October 31, 2008

Unrealistic Expectations

No, Barack Obama will not pay your mortgage for you. Joe Biden will not give you a free fill-up.
You may even have to hold on to that job you don't necessarily like.

A Most Compelling Reason To Vote For McCain

Cindy McCain explains why it's in your best interests to vote for her husband.

Looks Like A Mistake To Me

The thing that won the 2000 and 2004 elections for Bush, more than anything else, was a really strong get-out-the-vote effort in critical swing states. So seeing the McCain campaign decide to spend its last several million dollars on ad buys instead of GOTV efforts strikes me as a big mistake. And I'm not the only one -- Patrick Ruffini, for instance, applies the word "crackpipe" as an adjective to describe this decision. I don't think he was being complimentary.

Ugliness Knows No Party

Republicans are not the only party that engages in gay-bashing to try and win elections. Over in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell is in what is thought to be a competitive race. McConnell is the minority leader in the U.S. Senate, so it's a high-stakes election. As recently as two weeks ago, some polls showed the race as being neck and neck, but most give McConnell a three-point to ten-point advantage over his Democratic challenger.

However, there are rumors that have surrounded McConnell for much of his career that he is a closeted gay man. Which makes the running of anti-McConnell advertisements by a labor union that has endorsed the Democrat asking "Isn't it time Mitch McConnell was straight with Kentucky?" more than a little bit objectionable. And no one is taking credit for this flyer, which apparently someone is going to attempt to circulate in churches all over Kentucky this Sunday (right before the election).

Now, some might say that McConnell has a bad political record on gay rights. He voted yes on amending the United States Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. (If you think I've been on a crusade about the California Constitution, just wait and see what I say if the issue seriously threatens to go national.) He would not add homosexuality as a basis to expand hate crime laws, or job and housing discrimination. Now, I can think of principled reasons for the latter. He might think that the Federal government has no place making it a tort to discriminate at all. I disagree with that stance but I can think of intellectually honest ways to justify it. He might think that the federal government has no business passing laws that make regular crimes also Federal crimes. I kind of agree with that one -- while murder, rape, and assault are certainly bad things and should be punished sternly, they are not typically the province of the Federal government to legislate and that is the sort of thing left to the states.

The question is -- does this justify "outing" him? Obviously he would rather not be outed if he is gay, and if he isn't, then I can understand why he would be annoyed at being improperly portrayed as gay. This is different than the Larry Craig "outing" in that Senator Craig went and did something dumb and clumsy that identified him as a gay man. McConnell, if he is closeted, seems to have been more subtle and discreet. I have my doubts about disrespecting the desires of a closeted gay person to keep that part of himself private, even if that person's voting record is, like McConnell's, displeasing to a large number of gays and the kinds of people who (like me) think that discrimination against gays is as abominable as discrimination based on race or gender.

So if you wanted to call him a hypocrite for being gay and yet voting to promote discrimination against gays, that would be one form of attack and perhaps there is legitimacy to that. But that is also problematic; just because someone is gay does not mean that they necessarily have to agree with "gay politics." There is no "gay agenda" that I know of any more than there is a "black agenda" or a "women's agenda." And again, this is something about himself he's tried to keep private and my default position on that would be to respect that claim to privacy even though he is a public official.

But I've little doubt that the union accusing McConnell "not being straight" is not doing so to encourage him to change his voting patterns so as to provide a more "gay-friendly" legislative agenda or even to call him a hypocrite. They are doing it to subject him to ridicule and thereby get him thrown out of office. They are clearly suggesting that it is a bad thing to be gay and therefore that you should not vote for him because he is gay. That is a disgrace and the authors of this campaign should be ashamed of themselves.

And this proves is that Republicans do not have a monopoly on using gays as whipping boys and using churches as boostraps for political gain. It's every bit as despicable to see Democrats doing that sort of thing and I condemn the Democrats behind this attack.

The Reason For The Season

An important point discussed by the talking heads here:

If you want to learn more about Al-ghul, the evil spirt that dwells in graveyards, click here. And may you have a bountiful harvest.

Last Poll Numbers

We can't expect any more polling numbers on Prop. 8 until the only poll that really counts -- the election - takes place on Tuesday. So here you go. Today's Field Poll is showing Prop. 8 trailing by a margin of 44% to 49% with 7% undecided. The margin of error is 3.3% within the 95% confidence range and an absolute margin of error beyond that of 4.6%.

Over sixty million dollars have been spent on this initiative. I've never heard of an initiative campaign, anywhere, that has attracted this much attention, this much money, and this much activity. A tremendous amount of the resources for the "Yes on 8" campaign have come from religious sources. In a very real sense, Proposition 8 is a measure of the political strength of religious groups to effect their will on the rest of us.

The "Yes on 8" campaign has tried to spread what I have called a pack of lies and deceit, intended to gloss over the fundamental prejudice against gay people upon which the initiative is based. It has done all that it can to provide elaborate rationalizations so that its supporters -- who are probably otherwise fundamentally decent and good people -- can convince themselves that they are acting from a position of moral correctness. It is not true (ultimately, the only argument against gay people getting married is "Ewww") but I will grant that many people have convinced themselves that it is nevertheless right.

The result is that it is simply too close to call. The Presidential race is a foregone conclusion now; everyone who is not professionally obligated to say otherwise (either because they are Republican partisans or because, like sports announcers broadcasting a one-sided rout, they are contractually obligated to try and keep viewers interested) knows full well that Obama will win. But this one will be a nail-biter.

Twelve Deadly Sins Of Leadership

A leader need not have all the answers to all of the problems that the leader must confront. This is to say, not personally. The point of leadership is that you are the one in charge of a team of people who do things. You can't do everything yourself; instead, you have to rely on others to do certain things for you. A good leader does not insist on holding a monopoly on good ideas. Your job is to get other people to do the things that need to be done. Your job is to set the agenda so that problems are solved and goals are reached. Your job is to identify those problems and determine those goals.

So I think Sister Toldjah got this one wrong. In microcosm, she takes a quote from Bill Clinton to indicate that as the financial crisis was running through its initial, scary, and confusing public stages, Barack Obama did not really know what the right response to it was. Instead, he saw his job as that of a salesman -- he would find a product somewhere and sell it. This, she implies, is a great gift to the Republicans because it exposes Obama as a poor and unintelligent leader. That is not a good read on the situation.

Now, there certainly are things to criticize about Obama with respect to this issue. Most prominently, Obama went to Bill Clinton for advice about how to solve the financial crisis. This, it seems to me, could very well be picking the wrong kind of assistance. President Clinton is certainly in a position to offer some insights about the Presidency based on his experience, but he was also blessed during his Presidency to have a thriving economy for nearly the entire time he was in office. Clinton never confronted a problem of the nature facing America now.

For more topical advice, Obama might want to look to George Bush The Elder instead -- the senior Bush confronted a serious recessions from 1990-1991 which resulted in a substantial and unprojected decrease in government revenue. This probably was his undoing because he could find no way out of the situation but to go back on his "Read my lips - no new taxes" campaign pledge. That Bush the Elder is a Republican was probably the stumbling block here; if that is right, Obama is guilty of letting his partisan affiliation get in the way of obtaining the information he needs, which is a form of picking the wrong kinds of assistance.

Another thing to take Obama to task for would be not ever moving into an action mode. I can't recall, off the top of my head, what Obama has actually suggested what, if anything, we should do in response to the credit and financial markets melting down. By "we," I mean any number of collective responses, whether it be as consumers, as stockholders, as citizens, or as a government. Obama has looked cool and in command but if he has put together any kind of a plan, I haven't seen or heard very much about it. While I don't discount the importance of inspiring confidence in the population to be led, valuing appearances over substance is something he might be able to get away with as a candidate for office, but he will not be able to afford such superficiality once he actually holds that office. So I think Obama can be legitimately criticized for not advancing any kind of a plan when confronted with the crisis.

This could have happened for a variety of reasons. One, he might still be trying to put a plan together. At this point, if that's what's going on, Obama may be guilty of paralysis by analysis. Second, and substantially related to the the previous pitfall, maybe he's got a plan but he's trying to make it be the best plan possible. This is a related pitfall, which is letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. In some situations (in fact, I would suggest "most" would be a better word than "some"), a mostly good but still somewhat flawed response timely made is better than a perfect response made too late.

