of projecting significant military force and coordinating the forces of multiple nations. It is similar in Middle East foreign policy, where our diplomats and bases are also the proxy diplomats and bases of Europe and NATO.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

fact checking

I was talking with a friend recently about "non-biased, objective fact-checkers." My point I was trying to make to her was that in most journalistic circles, it appears that "non-biased" just means "centrist," but those are not the same thing. The facts are not always directly in between the Democratic and Republican parties.

"Objective," meanwhile, doesn't mean anything at all: nobody is objective and nobody can be objective, but everybody believes they are objective.

What I told her I prefer are wonky policy types who are more concerned with dealing with the evidence conscientiously than with being accused of being liberal or conservative. Perhaps that's just a fancy way of saying "non-biased, objective fact-checkers," but I feel like what Ezra Klein does is different than what Politifact or NBC News' in-house fact-checker does.

Here's a really interesting example of that from Ezra. Ezra attempts to make a circumspect post on the truths, lies, and misleading points in Paul Ryan's speech, but fails to find enough compelling true points to finish the post. In my opinion, most people who call themselves "fact-checkers" would have either added some questionable points to the "true" section to maintain "balance," or alternatively would have deleted the whole thing and just not said anything. Ezra posts anyway and shows his work, since his inability to complete such a post is a very important insight into Ryan's speech.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Romney's running mate

Did the Romney campaign really telegraph their choice before he made the official pick? That seems exceedingly silly to me. Are people supposed to get super jazzed over Paul Ryan? If he really does pick Ryan, my suspicion is a bunch of Beltway morons told him everyone would be ecstatic over this, when the truth is that probably fewer than 10% of voters know who the hell this guy is.

And let's be honest, the ones who do know him, know him as either nasal-voiced snoozefest or a faux-serious economic charlatan.

My record of predicting running mates is admittedly atrocious, but I would have put money on Marco Rubio.

I'll give Romney this, for what it's worth: Paul Ryan isn't Sarah Palin, and will never be Sarah Palin. This might make for one seriously boring ticket, but he's unquestionably a better choice than the one John McCain made.

Interestingly, a debate between Paul Ryan and Barack Obama on budgets, in a non-campaign setting, could actually be intensely interesting. Both of them are gifted at civil, polite, detail-oriented debates, and are of similar temperament if dramatically divergent political perspectives. We'll get no such thing in this campaign, though.

calling foul

Interesting development here in the preseason. An important detail: the usual refs are locked out due to contract negotiations between the officials' union and the NFL. These "replacement officials" are, in fact, scabs being double-teamed by the union whose picket lines they're crossing and the players, who are themselves unionized. Without having watched the games, it's hard to say whether it's true that these refs were "clueless" or were just being judged ungenerously by a hostile audience.

Frankly, I'm not sure it matters, either. Union workers may or may not be better or more qualified or more diligent than non-union workers, but that isn't the point of supporting unions or the reason to despise scabs. Unions should be supported because the alternative is to hand all power over wages and workplace conditions to the bosses. We've had that situation before, and it wasn't pretty.

Sadly, these are also the circumstances under which the NFL is hiring its first female referee. It's sad that Shannon Easton has to cross a picket line to break through this glass ceiling.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

the best Tex Mex cooking site IN THE WORLD

Did you know there's a Tex Mex-specific analog to Smitten Kitchen? I didn't. I've now tried 3 recipes from Homesick Texan:

This biscuit recipe is what I used to make my first successful attempt at fluffy biscuits without resorting to shortening. I even used white-whole wheat flour!

The Mexican rice turned out better than any restaurant version I've ever had.

The sauce in this stacked enchiladas recipe, however, brought me to a new state of consciousness. Also, I just washed the dishes afterwards, and my fingertips are burning.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Worst Congress Ever, in 14 relatively nonpartisan ways

Told like it is. Fewest laws passed of any Congress, lowest popularity of any Congress, most polarized of any Congress, but most importantly, an explication of all the very important ways they have failed us at critical moments this year, and have done more harm than good.

credit card surcharges and you

Underneath all the election year garbage, some news of actual import to everyone who uses credit cards or runs a business that accepts them. Via Kevin Drum, it appears that, thanks to a major anti-trust settlement against Visa and Mastercard, merchants are no longer barred by contract from passing along card companies' 2.5% swipe fee on to consumers.

Drum is mainly looking at the possible effects of this settlement from a wonky point of view, but what does it mean for the consumer? 2.5%, if added as a surcharge to every credit card purchase, swamps any savings gained by most rewards programs, as they all give in the neighborhood of 1% back. Will it still be worth it not to carry cash? Will this apply to debit cards as well? Will we find, as Drum suspects, that the swipe fees were too high in the first place, and now businesses will get a respite from the grift of a greedy oligopoly? Will this mean the end of rewards programs?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

ACA not a very good issue to demogogue

Yglesias on why we keep getting articles and interviews where someone viciously denounces Obamacare and then proposes in its place something identical or almost identical:
Still, as a matter of forward-looking policy, I think that what's going on here is that in order to stay "onside" in the political debate, a number of moderate conservative commentators are drastically exaggerating the extent of their disagreements with the law. Saying you think Obamacare's increase in taxation of investment income should be rolled back and replaced with more aggressive implementation of the excise tax is a far cry from positing a deep-seated philosophical disagreement with the overall approach. At some point, everyone had to look at the overall legislative package and decide if they were "for" or "against" it, and ever since that moment the debate about the specific elements of the progam has gotten extremely fuzzy and overly polarized.
It's true, I definitely think he's right that this happened, but I think he's being too charitable here. Yes, there is definitely an element here of David Brooks playing a side, and so trying to find excuses to denounce Obamacare. This point about how people have generally approached debate on the ACA by taking a side on the whole thing first and then letting that color how they feel about, and argue, each individual piece is I think unquestionably true. There is something of a smart calculus there, though: while nice discussions can be had on the merits of each piece, if you analyze the pieces and then try to argue a position on the whole thing based on those, the "ban on denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions" pieces is going to crowd out everything else, and the anti-Obamacare position is pretty much indefensible on TV if you allow that.

