May 27, 2010

Whole Lotta Nothing Going On

As a colleague put it to me yesterday, it's amazing the amount of nothing that is happening in the world.

It seems that there is a lot of fruitless effort to do something about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  In the more good news department for the gulf states, hurricane season is almost here.

There is surprisingly little fuss over a Supreme Court nomination and the Republicans' threats in Congress to filibuster repeal of Don't Act, Don't Tell seem almost desultory (and are likely not well-advised in the long run).  So not much going on in Washington.

If North Korea had torpedoed one of our boats, we wouldn't be sitting around wringing our hands doing nothing, but it wasn't our boat that got torpedoed, it was South Korea's and as best I can tell, the only real response seems to be a firmly-worded scolding aimed in Lil' Kim's general direction.

Southern Europe spirals in to debt and the world market doesn't like it but deals.

And California's state government continues to slide deeper towards oblivion as the state's leaders, in keeping with the general theme of the news, stand by doing nothing meaningful about it, and those who would lead the state in the future offer no real or meaningful alternatives.

Which is all okay from a blogwriting perspective, at least at the moment.  For the time being, I've really got enough insomnia-inducing stressors on my mind as it is, stuff which I typically don't write about here very much if at all.

May 24, 2010

Athens Envy

Speaking as a citizen of the state of California, I look up to the political leaders running the show in Sacramento, and wish, longingly and wistfully, for the comparative financial wisdom, fiscal restraint, and prudent monetary policies that are the hallmarks of modern Greek democracy.

May 22, 2010

Scolding President Calderón

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the Arizona immigration law.  On the one hand, I see no intrinsic policy problem with a state police officer referring someone reasonably suspected of being in the country without legal documentation to Federal law enforcement authorities.  And I can entirely understand Arizonans' frustrations with people in the country illegally.  On the other hand, enforcement of immigration laws is, for better or for worse, given exclusively to the Federal government, and Arizona is effectively usurping that function from the Feds.  And I really have no idea what a "reasonable suspicion" of undocumented status might really be.

With that said, what this proponent of liberalizing immigration policy knows is that he don't like the President of Mexico coming to speak before the U.S. Congress and scolding Arizona for its new and controversial law:
Calderon also won sustained applause when he said, "I strongly disagree with the recently adopted law in Arizona. It is a law that not only ignores a reality that cannot be erased by decree, but also introduced a terrible idea using racial profiling for law enforcement."

To be sure, immigration will not go away by decree.  But this is a matter for us norteños to figure out, Señor Presidente, and we will do it on our own.  We don't tell you how to write your immigration laws, which are among the most restrictive and punitive of any on the planet -- allow me to quote from of the Constitution of Mexico:
Article 27, Paragraph 1: "Only those persons recognized as Mexicans by birth or by naturalization as well as Mexican corporations shall have a right to acquire legal domain over lands, waters and their accessories.* ... The State can grant the same right to foreigners as long as they agree with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be considered as Mexican nationals with respect to such resources and to decline, therefore, any right to be legally protected by their national governments in case of being involved in a controversy about the resources; such an agreement's breach shall be penalize[d] by transferring the contested resources back to the Nation. Within an extension of one hundred kilometres from the national borders inland and of fifty kilometres from the seashore inland, foreigners shall never be allowed to acquire direct domain over lands and waters."
Article 32: "During peacetime foreigners shall neither serve in the Army nor in a law enforcement corporation. During peacetime only Mexicans by birth shall serve in the Army, int he Navy or in the Air force as well shall perform any employment or commission within such corporations. The same quality shall be fulfilled by captains, pilots, skippers, machine operators, mechanists and, in general, every crew member in a ship or an airplane carrying the Mexican flag. It shall also be fulfilled by port captains, steersman and airport commanders. In the face of similar circumstances Mexicans shall be preferred to foreigners by granting to them all available privileges and providing them with every governmental employment, job or commission which does not require a citizen legal status.."
Article 33: "The Executive Branch of Federal Government shall have power to expel from national territory, without a trial and in an immediate way any foreigner whose presence is considered to be inconvenient. ... [F]oreigners shall not participate in the country's political affairs."

I'd also point out that in order to be President of Mexico, not only must one be a natural-born citizen of Mexico, but both of one's parents must also be natural-born citizens of Mexico. (See Article 59.) By contrast, we're talking in this country about eliminating the requirement that the President be personally a natural-born citizen.

I submit that as between Mexico and the United States, the U.S.A. has the substantially more liberal immigration law so it's quite odd to see a Mexican governmental official criticizing a portion of the U.S. for moving closer but not nearly adjacent to the existing foundational law of Mexico. To be sure, Mexico and the United States are situated differently, and have different kinds of problems to solve with their laws.

But the point is, no one from outside their country is telling Mexicans to liberalize their immigration laws, laws which they have written into their Constitution. That's partially because for someone who is not a Mexican citizen to make such an appeal would violate Mexican law.  Were I to go to Mexico and criticize the laws of a state of Mexico, I would be liable to immediate deportation back home to the United States without due process of law.  I presume that visiting heads of state on diplomatic missions are not likely to be treated in such a fashion.

What is more annoying, however, was the fact that those members of Congress who oppose the Arizona immigration law chose to applaud President Calderón's criticism of it.  Given that President Calderón chose to (tactlessly, in my opinion) weigh in on the issue, the right response of a member of Congress would have been to sit on her hands -- regardless of her opinion on what he said.  President Calderón was invited to speak to Congress for the purpose of making a political appeal for help in fighting drug lords and controlling narco-terrorism which is eroding the sovereignty of his nation -- a matter which concerns us as much as it concerns Mexico.  His remarks about immigration were beyond the scope of that invitation.

Nor would I even particularly gripe about Calderón expressing distaste for Arizona's law in some other forum.  At least while in our nation, he enjoys freedom of speech like anyone else.  But a speech from a foreign head of state to the U.S. Congress is kind of a particular and rarefied forum for diplomacy, and I think one ought to be, well, diplomatic when engaging in diplomacy.  Calderón's remarks cross that line. No citizen of this country voted in your election, Señor Presidente, -- an election which you barely won and which raised substantial questions about whether you hold office almost exclusively by virtue of the strength of political corruption, which I notice that every one in Congress was polite enough to not mention during your visit.  You should have returned that favor.

