One Person's Opinion

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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Thursday, September 03, 2009
This morning, there was a line of media trucks as far as the eye could see, shown on television reporting from Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, CA. What was happening there? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Now, tonight, something will be happening there. Michael Jackson is going to be interred there. Many people would say that this is not a very important event and is a product of our tabloid celebrity culture. Fine. But to me, those "live" television trucks say something else-- something that would be just as true if they were lined up to cover a more important event.

Let's start with the fact that they were there at 7 in the morning. Nothing was going on at the cemetery at 7 in the morning. Indeed, one of the reporters actually said on the news that the trucks were interfering with parents trying to get their kids to a nearby elementary school on the first day of classes.

So why, exactly, are they out there, at a place where nothing is going to happen for 12 hours, interfering with unfortunate parents who are trying to drop their kids at school? Because the local morning "news" airs at 7 in the morning.

And that's the first thing you need to know about live reporting. Very little of it actually carries an event that is going on live. Not none of it, mind you-- those same morning news shows have been doing completely legitimate live reporting on the fires burning in the Angeles National Forest. But little of it.

Usually, live reports are either from the scene of an event that will happen sometime in the future or an event that has ended but occurred at sometime in the past. The live reporter is standing on a sidewalk in front of a place where nothing is going on (except other reporters also doing their live reports). The same words could be delivered from the studio. Indeed, in some cases, the reporter might be more comfortable and prepared doing it in a studio (think inclement weather, or stories that are more reliant on old-fashioned shoe leather reporting, phone calls, and the like).

And the cynicism inherent in the live reporter delivering the report when nothing is going on is breathtaking. Unless the event is going on during the newscast, you are not getting any benefit from having the reporter on the scene. The live report suggests importance, but if the event were really important, the station would break into regular programming to go to the live reporter while the event is in progress. Ever notice how they rarely do this?

Of course, one could argue that one advantage to at least some live reporting is that it places the reporter closer to people who might have information about the story. Thus, when the local news put their reporters near the courthouse for a story regarding a court proceeding, they theoretically can schmooze with the lawyers and gather additional information. However, in many cases, as I noted, there's nobody on the "scene" except other reporters, and even when there is a theoretical opportunity for access, I am simply not sure how much of this really goes on. I don't get the feeling that these on-scene reporters are doing a lot of actually reporting, as opposed to reading copy with a pretty backdrop.

And that's where the live report originates from the actual scene of something important or newsworthy. In many cases, the live report originates from a completely artificial location. For instance, if there's a story on unsafe food at supermarkets, they go live to outside of a supermarket, even though there isn't any unsafe food on the shelves of that supermarket. We had a local news reporter get electrocuted and seriously hurt during a report from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, when the satellite truck's dish got caught in some powerlines and conducted high voltage electricity into the reporter's body. The thing was, the reporter was doing a report on allegations of mistreatment of bodies in a cemetery in Riverside County, 60 miles east of Hollywood. The station didn't want to spend the money to send the reporter out to the facility actually named, so they sent her to the closest cemetery to the studio, in Hollywood, instead.

It's also important to note that these live reports interfere with people's daily lives. Every time a reporter takes up space on a sidewalk, they are blocking access to pedestrians who need to get somewhere. Every time a reporter sets up for a live shot at night on the evening news, they are shining blinding light which can cause auto accidents. And when hordes of reporters "cover" the same story, they make a neighborhood unliveable, they make it hard for people to get to work and do their business, and they essentially take over an area and make it unpleasant for human habitation until they are through.

All this, for what? Studies show that local news viewers like live reports. I don't doubt that's true. But what I do doubt is whether that is true when the live nature of the reports don't add anything. I am sure, for instance, that viewers love freeway car chases or live fire coverage. I suspect that viewers like the Michael Jackson hoopla as well. But do they really care whether that Riverside cemetery is delivered live or from the studio?

News producers have a responsibility to the public. There's no particular reason why they should be running roughshod over neighborhoods when it isn't necessary to do serious news reporting. For many stories where they just want live pictures, maybe it would be better to use pools where there is one set of cameras and one truck rather than 17. But the insane chase of the "live shot" is bad for our quality of life, and it doesn't serve the democratic values that are the basis of America's tradition of a free press. If some government decided to crack down on this (as long as access is ensured for serious stories where on-scene reporting is necessary), I wouldn't mind a bit.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009
It's tempting to say that nobody should even bother to give the "birthers"-- those folks on the right wing who continue to question Barack Obama's eligibility to be President-- the time of day. But in all the discussions of birth certificates and birth announcements and Kenya and non-citizen parents and everything else, one crucial aspect of this issue is repeatedly ignored.

Let's hypothesize a situation where a presidential candidate who is not eligible for the office nonetheless runs for the office. What happens then?

Well, first, the parties would have the power to declare him or her ineligible. Each party has the right to determine whether candidates are eligible to run. This includes such things as ballot access requirements and requirements that the candidate be a member of the party. Presumably, the party would be able to determine eligibility for the office as well.

Second, the primary voters would have the power to decline to vote for the candidate on the ground that the candidate is ineligible. Surely, the candidate's opponents would raise the ineligibility issue.

Third, the delegates at the party nominating convention have the power to refuse to nominate the candidate on the ground that the candidate is ineligible.

Fourth, the general election voters can decline to vote for the candidate on the grounds of ineligibility. Again, the opposing candidate will surely raise the issue.

Fifth, the electors in the electoral college can refuse to vote for the candidate on the same grounds.

Sixth, the Congress, which has the constitutional power to count the electoral votes, can refuse to certify the election result on the grounds of ineligibility.

Now, if 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 all decide the candidate is eligible for the office, the "birthers" nonetheless feel the courts have the power-- and should exercise it-- to invalidate the election.

The law has a doctrine called the "political question" doctrine. It is hard to explain, but it basically means that certain decisions are committed by the Constitution to the "political branches" (the legislature and/or President) to decide, and courts can't intervene in them. One example is whether a use of military force violates the war powers clause because Congress didn't authorize it. You can't litigate this-- it is up to Congress to protect its constitutional prerogatives. Another example is the filibuster-- it's up to the Senate to determine if it believes it is unconstitutional. A third example is a President's decision to withdraw from a treaty-- again, it is up to Congress to protect its prerogatives if the President's action is improper.

The constitutional qualifications of the President are clearly a political question. Specifically, Congress and the electoral college have the specific constitutional authority to determine this issue. Beyond that, as noted above, there are a bunch of informal checks that have evolved to stop an ineligible candidate from being elected.

But if an ineligible candidate is elected, you can't have nine unelected judges stepping in and invalidating it. This is what the political question doctrine does-- it protects the judiciary against crises involving its legitimacy by allowing it to stay out of thorny political disputes. It doesn't always work and judges do sometimes find themselves in these disputes, but in this situation it is clearly applicable.

So the "birthers" are barking up the wrong tree. The American public, the electoral college, and the Congress all decided that President Obama is eligible. Their decision is final and nonreviewable.


Tuesday, September 01, 2009
There's been a lot of discussion on Afghanistan lately, with various commentators taking the position that (1) we should get out (George Will), (2) we should define our mission narrowly so that it can be achievable (Matt Yglesias), (3) we must "win" at all costs, even if we don't know what that means (Danielle Pletka), or any number of other arguments.

What I think of when I think of Afghanistan, however, is the old cliche about fighting the last war. I suspect that both the left and the right are doing it, and that's the reason we are stuck there without any good metrics or sense of what we are supposed to be accomplishing.

For the right, Afghanistan is a proxy for arguments about Iraq. Essentially, conservatives very much know that their foreign policy is going to be judged based on their mistakes in Iraq, and that their reputations have taken a pretty big hit. Thus, it is of great importance to them to shift the subject from the Iraq War to the advisability of the "surge", which many liberals opposed (more because they didn't trust the Bush Administration and thought it was a proxy for staying in Iraq forever, rather than because they thought the strategy itself was so terrible).

Accordingly, they want to "surge" in Afghanistan, to again demonstrate the strategic brilliance of George W. Bush and the conservative movement in taking the fight to the terrorists.

For the left, Afghanistan is also a proxy for arguments about Iraq, but in a different way. Obama dug himself in a hole by arguing that Iraq was a bad war and that we make a mistake pulling troops out of the Afghanistan effort to prepare for the Iraq War, when Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and had no connections to Iraq. All this was, of course, true. But that was 2002. Just because it was a good idea to continue fighting a war in Afghanistan in 2002 doesn't mean that it makes much sense to be in there in 2009, especially since Al Qaeda moved to Pakistan in the interim anyway. Liberals are using Afghanistan to show that they aren't a bunch of left-wing peaceniks, but they should be able to articulate why it made sense to be in Afghanistan in 2002 and doesn't now (just like they should have been able to articulate why it did not make sense to invade Iraq and did make sense to invade Afghanistan).

Meanwhile, exactly what benefit do we derive from continued occupation of Afghanistan? Sure, we are keeping the Taliban out of power, and I can see the humanitarian and feminist benefits of that (though it is worth noting that the Karzai government hasn't been so kind to women's rights either), but I have the old-fashioned view that the US military isn't some humanitarian outfit, especially when there are real threats out there. I just have the abiding conviction that we seem to be in there because both conservatives and liberals want to refight the last war-- meanwhile, the current one continues to result in needless loss of life and a continuing and needless drain of American resources.


