Monday, August 30, 2010

Rumors of the Nordic Nanny State's Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Spend enough times reading left blogs, and you will here folks extolling the virtues of the "Nordic" model of the welfare state of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and Finland, in contrast to either the "Continental" model of Germany and France, or the "Anglo" model of the UK and Canada. Purportedly, the Nordic countries feature an economic model that combines flexibility—relatively light business regulations, less emphasis on employment guarantees in union contracts—with the security of a generous, high-quality welfare state. It seems tempting.

Except that there's actually plenty of business regulation in Nordic countries. For instance, EA Sports UFC MMA won't be sold in Denmark. Why? Because the arena artwork features advertisements for Rockstar energy drinks, and the country has a blanket prohibition on their marketing. In the current legal climate the U.S., such a ban would last approximately eight seconds. So we have a long way to go before we reach our Nordic utopian future.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Future Looks Murkowski

What's struck me about the primary defeats of Bob Bennett in Utah and (apparently) Lisa Murkowski in Alaska is how they seem to have just come out of nowhere. I wonder how Republicans in DC are responding to this. The obvious move is to do whatever crazy stuff the GOP base wants so that they'll be happy, but as far as I know Murkowski and Bennett basically thought they were doing fine up until they suddenly lost primaries (or in Bennett's case, nominating convention votes) that they completely expected to win. So I guess pandering to the Tea Party will be combined with a new awareness that you might not really know what your base thinks of you until too late, and you've got to pay more attention or be kind of entrepreneurial in doing your own ridiculousness.

Apparently it'll be tough for Murkowski to get a third party shot. I really don't know which set of potential outcomes gives Democrats the best chance at the seat, but our chances are going to be pretty slim in any case. Things probably depend on some really absurd revelation about the Tea Party guy. Alaska voters will put up with Republicans who do really weird stuff, but Alaska politicians are likely to be especially far off the deep end, so we'll see what happens. The Democrat seems to be okay -- he's mayor of a town with 9000 people (the fifth-biggest town in Alaska) so it's not like he's Alvin Greene. I think his facial hair is a bit odd though.

Looking at all this, I wonder if an Arlen Specter primary victory would've been better for the national Democratic party, in that it'd make Republican Senators think better of the party-switching option in the future if staying on the GOP side gets too hot to handle. I'm pretty sure Specter would've lost in November, given that Toomey has a solid lead on Sestak. The indignity of losing in the other party's primary has to be worse than a November loss in a wave election, though.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Australia's Hung Parliament

Australian elections have resulted in a hung parliament. As far as I can tell, Labor has 72 votes and their opponents have 73. You need 76 for outright control of the chamber. These people are the remaining five votes. The Green dude and the guy who resigned over the Iraq War go Labour. The guy with retrograde climate change views goes for Abbott. So we're at 74-74.

That leaves the guy who made a promise to vote for whoever had the most votes and the most seats, and it looks like that'll pull in two different directions. He and his moderate-seeming friend seem to be the real kingmakers. I don't have a good enough grasp on the situation to know which way they'll go. Anyway, I think they're still counting votes in Western Australia, so we'll see what happens.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reporting on the 60-vote Senate

News outlets really need to issue some style guidelines when it comes to this stuff:
Obama added that Republican opposition to the bill, which failed to pass by a 58-42 margin at the end of July, "defies common sense," asserting that the bill incorporated both Republican and Democratic ideas.
If you're not a political junkie, you might think that only 42 Senators voted for the bill, and thus might be confused as to why they put the number 58 first, since usually the first number is the number of votes for something. But of course, 58 Senators, a clear majority of the body representing a clear majority of the American public, voted for the bill. All Democrats voted for the bill except Harry Reid, who voted against it for procedural reasons. There ought to be some quick-and-easy way to convey to readers what's going on here, but this isn't doing the job. In the meantime, the Republican minority will continue to stymie the government's ability to respond to anything and reap the political benefits.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Iraq Navel-Gazing

I haven't discussed my early thinking about the Iraq War very much here. My story isn't the pundit one where I was wrong, but the ordinary person one where I wasn't paying enough attention to politics. 2001-2003 were unusually apolitical years in my life, as I was engrossed in the first two years of philosophy grad school and didn't think about a whole lot else. (Being at Harvard from 1997-2001 where the enemy was nowhere nearby also took a lot of steam out of my political interests. High school in North Carolina back in the Jesse Helms days was really where my political interests grew.)

I was dubious of the venture and on balance thought it was a bad idea for War or Car reasons -- this was going to cost a lot more money than it would probably be worth. But there was the remote possibility that Saddam had a nuclear bomb. I liked the idea of giving Iraqis a stable liberal democracy, but I thought Bush would screw it up (I've now realized that nobody could do it.) But I didn't really get involved.

