Friday, December 31, 2010

Today in "Shit State Legislators Say": Gold Coinage

Continuing this theme, TPM spots State Rep. Bobby Franklin (R-GA), introducing a bill to mandate that all taxes be paid in gold and silver bullion. Good times!

"Shit State Legislators Say" is probably more likely to pick up crazy stories emanating from Georgia and Virginia, since those states are both breeding grounds for hard-right crankery, and both are in close proximity to Atlanta (headquarters of CNN) and DC. Closeness to major media markets is also one of the root causes of the overcoverage of Christine O'Donnell's (R-DE) Senate candidacy (that and the fact that she's relatively young and attractive, though no one will say that's a factor).

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jeff Merkley Continues To Be Awesome, Gets More Of My Money

The first time I solicited donations for Jeff Merkley, he was running for the Oregon Senate seat. I was impressed by his solidly progressive positions on all kinds of issues, and especially by his brilliance as Speaker of the House in Oregon. After masterminding a successful effort to take control of the chamber in 2006, he had used a slim 31-29 majority to pass wonderful legislation on issues large and small.

The second time, he had won the Senate seat and was pulling all kinds of useful tricks to strengthen health care reform and bank regulation. I was asking people to give to his leadership PAC -- the fund he uses to contribute to other (Democratic) Senators' re-election campaigns. Much like donating to a campaign directly, this helps Democrats win elections. The added bonus is that then those Senators will owe Jeff favors, and he'll be able to get them to support the good stuff that he supports. As a random person sending in money over the internet, it's hard for you to get the Senators whose re-election you supported to vote for progressive stuff. Jeff, however, can get in their faces and do it for you.

Now that the 2010 election is over, we can see what Jeff's leadership PAC did with the money. Its 2010 expenditures are on the chart at left. I'm happy! Corrupt people's leadership PACs can just be slush funds for golf outings, but here we see Jeff doing useful stuff.

Right at the top of the list is a $10K donation to Harry Reid. This is exactly what I wanted Jeff to do with the money: help an influential Senate Democrat win re-election. I like Harry Reid, and I really like Harry Reid winning and having Jeff to thank.

Next up are two Oregon things -- Ron Wyden's re-election and Future PAC, which I believe helps Democrats lower down in Oregon. Wyden was a shoo-in so it's not like we saved a seat there, but some of this Oregon back-scratching is what you have to expect. I'm sure Wyden will repay the favor when Jeff comes up for re-election in 2014. Helping Democrats at the state level in Oregon is a fine thing to do as well.

Next we see Jeff supporting the victories of two solid progressive female Democratic Senators who were in close races much of the way. And then there's the victory by 0.5% of capable public servant Michael Bennet over angry misogynist Ken Buck.

A lot of this donation activity went on in the early part of the year, so you see him spreading his bets, including contributions to some campaigns that failed or didn't even happen. That's a risk you take with donating early, but it's matched by giving a campaign more options with when and how to use the money. All in all, this is an excellent record.

Over the last week or two, we've seen Jeff using his influence in the Senate to excellent effect, getting all 53 of the Democrats in the next Senate to support filibuster reform spearheaded by himself and Senator Udall of New Mexico. You can check out his recent interview with Ezra Klein. To have a Senator who got elected just two years ago throwing his weight around like this is pretty spectacular.

So what am I doing now? I just donated $2400 to Merkley's re-election fund, to intimidate anybody who would think about challenging him in 2014, and help him win that election. We've got something good going here, and I want to make sure we can keep it. And when the New Year rolls around, I'm going to be doing that again and tossing another $5K to Merkley's leadership PAC. I've set up an ActBlue page for this, and feel free to use it if you're so inspired! The leadership PAC is the best thing to give to.

I'm feeling really good about this -- I think I've found one of the best ways to use my limited-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things money to make things go better in the world. If you'd like to help out too, that would be wonderful.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Your Messiah Is Not Your Second Choice

Let me add to Jonathan's takedown of the Democrats-thought-Obama-was-Messiah meme most recently being pushed by Ross Douthat. If this meme is any sort of acceptable generalization about Democrats, why wasn't he the first choice for most of them?