Monday, August 31, 2009
The current state of the health care debate has been analyzed from any number of perspectives. One thing that hasn't been commented on enough, however, is what the difficulties that Obama's health care plan is facing can tell us about the weaknesses in wonkish solutions to policy problems.

First, let's define our terms. When I speak of wonks, I speak of the type of people who turn aspirations into concrete proposals. For instance, people may be demanding action on global warming. The wonks turn that desire for action into something that could be sold to the public, and could be the basis for legislation. Note that wonks don't necessarily write actual legislative text-- rather they are the class of strategists, commentators, and political and policy advisors who come up with the outlines rather than the details.

Wonks often upset ideologues, because wonks are often the people who say that an idea can't sell in its pure form, watering it down in ways that are designed to increase public popularity and the chances of passage of a policy proposal. Wonks exist on both sides of the aisle-- for instance, on the Republican side, it was wonks who repackaged conservatives' desires to dismantle Social Security as the George W. Bush personal accounts / privitization proposal. They specifically took actions to attempt to make the proposal more palatable to the public, such as ensuring that current benefits to current retirees would not be touched.

As you can see, what wonks propose doesn't always make the proposal saleable, and therein lies the tale....

In the case of health care, the initial goal was universal coverage. There were a couple of reasons why this was so important to liberals. First, most liberals believe that decent health care is a right of every person in a wealthy, advanced country. This is how they do it in the European countries that many liberals admire. People shouldn't be dying or suffering debilitating illnesses and medical conditions because they aren't wealthy. Many forms of inequality can be tolerated when it comes to mere money or material possessions, but medical treatment should be available to all when they need it.

Second, and related, liberals believe that government-provided health care has instrumental economic benefits. The most important of these is middle-class security. This is the point that conservative Democrat Mickey Kaus, who has long been a vociferous supporter of universal health care, repeatedly makes. Health insurance, for middle-class Americans, is as important as Social Security. It provides them with the assurance that they will not face financial ruin in the case of a medical emergency or a serious illness or condition. Just as Social Security protected Americans from poverty caused by old age, universal health care protects Americans from poverty caused by a medical condition or illness. Another instrumental benefit of universal health care is to remove a competitive disadvantage that is imposed on American businesses, who have to pay for their employees' health care to keep their workers healthy whereas businessess in other countries do not have to face this cost. A third instrumental benefit is that health insurance that is provided by the government and which does not depend on one's job allows workers to be more mobile, which is an important benefit in a dynamic economy. Workers can leave one job for another, or to start a small business, knowing that they won't lose their health insurance. A society where there is no universal health care and where health insurance is tied to one's job is a society where people feel they must stay in their current job no matter what to keep their health care. That becomes a less efficient society.

So those are the basic outlines of the liberal case for universal health care. The obvious models for how to achieve it are to create a National Health Service (which is what the UK does, and which is provided for Veterans and for active duty servicemembers in the US through government programs) which employs doctors and builds hospitals and clinics to treat every American, or to create a governmental, public insurance company (which is what Canada does,and which is provided for all senior citizens in the US through Medicare) which pays private hospitals and doctors for care.

The problem that wonks faced is that these models are thought to be unenactable in the US. They are easily demonized as "socialized medicine" and they impinge on the vested interests of too many players in the current system-- doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and insurance companies, as well as the politicians who fund their campaigns with contributions from those sectors. They are also seen as requiring new taxes and spending, which many political insiders have come to believe cannot be enacted unless disguised.

So the wonks felt they had to design a proposal that bought off some of the stakeholders and disguised the taxes and spending. This is how we got to the "mandate, subsidies, and regulation" approach that is at the heart of the Democrats' current health reform efforts. The "mandate" is a requirement that everyone buys health insurance. It is essentially a tax, but it is disguised as a regulation, and the money raised goes directly to health insurance companies rather than to the government. The subsidies, along with the mandate, buy off health insurance companies by providing them with millions of new paying customers. And the regulations are what is extracted in return-- promises to cover everyone, not to cancel policies or impose pre-existing condition exclusions, and to allow for community rating so that people such as small business owners who buy on the individual market do not pay exorbitant premiums.

So what, then, is the problem with what the wonks did? Well, there are two.

The first problem is that the wonks' approach dragged health care off message. You may have heard Obama drone on and on about bending the cost curve, and I have certainly seen more than a few liberal as well as conservative writers articulate that the health care crisis is that costs are so high. This is, of course, not the crisis at all, at least not in the way that liberals initially conceived it. Sure, health care costs are a major, mid- to long-term problem. Medicare costs are shooting up faster than inflation, and as more expensive treatments continue to be developed, there are serious rationing issues that are materializing.

But the problem that health care reform was meant to solve is not that costs are too high, but that millions of Americans lack health insurance. You know, health care is a right, middle class security, dynamic economy and competitiveness, etc. If the proposal that was on the table was single payer or an NHS, it wouldn't have been dragged off message. But because the proposal did not straightforwardly provide insurance for every American, it was easy for it to be dragged off message.

Why is this? Well, let's think about this. The structure of the mandate/subsidies/regulation proposal is built on the individual mandate, under which all Americans are required to buy their own health insurance. The problem with this is this structure doesn't create an entitlement, it creates an obligation. If someone were proposing that a state enact a mandatory auto insurance law, it would be very hard to sell it as a matter of security, i.e., that under the proposal every state resident would be able to feel secure as he or she moved from car to car that he or she would have auto insurance. Do you see why?

Now this doesn't mean that such mandatory auto insurance laws are a bad idea. They aren't. It simply shows you that if you want to talk about middle-class security and health care as a right, a proposal to simply force everyone to buy a health insurance policy does not further that message.

Of course, proponents of the mandate/subsidies/regulation approach would say this isn't fair-- that the subsidies will provide the requisite security. And maybe they will. But this is a hard sell to the public. Without getting into wonky details, it's very hard to convince someone that the subsidy will really be sufficient to buy them a health insurance policy. And the subsidies are also very much subject to the vicissitudes of politics-- it's much easier politically to cut a subsidy or tighten an eligibility requirement for one than it would be to eliminate Medicare, for instance. And I suspect the public understands this. What is being presented to them is a certain requirement that they buy their own health insurance, and a speculative possibility that the government might cover the cost. Is it any wonder that it is tough to sell this program as providing cradle-to-grave medical security or a right to health care that can never be taken away.

This is why the messaging shift to cost control is no accident. Because while mandate / subsidies / regulation doesn't provide health security in a convincing way, it might very well control costs to some extent by bringing the medical profession and insurance industry under stricter regulation. The problem is, the public doesn't care about health care costs. Indeed, as Kaus points out, there's no reason to think that the public, if presented honestly with the choice between spending more money on health care and controlling costs, wouldn't want to spend more money on health care.

Thus, by creating a plan that was designed to buy off stakeholders and neutralize political attacks, the wonks destroyed the central message, indeed, the moral imperative for health care reform. People who might man the barricades for actual guaranteed health coverage for every American (even if provided through the private sector) have little interest in fighting for a requirement that everyone buy their own insurance, coupled with some iffy subsidies and regulations.

This isn't all that the wonks have wrought, however. The premise of the wonks' work is that single payer or NHS can't pass. Indeed, not even something along the lines of buying everyone a private-sector policy can pass (too much taxation!). But what happens if what the wonks propose can't pass either? Or if it can pass but only in a form so watered down (with reduced subsidies, more ineffective regulations, and no public option) that it will not constitute a positive reform? (I do not need to tell you that this result is a distinct possibility given the state of the health care debate at the present time.)

It seems to me that the argument for wonkish watering down of aspirations and proposals is precisely that the wonks' version can pass. Indeed, this is especially true when the watering down process inserts potentially unpopular measures, such as individual mandates and Medicare cuts. If it can't pass, why do it?

Indeed, there are several benefits to the left in rejecting wonkish approaches to health care if they cannot pass. For one thing, the wonks have moved the Overton Window (the scope of acceptable, "non-extreme" political discourse) to the right. Now, the "left" proposal on health care is mandate / subsidies / regulation. (For point of reference, before the current health care debate, this proposal was more associated with three Republicans, John Chafee (who proposed it in 1994), Mitt Romney (who enacted a version of it in Massachusetts), and Arnold Shwarzenegger (who proposed it in California).) There are many plans that liberals like better than this one. If we are going to have to wait to the next health care crisis to enact a reform, shouldn't we be able to start from a point farther left than this?

Second, the left is now associated with many of the problems in both the messaging and substance of the plan. There's no reason liberals should want themselves associated with the aspiration of cutting health care costs, nor with the concrete policy proposals of individual mandates or Medicare cuts. Rather, liberals want to be associated with the clean messaging of health care for all.

None of this is to condemn wonks in toto. Wonks are necessary to move from aspiration to policy. But the wonks should work in the service of the aspiration, and what they come up with should never replace or supplant it. That mistake has been made in the health care debate, and if liberals don't realize it and correct it, it could be with us for a long time.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The second of the two songs on this youtube is the best song ever written about political sex scandals. Yes, it's John Denver's "Ballad of Gary Hart":


Sunday, July 06, 2008
Matthew Yglesias has a bunch of stuff on him and I recommend all of it. Basically, Jesse Helms, now being praised by conservatives, was a racist and homophobe of the first order, and unlike some of the other racist politicians of the pre-civil rights South, he somehow got away with never really moderating his views.

