Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Why the Left doesn’t like free trade.

Neil is guest-blogging on Ezra Klein. Congrats to him. He has a fun post about free-trade. If the benefits of free-trade to the third world are news to anyone (and hopefully they won’t be for my readers, I do repeatedly link to KickAAS after all), please go read it.

Free trade is in fact bad for American poor. The economists POV that free trade is universally good for the country, hinges on the idea that a certain trade policy decision is positive sum. If it’s positive sum, and there’s a sector that loses out but another sector gains more than enough to counter-balance, the solution is easy. The winning sector pays off the losing sector, and everybody wins by the new policy.

Imagine a scenario where a new trade policy causes 3 things:

  1. Owners of capital get $6 increase in income.
  2. Labor gets a $5 decrease in income.
  3. Prices of products they both buy decrease $1.

Said trade policy, in a government that needs acceptance by both groups to make new policies, would pass when coupled with a $4.01 transference to labor groups. Labor groups would make 1 cent on the whole change, in terms of goods they buy, and capitalists would make $1.99.

You have to understand, this is how economists think. If there’s a path that benefits everyone, it will happen and should happen. If there’s a path that is positive sum in general, then the winning party can cover the opposing party’s losses. And I wish the world did work that way, and the reason we can’t reap easy benefits like that is because of inefficiencies and irrationalities on our side, not that the economics is wrong.

Nonetheless: the economics is wrong in end effect, and we do not do that. There is no transference from the capitalists to labor to make up for their loss.

Possible reasons:

  1. We do not have a system where policies need the acquiescence of both sectors, only one.
  2. Wealth transference is economically inefficient. The free trade economists say the inequalities can be fixed at the next level. But then the tax-economists say that wealth redistribution is ruinous to the economy, and we don’t support labor there either. On and on the buck gets passed, and the academic experts only focus on what’s efficient and good for surplus in there one model, ignoring the likely effects elsewhere down the line.
  3. We ascribe moral value to earning money. The change from protectionism to free trade is a government decision, that actively gives more money to some groups and less to others, through its effects. To a good utilitarian, the policy change is no different than a handout. And yet, when we see the effects, the capitalists claim they are working hard for that money and generating surplus through their economic decisions, and it would be wrong on some level to take their hard-earned money.
  4. Economics is really damn complicated and figuring out the best way to make these group decisions is hard. It’s much easier to say, just stop the damn bill from passing in the first place.

So if they’re not going to get paid off, a self-interested sector (say, manufacturer labor) has every reason to oppose free trade.

Now personally, I am convinced because free trade not only helps us but also the third world, and the benefit to American consumers at large shouldn’t be ignored. But American politics is not driven by altruism for the foreign poor, and if major parts of the Democratic party continue to get frelled by free trade, of course the Dem party will oppose it.

And there are more political/emotional reasons as well.

Free trade supposedly benefits the third world. In one particular way. Ideologues on the left have been fighting for many ways to help the world’s poor for a long long time. They are distrustful that the only way we can do this is by… giving corporations what they want. It sounds so opportunistic. Debt relief or more loans? No. Peacekeeping, more democratic international institutions? No. Immigration? No. Outright acknowledgement by governments that every person’s welfare in the world is morally important? No. Free technology sharing? No. All of these are opposed by those who run our government and the suburban middle-class, and strictly limited. But incredibly open laws regarding the exports and imports that make a ton of money for already profitable corporations? By all means, and this is the only way we can help the world’s poor according to our neocon friends.

A good utilitarian wouldn’t care about that rhetoric, and would be happy for anything that does help the world’s poor. So that’s what I do. But, the Left is not made up solely of god good utilitarian intellectuals, as Neil so eagerly agrees when he discusses the realpolitik of primary candidates. Having to play the game rich lobbying groups make, being condescended to about it, and seeing negative uncompensated effects of free trade in our homeland, is going to turn off many passionate voters and activists.