If you truly want to reduce the amount of migration for labor going from your country to ours, Señor Presidente, then you should enact policies encouraging economic development in Mexico, control crime, put a lid on political and law enforcement corruption.  If you can do those things, your own people will have reasonable economic opportunities at home, and won't feel the incentive to come here in the first place.  Your nation has made progress on these fronts and we are willing to help you do those things because we want to be good neighbors and we see advantage to ourselves in Mexico becoming more prosperous and therefore a better trading partner.  But your display of hypocrisy before our Congress makes me a little bit less willing to help out in this regard. 

And once again, shame on those members of Congress who cheered this -- breach of decorum, at minimum.  Even if you are convinced Arizona's law is an unambiguously bad thing, it is still our law and we are more than capable of using our own political and legal institutions to determine whether it should remain in place.  Your reliance on a foreign head of state's meddling in our internal politics to muster political support for your point of view is unseemly at best.  Kudos, further, to Congressman Tom McClintock who rightly called the whole charade for the hypocritical and disgraceful farce that it was

I say all this without altering my advocacy of further liberalizing our immigration laws in any way.  We should liberalize our laws, because it would be to our long-term advantage to do so.  But that's an argument to offer  another day and in another post.  This post is not about immigration policy, it's about international diplomacy.

* I notice that the Mexican Constitution embodies a very different vision of property and natural rights than the U.S. Constitution does. This post is not the place to compare those very different political philosophies.

12 Events That Will Change Everything

From Scientific American, a rich interactive summary of pivotal plausible events such as a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India (guess what, we lose) and an asteroid impact.  The graphics are cool and the fusion power article is, if a little bit pessimistic, at least wide-eyed about the realities of this still-theoretical technology.  And frankly, I think that human cloning will cause more emotional hand-wringing than any real change in the world.

May 19, 2010


"Taxonomy" is an intimidating-sounding word for a simple task -- naming things.  It's easy, and it's helpful in navigating the world.  For instance, real quick -- what is this building?

No, this isn't a trick question.  That's a church, St. Patrick's Cathedral in El Paso, Texas, to be exact.  What do you do in a church?

That's right, you pray.  Now, what is this building?

Okay, I picked a picture with kind of a clue in it.  This is the City Hall of Durham, North Carolina.  And what do you do in a city hall?

That's right, you govern a city, like the Minneapolis City Council is doing above. 

These are not trick questions.  Nor are they very difficult.

Notice, if you will, how the two buildings are different, and built for doing different things in.  The church is for worship, for prayer, for religious activities.  The city hall is for government.

What is appropriate in one building is not appropriate in others.  Why is this simple consequence of taxonomy (City Hall is not a church) so often ignored?  Even here in the very city in which I live

If a legislator wants to pray before a governmental meeting, there is nothing stopping her from doing so.  Even if some kinds of generic legislative prayers are allowed (and prayers that mention specific deities, like Jesus, are not) isn't it at least as important a question as to whether it's appropriate to incorporate prayer into a governmental meeting?  City Hall is for the public and it is there to provide a venue for doing the public's business.

I'm not just appealing to your loyalty to the Constitution here.  I'm appealing to your sense of decency and appropriate public conduct.  You don't see me going into churches and arguing about the law as if it were a courthouse.  Wouldn't be appropriate behavior.  So please don't go into a building where laws are made and start worshiping a deity.  Whether or not the Constitution permits such a thing to happen, it isn't appropriate behavior.

A Good Excuse To Indulge In Rule Five

Rima Fakih is a very attractive young woman from Michigan who has quite inadvertently held up a looking glass for some people to reveal some very unattractive things about themselves.

Those folks have allowed their heads to publicly asplode when an Arab-American woman won the Miss USA pageant earlier this week.  Now, I have a hard time figuring out just why it is that two years in a row we've been paying attention to the Miss USA pageant (last year we found ourselves following the tawdry story of Miss California Carrie Prejean, whose brief career as a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage was aborted by the revelation of a solo sex video).  Donald Trump must have a pretty good PR firm pushing this particular product.

A woman who appears in a beauty pageant and whose job history includes pole dancing is about as fully Westernized as I can imagine.  And she's, um, really hot, which is a personal attribute that I rather suspect helps when you're "competing" in a beauty pageant.  (And no, the contents of the previous post most certainly do not indicate that I've lost my eye for that sort of thing.)  Nor is she the first Arab-American to have participated and done well in this particular pageant.  So it would seem that there's nothing to see here, other than a woman who is walk-into-a-pole beautiful and whose ancestors happen to hail from Lebanon.

This, of course, doesn't stop people from saying astonishingly stupid things and thereby revealing a great deal more about themselves than about the subject of their speech:
No, it’s not “just another beauty pageant.” Donald Trump, Muslims (who mostly support Islamic terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, which features many of Fakih’s close relatives as top officials), and even Barack Obama will exploit this as propaganda for Islam. Mark my word. Hezbollah is laughing at us, tonight. One of its auxiliary members won the Miss USA title without having to do a thing to denounce them and their bloody murder of hundreds of Americans, including the trampling/torture murder of Navy Diver Robert Dean Stethem aboard TWA flight 847, the 25th anniversary of which is next month.
Dhimmi Donald Trump simply didn’t have the guts to demand that Fakih denounce the Islamic group Hezbollah, whose martyrs and top terrorists are Fakih family members. It doesn’t matter to the Donald that this is the terrorist group that murdered more Americans than any other after Al-Qaeda, and probably more, when you count its joint ventures with Hezbollah. Trump made a bigger deal with Miss California USA and her bimbo activities, when–hellooooo–it’s a bimbo contest. Now, Hezbollah has the chief USA bimbo. And they’ll use it.
I don’t just wonder if this whole contest is rigged. I have a feeling that it is. Clearly, there is affirmative action for Muslim women in beauty pageants and other such “contests.”
If that isn't your speed, how about Michelle Malkin?
She nearly tripped over her gown.
She called birth control a “controlled substance.”
She argued that contraceptives should be covered by health insurers because they are “expensive” — and then said you could get them for “free” from your OB/GYN’s office.
And now she is the new Miss USA.[¶]
Meanwhile, Miss Oklahoma lost out after expressing support for Arizona’s immigration enforcement law and celebrating states’ rights.[¶]
Looks like the Miss USA pageant didn’t want to risk the wrath of the open-borders mob.
Or of that ranting, conservative woman-bashing nutball and former Miss USA judge, Perez Hilton.
And I won't even reproduce what's been posted here because it crosses a border of social acceptability* in my judgment.  The appropriate reactions, however, are your choice of 1) shaking your head sadly while turning away, or 2) pointing and laughing.  Meanwhile, I'm going to call these reactions to this bit of page-ten news what they really are -- idiotic bigotry.  And I'm going to shamelessly hotlink a picture of a very attractive woman in a bikini in an effort to whore for hits on the blog, where my recent posting inactivity has caused traffic to slow in the past couple of days.

