Friday, June 24, 2005

Small Steps

One of the first steps of reform should probably be the Senate’s representation. I continue to hope one day for a Baker style ruling that says the Senate, like representatives, should represent people not cows.

Senate disproportionality messes with all sorts of things. Not just agrarian subsidies or under-representing other interests, in the more powerful chamber. It gives a philosophical backing to anyone defending minority rule (that we have a major body that is not democratic really), which shows up especially in the Senate rules crafted by these members. It comes out in electoral votes for states (which are Senate plus House reps, giving 3 EV’s to states with less than half a million population). It prevents DC from getting statehood, because the prospect of 2 new Democratic Senators is pretty scary.

One small step would be simply to redistribute Senators to the states, like representatives. Under our current system, we take the population of each state, give them 1 Congressional seat at least, and then distribute the rest based on population. The same could happen for Senators. We have a hundred senators, give 1 to each state, 50 overall, and distribute the other 50 to the rest of the states based on their size. Except instead of states with multiple representatives splitting them into districts, they’d be at large members.

This is not radical. This is in fact, what almost all State Senate’s do, to some degree or another.

We’d maintain the distinctive differences between the two bodies, but we would not have the whole state of California being equal to (or less once you factor seniority concerns) than the representation for the state of Kansas.


Thursday, June 23, 2005

Counter-Majoritarian Myths

Ezra's guest blogger Scott (no, not Neil) has a good post and summary of the recent arguments over the democratic legitimacy of judicial review. Fascinating stuff really. His main point is focusing on how rarely the Supreme Court has actually acted against the wishes of the democratic majority.

As Mark Graber has noted, a generation of legal scholars discussed the Warren Court as if Goldwater won a landslide in 1964.
To say that Roe v. Wade—which a majority of the public supports by a two-to-one margin, and has always supported—isn’t counter-majoritarian isn’t to say, ipso facto, that it was correctly decided. (I do believe that it was, but it requires an independent argument.) The most reprehensible parts of Dred Scott, which obviously nobody would defend, were clearly the majority position, North and South.

Of course they act against the wishes of the majority in many cases, but those tend to be more under the radar ones (federal workplace laws, anyone?), and there are a number of counter-majoritarian rulings by lower courts that just don't get reviewed by SCOTUS (ie, tacitly upheld). This doesn't separate them from any other federal bureaucracy though.

The deeper point is that, SCOTUS in any particular case is either democratic or it isn't. When it is majoritarian, it doesn't matter. Only in the cases where it is counter-majoritarian does it add anything to the workings of our government. Even if those cases are fewer than many believe, they are the entirety of the interesting set.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Gloves are Off

Crooked Timber has a short post upset about some Republican amendment.

So, there was a state-sponsored display of the Ten Commandments in front of the Gibson County Courthouse in Princeton, Indiana. Some citizens brought it to court, arguing that it was unconstitutional, and won.

Indiana Republican Representative John Hostettler introduced an amendment to a spending bill that would “prohibit funds in the Act from being used to enforce the judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in the case of Russelburg v. Gibson County.” Says Benen, “In other words, Hostettler would prevent the federal judiciary from enforcing its own court order. Gibson County could refuse to comply with the law and the judge couldn’t send marshals to resolve the problem.”

Ted notes that this makes a farce of the Court's authority, if they're decisions can go unenforced via an act of the majority in Congress. Other famous examples of disrespecting the other powers have involved the other two branches. President Jackson famously said "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." More recently, President Nixon routinely used to not spend funds that Congress would allocate to different departments. And our liberal intellectual cries at how not only does this accomplish some extreme conservative goal, but also weakens these institutions as existing in anything but adherence to the dominant political party.

Well, duh.

"Separation of powers" and other aspects in our Constitution do not absolutely function in their ideals and legalisms. They rely on politicians to respect the authority of other branches, who may disagree with them. This is not the natural condition of an idealist. An idealist thinks God is good, or abortion is wrong, and nothing else matters. For what reason would Hostettler remove this sculpture if it was in his power to keep it?