The key to understanding why Helms is important is to look at Yglesias' comment threads. You will see his conservative readers bringing out all the old canards, including that opposition to affirmative action is not racist (true, but (1) that falsely assumes that all Helms ever did was oppose affirmative action, and (2) some arguments against affirmative action certainly are racist, and Helms made those), and that Democrats like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, etc., are the "real" racists.

I don't think that conservatives are evil-- not at all-- but if there was a single strain of American politics that I would say comes closest to pure evil, it's this idea that the "real" racism in America comes from blacks. Not that blacks can't be racist-- Louis Farrakhan comes to mind-- but the idea that this word, this concept, which was coined to describe a system of organized, systematic white supremacy, which kept black Americans down for over a century, is only really appropriate to describe what a few fringe black political figures (who, by the way, have less influence in the Democratic Party than fringe religious figures have in the Republican Party) believe about American race relations.

Take your pick-- this is Humpty Dumpty saying words mean what he says they mean or Orwellian Newspeak taking a word and using it to mean its opposite. But it is truly corrosive to American discourse, because in a country where so many blacks are still getting the short end of the stick, on issues ranging from the fundamental (terrible underfunded inner-city schools) to the esoteric (blacks can't catch taxis in American cities), we desperately need to be able to discuss these issues in good faith. And someone who claims the biggest racist in the country is Jesse Jackson is trying to torpedo that discussion and instead have a different discussion about how bad black leaders are and how the Democratic Party should be shunned by white Americans for associating with them. Meanwhile, black kids across the country continue to go to schools full of drugs and guns and gangs and dilapidated classrooms and outdated textbooks where they can't learn.

Jesse Helms is the hero of people of this mindset-- the man who never changed, who never pretended to give a crap about the problems of the millions of black residents of his state or the country. Because we all know that it is much, much worse that Al Sharpton gets invited to a Democratic presidential debate than it is that so many black Americans still live in squalid conditions.

I guess the one thing about this is that at least it is more honest than the other conservative trope on race, which is to piously invoke Martin Luther King on affirmative action but ignore everything else he ever advocated. The Jesse Helms supporters, at least, know which side of the civil rights struggle they are on-- the wrong side.


Friday, June 27, 2008

The link is Hope you all subscribe.


Let's hope this one works.


I am trying to get RSS to work. (As usual, the directions for such things on the web are incomprehensible.) This is a test post.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Everyone remembers Singing In the Rain, the justly famous 1952 MGM movie musical that routinely makes lists of the best films of all time. The film is full of great scenes-- Gene Kelly's iconic scene singing the title track while dancing in the middle of the street in the rain is, of course, one of the most famous scenes in movie history. People also remember Donald O'Connor singing "Make 'Em Laugh" with enough slapstick to fill two Laurel and Hardy movies, and a young Debbie Reynolds as the love interest of Kelly's character.

They needed a professional dancer to dance the ballet dream sequence opposite Kelly, so they turned to the "best legs in Hollywood", which belonged to one Cyd Charisse. Charisse was not a conventional looking actress, but she was lithe and graceful, and could contort her body in the direction of the demure or the seductive. And the resulting scene, which can be seen here and here, is so well done one can argue that it is not only as good a scene as any in the movie, but one of the best dance sequences ever filmed.

Charisse acted as well as danced, and got some good lead and supporting roles, the best of which (such as Silk Stockings, a remake of Garbo's Ninotchka) traded on her slightly exotic air, but she never achieved the kind of fame that famous hoofers like Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Kelly did. That's too bad-- they'll be watching that scene from Singing In the Rain as long as anyone cares to watch movies.

Charisse died yesterday at the age of 86. At the risk of sounding beyond my years, they don't make them like her anymore.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Ted Kennedy, as you may have heard, is very ill. In response, a number of people on both sides of the political spectrum have poured out their sympathies. I think that's great. I would hope it would be the same if, for instance, Bob Dole was stricken.

But I noticed that a fair amount of the conservative commentary consisted of self-congratulation and comparison to liberals, who it is alleged never express sympathy for conservatives who are stricken. The evidence of this was scattered comments by anonymous commenters on liberal websites saying that they hope that this or that conservative would die.

Of course, liberals do the same thing, pointing to, for instance,, which is famous for having some rather vituperative commentators. But there have also been recent allegations that perhaps Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton have been rooting for political assassinations. (For the record, I think both instances were slips and were not meant to be malicious.)

The point, though, is that this pitch of moral superiority has become a standard feature of American political discourse. Yes, you can say something nice about the opposition, but only as a tool to congratulate yourself and your side of the aisle for its classiness, and pointing out how trashy the other side has been.

There is a variant of this that is the flip side of the coin, which is claims of media bias. Obviously, nobody is going to claim that the media is never biased. But not everything is a matter of media bias. And this is a standard trope when one's own side gets caught with a hand in the cookie jar.

So, when John McCain was forced to disown John Hagee for his remarks about Hitler, plenty of conservatives tried to change the subject to whether the media was treating McCain unfairly and whether a liberal politician would suffer the same punishment for the same sort of activity.

And this comes on the heels of Obama supporters wondering whether conservatives would ever have to pay for their associations with loony pastors in the wake of the Reverend Wright episode.

Now, to be clear, I am not saying that one should never complain about media bias or that such complaints have no merit. What I am saying is that complaining about media bias is not a substitute for evaluating one's own position and the activities of people on one's own side. Democrats in New York, for instance, can complain rightly about the Bush Administration and the media going after Eliot Spitzer for activities that so many politicians are engaged in. There may well be a double standard. That doesn't, however, excuse Spitzer's conduct.

And that's the problem with too many discussions of media bias now. They are an all-too-convenient way to change the subject. And what they share with the moral superiority trope is that in both cases, someone is trying to score a political point rather than confront the real issue.

So let's try to address our political issues without constantly referencing how much better we are than our opponents, or how we get treated so much worse by the media, OK?


Tuesday, May 20, 2008
We are starting to see the outlines of Hillary Clinton's master narrative for her candidacy during the closing weeks of the campaign. Essentially, she is inspring a lot of feminist commentary about how Barack Obama and the Democratic establishment and the media are forcing her out of the race before the votes have been counted, and denying her supporters (especially women eager to support a serious female candidate) the opportunity to vote for her.

It's politically irrelevant (there are few scenarios in which she can win the nomination, and those involve deus-ex-machina type events, not adjustments to her campaign strategy) but a fascinating study in the use of feminist rhetoric in American discourse.

This is, of course, not the first time Hillary has claimed that the old boys are trying to keep the women (represented by her) in their place. She did this in the runup to the New Hampshire primary. She did this when she complained that Obama always got the first question in the debates. She did this when she contended that Rick Lazio, her opponent in the US Senate race in 2000, was "invading her space" at a debate. And, of course, she did this over and over again as First Lady.

The thing that interests me about this line of rhetoric is that while it is very effective for her and is labeled a feminist argument, it actually is the kind of thing that is quite bad for actual feminism. Not that discourse doesn't matter to feminists. Deborah Tannen has enjoyed popularity in both academic and public intellectual circles discussing the relationship between gender and discourse. And language reflects and can shape reality. Workplaces full of sexist language can create a hostile environment. Condescending language (such as male supervisors calling female employees "honey" and "sweetie") can reinforce antiquated views about female subordination.

But even though that is true, and even though it is further true that we want women in politics to face a level playing field with men, it is nonetheless true that the rhetorical climate faced by Hillary Clinton is far from a feminist priority, or at least it should be. For one thing, Hillary Clinton can capitalize on it. It doesn't hurt her candidacy when hecklers chant "iron my shirt" at her; it helps it.

Additionally, however, most of the things that Hillary Clinton and her supporters are complaining about are simply not, in the scheme of things, that big a deal. It is certainly true that Clinton's supporters saw the debate with Lazio as an example of a male invading a female's space. (Lazio came over to Clinton's lectern to make a point). But the reason why feminists are concerned about men invading women's space has no application to political debates. Nobody thinks that Lazio was actually threatening physical violence against Clinton or was imposing his physical size on her to get his way.

Similarly, the fact that several male candidates ganged up on her in early debates is, in fact, a feminist triumph, because it was a tribute to the fact that for the first time, a woman was a frontrunner in a presidential primary campaign. And many Americans want a President who has been tested in some way under fire, it's not a good thing to protect female candidates from this sort of dynamic. Such protection doesn't help them get elected. It's simply not the same as men ganging up on the sole woman in a male-dominated worksite. (Indeed, if anything, the complaints made by the Clinton campaign and their supporters were almost demanding that she be placed on a pedestal, which is the worst possible thing for feminism.)

In the meantime, there are actual feminist priorities out there. Reproductive rights. Equal pay. The second shift of housework that many women who are married or in relationships do. Continued job discrimination and sexual harassment. Lack of child care. The last thing the feminist movement needs is to have the brand associated with relatively trivial issues about the symbolic complaints of female political candidates with respect to procedural issues. Moreover, to the extent that Hillary's campaigning in this manner breeds resentment against Barack Obama in the fall and a dropoff in his support, this could really set back the feminist agenda. (I am skeptical that this will happen, but the cynical use of feminism by the Clinton campaign doesn't help things any.)