That being said, I'm pretty sure there's also a strong element here of David Brooks not actually knowing what the law does. Coverage and debate of the ACA has really exposed just how little the journalists in our television and newspapers present or even understand the major bills they purport to be discussing. Brooks' misunderstanding here is quite minor compared to the general idiocy we've been subjected to.

Outsourced Justice: not blind, but only sees green

I've joked a bit with friends that now, having lived in the deep south for almost a year, I get why southerners are so distrustful of government: they're so terrible at it. There are so many terrible ideas in this piece that I don't know where to start. It's about municipalities down here outsourcing traffic fines and probations. There are a lot of individual sentences in this piece that will leave your jaw agape. Here was one that did it for me:

J. Scott Vowell, the presiding judge of Alabama’s 10th Judicial Circuit, said in an interview that his state’s Legislature, like many across the country, was pressuring courts to produce revenue, and that some legislators even believed courts should be financially self-sufficient.
What kind of an uber-Randian weirdo do you have to be to believe that the courts should generate their own revenue?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fast and Furious: what it is and what really happened

Are you curious? Have you been avoiding all the articles about it because it looks like more pointless Republican b.s.?

I had been. It turns out that there's actually a very interesting story in it, just not the one House GOPers are trying to write. Fortune Magazine, of all places, has released the findings of its detailed investigation. It's an amazing story, tragic on many levels. The story answers an important question about the connection between the evisceration of state and federal firearm regulation and the frightening bloodbath in Mexico, a question about the macro-level consequences of massive gun deregulation.

It all starts, however, from a much smaller question: how does ATF stop an alleged Sinaloa cartel gun-runner in Arizona, where it's legal to buy guns in infinite amounts, legal to turn around and sell them to whomever you want, illegal to construct a database to track gun sales and buyers, and the penalty even for getting caught selling guns to criminal organizations carries only a minor penalty?

Read to the end: the story has a killer punchline.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"The Newsroom" and ideological centrism

I can't speak to the problem with "The Newsroom" because I haven't seen it. That being said, David Carr's critique in The New York Times comments on the show as clearly inspired by CNN and Sorkin's vision for what cable news should be, and well, it's problematic. One should preface such a discussion by stating that discussing the "perfect" news show is a perilous path. There be dragons! Still, this sentence irked me:
CNN has stuck with, well, a version of the news, and gotten clobbered in the process. ... In Mr. Sorkin’s series, and out there in the big, bad world of television, there is a battle for the souls and eyeballs of the American viewing public, and CNN finds itself in a competitive business where simply delivering the news is no longer sufficient.
Except the CNN doesn't simply deliver the news, does it? Here I think is where CNN has been unable to fix itself: its board or producers or whatever haven't grappled with the fact it's every bit as ideological as any other channel, but lacks their convictions. It's the media version of the political centrist, and it's losing cache among the public for the exact same reasons.

FOX is a news channel full of conservatives and run by a conservative. They may be trying to make as conservative a news channel as possible, but more likely it's a group of conservatives covering the stories they believe is important in the manner they believe is most accurate and most fair. Thus, discussions and editorial choices on that channel display all manner of conservative assumptions, biases and philosophical points of view. That being said, those assumptions and biases and philosophy are probably unconscious at the time of newscrafting; rather, the reporters and producers are reporting and producing what they believe is The Truth.

I loathe FOX News as much as any self-respecting liberal. I believe it's deeply unbalanced and unfair, that it places low value on journalistic integrity and is as much as an arm of the Republican Party as a news organization, but I think the anchors and talking heads and producers on there generally believe what they're saying.

It's largely the same with MSNBC. When it's liberal, it's liberal because Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow are liberals conducting a news show in the way they believe is most accurate and fair and meaningful, not because the producers are thinking: "Hmm, what would be the most liberal stories to cover, and how can we make them as liberal as possible?"

This is the problem with centrism, whether practiced as a news organization or a politician. Centrists begin not with their own first principles, but with everybody else's. The answer to every question lies directly between what the conservative said and what the liberal said. It matters not if the conservative and the liberal are both more conservative than they were 20 years ago, or whether the conservative was arguing what is now the liberal line only 3 years ago, or whether one's facts are demonstrably false according to every nonpartisan source in the country.