I find all this stuff about fair trade to generally be empty rhetoric. Enforcing such rules in third world countries is extremely hard. They don’t systemically solve our economic equalities, or try to work with the international institutions that could. But it is good rhetoric, especially for when you are trying to block free trade altogether. And I think there are enough clearly bad things (like agricultural subsidies) that I really wish we could just get rid of them first. But that’s not what is on the table these days, and should be differentiated from, say, expanding NAFTA to the entire Americas.

*Also: The post my roommate never through I would write.


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Minor Reaction to Senate Compromise

The Principle-Agent problem is fun!

We all can figure out pretty quickly that Democratic Senators != Democratic activists and they have different interests. But rarely do they differ so much as today. And whose interests are better, for the party and for the country?

The Democratic deterrent to the nuclear option was to stop all Senate procedures by ignoring deference to the majority, and constantly proposing any bills it liked for the remainder of the term. This was just as wonderful sounding to Democratic activists and pundits, as Justice Sunday was to the right. And make no mistake, this would be just as big an overhaul of everything the Senate stands for as anything the GOP was doing (but the Senate has “crossed a line no one has crossed before” many times in its history anyway).

But the idea of nothing happening in the Senate was so drool-worthy (even to me). No Social Security reform, no vote on John Bolton, no tax cuts, no other misadventures for Bush, and instead a huge black eye for the Republicans and utter failure for their ability to funnel money to corporate interests. Of course it’s only the Republican party that wants to satisfy interest groups with everyday legislation, not our own honorable minority. And of course while we keep the Senate dead for 2 years we’ll win the political fight before the public, by trumpeting what a bad judge Priscilla Owen is!

Get real. The Senate Democrats had mouths to feed too. Not everything that goes through Congress now (and wouldn’t if things were stalled) was going to be utterly inimical to them and their backers. You can call this corruption, or maybe just taking care of their home states with pork, or maybe you’re a part of one of those interest groups (a farmer, or a corporate world researcher, or… well almost anything really). But the fact is that any Senator has their interests in mind, and not just partisan liberalism – otherwise the Senate would have stalled centuries ago. Activists and pundits can only see the world in absolutes, so they didn’t see what a huge loss this would be for the various parties involved.

Sometimes we value non-partisaness in our representatives. No, not just from the other party *smile*. Clearly there are things that need to be accomplished on behalf of the people, new ideas entering the world that aren’t solely about one party’s established mindset. And the degree to which anything is stopped for political symbolism at the expense of practical results is usually pretty bad. On the other hand, “bipartisan” indeed can just be another word for corruption. Jack Abramoff worked with Democrats and Republicans alike, and any good urban liberal has to admit that Democrats have been some of the worst offenders when it comes to farm subsidies.

Dem activists today aren’t feeling as betrayed as Republican activists. They feel they expected nothing, and are glad to get something. And they feel positive momentum, even if it’s fueled by the public’s boredom with economic discussions and regular atrocities out of Iraq. But it’s still very important to keep in mind that a pundit is not actually the party. But then, neither is a Senator that would vote for someone they consider evil so they can make sure Peoria gets a new agricultural research center.


Can I call myself a Freakonomist?

Crooked Timber has a fun discussion of Freakonomics, which I’ve mentioned previously. Analysis by a bunch of snarky social profs, an economist, and response by the author himself. It’s definitely a useful read for anyone interested in the interaction of economics with other social disciplines.

Clearly I like Freakonomics simply because that’s the reason I’m into economics myself. Cute economic models of everyday behavior that produces counter-intuitive results fascinates me, and anyone who’s played a boardgame with me and analyzed that knows this. That’s caused me to share the snarkiness with the other commentators that Freakonomics is claiming to be a revolutionary new view, when this is what we did all along. Still, I’m pretty accepting to the “look, it’s what we needed to do to sell books and grab new minds” defense.

I feel bad for the other social science disciplines that are constantly slighted by the gaping maw of economics. “Economics” as a field has become hugely unwieldy. What is it about? Macroeconomic policy? The history of markets? Higher mathematics of equilibrium theory? Creating rational choice models for every aspect of human behavior? Each of these things could be a field in themselves – or at least has more in common with other fields (accounting, history, math, sociology) than with eachother. The degree to which Levitt’s work and many of his allies ignores the huge amount of social science research already done – especially when that research already uses rational choice theory – is pretty absurd, and destructive.