* Admittedly, such a border is ill-defined and subjective, although calling this woman a "Hezbollah monkey" is certainly a part of it.

TL Gentled

Here's where I'm putting my money.  I'm betting that most of you Readers out there aren't all that interested in me sharing the minutiae and details of my experiences getting a vasectomy, whether those were "before," "during," or "after."  I'm betting that you'd just as soon remain ignorant of those sorts of details.

For the mildly curious, it will suffice to say that I had the surgery after work Monday, in which there were some good moments and bad moments.  I spent all of Tuesday in a painkiller-induced mental fog, in the intimate company of rotating bags of frozen peas.

For the morbidly curious, write me an e-mail and chances are that I'll tell you all about what induced my near brush with vasovagal syncope.  You'll regret having asked, I promise you.

Today is Wednesday and yes, I'm still sore and moving slow.  Bending over and sitting down are still challenging but I've ratcheted my painkillers down to large doses of ibuprofen.  No, I don't want to go horseback riding with you nor do I want to learn how to use a unicycle.  Har-de-har-har.

May 15, 2010

The Citizenship Of Negative Rights

A proposal by Senator Joe Lieberman:
It’s time for us to look at whether we want to amend that law [depriving citizenship of those who enlist in foreign militaries against the US] to apply it to American citizens who choose to become affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations, whether they should not also be deprived automatically of their citizenship, and therefore be deprived of rights that come with that citizenship when they are apprehended and charged with a terrorist act.
Lieberman, in other words, would take away a U.S. citizen's rights upon that citizen merely being accused of terrorism. This is populism at its most detestable and frightening.  Had Lieberman at least said that citizenship could be stripped after conviction of such a crime, well, I still wouldn't like that, either, but it would be a little bit better.

After all, if we're talking about people convicted and not merely accused of crimes, well, what exactly does such a person lose?  Life, liberty, or property, obviously; a convicted felon may be imprisoned or fined or executed, depending on the statute authorizing punishment and the crime of which the felon was convicted. That's what the criminal justice system is all about.

A felon loses his franchise; felons are deprived of their right to vote upon conviction. The right to vote is, of course, the right to participate in forming the government, and therefore it is consent to be governed.  When you take away someone's right to vote, you are saying that their consent to be governed is now irrelevant; such a person is a "subject" rather than a "citizen," at least in one sense of the word "citizenship."

Another sense of the word, however, is that a citizen is a "participant in society."  In theory, a felon can go out into the work force and get a job; while getting a good job upon release from prison is difficult for many felons, it is not impossible, particularly if the felon possesses appropriate skills or education.  Felons are not deprived of their property even while incarcerated unless their property is substantially related to the crime of which they were convicted (e.g., drug dealers do not get to retain property rights in their drugs or guns, but unless the government and prove that it was bought with drug money, they can keep their houses and cars). Convicted felons can enter in to contracts. They retain their rights to free speech, free worship, and to petition the courts for redress of grievances, and when they are in court, they get the same due process that would be given to a non-felon in their situation. Soldiers may not be quartered in their houses. Generally, they can get passports (unless they are on parole and the terms of the parole prohibit international travel), and they can travel between the states freely.  Felons, upon release from prison, are in many senses of the word, meaningful participants in larger society.

There are some other rights that felons lose, too.  The ability to own a firearm. The ability to serve on a jury. Some but not all privacy rights; felons can be and often are made to register their residence and periodically report on their activities to law enforcement agencies (e.g., Megan's Law).

Thing is, we do these things to convicted felons already -- we take away rights and civic abilities which we would not and should never tolerate being done to a law-abiding citizen.

Felons also retain certain civic duties. Men under age 40 may be required to register with the Selective Service despite their status as felons (this does not mean the military will want them, but they are still required to register).  They must obey lawful orders of the police and the courts; they must comply with all laws the same as non-felons.  And most importantly, they must pay taxes. (This despite their inability to vote; while we tend to think of this an an exception to the concept of "no taxation without representation" this is not a rational or principled exception but rather an accident of history.)

So if what Lieberman is talking about were things like this, well, it really wouldn't be much of a stretch anyway.  Convicted felons, even upon release from prison, are not really full citizens anyway since, as I've demonstrated by example above, they do not possess the full suite of rights that an unconvicted person does.  But what Lieberman is really talking about are due process, bail, and cruel and unusual punishment. 

But let's also give a thought to the abstract concept of what "rights" are in the first place.  Our Constitution does not speak very much about the rights of the individual, but rather mainly about the extent of the government's ability to exert power.  Political scientists refer to this with phrases like, "Federal constitutional rights are phrased in the negative, not in the affirmative."  A Constitutional right in this nation is the "right" stop the government from doing certain things to you.  Thus, our rights as citizens are phrased as restrictions on what the government can do:  "Congress shall make no law respecting an Establishment of religion..." and "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

So, if Lieberman's proposal is intended to be meaningful, he would expand the government's power, to grant the government power to inflict punishment without due process, without the right to counsel, without availability of the writ of habeas corpus, to impose excessive bail and to inflict cruel and unusual punishment. In the American constitutional scheme, depriving the individual of rights is the same thing as making the government more powerful as to that individual.

Since the "rights" of a citizen are really limits on the power of the government, to not be a citizen means that the government can do certain things to you which it could not do to a citizen. But even people we think of as non-citizens (say, law-abiding tourists from another nation, or a resident alien with a green card) are still beneficiaries of the limits on the powers of the government set forth in the Constitution; and indeed, they like anyone else within the government's power have the ability to petition the courts to enforce those limits on governmental power.