Third, he may have found a plan but in his political judgment, it is unpopular and would hurt his chances of winning the election next week, which would indicate a lack of political courage. In my humble opinion, this is what's really going on. The sorts of policy proposals necessary to address the financial problem are politically unpalatable, and Obama doesn't want to disturb a favorable political dynamic by suggesting something unpopular unless he absolutely has to. And by one kind of political calculus, he doesn't absolutely have to advance unpopular ideas right now, because he's still only a candidate and only needs to project an image that inspires confidence in his ability to later come up with a plan.

A fourth possibility here might be that a plan with unpopular but necessary elements is something that he doesn't think he can sell, which would indicate an inability to persuade those he would lead that his plan is the right now. I rather doubt that Obama lacks the ability to persuade people of things -- he is an inspiring leader and a gifted communicator. But as he has pointed out himself, you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig afterwards.

Fifth, it could be that the people he's turned to for assistance have offered multiple and contradictory ideas, and are arguing amongst themselves. This would represent an unacceptable tolerance of discord within the team that in this case prevents the team as a whole from even formulating a coherent plan, much less attempting to act on it. Certainly, a difference of opinion between people can be used to test competing ideas; a debate is a crucible for those ideas and the ones that survive meaningful criticism are likely to be good ideas. But this decision-making aid does need to be controlled and an end must come to it -- eventually, the leader must decide which is the right decision, based on the merits of the ideas as tested in the crucible of competition. At that point, the leader's challenge is, as I've described above, getting the team to all buy in to the ideas (particularly the team members who had been proposing alternatives to the plan the leader settles on).

Finally, it's possible that despite having the ability to tap nearly the entire intelligentsia of the economic world (excepting only a few partisan economists and politicians who would be unwilling to work with him during the election) he has not yet put together any kind of a plan to respond to the crisis at all, which would represent a failure of imagination.

These are all flaws or failures as a leader which we could legitimately look to and criticize. It seems more likely than not that some combination of at least some of these things are going on. I think it is fair to acquit Obama of failure to appreciate the problem, since this problem is so obvious and has been in his face for so long now that a man of his intelligence and political acumen cannot possibly have seen it. Nor do I think that he can be said to have offered a misdirected response to the problem, since it seems to me he has offered little substantive response at all.

But I don't think that pointing out that Obama would go looking for advice about how to confront a complex problem is a bad thing. It's a good thing. Presiding over the macroeconomy is an extraordinarily complex thing. One can only presume that Obama solicited advice from people other than Clinton, too -- from his own economic policy advisors, at minimum. His job as a leader is to formulate a plan. If the problem arises in an area where he personally lacks expertise, then his job is to acquire enough knowledge to respond to the problem intelligently. That seems to me to be what Obama was doing. And I, for one, am glad that he is smart enough to know what he doesn't know and both humble and intellectually curious enough to seek advice and information from other people who may have better insights than he can cook up in his own skull.

To ask that the President, or in this case the President-elect (and he isn't even that just yet but can reasonably expect to be) come pre-armed with the kind of detailed knowledge necessary to confront an issue of this magnitude, and also come pre-equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of foreign policy, and be an expert in the subtleties of Constitutional law and governmental mechanics, and know all of the functionally useless trivia that an eighteen-month political campaign demands (how many counties are there in Iowa? what's the third-largest circulation newspaper in New Hampshire? will Floridians like it or take offense if I eat a conch fritter?) is to demand an inhuman level of mental ability -- and to demand it come packaged in a politically savvy and personally scandal-free human being on top of all that is completely unreasonable. We are electing a President, not a demigod.

Let me suggest, then, that we not criticize Obama for not personally possessing sufficient personal expertise to respond, unaided, to a problem that has been (debatably) nearly fifty years in the making and which completely blindsided the very best brightest financial, economic, and political minds out there. He will have a Secretary of the Treasury and a variety of other policy experts as advisors to help him once he's President. Rather, let us take this opportunity to instead assess Obama's qualities as a leader, which is, after all, what we are about to select him to become.

October 30, 2008

Land of the Lemurs And Other Lessons In Practical Evolution

Last night, I went to class with The Wife. Instead of a regular English composition class, there were four half-hour lectures about Charles Darwin and applications of his ideas in science. Well, there were supposed to be. The first lecture wound up being kind of about climatology and kind of about important figures in the environmental movement and kind of about, well, I don't know what it was about.

But the other three were quite interesting. The Wife's professor gave the most creative performance, with a Disney video (query if copyright was violated), a reading from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, and a prose reading of the professor's own composition, all relating to the Bubonic Plague. My critique here was that the emotional impact of the content -- the Tuchman passage is one of the most compelling in popular history, and the professor's story was pretty damn scary, too -- overshadowed the insight that the plague as it it exists today is different than the plague as it existed in the fourteenth century. And interestingly, pockets of humanity developed resistances to it; the plague spread to Bohemia but did not take very many victims there. Bohemian people today are also much more resistant to other diseases like HIV.

Anyway, the modern plague bacterium, yersina pestis, is different from its fourteenth-century ancestors in that it now kills its human host much more slowly. Where there were cases of healthy people dying overnight, doctors attending to their patients dying before their patients did, and corpses piling up like cordwood in shallow graves, today the modern plague victim begins to feel flu-like symptoms and does not show buboes for nearly a day. After that, it takes another two to three days before the bacteria begins to seriously assault internal organs and contaminate the blood. This gives the victim time to seek medical help and antibiotics, which is what the professor did after developing plague-like symptoms while observing prairie dogs and birds in New Mexico.

So what has happened in seven hundred years? Well, thirty generations of humanity and something like thirty thousand generations of yersina pestis have adapted to one another. Since much more opportunity to evolve has taken place on the bacterium side, it seems likely that this is where the bulk of the adaptation has taken place -- the plague bacterium today has "learned" to work slower, so as to give its host more time to come in contact with other potential hosts and spread the organism around so as to breed better. By being less virulent, the bacterium has survived better.

Humans, too, have adapted better survival techniques, although in our case this manifests in technology and behavior rather than profound biological change. But we cannot rule out the fact that for people of Asiatic, African, or European descent, we are all by definition descendents of people who survived the plague, and therefore we are more resistant to it than those poor souls who died of it. The plague weeded out those members of the human population who did not have the resistance and left the population better-adapted to resist the disease.

So that Darwinian lesson was kind of lost in the terror and horror that this particular interaction of parasite and prey evokes. But the lesson is still there.

The third speaker was easily the most charismatic and he had a very charismatic subject -- top-of-the-pyramid predators. These are in many cases some of the most beautiful animals out there and their activities are some of the most dramatic in nature. In particular, the focus was on the re-introduction of grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding areas. Gray wolves had been eliminated from that ecosystem in the 1930's, but in the late 1990's, about thirty wolves were captured in British Columbia and re-introduced into the Yellowstone. They've done well there, although in the five or six generations since introduction, many of their descendants have developed black fur instead of gray. No one is quite sure why.

More interesting than that, though, was the big concept that the speaker -- the curator of a natural history museum in Cody, Wyoming -- took the lesson to. In the midst of some spectacular photographs of the Yellowstone area, he was able to show that the re-introduction of these top-level predators had effected a cascade of changes in the area. The wolves mainly prey on elk, which expands the availability of grazing land for moose (who, unfortunately, are still feeling the effects of the great fires of 1988). The elk population has done just fine, producing larger specimens. The elk have learned to be more vigilant while grazing themselves, and have adopted social patterns of posting sentries while the herd is feeding. They have also avoided certain areas where they feel more vulnerable, and in those areas, aspen and willow trees are returning -- previously, those sorts of trees had not been doing well for fifty years or so in the park. Now, the elk are avoiding the stands of young aspen because aspen grow in areas that wolves like to hunt, and not eating them while they are still saplings. So, aspen are returning to Yellowstone and that is good for different species of bird. The return of willow trees is also good for beaver, who have returned to use this renewed building material. But the big losers have been the coyotes -- they have had to give up a lot of territory to the wolves and have been the victims of wolf attacks. The wolves attack the coyotes not for food but rather to eliminate competition, and coyotes have abandoned their behavior of hunting live prey and are making their living by scavenging and living closer to human areas (which wolves try to avoid).

Now, a lot of this adaptation is behaviorial. But the point is that nature adapts very quickly to the change. And some of the adaptations do produce physical changes -- the bigger elk, the darkening of the wolves' fur. The species that are best-equipped to adapt to the new environmental factor (the presence of the predators) thrive, like the beavers and the aspen. Ohters who have more difficulty adapting dwindle in numbers, like the coyotes.