Social science has always had a miserable reputation, and I believe that’s mostly due to a lack of predictive power. Medical science is respected because we can use it to cure diseases, but so far the public remains unconvinced whether social sciences are as useful and rigorous. That may not be as true as people think, and any social science is probably as useful as meteorology, but the belief certainly exists. And instead of alleviating this with such a data-driven approach, I think Levitt actually contributes to this. His explanations of economic problems lack almost any predictive power, and in fact his most clever examples are when an incentive was designed - and then failed due to unconsidered incentives.

Update: Ultra-economist blog The Mises Institute has a similar take down, worrying about how much Levitt is just doing statistics and not really economics. Also some other good criticisms, including the only reasonable critique I've heard of the abortion-paper Levitt wrote (although still not entirely solid). Also, Slate (linked from the Freakonomics blog) has an annoying article about a precocious Harvard economist, that really seems to be doing statistics more than anything else (though she's quite a credit to social science in general). This one doesn't even lay claim to Levitt's vague notion of "incentives". Maybe economics is "the dismal science" because it's always trying to claim too much empire.


Monday, May 23, 2005

Sociology of Special Interest Groups

Isn’t the horse-racing for the 2006 Senate cute? As someone in favor of the “permanent campaign”, I of course like it. But it is a bit absurd how much the blogsphere is already discussing the 2006 elections. But why shouldn't I join in the fun. As Yglesias is discussing, one of the more interesting things that has come up is the question of where powerful issue-advocacy groups should fall. Cases in point, NRA 2000 and 2004, NARAL 2004 and 2006.

-Clinton and Gore were strongly pro-gun control and used gun control as an electoral issue. When Gore lost his home state Tennessee in 2000, it was partly due to fierce fighting-back by the NRA. Democrats noticed this, and completely dropped gun control as an issue to raise (admittedly their power was lesser to raise issues, but not gone, and it still has a public majority). This would seem to be a blinding success for moving gun control off the table, and would encourage the NRA not to keep punishing Democrats.

-Come 2004, the two primary leaders Kerry and Dean, are both entirely about keeping gun control with the states. Certainly as conservative as the proposed positions of Bush. Instead of sitting back and being glad at the consensus, the NRA campaigned incredibly aggressively against Kerry. What could be the various reasons for this?

-In 2004, much was made of NARAL endorsing pro-choice R Sen. Spectre in Pennsylvania, instead of moderate D Hoeffel. At the primary level this probably helped Spectre’s bare win over an extremist challenger, and did not sway Hoeffel’s loss (but we have to assume a world where it did). Spectre went on to become Chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, and represents probably the biggest hurdle to an openly pro-life nominee going to the SCOTUS (but hasn’t stopped somewhat covert pro-life federal judges), whereas even if Hoeffel won the Senate would still be Republican. A lot to analyze in that instance.

-In 2006, The Penn Dems will run pro-life congressman Casey against Santorum, one of the most extreme Republicans (a galling Senatorto the left because Penn went rather blue in 2004). Casey is expected to do very well. What should NARAL do regarding an endorsement in Penn then? Endorse Santorum to encourage Dems to stay loyal and stop wussing out? Endorse Casey because a vote for Democratic leadership is always better than one for GOP leadership? How much money and effort do they spend in the former scenario. They could completely not spend money out of disgust for both candidates, or they could spend everything because of the broader picture of Senate control. Most readers would probably endorse the last option.

-The even more controversial case is RI 2006, where the incumbent Republican Chaffee is a moderate GOP whose pro-choice. The Democrats are choosing currently between pro-choice and pro-life candidates, the most popular being Representative Langevin, the prolifer. NARAL has pre-emptively endorsed Chaffee.

A lot of datapoints. What are the possible motivations and incentives here?

-Telling their members and people looking for issue-based advice and honest takes on the very specific issues, and the credibility that goes with that.

-Keeping tax-exempt status.