In other words, the government cannot deprive an alien of due process anyway.  The government cannot demand excessive bail from an alien anyway.  The government cannot impose cruel and unusual punishment on an alien anyway.  Stripping someone of their citizenship by statute does not give the government the Constitutional power to do the things Lieberman wants it to be able to do.

What, then, would stripping a convicted terrorist of U.S. citizenship do?  It would not enable the government to deprive the terrorist of life, liberty, or property without due process.  It would not enable the government to hold the person without bail, without assistance of counsel, or otherwise do with this person as it pleased (absent some other circumstance creating an already-existing exception to those legal doctrines).  It would not make extraction of information from such a person easier, more effective, faster, or more reliable.  It would not make securing a conviction against such a person any easier.  It would not make us safer, more secure, wealthier, or more free.

What it would really do, of course, is put Joe Lieberman on record as really, really not liking terrorists. Well, Senator Joe, I'm willing to give you credit for that pretty much just on your say-so. You really don't need to be monkeying with the Constitution to prove it and frankly, I'd rather you didn't.

World Cup Pool

If, like me and literally dozens of other Americans, you are paying attention to the World Cup, why not take a gander at the World Cup Pool?  I signed up for the pool created by Publius at  Set up your picks here, then join the group "The Fourth Branch" and use the intuitive password "fourthbranch."

While I predicted Germany to win it all, I'll still cry Avanti! for for Italy.

Ravi Zacharias' Six Questions Answered!

At The Atheist Experience, I find a set of six 'questions' from Ravi Zacharias, an evangelical Christian apologist.  Matt D. at Atheist Experience does a fine job on his own behalf and I commend his thoughts on the issues Zacharias raises to you.  But I'm also offering my own stab at them, one that I hope is somewhat briefer while still being thoughtful enough to be meaningful.
1.  If there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered, so how do we answer the following questions: Where did everything come from, and why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet, and is there any meaning to this life? Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier? If these concepts are merely social constructions, or human opinions, where do we look to determine what is good or bad, right or wrong? If you are content within an atheistic worldview, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers?
Zacharias pumps a lot of questions into this single question. Fortunately, all of them are susceptible of brief answers:
  • Where did everything come from? Science doesn't know yet. And that's OK.
  • Why is there something rather than nothing? Science doesn't know yet. And that's OK.
  • Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet? Because it evolved here.
  • Is there any meaning to this life? The question implies the word "transcendent" as a modified to the word "meaning" and the answer is no, there is not. There is only the meaning that we pick for ourselves. If the modifier is "objective," then yes, there is -- the transmission and propagation of the chemical sequences known as "genes" within the deoxyribonucleic acid embedded within our cells.
  • Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? False choice. Death is not necessarily the end of the human experience. Nor does death as the terminal experience of human existence (whether individual or collective) necessarily deprive that existence of meaning.
  • How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier? Through reason, empathy, and experience.
  • If these concepts are merely social constructions, or human opinions, where do we look to determine what is good or bad, right or wrong? See the immediately previous answer.
  • If you are content within an atheistic worldview, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers? (Query as to the grammar here; an "atheistic worldview" is not a question, but I understand what he's getting at -- what would make an atheist previously comfortable with his atheism question it?)  Substantial evidence of the existence of an interventionist supernatural entity, viz. a prayer-induced spontaneous regrowth of an amputated human limb.

The rest of Zacharias' "questions" are really arguments:
2.  If we reject the existence of God, we are left with a crisis of meaning, so why don’t we see more atheists taking their worldview more seriously like Jean Paul Sartre, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or Michel Foucault? These three atheists recognized that in the absence of God, there was no transcendent meaning beyond one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes. The experience of atheistic meaninglessness is recorded in Sartre’s book Nausea. Without God, these three thinkers, among others, show us a world of just stuff, thrown out into space and time, going nowhere, meaning nothing.
Existentialism requires that you explain and justify your own existence on your own terms and not resort to hiding behind fictions like a supernatural overlord. It seems natural that you would sneer at existentialism if you do not possess such a justification for yourself and your actions. If, on the one hand, an atheistic world view necessarily has as its only transcencent meaning other than "one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes" then ultimately the justification for why one does action "X" is either the atheistic answer "because it pleased me to do so," or the theistic answer "because I believed that it pleased God that I do so," which ultimately is really the same thing as the atheistic answer because the theist takes pleasure in pleasing God.  And who says that there aren't a lot of atheists who take the existentialists seriously?  Understanding existentialism, at any level of sophistication, does not require that one become joyless.
3.  If people don’t believe in God, the historical results are horrific, so how do we deal with the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot who saw religion as the problem and worked to eradicate it? Countless millions lost their lives under these godless regimes, regimes more influenced by Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch (superman) than they were by transcendent morality.
If people do believe in God, the historical results are also horrific. If you are going to lay some of (but not all of) the genocides of the twentieth century at the feet of atheism, then you must answer for a dozen or so Crusades launched by Christianity, dozens if not hundreds of jihads launched by Islam, hundreds of pre-Nazi pogroms against Jews across Europe, the riots of religion that separated Pakistan and Bangladesh from India, the Wars of the European Reformation, and debatably, the massive extermination partially unwittingly perpetrated on Native Americans by European conquerors, most of whom were motivated by the desire to spread Christianity to the New World. Violence and death are at least as much the result of the presence of religion as its absence.