The 2008 Democratic primary was extraordinarily drawn-out, with each state voting before Hillary Clinton officially conceded. Hillary got a big chunk of the Democratic primary electorate. And a fair number of people who ended up choosing Obama over Hillary initially supported another candidate (in my case, John Edwards) who fell out of the running before they got to vote. While the measures of the primary popular vote that make sense to me have Obama getting the most votes in the end, enough of those have to come from former supporters of other candidates that it's ludicrous to regard Obama as everybody's Messiah. He wasn't even a majority of Democrats' first choice.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rarely Is the Question Asked: Is Our Senators Learning?

I've previously written about the unsustainability of current Senate structure. Essentially, the rules of the Senate assume a level of bipartisan cooperation to which very few current members of the Senate—and only seven Republicans, among them the partisan Minority leader Mitch McConnell —have experienced for any extended period of time.

All that is some throat clearing to say that it's a very, very good thing that Senate Democrats are considering re-writing Senate rules in order to deal with Republican abuse of the filibuster. The current filibuster rules have been in place since the mid-1970s, which is actually a very long time for Senate rules to go unmodified. We are well overdue for a change, and Lord knows Senate Republicans will not think twice about killing the filibuster if it suits their needs in 2012 or 2016. Given the number of cloture votes filed on bills that eventually pass with overwhelming majorities, and the giant number of nominations that have been ignored, this is all well overdue.

Also, Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is one smart cookie. He and Ezra Klein had a really good talk about Senate operations. You should read the whole thing, but let me hilight this one piece in particular:
I always make reference to when I was an intern in '76, and I was working on the Hill in the '80s, the Senate functioned. It doesn't really function now. We didn't pass a budget, we didn't pass any of our appropriations bills. We didn't get to a host of House legislation, we didn't get to a whole lot of nominations to the executive branch and the judicial branch. This is not an acceptable state of affairs.

So if the social contract is broken, the contract that said "I understand that only under the most pressing, important circumstances will I utilize my privilege to delay the Senate and demand a supermajority vote," if that social contract is gone and it's a routine thing because one wants to paralyze the Senate and keep it from operating, then we need to adjust the rules.

Well said.

Truth In Headlines

In addition to "Shit State Legislators Say", one of my other ideas for recurring thematic content is to hold "Truth In Headlines" contests. Often times, headline writers must be rather euphemistic in choosing the big bold text for certain topics, or they are forced to take certain ideas or people seriously even though they are, to coin a phrase, full of shit. (Worse is the possibility that journalists might actually take certain people or ideas--such as Jim Demint, or anything that comes off of Sarah Palin's Twitter feed or Facebook page--seriously when they are in fact full of shit).

Anyway, with that introduction, come up with a more truthful headline that WSJ's "Joe Miller Won't Block Murkowski's Swearing In". Bonus points if you can find a headline in The Onion that is more truthful than this one.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hooray For Things Passing

I looked at a newspaper over someone's shoulder in the hostel last night and saw that New START was going to pass the Senate. The media is reporting that it's a victory for Barack Obama, and I suppose that's right. People more willing to comment on matters of substance might note that it's a victory for those of us averse to the destruction of humanity.

On the other lame duck stuff, I'm fine with the tax cut / stimulus deal -- it's a decent compromise that could put the Democrats in a better position in 2012 when we have to decide whether to renew the tax cuts. More obviously, it's good that gay people can serve openly in the military now. Andrew Sullivan, this may be time to say something nice about Harry Reid. Telegenic talking head skills < Senate Majority Leader skills.

A Man Who No Longer Wishes To Be A Senator

By my count, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) has voted against the earmark ban and for the new START treaty.