-Creating leadership and committee majorities that will favor them in many ways the layperson never considers, and it would be pedantic to try to list here (but suffice it to say, this is likely a larger consideration than everything else).

-The donors and staff of these organizations do not exist in a vacuum. The extent to which pro-choice Republicans or anti-gun control Democrats exist is mostly for political posturing and opportunism (which I approve of, of course). They do not form the base and the passionate active people here. People who spend their time and money focusing on the right to abortion, are pretty passionate about party politics in general. If anyone understands the complex utilitarian reasons to support a disagreeable candidate of a party that is in general sympathetic (and cares about a lot of other issues that the party stands for), it is them.

Chaffee voted for John Bolton to be UN Ambassador, Santorum has insulted gays, I do not think either of these things endear themselves to pro-choice activists and thus makes compromising on the issue de nomine rather easy.

-Creating ties and connections to the party leaderships, so they can get respect and influence.

-Primary races trying to bolster support against challengers from the extremes, or general elections where candidates grapple for the center.

-Individual circumstances (such Spectre’s chairmanship, what party will actually hold power) wreak merry havoc with such judgements.

-Getting a respectful treatment by one side or the other (wooed by the normal enemies contrasted with arrogant assumption from the normal allies… vs. the general rhetoric each party and their allies use).
-Convincing the opposing party to accept your side, while convincing your side to stay in line.

-Making complicated decisions taking all these factors into account, vs. having a set rule that cannot be attacked or looked upon as unethical. (Interestingly, what you want to avoid isn't the appearance of complexity, but the appearance of a simple but corrupt rule. NARAL may have complex reasons if it were to endorse Langevin instead of Chaffee, but it would look like a simple reason of: always vote Democrat.)

So in the end? I think it would be a safe rule to simply act like an arm of one political party, except for extremely clear circumstances (see my thoughts on when torture is expedient). And under-publicized decisions, such as how much money to spend, will almost certainly always favor the largely-friendly political party.

However, I’m much more willing to see all issues as being ably dealt with by a proper two-party governing system. Do people have any other thoughts? I’d be most interested in any comments what of these specific reasons groups have for defection. Or are there any other strong reasons?


Monday, May 16, 2005

Why these two choices

Why aren’t libertarianism, populism or other political leanings more popular in American political-culture than the simple left-right dynamic? This TNR article on the religious non-right is pretty interesting in that regard.

The two major political positions, of government control in social matters with economic freedom versus freedom on social matters with government control in the economy, are coherent not just philosophically but on a very visceral level that’s easy for many people to intuit themselves. “Individual responsibility” means allowing individualism in the economy and encouraging responsibility via the government, according to TNR:

In researching their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith found that evangelicals are more inclined than nonevangelicals to blame an individual's failure to thrive on personal shortcomings--say, a lack of ambition or character--rather than on any systemic disadvantages. By extension, write the authors, "Because systems and programs are viewed as obviating personal responsibility and not changing the hearts of individuals, they are ultimately destructive." Thus, "Welfare is seen as both terribly misguided and sinful, running counter to most things American and, in their understanding, most things Christian. It is far better, according to this [representative interviewee], to 'give them the basics of God and teach them about Jesus. That's going to bring them a whole lot more out of poverty than it is to give them a welfare check.'" Or, as Bush is so fond of asserting, the best way to tackle social problems is by changing "one heart and one soul at a time."

And it’s not just philosophically coherent, but there’s a whole class of people who naturally will feel both sides of this position (the economic and the social). And similarly for the left, though in a vice-versa way.

It's hard therefore for the left to convince the religious right of even some of their platform, or for there to even be a strong religious movement outside right or left.

So while the “bichromatic spectrum” is roundly mocked in America for being silly to presume they are the only possible political approaches, there are good reasons (besides oligopoly) for those two positions to be the dominant ones.


Friday, May 13, 2005


Yglesias is discussing some interesting poll data about the political attitudes of the public on specific issues. Unfortunately, it's some pretty horrible discussion. I'll leave alone that he thinks "Democrats could reap some major gains by taking a more conciliatory stance toward traditionalist sentiment in America", and yet all Democratic candidates have been Christian while it's pundits like him who call Catholicism "a false gospel."