And for the fifteen thousandth time, Hitler was not an atheist.
4.  If there is no God, the problems of evil and suffering are in no way solved, so where is the hope of redemption, or meaning for those who suffer? Suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, without God because there is no hope of it being rendered meaningful or transcendent, redemptive or redeemable, since no interventions in this life or reparations in an afterlife are possible. It might be true that there is no God to blame now, but neither is there a God to reach out to for strength, transcendent meaning, or comfort. There is only madness and confusion in the face of suffering and evil.
This "question" presupposes that God is benevolent. If what you are concerned with is succor from suffering, then a malicious or even an indifferent deity is probably worse than no deity at all. And if what you are concerned with is succor from suffering, merely wanting a deity to provide that succor does not mean that such a deity really exists. I would like it very much if Santa Claus really did give toys and presents to good little boys and girls all over the world on Christmas Day. How marvelous that would be! But wanting it to be true does not make it so. In the original article, Matt D. points out also that succor is available from other people, and that the existence of suffering in a theistic universe raises questions about the true benevolence of God, which are also points worth considering.
5.  If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong — really wrong? Where do those standards come from? Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.
This is simply another way of rephrasing Zacharias' earlier question, "How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier?" My answer remains the same: through reason, empathy, and experience. I'll also add that religion (which is not necessarily the same thing as belief in God in this context) has been uses as the justification for every one of the historical evils Zacharias mentions in his question, and indeed more than that. Religion, therefore, is at least as much a perpetrator of evil as a force to ameliorate it.  God's existence (distinguished from religion) does not resolve the problem of evil, either, because we are left with Epicurus' quatrain about God and evil:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?
To be sure, Epicurus is a way of rephrasing the classic issue of the problem of evil, but at least in this argument, Zacharias has not dealt with that issue in any meaningful way.
6.  If there is no God, we don’t make sense, so how do we explain human longings and desire for the transcendent? How do we even explain human questions for meaning and purpose, or inner thoughts like, why I am so unfulfilled or empty? Why do I hunger for the spiritual? How do we deal with these questions if nothing can exist beyond the material world? Atheists, particularly atheistic scientists go way beyond their scientific training when they depart from the “how” questions to prognosticating about the “why” questions. Even terms like “natural selection” seems a misuse of words, since only an intelligent being can assess options and choose. How do we get laws out of luck, or predictable processes out of brute chance? If all that makes us different from animals is learning and altruism, why do the brutish still widely outnumber the wise in our world?
This question is packed to the gills with false premises. Even if there is no God, human beings make plenty of sense when understood for what they are: animals which are the current product of an ongoing process of evolution which has produced a confluence of self-awareness, tool-building, logical thought, long-term memory, and opposable digits as traits assisting survival of the organism. Like many apologists do, Zacharias again confuse the desired answer to a question with its premise. His desire for a transcendent purpose to life (which exists, or does not, independent of his desire for it to exist) is universalized, incorrectly; his lack of ability to imagine a world without such a transcendent purpose is universalized, incorrectly; his failure to discern that human existence, while perhaps more complex than that of a "lower" animal, is really no different than that of any other species of social animal, is universalized, incorrectly. Indeed, Zacharias presumes that free choice exists, which is a far from certain proposition and one of which I have grown increasingly dubious.

Boiled down to its essence, Zacharias basically argues with his six questions as follows: "Existence without God would be a horrifying absurdity, therefore, God must exist." I can't think of any facet of that proposition which can be intellectually redeemed.

May 14, 2010

Here's a reason people hate cops

So I'm appearing this morning in court here in Stinking Bakersfield.  No one at all is in line for the security screen behind me. There are two security guards and a Kern County sheriff's deputy. I put my case file, phone, pens, wallet, and keys through the X-ray and go through the metal detector.  Which beeps, as I knew it would, since I am wearing suspenders.
"I'm sorry sir, but you'll have to take off your suspenders. " says the security guard.
"Kind of a pain to do that, don't you think?" I say back.
"What? You just unsnap them."
"No, mine are the button kind." I show him. "Can't you use the wand?"
"You'll have to ask the deputy. He's got the wand."
So I turn to the deputy.  "It's just suspenders. Can you wand me?"
"I'm not going to wand you just because you don't want to take off your suspenders," says the deputy, who then resumed his bored pacing.
So, I had to undo my suspenders right there in the entrance to the courthouse.  As I struggled out of them, a family of four was made to wait behind me while I reached around my ass to undo the buttons there.
Five people were inconvenienced and one of them ass humiliated and almost made late to court, because one cop couldn't be bothered to use a tool HE WAS ALREADY HOLDING IN HIS HAND and which would have taken ten seconds to do.
I handled the appearance and lunch with the clients afterwards fine. But I was a seething cauldron of rage underneath it all, let me tell you.
Sent from my phone.

Mojave Cross Thief Issues Demands

Taking an already-magnified situation* and escalating it, someone claims to be the thief who stole the now-notorious Mojave Cross and has gone so far as to issue demands regarding its return.  He did so in the Desert Dispatch, a local newspaper in Barstow.  The anonymous author of the letter claims to be a veteran and says he will return the cross to someone who promises to put it up on private land after a different and secular style of war memorial is chosen to replace the cross at Sunrise Rock.  Interestingly, he concludes his letter as follows:

...this has happened because as Abraham Lincoln said: 'To stand in silence when they should be protesting makes cowards out of men.' Perhaps this was an inappropriate form of protest if so I humbly request your forgiveness and understanding for the actions that I have taken here.
Sorry, my friend, but forgiveness is not forthcoming from this quarter. You have escalated an already-difficult situation and polarized, rather than reconciled, feelings about that cross. Even though I agree with you that if there was to be a war memorial there, it should have been secular in nature, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise. We don't get to make up the rules ourselves based on our own personal preferences -- we have to submit to the rule of law and this was the decision of the nation's highest court.  Just like I heartily disagreed with the decision of the California voters to pass Proposition 8 but nevertheless submit myself to the rule of law thus created, here again those of us who though the cross represented an Establishment of Christianity over other kinds of religion must seek out a different way to express that belief.  Your decision to express that belief through destruction of a Federal monument is not one that I can support or countenance.

I think one thing to bear in mind is that most of the people who have decided to concern themselves over the Mojave Cross would be better-advised to start caring about the Mojave Preserve from which it was taken.  They don't, of course; it is a hallmark of magical thinking to confuse a symbol of something with the thing itself.  The cross is not Christianity.  The cross is not remembrance of fallen war dead.  It is a symbol of those things, not the things themselves.  But it is this very confusion that causes people to think that the idea of litigation over the placement of a cross on Federal land is an attack on Christianity, it is this very confusion that motivated someone to take the cross down and issue protests about its appropriateness as a war memorial.