I was thinking of this when I read Matt's "Why I was wrong about the war back in late 2002-early 2003" post:
it was clear to me that something was badly amiss as soon as Bush/Blair/Aznar pulled the plug on the inspections process. By a couple of months later, it seemed pretty clear that there was no scary WMD program and also that there was no real for what to do.
(There's a word left out of that last sentence, but somehow it leaves the meaning intact.) In a different way, this was a big event for me too. It made me freak out about how foreign policy was being made and pay more attention. I started reading blogs -- Matt's thing was one of the first. I thought about joining up with Dean, but the polling and my general picture of politics suggested that John Edwards was the most plausible instrument of Bush removal, so I joined that team instead, and got interested enough to start this blogging thing in mid-2004.

Polonium, Yum Yum

Slacking off at work, I became curious what kind of sushi ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko ordered when he was lethally poisoned with polonium back in 2006. Apparently it was tuna and salmon sashimi. Doing its job, the British tabloid media reveals that it was served by an attractive Polish waitress.

I hoped it would be some kind of roll, so that offbeat sushi places could copy it and call it the 'polonium roll' or some such.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Don't Give In to Bush Nostalgia

I've been seeing an unhealthy number of people claiming that the country's tolerance towards Islam worsened since the Bush years.

This is, to put it mildly, insane.

During Bush's tenure as President, the country launched two wars against overwhelmingly Muslim nations. The Republican party exploited the public's limited understanding of differences within the Muslim world to draw bogus connections between Al Qaeda and Iraq both for political gain and to enact truly disastrous policies. Andrew Sullivan was writing about whether Democrats were a fifth column. And no one seemed to mind.

The latest nonsense isn't worse, only different. That George Bush managed to saying nice things about religious pluralism doesn't eliminate the rank xenophobia of the mid-Aughts.

Winston Churchill's Holocaust

It's good to see balanced portrayals of Winston Churchill start to emerge. This is a man who killed millions of Indian villagers by taking all the grain out of the Bengali countryside in 1943. The crop yield wasn't that bad -- it was better than it had been two years before -- but Churchill took away the grain to fortify Calcutta (which the Japanese army never reached) and feed British troops elsewhere in the world. During much of the famine, Bengal was a net grain exporter.

The death toll is hard to estimate, because they didn't keep good track of population in the countryside. Estimates that I've seen are in the area of 1.5 million to 7 million, with 3 million being about the best we can do to find a unified number. When the Indian viceroy asked him to send grain back into the countryside to deal with the resulting famine, Churchill asked in a telegram why Gandhi hadn't starved to death yet.

After India got its independence in 1947, famines that killed this many people became a thing of the past. As Amartya Sen says, once a country becomes a democracy, it's ruled by leaders whose jobs depend on making sure the voters have enough to eat, and they're going to do whatever they can to make sure people don't starve. Enormous numbers of lives thus depended on Gandhi's struggle to free India from British rule. Meanwhile, Churchill was fantasizing about having Gandhi "bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back," as Johann Hari's review mentions.

Like Stalin, Churchill was in the right place at the right time to keep a terrible fate from befalling the world. And like Stalin, killing innocent people by the millions didn't bother him very much.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

We Are Ruled By Banks (Though Decreasingly So)

This post from Yglesias freaked me out. Apparently 2/3 of the people who pick a regional Fed president are appointed by local banks. People on the left sometimes talk about America being ruled by corporations, but I've never seen as dramatic and direct an example of it as this. Banks get to choose who makes monetary policy! And when you consider the role of institutions like the New York Fed in handling the bailout, you get a situation where public policy is explicitly controlled by special interests rather than the public at large.

Fortunately, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill (pdf) makes things better:
Election of Federal Reserve Bank Presidents: Presidents of the Federal Reserve Banks will be elected by class B directors - elected by district member banks to represent the public - and class C directors - appointed by the Board of Governors to represent the public. Class A directors - elected by member banks to represent member banks – will no longer vote for presidents of the Federal Reserve Banks.
I still have no idea how the class B thing is supposed to work -- how are people elected by district member banks supposed to represent the public interest rather than the special interests who elected them? But taking voting power away from these Class A directors looks like a big step forward.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Politics Stops At The Water's Edge When You Die

I tend to think that's a silly construct, but the other extreme doesn't help either. Unlike many other agencies, the State Department has a history of putting career civil service professionals in Senate-confirmable posts. Frank Ricciardone one such gentleman, having served previously in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt. His was first sworn in as an Ambassador under George W. Bush. He received a favorable vote on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But he's not even going to get a vote in the full Senate. Apparently this nomination is so beyond the pale to enough Senate Republicans that he's going to have to bide his time doing something else.