He focuses on issues Democrats could give up ground on (Ten Commandments displays, school prayer), and ones that they don't need to (abortion). Yes, those Democrats really should stop voting for so many bills that ban the ten commandments, school prayer, and let that Schiavo woman die. Oh wait, there's no legislation about this at all (or when there is, Dems vote for it). All the contentious issues in our "culture war" are decided by judges. Democrats have no power here. I mean, suppose you were Harry Reid, and decided "Hey, we can definitely win the next Presidential election if the Ten Commandments go up over the Supreme Court building." What would you do to could accomplish this?

(I suppose Democrats could look for less separationist judges, but the idea that the school prayer in public schools violates separation of church and state is so direct and so enmeshed in precedent, that you'd have to nominate judges so extreme that you lose a lot of stuff first.)

Democrats could go make empty campaign speeches about returning religion to America even though they know they have no power to actually enact that. A lot of speeches, enough to convince people they'd care. Or push for a Constitutional amendment for school prayer. I dunno. I don't think such extreme measures really would be possible with the base. They might accept compromise for practical concessions... but not the idea of trumpetting around empty speeches for the sole reason that these are against their principles.

Again, bad effects of our inability to really change these laws and allowing one party to campaign on the basis of promises they never msut be expected to keep.

(To be honest, Kerry campaigned for universal healthcare, a plan that with this Congress would be just as unlikely to be fulfilled.)


Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Race Card

I recently became interested in how the Constitution (as a system of democracy instead of more direct methods) affects racial minorities. One of the most common defenses for constitutional democracy is that you need it to protect minorities, in the face of evil majoritarianism. Well it’s clear from the start of our country that the Constitution didn’t afford them protections of this sort, and as recently as the sixties were they continually screwed by the filibuster and federalism. But now as recognized citizens they benefit from all these “minority protections” more than lose from them, right?

No. Why?

  1. The Electoral College: The states with the largest minority populations are written off first. A presidential campaign is never about how to improve life in New York or California, and these groups are ignored as they are just ceded to Democrats, while the agricultural sector gets every photo op they could want. Supposedly to balance the problems of our general elections we have primary elections – but when the two most important states are New Hampshire and Iowa, you’ve only exacerbated the problem.
  2. First Past the Post Representation: In general when you have very localized and minority interests, FPTP disenfranchises them. They get a few seats where they account for 90% of the population, and they don’t get any seats where they account for 10% of the population, leaving them disproportionately unrepresented. Add into the fact that Congress is in fact about politically powerful individuals, and not just representatives of certain parties or ideologies, you get an elite non-lack class magnified further.
  3. The Senate: And this is worse. South Dakota gets 2 Senators. And California gets 2 Senators. Let’s say that California was half black half white, and ten times the size of all white South Dakota. So for a proportion of 10 black people for 12 white people, you get 1 black Senator for 3 white Senators. Not to mention that the Senate is way more important than the House.
  4. Local-Based Education: Running, and thus funding, very important social programs (and what’s more important than education? Maybe healthcare, but we don’t provide that, largely due to the aforementioned problems) based on the local tax base may be an interesting principle about community responsibility in abstract. In practice it makes the kids of rich parents more well of, and screws the kids of poor parents.
  5. Gun Control: One measure to bring down crime is prohibited from ever being enacted, due to assumptions that are obviously outdated (the ability and necessity to fight off a foreign invade with small arms). Regardless of whether you actually think minorities are impacted more by crime and lax gun laws, minorities certainly think they are (to the tune of 73%).
  6. Washington Fucking D. C.: The motherload of all Constitutional absurdities, the city of 600,000 people, 70% of whom are non-white, doesn’t get represented in the Senate, the House, or get it’s own state government that could raise commuter taxes like most cities do. Not only is this crazy, it’s also purposeful. The reason DC doesn’t get representation is because it votes 90% Democratic, something correlated with it’s large non-white population.