The last speaker discussed his trip to Madagascar and his observations of lemurs on the world's fourth-largest island. He was, unfortunately, not a very charismatic speaker, but he could have made the most compelling case for evolution and its study of all of them. The raw materials were certainly there.

What it boiled down to was that the fossil evidence suggests that a single raft of lemurs somehow made it from the mainland of Africa to Madagascar about 40 million years ago. Genetic markers in modern-day lemurs indicate that every lemur on the island has a single common ancestor -- there may only have been one female on that raft. Since then, lemurs have flourished on Madagascar (unlike on the mainland where they were displaced by monkeys and are now largely extinct). Madagascarian lemurs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. There are mouse lemurs, giant lemurs, furry ones, long-tailed ones, short-tailed ones, ones with bat-like skin flaps, ones with long claws, short claws, big eyes and little eyes, and the list goes on and on. These cute little critters have adapted to all sorts of ecological niches and developed into at least forty different species.

The story goes that Darwin very much wanted to land on Madagascar on the return voyage of the HMS Beagle, but was overruled by the captain. The professor made the case that had Darwin been able to observe lemurs (and other animals) on Madagascar, he would have found them an even better study in adaptation by natural selection in the lemurs than he did with the finches and tortoises in the Galapagos.

The science was fascinating. The speakers were of varying quality, but that's what you get sometimes. Mainly, the engagement with scientists and their work was the profit -- and the pleasure. You can do things like this too. Universities and museums all over the world are doing a variety of special presentations and exhibits and such to celebrate Darwin. The 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species was a few months ago, and his 200th birthday will be in Februrary of 2009. I encourage all of you Readers to find these events in your area and learn more.

October 29, 2008


Last night I went to meet up with a friend at the Barnes & Noble after work. Along the way, I drove past the busiest intersection in the area -- the one where all the big-box stores are, the one where the mall is.

Every corner of the intersection had been taken over by hundreds of kids. They were all waving "No on Proposition 8" signs and having a big "No on 8" rally. People were honking at them in support. I assume the ones who disagreed with them, or who did not care about the issue, kept their cars silent, but that the people who, like me, agreed with their message responded to the "Honk For Equality" signs.

If there is a big anti-bigotry rally here, in one of the most conservative parts of the state, then there is hope for the defeat of Prop. 8 after all. It gave me hope for the future. You go, kids!

Hijacking An Intellectual Pedigree

Quoth Pope Benedict XVI:
"The Catholic Church is eager to share the richness of the Gospel’s social message, for it enlivens hearts with a hope for the fulfillment of justice and a love that makes all men and women truly brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. ... She carries out this mission fully aware of the respective autonomy and competence of Church and State. Indeed, we may say that the distinction between religion and politics is a specific achievement of Christianity and one of its fundamental historical and cultural contributions.

"The Church is equally convinced that State and religion are called to support each other as they together serve the personal and social well-being of all. This harmonious cooperation between Church and State requires ecclesial and civic leaders to carry out their public duties with undaunted concern for the common good."
His Holiness the Pope is an intelligent, educated man. He is surely aware of history, particularly Roman and Medieval European history, in which the Church (there was only one Church in Europe at the time) was hardly distinct from the affairs of state. He has also made renewal of Catholic Christianity in the western world his particular mission, seeing a revival of faith as a necessary response to what he calls the "nihilism" that has poisoned the thought of the West and in particular Europe. So that's where he's coming from.

Now, at the same time, I think we can fairly trace the roots of the concept of separating church and state to Europeans, and the thinkers who created and advanced this concept were Christians. The modern understanding of the idea probably traces its roots back to Martin Luther, who advanced what he called the "Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms." Some of the Enlightenment thinkers who developed the idea were Catholics and most were Protestants, but people like Rousseau, Locke, Montesquieu, Paine, Penn, and Williams were certainly Christians. Voltaire was an atheist, and he did his part to advance the concept, too. Later, in the post-Revolutionary United States, James Madison was a deeply devout Christian, but also deeply dedicated to the idea of keeping religion and government separate, and Thomas Jefferson, at best a cipher as to his personal beliefs, is the one who coined the phrase "wall of separation of church and state" and described it as a good thing and the right policy to pursue.

So while some Catholics participated in developing and popularizing the idea, it really seems to me that its origins lie in Protestantism rather than Catholicism, and looking at the sorts of people who really pushed for it, they are in this context better-understood as political philosophers. Some of them -- William Penn and Roger Williams in particular -- were themselves both clergymen and political leaders who founded English colonies in America based on the creation of secular governments and fostering religious tolerance.

All of which is to say, it seems to me that historically the Roman Catholic Church has been remarkably cool towards the idea of separation of church and state, having so lengthy a pedigree of co-opting the state (beginning with the reign of Emperor Theodosius I) and itself at times having been a state governed directly by the Pope (the Papal States existed as a sovereign nation until subsumed into a unified Italy in 1870). Protestants have a better claim to the idea than do Catholics; they can trace it to Martin Luther and most of the people who pushed for the idea were Protestants.

But it's better to say, except in the case of Luther himself, that they happened to be Protestants. Their Protestant religious beliefs did not motivate and may not even have informed their embrace of this concept very much. Puritan Massachusetts and Calvinist Geneva are examples of how some Protestant leaders were perfectly comfortable with the concept of theocratic government, as long as it was Protestant ministers and not Papal delegates who were called upon to apply the word of God to the challenges of civil government. (I submit for your consideration that in practice, except for the style of dress and the shape of the holy icon, those two societies had more in common with the Taliban and Wahhabist Saudi Arabia than they do with what we would tend to identify as "free" nations.) So I do not think it can be said that Protestantism, any more than Catholicism, lends itself to cleave to the concept of separation of church and state.

Credit for the modern concept of separation of church and state should not be given to Christianity but rather to the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment had its roots in the Renaissance and the Reformation, these were the seeds and the soil in which the Enlightenment later bloomed and came to full flower. It was a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century phenomenon and Christian authorities, Catholic authorities in particular, were never all that enthusiastic about it.

So for the Pope to suggest that separation of church and state is a gift of Christianity to the world is more than a little bit dishonest. It is a gift of the Enlightenment -- a direct product of shedding superstition and mythology from one's mind and instead adopting a rational, naturalistic way of looking at the world.

It is no more accurate to claim that separation of church and state is a Christian invention than it is to say that the modern steam engine is a Christian invention -- James Watt may have been a Christian, but his religion had little to do with his engineering innovation.

Pope Benedict XVI has attempted to hijack one of the best things about modern society and to claim it for his own institution, and I am here to do my part to thwart that theft.

October 28, 2008

Just A Hypothetical

What if I had been right a year ago? What if the parties had nominated Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton instead of Barack Obama and John McCain? Would the race be as one-sided with those candidates?

Personally, I think that if that had happened, Senator Clinton would still be the favorite to win, but the numbers wouldn't look quite so grim. I think there would have been two reasons for that.

Hillary! would have been faster than Obama to concede certain states to the Republicans. Hillary! would have run a campaign much like her husband had run in 1996, raising money from similar sources and not being as exciting as Obama has been. She would have been more vulnerable in states like Virginia and Missouri and Ohio; Rudy! would be competing there as per the playbook. I think that her running mate would have been Phil Bredesen.

Rudy! for his part, would probably be a lot like McCain has been. It seems likely to me that Rudy! would have had to have confronted most of the same kinds of pressures that McCain did by way of trying to keep the Republican house of cards together -- meaning he would probably have nominated someone with the same sorts of social conservative credentials as Sarah Palin. He might not have picked her, though, facing a female opponent directly. Instead, he might well have looked to J.C. Watts instead. But he'd have had to figure out how to run his own campaign while integrating the RNC machine and running their playbook, too -- which means that organizationally and thematically, a Giuliani-Watts campaign would have worked out more or less like McCain-Palin.

The Georgia crisis would not have been as big a political football as it was. Hillary! and Rudy! would have had essentially the same reaction to the War In The Caucasus and both would have had the same level of credibility going out of that event as they had going in. As it was, the War In The Caucasus was politically good for McCain because regardless of the wisdom of the respective candidates' reactions, they were different and the spin worked better for McCain.

The more profound domestic economic collapse, though, is the big question. Rudy! would have taken a hit, no doubt, for the same reason that McCain did -- when the shit hits the fan at home, you do not want to be the nominee of the incumbent party, no matter how striking a difference you've been able to draw between yourself and the incumbent. So I think that would have been to Hillary!'s net advantage. But I think Rudy! would have had a savvier reaction to the crisis and the bailout than did McCain -- not having to go to the Senate himself and be expected to vote in favor of it, he could have criticized it from the outside. This would have gained him big political points.