This hermeneutic of looking at two arguments and crafting a middle one is hardly "simply delivering the news." In fact, in my opinion, it's ideological in a much more calculated way than either of the ideological networks.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Longer life, thanks to the government

Ezra Klein notes findings in The Lancet that the average life expectancy of the citizens of the New York City have gone from being the shortest lived in the country to the longest over the course of about 20 years. And what do New Yorkers have to thank this remarkable turnaround?
New York City, meanwhile, was accustomed to trailing the rest of the country in life expectancy by a full three years through the 1980s. That changed in the 1990s for two main reasons, according to The Lancet, a British medical journal: The city’s murder rate dropping 75 percent and new antiretroviral therapies that could combat the cities AIDS epidemic. The next decade saw the advent of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s public health crusade, replete with public smoking bans and restrictions on trans fats.
What Ezra isn't mentioning here is that the city's murder rate dropped precipitously in the '90's for one very specific reason: Mayor Rudy Giuliani's focus on aggressive law enforcement.* New York City's two liberal Republican mayors engaged in prolonged programs of government intervention in the life of the city, one relentlessly arresting and prosecuting offenders for even minor crimes and flooding the streets with police officers, and the other enacting a stringent program of government regulation of the marketplace in the form of health code tightening and enforcement. People complained about the "Disney-ification" of gritty old NYC, having to stand outside in the cold to have a smoke with your beer, and Nanny Bloomberg making people's decisions for them. 20 years later, however, the effects of those programs are not just undeniable, but transformative.

Who knows? Maybe New Yorkers would still argue that the benefits aren't worth the changes in the character of NYC, that they'd prefer old New York with its crime, drug dealers, trans fats, smoke-filled bars, and shorter life spans. I doubt it, though.

The lesson? Government policy can be a force for good. It can change things for the better. We saw it nationally in the '60's when President Johnson's Great Society cut the poverty rate in half in 10 years, and now we've seen it more recently in New York. Reagan's nonsense about how government can never fix anything just isn't true.

* Yes, crime rates dropped nationwide during the 1990's, and yes, the drop in NYC's crime rate began during Dinkins' last term as mayor, but the drop in NYC's crime rate dwarfs the drops everywhere else. It's pretty clear nationwide factors don't sufficiently explain it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

personal experience as a crutch for empathy

I've wondered for a while exactly how a guy like Marco Rubio balances his beliefs on immigration with otherwise being a hardcore social conservative. Yglesias helpfully elucidates. Note this reporting here about the man's position:
Many people who came here illegally are doing exactly what we would do if we lived in a country where we couldn't feed our families," he writes in An American Son, which was released Tuesday. "If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn't give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn't a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here." Rubio is the son of Cuban immigrants and has been among the more vocal members of the Republican Party about the need to soften rhetoric on immigration. He planned to introduce a bill that would help young undocumented immigrants gain legal status -- although he said Monday that the legislation is unlikely to come up -- but also opposes comprehensive reform that would grant legal status to many.
That quote is exactly, precisely the liberal critique of anti-immigration legislation. There are various reasons to favor more open immigration policies from an intellectual standpoint, but this is the emotional reason, the one that animates people to actively oppose rather than merely grumble. The people who are willing to brave the guns of soldiers and vigilantes, the high fences, the scorching Arizona sun, the tumultuous Atlantic waters, and the double-crossing coyotes for the chance to secure a better life for themselves and their loved ones are the very people we should want here the most. Their actions bespeak bravery, inner strength, an unwillingness to settle for less than they and their loved ones deserve.

How does he square the circle of opposing "path to citizenship" legislation for those who came here illegally? Well, as Matthew helpfully notes, it's always legal in American law for Cubans to come here; it's only illegal on the Cuban side. Thus, it's only Mexicans and Guatemalans and Hondurans who come here "illegally," not Cubans.

Here we are again: a so-called "thoughtful conservative" who wants liberal policy for himself and his own but conservative policy for everyone else.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"morning after" pills don't actually prevent implantation

So says The New York Times. This question of conception/implantation always seemed like theological hair-splitting to me, to be honest. Does anyone out there really hang their opinion on women's medical care on such inane minutiae? Is anybody out there really trying to figure out when "life" or "humanity" or "ensoulment" begins, as opposed to just throwing a few bombs into that melee for your side?

Now that the supposed "medical" reason for hating on Plan B has been refuted, will this change even one single solitary person's mind? The fact that I haven't heard a word about this article since it came out probably answers my question.

I have a friend from high school whom I respect, but who has since gone "the full Ratzinger" on birth control. I found her argument rather illuminating: she said that birth control is sinful because it's an effort to thwart God's will. This isn't to say that one can thwart God's will; you'll never actually manage to prevent a conception that God wanted you to have, of course. It's the attempt itself that is the sin.

What's illustrative about this argument is that the line between thwarting/not thwarting is so easily erased and redrawn. Lots of Catholics have no problem putting abortion and Plan B and the pill on one side of that line and, say, the rhythm method or coitus interruptus on the other, with the only real distinction I can see being that the former group actually works.

Of course, that's probably the point.

One thing that makes absolutely no difference whatsoever in this calculus: the exact moment of conception or implantation or whatever. If the medical community gets everyone to agree that Plan B is morally equivalent to the pill, the result will not be Plan B becoming acceptable to these people, but rather the pill being further vilified.

breaking the insurance system

This is why it would be an extremely bad thing if either the Supreme Court or a Romney Administration and Republican Congress overturn the health insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act but leave the stuff everybody likes. As Ezra notes here, we know exactly what would happen in that scenario because -- believe it or not -- we've already seen it happen at the state level.

Washington State passed an insurance mandate-cum-guaranteed-coverage-and-no-price-hikes bill, which is essentially what the ACA is, in 1993. The mandate was repealed in '94 but the rest left intact. The result: premiums spiked, consumers dropped their coverage since they could just buy the same coverage once they got sick, and 6 years later it was impossible to buy individual insurance plans at all in the state of Washington, because it was no longer profitable.