This isn’t just a list of NAACP complaints, but examples that flow from the Original Sin of our Constitution. It was written 222 years ago by rich white men. When Adams and Madison argued over balancing the interests of small states and big states, country life and city life, no one argued for representing the interests of racial minorities. Not that minorities need to be thought of at every step if you have a principled process, but if your Constitution is just a series of deals between negotiating interests (which ours is), that someone was left out of those negotiations can never really be forgotten.

Attempts to alleviate these problems in the past of course haven’t been very popular (bussing, racial gerry-mandering), but that’s kinda the point. A system that starts off with such wrong assumptions and foundations, is not best fixed by tweaking with compromises that don’t respect the spirit of equal democracy.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Been enjoying Bouncer blog lately. His description of military obsessed high schoolers particularly met sympathy with me. There’s a certain type of social outcast in my own high school that sought refuge in that violent patriotism and authoritarianism (perhaps not unline nerds who play war strategy games, I admit), that seemed so weird to me.

I wasn't what you'd describe as a bully in high school. My conflict-laden, dysfunctional homelife and combustible temperament were common knowledge amongst my peers, and, coupled with my size, served to keep me out of trouble much more so than getting me involved. I was universally regarded as 'the kid with problems,' and people who didn't know me often went out of their way to steer clear, although, in retrospect, I feel their trepidation wasn't entirely warranted. All I ever really wanted was to be left alone. I didn't bother them if they didn't mess with me.

There were, however, two types of people I took some pleasure in going after. The first were those 'Soldier of Fortune' obsessed military-wannabe weirdo kids who habitually wore camouflage to school. My high school had at least three or four of these psychos, and they were all complete douchebags. For whatever reason, they pissed me off more than anyone else, and seeing one pass me in the hallway was akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull. Over time, I developed a highly effective method of dealing with them. Whenever I saw someone in a camo getup, I'd make a beeline for him, ramming myself into his shoulder and smashing him into the wall. I'd then feign contrition, offering my apology:

"Oh, I'm so sorry, man. I didn't see you."


Is Any Sacrifice At All, Too High?

Problem: We need to cut spending (taxes could also be raised, but we do certainly need to cut spending). Both left and right have solutions (that involve cutting the programs the other side considers important, be it HUD or SDI). So it just becomes a political football, used to bash the programs you already don’t like, and no attempt to actually solve anything.

Approach: Find things both dominant political doctrines would like to cut. Not just random inefficiency and waste that’s as hard to root out as it is to just keep funding it (ever heard of the Paperwork Reduction Act?). Significant expenditures that are clearly wasteful.

Solution: Cut spending that exists only because of sectional interests, or Committee path dependency (that the budget for the military is determined by the Armed Services Committee. They’ll happily cut veteran benefits before SDI, so the Appropriations Committee is strong armed into giving them all they ask for.) But that a majority still supports.

Targets: Obsolete bases. Agricultural subsidies. Pork barrel tourist museums.

Unfortunately they don’t get cut because of the unique nature of legislative system (that really, really emphasizes the power of individual representatives from certain sections of the country – particularly the power to keep the status quo). And everyone in DC is consigned to believing that this is the way it ever shall be.

Which is why it makes me sad when I see one of my favorite blogs, Wampum, arguing so vociferously against base closures that affect his area. Small towns not caring about the rest of the country are part of what’s screwing us over so much.


Monday, May 09, 2005

Habeas PR

As a result of the British election, various sources are noting that the Tories should back electoral reform. I find it interesting how in that country so many people think Proportional Representation is a moral necessity for true democratic representation, and believe the ruling party to be unquestionably cynical when it does not advance it – compared to us, so proud in our spirit of democracy, but happily accepting the electoral college, the Senate, and no rights for DC.

Anyway, this current rhetoric matches pretty closely with the “Labour should back PR” that was spouted during the 90’s. The non-PR system only seems to reduce the representation of the opposition party – it does not actually make either of the two main parties less likely to earn a majority. Both parties seem to have that in mind, and I doubt it’s ever going to go anywhere.

