Go tell that to the Indians
August 14, 2009

I was planning on letting this sudden outbreak of national health care madness pass by without commenting, but now I have given in to the temptation to say something. I want to highlight a point that might be obvious to most people, but it wasn’t obvious to me for a while and I don’t hear it discussed very often and I think it explains a lot of the current political environment. My first of three sources for this point is pretty unusual. It’s from the following digression on health care in the middle of an awesome 8000-word essay on last week’s awesome episode of HBO’s True Blood:


Political Blogging
July 15, 2009

Since the rise of Obama, I’ve felt that political blogging has lost a lot of its cachet. It’s not that I’m at all happy with the current state of American politics, but it has certainly improved a lot over the truly horrific nightmare that was the beginning of this decade. This change means that a lot of healthy, well-adjusted people who got riled up during the Bush Administration are backing away from politics now, which is fine with me. I guess I’m actually doing the same. Anyway, along these lines, here’s the inimitable Hilzoy’s swan song, and a nice comment on it by LizardBreath.

Iran’s “Green Revolution”?
June 14, 2009


On Thursday, in the wake of a huge Mousavi rally in Tehran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard issued an ominous but cryptic warning that “any attempt for velvet revolution will be nipped in the bud”. This warning didn’t make sense to me on Thursday, since all the energy seemed nonviolent and directed towards the democratic election on Friday, not towards revolution. Today (Sunday), the warning makes a lot more sense to me.

For some reason, mainstream news sources have been equivocating on whether the election was rigged or not. On Friday evening, I was pretty dubious that it was rigged, but by now the evidence seems incontrovertible. Juan Cole makes a very convincing case here, and rebuts several counterargumets here. Here’s a nice timeline of events that seems pretty reasonable at the moment, although information is currently very scarce.

The events in Iran right now are truly historic. I don’t have enough information to predict how things will turn out, but all the potential outcomes look like a fundamentally changed Middle East. If you want to read more about the situation in Iran and want some useful links, I’d recommend Juan Cole, Andrew Sullivan, and the gimmicky #iranelection Twitter feed.

EDIT 6/15 1:20 PM EST: Turning this post into a stream-of-consciousness feed. That #iranelection feed is no longer gimmicky, it’s better to think of it as SIGINT, as Marc Ambinder explains. Two more good sources to add are @persianwiki and Nico Pitney. Also Andrew Sullivan claims to be under cyber attack.
6/17 10:30 AM EST: Here’s a good summary (video) of the power struggle behind the protests.

Go Carbon Tax
May 25, 2009


I thought of an opinion on pending legislation that I would like to record in the public archive of the Internet. The specific legislation is the American Clean Energy and Security Act and its primary purpose is to introduce a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions in America. The opinion I have is that this is a poor excuse for a bill and that a carbon tax would be a vastly superior solution to the climate crisis.


What Are Your Politics?
April 30, 2009


Reductionism is everywhere. It is one of the fundamental principles underlying modern science, so most people with scientific inclinations and/or training are pretty strong reductionists. (This includes me, although I try to resist it.) Applied to nature, reductionism has been incredibly fruitful (see: all of science), with limited exceptions such as emergent phenomena and complex adaptive systems. Reductionism is much less successful when applied to human endeavors, from economics to political science to history, sociology, anthropology, or art. This is obviously because consciousness is emergent and human societies are complex adaptive systems. Too bad for science!

However, reductionists are relentless. Or pathological. Looking at some of the myriad dimensions political scientists have invented to encapsulate the range of political thought, I’m leaning towards the latter characterization. Having said that, I’m now going to embrace my pathology and discuss some reductionist approaches to political science. The project here is to provide a simple and quantitative way to express the entire possible range of political perspectives people can have. Most thoughtful people can quickly answer whether they’re ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’, for example; this is a one-dimensional way to characterize opinion, and has been quantified in excruciating detail by the DW-NOMINATE system (-1 = very liberal, +1 = very conservative).