These are our choices if we're going to persevere in this asinine decision to have private middlemen greasing and fleecing our health care system. Either everyone has to pay in, and I mean everyone, or the middlemen have to be allowed to weasel their way out of paying for your health care and just let you die like they could in the days before the ACA. There aren't really any other options, that is, short of doing the obviously correct and sensible thing and putting everyone on Medicare, and even then everyone will have to pay in.

As it is, overturning the mandate is going to mean causing premiums to spike as healthy people game the system, dropping coverage until they get sick. Overturning the whole thing means a return to the days when insurance companies were gaming the system, the days of "pre-existing conditions" and insurance companies giving people the run-around in order to keep from fulfilling their obligations.

Monday, June 04, 2012

the financially unfriendly skies

This is interesting. We all know that airlines have had a lot of trouble being profitable over the last 10 years. It turns out, however, that according to the GAO airlines have never been profitable. Notice that the graph goes all the way back to 1968. Makes one wonder whether we'll eventually be faced with either the disappearance of broadly available passenger air travel, or government taking it upon itself.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

a night on the choochoo

On our recent trip to South Bend we took the train rather than driving or flying. I'm still trying to decide how I felt about the experience. It wasn't a perfect experience, better in some ways than I was expecting while worse in others.

The major downside of the train is that it's a long ride, about 14 hours from Mississippi to Chicago. It's an overnight train which somewhat mitigates this issue (you get on around 7:30pm and arrive at Union Station at 9am), but I found sleeping on the train to be difficult, even in the sleeping car. It was impossible on a coach seat, but that's partly me: I just can't sleep well in a chair, no matter how comfortable, and the mattress in the sleeping car was rather hard.

Of course, that being said, it's also about that long driving.

On the other hand, the train was vastly more comfortable and swanky than a plane at about $200 less than flying. We got 2 free meals, and full meals at that: oven baked chicken with mashed potatoes and steamed veggies, and then cheese crepes with chicken-maple sausage patties for breakfast. We even got cloth napkins! The sleeping car was tiny, but private and comfortable. I also discovered that the train is shockingly quiet and smooth. Even Union Station is much nicer than your average airport. The lounge was particularly lovely, with free soft drinks and comfy chairs to hang out in, and they held our bags for hours free of charge while we explored Greektown (which, incidentally, is all of three blocks from the station).

On top of that, there's no security theater b.s. at the train station. You arrive, you show the conductor your ticket (which can be printed out on your computer at home), and you get on the train. No baggies for 3 oz. of liquids, no nudie scanners, no taking off shoes. Plus, the train conductors seemed much more friendly and accommodating than my general airline experiences have been.

It really is a shame that we don't put more money into our train system, but I'm impressed with what Amtrak has managed with their meager funding.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

standing up for people and against them

We now have a current Democratic president and a former Republican Vice President on the record as supporting gay marriage. Neither can do anything about it, but these kind of things can help "move the needle" on popular opinion. They also further show us that, despite the occasional hateful referendum, marriage equality is coming someday.

This announcement is especially interesting since there isn't any obvious political angle. Despite partisan outcries to "follow the money" or some such nonsense, it's hard to see how it helps more than hurts. I suspect it's more or less exactly what President Obama said it was: Biden went off script on him and forced him to take a stand one way or the other. Certainly Biden on more than a few occasions has said things that ill-conceived or got him into trouble, he's a long time politician who was generally pretty effective at planting messages in the media. My suspicion is he saw an opening after North Carolina to do exactly this. Good for him.

We also learned about an episode of somewhat serious bullying from Mitt Romney's high school days. I don't think Romney is the kind of guy who would condone that sort of behavior now, but I can buy him doing it as a teenager. Teenagers with issues to work through or in the grips of mob mentality do some heinous stuff to each other, even premeditated. Sometimes they grow up to become kind-hearted adults who would "never" do such a thing. Lord knows I said, and quite possibly did, some awful stuff to classmates in high school!

Frankly, the only reason I don't see Obama doing the same thing is he seems to have been something of an outsider in high school. This public shame play, cutting off a kid's hair in front of the in-group, is something ringleaders from conservative families do. I'm sure Obama did a bit of lashing out at his classmates as well, just as most people have; it probably just takes a somewhat different shape.

Perhaps part of the reason I'm dismissive of this news is also that Romney's just not a great example of a bully conservative. A phony, yes. Made his living as a vulture, sure. He doesn't do a lot of getting ahead by kicking vulnerable people around, though, like some Republicans do. He's no George Allen calling a 20 year old campaign aid ugly names in front of his friends, no Ronald Reagan lavishing in the tropes of the black stereotype, no John McCain jocularly telling nasty jokes about the president's teenage daughter to his press buddies.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Reading this review of Ross Douthat's new book, I'm reminded of the chutzpah with which professional op-ed columnists assume they are experts about everything. Speaking as someone with a Master's in Theology, there's some pretty risible stuff in this review. Say what you will about the opinions of Elaine Pagels; it's pretty presumptuous for a man with a bachelor's degree to call someone with an endowed chair at Princeton a "half-educated evangelical guru."

This is a problem with our news and, in particular, the political opinions we read in the news. Most of these guys are gifted writers who don't actually have expertise in anything but writing, but think they can read a few books and have a special insight on the subject that even those who've spent their lives researching the matter never figured out. Douthat does a little research on the side and thinks he can talk down at a woman who wrote her first groundbreaking book on ancient theology literally when he was still in diapers.