I'm rapidly approaching the point where I think Obama should start making recess en masse. Not a few dozen appointees, but everybody. Judges, sub-cabinet officials, the whole lot of them. Dare the Republicans to say that it's more important that they have input on who the Undersecretary of Treasury for International Affairs is than that we even have someone in that post. It's just gotten ridiculous.

(edited to properly place more blame on Senate Republicans)

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original Caption: President Barack Obama talks with former President Bill Clinton and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, July 14, 2010. The President was meeting with business leaders to discuss new ways to create jobs and strengthen the partnership between the public and private sectors to make new investments in the clean energy industry. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Today's Kitsch Cover is Jesse Jackson reading from Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham". For some reason the morons are not interested in sharing it, so here you go.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Congressional Democrats have a higher net favorability rating than Congressional Republicans by about 10%. Meanwhile, Republicans are beating Democrats in the generic ballot by 5%. (My sense is that the generic ballot is the one to use to predict the 2010 election. It's a ballot!) This makes a straightforward kind of sense, I suppose, because Democratic control means that most races have a congressional Democrat against a Republican challenger. So is this just an issue of anti-incumbent sentiment? I'd be surprised if that was the sole cause of such a big difference.

Monday, August 9, 2010

And You Want To Be A Senator

Rand Paul's college days at Baylor, according to a female acquaintance:

"He and Randy came to my house, they knocked on my door, and then they blindfolded me, tied me up, and put me in their car. They took me to their apartment and tried to force me to take bong hits. They'd been smoking pot." After the woman refused to smoke with them, Paul and his friend put her back in their car and drove to the countryside outside of Waco, where they stopped near a creek. "They told me their god was 'Aqua Buddha' and that I needed to bow down and worship him," the woman recalls. "They blindfolded me and made me bow down to 'Aqua Buddha' in the creek. I had to say, 'I worship you Aqua Buddha, I worship you.' At Baylor, there were people actively going around trying to save you and we had to go to chapel, so worshiping idols was a big no-no."

Nearly 30 years later, the woman is still trying to make sense of that afternoon. "They never hurt me, they never did anything wrong, but the whole thing was kind of sadistic. They were messing with my mind. It was some kind of joke." She hadn't actually realized that Paul wound up leaving Baylor early. "I just know I never saw Randy after that—for understandable reasons, I think."

This is rape culture in action. Obviously, Paul didn't actually rape anybody. But why the hell do you think blindfolding a girl and tying her up in your car and driving her around town and making her use drugs and worship weird gods will be a fun thing to do? The idea of making a girl do lots of ridiculous things against her will appears the big thrill here. It's not the kind of thing that good people get off on. I really hope women in Kentucky aren't going to vote for this guy.

Also: congratulations to Jason Zengerle for getting this scoop, but why isn't this the headline and the lede graf or whatever journalism people call it? Rand Paul's membership in a secret society that had wacky costumes is perfectly acceptable college hijinks, even if it was forbidden by the Baylor administration. In fact, I was going to give him some points for that, until oh my god you tied up and blindfolded a girl and made her do a bunch of things she didn't want to do. Creep.

A Brief Note on Immigration

I will probably find myself repeating this again and again, so I might as will have a post that I can refer back to frequently.

One of the many tropes associated with the illegal immigration debate is that these people have somehow "jumped the line", as if USCIS maintains a queue containing millions of non-college educated Mexicans, Guatemalan, El Salvadorians, Somalis, Chinese, and so on, who would like to migrate to the US but need a visa to do so. Of course, when I say it like that it sounds absurd. Current immigration law makes it close to impossible for non-college educated foreigners to gain permission to work in the United States legally anywhere outside of the agriculture sector (and even there, the supply of work permits outstrips demand). The state of current law is that there is no line for these workers to wait in.

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

Friday, August 6, 2010

There's A Bright Side And It Already Happened

Everything in Josh Marshall's "on the bright side" post is right. Even if we lose the House in November, we'll have passed some wonderful stuff. Health care reform is the big thing, and I'm also happy about financial reform. You win elections so you can do stuff, and we got our money's worth of stuff. We didn't deal with climate change, and I disagree with Nate Silver's optimism on that front -- anything that depends on the Republican Party becoming smart technocrats and appreciating the need for more revenue will fail. But getting health care reform through made everything worthwhile.

Of course, I wish there were some kind of story about how we could keep control of the House this November. I wish people would pay attention to nonpartisan economic forecasters who say Obama's stimulus bill (which all the Republicans voted against) kept us out of a horrific depression. I wish Republicans weren't taking the convenient opportunity to be hardliners about their ridiculous pro-misery domestic spending views, so that they could generate more economic adversity and more votes against the party in power.