But still, let us have a moment of silence for the British system. I regularly lament for how much more democratic it is than our system, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I think things are fine currently because as things stand currently, the country voted for a leftist majority (60% for Labour and Liberal combined) but also an Iraqi war majority (70% for Labour and Tory combined). But the less a system respects the spirit of democracy, the worse the various unintended consequences can get. Their non-PR system easily breeds apathy, a-principled voting, and could certainly put into power a government that doesn't reflect the majority of the people.


Friday, May 06, 2005

Absolute Power... by a Smaller Margin

Apparently the blogsphere is abuzz over the British elections, so I’ll post a few thoughts here. And all good analyses start with numbers.

MPs 2001

MPs 2005

Labour 413

Labour 355

Conservative 166

Conservative 197

Lib Dem 52

Lib Dem 62

Vote % 2001

Vote % 2005

Labour 41

Labour 37

Conservative 32

Conservative 33

Lib Dem 18

Lib Dem 22

So Lib-Dems took from the Labour vote percentage, but Conservatives took from the Labour MPs. If last night was a loss for Labour, who was it a victory for? Well both Michael Howard and Charlie Kennedy will be able to claim success, so they’ll probably stick around. One of the reasons I dislike various non-direct electoral systems so much, is that it becomes very hard to interpret what political success is and what public favor means.

I’m dismayed at the people acting like this is a huge blow for Blair. Losing seats on your majority, yeah that’s bad, but he still has a good majority. When it’s called a rebuke of him then, it’s about the public’s reaction to his specific actions. Well do they regret the Iraq War? Why did Conservatives make more gains than Lib Dems (or do you assume only the vote % matters, and so it was Lib Dems that made gains)? Was it a rebuke of his personal leadership? His own constituency elected him at a higher rate than ever, and his personal approval ratings continue to top either opposition leader.

Blair does continue to be my favorite politician, and I'm simultaneously glad he's staying in office and that the public has amde him pay a price for an unpopular war. The point of democracy is not to put people I like in office, it's to make politician's pay attention to the public. Anyway, his summary of the night, that the British voters wanted a smaller majority for Labour but a majority nonetheless, was more honest than any American politician could be.

Will Blair be forced out? What will Labour due, tune in next week to… nah, I’m just kidding. This was a boring small rollback, but even the British media has to act like it’s news. I’m sure Blair is none too eager to abandon his position as one of the most powerful men in the world.

It’s best summed up in the USA Today headline Labour voters shrug, go with Blair again.


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Good discussions to be had

Juan Cole presents his wonderful knowledge of American history with his discussion of the filibuster and judicial nominees. A must read. He quotes the Federalist Papers, makes analogies to disastrous effects of majoritarianism in Algeria, and goes over Sen. Joe Biden’s defense this past Sunday.

I’m gonna ramble a bit now, assuming you’ve read it.

1. Apparently one of Madison’s largest hopes for our republic was that it was too large for one political faction to have true dominance. We just sprawl too much. Times have changed, one party seems to have that dominance, and Cole thinks therefore we need the other Constitutional protections more than ever to bolster that. (Ignoring of course other periods of American history when one party clearly held similar dominance, if not more.)

Let’s think about that for a second. Perhaps the most intelligent and influential constitutional framer, premised our system of government upon the inability to form national coalitions. Wow, that was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Every time someone mentions the “wisdom of the founders” in forseeing the problems our nation would deal with, keep that in mind. An institutional structure founded upon such absurd and outright wrong nations, is really not that sacred. Maybe this means we need to rely on our other checks even more… but maybe it also means they were groping in the dark (however nobly).

2. Interesting point that the 46 Dem Senators represent a majority of the populace. Of course there’s the counter that the House is Republican, but I have no trouble dismissing the legitimacy of a 2% majority there with the extreme gerrymandering going on. Regardless, Biden is making a point that this isn’t about majoritarianism, and if it were, Democrats would probably have a better hand. It’s random-ass institutional structures that have delivered Republicans power, and they will die by that sword as much as they have lived by it.

Which reminds me. Gerrymandering sucks. And is the result of a system where you have powerful individuals as the representatives and not party lackeys. Party lackeys would have less interest to perpetuate incumbent seats and stability, and to boss around state legislatures to keep them in power. Every other party based Parliament has had to convert to rational districting because the people demanded it and the parties responded. But I digress.