We need to stop pretending that the feminist cause begins and ends with Hillary Clinton's wishes and desires. I understand the emotional appeal of second wave feminist women, who fought to integrate schools and workplaces and blazed the trail for younger generations, to voting for a credible female candidate for President, an opportunity that may not come again in their lives. But the feminist movement is about all women, not one woman. And voting against Hillary Clinton and for Barack Obama is simply not anti-feminist. Indeed, it may advance the cause of feminism more than voting for Clinton would.


Monday, May 19, 2008
Credit where credit is due. John McCain proposes that if he is elected President, he will make himself available for questions from the Congress in the style of the Prime Minister's Questions in the UK.

Anyone who has seen the unlikely combination of insult and gentility, theater and policymaking that is the Prime Minister's Questions in the United Kingdom knows that, if nothing else, seeing the President answer questions from Congress would be very entertaining. But it is actually much more than this. Question Time is a form of accountability, a concept that has been sorely lacking the past 8 years. Yes, Bush has occasional press conferences, but political opponents ask better and tougher questions than the press. Plus, they ask questions on a wider variety of issues; the press might ask Bush 8 questions on the Iraq War, 3 on gas prices, and 2 on the 2008 presidential campaign, but during Question Time, Gordon Brown or his predecessors have had to faced questions such as the price of cattle in Jersey or traffic abatement in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. It forces the Prime Minister to study and to learn more about the country. I would bet that whatever one thinks about his ideology, Bush's Katrina screw-ups would have been less likely to happen if he had faced an occasional question about levee policy in Louisiana or the state of FEMA readiness.

This is not to say that Question Time is a panacea. Lots of time is eaten up with stupid questions. The MP's belonging to the same party as the Prime Minister ask softball questions that allow the PM to trumpet this or that success. Further, Britain's parliamentary system, with its third and fourth parties, helps immensely; Gordon Brown gets attacked from the left (by Liberal Democrats) as well as the right (by Tories), and also has to answer questions from Ulster Unionists regarding Northern Ireland. (It is unfortunate that Sinn Fein can't get over it's objection to the oath of office promising loyalty to the United Kingdom, or there would be a competing view about Northern Irish politics also represented in the body.)

Here, it would likely be the case that a Democratic president would be attacked from the right but not the left, and vice-versa. Most Democrats in Congress were far to the left of Bill Clinton, for instance, but they weren't about to launch attacks against the guy given his capacity and willingness to retaliate politically against his critics.

Nonetheless, I have to believe that Question Time would still be a distinct improvement in terms of oversight in American politics. Plus, it might have a civic benefit as well-- it is tremendously entertaining, much more so than a presidential press conference or State of the Union speech. It might even become a hit on television (C-SPAN's reruns of British Question Times draw a cult following). Seeing President John McCain face off against Senator Hillary Clinton on health care policy might draw lots of viewers.

All and all, not a reason for a liberal to vote for McCain, but a praiseworthy proposal nonetheless.


Thursday, May 15, 2008
Today, the California Supreme Court decided that the equal protection clause of the state Constitution requires that marriage, if it is offered to straights by the government, must be offered to gays. I am sure there will be plenty of mostly predictable commentary about the substance of the decision. Personally, I find this decision to be less compelling than a similar decision in Vermont, which held that the state was required to offer civil unions to gays and lesbians. Essentially, while I know why the word "marriage" is important to gays (and it would be important to me if I were gay and wanted to hold a commitment ceremony with my partner), the equal protection issue with respect to gay marriage arises out of the fact that straight people get favorable treatment from the government that is denied to gays and lesbians. Indeed, understanding this point is crucial to the gay marriage issue.

If marriage were nothing more than what religious conservatives claim it is, i.e., a religious sacrament and a traditional institution and ceremony for men and women to enter into, their arguments might make some sense. Marriage could be seen as for 1 man and 1 woman in the same sense that bar mitzvahs are for 1 teenage Jew.

But the problem is that the state attaches a bunch of benefits to married couples. These benefits range from things like automatic hospital vistiation and inheritance to tax breaks to one of the most important benefits possible, the right to bring one's spouse into the country and to adjust his or her immigration status. All of these benefits are denied to gays and lesbians. Only some can be replicated through contracts and legal documents, e.g., inheritance.

Further, private industry is also authorized to discriminate on the basis of marital status. Thus, insurance companies can offer coverage to one's spouse but not to one's partner, for instance. An employer can allow an employee time off to care for an ailing spouse but refuse it to a gay employee caring for an ailing partner. Et cetera.

Thus, the lack of gay marriage is like passing a thousand little discriminatory laws against gays and lesbians. (Indeed, this is true even as states legalize gay marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships, because many of these issues are governed by federal law, and the federal government doesn't recognize gay marriages even from states that permit them.)

I am afraid that a decision like the California Supreme Court's will miss this point. I am all for gays being able to "marry" as opposed to entering a "civil union" or forming a "domestic partnership". But while I can see that issue's importance to gays, it isn't nearly as important as creating a union for gays that entitles them to all the benefits that straights have, i.e., an end not only to state discrimination but to federal discrimination against gays and lesbians. Does today's decision get us closer to that point? Not necessarily. Indeed, it is quite possible that, after the Court relied on the state legislature's passage of generous domestic partnership benefits in holding there was no basis for withholding the term "marriage" to the unions, other states and the federal government may shy away from granting any benefits to gay and lesbian couples, lest a court later adopt the California Supreme Court's ruling.

But I have another point about this issue. A lot of the commentary condemning the decision is sure to come from out of state. We are likely to hear tired conservative arguments about how unelected judges (never mind that California Supreme Court judges face retention elections) are imposing their will on Californians (never mind that California's elected legislators twice passed gay marriage bills, and while they were vetoed by the Governor, he nonetheless supports today's court ruling).

I have one thing to say to those commentators. This is none of your business. As long as the federal Defense of Marriage Act remains law, this decision will not prevent homophobic bigots in other states from outlawing gay marriage. Nor will they be required to recognize California gay marriages in homophobic states.

Accordingly, whether we do this by court decision, legislation, or vote of the people is irrelevant to you. We did it. Just like we legalized medical marijuana, which has also been criticized by conservative outsiders. (Indeed, conservatives are attacking Barack Obama for the sin(?!?) of arguing that California should be able to enforce its own marijuana laws without federal interference.)

Conservatives believe in federalism, remember? If and when there is a challenge to federal marriage laws, commentators in all 50 states can certainly speak up. But what we do in our state to our laws is not the concern of bluenoses in more conservative parts of the country. So leave us alone.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Today, Barack Obama did something he should have done weeks ago. He was criticized for it by the news media, but it was nonetheless the right decision. He decided to ignore the West Virginia primary and concentrate on his general election matchup with John McCain.

What's that, you say? He hasn't won the Democratic nomination yet? Sorry, from his vantage point, he has. Politics is about creating expectations. One reason Bush was able to win the Florida recount in 2000 is that his partisans were skilled at creating the belief that he had already won. It didn't matter whether they had or not; Bush and his surrogates said it enough times that it was taken as a plausible argument.

At this point, nothing can derail Obama other than some out-of-the-blue attack. By engaging with Clinton and pretending she's still in the race, Obama increases slightly the chance that such an attack might stick. So, he's not doing it anymore. He spent today in Missouri, a state that has already had its Democratic primary and will be important as a swing state in the general election. He's going to Michigan later in the week, a state that held a no contest primary which Clinton defrauded Obama into not campaigning in, but which will be important in the general election.

I don't think Clinton's continued presence in the race harms Obama. But that doesn't mean that Obama has any obligation to engage her. Let her stay in the race, but don't take the bait. The superdelegates are clearly breaking for Obama, there's no way Clinton can catch up in the pledged delegate count, and the thing's going to be officially over the day after the last primary (as even Clinton supporters are now conceding). Just start running ads and making attacks against McCain, and keep on visiting important general election states. If you act like the race is over, it will be over.


Sunday, May 11, 2008
John McCain made some news last week giving a boilerplate speech about appointing conservative judges. (Memo to conservatives: saying "I favor judges who interpret the law and don't make law" is not a serious analysis of jurisprudence.)

There's nothing particularly remarkable about this: both Bushes promised the same thing (although Bush 41 diverted from his rhetoric and appointed liberal David Souter as well as conservative Clarence Thomas, and Bush 43 sought to put crony Harriet Miers to the Court). Reagan said it, and Dole said it too.

But what's strange about this is the timing. John McCain has already clinched the Republican nomination. This rhetoric on judges is the type of thing you do to attract conservatives during the primaries. The primaries are over. Conservatives (many of whom love the Iraq War and almost all of whom aren't willing to vote for Obama) are going to vote for McCain. They have nowhere else to go. Yes, they don't like his positions on campaign finance and immigration, but they have no leverage.

Richard Nixon, who, whatever you think about him, was quite good at winning elections, mastered the art of moving to the right in the primaries and moving to the left in the general election. And yet the right stuck with him until the last dog died. Why? Because they loved the fact that he won elections and drove liberals crazy. Indeed, despite my ambivalent opinion of Bill Clinton, it is clear most liberals loved the guy, for the same sorts of reasons-- he won elections and drove conservatives crazy.