How often have Paul Krugman and Elizabeth Warren been accused of being idiots or ignorant of basic economic truths in our news shows and papers by guys whose sole exposure to the field of economics was a 101 class they took as college freshmen?

Socrates believed that wisdom lies in understanding the depths of one's own ignorance. Our bookstores and newspapers are filled with the scribblings of fools.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

election predictions mostly a waste of time

A number of the people I'm reading are batting around potential models for election predicting. As the title shows, I think this is mostly a waste of time. As much as economists in particular seem to be into this stuff, the field of economics and social sciences generally are, in my impression anyway, exceptionally bad at forecasting.

It isn't a knock against those fields. It's just that human behavior, despite seeming like it's so predictable, just isn't once someone has to start trying to predict it. There are too many variables. Kevin Drum notes, for instance, that despite the attempts of various people to come up with a model for predicting presidential election winners, one can get just as much accuracy by simply predicting that if the incumbent's party has occupied the White House for less than 8 years, they win, and if more, they lose.

You see another weakness, though, in the fact that these models always start at 1948. Why? Because election behavior was very different with FDR, who beat just about every electoral adversity imaginable. And before FDR, there was a very easy, but starkly different, way to predict elections: if the Republican candidate was running against a candidate not named Grover Cleveland or Woodrow Wilson, he won. Before 1860, it was the exact opposite: if one candidate belongs to a party with "democrat" in the name, he's probably going to win.

And how long will any given model last? Until it stops being predictive, which he won't know until it fails to predict several elections.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Hunger Games

Just finished it. Glad I read it, though I'm not quite sure how I feel about the book. I get now why people have spent so much effort trying to parse the politics of the book, and why everyone thinks they can claim it for themselves. It sort of reminds me of the Star Wars prequels in this sense, in that it looks like it refers to current politics somehow, and we want it to. We want to be able to extrapolate who's at fault for Panem, which party's agenda it more closely resembles, etc.

The problem is, I think the allusions are largely illusory. It looks like it refers to us, but it really doesn't, at least not in any coherent way. Sure, you could potentially spin something out about wealth inequality or big government or whatever, but what's the point? That having a government that keeps everyone under its thumb, keeps most of the population in a state of destitution, and puts children to death for entertainment value and fearmongering is bad?

 I suspect that instead this is going to be a story about how bright-eyed young people, even if poor, can "change the world" if they can keep it from changing them first.

 Another thing, too: I get that this is a book for teens, and Katniss clearly has elements of Diana/Artemis in her, and people get all uptight about the possibility of teen sexuality, but seriously, Katniss never at any point in the first book even considers or feels any urge to go beyond kissing with either of her beaus, one of whom is coveted by every girl in town and the other is as strong as an ox? I love the idea of female heroes, especially stories showing women that are strong, intelligent and independent. It seems to me, however (and I could be totally out to lunch here), that just as it's demeaning to portray heroines as thinking about nothing but their man and wanting to be his barefooted housewife, it's also demeaning to strip the heroine of their sexuality in order to show their independence, as if a woman can't be independent, wise, good-hearted, and have normal biological urges at the same time. As if sexual activity for girls is mutually exclusive with a strong moral compass.

Contrast Katniss, for instance, with Peeta, who is smart, wily, and strong, but who expresses his sexual attraction to Katniss freely in the book. Does it cross some line for Katniss to feel those things that it doesn't for Peeta?

Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive or obtuse about this issue, but it just seems to me like we made a lot of progress in the '90's in terms of portraying young women who could be sexually active without being implicitly dismissed as sluts, and that progress is being rolled back now. Consider Buffy Summers, for instance, who has multiple sexual partners in high school and college, or Monica Gellar from Friends who sleeps with a guy on their first date on the pilot episode, and admits that she has a lot of sexual partners, but is likeable, independent, caring, and good in relationships. It's sad to think we're actually regressing now when it comes to sex-positive portrayals of women.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

the legacy of welfare reform

The Times looks into the performance of welfare programs during the last recession and finds, predictably, that Clinton era reforms hamstrung them, preventing them from expanding their rolls to help those who fell on hard times and leaving Gods knows how many people to such indignities as shoplifting, dumpster diving, and in the case of single mothers (who constitute the lion's share of TANF recipients) returning to violent boyfriends/spouses. Paul Ryan hails the performance of welfare reform as "an unprecedented success." Father Santorum tells his flock that Jesus loves us more because of it.

having it both ways on budgets

This is the best distillation I've seen of the kind of rhetorical ploy Republicans and their surrogates like David Brooks have been playing with budgets and such the past few years. Ezra is absolutely right about the illustrative capacity of budgets, and the whole point of all of Paul Ryan's various "budget plans" has been to obfuscate, not to explain. A great quote here:
There’s a bottom line here: You can’t cut spending without cutting spending. But Ryan wants to have it both ways: He wants to get the credit for cutting spending, but he doesn’t want to have to propose specific spending cuts. Oh, and he doesn’t want anyone to extrapolate what those cuts would be, either.
You can't, for instance, say you're going to cut X amount from "discretionary programs," give no details as to which get cut more and which less, and then whine when the other guys assume that number is an across the board cut. This kind of slipperiness allows Paul Ryan essentially to say he's going to cut some huge mythical chunk out of the budget, while promising every individual person that their pet issue will be safe. There's no courage here, no productive activity, because until the cuts are specific, they are a mirage.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

they aren't interested in goodwill

I'd like to take a moment to remind everyone of a certain decision made several months ago by the administration. In the beginning of December, the FDA decided it was sufficiently satisfied with the safety of Plan B that it would allow it to be sold over the counter.