Do you think he prefers golf or fishing?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I have two pieces of news for the Obama administration, which seems to think that they need to propose Social Security cuts in the State of the Union in "to pre-empt an even more draconian set of budget cuts likely to be proposed by the incoming House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as a condition of extending the debt ceiling."
  • In the past election, Republicans ran about $500 million worth of ads attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare.
  • The President has a much more direct way of preempting Ryan's hypothetical cuts. He can veto them.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Obama's Glass: More Than Half-Full In Some Places; Less In Others

The Glass is Half Full!
As Kevin Drum points out, in the grand scheme of things the Obama administration is two-for-three on the major priorities of the day. Health care reform happened, even if it wasn't pretty. And our misadventure in Iraq has come to an end. In addition, Don't Ask Don't Tell has finally been repealed (and credit to Harry Reid for basically daring Republicans to vote against a standalone bill), the financial reform bill, compromised as it was, was certainly better than what would have happened under a Republican President. Behind the scenes, the Obama administration has made progress on rebuilding the country's regulatory apparatus in various places, notably EPA and antitrust but also mundane but important agencies such as the FDA, FCC, and so forth. Those are some serious high lights.

The lowlights are also pretty clear:
  • Obama got everyone to say some nice things at Copenhagen, but really, doing anything to slow down carbon-based pollution has been a total bust.
  • Immigration reform hasn't happened, though it was pretty obvious bipartisan cooperation there was dead for a long time halfway through Bush's second term.
  • As Drum mentions, despite some early positive indications, unwinding Bush's travesties on civil liberties basically hasn't happened.
  • The health care reform bill leaves a lot to be desired. Forget the lack of a public option; the climbdown on end-of-life care, on covering non-citizens, on doing more to make insurance more affordable for those living at working class wages, left much to be desired.
  • Appointments to subcabinet positions have been bad, and to the judiciary have been even worse.
  • There's a general distate for Obama's habit of negotiating with himself. How this is perceived by the median voter is still unclear to me, though.
  • There seems to be a lot of fear that deficit-reduction hysteria is going to lead to some terrible budgets in the near future, along with an awful reduction in promised--and paid for-- Social Security benefits.
It's hard to say that the bad outweighed the good here. The first two years of the Obama administration alone mean that he will end up as the most progressive President since LBJ (or, if you like the Kennedy/Johnson years) when it comes to domestic policy, and the mess in Afghanistan pales in comparison to what we had in Vietnam. If he ends up working out an awful Social Security "compromise", that could change the calculus, but we'll have to see what happens there. I have a hard time believing anyone wants to look like they're cutting Social Security during a Presidential Election year. For now, though, a solid A- for Team Obama.

cc photo by flickr user Ibn-Ar Rashid

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Our Completely Unserious Discourse

Various budget chickenhawks have banded together to hand out some awards to their favorite elected officials. This year, they've chosen Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN). As you can see, "concern" about the deficit is bipartisan.

Yes, the same Kent Conrad who in mid-November thought we ought to temporarily extend all of Bush's debt-financed tax cuts and then "get serious" about deficit reduction. And that's the same Mitch Daniels who was the OMB director under George W. Bush. Say what you will about Orszag's new job at Citigroup, he managed to shepherd a health care bill that is modestly deficit reducing in the short term and substantially deficit-reducing in the long term. Daniels, on the other hand ... well, let's turn the mic over to Brad DeLong:
One of the threads of Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty is that Mitch Daniels simply did not do his job as Bush's OMB Director. The OMB Director is the principal--indeed, the only--voice inside the White House for fiscal prudence, for trying to ensure that the money the government spends is spent well and that the resources the government raises are adequate for the spending plans the White House evolves. While he was Bush OMB Director, Daniels simply did not do his job.
Very serious!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010


Security in Auckland Airport had a ruler taped to the counter marked for the maximum legal length for knives (6 cm) and the maximum legal length for boomerangs (40 cm). I have a hard time getting a handle on airplane boomerang terrorism scenarios.