Power exists and people want to use it. In our system, that power is generally equivalent to "the will of the majority". When it's not, that will shall seek to take it. If the Constitution can only work as a check when representatives allow themselves to be checked then... well to be it in the nicest terms, it is unrealistic to rely on those checks.


Monday, June 20, 2005

Security and Character

Conservatives recommending a more obedient course at the media often point to the good relationship the government and media had during World War 2. “Loose lips sink ships” was the motto for a press that let the government decide what could be published, for the sake of tactical secrecy. As united as our country was during that great trial, this does not mean our government acted immaculately in its ability to censor.

After 60 years of protection for security, our government has just released a journalist’s report of what Nagasaki looked like in the aftermath of our nuclear bomb. And it wasn’t pretty. Of course, any of us raised on Cold War paranoia about the bomb, or even read Hiroshima aren’t very surprised. But this definitely was breaking news back then. And how did our government deal with this report?

Gen Douglas MacArthur, who headed the US occupation of Japan, was so angered by the reports that he personally rejected them. The originals were never returned.
Anthony Weller told Mainichi he thought the account was quashed because it could have turned US public opinion against the build-up of a nuclear arsenal.

(If anyone can figure out legitimate security reasons for hiding this information, let me know. Even if there are some, this dramatic example would not undermine my conclusion.)
My congressional district recently had a primary for a special election, in which the Republican primary candidate (the inevitable winner of the general election) won solely with the slogan “Character Matters”. During Clinton’s presidency I had many arguments with people in this district whether his peccadilloes and lying under oath were a reason to vote against Democrats. I felt character did matter, but not as much as policy, and the differences between his character and any other politician, particularly with regards to what actions he was empowered to take, were overblown.

Let me be clear now. There are sometimes when character matters a great deal in being president, perhaps more than anything else. It’s called “classification”. Our government can make news disappear, be it killing a journalists report or hiding information from within the government. We won’t even know something was hidden or why. It can take actions based on classified reasons, and we have to trust not only that they are making the correct decision – but that they even have the right to withhold this information. As the Nagaski report shows, our government even at its best can still kill a report only for the worry of public opinion.

Let’s proceed to a more mundane example. Recently, the White House hired an intern for some random lower level Correspondence Office job. She was president of the University of Pennsylvania’s College Democrats. When she showed up for work, she was told she had to leave while her security form was still processed, and they’d get back to her. Nine days later she still hadn’t heard anything, and had to take another job.

This is just one of a number of political actions our current administration has taken citing security as a reason. Removing protesters to places far out of sight of any presidential visits. Three attendees at a Presidential Social Security speech were kicked out by someone claiming to be a Secret Service agent because they were dropped off in a car with a Kerry bumper sticker. Many reports about the treatment of detainees in our detention system for foreigners, do not make it to light of day. Senate Democrats are demanding documents on UN Ambassador-nominee John Bolton, which the State Department is refusing to provide.

In this War on Terror, we have to assume our government is making the right decisions even when we can’t know what they are. Even more so, we have to believe that our government is classifying based on actual security, and not on what would be politically inconvenient. That is entirely about character.

When the government uses “security” to hide information about the results of a nuclear bomb, or to pettily fire interns who were Democrats, all without any accountability, then they are saying that we can not trust them with that secrecy.


Thursday, June 16, 2005


An intellectually religious site I read, Internet Monk, has a melancholy passage about how difficult he finds it to convince unbelievers, and what approaches work best. I respect his writing, but the post he links to kinda freaks me out. This inspired general thoughts on relativism and political dialogue.

The next time you are about to begin an argument with someone, ask yourself this question: how likely are they to convince you of the opposing view? I’m not saying that the opposite view is always legitimate, or that in all cases people are equally combative or receptive. But the desire to spread your views to others and maintain your own certainty is pretty universal.

This is why our society for a while stopped arguing over religion. Michael, it is not simply a matter of you trying to tell some non-Christian (or in your case non-Calvinist) about the gospel, and whether that effort is worth the chance of them being saved. It is also about the effort they are going to expend to try to convert you.

Do you want to read a similar “letter from an atheist”? I’m sure I could find a heartfelt one for you. Do you think it will work and save you and your flock from anti-materialistic spiritual distractions? Certainly not, you’re far too proud and convinced for that. And I respect that!