I'm assuming that no one would have dragged out any more skeletons from Rudy!'s closet, that the conservative right wing would have rallied around Watts as the running mate and drummed itself up into a frenzy about the evils of another Clinton Presidency, and that the public in general would have suffered from no small degree of Clinton fatigue. Some of these are the same kinds of hazards that Obama has weathered, some are not. And then there's the fact that Rudy! is just plain more charismatic than Hillary!, counterbalanced by Rudy! having to thread the needle just so on abortion to keep his party unified, something that his actual candidacy simply could not finesse.

By this point, most of the country would have become sick to death of both of them. Why? Because it would have probably been the most negative, nasty, personal, and dirty campaign since Adams took on Jefferson in 1800. And people get tired of that. The result would be a dramatically depressed voter turnout -- and low voter turnout tends to favor Republicans, whose electoral base is better-trained to show up and vote whether they're happy about their choices or not.

There's a good chance that I'd have grown disaffected with Rudy! by now, myself, and still wound up voting Libertarian.

But, based on all of these wild speculations, if it had been Hillary! versus Rudy! I'd say that Hillary! would have an overall sixty to sixty-five percent chance of winning right now, with the Electoral College map looking a lot like it did in 2004, and battlegrounds in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Missouri, and Colorado. Yes, Rudy! would have to run the table of those states, but he'd have a realistic, although not probable, shot at doing that by now.

That's how I think it would have looked a week out if the two pre-primary favorites had succeeded as projected.

Executive Order Of October 9, 2008

I have seen and heard some people – mostly self-identified political progressives – fret about the possibility that George W. Bush would find some excuse to postpone or cancel the election, some reason to suspend the Constitution and declare martial law and hang on to power after the expiration of his term. I have never once given a moment’s credence to this sort of thing. Bush has not given even the tiniest hint of wanting to do anything remotely like that – and to do it, he’d need the support of the military and the courts, neither of which have given the slightest hint that they would go along with such a thing no matter how exigent the circumstances.

Well, here’s another assurance that there will be no suspension of the Constitution and an orderly transfer of power on January 20, 2009. President Bush has signed an order expediting and fast-tracking transition team members into formal office to take effect after the election. The order clearly contemplates the end of Bush’s service as President and the beginning of his successor’s, which is to say Obama’s, and evidences a desire by Bush that his successor be able to get his people in positions of power and authority quickly. Which is more than Bush’s predecessor did for him, which partially explains why it was that on September 11, 2001, there were still key administrative positions of several response agencies vacant.

Rest easy, high-strung progressives. Democracy yet thrives. There's less than a week to go.

By Now It's Old But It's Still Funny

And it has good production values!

H/T to Melinda.

October 27, 2008

Conservative Reasons To Vote For Obama

Andrew Sullivan, an unabashed Obama Republican, offers ten reasons why conservatives should vote for Obama next week. I can't blame the guy for trying. And he's got some good points. But he's got some weak ones, too. Read Sully first and then pop back here for my reaction:

10. I don't think Obama can do this. Obama may not be Jesse Jackson and he personally might be kind of past the whole race thing, but I don't think he speaks for every black American on a cultural level. Nor will his Presidency end either the perception or the reality of racial discrimination. It might be a step in that direction, though, which is better than not taking that step.

9. Obama means less debt? In times past, I'd have scoffed at this -- but Republicans have lost my trust on the issue of protecting the budget, so I'd be prepared to believe Obama means a smaller increased in our national debt. Neither Obama nor McCain offers any kind of debt reduction, however. So maybe Sully's actually right here, counter to the conventional wisdom. But that's the difference between paying $10 for a crappy meal and paying $15 for a crappy meal.

8. A return to realism in foreign policy is something that I think McCain offers at least as well as Obama. McCain is no idealist and his foreign policy goals are not informed by the same decision matrix as the incumbent's.

7. McCain understands, better than Obama I think, the role of the commander-in-chief with regards to both foreign and military policy. McCain's military service, in both combat and command positions, and his specialization in military and foreign policy as a Senator qualifies him very well

6. Sully's right here -- Obama has a cooler, more even temprament than Volcanic John, who got voted #2 Hothead In Congress. (Guess who got top honors?)

5. I see no reason whatsoever to believe that Obama will be a "bridge between the new atheism and the new Christianism." (Whatever that means.) Obama is a Christian of deep faith, which can be a good thing but does not indicate any kind of sympathy for or understanding of atheists. He is also a man who promises to renew and re-endow the Office of Faith Based Initiatives, a politician who delivers campaign speeches in churches, and whose defining moment in the primary had to do with his relationship with his own pastor. Not that McCain would be any better on this score, really. But Obama has said and done nothing to suggest that he will lift a finger to make America any better of a place for non-believers than it is now.

4. A truce in the culture war sounds good to me. Obama won't be able to deliver it, however. Yeah, he's good at politics, but he's not that good.

3. Obama's Presidency will likely catalyze a reform of the Republican Party. Whether that will be something I embrace or run away from remains to be seen.

2. I'm not super-scared of a Palin Presidency. Only a little bit. There is reason to believe that by the time she would have to take the reins of power, she'd have been schooled enough on what's going on that she could do a reasonably good job. She's just not there yet. Oh, and she's a whackadoodle social conservative, but that's a different point.

1. President Obama will give us better P.R. globally and that's been a neglected front in the GWOT. But President McCain would likely lead us to better military results, and that counts for a lot, too.

So, Sully, I give you about 40% marks.

Get Some Meat On Them Bones

While tracking the football game tonight on Yahoo! Sports, I periodically saw this advertisement flash on the screen. It looked odd to me but I wasn't paying much attention to it. Then I stopped to try and scan the box score for some information and it struck me.

That woman is so skinny it doesn't look healthy. It doesn't even look human, hardly.

Now, a football game's box score is a fine place to advertise nutritional supplements and weight loss products. Most of the guys tracking the score, like me, have bellies on them. And it's a time-proven technique that you can use a picture of a sexy woman to sell stuff to guys.

But this picture is not sexy at all. It's scary. This woman -- assuming this is a real model at all, which I can't quite tell -- does not seem to have enough ribs. Has she had some surgically removed to look that skinny? Seriously -- if we colorize the picture some and make her all gray, she winds up looking like this:

Now, that may look a little bit familiar to some of you. Maybe that's because like me, you're amused by bizarre stories of UFO abduction. Yep, this model presents pretty much the silhouette of a Zeta Reticulan Grey of UFO lore, pictured to the left.

Ladies, the Zeta Reticulan look is not an attractive one. Not even if you add a couple of big ol' fake silicone boobies. There is such a thing as taking the whole weight loss thing too far. It's called anorexia and it's not good for you.

A body like that is not a trim, athletic, sexy body. It is an under-nourished skeleton of a body, one that calls to mind images of starving children in third-world nations. In the United States, the land of plenty -- plenty, hell, in the land of Claim Jumper -- there is no reason to not get at least adequate nourishment for your body. My instinct is not to try and go out with this woman, but to find her a pastrami sandwich and protect her from high winds and sudden drops in temperature.

Health and fitness are good. We should all watch what we eat and be careful to get good food. But for some of us, that means getting enough good food and carrying enough enough body mass to have functioning kidneys. That whole BMI thing is a bunch of bullshit, a call for people to become impossibly thin. Eat right, get some exercise, and relax about your bodies already.

Hell, you can even indulge in something bad. I've been not paying huge attention to what I eat, not getting as much exercise as I should, and I've still managed to drop at least an inch off my waist in the past couple of weeks -- at least, judging from how my "skinny suit" pants felt today, which was pretty loose. I've been largely eating what I want, just mostly having reasonable portions. And not even that consistently.

The point here is, you can be reasonably healthy, and get your body in reasonable shape, without spending gobs of money on bizarre herbs and plant products of highly questionable medicinal value -- and you shouldn't ever need to look like a Zeta Reticulan.