John McCain cannot win this election by offering warmed over conservativism. Period. Huge majorities of the American people deserted conservativism due to Katrina and Iraq. The economic situation doesn't help conservatives either, and health care is also a winning issue for Democrats. I know a lot of conservatives think that they can win the election on meaningless hot-button issues like they did in 1988 with the Pledge of Allegiance and 2004 with the Swift Boat Veterans, but this isn't happening. In 1988, Bush was running for Reagan's 3rd term, and Reagan was immensely popular. The flag salute and Willie Horton are well remembered, but Bush would have won anyway. And in 2004, Kerry barely lost. Had he been able to articulate a plausible alternative narrative on Iraq, he would have won. He lost because he had originally supported the war and couldn't explain his twists and turns.

2008 is a much worse environment than 2004 for Republicans. We have had four more years of the pointless carnage in Iraq (and no, the "surge" is not a winning issue the way Republicans portray it-- it's one thing to "surge" and get out, but what Republicans advocate is permanent occupation of Iraq). We have had Katrina and what it exposed about Republican governance. We have a terrible economy and distress.

John McCain, if he wants to win this election, needs to start screwing over conservatives, big time, and moving to the left. Nixon favored the EPA, OSHA, a guaranteed income for all Americans, and national health care, and he at least professed the desire to end the Vietnam War and get American troops out. He needs to dare conservatives not to vote for him. Because the truth is that their threat is complete bluster. Meanwhile, the threat of average American voters deserting the Republican Party is very real. And Jeremiah Wright isn't going to bring them back.


Thursday, May 08, 2008
The other night, one of the networks "called" Indiana for Hillary Clinton very early on, while the other networks decided to wait until later in the night. Hillary Clinton ended up winning in a close vote, but the decision not to "call" the race early looked good in light of the fact that Obama closed the deficit late in the count as results came in from Gary, Indiana, from voters who presumably knew Obama from Chicago politics and overwhelmingly voted for him.

But that raises the question of why networks "call" races at all. In an election, after all, there are a certain number of votes, they are counted, and some prize is awarded based on the result of the count. (In Democratic primaries, in fact, the total vote counts of states are actually less relevant than the media would have you believe-- the delegates are allocated according to complex formulae, sometimes according to congressional district, sometimes proportionally, sometimes in a sort of hybrid.)

Leaving the parenthetical point aside, the state is "won" by the candidate who receives the most votes. The votes are counted and the tallies are announced. But networks "call" states based not on those tallies (or not solely on those tallies), but based on "exit polls", statistical samples of voters (which, it might be noted, have not been particularly accurate in the last few election cycles).

Why, exactly, do we need this? Who decided it was a news story what a sample of voters who were polled decided? This is an especially strange type of "news" considering that news organizations do not generally release the actual results of the exit polls (perhaps because they don't want to call our attention to how inaccurate they are). Indeed, the media consortium that conducts exit polls has gone to greater and greater lengths each election cycle to prevent us from knowing the exit poll results. (Of course, these attempts have been largely ineffectual, but that hasn't stopped them from trying.)

So, it is considered big news-- indeed, bigger than the actual vote counts, given the amount of hoopla the networks surround their projections with-- that the network has used a poll that we cannot see the results of to predict what candidate will, in a few hours, turn out to have more votes.

Of course, the obvious reason they do this is because waiting for electoral results would require that networks stay on late into the night. The projections, therefore, allow the network to get the news coverage off the air and get back to regular sponsored programming. All the better to make money.

This would be harmless enough if we were talking about something like "American Idol". But elections matter. And network projections matter. Exhibit A for this is 2000, when the networks first projected Florida for Gore, and then reversed and projected for Bush (and with that second projection, further projected that Bush had won the election). By the time they withdrew their projections, the networks had implanted in millions of Americans the idea that Bush had won the election and Gore was trying to overturn the result.

I don't see much that can be done about this. The networks aren't going to change their ways. But we viewers can and should ignore network projections. Let them count the actual votes. Sure, maybe we won't know who won the election until breakfast. Is that really such a big deal? Are we that impatient?


Wednesday, May 07, 2008
While the Democratic presidential race looks like it may finally be coming to a conclusion, the issue of what to do about Florida and Michigan’s delegations is still unresolved.

As a preliminary matter, I am not at all convinced of the conventional wisdom that Florida and Michigan delegations must be seated for electoral reasons. This is based on the theory that voters who would otherwise vote Democratic (say, because they want to end the war in Iraq or want better health care or are ticked off about Republican mismanagement of the economy or disaster relief or just because they like Barack Obama) will be so ticked off over who gets credentialed at the (likely meaningless) Democratic Convention in Denver that they will sit out the election or vote for John McCain. That entire line of reasoning seems doubtful at best.

But assuming the issue has any importance at all, the media has gotten this quite wrong. What happened is this. Traditionally, political primaries were not that important. New Hampshire went first, but many states didn’t have primaries at all and many states that did have primaries didn’t have much impact on the election because the voters did not vote for leading candidates. Rather, political insiders controlled the bulk of the delegates at the conventions and they selected the presidential nominees.

In the 1960's and 1970's, this began to change, with more states holding primaries as well as caucuses (which were more informal and had lower rates of participation than primaries), leading candidates campaigning through the primaries and caucuses, and the media covering them. Suddenly, the primaries were important, and New Hampshire was still going first. And Iowa secured its spot in 1976, when Jimmy Carter, a not-particularly-well-known state governor, won the Iowa caucuses which were held before the New Hampshire primary.

Ever since then, the history has been as follows: the primaries have grown to greater and greater importance each cycle, with more media coverage and more importance attached to early primary results. Thus, you can no longer enter the race in March, as Robert F. Kennedy did in 1968, and have a shot at the nomination. Rather, you have to campaign at least a year out in Iowa and New Hampshire. Candidates respond to this by pandering to these small, unrepresentative states’ parochial interests, giving us stupid ethanol subsidies because of Iowa’s powerful corn industry. More important to our story, candidates also pander to Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s strong desire to maintain their first-in-the-nation positions and their outsized influence.

Meanwhile, in a series of successive elections, the nomination got decided earlier and earlier in the process. States that held late primaries found themselves holding meaningless votes. Not only that, but even those states whose votes were early enough to “matter” were left with 2 or 3 viable candidates to vote for, because the bulk of the candidates (including some very qualified people) were forced to drop out after Iowa and New Hampshire as their money dried up after poor showings.

So, the natural reaction of other states was to move their primaries up in the calendar. Now here’s where it gets interesting. Because the national parties actually like Iowa and New Hampshire. There are many possible reasons for this, though, interestingly, it doesn’t get as much comment as it should. I suspect part of it is that small states like Iowa and New Hampshire are actually more susceptible to the influence of insiders, because superior organization, provided by party insiders, and important interest groups (such as labor unions), can win a small state. (In contrast, you win a big state by putting lots of advertisements on the air, and fundraising, unlike organization, is harder for insiders to control or influence.) Another possible explanation I have seen floated for the love of New Hampshire, at the very least, is that it is close enough to the Washington, D.C. and New York areas to be relatively easily accessible for the candidates, donors, and media.

In any event, whatever the reason, it is clear that the parties are committed to having Iowa and New Hampshire go first. So each election cycle, they pass rules that punish states that move their primaries up and position them either before Iowa and New Hampshire or too soon thereafter. The usual way this works is that they refuse to seat at the convention some of the delegates from the states that move up their primaries.

Of course, this has proved to be a toothless sanction, as states accurately perceived that the conventions didn’t matter but the time you held a primary did. So they continued to move up primaries despite the sanctions. In response, Howard Dean, the DNC chairman, upped the ante in 2008. He responded to criticisms about Iowa and New Hampshire being unrepresentative states by allowing the more diverse small states of Nevada (with plenty of Hispanics) and South Carolina (with plenty of blacks) to go earlier than other states (though Iowa would still be the first caucus and New Hampshire the first primary). But he also said that if any state went early, they would lose all of their delegates. Not half, all. Further, Dean got the major candidates to agree tht they would not campaign in rulebreaking states, in the hope that the lack of campaigning would discredit the results and keep the media from covering them or assigning them any importance. (Remember, media coverage is crucial here, because it is precisely the media coverage given to early states that makes them so important. Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s respective shares of the total number of delegates to the conventions are minuscule.)

Of course, that gets us to Florida and Michigan. They perceived that even losing all of their delegates and not having campaigning wouldn’t outweigh the advantage gained from going early. And, to address a talking point put forth by Clinton supporters, this was true of Democrats as well as Republicans. If there is one thing that is a matter of true and genuine bipartisan agreement, it is the belief in big states that it isn’t fair that their votes in presidential primaries don’t count while Iowa and New Hampshire voters are kingmakers.

So, Florida and Michigan decided to buck the rules, based on the calculation that this was the only way to ensure that their voters’ votes would count at all, because media coverage of their primary election winners was more valuable than actual convention delegates selected too late in the process to matter.