In an unprecedented move, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, overturned that decision. It was a slap in the face to several of the president's core constituencies, but it's generally accepted that this was a decision designed to earn some goodwill from the Catholic Church and various Christian conservative groups.

I wonder how good of a trade President Obama considers that decision now, with the benefit of a mere two months' hindsight.

War, endless war!

I think it's important to remember in all of this rather sudden war fever that much of Washington's sudden fixation on it is due to a timely visit by arch warmonger Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Israel's 2nd most right wing party. Recall that Israel has so
lost their heads in right wing hysteria as of late that Israel's biggest left-of-center party placed fourth in the 2009 elections, after the centrists, the conservatives, and the hard right wingers.

Netanyahu really, really wants war with Iran, and he really wants a Republican president, someone sufficiently beholden to evangelical millenarian wackadoos that he'll fight whomever Netanyahu tells him to.

Netanyahu came to Washington and essentially demanded that either we pick a fight with Iran, or they will. Think about that for a moment, pondering how Netanyahu believes we'd throw our kids on that bomb to save his.

In any case, expect to see a lot more of him over the next nine months as he continues to meddle in American electoral affairs.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Olympia Snowe's (lack of) legacy

On the announcement of her retirement, Olympia Snowe is taking some flak around my preferred corner of the internet for her failure to use her substantial power as one of the few Senate centrists to any real effect.

I'm of two minds about this issue. I think it's easy to overstate the degree of leeway she really had to vote her conscious or principles or whatever on the big bills of the last 10 years. If she had voted against the Bush tax cuts, for instance, it's hard to see a scenario where the reprisals would not have come fast and hard. Can you imagine her trying to fundraise after that? She would almost certainly have been persona non grata in her party.

The recent post about Rick Santorum is apropos here: senators have to swallow their principles and take one for the team sometimes. A president's signature bill is an example of such a moment. Frankly I don't see how she could have done much more than insist on a slightly smaller budgetary apocalypse. Who throws themselves on their sword over tax cuts?

That being said, Olympia Snowe was also much more of a party apparatchik and saboteur than she's willing to admit. She negotiated in bad faith during the Affordable Care Act episode, for instance, constantly changing the terms for her vote as Obama repeatedly met her demands. Contra Yglesias and Chait, I think she was terrifically effective there at thoroughly diluting that legislation, but her way of doing it was underhanded, stringing the Democrats along and pretending like she was open to compromise when she wasn't. She's never been honest with us about her actions, which were clearly to delay, delay, delay until the midterms, when the bill could just be killed altogether.

Had Reid and Obama not eventually wised up and forced her to take a stand, that very likely would have happened, and all the terrible practices of the insurance industry would still be perpetuated upon America's poor and middle class to this day.

choosing to live in darkness

Very glad I chose not to write anything Andrew Breitbart, because this says everything I wanted to say better than I ever could have. Also I had no idea about Shirley Sherrod's family history.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

not our founders' government

Ezra Klein, saying very well what I've been saying very poorly:
Our system, as any historian will tell you, was built by men who hated parties and anticipated their absence from American politics. That didn’t quite work out. But for much of American history, and particularly for much of the 20th century, our political parties have been unusually diffuse and unable to act as organized, ideological units. That left them well-suited to a system that, for reasons ranging from the division of powers to the filibuster, required an unusual level of consensus to function.

But as the two parties have polarized, we’ve learned that a system built for consensus is not able to properly function amid constant partisan competition. The filibuster has gone from a rarity to a constant. Compromise has become rare. Crises of gridlock, such as the recent showdown over the debt ceiling, have become common. And no one can say that this is what the American people want: The approval ratings of Congress have been on a downward slide for decades, and they have never been lower than they are today.

...Polarization is with us now and will be with us for the foreseeable future. The question is whether we will permit it to paralyze our political system and undermine our country or whether we will accept it and make the necessary accommodations.

Doing so would require taking on cherished, consensus-promoting features of the old system, like the filibuster. But in today’s girdlocked world, those features no longer promote consensus. They simply promote gridlock.

The federal government, and many state governments as well, is moving somewhat quickly from dysfunctional to nonfunctional. On the federal level, there are too many ways even a tiny, irresponsible minority can completely shut down the government, in particular the Senate. Meanwhile, many state governments are paralyzed by things like laws requiring a referendum or unrealistically high supermajority for basic functions like taxation.

It needs to stop.

Monday, February 27, 2012

capitalist pigs

Interesting study noted by Ezra Klein. He wonders about correlation and causation, but frankly, if this is true, does it matter? What difference does it make whether assholes become rich people or rich people become assholes? It's an interesting case where the causation doesn't matter, only the correlation.

That being said, it seems a little too convenient to be true. I can definitely see how being an asshole entails feeling like you are more important than other people, and conversely how being placed in a position of privilege makes you think the normal rules of decorum don't apply to you, but these squeaky clean conclusions just don't ever seem to work out in practice.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

trying to be magnanimous

I will say this for Rick Santorum: the dude is totally honest about what he really believes. I actually love this quote in reference to him voting for No Child Left Behind:
I have to admit, I voted for that. It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake. You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you've got to rally together and do something.

I love this quote because this is precisely how politics really works. Congressmen and senators regularly have to swallow their beliefs and vote with their team. This is especially true when your party is in the White House. The president sets the entire party's agenda, and if you don't play along, your ability to influence the party's direction and get what you want passed is greatly diminished.

