August 30, 2008

Only Kind Of About Sarah Palin

At,* the spot-polling report is that women are more critical of McCain's pick of Sarah Palin than men. This is no particular surprise to me. My experience in front of juries leads me to believe that women tend to be more critical of other women than they are of men. Similarly, men are more critical of other men than they are of women. I don't think this is some bizarre perversion of feminism, because I think it does apply to men, too.

I believe I've set this theory out in these pages before. But I'll do it again because I think this is particularly important to put this political datum in perspective.

My theory is that it has to do with identification and understanding of the other person's role in a relationship; women understand how a woman fits into a particular situation (often much more awkwardly than we men appreciate until we really pause to think about it) and may not have the same visceral appreciation for how men fit into the situation. So too when the roles are reversed. In other words, it's easier to visualize yourself in the role of another person when that person is your own gender. So when you hear a story about a man and a woman interacting in some way, you will tend to focus, perhaps subconsciously, on the person of your own gender. When that person deviates from the behavior that you would expect of yourself, you become critical.

The result has been that female jurors have told me that they were the ones to initiate criticism of female witnesses or parties, and the same for male jurors being critical of male protagonists in a trial. So I'm not surprised that female voters would look more critically at Sarah Palin than male voters. I'm reserving judgment for now; maybe if I were female I would be less inclined to do so. Of course, if I were a Democrat I would feel an impulse to be critical of the choice and that may be more important than gender for this particular choice. And then there is the issue of women being more likely to be Democrats than men -- but Republican women are more critical of the choice than Republican men, too -- although by a lower margin than women who self-identified as independents or Democrats. So this does seem to be a reflection of the criticize-your-own-gender phenomenon I've seen anecdotally in other contexts.

I'm curious if others who read this blog share that experience of people being more critical of members of their own gender than of the opposite gender -- particularly, but not necessarily limited to, lawyers who have had to take matters to jury trials.

* If you're looking for a place to stay up-to-date on Presidential and Senatorial campaign polling, this is the place to go. It's appropriately-weighted and intelligently analyzed state-by-state polling data updated pretty much daily. With probability simulations wargamed for you daily, too. I don't get paid for endorsements like this.


Having a sudden rash of deaths in my social circle and family over the past few days has got me thinking. In our western tradition, religions teach that a deity acts as a moral judge. The Christian myth of the Judgment Day after the Apocalypse is probably best-known to most Readers, but God serves as a moral judge in Jewish and Muslim traditions as well. Those who have behaved in a moral fashion during life are rewarded by God with eternal life in paradise and proximity to God; those who have not are punished eternally either by separation from God, denial of an afterlife, or worst of all, an afterlife of torture and suffering.

But this is not universally the case, particularly in religious traditions that are not monotheistic. In pre-Christian polytheistic mythologies, the Gods were not necessarily moral judges or even particularly morally admirable. Rather, the Gods were repositories of power, who used their power, or not, for purposes of their own. Man's relationship with the Gods was to appease them and seek their favor, much as a supplicant seeks the favor of a king. I've read descriptions of the relationship of worshiper to God in classical polytheistic traditions as being essentially contractual in nature -- "I will sacrifice to you or worship you, O God, and in exchange you will bring me good fortune within your sphere of influence." The walls of Pompeii and other classical ruins are littered with graffiti of worshippers asking for favors from the Gods -- good fortune, a happy love life, wealth, success in war, safety for a traveler, a curse against an enemy -- and promises to the Gods for the same. There are also messages left for posterity of those who did not receive the favor they requested, and cursing the God for withholding the benefit.

And the concept of reward in the afterlife is also something that does not seem to be universal in the history of theological thought on these subjects. The original conept of the afterlife that archeaologists report from ancient Mesopotamia is a dark, dry space underground, where the departed remain forever in what seem like fairly miserable circumstances. One's moral behavior in life was irrelevant to the grim fate of death. This more or less carries over to the Egyptian and Greek traditions, although those cosmologies suggested that there was a minute chance one might ascend to the heavens and be with the Gods rather than engage in the eternal suffering most people would endure after death. But this was, at most, only partially tied to one's moral behavior during life and seemed to have much more to do with obtaining the favor of the Gods using the Gods' calculus of value rather than that of good behavior.

From what I understand, non-European traditions similarly divorce morality from the role of the supernatural. Some traditions, like Confucianism or Buddhism, are generally silent about the existence of a supernatural entity at all. Eastern traditions seem to rely on the concept of karma, which we Westerners equate to the moral behavior of a person affecting the fate of their souls upon reincarnation. I suspect, though, that there are elements other than morality that weigh in to the proper understanding of karma in this tradition -- particularly since the reward for good karmic behavior is not an eternity of paradise but rather nirvana, which is more akin to nothingness.

Pre-Columbian religion in the new world I know of even less, but what I have learned seems to resemble the polytheistic traditions of the ancient European world in this respect -- the Gods do as they will and the individual who dies faces a grim eternity governed by the whims of the divines rather than the moral worth of one's deeds while alive.

This isn't to say that in these other traditions, bad moral behavior was excused -- it's just that morality was not directly relevant to the issue of religion. The Greeks, in particular, devoted a ot of time and thought into understanding and explaining why good moral behavior was inherently important, and beneficial to society, and beneficial to the individual. And we should not forget that what has been considered "moral" behavior has not always been the same over time and across cultures, either. And good moral behavior is, I think, part of the reward-punishment schemes of eastern traditions.

The Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- do make this link, which is powerfully interwoven into our culture. We want bad moral behavior to be punished and good moral behavior to be rewarded, and instinctively seek to mimic that cosmological norm in our material relations to one another. And that is, I have to think, ultimately a good thing because good moral behavior is good. It would be interesting to learn whether other monotheistic traditions -- Zoroastrianism, Akhenatanism, Mithraism -- similarly link moral behavior during life with an eternal reward/punishment scheme.

As a secular person, I suggest that moral behavior is an inherent good and an inherent reward; to an adult, morality need not be enforced with a carrot-stick approach. I wonder at the linkages that religious people see and why they are necessary from a utilitarian perspective.

Mo Better Science

It's not a big secret that science and math education in the United States is, at best, struggling to compete with that being done in the rest of the industrialized world. American special effects impresario-turned basic cable TV show host Adam Savage offers some ideas about how to make it better. I'll let you read the article, it's short and worthwhile.

To it, I'll add another observation. Schools -- both in the U.S. and in other industrialized nations -- concentrate a lot on the concept of "getting it right." Provide the right answer to a question, and you are rewarded with a good grade; provide the wrong answer and you are punished with a bad grade. And we tend to think of math and science as "objective" sorts of mental disciplines -- there is only one correct answer to the math problem "What is 5 + 3," for instance. But Savage is absolutely right when he says that "...being wrong can be just as interesting as being right." At a certain point, the process of learning is not necessarily advanced by providing the correct answer but rather by disproving a hypothesis. And ultimately, science is less about proving what is real but rather about proving what is most likely to be true and distinguishing that from things that are provably untrue.

At early grades, of course, there are objective facts, basic math and mathematical theory. Students don't realize it when they learn algebra, but they are learning how to think using symbolic logic, how to understand how things relate to one another according to those inflexible rules. The step they never take is learning how to take those inflexible rules and apply them creatively. The same sorts of things happen in music -- musicians understand that music has a set of rules, found in the beats and measures of a time signature; found in the flats and sharps imposed on music by a key signature; found in the structure of a piece of music like the call-and-repeat pattern of twelve-bar blues. The same sorts of cumulatively more creative use of inflexible rules comes in to play in applied science. (It does in law, too.)

So here's one way science is tested:
The force of gravity applies to an object falling to earth:
A) Greater based on how close that object is to the center of the earth
B) Greater based on the mass of the falling object
C) Both A and B are true
D) Neither A nor B are true.
That's all good and fine. But students will learn the lesson infinitely better if they can climb to the roof of the school and drop stuff from it. Does a ten-pound bowling ball fall to earth faster or slower than a ten-ounce grapefruit? If so, why? And let the students figure out how to test what they think is true. The teacher would have to grade the project on its ability to demonstrate the validity or invalidity of the proposition under question.

This would, of course, require the teacher to understand the scientific method and be able to apply it himself. But hopefully, most science teachers know this already. This would also require a teacher with a degree of mental flexibility, to put the textbook down and get the students to start using their brains. And isn't that what education is all about?