<s>closing</s> redirecting the revolving door

The Obama administration has made it somewhat more difficult for executive branch officials to cash in on their government service by becoming lobbyists, which is a step in the right direction.

Of course, that doesn't stop them from becoming vice presidents of major banks primarily due to their ability to advise ion government affairs, but we can't have everything in life.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


A while ago, I recorded a philosophy podcast with Luke Muehlhauser on Possible Girls, the Humean theory of motivation, and my version of hedonic utilitarianism. He's gone to the trouble of transcribing the whole thing so you can click over there and read it or download it to listen as you please. Luke has been doing this sort of thing for a while with lots of philosophers and he asks good questions.

He also has a link to my dissertation. It's 188 pages long. Don't bother reading that unless you're very interested in the role of desire in motivation and have a lot of time to spare. Maybe sometime I'll post my shorter-but-still-long paper on that stuff here and explain it a bit. It's probably my biggest career success to date, as it was published in what's probably the top journal in philosophy.

With that, I return to my travels through Australia and New Zealand. Things have been going quite well down here. People at the conference liked my paper titled "Why My Pants Are Not Subject To Requirements of Rationality." Because of philosophy (I have one more talk to give at ANU on Thursday), fun tourism stuff (I'm going to be visiting the Great Barrier Reef from the 19th to the 25th), and internet availability issues, it's not clear when I'll get back to my usual blogging pace. At worst, it'll be around the end of the month.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Deal, or, A Failure of Imagination

If you size up the tax cuts Republicans wanted, and you size up the tax cuts President Obama wanted, the deal struck some time Monday night or during the day on Tuesday looks like a pretty good deal. Short of expanding the EITC or Child Tax Credit, a payroll tax cut is the most progressive way to cut taxes right now. Extending the unemployment benefits for over a year is crucial given the state of hiring, and with a little luck it may be long enough that hiring will have picked up by the next time they come due. The electorate in Presidential years is more amenable toward raising taxes, and Obama will have more opportunity to control the terms of debate. Really, if Democrats can extract any concessions they want in exchange for cutting the estate tax, they should take that deal every time.

But Barack Obama campaigned against "the smallness of our current politics". He talked about the failure of the country to envision a government capable of doing big things. And he has now delivered us a debate between two governing parties that doesn't extend beyond the four corners of a Heritage Foundation whitepaper. The best thing government can deliver to the American people is a tax cut, and the only difference between the two parties is the question of which taxes get cut. I don't know about you, but I would have a hard time waking up in the morning to go work in OEOB if that's all I were there for.

Obviously, we shouldn't overlook the fact that passing health care reform was a Big Fucking Deal that might not have happened under another President. But carbon pricing appears to be dead in the water and no one has any interest in reviving it. Compromise on infrastructure investments seems to be impossible, since apparently it's now Republican orthodoxy that we never put another dollar into rail investments, even if it means a Republican governor turns down free money from the Feds. At the moment we're suffering from a failure to imagine what it is our government is capable of, and no one seems interested in coming up with any good answers.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Brief History of Senate Malapportionment

With filibuster reform bubbling its way up the agenda (since, let's face it, the next Republican Senate will effectively eliminate the filibuster no matter what), I thought I'd look at the question of whether current Senate dysfunction is driven by the increasing population gap between small states and large states. I took a weighted sum of the population of the largest 10% of states, and compared it to the same figure for the smallest 10% of states. For example, there were 13 states during the initial 1790 Census. So I took 100% of the population of the largest state and added it to 30% of the population of the second-largest state. Then I did the same with the two smallest states, and divided the first number by the second. If this ratio goes up, it means that the large states are growing faster than the smaller states, and that the large states' underrepresentation is getting worse.