Pete Du Pont Predicts A Europeanized America

In terms of largely economic policy, Pete Du Pont's alarmist forecast for the Obama Administration sounds pretty expensive to me:
So where is the new Obama administration likely to take us? Seven things seem certain:
  • The U.S. military will withdraw from Iraq quickly and substantially, regardless of conditions on the ground or the obvious consequence of emboldening terrorists there and around the globe.
  • Protectionism will become our national trade policy; free trade agreements with other nations will be reduced and limited.
  • Income taxes will rise on middle- and upper-income people and businesses, and individuals will pay much higher Social Security taxes, all to carry out the new president's goals of "spreading the wealth around."
  • Federal government spending will substantially increase. The new Obama proposals come to more than $300 billion annually, for education, health care, energy, environmental and many other programs, in addition to whatever is needed to meet our economic challenges. Mr. Obama proposes more than a 10% annual spending growth increase, considerably higher than under the first President Bush (6.7%), Bill Clinton (3.3%) or George W. Bush (6.4%).
  • Federal regulation of the economy will expand, on everything from financial management companies to electricity generation and personal energy use.
  • The power of labor unions will substantially increase, beginning with repeal of secret ballot voting to decide on union representation.
  • Free speech will be curtailed through the reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine to limit the conservative talk radio that so irritates the liberal establishment.
These policy changes will be the beginning of the Europeanization of America. There will be many more public policy changes with similar goals—nationalized health care, Kyoto-like global-warming policies, and increased education regulation and spending.

Additional tax advantages for lower and middle income people will be enacted: a 10% mortgage tax credit that would average about $500 per household per year, a $4,000 tax credit for college tuition, a tax credit covering half of child-care expenses up to $6,000 per year, and even a $7,000 credit for purchase of a clean car.

More important, all but the clean car credit would be "refundable," meaning people will get a check for them if they owe no taxes, which is simply a transfer of income from the government to individuals. In reality this is the beginning of a new series of entitlements for middle-class families, the longer-term effect of which will be to make those families more dependent on (and so more supportive of) larger government. The Tax Policy Center estimates that these refundable tax credits would cost the government $648 billion over 10 years.
Here's the part that sounds really dismal to me -- I don't think Obama can pull us out of Iraq nearly as quickly as Du Pont predicts. Logistically, it can't be done, even if the political will is there.

I also have my doubts about the Fairness Doctrine, but then again it wouldn't cost that much to do one way or the other and it would make one segment of Obama's constituency happy to see it implemented. It would be every bit as obnoxious as the Nipple Patrol that's been in charge of communications under the Bush Administration. And Obama seems cool on the idea right now.

Federal regulation will expand? Duh. When Republicans trot out their pro-regulatory credentials in response to a financial mess on Wall Street, that's pretty much carte blanche for those who do not have any skepticism of government involvement in the market to jump on in there and regulate away. There's no effective anti-regulation political force out there.

I can see Obama trying for some of those economic and tax reform proposals, though. There's a lot of goodies in there and they can be spun to sound good. But budget hawks should know what giving the farm away looks like and this would be it.

Now, a guy like Pete Du Pont is not exactly an unbiased source, and he is writing for the Wall Street Journal. So bear in mind the source -- what you're reading here are conservative fears. Given that some of those fears are without grounding, and some are solidly-grounded, the real questions are, how much of this will actually come to pass and how much is it going to cost us?

Stupid But Scary

The First Amendment protects all sorts of people. Including neo-nazi skinheads. But what it doesn't protect is a plot to murder someone. Particularly if that someone is about to become, or has just become, the President of the United States. Which is why this eyeshadow-wearing loser (warning, scary picture) is now named Prisoner #2205-JL3 instead of the name his daddy gave him.

Enjoy being some black prisoner's girlfriend, dude.

Roast Chicken Butter

I want to eat at their house.

A Proper Response To Judicial Immodesty

My pledge to move on to issues other than Prop. 8 hasn't lasted very long, I'm afraid.

An old friend, a lawyer, wrote me today after reading the blog. He indicated, quite convincingly, that he agreed with me that same-sex marriage would be a good thing. He also indicated that he agrees that Prop. 8 would write discrimination into the Constitution, which is an odious thing.

Nevertheless, he intends to vote for Prop. 8.

The reason, boiled down to its essence, is that whatever his opinion on this particular issue, he thinks that the Supreme Court overstepped the boundaries of its power, that it arrogated to itself the right to make this decision in the face of the voters and the legislature. He wondered why the Democrats, who have been running this state with only sporadic Republican checks on their power when a Republican has gained the Governor's office, have not been able to muster the political courage to pass a same-sex marriage law on their own.

(I pointed out that the Legislature had passed such a law and, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it.)

But mainly what my friend was concerned with was that the judiciary needed to be put back in its place, and he resented that the only effective way to do that was to vote for Prop. 8 and write discrimination into the Constitution.

I initially wrote a long reply, explaining why I think sometimes judicial activism can be a good thing, about how the democratic process can stall out from time to time and had done so on the same-sex marriage issue -- as demonstrated by Schwarzenegger's veto, which was predicated solely on the majority passage of Prop. 22.

But then I realized that the right response was far simpler. If the problem is not the specific policy in question but rather the judicial arrogance that created the policy, then the solution is to go at the immodest judges directly. California's Supreme Court consists of seven elected Justices. They are accountable to the voters like any other public official.

And we have a history in this state of voting Justices off of our Supreme Court when they do not act in sufficient harmony with the public will. In 1986, three Justices lost their bids for re-election because of their lengthy history of obstructing implementation of the death penalty. The solution to that problem of the judiciary being out of step with the popular will was not to enact a law or amend the Constitution in such a way as to make death penalties easier to carry out. The solution was to get the judges who weren't discharging the law properly out of office.

They were thrown out, and their replacements got the message loud and clear. Death penalty reviews got fast-tracked and punishments were affirmed and sent off to the Federal courts for appellate review there, as is the procedure, and soon enough, the execution chamber in San Quentin was open for business again. That may sound morbid, but the point is, the voters got the policy they wanted and the judges who refused to give it to them had to go seek work in the private sector.

If the policy of same-sex marriage is good, but the judges were arrogant in implementing it, then the solution to that problem is to vote the judges out of office. Overruling the policy they created is not a direct response to the problem. Overruling the policy in order to write discrimination into the Constitution is using a hammer to smash a fly on a plate glass window. You might or might not kill the fly, but you're going to lose the window in the process.

Protecting the Constitution from becoming an instrument of discrimination is a higher duty, I submit, than expressing dismay over judicial immodesty -- especially when a very effective way of directly attacking judicial immodesty is available.

Must Have Been A Damn Good Case

Usually, when the prosecution in a case is caught fabricating evidence, and the judge instructs the jury to that effect, that leaves the defense a pretty good argument.

When the jury then independently finds exculpatory evidence that everyone -- prosecutor, defense, and the judge -- all missed, that would tend to make you think that indeed, there is a defense verdict coming.

And when a juror refuses to deliberate, that indicates a mistrial is on the way.

But sometimes, the prosecution gets a conviction anyway. Like today, in the case of United States of America v. Ted Stevens. All of those things happened in his trial, but Senator Stevens was convicted on all counts of ethics charges.

I guess Uncle Ted made for an unsympathetic witness in his own defense. A really unsympathetic witness.

Here's something funny to think about. Stevens is up for re-election in a week. If he gets re-elected, he'll have to either resign his seat or face expulsion from the Senate once he has to begin serving his sentence. Which means that his replacement would be nominated by the Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

She could say, "Oh, you all think I don't enough experience with Federal issues, bitches, was that the problem? Check this out." Then she could appoint herself to the vacant Senate seat. There's no law against a Governor appointing herself to the Senate.

Vice-Presidential Duties

A sub-issue in the campaign this year has been what the proper role for the Vice President should be. It's difficult to remember a time that the Vice President took a passive role in the government. Certainly the last two VPs, Cheney and Gore, both exercised substantial amounts of power within their respective Administrations. Executive power, that is.

So when Gov. Palin said in an interview something that sounded a little bit different, people sat up and took notice:
Palin sat for an interview with KUSA-TV in Denver, which has a feature called "Question from the Third Grade." The interviewer asked, "Brandon Garcia wants to know, 'What does the vice president do?'"

"That's a great question, Brandon, and a vice president has a really great job, because not only are they there to support the president's agenda, they're like the team member, the team mate to that president," Palin said.

"But also, they're in charge of the United States Senate, so if they want to they can really get in there with the senators and make a lot of good policy changes that will make life better for Brandon and his family and his classroom. And it's a great job and I look forward to having that job," she said.
But as Glenn Reynolds reminds us in today's Gray Lady, the only actual power or job given to the Vice President in the Constitution is legislative. The Vice President shall serve as President of the Senate and can cast a vote in the Senate if the Senate is evenly tied on an issue. Prof. Reynolds ignores that the Vice President is described as being elected with the President and the office is created in Article II of the Constitution, but his point is well-taken anyway. Aside from that, the portfolio of the office is left to standing ready in the wings to serve as or become President should anything happen to the President.*

Now, Palin's answer is an oversimplification of this. And bear in mind that she was speaking directly to an 8-year-old and only indirectly to us Constitutional scholars. But she's not wrong. She's not quite right, but not really wrong, either.