Of course, they lost their bet. First, Obama and Edwards took their names off the ballot in Michigan, effectively rendering that primary into a farce. Second, it turned out that the later primaries did matter, because Obama and Clinton were so closely matched. (It should be mentioned that the bet was only a bad bet on the Democratic side– Florida Republicans got to be the voters who ended Rudy Giuliani’s bid and propelled John McCain to the nomination.) Third, again because of the close match between Obama and Clinton, the party is not in a position to seat the states delegations’ notwithstanding the rules (this ran contrary to another assumption of Florida and Michigan political leaders, who figured that after the nominee was selected, the parties would find a way to seat delegations so that all 50 states were represented at the conventions). Rather, the party has to remain neutral on the issue and insist on enforcing the rules as long as Obama and Clinton continue to compete for the nomination, because anything else would be seen as changing the rules to benefit Clinton.

Now, here’s the key. If you listen to the media, there are many villains here. Hillary Clinton, of course, gets blamed (and rightly so) for insisting that these states should count after she agreed they wouldn’t when she was pandering to get votes in Iowa and New Hampshire. The politicians in Michigan and Florida are blamed for moving up their primaries and then seeking a rule change when it didn’t work out the way they planned. They were warned, of course. State legislatures are being blamed, along with the DNC and the Obama campaign, for not coming up with a scheme to hold make-up primaries or caucuses.

But what is amazing to me is that the most culpable parties in this entire story are getting off scot-free, with no criticism whatsoever. That’s right, Iowa and New Hampshire. It is their insistence on going first that caused the entire problem.

The fact is, nobody would ever deliberately create a system where two lily-white tiny states with parochial interests and populations that are so unlike the rest of the country would be given a disproportionate influence on the presidential selection process, including the power to veto candidates who might be more effective and desirable representatives for the much larger populations in the bigger states. And this crisis flows directly from their insistence that only they can go first.

I have heard a lot of talk about how the Democratic Party, the states, and the campaigns might fix the Florida and Michigan situations in this cycle. But absent a serious reform of the process that lets other states in and doesn’t give an entirely unfair and inordinate amount of influence to these two states, there’s no reason to believe that other states won’t again move up their primaries in 2012. And who can blame them? In the vast majority of election cycles, we won’t see a Clinton-Obama-style race where the late states matter. And the only way a state can participate in screening the candidates and narrowing the field is to go early. Until the parties take on Iowa and New Hampshire and put them in their place, this problem is likely to recur every four years.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008
I support Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries. Indeed, the supposed political brilliance of the Clintons has always eluded me-- Bill Clinton got less than 50 percent of the vote twice against crappy opposition, he lost the Congress in 1994 for the first time in 50 years because the public was so dissatisfied with his performance, he was impeached in 1998 because he decided to lie in a deposition and drag the country through 8 months of further lies until he was caught dead to rights, and while he ran the country well enough (especially on budgetary issues and the economy), he failed to accomplish anything particularly meaningful in eight years.

And Hillary, of course, ran health care into the ground (without even proposing a liberal plan in the first instance), won a Senate seat by leapfrogging over more impressive New York politicians like Nita Lowey who had paid their dues for years, and didn't accomplish anything in the Senate except voting for the war in Iraq, the biggest American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.

Nonetheless, while tonight's loss in North Carolina and virtual tie in Indiana will increase the volume of calls for her to get out of the race, I don't have any particular desire to join the chorus. Why? Because I think the arguments for that-- the alleged harm of attacks against Obama and the need for a "unified" convention-- are entirely overrated.

First, it is important to note that Clinton, while in second place, is not far behind. In truth, if she could convince superdelegates to vote for her, she could still wrest the nomination away from Obama. (She won't do that, but that doesn't mean that she is mathematically out.) In the old days, a candidate with Clinton's level of support would have certainly been permitted to take her cause to the convention.

Why, then, must she drop out after winning more votes than any second place finisher in history? Allegedly, it is because her attacks on Obama are helping the Republicans. But are they? First, her attacks are fairly mild-- she is careful to praise Obama often, and making stupid arguments about a gas tax holiday is hardly a historic example of dirty politics. And forcing Obama to respond to mild attacks probably does him some good as a candidate.

Second, there seems to be this abiding conviction that the political conventions need to be shows of unity. But why? I'll let you in on a dirty little secret. Nobody watches conventions anymore. People don't care about them. Networks don't cover them. They may be slickly produced, expensive infomercials, but they are completely inconsequential ones.

Except-- if a convention actually decided something, people would watch. Indeed, a contested Democratic convention would be the best thing to happen to Democratic politics in years. While the Republican snoozefest would be ignored, millions of Americans would tune in to see the Clinton folks do battle for the nomination. Yes, there would be some disunity on display. But this would also mean that millions of Americans would hear Democrats giving speeches on Democratic issues, like health care, the economy, and opposition to the Iraq War. While in politics, unlike some other parts of life, there is such a thing as bad publicity, in this scenario, the good would clearly outweigh the bad.

So let Hillary take her cause and her delegates to the convention. She earned it, and it's good for the party. But I do wish she'd shut up about that gas tax.


Monday, May 05, 2008
One with no acquaintance to the sport of horse racing probably wonders, after high profile fatalities like the loss of Eight Belles in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby and the eventual death of Barbaro as a result of a breakdown in the 2006 Preakness, why such a cruel sport is legal. A cynic, of course, would point to its lucrative betting pools and resulting tax revenues, though in truth the sport is down and doesn’t generate the interest that it once did. (While much in the film “Seabiscuit” was dramatized and fictionalized, the depiction of the large crowds that attended big horse races in those days is entirely accurate.) And, of course, there’s the fact that when something is culturally accepted and a societal tradition, it is much harder to legislate against it. Surely many Spaniards know the cruelties involved in bullfighting and are sickened by it, but don’t expect Spain to make it illegal any time in the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, why do so many Americans love a sport that clearly puts beautiful animals at risk? Of course, betting is part of it. While horse racing is no longer the only option for legal gambling, it is still a game of skill that offers better odds than the lottery and at least the theoretical possibility that the game can be beaten. Horse racing also offers an intellectual puzzle; a combination between statistical analysis of the horses’ and trainers’ past performances and intuitions about the trainers’ intentions and how the race might be run.

But there’s more to it than degenerate gamblers. Many fans of the sport truly love horses. I am probably not the best person to comment about this– to me, most horses look pretty similar– but the sight of horses running in a pack at top speed has a visceral appeal to many people. And even I can tell you of some champion horses who looked like champions– a horse like 1989 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer was huge, with bright red hair, and ran with an efficient stride that appeared to gobble up ground. He was a thrill to watch.

So horse racing fans are in a bind. It is a wonderful sport, both for the gambling action and for the pageantry of the sport. But it is a terrible sport, because even top horses risk their lives. Now, to be sure, statistically, fatal breakdowns are not common, and the fact that we have seen two in the past three Triple Crown cycles is a horrible coincidence.

Nonetheless, the sport is not where it should be on safety. An analogy can be drawn to meat eating. The truly ethical position is to be a vegetarian. However, we are programmed to eat meat, meat is often economical, and for some it is the only convenient food available. Nonetheless, deciding that it is not unethical to eat meat doesn’t mean that our factory farming system, with its reliance on inhumane conditions, massive doses of growth hormones, and environmental pollution should be tolerated or is morally justified.

Horse racing is filled with practices that make the breakdown rate worse. Horses are bred with little regard to soundness, because the breeders just sell the horses as yearlings and the injuries are not their problem. Buyers just want to make their money back as quickly as possible, so horses are rushed to the track. Injuries are masked with pain-killing and performance enhancing drugs, which shouldn’t be legal but are. Trainers, wanting to protect their employers’ investments and maximize their breeding value, no longer race horses into condition and instead come into big races off workouts alone.

And the true tragedy is that although everyone in the sport realizes these things, the regulatory apparatus for horse racing is so diffuse, with different regulations in every state and racetracks and governmental agencies sharing the regulatory burden, that it is likely that nothing will ever get done about them.

The only major reform coming down the pike is synthetic racing surfaces. And it is true, these might reduce breakdowns (the results are inconclusive so far). But synthetic surfaces are being treated as a cure-all for all that ails the sport, when in fact all they are is mitigation for all the horrible ways in which the sport is abusing the animals.

I suppose I will like horse racing until the day I die. But the sport does not make itself easy to love. And if these high profile breakdowns continue to happen, perhaps the public will reach a point when it is had enough. The interests who are preventing reform of the industry are hastening that day.

Sunday, May 04, 2008
One of the biggest cliches in our public discourse is the term "moral equivalence". "Moral equivalence" is supposed to be a huge sin. It occurs when a person compares action A, usually done by the United States or one of its allies, with action B, done by some notoriously evil regime. The argument is that comparing action A to action B in that situation is improper, because it makes it sound like the generally good regime that engages in action A is the moral equivalent of the evil regime that engaged in action B.

When placed in this abstract form, one can instantly see several things wrong. Most importantly, it refocuses the debate away from how similar actions A and B are to how the nation engaging in action A is good and the nation engaging in action B is evil. To see how this is pernicious, let's conduct an experiment (and violate Godwin's Law in doing it). Suppose the United States decided to round up all Jewish Americans, place them in concentration camps, and kill them with poison gas. Now, an objector to this policy stands up and says "this is a terrible policy! This is exactly what the Nazis did!"

In response, a defender of American policy replies "you are drawing a moral equivalence between us and the Nazis. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why do you hate America?"