Here's A Mystery For You

Why hasn't this video on YouTube gotten a million or so hits? It's hilarious:

The Yale Institute for Danzig Research is an inspired touch.

August 29, 2008

Vote For The Cylon And The ... Other Cylon?

And here's what Bill Clinton thinks of the choice:

And it would seem this is something President Clinton and Senator McCain agree on:

Okay, I'm going to stop blogging about Sarah Palin for a little while now.

Sarah Palin The Creationist

She's okay with creationism being taught in Alaska's public school science classes. Ugh. Well, it could be worse; if you RTFA, you'll see that she clarified her initial "teach the controversy" statements to the Anchorage Daily News:

In an interview Thursday, Palin said she meant only to say that discussion of alternative views should be allowed to arise in Alaska classrooms:

"I don't think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn't have to be part of the curriculum."

She added that, if elected, she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state's required curriculum.

Members of the state school board, which sets minimum requirements, are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature.

"I won't have religion as a litmus test, or anybody's personal opinion on evolution or creationism," Palin said.
Well, that's on the margin of acceptability. I'd agree that if a student brings up the issue of creationism in science class, the teacher has no choice but to deal with the idea and talk about the subject, and there should be no sanctions to either student or teacher for that. That isn't much of a statement, I realize. But the kids need to learn evolution because that's science. Religion they can learn at home, free from governmental interference.

I say that because because even if someone's religion were to pronounce that π = 3 in math class* doesn't mean that the statement has to be treated as worthy of "equal respect," any more than the theory aetherial vorticies have to be treated with "equal respect" to the theory of gravity, or the stork theory deserves to be given serious treatment in a sex ed class.

As for Palin and her putative sympathy to creationism. Well, no one was going to be perfect, and I think a top priority for McCain was shoring up his skittish right base. Pain is acceptable to them -- she's a lifetime member of the NRA, personally proved her pro-life beliefs by carrying to term a Down Syndrome child recently, and is at least superficially friendly to creationism.

Query as to how much appeal she will maintain with disaffected and embittered Hillary Clinton supporters once they learn those things about her. I would have thought of Clinton supporters as moderate-to-liberal in political preferences, and rabidly pro-choice. But maybe there really are that many voters out there who want to see a woman, any woman, regardless of her views or policies or experience, holding Constitutional office in the White House.

* Judaism and Christianity - at least as interpreted by those who insist the Bible is "literally-every-word-is-infaliably-true-and-inspired-by-God" - make that claim. See 1 Kings 7:23. I doubt that even the ancient Hebrews believed in math so ludicrously bad, though; anyone who has ever built anything circular knows intuitively that π > 3.

Sarah Palin The Lightweight

Okay, so there had to be a big bone thrown to the right wing. And while you're at it, make a play for at least some PUMAs. That makes sense. And you can argue that Sarah Palin provides some balance for "youth" and "newness" and doubles down on "maverick" and "integrity." I might add in Palin's defense that her experience has been on the executive side of things rather than on the legislative, and there are different skill sets involved in being a good legislator as opposed to being a good executive.

Nevertheless, the big concern is that she's a lightweight of the sort we haven't seen since Dan Quayle.

Upon further reflection, and despite the political pressures that I described in the first paragraph, I'm really quite amazed that McCain has thrown the best arrow in his quiver away. McCain's best argument against Obama was that Obama is too new to the game, too inexperienced, and unready to take on the job of President. If he makes that argument again, he needs to explain how Sarah Palin will be ready to be President at a moment's notice in a way that Obama, who has been running for President for more than two years now, will not be. That's a tough sell.

This pick has got Obama supporters launching attacks on the issue of experience. Obama formed his Presidential exploratory committee 743 days after first taking national political office. Sarah Palin has held serious political office for 635 days before being named as the presumptive vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party. We're talking about a difference of 108 days of political officeholding between the two of them to learn what's what. Either way, if we're talking experience, it's a bit like me saying I'm qualified to be Attorney General because I once covered an appearance for a colleague on a misdemeanor charge of contracting without a license.

About the best thing that I can say about Palin's inexperience is that if elected, she will be the Vice President and not the one actually sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office. If it were really a question of who would be ready to go if something happens to the President on day one, then that would make the choice fantastically easy. But we don't pick our Presidents on the theory that they'll be assassinated immediatley upon swearing the oath of office. The person on the top of the ticket is the one who really matters.

Now, until proven otherwise, I'm going to assume that Sarah Palin is a smart politician. I doubt she has been properly schooled on the array of policies and issues that would confront a President at the moment. She's going to have to learn then, and fast. If she's smart, and McCain gets some good people to school her, that can happen. But the election is nine and a half weeks away, and that isn't a lot of time to become an expert on pretty much everything the Federal government does, both at home and abroad.

At some point in the campaign, she's going to have to face Joe Biden -- a formidable and quick-thinking debater possessed of a keen intelligence, a lifetime of political experience and policy knowledge, and one scarcely able to restrain a biting, Churchillian sarcasm. He seems to have been genetically bred for the role of attack dog in a vice-presidential debate.

I'm going to reserve judgment on her until that debate, until we can see how she does. Politicial wonks who have followed her brief career suggest that she may just be able to hold her own. I say, keep your expectations low against someone like Biden. For her sake, I fear the possibility of a Lloyd Bentsen Moment -- all the elements of such a thing are there. But if she can hold her own in that debate, I'll say that would be good enough to demonstrate the intelligence and mental ability that would be necessary to finish out McCain's term should something happen to him.

But one other point, and it's really about McCain. A good leader has an eye to the future, meaning that the leader understands that his position, like all others, is temporary and one day someone else will need to succeed him. McCain is 72 years old today (happy birthday, Senator) and come election day in 2012, he will be as old as Ronald Reagan was when he retired. McCain has a sharp need to groom a successor. If McCain does not run for re-election in 2012, Vice-President Palin would be the obvious and probably only choice for the Republicans to run in that cycle. At 48 years of age she would be older, and more experienced in national politics, than Bill Clinton was when he assumed office in 1993.

I've not yet made "Joe Biden" or "Sarah Palin" categories for blog labels, because VP choices are going to fade in importance fairly quickly. The person on top of the ticket matters way more than the Veep.

Played It Safe Or Took A Risk?

I was thinking it would be Crist at the last minute. But McCain picked Sarah Palin, Alaska's photogenic young Governor, as his running mate. Back in March, I would have said, "No way." But I'm pleased with the choice.

Here's the thing I've been thinking about -- is this a "play it safe" pick or is it a gamble?

The "play it safe" reasoning is that Palin was the best available choice to appeal to Hillary Clinton supporters -- to deny Obama that key constituency, without which he cannot win. Palin is not a well-known figure and new to the national scene, so she has not built up a squadron of enemies or gaffes or scandals. Presumably, she will be coached and educated and trained by the campaign's handlers and molded into a good fit and a good complement for the candidate. She is likeable and has just a trace of an accent -- enough to be endearing to most folks but not enough to be distracting. She seems to have done a good job as Governor, bringing competence, sound fiscal sense, and a nice spirit to the state. Best of all, she is a double-down on the integrity and ethics issues that McCain wants to make his signature issue -- she has spearheaded an effort to reform the governmental ethics laws of Alaska and made elimination of corruption a centerpiece issue of her political persona.

But there is a risk of a huge downside. First and most importantly, this lays down the 'inexperience' argument against Obama, one of the strongest cards McCain has to play. Three years ago, she was the mayor of a city of less than six thousand residents and she hasn't even completed her first term as Governor of Alaska. On the ethics side of things, she suffers from a minor ethics scandal concerning alleged intervention into the administration of the state police, but it looks to me like she's handled it appropriately and it should blow over. Oh, and Joe Biden looks ready to eat her alive in a debate, but no one but policy wonks, political junkies, and the candidates' immediately families, will watch the vice-presidential debate at all.

The big risk here is that she might turn out to be Dan Quayle all over again. Of course, if it's gaffes you're looking for, let me introduce you to Senator Joe Biden, the man who commended his party's nominee for being "clean" and "articulate." So if you're using the "first, do no harm" rule, both candidates have taken something of a gamble.

One thing's for sure. McCain didn't need any help in Alaska, any more than Obama needed any help in Delaware.

Long Or Short On Policy?