The history of leaving the Senate to its own devices traces all the way back to the first Vice President, John Adams, who tried to preside over the Senate on a day-to-day basis but was basically booed out of the place by Senators from all sides. They asserted their independence and no Vice President has since been able to go back in the role of President and actually preside over the day-to-day affairs of that body.

These days, the Senate (like the House) does the bulk of its work in committees rather than as an assembled whole. When the Senate as a whole is in session, most of the time it consists of floor speeches that very few people listen to live and which are performed as political theater. There is no point presiding over a Senate in which five or six Senators are shuffling about their desks while one of their number speaks. The chances of one Senator persuading another to change sides or make up their minds on an issue based on something said on the Senate floor is slim at best and as a realistic matter, nonexistent. If a Senator does not know whether to vote "Aye" or "Nay" on S.B. 115, that Senator looks for his (or her) party's whip on the floor, whose job it is to give the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down.

So there isn't a whole lot of point to presiding over the Senate as a normal matter these days anyway. It seems to me that it would the Vice President's prerogative to preside over the Senate whenever he wished to do so. But prudence and a respect for the autonomy of that body dictates that the Vice President exercise that power only rarely, for instance when a close vote is expected and it is anticipated that the Vice President's power to break a tie might be needed.

But that is a matter of tradition rather than one of a strict reading of the Constitution. Bear in mind that when it was originally drafted, the Framers did not contemplate that the President and Vice President would necessarily be of like political minds. Even in its amended state, the Constitution hints in places that the President and Vice President may differ over some things -- like the President's competency to serve when that falls into question.

The truth of it is, a Vice President's day-to-day duties will be largely the result of whatever the President wants that Vice President to do. One of those things could be discharging the function of presiding over the Senate. Given that the office is seen as a proving ground for a future President, the running of some executive function is what we tend to expect the Vice President to do. But it doesn't have to be that way.

* Why do we always say "...if something happens to the President"? That's a euphemism.
The "something" that we are afraid of giving a name to in that phrase is "death." We should say, if we were to speak plain, "...if the President dies while in office." Acknowledging that the President could theoretically die in office is not going to make an event like that any more or less likely to occur, and it certainly should not be seen as advocating or urging the President's death.

October 26, 2008

Why People Come Here

I've surveyed the hitcounter on the blog, and the search terms people use that bring hits.

Until about ten days ago, the most common search term resulting in a hit was something that included the word "pterodactyl." Pterodactyl searchers rarely stay for very long -- I think they take the picture from my review of the godawful bad and immensely entertaining Sci-Fi Channel Creature Feature Movie of the same name, starring (strangely bald) Coolio.

A search for examples of "southern names" also produces large numbers of searchers, as do people who are looking for instructions for to hang a dartboard. I do not advise doing it the way I did, although I do repeat the official distances and height.

But after a link from CNN, Sideways Mencken, and most effectively from the Carnival of the Godless, these are no longer the most common reasons people come here. The above are "stumble upons" -- search for one thing and find something else by accident that you're also interested in. The three recent hits have produced a huge spike not only in hits but in actual readers -- people who come here and stay for more than a few seconds. I assume that they are staying because they are actually reading what I wrote.

Of these, Carnival of the Godless has generated the most hits -- about as many as CNN and Sideways Mencken combined. The CotG hits come mainly to the reference to my ruminations about the Decalogue being posted in court and why that's bad judicial ethics. The CNN and Sideways Mencken posts come for the politics.

After the election, I'm not sure what I'll be writing about to keep attracting political viewers. Hopefully, the long-awaited Republican Reboot will go on and something of a debate about what the GOP will become will be going on. And the Obama Administration will be kicking into gear, so that may generate some headlines.

But unless Jesus Himself returns or Shiva rekindles the Eternal Fires to bring about the End of the Cycle of Time, there will still be no God and there will still be an Establishment Clause and a Free Exercise Clause, so there are sure to be plenty of things to talk about at the intersection of religion and law.

Risotto Milanese

This is the base of a dish that can be varied in countless different ways. There are as many recipes for risotto as there are cooks who make it. Making risotto is not hard work. But it is time-consuming. And I made about four times more risotto than The Wife and I needed. Here's what I did:

10 cups chicken stock
2 cups arborrio rice (can substitute other varieties of short-grained white rice but avoid long grains like basmati or jasmine)
1 onion
1 tsp. powdered garlic
1 pinch saffron
2 oz. pork fat (can substitute clarified butter)
1 tbsp. butter
Parmesan cheese

Chop the onion very finely. In a large pot (at least a three-quart capacity) melt the pork fat over medium heat. Add the onion and powdered garlic. Stir until onions sweat and turn a gold. Add the rice, while still dry. Stir until the rice and the fat-coated onions are thoroughly mixed. Pour in one and only one cup of the chicken stock. Stir constantly until liquid in mixture is almost boiled away, which should take about five minutes. Add another cup of chicken stock, repeat until chicken stock is gone. Halfway through adding stock, add saffron. Add the butter after the last of the stock has been added and about halfway boiled away. Final mixture should be the consistency of porridge or oatmeal. Serve with grating of fresh Parmesean in a shallow-bottomed bowl.

This takes about an hour to an hour and a half to make. The result is a hearty, savory starch dish. In the quantities I included above, it's enough for eight people, so smaller tables or smaller appetites will want to halve or even quarter the quantities -- and that means you can probably use a smaller vessel or even a large saute pan.

I used chicken stock, butter, and pork fat, but vegetable stock and olive oil will also work if you want to make a vegetarian or vegan dish. You can add asparagus, peppers, tomatoes, or anything else with a strong flavor in place of the garlic or saffron. Or if you're more of a carnivore, diced ham goes good in risotto, and you can use stock made from pretty much any meat or vegetable.

What He Said

I have little to add to this pithy bit of commentary from Doug . The accusation that stings the most is the one that is true, which may explain the visceral reaction of some conservatives to Bob Barr and any traction gained by his candidacy -- a visceral reaction which has made its way onto these very pages.

Not The Right Path

I first saw this idea in a column by David Brooks in the New York Times: The Republican Party is become the party of anti-intellectualism:
What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.
Neither a wild-eyed liberal nor a conservative culture warrior, Brooks is in my opinion a reasonably clear-eyed observer of political and social reality. But when I came across the idea I resisted writing about it right away because it seemed wrong. There are plenty of deep-thinking Republicans of great intelligence and education, and they get their share of press and publicity.

And hints of it had been there for a long time. For instance, way back in April, there was some uproar over Barack Obama's condescending remarks about rural Americans clinging to religion and guns. Now, I had as much fun with that as anyone, but eventually I tried make clear that for better or worse, our leaders are elites and therefore chosen from among the elite, argula-eating class.

Look at the Republican nominees for proof of that: John McCain is hardly a middle-class American, being the scion of an elite Navy family and a member (by marriage) of a family blessed with sufficient wealth that it would take multiple generations to dissipate. Sarah Palin, for her part, seems to come from a somewhat more middle-class background but can hardly be said to be economically challenged; her family may not be there yet, but they are clearly well within the band of income earners that even in these tough times can be called "comfortable" and thanks to Gov. Palin's high-profile public service, they stand at the threshold of entering the elite class.