Now, obviously, that analogy is exaggerated for effect. But the point is that the validity of any analogy between two regimes depends on how similar the policies being compared are, and
the concept of "moral equivalence" does not add anything here; rather, it distracts from that analysis in favor of a per se rule that one can never compare the actions of "good" regimes to the actions of "evil" regimes.

Further, the "moral equivalence" argument is itself a very pernicious concept. It is an attempt to shut down criticism of the regime that engages in action A. Analogies are very powerful arguments. They can be false, of course, or circumstances can be different. But, take the torture debate. While many people can figure out that torture is wrong without an analogy, it certainly is powerful to point out that some of the worst regimes in history waterboarded and used other "enhanced interrogation techniques". That is evidence that such techniques are, in fact, torture. The entire point of "moral equivalence" claim it to make sure that this powerful analogy never gets made. Essentially, it doesn't matter how many techniques associated with Stalin and Pol Pot that we adopt, since we are not Pol Pot or Stalin (true enough), there is no basis for criticizing our conduct.

Additionally, the claim of "moral equivalence" is intellectually dishonest. People who draw these analogies are not, after all, saying that the regime engaging in action A is the moral equivalent of the regime engaging in action B. Indeed, they are saying the opposite-- that because everyone knows that the regime engaging in action A is not the moral equivalent of the regime engaging in action B, it is deeply troublesome that the former regime would adopt some of the latter regime's tactics. The whole point is that regimes should hold themselves to higher standards than those set by people like Hitler. The person raising the issue of "moral equivalence", therefore, is deliberately miscasting the argument so that it can be discredited without refutation.

"Moral equivalence" is poison to the discourse. It should be jettisoned.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Recently, movement conservativism mounted a pushback against a meme that had gained some currency, with David Brooks and National Review Online, among others, contending that Ronald Reagan's infamous endorsement of "states rights" at his 1980 campaign kickoff event in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been slain in the 1960's, was not intended to endorse racism.

The reason for the pushback is obvious. Historically, American conservativism has been associated with racism, especially in the Deep South, and conservatives now rely on the votes of white Southerners for electoral success. Furthermore, blacks nowadays cast their lot with liberals, and the conservative movement tends to oppose various measures supported by blacks to improve their lot. Conservatives, however, have to be careful not to out and out endorse racism; "color-blindness", where minorities don't get preferential treatment, and "benign neglect", where the needs of minorities are ignored but the government does not actively target minorities for unfavorable treatment, can be broadly popular with the American people. However, out and out advocacy of racism is a pretty sure ticket in many parts of the country to getting thrown out of office.

So conservatives who are not racists understandably protest when they are accused of racism, or of encouraging or condoning it. And they protest when their movement's heroes, such as Reagan, are accused of it. Most honest conservatives will acknowledge that the conservative movement, at one time, was deeply wrong on racial issues, but they will insist that this era is over.

But if you listen to the views of ordinary conservatives-- callers on talk radio, posters on comments threads, etc.-- you will quickly see how this is not the whole story. In fact, you can find plenty of out and out racism among the conservative faithful.

A perfect example of this is an opinion I have heard a lot of lately-- that the Democrats are "racists" because they let Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson into debates in presidential campaigns. In this narrative, Sharpton and Jackson are "racists" because they advocate color-conscious remedies for racism, and because of some past comments about Jews. Some conservatives will paint an even broader brush-- that all liberals are "racists" because of support for affirmative action. (Of course, many liberals oppose race-conscious affirmative action, but nuance and subtlety is often lost on conservatives.)

Let's be clear here-- anti-Semitic comments by black civil rights leaders should be condemned. Make enough of them and I am perfectly willing to call the person a bigot. The argument-- made by some black academics-- that blacks cannot be racist is silly.

But even more silly is the narrative of racism that seems to be adopted by many conservatives, i.e., that advocating for a race-conscious remedy for discrimination is the same thing as hating people because of their skin color, believing that they are inferior, refusing to hire or associate with them, and supporting governmental discrimination against them. Yes, I know, there is a long tradition of advocacy for "color-blindness" in the civil rights movement. And there are very valid arguments in its favor. But someone who thinks that because historically, a lot of smart blacks never got a chance to go to the best colleges, it is valuable to take steps to make sure they can is not Governor Faubus or Strom Thurmond.

In fact, there is still a ton of real racism out there. Look at the number of people who openly want to profile all Muslims and subject them to special scrutiny and searches and seizures. Look at the number of people who condone racial disparities in policework and criminal sentencing. Look at the people who want our immigration policy to let in white people and keep out Spanish-speaking brown people.

The thing is, if conservatives really want to show us that they are not tainted by racism, they should condemn these things, and in specific terms. Not offer justifications for them, not encourage them, and not stay silent as their constituents continue to be poisoned by virulent hate of racial minorities. Conservative movement leaders should be forced to admit that no, affirmative action may be wrong but it isn't racist. That Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton aren't the greatest sources of racism in society. That government programs that single out minorities for worse treatment are wrong.

They don't want to say it. And that's why I don't have much patience for their defenses of their sainted Ronald Reagan on race.


Sunday, December 16, 2007
The health care crisis is amazingly an issue that is both incredibly complex and devilishly simple. It is incredibly complex because it involves such things as: (1) the fact that 40 million or so Americans lack insurance; (2) the overuse of emergency room care and the effect of unpaid hospital billings on the credit system; (3) the control of health care costs; (4) the amount we should spend on elective care, and experimental drugs and treatments; (5) the desirability of a link between employment and health care; and (6) the choice of young, healthy people not to participate in the risk pool.

It is devilishly simple because the Medicare system solves all the problems with respect to seniors, and extending it to all Americans, creating a single payer like they have in Canada, would be the preferred public policy outcome.

However, Americans are easily scared by the insurance industry and therefore the public support for single payer isn't there. So the Democrats have settled on lousy ideas for health reform. In 1992 it was "managed competition", where employers were forced to buy insurance through private insurance companies, who didn't play any constructive role except to drive up costs and make the system more complicated. Now, it's the "individual mandate", supported by Hillary this time around and by John Edwards as well, where rather than actually providing insurance to all Americans, the government solves the problem by legal fiat, by forcing us to buy coverage, with alleged subsidies for lower income Americans.

Here's the dirty little secret, however. The individual mandate, in addition to being immoral (you do not solve poverty problems by simply passing laws requiring poor people to purchase things they can't afford), won't work.

Here's what I envision happening. First, the Republicans in the Senate will filibuster any universal health bill, like they are stopping the expansion of the S-CHIP Children's health program. So, to buy off the Republicans, Edwards/Clinton will have to either eliminate the individual mandate and/or reduce the subsidies. So you won't get a workable plan to begin with, because the Democratic candidate was unwilling to open the bidding with single payer and bargain down.

Second, let's suppose the thing gets passed. Now you have a program with two components: an individual mandate, which powerful insurers may like, because it means more customers, and big subsidies for poor and some middle-class people, which Republicans hate. Now, what gets cut every year? If you don't believe me, look at how Medicare, a single payer, universal program, is sheltered from budget cuts while Medicaid, Women Infants And Children, and other such programs are placed under huge cost constraints. Because we don't have a single payer plan, we will have a big subsidy for poor people that the Republicans will target and cut. Or, even more likely, they just won't let it rise at the rate of inflation of health care costs (which is greater than the rate of inflation for most consumer goods). The result is, we'll lose the subsidies and be left with a mandate for the poor and middle class to spend money they don't have. A nice regressive tax, put in by Democrats.

Now, there's also, you may have heard, a prong of these plans that features a public health care plan that will be in competition with the private plans. Don't bet on it surviving. That will be the first things that Republicans kill in negotiations, because it will be seen as a back door to single payer. Even if it gets passed, it will be gutted. Don't believe me? Bill Clinton created a public student loan program that competes with the private bank loans. The Republicans have decimated that program to ensure that it never becomes the preferred method of getting a student loan. All that campaign money from private industry will do that to you.

In contrast, all we have to do is slowly expand the single payer plans we already have, show the public that the sky doesn't fall, and we will be well on our way to a single payer plan that will actually solve the problem.

This is a good reason, one of many (the Iraq War being the biggest) why people shouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. But if they do win, I hope their health care plan goes down in flames. We don't need something that is structured to turn into a regressive tax on the poor and which is designed to prevent us from getting to the single payer system we need.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Matt Yglesias points out a trend by former Iraq hawks like Peter Beinart and David Brooks to say that Iraq is losing salience as an issue, voters therefore are not looking for someone "tough" on foreign policy (i.e., hawkish), and this explains Obama's rise in the polls.

This is a classic example of wishful thinking by hawks. In fact, there is a more obvious alternate explanation. The Democratic base is just as ticked off about Iraq as it was 3 or 6 months ago. (Nobody in the Democratic base believes the alleged military success of the "surge" justifies us continuing to stay in Iraq indefinitely.) Obama happens to be the one candidate, among the three leading Democrats, who opposed the war. As voters find that out (because he tells them), he's surging in the polls.

Really, you would be surprised how many Hillary Clinton supporters assume she is anti-war. They just have no idea. (This is part of a more general phenomenon that people do not know how conservative she is.)