Steve Benen takes the Associated Press's reporter Charles Babbington to task for calling Obama's acceptance speech sketchy on the details of the policies Obama would pursue as President:
Babbington: 'Barack Obama, whose campaign theme is "change we can believe in," promised Thursday to "spell out exactly what that change would mean." But instead of dwelling on specifics, he laced the crowning speech of his long campaign with the type of rhetorical flourishes that Republicans mock and the attacks on John McCain that Democrats cheer.'

Benen: This is utter nonsense. Obama detailed his policy vision in a way few convention speeches of the modern era have. What, exactly, did the AP's Charles Babbington expect Obama to do? Break out a chalk board and some pie charts? Start reading white papers?
If Benen is right and Babbington is wrong, it's a very legitimate criticism of the reporting that gets fed to at least half the newspapers in the country. So let's take a look at the actual policy proposals in the speech itself, paring out all the rhetoric and all the swipes at Republicans and Senator McCain (and also removing the acknowledgments that McCain is a nice guy who means well and has an exemplary record of military service, since the focus is on the specificity of policy proposals):

Taxes: "I will stop giving tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas, and I will start giving them to companies that create good jobs right here in America. I will eliminate capital gains taxes for the small businesses and the start-ups that will create the high-wage, high-tech jobs of tomorrow. I will cut taxes – cut taxes – for 95% of all working families."

I don't believe he will actually do this; he may or may not even try. But the question here is did he propose a specific policy to pursue? This seems specific enough for a speech of this nature. I don't expect him to quote from his proposed revision to the IRC or to specifically describe when a business stops being "small" and starts having to pay capital gains taxes again. I do expect him to describe the goals for the tax reforms he promises to pursue. This satisfies my expectations for specificity; it sets forth policy priorities and his vision for what a better tax code would look like.

Energy: "[I]n ten years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East. ... As President, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology, and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I’ll help our auto companies re-tool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. I’ll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I’ll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy – wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and five million new jobs that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced."

Again, my suspension of disbelief is challenged (regarding the oil part; I pretty much believe him on the alternative energy proposals) but that's not the point. The question is specificity of policy proposals. Breaking this down, here's what I see -- subsidies to auto companies (what some would sneeringly call "corporate welfare") for creating hybrid and alternative-fuel cars, and subsidies to consumers to artificially lower the price of those vehicles. Government seed money for wind, solar, nuclear, and low-sulfur coal power plants. These are appropriately specific proposals that we can have a good idea of what Obama is talking about.

How we're going to be "independent" of Middle Eastern oil in ten years, however, is never defined, much less specified. So I rule it's a a split decision of specificity of energy policy -- some specifics, but not enough to fulfill the promises of the policy platform.

Education: "
I’ll invest in early childhood education. I’ll recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability. And we will keep our promise to every young American – if you commit to serving your community or your country, we will make sure you can afford a college education."

Higher pay for teachers -- well, how much? How many teachers are an "army"? What kind of "support" will they get? What form will "higher standards" and "more accountability" take -- more reliance on standardized testing like the No Child Left Behind Act? And the public service for tuition bargain, note, indicates that you will be able to "afford" a college education, but does not promise to actually pay for it. You have to read between the lines here to realize he's talking about loans, not scholarships.
My ruling here is "short on specifics."

Health Care: "Now is the time to finally keep the promise of affordable, accessible health care for every single American. If you have health care, my plan will lower your premiums. If you don’t, you’ll be able to get the same kind of coverage that members of Congress give themselves. ... I will make certain those companies stop discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most."

Very short on specifics. That's not to say that a more detailed plan hasn't been offered previously (although I haven't seen it myself). Health care reform policies are inherently complex and difficult to explain. As close as I can infer from the language used here, that means that insurance companies will have to offer coverage similar to the plan offered to membes of Congress. He implies that this will be "available" to people who cannot otherwise afford that kind of coverage, but a Cadillac plan is expensive and without going to a single-payer system (which means no Cadillacs for anyone) it's hard to see how such a thing is possible. But again, the plausibility of the promise is not what we're really looking for here -- the issue is that the policy itself is described in only vague terms.

Labor: "
Now is the time to help families with paid sick days and better family leave, because nobody in America should have to choose between keeping their jobs and caring for a sick child or ailing parent. ... And now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day’s work, because I want my daughters to have exactly the same opportunities as your sons."

I have no idea what he's going to do here.
We already have FMLA, and it's easily the most-abused part of contemporary employment law. Is he going to expand FMLA? Make FMLA time partially paid, either by employers or the government? He doesn't say. On the equal pay for women issue, what more can he do that the Equal Pay Act has not already done? He certainly doesn't say what that might be. I rule these "not specific policy proposals," this is just rhetoric, or at best, a highly-generalized set of normative policy goals.

Bankruptcy: "
Now is the time to change our bankruptcy laws, so that your pensions are protected ahead of CEO bonuses..."

Social Security: "[Now is the] time to protect Social Security for future generations."

These two were in the same sentence. Only one specific policy goal is described, which is reducing the priority of CEO bonuses as opposed to pension plans in Chapter 11 reorganizations. Absolutely nothing is proposed for Social Security. There is one specific bankruptcy reform proposal, albeit one with relatively little effect but some populist appeal to it. There is nothing at all proposed for Social Security.

Balanced Budget: "
I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime – by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow. But I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less... ."

This, of course, has been my big concern about Obama for a long time. He does not really specify, to my satisfaction, how he'll "pay for every time" of this ambitious expansion of the government's role in this laundry list of mostly nebulous policy goals. But he really couldn't do that in a format like his acceptance speech. It would be appropriate for him to make reference to a more detailed policy proposal available elsewere; he suggests some general tactics ("closing corproate loopholes and tax havens") but does not even attempt to identify "programs that no longer work" or indicate how programs "we do need" can be made to "work better and cost less." Nor does he seem to allow for the possibility that a needed program also does not work, which seems very often to be the case -- Medicare and Social Security are two examples that come right off the top of my head. I haven't seen any white papers or projected budgets, but I admit I haven't looked, either. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that they exist and they're both coherent and detailed. Nevertheless, the policy proposal in the speech, even assuming the existence of this other reference material, is set forth at a very high level of generality and I can't do better than a "split decision" ruling for specificity here.

Iraq: "
And today, as my call for a time frame to remove our troops from Iraq has been echoed by the Iraqi government and even the Bush Administration, even after we learned that Iraq has a $79 billion surplus while we’re wallowing in deficits, John McCain stands alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war. ... I will end this war in Iraq responsibly."

This is more of a rhetorical swipe at his opposition than a policy proposal, but within this statement is a proposal for a timeframe structured withdrawal of troops from Iraq. He doesn't specifiy what the time frame is but he doesn't exactly have to; it seems that the current Administration, the McCain campaign, the Iraqis, and likely his campaign all are looking at something like the end of 2011, and everyone involved is quick to point out that this is a provisional date subject to change based on future events. So that's a specific enough proposal about Iraq that I'm satisfied with it.

Terrorism: "
You don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in eighty countries by occupying Iraq. ... [I will] finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan."

To be fair to Obama, you really can't be very specific about anti-terrorism policy in public. You can't say, "I'll increase the number of covert operations and infiltrators by 62% over the next three years." Nor can you say "I will remedy the insufficient air and ground coverage in sector 12-53 of the Northwestern Province in Pakistan with additional Airborne Rangers and Blackhawk air support for them." So this may well be the best Obama can do on this point -- he will divert resources away from Iraq and into anti-terrorism activities in other theaters of operations with the goal of eliminating al Qaeda and the Taliban. This isn't very specific, but there is no practical way for it to be specific.

By the way, where have I been that Bush was dilatory in going after al Qaeda? Is there anything Bush would like better than bin Laden's head on a pike to show the world? If there is, I can't think of it. But I stray from my purpose again.

Other Foreign Policy: "
As Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm’s way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home. ... I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing ... ."

Split decision at best here; this is actually mostly rhetoric and statements upon which no one can reasonably disagree. The question is not whether we use diplomatic efforts to curb Russian aggression or Iranian nuclear proliferation. The question is what else do we do besides sending diplomats out to persuade? What backs up that persuasion? Nothing is offered and I hope he's got more up his sleeve than "mediation."