I find myself in the position of, to take a more extreme example, an advocate of a separate Palestinian state upon hearing news of a suicide bombing in Israel.  The ostensible goal of the terrorist is to create a Palestinian nation, the same as the political activist, but that does not necessarily mean that the violent means of attempting to effect that political change can be even impliedly endorsed.  Some people might disbelieve that it is possible for person "A" to peacefully and lawfully advocate a goal that person "B" pursues through violent or unlawful means -- and person "A" should both resent the actions of person "B" as counterproductive and should publicly condemn what "B" has done in the interest of advancing the desired cause.  That is the point of this post, and the point of my previous post on this subject.

The fact of the matter is that the only thing this thief has done is to make people who liked the cross on Sunrise Rock more determined than ever before to have a cross on Sunrise Rock.  Along the way, he has caused great embarrassment for those of us who thought there should not have been a cross on Sunrise Rock.  Now, not only do I have to argue that the Supreme Court blew the call, but I also have to disclaim someone who had the arrogance to replace his personal opinion for that of the Supreme Court's.  Thanks for nothing, dude.  Here's what I think you should do -- drop the cross off in front of a National Park Service office somewhere anonymously and go away, then go get a lawyer, and refrain from making any further public statements about the matter.

The cross is not yours and it is not for you to decide its fate.  You have committed a crime.  Your moral duty is to return this property to its rightful and lawful owner, the Federal government, and your legal duty is to thereafter confine your protests concerning the cross to the meaningful and lawful means available to you for thus expressing yourself.

* By "magnified" I refer to the fact that had there not been a high-profile Supreme Court case concerning this cross, literally dozens of people would have noticed that the cross had gone missing; as it is, what would have been a deeply local event has become national news.

Sarah Palin's Historical Challenge

The guy's a little harsher on former Gov. Palin than I would have been, and there's nothing particularly new here by way of source material. But I'd point you to look at the larger point rather than the snark:

The point is that America was not intended to be a "Christian nation" by the Founders and there is no historical record of any such intent.  Claims to the contrary are dangerous revisionism offered by those who would subvert our fundamental religious freedoms and they deserve to be called out for what they are.

My opinion on the question of the Founders' personal religion remains the same as it was last year. These men were politicians who made it a point to be appealing to the voters, they were intellectuals caught up in the intellectual trends of the day, they were well aware of their own falliability and shortcomings and never pretended to have all the answers whether in their day or for posterity, they were conscious of their role as pivotal historical figures who would be held up as role models for the future, and they wanted people in the future to be free and to make up their own minds about all manner of things, very particularly and specially including religion (to wit, witness the "marketplace of ideas" concept underlying the Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom, a political achievement Thomas Jefferson believed more important than his service as President of the United States).

The Founders' personal religious beliefs and practices were a) inconsistent, as like many people they changed their minds about religious matters over the course of their lives; b) private, in that many of them took pains to remain publicly silent about what they believed; and c) irrelevant, because whether they were Christian, Deist, atheist, or something else does not give us evidence that Christianity (or deism, atheism, or something else) is true nor does it shed any light whatsoever on the purely secular government that they created when they drafted the original Constitution -- one whose only reference of any kind to religion was a categorical ban on religious tests for holding public office.

These men did not want to be called "Christians" and they would not have been pleased to have been claimed as icons by religious blocs.  No one gets to claim them -- not Christians, not atheists, not anyone.  The only label they would have wanted attached to them in the memories of later generations would have been "Americans."  They did not want to create a "Christian" nation; they wanted to create a free nation -- if the free citizens of America chose to be Christian, so be it, but what mattered to them was that Americans, both as individuals and as a people, were free to choose for themselves.

Hat tip to Liberal Values (via Below the Beltway).

Attention East Coast Baseball Fans

The Wife has a colleague at work who bought her boyfriend tickets to see the Red Sox-Yankees game on Monday the 17th. They are described as lower-tier, "right behind home plate." She's got them posted on Craigslist and I told her to check out StubHub, but if you're interested in a direct hookup, shoot me an e-mail.

May 11, 2010

Guidelines For Dinner Parties At Soffit House

  1. If you aren't invited to dinner this time around, please don't be offended.  We can't have everyone over all the time.  We try to bring together interesting people interacting with one another.  Singles are welcome to, but not obliged to, bring dates even if we don't know them.  Married guests leaving their spouses at home got some 'splainin to do.
  2. We like to start around 6:00 p.m. and generally, we're sorry to see you go whenever that time comes.  But we understand if you want to be home and in bed before midnight.  We have a spare bed available in an allergen-free room if you have a little too much to drink.
  3. All food will be prepared from scratch, or very close to it. We might use dried pasta rather than rolling out our own. Or, as we've done with other guests who had a great time helping us out with it, we might just conscript you to help us roll out the pasta.
  4. Booze, beer and/or wine will be consumed.  You don't have to drink it.  But we're going to imbibe freely.  The house drink is a vodka Aviation and if you haven't had one, it's worth trying.  So come thirsty.
  5. The only thing we really want a guest to bring is interesting conversation.  Bottles of wine, dishes to pass, flowers, and other gifts are warmly appreciated and will be graciously accepted as tokens of friendship, but they are absolutely unnecessary.
  6. Soffit House is not child-friendly.  We have no television, no toys, no video games, glass-topped coffee tables, unsafeguarded electrical outlets and unhatched cabinets.  There is nothing for your child to do here other than play with our pets, and they will lose interest in your child after about half an hour of play.  There are some power tools and spare sheets of lumber in the garage so if your child can amuse herself for hours on end with a double-miter saw while you booze it up in the other room, I suppose we can set her up there.  But if not, and you simply cannot leave your kids with a sitter or a grandparent for an evening, well, The Wife and I would be happy to to meet up with you and your charming-and-well-behaved children in some other venue, at some other time.
  7. We love our proteins here.  Most likely, meat of some kind will be served as the focal point of the meal, and in generous quantities.  Sometimes, fish may be served.  If you are vegetarian, not a fish-eater, or are otherwise picky about your protein, you may be out of luck.  There will be plenty of other food for you and you wouldn't be our first dinner guest to make a (typically quite enjoyable) meal out of side dishes.
  8. Special dietary needs can be accommodated.  A preference for meat cooked to a temperature higher than "medium rare" is a "special dietary need" around here, and I'll need at least 48 hours notice that you want your steak medium or well done.  No vegetarian dinner guest has ever left Soffit House hungry.  But if you're a vegan, I can't offer the same assurance; see guideline #9.
  9. You really ought to think of dinner over here as your "break day" from whatever diet or weight loss program you're on.  You're almost certain to be offered foods made using some kind of tasty animal fat.  I'm talking real butter, real bacon grease, real cheese, real cream.  No apologies will be made for the high fat content of any of these ingredients.  They taste good and the purported substitutes for these products produce unacceptably inferior results.  The Wife typically uses liquor (tequila and whiskey are her favorites for this purpose) instead of milk as the liquid ingredient in her batters, and butter cream frosting (primary ingredients being powdered sugar and butter-not-no-stinking-margarine).  This is all very tasty but none of it is even remotely dietetic.
  10. If you leave hungry, it's surely going to be your own damn fault.  And we will try to send extra food home with you no matter how stuffed you say you are.