3. One of these days some Republican is going to point out that the filibuster is not in the Constitution. In fact, the House used to have it, and did away with it.

4. I don’t see how majoritarianism was the problem in Algeria. I see how resistance to majoritarianism was a problem. And I don’t see what or any institutional structures could have prevented that overwhelming religious majority from coming to power, or prevented the military from being afraid of it. A harder method to pass constitutional amendments? Did you see that majority?


Britain and Canada, Thoughts?

Don’t want anyone to forget, Britain has election on May 5. We’ll all be celebrating on Thursday, eh? Blair is expected to win re-election handily, but anything could go wrong. Frankly I’ll be very sad for the leftist Lib-Dems if they don’t do better. I’m not supporting Lib-Dems, but one has to admit they are the only party of the Left there, and without them there’s no representation for the majority of British voters who opposed the Iraq War.

Although I appreciate the British electoral system in many ways, I still have concerns about it. As radical geekery pointed out, because Bush’s popularity crested for just a few enough weeks in September and November, he is guaranteed power for the next 4 years, even though a majority of our country seems to oppose him and his policies. I don’t know if I agree entirely with this assessment of democracy, but it does leave open ugly possibilities. Just make sure your popularity is good on one particular date, and schedule all the shitty stuff you do so as to have the least impact on that date.

But Parliamentary systems where the governing party calls the election are even worse. At least in America the date is immutable, and the opposition can plan around it and there’s a limit to what inconveniences the governing party can work around. But when the governing party just calls the election whenever they want, they could be unpopular 90% of the time, stumble on some freakish month of good news, and say “this is when you vote!” This is in fact what happened with the last Major government in the nineties.

While we’re discussing systems, remember Canada’s elections are coming up. Now Canada has an interesting system where a) the party that fills the ministries and executive is simply the largest plurality party, and b) all legislation passes on a vote-by-vote basis, so you need coalitions to pass legislation, but not staff the government. Interesting. Now there are clear problems (certainly discourages and is a bit unfair to small parties, what if the majority coalition opposes the plurality party, etc.), but definitely allows for negotiation and centrism to pass legislation, while not suffering instability over who forms the government.


Monday, May 02, 2005

Doubting Libs

Over here Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, and others are arguing about “the conservativism of faith” and “of doubt”.

Over here liberals are responding with their own discussion of progressivism of faith and doubt.

Is it just me, or does this just seem a remix of libertarianism (doubt) and populism (faith)? Just talked about in more teleological terms. Well I do like doubt.

PS: I know some people dislike the word “progressive” since it just seems to be “well liberal isn’t popular, so we need a new word”. Well I like it.
A) Making the belief 30-50% of the country believes in into a dirty word is only going to change the word, and I don’t like that these people can’t express their ideology in “good soundbites”, so sure, nice for them to have a new word.
B) Progressive seems to make a lot more sense, etymologically speaking. Liberal has had a whole host of meanings, and the modern Democratic party does not end up anywhere near where Locke and Jefferson started off.
C) Whereas progressive just seems to be saying “we want the direction we went from 1950 to 2000, to continue happening towards 2050”, which, whether you agree with that or not, is kinda what the Democratic party stands for policy wise.

PPS: Yeah, calling Sullivan a conservative, of doubt or faith, is kinda absurd. But clearly there are some people who would fit his categories, even if it’s not him.


May 1st

I mockingly celebrated “May Day” yesterday. While on one hand I understand and appreciate the holiday celebrating unions and the working life, I of course realize that communism (as practiced) has been a horrible bane upon the twentieth century. Deep down, I detest all holidays and monuments that fetishize and idea or person or event as something to be worshipped, without reference to the ideals they really stood for. A typical cycle of someone or something that stood fast against oppression – eventually becoming a symbol of oppression itself. And the conservatives who hate May Day of course understand this.

Except instead of ignoring this idol, they’ve replaced it with their own. Yes, in America we have Loyalty Day.