Surprisingly given my generally cynical tone, I think "restore our moral standing" is an important policy goal. We cannot go it alone when addressing these kinds of problems. They are international in scope and require international solutions, and that means having the suasion to get our allies and trading partners to go along with our plans and solutions -- and being willing to listen to their ideas, too. It's very difficult to specify how "moral standing" is restored, but it's wise of Obama to note that it has been diminished of late and pointout out that a dramatic change of leadership will move the process forward.

So I'm going to say a "split decision" on specifics for foreign policy.

Other Stuff: "
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country. The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang-violence in Cleveland, but don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination. Passions fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers."

In a search for common ground, Obama steps into dangerous turf looking at abortion, guns, gays, and immigration. But here, again, we find a mixture of specific proposals and generalized rhetoric. Obama does not say how he will reduce unwanted pregnancies. He does suggest that AK-47s and similar weapons should be subject to greater restriction. He proposes hospital visitation rights for the lovers of sick gays and lesbians. He suggests that we maintain humanitarian visas for alien mothers of citizen children and enforcement of citizenship laws for employers. There are some solid specifics within the rhetoric here, although they are not particularly ambitious.
He barely address some issues at all, like environmental policy and medical research; and was completely silent on other things like China, religion, the trade deficit, drugs, or Supreme Court appointments.

So who was right, Babbington or Benen? Obama was reasonably specific on tax policy; alternative energy policy; Iraq and some other foreign policy; and and a handful of social policy issues. He was not specific about oil independence; education; reform of the labor laws, bankruptcy, or social security sytems; abortion; or balancing the budget. He talked about some issues that do not lend themselves to specificity in the first place and implied that for some of these things, he has been specific in other media, which I cannot readily verify or refute at the moment.

The winner in the Babbinton-Benen specificity debate seems to be "whoever you want to win." If you like Obama and are favorably disposed towards him, you think Benen is right that the speech contained a strong policy content. If you are not favorably disposed towards Obama and are disinclined to vote for him, then you probably think Babbington's indictment of rhetoric over policy was spot-on.

For me, it's a split decision.

Bust Of A Meeting

The Wife and I had high hopes for the Antelope Valley Freethinkers' group meeting. We had such a great experience with the Rationalists of East Tennessee and we were really hoping for another group of that quality here. But there were trouble signs all the way and I'm not, or at least shouldn't have been, surprised at how this turned out.

The organizer did not announce the venue on the website until the day of the event. I did not even know if there would be an event at all until I contacted him directly.

The event was scheduled for the night of Barack Obama's speech, about the most-hyped political event of the entire campaign season so far.

And, it was going on during the Antelope Valley Fair. If you don't live in the A.V. you may not realize the depressing effect of the Fair on other activities -- it's not that there's nothing else to do up here. Obviously, in our case, we could have gone to the Freethinkers' meeting instead. But the Fair is very well-marketed, enjoys a strong local reputation, and it's only here for a few weeks. So if you manage to actually identify something else to do, the Fair still seems to beat it out.

When we got there, the meeting room at the back side of the restaurant was split off and there was a sales seminar for people trying to sell some kind of direct-marketing travel agency things. (They had poor turnout for their event, too.)

And then -- one guy showed up. Nice enough fellow, I suppose, but there was only one other guy there aside from The Wife and me. And he was an illegal immigration fanatic. You know the type -- the ones who attribute functionally every problem in society to the invasion of illegal immigrants our corrupt government has invited in but refuses to pay for because, you know, someone sat down and made a conscious decision that things should be that way.

Too much urban crime? That's because it's all the illegal immigrants doing those crimes. Not enough jobs? The illegals took them all. (There's a lot of illegal immigrants out there prowling the courthouse corridors poaching work from native-born American lawyers, I can tell you!) Our educational standards are down? That's because the teachers have to deal with all the illegal aliens' kids. They're the ones who won't make eye contact with the teachers, refuse to speak English, have $200 cell phones and drive to school in Escalades paid for by section 8 vouchers. Racial tension? That's because we have all these illegal immigrants around and they don't like white people. War in Iraq? Well, that's what the illegal immigrants are here for, so they can fight our wars for us. Not enough medical care and what is there is too expensive? That's because illegal aliens are swamping our emergency rooms and not paying. Budget deficit? If we didn't have to pay for social services for all those illegal immigrants, and they paid taxes like good Americans do, we wouldn't have a budget deficit in the first place. Lengthy delay in releasing the second half of the last season of Battlestar Galactica? I'm sure illegal immigrants are somehow at fault for that, too. The list goes on and on and on and there's no talking to them about how maybe the problems may lie, in part, with some home-grown issues we haven't sorted out yet. Whatever our own domestic shortcomings, they're nothing compared to the terrible burden imposed by illegal immigration.

Such types are also very, very quick to point out that they don't have any problem at all with people who come here legally or within the system. But when you suggest that the system might be changed to accomodate more people in response to the overwhelming demand for jobs and get those people in the system, they panic and look at you like you're some kind of a traitor. So conversations about politics are ultimately quite dull, and the conversation inevitably turns to politics no matter what you do.

Well, that's not quite true. When the guy found out I was a lawyer, he did have a "bad divorce" story, complete with a bunch of incompetent and ineffectual lawyers and biased judges. ...But his lawyer was really good. (Stop me when you've heard this one before, TL, but-- STOP.)

The subject didn't really come up so much but I'm not sure that what he meant by "freethinker" was the same thing The Wife and I did. We were hoping to meet some new people who wanted to look at the world from a secular, naturalistic, and rational point of view, people with whom we could be socially comfortable with our irreligiousity. (We would have been better off going to our regular Thursday night dinner for that.) Oddly, we found ourselves feeling somewhat awkward about explaining to others in the restaurant what we were there for, especially the travel agents. This makes me think that "freethinkers" may not be the best sort of word.

But our companion at the freethinkers' meeting seemed to be looking for people with unusual opinions about different kinds of issues, so he could explain to them how illegal immigration was really the problem they were concerned with.

August 28, 2008

Oh Yeah, Some Political Guy Gave A Speech Tonight Too

Read the whole text of it here. It was, of course, delivered in a magnificent way. Including the invocation of the language of Scripture at the end, loosely underlining the point of my previous post.

Nowhere To Go

It would seem to go without saying that atheists are not comfortable in the Republican Party, what with its heavy dependence upon the Religious Right for volunteers and campaign dollars. Elizabeth Dole has made it very clear that she not only considers atheists not worth acknowledging, she sees political advantage in demonizing them.

But now it seems that atheists are not (openly) welcome in the Democratic party, either. The Democrats held a forum on faith or somesuch nonsense, and an agnostic who protested was asked to leave. The operatives who put the whole thing together basically chose the tactic of ignoring the openly non-theistic people in their midst. The political incentive here is to make inroads into religious voters by demonstrating that Democrats are believers and good Christians and therefore good Christians should vote (and register) Democratic. Acknowleding that atheists are good people too would at minimum be off-message and at worst could offend the target audience.

Regardless of political incentives, of course, this is just plain wrong and a meaningful apology is in order.

But query about political incentives. According to the WaPo's journalist, openly non-religious people make up between 10 to 12% of all Americans. This may not be synonymous with "atheists" or even "agnostics" but may include people who simply don't think about religion at all and instead go on about their lives. I would submit that such non-religious people can probably be legitimately called "atheists" since they do not believe in God enough to avoid thinking about the issue at all. If you do not believe in Thor, then there is a decent chance that you aren't going to spend a lot of time thinking about Thor or explaining away Thor's non-existence or justifying your failure to attend Thor-worshipping ceremonies. A pro-Thor evangelist may come along and change their minds, but that would be a different issue.

Democrats are all about inclusion. They bend over backwards to be inclusive of a variety of groups -- racial groups, gender identification and sexual preference groups, native speakers of non-English languages, and now, they are trying to reach out to religious groups. Good for them; religious Americans should be represented in politics. But so should non-religious Americans. I also note that a Republican party that really stood for small government, low taxes, personal freedom, and a strong military would attract a large number of people without making an overt appeal to religiosity. Those parts of a Republican policy platform are still attractive to me despite the sometimes overt religiosity of Republican politics.