May 10, 2010

Something To Note About Elena Kagan

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, if confirmed to the Supreme Court, would be the first Justice to sit on the Court since Lewis Powell to have a background that does not include service on an appellate bench.  General Kagan's background is primarily academic, and she seems to have been a very good (but probably not stellar) academic.  We're going to hear about her decision to not allow the military to recruit lawyers in response to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy while she served as Dean of Harvard Law School, much will be made of her having had Barack Obama as a colleague while teaching at University of Chicago Law School, and she will be unusually vulnerable to questions about her beliefs on particular issues during her nomination in light of a law journal article in which she suggested it was appropriate for nominees to make such disclosures and that it was politically important that they do so.  She's liberal, but that's not entirely a bad thing (at least, from a civil liberties perspective, which is what counts the most with me) and I can think of no serious objection to her nomination.  It's a base hit, not a home run, for President Obama.  (Judge Diane Wood would have been a somewhat more ambitious pick.)

A Close Shave In Las Vegas

One of the interesting things about Las Vegas is that time and money lose a lot of meaning while you're there.  You spend more time doing things than you normally would because there are no clocks anywhere and plentiful distractions to boggle the mind and the eye.  You spend more money than you normally would on things that you wouldn't really even consider back at home.  A sort of mania takes over while you're there -- compounded if you've won while gambling, but even in my case without hitting the casinos at all I still was more than willing to spend money on stuff I wouldn't ordinarily have bought.

The epitome of this was reached in the Grand Canal Shoppes in the Venetian and Palazzo complex.  The Wife and I were wandering around there and glanced inside The Art of Shaving.  Everything was hugely overpriced and I was initially more interested in the novelty of straight-razor shaving than anything else.  Next thing I knew, the clerk had stepped aside and the barber was giving me an education about how to hold the blade, the right pattern for getting the best shave, and discreetly getting me to admire his astonishingly smooth chin -- and I was committing to buying all kinds of hyper-expensive product and getting a free shave in with the deal, because as it happened I had decided to skip my shave that morning.

With the Royal Shave, you get not only a hot towel wrap around your face followed by the tender ministrations of the barber.  You get some of the nice aromatherapy oils and a neck and scalp massage and some other product to clean you up and make you look and smell good.  But the shave's the thing.  The complete decadence of leaning back in a comfortable barber's chair and having another man apply an ultra-sharp blade to my face, rendering it smoother than it had been since puberty, was a pretty cool indulgence.  The money was one cost; time was the other.  The whole process took forty-five minutes to an hour.

I'd have thought the shave itself would have hurt less.  But in fact, I experienced some pain and burning on both the with-the-grain and against-the-grain passes over my face.  Worse, the no-alcohol balm applied afterwards was only partially effective at taking the residual burning away; I could still feel the burn several hours later.  I've shaved twice since then using a technique similar to the one I was taught at the Shaving Shoppe, and the burning has been lessened each time, as promised.  But, my shave has been closer and smoother, and that's still using my vibrating Gillette Fusion blade.  Whether that's from improved technique or better product is hard to say.

So no, I wouldn't normally have spent that kind of money on that sort of thing.  But it was an indulgence, part of an indulgent series of days in a city built around providing opportunities for indulgences.

Oh, and Penn Jillette is a tall, tall man:

The Penn & Teller show was a lot of fun.  Much bang for the entertainment dollar to be had there.  I'm pretty sure I know how they did the trick with the cell phone and the frozen fish.  But the bullet-biting trick is damn impressive and I cannot even fathom how they did it.

It Wasn't Me

Yes, I went to Las Vegas for a few days.  And yes, the now-famous Mojave Cross is sort of near the I-15 on the road from L.A. to Vegas, a reasonably short drive from the Cima Road exit.  And yes, I think that the Federal government ought to have no business displaying a cross (that's not on a gravestone) or going out of its way to make sure that a cross it should never have countenanced in the first place stays up through a transparent shuffle. 

And yes, I think that the Supreme Court blew the call, by one vote -- I'm looking at you, Justice Kennedy, for selectively (dare I say, "intentionally"?) ignoring the critical issue of how the cross is actually used, as an object of worship and religious veneration rather than as a memorial to war dead, and instead emphasizing the (to me but not to everyone) irrelevant issue of how long the cross has been there.

But that doesn't mean that I approve of someone stealing the thing.  That's obnoxious, it's inflammatory, it does nothing to reconcile the situation, it does nothing to ease hardened feelings on either side of the issue.  The dispute should be resolved in court, not with some idiot armed with bolt cutters.  After all, cross supporters are just going to go back and build a new one, the same as they have for decades there.  And assuming the land swap is permitted to go through, well, the VFW can put up a cross on its own land all it likes.  So this doesn't solve anything.  It doesn't help the cause of separating church and state.  It's not political speech.  It just pisses people off without accomplishing anything thereby.