Politically speaking, this applies to the dialogue we ask out of politicians. Many, many extremists demand that their party take harder lines, especially on issues where they may be in the minority (socialism, culture wars, etc.) and “convince” Americans or the other side of the worthiness of their cause. People feel strongly darnit, and if a thousand raging horses couldn’t convince you to oppose gun-control, what makes you think you could convince a GOP voter to support gun-control? (Or vice-versa as the case may be.)

Humility, the willingness to change sides, and a lack of fire in the heart is what characterizes political moderates. And this is why I continue to advocate for centrist politicians and institutions which support the power of moderates to tip the balance.


Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Good, but Depressing Point

EconLog brings up some good points about the social security debate (and other debates about various programs, like farm subsidies). People want the money:

From Ny Times: “The average retirement age in 1940 was 68. As recently as 1965, about two-thirds of workers did not begin drawing Social Security benefits until they were 65 or older. Now, more than half retire at 62 or younger, and three-quarters receive their first benefit checks before they are 65.”

The article says that raising the retirement age is the least popular option for dealing with Social Security. This tells me that people do not view Social Security as insurance. The insurance aspect of Social Security is that, like any annuity, it protects you against the risk of outliving your assets. If you were buying Social Security as insurance, then the premiums would be lower the later the age at which you chose to collect it. And if what people valued were the insurance aspect, then most people would prefer low premiums and benefits that kick in when they get really old. That would be better than high premiums and benefits that kick in when you are 60.

Just because the recepients value it as free money of course, doesn’t mean our government doesn’t implement it because of the insurance aspect. But for someone as pro-democracy as me (and as pundits often are when the issue supports them), it’s important to remember that most people vote very strongly with their checkbook.

Social Security still exists because it gives a lot of money to some people who are very well represented in our government. Farm subsidies still exist because they give a lot of money to some people who are well represented. There may be all sorts of economic arguments for why the programs were started, but once they were, no one wants to give up that free money. And the righteousness with which they defend their entitlement to it, can be dangerously convincing for the naïve and unfortunately dispiriting for the cynical.

Programs that give money to people who aren’t represented (which according to Democratic internal logic, would be the people who need it most) aren’t harder to make that other forms of government welfare– they’re just a lot easier to kill. Be it Welfare Reform or Congress’s recent gutting of Food Stamps.

[Edit:] To be clear, this does not mean raising the retirement age is a good thing, as Ezra effectively points out. However, there is nothing Ezra says that supports the view that SS is insurance. People can still be grasping for money in a greedy way, and also desperately deserve it.


Why now, brown cow?

The Senate has apologized for not banning lynching. I believe the argument at the time was that murder was illegal, and making a new crime for the motive of the murder wasn't going to change anything. Like the arguments used against Hate Crime legislation now. Now, I'm not accusing anti-Hate Crime legislation people of being like Southern Senators who wanted to deny civil rights. (I don't particularly believe such legislation will do any good, and like with the lynchings back then, you have to address the root of the alienation), but more I am rather curious why Republicans are supporting this apology now, since it contravenes their logic on Hate-Crime legislation.

One theory is that it's just trying to get the Senate some good news, after all the recent debacles. Current Senate approval ratings have fallen to 31%. Ewww.

I am very tempted, however, to think this is an attempt to blacken the filibuster. The recent compromise was quite possibly a fig-leaf, and we're gonna see a real filubster battle over the Supreme Court soon. Bringing up that the filibuster was most famously used to deny civil rights, is one cute (and cheap!) way of preparing the groundwork for another anti-filibuster battle.

[To be clear, I continue to think the filibuster was a bad idea then and now. Although it's quite possible that the message from looking at all the Senate munchkinning related to racial issues, was "Southern Senators are bad".]


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Common Sense

While I appreciate the national majoritarianism of the Supreme Court decision regarding marijuana this weekend, I still regret that it had to be SCOTUS that laid down the law. How undemocratic. The Mises Institute brings up an elegant passage from Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”, and discusses how the stodgy reliance on precedents is harmful and disharmonius.