When the colonies ratified the Constitution, Virginia and Pennsylvania had roughly twelve times the population of Delaware and Rhode Island. The large states continued to grow faster through the pre-Civil War era. Most of this growth occurred in the Northeast and Midwest. During post-Civil War reconstruction, Republicans aggressively granted statehood to prairie and mountain west states to expand their political coalition, causing the ratio to spike in 1890 with the addition of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In the second half of the 20th century, three major events reshuffle. The addition of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union; modern air conditioning making the Sun Belt a more attractive place to live; and the decline of industrial employment in the Northeast and Midwest. Today, the large states are more underrepresented than they have been at any time in the country's history, except moments where new (usually small) states were added to the union. But the large states aren't that much more underrepresented than they were in, say, 1950.

Let's look at a slightly different number, the percentage of the U.S. population living in those large states.

This paints a much clearer picture. The large states constitute a larger and larger share of the country's population. And the situation has gotten steadily worse since 1970. It's possible that by the end of the next decade, 40% of the country's population will be represented by 10% of the members of the U.S. Senate. That is not a recipe for political sustainability. But once again, current underrepresentation is only modestly worse than it was during much of the 20th century.

In conclusion, underrepresentation of large states is bad, and it's getting worse. But because it's not dramatically worse than it's been in recent times, it is hard to say that large-state underrepresentation is the root cause of the Senate's current dysfunction. Instead, we have to look to the fact that partisan alignment now mirrors ideological alignment (which was not true in the era of Dixiecrats and liberal Northeastern Republicans), and to the decay of Senate norms that prevented the minority party from using procedural gimmicks to obstruct the majority at each and every turn.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Deportation and Eleven Dimensional Chess

My understanding of the Obama administrations attempts to beef up immigration enforcement is that they're both (a) yet another unilateral concession to Republicans and (b) yet another backdoor attempt to persuade business lobbyists to support piece of the Obama agenda. In the same way that the EPA's CO2 emissions rules are designed to make the need for Congress to pass a carbon pricing scheme, tougher enforcement is supposed to convince farmers, meatpackers, construction companies, and the like to get behind some form of normalization for the millions of undocumented workers in this country.

Needless to say, it hasn't worked out so well.

(Photo of immigrants standing in line at Ellis Island from the NYPL collection)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ending the Filibuster-As-Time-Sink

Kevin Drum hilights Jeff Merkley's smart proposal to keep the spirit of the filibuster—allowing the Senate to continue debate in the presence of a small but vocal minority—while eliminating its use as a tool to simply slow down basic governance functions. The basic trade is that while the minority's right  to extend debate indefinitely becomes is reduced, their right to offer amendments is expanded. It's a good trade and Senate Democrats should take it. To state the obvious, in the event of a Republican President and Republican House/Senate in 2012 (which has at least a 12.5% chance of happening just by pure luck), the filibuster will be destroyed instantly and we all know it. Better to fly into the teeth of the thing and allow the Senate to go about its business for a couple of years before shit really hits the fan.

More Awesome Nancy

While I have the next post up, why not mention this interesting WikiLeak as well?
China was "scared to death" over a visit by US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is outspoken on human rights, and rejected her request to visit to Tibet, according to files leaked Monday... Her visit last year came just a week before the 20th anniversary of China's crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen Square. On a previous trip, Pelosi unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square in remembrance of those killed.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Scientists Discover New Life Form Based On Awesomeness

House Democrats separated middle class tax cuts from tax cuts for the rich, and passed the middle class tax cuts with all but 3 Republicans voting no. David Kurtz, please take this moment to reflect on why Nancy Pelosi deserves to continue as Democratic leader in the House. Anyone who thinks that the leadership fights somehow made our situation in the House worse should also pay attention.

Since the Senate is unlikely to pass this, the practical implications are that tax cuts may expire (which is good, because it means more long-term revenue). Or we could end up with a situation where Democrats end up letting Republicans having a temporary extension of tax cuts for the rich in exchange for something we want (which could be good, if we get a good deal).

And in any case, we bank a Democratic vote for middle-class tax cuts which all these Republican incumbents opposed. Sadly we can't get next year's incoming GOP freshman on the hook for it, and a lot of them are from the districts we're going to need to win back. But still, it's a political and substantive win.