A politician is occasionally going to have to cast a vote they disagree with. Sometimes they have to compromise with the other side, as was the case with NCLB. Sometimes your district really needs money for X, and the Majority Leader decides he's going to attach it to a bill you don't like to get your vote. Sometimes somebody who did you a solid calls in a favor. And then there's the whole matter of one's views gradually changing and the gift of hindsight and all that.

It's ridiculous to expect a politician to have been "right" 100% of the time, and it's good to see someone up there be honest about how it works. Unfortunately, that guy also has the social views of a medieval pope, but again, he's been shockingly candid about those views, including the ones that don't enjoy much favor outside the halls of the Vatican.

Good on you, Senator Santorum, but um, I still hope you never get elected to anything. Let's hang out never.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Libertarian, but only for dudes

Tyler Cowen on his Twitter feed, in reference to the Virginia mandated pre-abortion transvaginal ultrasound bill.

There's an awfully obvious turnabout on this comment that I really would have thought a libertarian would see coming:

"Uh, and what about those on the 'small government' side?"

I'm actually pretty surprised to see Cowen come out as a paternalistic culture warrior. I didn't realize that Ron Paul's "libertarian for boys, authoritarian for girls" philosophy was a pan-libertarian thing. That's really disappointing, but I guess it explains why there are so few libertarian women. Or perhaps the lack of libertarian women explains the dissonant view on women's rights.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

f**k your conscience

I'm a little surprised to see this continuing hubbub over the administration insisting that Catholic institutions receiving federal money offer health care plans that include contraception. I'm even more surprised to see a lot of usually sensible voices taking this garbage seriously, which makes me think I'm not getting something.

Kevin Drum put it in a way that resonates with me: I'm willing to entertain the idea of religious exemptions to certain federal regulations depending on how big of a deal those believers consider that tenet vs. how big of a deal we consider it from a public good standpoint. If Jews consider it super important that Jewish hospitals not prepare kosher foods near pork, and the government has a rule stating otherwise but doesn't have a great reason to demand everything be made in the same kitchen, then fine, give them an exemption.

On contraception, though, the opposite is true. Strong majorities of Catholics support contraception, majorities nearly identical to the general population. From the other side, in terms of public health availability of contraception is very, very important. It more than anything else has allowed women to take control of their own lives, set out on the careers they've always wanted, and keep a number of chronic ailments at bay while, hey, dramatically reducing demand for abortions. "The pill" really is a wonder drug.

A lot of the noise over this issue is no doubt electorally based. Republicans and those rooting for them are chucking every brick they can find at President Obama, and that's fine. They're the opposition; that's their role. Nevertheless, we should be mindful that a lot of disingenuous objections will be raised at him this year. Did anyone give a shit about this rule when President Bush enforced it?

All of that is enough for me to have made up my mind, but it also happens that I have pretty strong feelings on the subject of Rome's anti-contraception stance. I believe that the Vatican's opposition to contraception is barbaric, oppressive, and grossly negligent of the lives of the millions of women at the mercy of Catholic men and Catholic regimes. And this is, I suppose, where I really part ways with many of the liberal Catholics like E. J. Dionne who have been looking for some sort of common ground between the parties. I'm sorry, but religions occasionally get some moral question dead wrong. It happens, and we do ourselves no favors by refusing to question the moral stances of the various faiths.

For instance, I realize it's like farting in church to remind everyone that countless women across the world have died preventable deaths thanks to the Catholic Church's obstruction of sexual education and condom distribution, but the truth hurts. It's also true, though not very ecumenical of me, to point out that a lot of Catholic women have conceived unwanted children only to have them aborted because of Vatican opposition to the pill. And finally, I'd be a real dick making a nevertheless good point if I were to say that maybe perchance the very last people on the planet with any credibility to lecture the American people or their government about the ethics of the bedroom is the US Conference of Bishops.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

fun with numbers: Columbus teacherpocalypse

Today it was announced that the city of Columbus, MS would be shit-canning 54 teachers. Columbus comprises a hair under 26,000 people and expects to save $2.1 million from the massacre.

Surely this is the one scenario in all my posts on this subject where the cost savings are justified, right? The one where the city really can't afford to keep the teachers?

Well, let's have a looksy, shall we?

My trusty calculator tells me that $2.1 million divided by 10,000 households comes out to $210 per household for the year saved by firing the town's up and coming teachers. Sounds like a lot, right?

That's $17.50 per household per month. For a household with two incomes, that's $8.75 off of each monthly paycheck. $4.37 off of a biweekly paycheck, about the cost of an appetizer at Applebee's.

Put another way, the median household income in Columbus is $32,596. $210 would mean extra taxation of about .64%. Not 64% or 6.4%. 64 hundredths of one percent.

Clearly an unconscionable burden for the hard-working folks of Columbus, Mississippi. But hey, on the other hand it's not like Mississippi has to worry about sliding in state-by-state rankings for education!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

presidential disrespect

President Obama arrived in Phoenix at 3:15 pm local time, finding the chilly weather of Iowa giving way to sunny skies and temperatures in the high 60s.

He stepped off Air Force One at 3:28 pm and was greeted by Gov. Jan Brewer. She handed him a handwritten letter in an envelope and they spoke intensely for a few minutes. At one point, she pointed her finger at him.

Afterwards, your pooler spoke with the governor.

"He was a little disturbed about my book, Scorpions for Breakfast. I said to him that I have all the respect in the world for the office of the president. The book is what the book is. I asked him if he read the book. He said he read the excerpt. So."