From the want of a constitution in England to restrain and regulate the wild impulse of power, many of the laws are irrational and tyrannical, and the administration of them vague and problematical.
Almost every case must now be determined by some precedent, be that precedent good or bad, or whether it properly applies or not; and the practice is become so general as to suggest a suspicion, that it proceeds from a deeper policy than at first sight appears.
Since the revolution of America, and more so since that of France, this preaching up the doctrines of precedents, drawn from times and circumstances antecedent to those events, has been the studied practice of the English government. The generality of those precedents are founded on principles and opinions, the reverse of what they ought; and the greater distance of time they are drawn from, the more they are to be suspected. But by associating those precedents with a superstitious reverence for ancient things, as monks show relics and call them holy, the generality of mankind are deceived into the design. Governments now act as if they were afraid to awaken a single reflection in man. They are softly leading him to the sepulchre of precedents, to deaden his faculties and call attention from the scene of revolutions. They feel that he is arriving at knowledge faster than they wish, and their policy of precedents is the barometer of their fears. This political popery, like the ecclesiastical popery of old, has had its day, and is hastening to its exit. The ragged relic and the antiquated precedent, the monk and the monarch, will moulder together.
Government by precedent, without any regard to the principle of the precedent, is one of the vilest systems that can be set up. In numerous instances, the precedent ought to operate as a warning, and not as an example, and requires to be shunned instead of imitated; but instead of this, precedents are taken in the lump, and put at once for constitution and for law.
Either the doctrine of precedents is policy to keep a man in a state of ignorance, or it is a practical confession that wisdom degenerates in governments as governments increase in age, and can only hobble along by the stilts and crutches of precedents. How is it that the same persons who would proudly be thought wiser than their predecessors, appear at the same time only as the ghosts of departed wisdom? How strangely is antiquity treated! To some purposes it is spoken of as the times of darkness and ignorance, and to answer others, it is put for the light of the world.
If the doctrine of precedents is to be followed, the expenses of government need not continue the same. Why pay men extravagantly, who have but little to do? If everything that can happen is already in precedent, legislation is at an end, and precedent, like a dictionary, determines every case. Either, therefore, government has arrived at its dotage, and requires to be renovated, or all the occasions for exercising its wisdom have occurred.

I only quoted the Paine passage, since I think it directly philosophically applicable to our discussions of constitutional democracy. For further analysis of the passage, and how it relates to the distorted Raich v. Gonzales decision, follow the Mises link.


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Belated Memorial Day Post

"No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country...He won it by making the other poor bastard die for his country." -General G. S. Patton

Our President has led the emphasis in a “culture of life” for sometime now, and that phrase is only starting to pick up steam. Many (be it paranoid liberals or conservative zealots) think this only applies to sexual issues, family policies, living wills, or other strictly religious issues. The President has never limited his rhetoric to only those issues and (seems to) believe that this is a fundamental philosophy that guides the War on Terror, our information age culture, and free trade. On these matters, the Catholic Church has loudly agreed with him.

On September 11th, 2001 twelve men decided to sacrifice their lives in order to kill upwards of 3000 Westerners. Their hatred of our life was disgusting, but something our security measures can deal with. It is their own willingness to sacrifice their life (and the well being of their country in retaliatory strikes) that made it so scary. This has applied to terrorism in Jerusalem, actors that cannot be deterred by our military capability like Al-Qaeda and North Korea, and many other flash points in the War on Terror.

A “culture of life” as opposed to a “culture of death” (our President’s words) values the lives of others ideally - but first want you to value your own life and hopes you fit into society and keep yourself alive. Once you are full of so much hate, and value your life so little, you can do a great deal of damage. The War on Terror cannot be won until at the very least people value their own lives enough to stop this bloody type of warfare.

It is a profoundly utilitarian solution. Not utilitarian in what people usually think: of cold calculation, and of disregarding moral codes when they don’t fit the situation. But in terms of using people’s own drive for utility, for life, for happiness as the key to victory. A culture of life is one that wants to maximize utility, and put less emphasis on other silly things. Like anarchic freedom for simply the sake of freedom, or honor-obsessed zealots. Neil and I may disagree with the Catholic Church about what utility is and how it is maximized, but the underlying theme of elevating “life” above all other concerns is a cause that should join us together.