But that's the thing. Like a lot of non-religious Americans, I have to either look past or outright ignore the appeals to religion that are becoming integrated into both parties' appeals for political support. The Democrats can offer a conversion story -- a Republican military man who grew alarmed at the overreaching of executive power under George W. Bush, offended at the spread of pro-torture rhetoric within the Republican party, the leadership's embrace of budget deficits and expanding social welfare programs, and reflexive reliance on military force -- and that has some compelling power for a person like me. But if they do that on the same day they tell me I have to be religious to be a Democrat, they lose me more than they gain me. (There are some other things they may suggest on a policy level that would lose me more, too, but let's not get into that right now.)

I'm not asking for an appeal to non-religious Americans by either party. I'm asking for the parties to appeal to me with good public policy. Whether I believe in magic, and if so what kind of magic I believe in, has nothing to do with reality. The choice of bronze age idols I worship, and the manner in which I choose to worship them, has zero effect on my patriotism, zero effect on homelessness, zero effect on my wealth (unless I tithe), zero effect on my security from our enemies, zero effect on how I think Social Security should be reformed, zero effect on the kinds of weapons our nation buys or how many soldiers we hire to use those weapons or where we choose to deploy them, zero effect on whether Medicare can keep a tuberculosis epidemic from breaking out in our inner cities, zero effect on pretty much anything the government does and therefore, zero effect on decisions I make as a voter. I want the parties to dispense with religion as an additive to politics altogether. Both of them.

But I guess that's really too much to ask, isn't it.

A Class Act

Notwithstanding my previous post, Senator McCain at least has not forgotten his manners:

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, said this in response:

"That's a very nice gesture. We appreciate that. I wish more of his ads had that tone. But for tonight we appreciate it and will congratulate him next week on his nomination."

More exchanges like this, please.

Republicans Are Damn Good At Attack Ads

Obama's Polling Slip Explained; McCain Campaign Picks Veep

After an extensive search (re-enacted to left by GOP volunteers) John McCain has picked his running mate. He'll announce his choice tomorrow, after the DNC is over. So I've put together a quick mini-poll for who it will be. Vote fast -- the poll expires at 11:00 a.m. eastern time, when McCain is scheduled to make his announcement.

Meanwhile, NAPP Readers suggest that Obama's formerly impressive lead in popular vote polling has declined because of popular perception of his inexperience more than anything else. Despite four "other" votes, I only got one response offering an "other" reason for the decline in poll numbers -- a Reader suggested that near-equilibrium in partisan preference is the normal state of affairs, and the real question should have been why Obama was leading in the first place. I think I can answer that -- novelty, change, Bush-weariness, and enhanced media coverage of the Democrats as opposed to the McCain campaign, which after all did lock things up back in February of 1893.

Oh, and while you're at it, sign up for fantasy football, too!

August 27, 2008

Templum Obamicum

Barack Obama is now officially the Democratic party's nominee for President of the United States. Which is good. Nice that Senator Clinton moved to have his nomination passed out of the convention floor by acclamation, which avoids a roll call vote. This was not, of course, a spontaneous expression of support and party unity but rather a tightly-scripted move to present the appearance of being a spontaneous expression of support and party unity.

But as I've observed before, he is not yet President. It is a little bit presumptuous for an aspirant to the office of President to surround himself with the trappings of that office. Erecting the "Temple of Obama" in Invesco Field at Mile High -- one that, as you can see, is reminiscent of the off-white neo-classical columns and colonnades famously located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is as much jumping the gun as was the once-used, never-seen-again faux seal trotted out to much derision at the National Democratic Governors' Conference in Chicago two months ago.

However, it is less pretentious than "vero possumus," the Latin insignia on Obama's faux seal. Hey, I dropped my share of cryptic Latin after Gladiator was a popular movie too. Difference is, I got over it, realizing that heraldry is only very occasionally appropriate.

Obama is still the odds-on favorite to actually be elected. Once he is President, the use of the heraldry, symbols, and images associated with the Presidency will be appropriate. But it's a bit premature yet to set up photo-opportunities in front of a life-sized mock-up of Air Force One, which is currently parked outside the football stadium in Denver.

Hat tip to Sister Toldjah, who defends the use of a more subtle architectural reference to the White House at the 2004 RNC because George W. Bush was actually President at the time. Photo credit to Congressional Quarterly by way of its flickr site.

UPDATE: See more of the Temple of Obama here, starting at about 3:50 into the video. A conservative friend sarcastically asked me if it looked more Greek or Roman to me. My response: neither. In the video, it reminds me nothing of so much as the east face of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. But the orange and blue soundproofing screens are a nice touch -- it is where the Broncos play, after all.

Shocking Proposal

California has a serious budget crisis – projected spending is 15.2 billion (with a “B”) dollars in excess of available and projected funds. Here's the hard truth: we will have to raise taxes, cut spending, or have some combination of both. There are no other alternatives. We got royally screwed when property values collapsed so suddenly, and that is the extent of our revenue shortfall.

I'd prefer we cut spending a hell of a lot more than we raise taxes. For that to happen, everyone has to be willing to make sacrifices in their particular spheres of influence and concern, to spread the pain around. For me, that's the justice system, in particular the courts. Those who are in charge of the justice system need to do their part, like everyone else they must find ways tighten California’s belt so that the state’s bloated government can function. So...

<deep breath>

We should suspend capital punishment.

I do not make this suggestion out of a moral abhorrence of capital punishment. Certain kinds of murderers, the worst of the worst, richly deserve to have their lives taken and I have no problem whatsoever with the state bloodying its hands to make that happen. I am reasonably secure with the knowledge that the extensive appellate and habeas corpus review process filters out nearly any chance that innocent people are being sent to die in San Quentin’s execution chamber.

The problem is that the extensive appellate and habeas corpus review process necessary to support a system that includes capital punishment as a sentencing option is very expensive. That portion of having a death penalty, which is legally and morally indispensable, costs the taxpayers $125,000,000 a year.

So is the heightened security mandated for death row prisoners, the bulk of whom die of medical or natural causes before they are executed anyway. There are 30 prisoners on death row who have been there for more than 25 years; and over 115 who have been there more than 20. Additional savings could be realized by downgrading these prisoners to life without possibility of parole, and therefore permitting them to be transferred to prisons where their upkeep costs would not be so high. Murder trials would not be as expensive or time-consuming. All told, we’d save $150 million or more every year if we didn’t have to do all the things necessary to support this facet of the criminal justice system.

Now, I realize that this would only get us something like 1% to 1.5% of the amount of money we need to cover the shortfall. But every little bit gets us closer to closing the gap and we cannot simply lop fifteen billion dollars out of any particular part of the budget as a practical matter. So there can be no sacred cows, and we need to make unpleasant cuts and yes, the proposal is an unpleasant one for me to make. The pain involved here is less than is involved in a large number of other available options. Capital punishment exists for retributive and specific-deterrent purposes, not for general deterrence, so there would be no appreciable public safety impact.

Oh, by the way, the Governor can do this himself. With the stroke of his pen and without any review by the courts or the Legislature, he can use his Constitutional commutation power and lift at least that much burden off the justice system and its budget.

Bear in mind, I’m only suggesting that we suspend imposing capital punishment. When the state gets more money again in the future, I would advocate reinstating that facet of the criminal justice system because it is clearly what the people of the state would prefer to have in place.

Death as punishment is expensive; life imprisonment is cheaper. I’ve never disputed that point with advocates of abolishing the death penalty. But that is not a moral argument against capital punishment, it is an economic argument. Because we face desperate economic pressure in Sacramento, we Californians simply can’t afford the death penalty right now.

They Didn't Have Any Other QB Vests Available

...Or maybe Aaron Rodgers is secretly a Jets fan.

Comedy Gold

Wife files for divorce. Husband wants to reconcile. Wife says, "No way." Husband hires hit man to kill wife with claw hammer. Wife strangles hit man to death with bare hands. Delightfully irreverent analysis here -- including an laugh-out-loud comment that by moving immediately from reconciling to hiring a guy to kill his wife with a claw hammer, husband proves that he "does not recognize nuance."

Nation Creation

When does a nation begin to exist? An interesting question, when you think about it. One of relevance seeing as Russia recognized the existence of the independent nations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia yesterday over the vehement objections of the Republic of Georgia, which considers these to be regions of itself.

It may not be as easy as it seems to decide when a nation has been "born" or created. The answer may be that it depends a lot on who you are asking.