So too much elite-bashing, I figured, was probably not in the Republicans' best interests because Republicans are elites as much as Democrats. But the Brooks "anti-intellectual" thought unsettled me because it seemed aimed not at economic elitism, but rather mental elitism. You know, being all educated and stuff. And the trope has appeared again and again. Principled, smart conservatives have begun to seriously fret about this. The candidates, in a joint interview with Brian Williams of NBC News, added fuel to this fire:

WILLIAMS: Who is a member of the elite?
PALIN: Oh, I guess just people who think that they're better than anyone else. And-- John McCain and I are so committed to serving every American. Hard-working, middle-class Americans who are so desiring of this economy getting put back on the right track. And winning these wars. And America's starting to reach her potential. And that is opportunity and hope provided everyone equally. So anyone who thinks that they are-- I guess-- better than anyone else, that's-- that's my definition of elitism.
WILLIAMS: So it's not education? It's not income-based? It's--
PALIN: Anyone who thinks that they're better than someone else.
WILLIAMS: --a state of mind? It's not geography?
PALIN: 'Course not.
WILLIAMS: Senator?
MCCAIN: I-- I know where a lot of 'em live. (LAUGH)
WILLIAMS: Where's that?
MCCAIN: Well, in our nation's capital and New York City. I've seen it. I've lived there. I know the town. I know-- I know what a lot of these elitists are. The ones that she never went to a ... party with in Georgetown. I'll be very frank with you. Who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.
(Emphases added.) Anyone who thinks they're better than anyone else? In what way? Just about everyone in America thinks they're better than other kinds of people in one way or another. Religious people, who think religion is inherently good, think they're better than non-religious people precisely because religion is good and its absence is bad. This kind of elitism becomes more acute when you become convinced that a particular kind of religion is better than some other kind of religion -- Christianity over Islam, for instance, or Southern Baptist Christianity over Roman Catholicism. But I don't think that's what Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin were trying to get to.

So too does anyone holding public office arrogate to themselves the power to tell other Americans what they can or cannot do, based on their own beliefs. Officeholders may (or may not) enjoy popular support for their policy proposals, but policy by its very nature involves telling people what they can or cannot do rather than letting them decide for themselves. Making something illegal means that individuals cannot make that choice. Incentivizing a particular choice through a tax benefit, government subsidy, or a tax penalty for making the opposite choice is to skew that choice. Only by not imposing any policy at all does the government allow individuals to make decisions for themselves -- and officeholders of either party are not very much in the business of removing policies so much as altering ones that currently exist or adding new ones. Bureaucracy expandeth.

So the failure of the candidates to coherently define what this group of "elite" people really is in any way that would let a third party identify them -- a clear sign that the use of the word "elite" is code for something, and that both Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are uncomfortable with the exercise of deconstructing the word to figure out what it's really getting at. You're supposed to just know what they're getting at and Brian Williams asking them to say exactly define that concept is somehow a breach of protocol. This does nothing to assure me either that these two are not members of that elite class as they defined it -- they are both in favor of restricting if not abolishing abortion rights, for instance, and McCain admits to having lived in their world.

Let's be clear about this. Education is supposed to be a good thing. It's better to be educated than not, right? If so, doesn't that mean that in some sense, educated people are better than uneducated ones? Perhaps not in a moral sense (educated people can do immoral things and seem to do so at about the same rate as people without the benefit of education) or in the sense of their votes being worth more than others. But when you are talking about engineering with people, the one who holds a college degree in physics ought to be afforded more authority than the one whose highest educational achievement is a high school diploma. The other person can, perhaps by way of experience, achieve a position of some authority in that conversation, but the presumption is the one with education is in a better position to discuss the subject than the one who lacks it.

One of the reasons that conservative culture warriors are vulnerable to this criticism is that so many of the policies they advocate are diametrically opposed to education itself. Which party contains within its big tent people who do the following:
  1. Object to teaching evolution in biology class and demand that creationism be taught as the intellectual equivalent of evolution.
  2. Advocate preventing schools from educating children about sexually-transmitted diseases and where babies come from, and oppose giving teenagers access to condoms, the only means known to effectively reduce teen pregnancy and transmission of STDs.
  3. Cry bloody murder at anyone who comes in contact with kids even acknowledging the existence of gay people in anything other than terms of moral condemnation.
  4. Object to medical research projects on grounds of religiously-informed morality.
  5. Position themselves as the victims of ideological indoctrination in higher education because, surprise, most college professors hold political views opposed to their own.
  6. Seek to gain political points by mocking scientific research.
Not convinced that Republicans do that last one? Check out this speech from darling-of-the-social-right Sarah Palin (warning, video in link starts automatically):
...Congress spends some 18 billion dollars a year on earmarks for political pet projects. That's more than the shortfall to fully fund the IDEA. And where does a lot of that earmark money end up? It goes to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good -- things like fruit fly research in Paris, France, I kid you not, or a public policy center named for the guy who got the earmark. In our administration, we're going to reform and refocus. We're going to get our federal priorities straight, and fulfill our country's commitment to give every child opportunity and hope in life.
The money part of the quote I've highlighted, but I include the rest so that her statement can be understood in context. The phrase not in the prepared remarks that she threw in to her actual delivery ("I kid you not") indicates that she was trying to score a political point -- a political point that could only be gained by lampooning the research. "I kid you not" was her way of slam-dunking that basket.

Ironically, that same fruit fly research that Gov. Palin lampoons benefits the very subject that she was advocating for increasing funding for, and a subject that is honestly very close to her home -- helping out kids with autism and preventing autism from happening. But such a link does exist. Genetic research, performed on fruit flies, has produced advances in the treatment and prevention of autism.

Now, the idea that Gov. Palin, herself the mother of an autistic child, should want to de-fund scientific research in that field, is unimaginable. I can only reconcile her speech with the science by concluding that she is ignorant. This is not unimaginable -- indeed, it is exactly the sort of thing that we would expect from someone who is neither aware of nor particularly interested in the subject to begin with. Someone who lacks intellectual curiosity, someone who genuinely does not understand the value of science and sees it as a potential, if not actual, enemy. The result is that the feeling of antagonism between social conservatives and scientists is mutual. Maybe by demonstrating a healthy respect for education and science, conservatives would earn the respect of people who do science for a living.

Democrats, too, say really dumb and offensive things to score political points. Democrats often advocate bad policies. But unfortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats lack culture warriors who similarly advocate restricting the scope of education or teaching nonsense or religion and calling it "science." They don't position themselves as enemies of education or science. About as close as Democrats come to this is objecting to scientific research being funded by way of military research. They object to the fruits of scientific research being used to build weapons. This, of course, is stupid and self-destructive as well -- and like the anti-intellectualism on the right that I'm complaining about today, it only applies to a particular breed of Democrat.

But by pushing an anti-elite kind of populism, this breed of Republicans have also made themselves anti-intellectual. And the rank-and-file members of this wing of the party have embraced that concept with gusto. Adherence to the party line and an arbitrary set of values pushed by the religious right are the coin of their realm. Some Republicans would pick this path as the one that leads to electoral success. I think it can only do harm to the party and the country.

October 25, 2008

Another Bright Democratic Idea

I want to see a balanced budget. And I don't think I'm overtaxed, so that means spending cuts. Spending cuts, in turn, means that things everyone likes will get cut. I like the military and I'm prepared to see some cuts in military spending.


Not 25%, as Barney Frank seems to think is a good idea.

The reason I think the military is properly treated differently than other kinds of federal programs involving the expenditure of money is that the military is the essence of the government. Without a functioning, capable military, it is only a matter of time until our government will be replaced by another one that will support a functioning, capable military.

And I notice that Congressman Frank is not suggesting across-the-board 25% cuts in spending. This is just for the military. And it's entirely in character for a guy like Barney Frank to single the military out for especially deep spending cuts after a change in the political weather like we're about the experience.

I don't pretend to know how much waste, fraud, corruption, and redundancy can be purged out of the military budget and I wouldn't buy it if a politician told me that was all that needed to be done for the budget given to defense to be reduced in an appropriate amount for a time of belt-tightening. But we need boots on the ground, an air force to support them and ensure their superiority, and a navy to get them where they need to be.

Now, I suppose someone could make the pitch to me and I'd listen that cuts of that size can be done without appreciably impacting our operational effectiveness. But I'[d be skeptical that a cut that deep would not have an impact.

We may have to do without a program or two and it probably wouldn't be too hard for me to educate myself about what kinds of programs we could do without. The V-22 Osprey does not seem like it fits into any sort of operational situation we would plausibly find our military in, or at least not any that alternative means of getting that operation done with more traditional and affordable sorts of equipment that we already have. I lack the time to confirm that, and I'm sure the Osprey has its advocates, but that seems like a plausible sort of thing we might cut.

I'm prepared to accept some military spending cuts, because it must become a national priority to stop deficit spending and rein in our national debt. At the same time, we cannot stop having a government -- a government that can effectively protect its citizens from threats and hunt down and kill our enemies. Cutting out one in four dollars spent on the military, while still asking it to fulfill that mission, seems like an unreasonable and incompatible set of priorities.

October 24, 2008


I've written a lot about Proposition 8 recently, and I intend to let the subject rest after this post for a few days at least-- or until something happens that pisses me off again. But there is one thing I wanted to note. Proponents of Proposition 8 have adopted a new strategy, one I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen before, at least not in this exact manner.