Unfortunately we do have a “culture of death”, and I feel our President contributes to that. People point to the death penalty, or lack of health care, or capitalistic emphasis on money and consumer pleasures. But I fear the worst aspects of the “culture of death” in the other side (a willingness to sacrifice your own life to kill others), we inculcate in our own people.

On Memorial Day, we celebrate and mourn those who went overseas, defended our nation, and gave their lives in doing so. Sacrificing your life so others may live is the noblest choice a human being can make, and I am eternally grateful for that. But sacrificing your life so that you can kill the enemy is a very different thing, and we need to stop encouraging that. That attitude is the “culture of death”, that is what stands opposed to the “culture of life”. There may be many merits to honor and national defense and pre-emptive strikes, but they are not to be found in the culture of life.

It is said that people go into the front line forces of our military for two reasons: to get a job that pays low-skilled people and provides a scholarship, and to fight foreigners. Think about that. Isn’t that what the culture of death is all about? People not valuing their lives and opportunities enough to keep themselves safe, and people fearing the Other so much that they are eager to combat it.

In the meantime, enemy terrorists provide bigger threats. Democracy and economic development are the profoundly utilitarian solutions that will improve the third world enough that they do not wish to sacrifice their well-being in order to harm us, no matter their hate. And better lives will give them less reason to fear or hate us. But the “culture of life” must be supported at home as well.


The SCOTUS Moves!

The Supreme Court ruled that federal laws can overrule state laws allowing marijuana or other drugs.

A win for national majoritarianism!

A win for knee-jerk social conservatism!

Libertarians will go have a cry now.

And Republicans will probably still not stop complaining about activist judges or an overly interfering federal government.

On the side, conservative-moderate historian Ralph Luker has some interesting words on the difficulty but inevitability of making lists of “dangerous books”. I wish he was the token conservative the NYT hired, not David Brooks.


Friday, June 03, 2005

Deontologist Round-Up

Just random thoughts on all things deontological.

The most annoying thing about Padme at the end of Revenge of the Sith (well, besides not caring about her children apparently, or how Luke got named after Anakin and not her, or… ok, it’s just one of many annoying things) was her giving up to death. Why? Well we’re supposed to believe it was because of the Republic losing and Anakin going evil. Except dammit, if anyone had any power to stop that it was her. She was still a Senator in good standing, she had enormous influence over the Empire’s second in command, she would raise the two chibi-Jedi, etc. Who knows how much a simple “kill Palpatine or I’m never talking to you again” would have changed things? But no, it’s nobler to mourn the Republic than try to save it. (Her defeatism seems even sillier after reading about all her involvement with the dissidents that were in deleted scenes).

I must say I’m very amused at all this discussion of reactionaries saying Deep Throat is partially responsible for the Khmer Rouge. Nixon would have stopped it, and Deep Throat prevented Nixon from doing so. Leave aside the many factual problems (Republican Congressmen impeached Nixon too, Nixon was the one who committed the crimes and led down the path. Nixon hardly seemed likely to effectively stop such a leftist and bloody revolution – he’s in fact responsible for it in many ways, why didn’t Republican President Ford do anything), I like the interesting moral question.

Reactionary conservatives are amongst the strongest deontologists in modern times. Morality should come from the Bible, economic redistribution is wrong, a President with strong principles is always better than an opportunistic one, etc. Ok, then how does this rule based view of morality look at reporting criminals? If reporting and stopping a crime leads to bad consequences down the road, do you forgo their justice? Of course not, a proper deontologist believes a crime must be punished no matter the cost. (Ask Bill Clinton.) What dreams Nixon’s foreign policy may have accomplished is irrelevant to whether he should have been removed from office. At least, according to deontologists.


Thursday, June 02, 2005

Why Libertarians will Lose>Public input on a federal rule banning cell phones on airplanes.

People, as the lowest common denominator level, don't care about whether something actually deserves limitting someone else's freedom. That is generally only an excuse for when you want to oppose the rule anyway.