Take the USA, for instance. The American Revolution did not begin on July 4, 1776. The shooting war for independence began nearly a year before that. Nationalism on the part of Americans began well before that and there had been calls for independence from Britain as early as the 1660's. July 4, 1776 is the official date upon which the colonies formally declared their independence, although the decision to declare independence was made by the Continental Congress on July 2. At various points in the war, nations such as France, the Netherlands, Morocco, and Spain recognized the United States. And there was no doubt that the United States was a separate and independent nation by 1787, when Great Britain entered into a treaty with it.

So what about Georgia itself? It was organized out of the kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis in 1008. That kingdom became annexed by Russia bit by bit throughout the 19th century, and then revolted against Russia and became the Democratic Republic of Georgia in 1918, under British protection. When the British went away in late 1920, the Soviets came right in, and Georgia and was assimilated into the Soviet Union in 1921. This lasted until 1991, and although Georgia declared independence from the USSR in May of 1991 that process was not complete and formalized until December of that year -- and then there was a coup and ultimately, in 1995, a former Soviet leader took over until he was deposed and a new Constitution recognized in 2003.

Abkhazia, for its part, has had a government in exile since 1993. South Ossetia has had a breakaway movement seeking independence from Georgia since 1995. Now, in 2008, Russia says that it recognizes the independence of those regions. It does so explicitly referring to the creation of an independent Kosovo (a nation that Russia refuses to recognize).

Diplomatic recognition is a clue but not a surefire indicator. We do not diplomatically recongize the government of Cuba, for instance, but there is no doubt that Cuba is an independent nation. There are other odd international entities out there, too -- Cyprus, for instance, remains partially Turkish, partially British, partially U.N. administered, and partially "independent" (but really dependent upon Greece). It is difficult to consider that Christmas Island is part of France as opposed to Mexico, but that's pretty much its status. Antarctica is subject to a number of overlapping claims from various nations but all those claims are in abeyance and technically the entire continent is not organized into any nation-state. Taiwan I've talked about recently. Various nations -- say, Spain's relationship to Catalonia and the Basque territories -- grant particular regions of their territories autonomous status, reserving only the right to collect minimal taxes, to make treaties for the area, and to use the land for national defense. And there are incipient nations, like Palestine, which see people who have formed a national identity but have not yet organized independent governments -- and at least the Palestinians now have some territory they can point to and say "This is Palestine," which is more than some other nationalist groups can say about their corners of the world.

As Eric Posner points out at Volokh Conspiracy, in the wake of World War II there were about 60 nations in the entire world; that number has nearly quadrupled in the two and a half generations since Yalta. Part of that is due to the breakup of the Soviet Union; part of it is due to the breakup of the British Empire. But when there were only 60 nations, international politics and international law were significantly easier to navigate. In an ideal world, we would have fewer nations, not more. But in an ideal world, people would be able to set aside their ethnic and religious differences and concentrate on more rational sorts of collective regional interests. That's simply not the way the world is evolving.

August 26, 2008

What If It Goes To The House?

If the results of the Electoral College's vote for President are tied, the vote goes to the House of Representatives. The House can vote on the top three Electoral College vote-getters. Each state gets one vote; the votes count equally. It's the newly-elected House, not the outgoing lame duck House, that would meet to vote.

We may safely presume that no Representative would be absent from the House on that day, and that they would vote with their parties without fail. The reprecussions for voting against one's party in a disputed election for President would be enormous.

Based on the current House membership, a straight party-line vote would be 27 votes for Obama, 21 votes for McCain, and two delegations (Arizona and Kansas) equally split and therefore not voting. However, within that breakdown, there are twenty states that would decide their vote by a single vote within the delegation -- ten for each party. Some of these are because the states are so small there is only one Representative from each state, others because those states are tightly-divided and control of the delegation would be up for grabs in a single contested district.

For the Republicans, these are Alaska, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Of these, Delaware and Wyoming are not realistic candidates for a split. Alaska normally would not be, either, but its Congressman is likely to be tainted by the Ted Stevens corruption scandal. For the Democrats, those are Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia. Of these, only Vermont is a lock to stay Democratic. So it is not hard to imagine several of these states flipping control. And Kansas and Arizona are potentially up for grabs if a district changes in those states, which again is not out of the realm of possibility.

Turnover in the House is low. Of the 435 seats, 31 changed partisan control in the momentus 2006 election. That's a 7% shift. By comparison, in 2004, only 4 seats changed partisan control, for a rate of less than 1%, and in 2002, only 8 seats changed control. But one party almost always sees a net gain in an election. Given that 19 out of the 50 states are at least questionable in terms of which party controls a delegation, it is not a foregone conclusion that Obama would win if the election results in a 269-269 tie. Obama certainly has an advantage in that forum, but not a lock.

Worse Than The Arugula

I previously wrote about the rather silly theory that John McCain is constitutionally ineligible to be President. That theory depended on a particular interpretation of a particular law concerning the Panama Canal Zone and its relationship to the United States. Now, a counter theory was recently circulated to me by e-mail, the core of which reads:
The first hurdle will be having Obama produce his birth certificate, which so far he has refused to do, and prove that he was born in Hawaii on August 4, 1961, as he has always claimed. There is speculation that his American mother may have brought him to Honolulu shortly after his birth in Kenya, but no proof of that has been shown. According to the law on the books at the time of Obama's birth, the office of president requires that a candidate be a natural born citizen if the child was not born to two U.S. Citizen parents. Since he was not, should it be proven that Obama was not born in Hawaii, as claimed, he is ineligible without further debate. But assuming that he was born there, he has another problem. According to a legal researcher who has contacted AFP, U.S. Law very clearly states: 'If only one parent is a U.S. Citizen at the time of one's birth, that parent must have resided in the United States for a minimum of 10 years, five of which must be after the age of 16.' And therein lies Obama's new problem. Barack Obama's father was never a U.S. Citizen. Interestingly, there isn't much paperwork on the marriage of Obama's parents, and this has a few researchers speculating that it never took place at all. On page 27 of Obama: From Promise to Power, David Mendell writes: 'Obama later confessed that he never searched for the government documents on the marriage, although Madelyn (Obama's maternal grandmother) insisted they were legally married.' He also notes that Obama's father apparently was not legally divorced from his first wife back in Kenya at the time, a point of contention that ultimately led to their separation. This also would suggest that there may never have been any legal marriage by Obama's parents at all, but the Constitution does not ban an illegitimate child from the White House, as long as he was born inside the U.S. Obama's mother was born in Kansas and was only 18 when Obama was born. This means even though she satisfies the citizen requirement for 10 years, she was not a citizen for at least five years prior to Barack Obama's birth. In essence, the mother alone is not old enough to qualify her son for automatic U.S. Citizenship. At most, two years elapsed from his mother turning 16 to the time of Barack Obama's birth when she was 18. His mother would have needed to have been 16 + 5 = 21 years old at the time of Barack Obama's birth for him to be a natural-born citizen. Barack Obama was already three years old at the time his mother turned 21. (Emphasis mine.)
In other words, the theory is that Obama is constitutionally ineligible, either because he was born in Kenya (which he was not) or because of a bizarre legaly theory that because his mother was 18 and his father was not a citizen, he was not given automatic citizenship despite having been born in the United States. The author claims that production of Obama's original Hawaiian birth certificate would resolve the problem in Obama's favor, but that document has not been forthcoming -- which is inconsistent with the theory that the child of a citizen and a foreign national is only a citizen if the citizen parent had been a citizen for at least five years after her sixteenth birthday.

The burden of proof of a proposition rests by default with the proponent of that proposition. So if you want to suggest that Obama was not born in Hawaii but instead was born in Kenya, then you need to go find the evidence to prove it. The absence of an original Hawaiian birth certificate does not carry that burden of proof. The existence of an original Kenyan birth certificate might do so. Credible eyewitness testimony might do so. I don't know what evidence there might be, exactly, but it's not for Obama to prove he was not born in Kenya.

The theory overreaches. If Obama was born in Kenya, he was presumptively a Kenyan citizen and in order to have been elected a United States Senator, he must have "been nine years a citizen of the United States." (Article I, section 3). We know that Obama has never naturalized. We also know that no one has challenged the constitutionality of his holding the office of United States Senator. But if this argument is correct, not only is Obama not eligible to be President, he shouldn't even be a Senator. But he has been a Senator, for four years. No one -- not his original opponent, the well-financed if somewhat pervy Jack Ryan, nor substitute Republican nominee and certifiable wingnut Alan Keyes, nor any of Obama's primary opponents in 2004, ever floated that theory in a desperate attempt to keep Obama from gaining election to the Senate. All of them had every incentive and ability to present such a theory.