May 6, 2010

Disproportionate Democracy

The results of today's election in the UK may look a little bit funny and it calls to mind a myth I was taught in college – the myth is that multi-party parliamentary democracies better represent the will of the people than the American two-party system.  I think this is a myth and the results from the UK bust that myth. I can't be 100% sure because I'm writing this post a day in advance of actual election results. But if those results look like the polls, there will be a hung Parliament, and two parties will need to form a coalition government. Indeed, projects overall looks like the Liberal Democrats got really screwed -- their popular polling will have been far in excess of the number of seats in Parliament which they actually won. is running this projection as of the time I write:

Popular Vote
Seats in Parliament
Liberal Democrats
All Others

This may look a little, well, undemocratic in the sense that the results of representation in Parliament are significantly disproportional to the way the British electorate is predicted to have behaved. If the predictions are pretty much accurate, the Liberal Democrats will have outpolled the Labour Party but have significantly fewer members in Parliament than the just-tossed-out-of-power Labourites. And I suppose that in the pure sense of the word, this is indeed counter-democratic. If the Tories get 34.2% of the vote, they should get 34.2% of the seats in Parliament, right? If there were strict proportional representation, today's results (as projected yesterday by would look like this:

Popular Vote
Seats in Parliament
Liberal Democrats
All Others

Now, the disparity between the popular vote and the representation in Parliament here is well within limits that any reasonable political analyst would find tolerable. But such a system would leave a badly-fragmented Parliament, with any two of the three major parties able to form a government if they could agree on how to do so – the Conservatives, despite winning a plurality, could find themselves "on the outs" as Labour and the LD's jam together a 25-seat majority. That, too, would be an undemocratic result, and is proof enough that strictly proportional democracy does not guarantee a democratic result.

How does this happen? It's a combination of the relative popularity of the minor parties, the regional and single-issue parties and the Greens, lumped together in the "All Others" category. It's also the "first past the post" rule, which really means that the plurality in a given district is going to be the one seated in Parliament. If the UK had, effectively, a two-party system with the Tories and the Labourites as the only realistic choices, it would look a lot like the USA. (More about that below.) But they don't, so in each district the minor parties drain votes from the major parties and diminish the margin of victory for the eventual winner, potentially even changing the identity of that winner. 

For U.S. Readers unfamiliar with the British political system, a few quick concepts to keep in mind.  First, the UK is divided into geographical districts, just like the various states and Congressional districts of the U.S.  The number of districts varies from election to election; this year, there are 650 districts so it takes 326 seats to have a majority of Parliament and form a government. Individual candidates from the various parties stand for election in the various districts.  It is not required, but helpful, that the candidate be a resident of the district.  Suffrage is universal, with a few exceptions -- most interestingly, members of the House of Lords are not allowed to vote, and while there is no law disenfranchising members of the royal family from voting, they traditionally do not vote.

My expectation is that the projections are going to be pretty good; they line up roughly with what the BBC is projecting too: by the time this article posts to the blog, the Tories will have won a plurality but not a majority of seats in Parliament. Thus, the Queen will invite the leader of the Tories, David Cameron, to form a government of some kind and serve as Prime Minister for the next term of Parliament.  So what I'm pretty sure is going to be standing out today is that the Liberal Democrats polled so well but got so few seats. But in fact, this is nothing new for the UK. In 2005, the British election results were as follows:

Popular Vote
Seats in Parliament
Liberal Democrats
All Others

Note that in 2005, there were 646 seats in Parliament, not 650 as in today's election. Although Labour won that election instead of the Conservatives, the same thing that was projected for today's election happened in 2005 – thanks to the rule that the individual candidate who gets the plurality of votes within the geographic district is the one who goes on to sit in Parliament, a very modest advantage in polling produces a significant positive disparity in legislative representation.  And it was at the expense of the LD's, who did pretty well at the polls but did not get anything like the reward this would seem to indicate in seats in the Commons.

So, is the UK an undemocratic place despite being the "Mother of all Democracies"? (Greek and Icelandic Readers may now justifiably bristle at this phrase.) Let's compare the UK with the last round of elections in the nearest analogue to the House of Commons that we can find in the United States – the House of Representatives, using figures from the 2008 Congressional elections:

Popular Vote
Seats in House
All Others

The Republicans should have got proportionally more seats than they did, but not that much and they certainly were better treated by their system than the Liberal Democrats were by the UK's. It's the minor parties that get trod upon by the majority party in the U.S.'s two-party system. I would expect to see similar kinds of disparities in historical Congressional elections, looking back to the days when Republicans held the majority in the House – whichever party gets the most votes is going to do so at the expense of representation of parties getting the fewest. But the point here is that the U.S., with a two-party system, still suffers from disproportionate representation. It gets closer, though, to the popular preference than the UK system.

That suggests to me that the insertion of a third party skews things in favor of the plurality party and warps the translation from voting to representation.  To confirm that, let's take a look at a third parliamentary democracy, one in a multi-party system with geographic districts rather than a national proportional representation system, and one in which there are a lot of parties in play. 

France's National Assembly held elections in 2007, with 577 seats up for grabs between two major parties and a scad of minor parties. In France, a candidate must get an absolute majority to win a seat in the National Assembly, and if no candidate gets a majority in a particular district, there is a runoff election. In all but one case in 2007, the runoff election was a two-way contest between the top two candidates from the first round of elections. The results, on the same scale of comparison used for the UK and the USA, look like this:

Popular Vote
Seats in National Assembly
Union for Popular Movement (Sarkozy)
Socialists (Royal)
Democratic Movement (aligned with Sarkozy)
Communist Party (aligned with Royal)
New Centre (aligned with Sarkozy)
All others, both left and right

So the French system is at least as skewed as the UK's. The proliferation of parties significantly distorts popular support for the various parties' platforms as compared to support for those platforms in the legislature.  

The US system seems to produce results closer to the preferences of the people, perhaps in part because the U.S. effectively narrows the choices down to two parties. Now, this isn't an in-depth comparison of a lot of systems. But it appears that the more parties are in play in a system whereby representatives are elected from specific geographic areas, the more the plurality party benefits in the form of disproportionately high representation in the legislature. The U.S., with its two-party system, winds up coming the closest to actual proportional representation of the three countries I looked at here.

Sigh.  Another myth from college busted. And too bad for Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats (barring an upset that I can't predict as I'm writing a day in advance of the actual results). Perhaps the LD's will be invited to form a government with the Tories, although it looks to me like the Tories will wind up being pretty close to a majority and therefore able to maybe throw a few bones to the regional or minor parties and put together a majority that way, which looks like the easiest thing for David Cameron, the likely new Prime Minister, to do.  After all, the "going it alone" strategy seems to have worked, albeit inelegantly, for Stephen Harper in Canada.