On Libertarians

I like libertarianism and use it’s worldview at times simply because I really hate totalitarianism. Libertarian solutions can be moderate, technocratic, and a good antidote to run amok nationalism and absolutism.

Libertarians turn me off when they themselves are so goddamn absolutist and totalitarian:

Classic Mises: "Those who pretend that they want to preserve freedom, while they are eager to fix prices, wage rates, and interest rates at a level different from that of the market, delude themselves. There is no other alternative to totalitarian slavery than liberty. There is no other planning for freedom and general welfare than to let the market system work. There is no other means to attain full employment, rising real wage rates and a high standard of living for the common man than private initiative and free enterprise."

Wow, you have a choice between freedom or price fixing, and there’s no in between. It sounds like a totalitarian saying “The choice is between good and evil, there’s nothing else to consider”, you guys. There’s a lot else to consider. When libertarians start making such absolutist and dualist statements, like Ayn Rand and her Objectivist fan club, they’re just a cultural elite talking about things that make them feel superior. They aren’t actually interested in what makes powerful states and agents take away the freedom of our money and our minds.

Oh, and I’m glad to see someone talking about democratic populism vs. liberty, even though it’s in the context of limiting taxes as the threat.


"And the greatest irony is… They will not see the irony."

France voted no on the ratification of the latest stage of the EU constitution.

Denmark also voted no.

This means the constitution is scrapped and it’s back to the drawing board.

Non-advocates are hailing this not as a rejection of the EU in general, just in the direction that it’s going. People don’t want this left up to political elites and bureaucrats, but want there to be more popular input.Europe is not ambitious enough. There is a democracy deficit, the favorite term of euroskeptics these days. These voters were tired of the popular vote not being heard in Brussels or having any say in these matters.

By the way, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain all voted yes by even larger majorities than the Non-side got.

A key step towards democratic input into the EU will be dissolving national vetos and sovereignty in certain aspects. Sorry! You don’t get it both ways, with France having a say that halts everything, but with things getting done once they have public backing. I suspect the euroskeptics already know this, and just think that “democracy deficit” is a good quote, and can quagmire the EU for a while longer.

I hope it just accelerates the pace towards responsive, accountable, and powerful institutions that can’t be shanghaied by singular national concerns.


Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Damn Godwin

It’s cute. Nosemonkey got into a huge thread argument about this quote:

Gerhard Schröder has proved the most feckless and unprincipled Chancellor in the history of democratic Germany.

And noting that this set includes Hitler.

The comments proceed to a big argument about whether or not Hitler was truly elected, or whether that counted as “democratic Germany”. This is a comment I hear often regarding non-constrained democracies, that they can elect monsters like Hitler. Not only was democracy pretty perverted by then – but let’s be honest about the German public at the time. They had had liberal institutions for a while, and they did not want them. The members of the Nazi party resorted to any extreme and method to get power and punish the Social Democrats, as well as other right wingers (the Chancellor before Hitler presumptively took control of Prussia when it acted out). Constitutional curiousities would not have helped – they are easier to manipulate than the public will.

An example: in order to solidify Hitler’s power, when the Reichstag took a vote on expanding the Chancellor’s powers, his goons stood outside the legislature with machine guns. This sort of intimidation works on small institutions where power and decisions are collected into individual people. The larger the body that was needed to change these rules, the harder it would be for “safety of our lives” to be a concern.

Then the original author of the quote comes in and says, regardless of the democraticness of Hitler’s election – one could never say he was feckless and unprincipled. He was too principled, especially in sticking to bad principles (anti-Semitism), and feckless (meaning Lacking purpose or vitality; feeble or ineffective) is also not something you would say about the most vicious and irresistible conqueror of the twentieth century.

I think this is a more important point (and I wish Oliver remembered this with regard to Schroeder). Political opportunism does not take lives. Bold principles do. The entire point of a democracy is to create rulers that respond to the whims of the people, and to keep people with crazy ideas that have no willingness to change according to real world situations, out.

(This is not a side-swipe at Bush actually. Bush is in fact pretty opportunistic and has changed according to the winds as much as Clinton ever did. This is a side-swipe at Bush’s lieutenants.)