I don't wish for a pony, because I know that Singapore is no place for one.

Getting Your Voter Choice Fix

Bernstein: "this entire round (that is, primary elections open to mass electorates) is rare by world standards. Only a few nations that have adopted the American direct primary for any office, and as far as I know no other country combines a long ballot with the direct primary."

Whenever I talk to people who wish our system allowed for more parties, and thus more options in a general election, I tell them that they've got plenty of options -- they just have to get involved in primaries. If you don't like the positions of either party, you should support a primary candidate who can co-opt the party machinery and turn it in the direction that you want. For reasons I don't understand, they're usually not satisfied with that. So then I tell them that I like IRV as much as the next guy who's willing to give up monotonicity, and we talk about something else.

Often, my interlocutors were expressing a wish for a multiparty system where there are a whole bunch of parties on the ballot, and everything gets hashed out in parliamentary coalitions. I guess there are different ways of fulfilling voters' desires for more than two choices -- primaries and multiparty systems. Maybe part of the reason why so few countries have direct primaries is that when you already have a multiparty system, you've given enough scope for voter choice that you don't need primaries.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Structuralism and the senate

Jonathan Chait joins the "structuralists" against the "institutionalists" in blaming the current dysfunction of the Senate on the incentives that Senators face. It's a fair point — it would be ridiculous to say that incentives and motives play no part in the situation we face today— but to attribute all of our problems to a list of rules eliminates Senators as moral actors. Ben Nelson, Scott Brown, and the rest of the folks clustered around vote 60 are not mindless automatons in a political science simulation. As human beings they are physically capable of returning to a fifty vote Senate. That doesn't mean doing so would be easy, but it is possible.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Do Charity Through Politics

Ezra's right about this:
The country needs food banks, of course, but a better system of food stamps would make a much bigger difference. And you could say the same for a host of other issues.

So what I want are politically effective charities. Groups that are particularly skilled at pushing government policy in positive directions. Even one success from a group like that can make vastly more of a difference than any but the largest of individual charities can hope to make over their lifetime. And I think people seriously underestimate how much impact a savvy, well-funded nonprofit can have in Washington. This is a small town that controls a very, very big budget, and corporations, sadly, have a much better appreciation for that dynamic than philanthropists do.

The returns on investment that corporations earn through lobbying are absolutely staggering. This economics professor at Michigan is estimating that corporations spent $283 million to lobby for a tax break in the stimulus bill that saved them $62 billion (or to put it another way, added $62 billion to the deficit). In other words, they took their money and multiplied it by 220. It's the same kind of thing pharmaceutical companies did when Medicare part D was passed -- pay millions for lobbying, get billions in profits.

The good guys need to be playing this game too. If there's a choice between donating $x to charity and donating $x to the political system to generate $220x in charitable outcomes, I want to do the latter. I haven't entirely stopped donating to charity -- the cost-effectiveness of treating neglected tropical diseases is pretty amazing -- but with most of my money, I want the leverage that only politics can provide.

This is why I gave $5000 to Jeff Merkley's leadership PAC a while ago. I found a Senator with plenty of legislative savvy who I agree with on all sorts of stuff, and gave him money that he could pass on to other Democrats to win their support. I'm sort of using him as my superlobbyist for good causes.

If you'd rather strike back against this corrupt system, you should find an effective nonprofit group or political agent that's pushing to fix the system, and make a donation. Maybe something to prevent our political system from being bought by defense contractors or other subsidy-seeking corporations. They can pull a ridiculous amount of money out of the treasury. The alternative to fighting fire with fire is letting them burn you.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Senate Ruined The Senate

Via The Atlantic's Joshua Green, George Packer adds C-SPAN to the list of reasons why the Senate has ceased to function, putting alongside air travel, an influx of former House members, reducing filibuster requirements, perpetual fundraising, and so forth.

All of these explanations ignore the obvious root cause: Senators ruined the Senate. Orrin Hatch, Ben Nelson, Olympia Snowe, Lindsay Graham, and all the rest of the bunch are human beings. Indeed, they're Senators—the type of person who is said to pride both comity and independence from party! It cannot simultaneously be the case that the forces of partisanship are unstoppable and that Senators so cherish the coziness of their august institution that nothing else ranks higher on their list of values. When mandarins like Howard Metzenbaum (D-OH) were in their heyday, the Senate operated on cultural norms that the filibuster was a rarely, if ever, used practice. Even though nothing in the rules prevented it from overuse, the men and women of the Senate decided not to go there. Today, a different set of Senators have made a different choice. It's tempting to blame this change on some cultural or structural trend, but doing so ignores the agency of the flesh-and-blood people who populate the Senate.