1. The Shakedown

Here’s what’s going on.

They have scoured the list of businesses that have made donations to the “No on 8” campaign.” Each of those businesses has received a letter demanding a donation to the “Yes on 8” campaign:
Were you to elect not to donate comparably, it would be a clear indication that you are in opposition to traditional marriage. ... The names of any companies and organizations that choose not to donate in like manner to ProtectMarriage.com but have given to Equality California will be published.”
In other words, “Give us money or we’ll smear you.”

I’m not entirely sure whether to condemn this or not. It’s exactly the sort of thing that, say, Jesse Jackson has done by threatening to publicly accuse a big company of racism. Whether you think the end goal is laudable or not, the tactic of extortion is very difficult to defend.

2. The Fallacy

Let’s take a look at the fallacy contained in the letter of extortion: “Were you to elect not to donate comparably, it would be a clear indication that you are in opposition to traditional marriage.”

Supporting the idea of same-sex marriage is not the same thing as being “in opposition to traditional marriage.” By “traditional marriage” we can safely assume that this means the marriage of one man to one woman, although as even the bigot Dennis Prager concedes, this is not the only model of marriage to enjoy a substantial pedigree of tradition.

Just because you favor same-sex marriage does not mean that you are opposed to opposite-sex marriage. It means that you think there should be other kinds of marriages in addition to traditional marriage.

So it is simply incorrect to say that a donor to “No on 8” is “opposed to traditional marriage.”

3. Is The Tactic Defensible?

I don’t know that this tactic is entirely out of the boundaries of what is acceptable political conduct.

Let us assume, arguendo, that we’re not talking about opposition to Proposition 8 but rather advocacy of some obviously and terribly immoral cause – reinstatement of racially-based slavery, for instance. A company that donated its money to support such a cause would properly be held up to public ridicule, and people opposed to that cause would be well within their rights to publicize that true fact and encourage people to boycott that company as a means of expressing their disapproval of the cause.

Now, at least some Prop. 8 supporters really and truly cannot see that their cause is that of bigotry and discrimination. They really and truly think that they are advocates of something that is morally correct, and that same-sex marriage is a great moral problem, a danger to society.

But if we assume, arguendo, that they are advocates of a cause of great moral suasion, then they are probably right to go call people who have backed of the opposite cause as supporters of a great evil. And do the boycotts and the public exposure and all of that.

So I’m not prepared to condemn the tactic of extorting money out of hand. If they were morally in the right, I’d think that the proponents of Prop. 8 had happened across a very creative tactic – you gave money to the cause of evil, but if you give money to the cause of good, dollar-for-dollar, you can be redeemed. Back when the Catholic Church did that, it was called “buying an indulgence” and I would have thought that Protestants in particular would not indulge in that sort of thing, but there you go.

4. Effect Of Tactic

The tactic of demanding money under threat of public humiliation is clever because it has the potential to be effective on multiple levels simultaneously.

First, the mark might give in to the pressure, and under fear of boycott or ridicule, actually give money to the extortionist. This would result in more money coming in to the "Yes on 8" campaign. It would also create a publishable list of businesses who had "second thoughts" and thereby adding another arrow to the quiver of the "Yes on 8" arguments.

Second, the mark might resist the pressure and not give a check. Then, the extortionist has to follow through on the threat and attempt to ridicule and/or boycott the "No on 8" donor. Doing so attracts attention to the controversy. Writ large, this sort of thing polarizes the electorate as a whole. Polarization drives up the vote against you as well as the vote for you, but if you think you're on the majority side of something, polarization is a good gamble, especially if you think your majority is slim and you need additional outrage to get your votes out.

Third, however the mark reacts, other potential donors will see that the mark has been threatened. This will deter others from donating or publicly supporting the cause, driving down public support for the other side.

Thus, the extortion tactic, if successful, has the effect of increasing the extortionist's support by creating an environment in which the extortionist's side is made more comfortable and supported, while muting the opposition.

5. The Element of Intent

It’s clear enough to me that a lot of people who support Prop. 8, and effectively all of the proponents, are acting out of a condemnation of homosexuality. They may protest to the contrary, but for the most part, I don’t believe it.

Now, I can charitably credit a good-faith backer of Prop. 8 with a delusion of acting from an intent to do good. But the delusion of doing good is not the same thing as the reality. Slaveholders in the Old South thought that they were doing a good thing by owning slaves since that preserved the “natural order” of things, and that their black slaves would be unable to survive outside of the plantation. Therefore, the best thing for them was to be enslaved by a kindly master who would feed and clothe and provide for them. These people really believed that they were doing right by their slaves, that owning other human beings was the morally right thing to do. I can credit antebellum slaveowners with the delusion that they were acting in their slaves’ best interests, but I cannot credit them with the reality of that delusion.

So too with Prop. 8. I can credit a Prop. 8 backer with the delusion that they are not bigoted and not trying to advance the cause of bigotry by writing discrimination into the state’s Constitution. I can credit the backer with having the delusion that they are protecting morality and acting on that delusion. But I cannot credit them with the reality of moral justification that they think they have.

So while there may be the delusion of a good moral intent there, the actual objective of this tactic is not defensible at all. I may at a later date provide a deeper analysis of why I think this is the case, but for now it will suffice for purposes of this post to indicate that not very far underneath the surface of the anti-SSM arguments being floated around California now is the argument that "it ought to be okay to treat gay people differently than we do straight people." Such a statement is defensible legally, under the First Amendment. But I can find no defense to that statement in the moral arena.

That leave us with the proponents of Prop. 8 using an extortionate tactic to promote their cause -- to increase their ability to speak and argue their side of the issue, at the expense of the very people who have engaged in their free speech rights to donate in favor of a cause that they sincerely believe is right.

To sum up, this is playing rough. Now, you might defend this by saying, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen," which is a reasonable enough response. But when you play rough with the intent of doing evil, that makes you a bully, at best.

Now, I'm sure that the Prop. 8 people would bend over backwards to say loudly and repeatedly that no one should engage in gay-bashing. But what they're doing is bullying gay people and the people who support them. And when you bully a gay person, isn't that also called gay-bashing? "Oh, but this isn't using physical violence," you'll protest, which is true enough. Instead of physical violence, it's being done with blackmail. That's much better.

6. Conclusion

So in addition to needing to lie to the public to write their bigotry into the state Constitution, the bullies behind Prop. 8 need to use blackmail, too. This speaks volumes about the moral validity of their cause.

Fortunately, it isn't working. Apple donated $100,000 to No on 8 today.

A Pensive Walk

I really like this photograph of our next President.

It's a detail of a photo that was taken earlier today by an AP photographer who is assigned to the Obama beat in Honolulu. Hawaii is a pretty reliably Democratic state, but Obama isn't in Hawaii campaigning.

He's there because his grandmother, the woman who did a good part of raising him, is quite ill and may not make it for very many more days. After being with her for a while he went for a walk (along with some terrified Secret Service guys).

I've offered praise for John McCain for some of the classy things he's done along the campaign trail. Obama taking two days off the campaign trail at this state of affairs is as solid of proof as I need that he takes his family loyalties very seriously. Both his mother and father are dead; his grandmother is his only living ancestor. And in a time like that, he has to take some time to come home and be with her, no matter what. Yes, even if he's about to be elected President. Actually, nearly nothing can stop that from happening now but that's not the point. The point is that he's doing a classy thing and that deserves recognition.

What's important is that Obama is doing something deeply human. He's walking around this middle-class/working-class neighborhood, one that he spent time growing up in as a child. He's not out to impress anyone and was probably irritated to see the photographers and the press intruding on what otherwise would have been a very private moment. Seems like he's trying to come to terms with what will be some huge changes for him really soon -- the woman who raised him will be gone, and he will have to shoulder the responsibility of leading the United States of America through what he now must know will be an extraordinarily difficult time. The look on his face really shows that it's starting to sink in for him.

I think it's a good thing that he is taking the time to do that so that he can steel himself for the job. On January 20, 1969, Richard Milhous Nixon put his hand on a Christian Bible, held by Chief Justice Warren Burger, and swore the oath of office to become President of the United States of America. That was, very likely, the last happy day in Nixon's life. Exactly forty years later, Barack Hussein Obama is going to do the same thing. And he's going to have to do it without the emotional support of elders in his family, because they'll all be gone by then.

Now Senator, I didn't vote for you and I have grave doubts about your campaign platform. But I sincerely hope that it works out better for you than it did for your predecessor.