When a theory is too looney for Alan Keyes to offer it, that tells you something about its credibility.

To the true believer, the one who thinks Obama is a genuine threat to the nation, the theory is unnecessary and no amount of evidence will persuade such a person from their fanatical belief anyway. Can you prove that you weren't born in Kenya to someone who fanatically insists that you were? Sure, you might have a birth certificate from some non-Kenyan location, but that's just a piece of paper, after all, and it might be a forgery. And even if you could prove it wasn't a forgery, you are going to have a hard time proving that the birth documented in that certificate was you, as opposed to someone else who happens to have the same name that you used as a child.

Here's the law: a baby born on American soil is an American citizen. It's been that way since the Fourteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution. Congress cannot change or override that law.

The Panama Canal Zone was American soil in 1937. Hawaii was American soil in 1961. Both of these men are citizens by birth. Both of these men are constitutionally eligible to be President. No matter what you think of the policies that either of them would pursue or implement, the Republic has proven yet strong enough to survive eight years of George W. Bush the false conservative, and there is no reason to believe that our nation cannot survive four or eight years of either a McCain or an Obama Administration.

Here's the rule. If you like one guy or the other better, then go ahead and say why. But leave the wingnuttery aside.

Reason #221 To Not Practice Family Law

A client came to a routine status conference last week. Actually, he came late and missed the whole thing. But that didn't stop him from running into the other party -- his brother -- in the parking lot. Pushing and shoving and strong language and threats of violence apparently ensued; my client came into my office and showed me the remains of his cell phone. He wanted a restraining order, so I had my assistant prepare the civil harassment paperwork and give notice.

Yesterday was the day we'd given notice, and everyone showed up -- my client and his brother; my client brought basically his entire adult family in tow. Evil Brother brought Other Evil Brother. The first thing they all got to see was the counter clerk telling me that because the parties were brothers, I couldn't file the restraining order application as civil harassment; it had to be a domestic violence filing. I protested; they're all over 40 years old and live in separate households. No, the clerk said, if they're related, it's a DV case. Here's the paperwork.

Since I was tasked with getting two restraining orders, one against Evil Brother and the other against Other Evil Brother, that meant I had to fill out two applications, then and there, and get them turned in. This took nearly an hour. Then we got to wait for another two hours in the DV court listening to other TRO applications. Some of them were as strange as the XKCD cartoon I hotlinked to start this post.

Most remarkable was an application in which the petitioner claimed that the respondent had told her boss at Wal-Mart that she (the petitioner) had filed a false child welfare report with a county agency. The judge granted that application without hearing any oral testimony at all from the respondent, who threw a hissy fit, stormed in and out of the courtroom, and had to be restrained by bailiffs. After calling for backup, the bailiff announced loudly, "Your Honor, for the record, the respondent said in the hallway that I would die." Unclear if "I" meant the bailiff (because the respondent had threatened him) or the respondent (because not harassing her enemy at her job will literally kill her?). The judge indicated that he had decided the case based on the pleadings; apparently the respondent basically admitted the accusations and wanted to explain why the petitioner was a bad person somehow. The respondent spent the next five minutes loudly tearing up sheets of paper before she was served with the three-year "stay away" order, which includes Wal-Mart, and left the courtroom in tears.

Lesson for the next time I serve pro tem: Always let the person you're going to drop the hammer on speak first. Of course, I don't intend to serve pro tem until after my vacation in September. But that's a different story.

The conclusion of the case was that the judge thought my client's story didn't add up, and denied the TRO application. A disappointing result, but this judge is quite particular about how and what he wants to see. The client doesn't blame me for the outcome, and saw me doing what I could on his behalf. But these things are heavily evidence-driven and there isn't much I can do about the evidence.

The judge agreed with me on one thing -- I should have been allowed to file the TRO application as civil harassment claim rather than a domestic violence matter. Well, at least this way there was no filing fee.

But man, oh, man. Seeing the look on the judge's face during all the TRO applications was painful. People weren't answering his questions. People were belligerent, rude, and unresponsive to even the most obvious questions and hints dropped from the bench. There were lots and lots of obvious lies being told. At one point the judge called a recess because he was visibly losing his temper with everyone. And of course, having someone just melt down in front of a crowded courtroom and needing multiple bailiffs to restrain her was hardly a pleasure for anyone.

At one point he looked at me and asked, in so many words, "Mr. TL, what are you doing here? You normally practice in a much... cleaner environment." And so few cases actually deserved restraining orders -- most of them were just neighbors not getting along well with one another. It was enough to make me question my desire to become a judge. This judge looked absolutely miserable. I felt miserable listening to all of the crap. Do I really want to sign up to do that sort of thing full time? Maybe sorting out real estate and business disputes as an advocate would be more pleasant.

Oh, and if someone told me I had to stay away from Wal-Mart for three years, I'd be doing a little happy dance. "Really? You mean I get to stay out of crowded, loud, baby-infested megastores where the terrible quality of service is matched only by the zombie-like brainlessness of my fellow shoppers? Woo hoo!"

Google Gives Results You Don't Always Expect

My Google blog reader is continually suggesting new and different blogs for me to read. For three days now, it's been trying to steer me towards Half Sigma, who I sometimes participate in commenting on at the quirky and intellectually challenging blog bobvis. Either HS has a bigger audience than I thought or maybe there is some dovetailing going on. I dunno exactly what this means.

Advertisement For New Atheist Book

Atheism never looked so good:

I think the atheist is better-looking than the theist, but then again, I would.

August 25, 2008

One Week Left

The draft is Sunday. There are still spots available for fantasy football. Come and join the fun. The time commitment is minimal and the tools are there to make your team competitive even if you're not a football whiz. Send me an e-mail and get yourself in the game!

Postscript: Rick Reilly Thinks The Olympics Were Unreal!

And he's not afraid to tell you so, with some editing assistance from the ChiCom Party's helpful censors inspirational journalism guides.

Pointless Prosecution

I learned in law school that there are four primary reasons that we as a society prosecute crimes and punish people for violating the law -- these are, in the end, the reasons for having criminal law in the first place.
  • Specific deterrence -- to prevent a particular individual who has proven a propensity for violating the law from doing so; "Get the guy off the streets."
  • General deterrence -- to discourage other people (not the defendant) from committing similar crimes; "Make an example of him."
  • Rehabilitation -- to alter the defendant's behavior so that in the future he will not commit crimes; "Let him think about what he did in there." (I've always thought it was odd that we have this idea that sending people to prison is somehow good for them.)
  • Retribution -- to punish the defendant for wrongful conduct; "He'll pay his debt to society in time."
To this, I have had a student add another possible reason to send people to prison:
  • Welfare of last resort -- when someone's life sucks so bad prison is actually an improvement in his life circumstances, he will be encouraged to commit a crime. For such a choice to be rational, a person would need a life that is already very violent, racially polarized, bereft of meaningful economic opportunities, and to assign a very low value to personal liberty. Of course, people make irrational choices sometimes.
So then I read about stories like this one. George Danaa is the sole survivor of a head-on auto collision on PCH. His girlfriend died; the couple in the other car died. Danaa's car did turn left into oncoming traffic. No one knows why, not even Danaa. He suffered brain damage in the collision and does not remember what happened very well. Was there an equipment malfunction? An obstacle in the road? Heavy traffic? Did Danaa make a bad decision? No one can tell, not even forensic reconstruction experts using the available evidence. They could determine that no drugs or alcohol were involved in the collision. This does not mean that Danaa was not at fault. It means that no one can figure out whether he was at fault or not. That, it seems to me, is a precise fit for the concept of "reasonable doubt" and Danaa should have been acquitted.

But he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and served two years of a three year sentence, all of it while awaiting trial. It is likely a case of the jury seeing three deaths and deciding there was no one else to blame.

What was the point? Danaa doesn't remember anything about the event. It was an extraordinary sort of collision to result in three deaths and a very serious personal injury. Just being involved in that sort of thing is a significant deterrent to future risky driving, whether Danaa was at fault or not. No one will see a conviction for circumstances as uncertain as this and alter their behavior. Danaa's conduct, as best we can reconstruct it, is not one susceptible to retribution, since he does not know what, if anything, he did wrong. It certainly hasn't been good for him to lose his job, his girlfriend, have the guilt of maybe having killed three people, and to put a conviction on his criminal record to effectively remove him from the pool of people who can be gainfully employed (he had been the manager of an auto dealership). And because he had come from reasonably comfortable circumstances, he didn't need the "welfare" of the very minimal material support provided in jail during his pre-trial detention.