Let's all be clear about one thing: when the words "I respect the office of the president" come out of your mouth, it's usually because you just said (or did, in this case) something you know crossed the line, something that proves, in fact, that you don't accord any respect whatsoever to the current president.

Not that I'm a big "respect the office!" guy, mind you. The president may be head of state, but s/he's also a public figure, and voluntarily so. People gonna say what they gonna say.

Nonetheless, this now makes two (out of only three total!) State of the Union addresses where "the office of the president" was pretty egregiously disrespected by having some Republican politician treat the POTUS as if he were of lesser station than them. Two things I cannot imagine having ever happened to any previous president, of either party.

We've talked about this before in the context of black resentment, but one thing we missed about this unprecedented abuse endured by President Obama is why these politicians engage in it. Surely people are turned off by this kind of thing, right?

Except "the right people" aren't turned off. In fact, they've been dying to have someone put this guy "in his place" and "give us our country back" for 3 years now. They just love it when one of their boys shouts "You lie!" during the State of the Union, or their house speaker refuses to return the president's calls and skips out on state dinners, or when their highest ranking party members refuse to admit that he's an American citizen.

This is, of course, why Gingrich has been enjoying such high support in the primaries at times despite being an otherwise loathed man in other years. Gingrich appeals to that teabagger desire to see this president treated with as much disrespect as possible. Finger wagging? That goes without saying! Calling him names to his face? He deserves it. Treating him like a child and talking down to him? Hey, Gingrich has a Ph.D.; that gives him the right, right? Throwing in a few personal jabs at Michelle and the kids? She started it, the fat cow getting the government to tell our kids what they can and can't eat.

But I respect the office of the president.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dr. King

I've noticed on this anniversary that I've never taken any time to say anything about Martin Luther King, Jr. on this little soapbox. I guess I'll start with a huge cliche:

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a personal hero of mine.

I became a fan of his in grad school for a lot of reasons. For the sake of limiting my cliches in this post, I'll limit my discussion to this one point that I don't hear so many people make about him.

I always knew of King as a voice against inequality, against war, and against prejudice and hatred, but it wasn't until graduate school that I had the opportunity to read any of his words aside from the few speeches everyone quotes. What I discovered was that people talk a lot about King's heart (and rightly so), but his mind was almost as extraordinary. His letter from a Birmingham jail was on the reading list of my theology class on Grace, alongside such names as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner and Martin Luther. That should tell you something about the quality of the man's thought. Among those names and those works, however, the clarity of King's thought and the strength of his voice was notable.

Notice, for instance:
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I it" relationship for an "I thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Not bad for a guy writing from jail without access to his library, eh?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

bloated federal bureaucracy not bloated at all

Kevin Drum points to a very interesting graph from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and then makes a particularly interesting point.

First, the graph:

Notice that administrative costs generally range from minimal to non-existent in all of these very large government programs. More interestingly, in the ones with higher admin costs, those costs are higher because of things conservatives insist on:
Programs like SNAP and Section 8 housing have fairly stringent means testing rules in order to root out folks trying to game the system, and the result of that is higher admin costs. It's pretty unavoidable. We could probably cut the overhead costs of housing vouchers by simply giving money to anyone under a certain income line and then calling it a day, but we don't. We make sure you really truly qualify, we make sure the vouchers are really spent on housing, and we make sure that landlords aren't scamming either tenants or the taxpayers. This is exactly the kind of thing conservatives are always urging us to do, and it costs money. There's no way around it.

The moralistic, heavy-handed nonsense that conservatives like to force upon agencies ends up increasing their administrative costs, and then conservatives turn around and accuse them of inefficiency. Now, it is possible that the money saved from scammers or whatever offsets the higher admin costs, and it is possible that some regulations are "worth it" even if they cost more than they save, but that doesn't change the fact that accusations of inefficiency are both inaccurate and deeply unfair.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

the Teabaggers make their last stand

I hate to be a Debbie Downer for all of us rooting for chaos in the Republican primary, but I think this baby's over. Santorum managed a great, come-from-behind victory (or near victory, not sure yet) in Iowa, but this was little more than the last gasp of opposition before Romney overwhelms the rest of the field.

Why is that?

The problem with Santorum -- electorally speaking, I mean -- is that he has no stamina for a prolonged fight. Sure, he managed to make something of himself in Iowa, but he could only manage it by focusing pretty much all of his very meager resources there. He has almost no presence in the other 49 states, and a statewide campaign apparatus is not the kind of thing you can just whip up overnight, not even if you get a massive windfall after the initial victory. It's possible that Perry could have waged a longer campaign, or perhaps even Ron Paul, but none of the other guys ever really got their fundraising off the ground back when it really mattered.

Santorum's only real shot here is if this anti-Romney Tea-Party-cum-Christian-Right thingamajig that presumably carried him in Iowa coalesces into a full-blown opposition faction within, I dunno, the next two weeks or so and decides on its own to mobilize for him. Frankly, I just don't see it.

The far more likely outcome is that the Republican establishment gets just spooked enough to jump off the fence and line up behind Romney so as to put the kibosh on all this friendly fire. It appears it's already happening, in fact, as news broke this evening that John McCain plans to travel to New Hampshire tomorrow to endorse Mittens. I expect an avalanche of those over the next week or two as Mitt easily carries NH, brushes off South Carolina as an outlier and uses Super Tuesday as a giant victory lap.