One of the overlooked issues in the campaign coverage is the potential for an Obama nomination and election to cause a seismic shift in Democratic Party orthodoxy on foreign policy, which has not changed much in 30 years ever since the party leadership decided that it must never under any circumstances look dovish because that will lead to McGovern-like losses. (Of course, in truth, the reason the Democratic Party had no credibility on Vietnam is because John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were so deeply responsible for that war.) If Obama wins the primary and wins the general (a very distinct possibility), suddenly there will be a lot of Democrats who are going to become very fearful that the base won't let them have mindlessly hawkish positions anymore.


Sunday, July 10, 2005
There has been a lot of discussion of the need for shield laws in the media, with the Valerie Plame case heating up. ("Shield laws" are laws that create a "reporter-source" privilege that allows reporters to avoid testifying regarding what their sources told them in an investigation.)Unfortunately, the media seems to be betraying its institutional bias in favor of shield laws as necessary to ensure that the next Watergate story doesn't get squelched. Meanwhile, those who oppose shield laws are responding, some with sophisiticated arguments, others with screeds about how bad the Plame leakers were. This issue is neither as simple as "reporters need to be able to promise anonymity" nor is it as simple as "a crime was committed, so the reporters must testify". Rather, the issue of enacting a shield law concerns a number of complicated issues, such as:

(1) Who is a journalist? Is a blogger a journalist? Howabout someone commenting on a blog? Does the First Amendment permit discrimination in favor of those who own printing presses or radio stations as opposed to those who use cheaper media? And is it advisable to create a privilege that may be asserted by anyone who posts on the internet?

(2) Why should any privilege extend to nonpublished information (Ms. Miller, after all, never published the information)? Isn't the purpose of the privilege to protect the ability of journalists to publicly divulge information that is embarrassing to those in power? Should Washington gossip, passed on to reporters and never published, be privileged? Especially if such gossip is illegal?

(3) Is the shield law worth the cost to the criminal justice system, i.e., in convictions that will be unattainable if the reporters' testimony is not compelled? Every new privilege comes at this cost, and for this reason, courts and legislatures DO NOT protect all confidential relationships. Parents can be forced to testify about conversations with their children, accountants (in many jurisdictions) can be forced to testify about conversations with their clients, best friends can be forced to reveal their closest confidences, etc. In each case, a privilege could be recognized, but it would mean that some criminals would walk. Is it worth it here?

(4) Other privileges are not absolute and also come with the proviso that the person asserting the privilege must obey a valid court order overriding the claim of privilege. Why should journalists have an absolute privilege? Why isn't a showing of compelling need, or the unavailability of the information from other sources, a sufficient justification to override the privilege? What if the leak itself is the crime, such that the journalist is the ONLY person who can testify as to whether the crime was committed? And why shouldn't journalists who disobey orders overruling privilege claims go to jail? That's what happens to lawyers and doctors and priests and psychotherapists who refuse to produce information that they are ordered to produce, after a privilege claim is overruled?

(5) Isn't it a concern that the broader the privilege that is granted, the more likely it is that journalists will contract to keep their sources anonymous in situations where there is NO compelling public need to do so? Is that a cost worth paying? Doesn't this case demonstrate that? Why were seasoned Washington reporters contracting with White House officials to keep them anonymous while they leaked secrets with national security implications so they could discredit a political opponent? We're a far cry from Watergate, aren't we?

(6) Is absolute confidentiality a necessity for reporters to obtain information? Lawyers, after all, can't grant absolute confidentiality-- there are several exceptions to the lawyer-client privilege-- and yet, clients talk to their lawyers about crimes that could result in their execution. Similarly, doctors and therapists can't grant absolute confidentiality, and yet people talk to them as well.

(7) Aren't most prosecutors extremely reticent to subpoena journalists? Exactly how many journalists have been jailed in the past 30 years for refusing to reveal sources? Aren't there guidelines that discourage this tactic in most cases? Is the prospect that a prosecutor may subpoena the reporter really so great that it impedes the promise of confidentiality granted by the reporter?

None of this is to suggest that there is no room for shield laws. Shield laws obviously do protect reporters in the Watergate situation where the government is out to punish leakers of embarrassing information. What this is intended to suggest is that this issue is not easy, and reflexive defenses of the media's right to promise absolute confidentiality, all the time, do not really appreciate the depth of the policy issues involved.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Mark Krikorian, who holds a position with one of the major right wing think tanks on the immigration issue, comes up with this gem of a post at the Corner:

"In an NRODT piece last year on an immigration strategy of attrition (as opposed to my cover story in the current issue, which you could read if you were a subscriber), I referred to 'virtual chokepoints' where interior immigration enforcement should be conducted – events that were necessary for normal life in a modern society but infrequent, like applying for a driver’s license. Another chokepoint is applying for a mortgage, which illegals aliens shouldn’t be able to do if we’re actually serious about controlling immigration. Of course, not only are they are allowed to do so now but, as this story from a correspondent indicates, banks are actively marketing mortgages to illegal aliens. In fact, the bank in question actually issued a press release bragging about the program, quoting the Mexican Consul General in Atlanta saying that the program would enable illegal aliens 'to become further involved in the local community.' This, indeed, is the central political question in immigration – do we squeeze the illegals to make them leave and deter others, or do we embrace them through legalization, either de facto legalization like this mortgage program or the de jure version, as the president and others are proposing."

This is pretty astounding. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about how illegal immigrants live their lives know that they manage to circumvent these sorts of obstacles, because they know that life without certain privileges in this country is far better than life with those privileges in their own countries (usually because you can get a good paying job here and you can't back home).

If you don't allow illegal immigrants to cash their paycheck at the bank, they will cash it at a check cashing place. If you don't allow them to get a driver's license, they will take the bus. If you don't allow them to go to the public hospital, they will go to smaller clinics.

Yet here is a person-- WHO PURPORTS TO BE AN EXPERT ON THIS SUBJECT-- who thinks that denying mortgages to illegal immigrants is going to cause them to LEAVE THE COUNTRY!?! I guess all that right-wing seed money didn't buy much.

You know it's a standard piece of liberal tripe that often times prejudiced people are people who don't know anyone really well from the group that they are prejudiced against. Thus, integration and racial diversity are important goals because people who are around minorities and have friends of color are less likely to be racists.

Similarly, having a gay friend or relative affects one's view about homosexuality. (It certainly affects the Vice-President's view of it.)

Obviously, Mr. Krikorian hasn't gotten to know many illegal immigrants. You would think, even though he is on the side of trying to keep them out of the country, that he would, as an alleged scholar on this issue, try and learn about the subject matter including by talking to some of them and understanding their motivations. They aren't hard to find, you know-- many, many academics have done studies where they have interviewed them and learned why they come and why they stay in the country and how they live their lives.

In any event, I don't see how someone who expresses this shallow a viewpoint about the motivations of illegal immigrants can possibly be taken seriously as an expert on immigration policy. Of course, they pay him to express a viewpoint, not to get his facts right.

Monday, May 09, 2005
Robert Novak has been in the news the last year or so, because of his role in the leaking of Valerie Plame's name as a CIA agent. But those who see Novak's column or his television appearances over the last three years may have noticed something else about him, something that while related to the Plame situation encompasses some of the other things he writes and says as well.

Novak has, ever since the end of the cold war, been something of a foreign policy isolationist. He opposed the first Gulf War, as well as Clinton's campaigns in the Balkans and W's Iraq invasion. At the time Bush proposed it, Novak ripped into Bush with his normal fierce rhetoric. Since that invastion, of course, some who supported the war have been convinced by the WMD debacle or the postwar chaos to recant their support. However, I know of nobody who opposed the invasion and flip-flopped the other way. Except Novak.

Novak has explained himself by saying though he opposed the invasion, it went better than he thought it would. He is the only person who thinks so. Since Novak's position makes no logical sense, how can it be explained? I think pretty simply. Novak is a journalist and commentator who relies on Washington insider sources to provide the information for his columns. Karl Rove and the Bush Administration are famously adept at playing hardball with those who do not sing their tune. Novak was probably told, either explicitly or implicitly, that if he wanted tidbits and scoops, he needed to play ball on Iraq. And so he flip-flopped.

If this is what happened, it may explain the Plame situation as well. The Bush Administration wanted to discredit Joseph Wilson, so they made Novak prove he was on board by having him print the leak.

I don't know any of this for sure-- it is all speculation. What I do know is that Novak flip-flopped on Iraq, and he flip-flopped in a direction that no rational person would flip-flop.

But I received an indirect boost for my theory when the American Prospect ran this item. Turns out lobbyist extraordinaire Jack Abramoff was able to buy favorable pundit treatment for one of his clients, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, through the use of junkets and favors. One thing I don't think the general public understands is that the commentators that they read in the newspaper or see on television can be whores just like politicians can be. Read the list of the people who Abramoff bought off.

To me, this is a huge issue. People who pose as pundits are implicitly promising their audience to be giving their own opinions, not something that was paid for by a moneyed interest or a political ally. When pundits fail to do this, they are violating their trust with the audience.

Let me say further that this is one of the problems with modern conservativism. Simply put, there is a ton of this. It is abundantly clear that certain pundits NEVER criticize the White House, and ALWAYS say whatever the talking points are. And these people are rewarded with increased access. Further, some of these people are employed by publications that claim to be independent but are actually currying favor with the White House, such as the National Review and the Weekly Standard.

If someone's opinion is for sale, by definition, it is valueless. So remember, the next time you see a conservative talking head on television-- that space is for rent.