I get it that people died. He may well be at fault. But prosecuting him for something like this does not seem to have been a useful endeavor.

Book Review: Time and Chance

I hate being critical of this book. The Wife got it for me at a dollar-book sale. It was exquisitely researched. Its author, Sharon Kay Penman, has managed to attract a very loyal fan base and I admire her skill in leaving the life of a tax attorney to write historical novels. I'd like to do such a thing myself (at times) and I think this is the sort of book I'd enjoy researching and writing. The book was true to history -- both in terms of geopolitics, military activities, and social customs. It made the history come alive, especially thinking back over the book after reading it all.

But it was dull. I plodded my way through the 440-page book for something like six weeks. If a book is quickly-paced and exciting, I can devour a hundred pages a day. With this one, I felt exhausted going at a tenth of that pace. It left the grand drama of the assassination of Thomas Becket feeling like a foregone conclusion. There was little understanding of the sweep of events and personalities that led to the downfall of the Archbishop who used to be the king's man.

The book tries to tell parallel tales of the kingdoms of England and Wales, in the age of Henry II. Henry is married to the beautiful and glamorous Eleanor of Aquitaine, and thus Europe's most powerful secular ruler, governing as he does England and more of what is today considered France than the King of France himself. He is perpetually at odds with King Louis IV of France, who is also Eleanor's ex-husband.

His formidable military and political skills, however, are ultimately not sufficient to the task of governing so great a realm -- he must continually put down rebellions and secure the loyalty of his barons and knights in one realm or another and it seems no sooner does he sail for England than the French lords begin to revolt, and vice versa. He must find a way to heal England from the rifts caused by the war between the former King Stephen and his mother, the Empress Maud, whose claim to the throne against Stephen's was finally worked out by having both of them agree to Henry succeeding Stephen as King of England.

At the beginning of the novel, we see that Henry can keep a lid on things, as long as he has the able assistance of three important people: his wife Eleanor, his chancellor Thomas Becket, and his uncle Hywel (a character whose historical reality is only hinted at from the record, but who is elevated to be a bastard brother of Henry's father) who is half-Welsh, half-English, and who owes loyalty to both the King of Wales and Henry. Henry is comfortable with his partnerships in power; in all three relationships he is the senior member of each partnership and essentially by managing these critical political relationships and keeping his soldiers happy, he can rule with competence and efficacy. But his personality is such that he ultimately does things that drive away each of these people.

We do not see a lot of battlefield action. The author shies away from men with swords and bows and armor the way other authors shy away from sex. Only one scene, late in the book, reveals much of any military activity -- and that scene is violently sexual in nature; the allusion to rape comes as Henry breaks into a castle in France; it occurs during a time of sharp marital discord between Henry and Eleanor, and thus seems to not be of interest to show Henry's military power but rather to show that he has become a brute to his wife.

The author attempts to parallel the shift of power away from the harmonious quadruple alliance in England with the drawn-out and uncertain issue of dynastic succession in Wales. The result is not a study of parallels but rather one of contrasts -- as Henry pushes his allies away from himself, one by one; in Wales a clear successor to the aging king emerges from a court of candidates. Ultimately, Henry must swallow his pride and attempt reconciliation with his former allies who have become his enemies; and the incoming king of Wales confront the issue of whether he can survive the treachery of his father's court before taking power.

All good stuff, in terms of historical drama and tension. The author did a fine job of capturing these kinds of tensions and themes, and if she had attempted only to tell these stories, she could have done a few different things with Hywel and told the parallel stories nicely.

But the novel wants to focus on the tension between Henry and Becket. The author wants to make the escalating tension between the two men her great theme; and in this I am afraid I must report that she fails. We are left with no idea whatsoever what would have possessed Becket to turn on his king once he was made Archbishop of Canterbury. He is portrayed before assuming clerical office as a loyal and able servant of the king, a lover of earthly pleasures and a sharp player in the world of medieval politics. He is absolutely the king's man. It makes perfect sense that, given legal and political tensions between crown and church, Henry would elevate such a man to the highest clerical office in England, the better to bring the Church under his control. Unexplained is why everyone but Henry thinks this is a terrible idea -- by all accounts, it was a brilliant idea, both in real-life history and in the book.

But the critics of the elevation, including Becket himself, are proven right. Becket almost instantly turns on the King upon becoming Archbishop, jealously and stubbornly insisting upon the church's prerogatives over various spheres of justice, autonomy, and finance. In making his able minister the Archbishop, Henry has created a monster, and put a sword in the hands of the church he had sought to tame. Again -- it really happened and that's really cool and interesting. What the author completely fails to do is to explain why Becket's attitude would change. Like Henry and the rest of his court, we readers cannot understand and therefore must guess at what is motivating Archbishop Becket to do as he does, even as he suffers through numerous legal and political maneuvers in which he is ultimately outclassed and forced into exile.

Had the entire story been told from Hywel's point of view, it might have been more interesting. We would not, however, have been given the interesting and lusty scenes of Henry and Eleanor together. Instead, the story shifts focus from character to character periodically, one moment following Hywel, the next Becket, then Eleanor, then Henry. We see Henry running his court and deftly executing political maneuvers; we feel his lusts as he feels his manhood reach full potency. We see Eleanor fret about her age and whether she can keep the interest of her young husband; we see Henry impetuously misreading people while still working his keen intelligence and fine mind. Hywel is a man torn between nations and loyalties. He never seems to find a vision of a harmonious England and Wales; while he does a good job explaining the motivations of one king to the other, we never get a sense that he has formed his own vision of how to keep peace in Britain; he thrashes about diplomatically and twice fails to prevent war. Becket, though, is a bland and insipid figure; the initial vision of the man who more than anyone else personifies the wealth and extravagance of England becomes a bland, dour, and doctrinaire cleric who is both an insufferable prig and a a bore.

Without understanding Becket's motivation, the great conflict of the story does not make a lot of sense. Historically, we know it happened. But a historical novel is supposed to give us an emotional read on the events of history, an insight into the minds and hearts of the people who did the sorts of things we can read about in the history books. The author does this exquisitely well when she confronts the issue of the break between Henry and Eleanor -- she shows this in a very tragic light; a husband who has strayed and a wife ready to forgive him, and both willing to set their pride aside to make amends, tragically not communicating their intentions to one another and destroying a valuable political as well as personal relationship as a result.

It may be that the murder of Becket is the best-chronicled event in all of European medieval history; there are numerous eyewitness accounts and it electrified Europe when it happened, generating all sorts of diplomatic correspondence. But while we get a sense of why Henry and Eleanor split, and it is easy to see why Hywel and Henry split, the biggest and most critical split of all, between Henry and Becket, remains a great mystery and cannot be understood at all. The result is an incomplete and unsatisfying climax, one which does not ring true despite its apparent historical authenticity.

The secondary characters are ultimately more interesting than the primary ones, with the possible exception of Eleanor. Hywel's blind wife Rhiannon is a most interesting figure. Owain the old king of Wales catches the eye and makes the reader wonder about what he has planned. Eleanor's confidante, her loyal retainer, the young Richard Lionheart, and Hywel's former lover are also striking characters whose brief entrances and exits on the stage of the story do not satisfy -- the reader wants more of them.

But what this reader really wanted was to understand the tension between Henry and Becket. The stakes of the struggle were only partly described. The battleground was only partly described. The reason proffered for the fight happening in the first place -- Becket became a true believer in the religion -- is totally unilluminating. The climactic murder itself does not feel so much climactic as it does the logical conclusion of the previous events.

The prose in the book was not lively, but it got the job done and in retrospect its measured pace was appropriate to describe a ten-year sweep of political events. I'd have liked more battles. I'd have liked a more colorful Thomas Becket and more narrative describing him. I'd have liked more of Rhiannon and the young Richard Lionheart. I might even have liked more of Henry wenching around and making his wife jealous for the emotional tension. But although I know that Sharon Kay Penman has assembled an intensely loyal fan following for her historical novels, I do not think I will return to this well again.