Hopefully, you will agree with me that this system has some gigantic shortcomings in terms of expressing political opinions: what would you call Joseph Stalin, for example, or Ron Paul? For this reason, people use a two-dimensional diagram called the Nolan chart. If you haven’t seen the chart before, I highly recommend taking the five-minute online test or the one-minute online test and finding your place in its space. The rest of this post contains some of my opinions on the chart, including lots of spoilers, so go take the test before continuing on here!


Marriage Equality
April 7, 2009


Justin Sullivan (Getty), courtesy of Andrew Sullivan's blog

photo by Justin Sullivan (Getty), courtesy of Andrew Sullivan's blog (unrelated)

For decades now, social conservatives have railed against liberal “activist judges” imposing by judicial fiat their coastal elite values on ordinary Americans. In my opinion, this was one of the most compelling arguments against gay marriage – that, as it has social and/or religious implications, it was something that should be decided by the will of the people instead of the will of judges. I don’t quite find it compelling enough to agree, however: under our system of checks and balances, the (unelected) judiciary is supposed to serve as protector of oppressed minorities against the “tyranny of the majority” inherent in the legislative and executive branches (which is what eventually happened with things like “separate but equal” laws). But still, I will grant that it’s better for legislatures to legalize gay marriage than for judges to declare it legal.


Obama’s Teleprompter
March 25, 2009

In the last few weeks, Republican partisans have all started to talk about Obama’s teleprompter.

AP Photo credit Jae C. Hong

AP Photo credit Jae C. Hong


Feels Like Thinking
March 15, 2009

image courtesy Wikipedia

image courtesy Wikipedia

I was recently reminded of a portentous plot from this portentous paper by two researchers at Princeton. Back in 1996, they studied people’s perceptions of the state of the economy, and connected these perceptions to measurements of how politically informed these people were. However, instead of comparing these perceptions to reality (which is, in my opinion, that the economy was pretty good in 1996), they just compared the perceptions of Democrats and Republicans at every information level to each other. Since the President at the time was a Democrat, it makes sense that Democrats would generally have had a rosier view of the economy than Republicans. As the paper describes it, the “pull of objective reality” causes perceptions to improve as people become better-informed. But then, once Republicans become well-informed enough, they change their minds fairly dramatically and conclude that, in fact, the economy is in poor shape. I don’t take this to be a particularly conservative tic; rather, such rationalization is just how extreme partisans of any type process ideologically inconvenient facts. So apparently, once people know what we want to believe, we are pretty good at making ourselves believe it. The researchers take this as a terrible blow to the prospects of democracy, and I think I agree with them. 


The Village
January 13, 2009

image copyright Walt Disney Internet Group, not affiliated in any way with this blog

image copyright Walt Disney Internet Group, not affiliated in any way with this blog

I was getting set to write a post explaining the lefty blog concept of “the Village” when I see (via Atrios) that Jay Rosen has just provided the perfect jumping-off point. He cites a very useful diagram for understanding national media coverage, splitting issues into a “sphere of consensus”, a “sphere of legitimate debate”, and a “sphere of deviance”, and argues that journalists see their role as objectively reporting on the debate in the second sphere, but their unacknowledged and more important function is simply classifying issues into these three spheres. So, for example, it matters more that the media have decided waterboarding is a topic of legitimate debate than it does which side wins the debate about waterboarding on “Hardball” some evening.


The whole post is worth reading; it’s probably the best model I’ve encountered for understanding and critiquing the national media dialogue. But it also serves as a good introduction to the concept of the Washington Establishment, also known as “the Village”. These phrases are bandied about the Internets all the time, but I haven’t been able to find a good single post defining them – it’s more something you pick up in context. I would like to fill that niche by offering a quick primer on the concept.

These phrases are shorthand for the idea that there exists a permanent class in Washington D.C. of people “who have a proprietary interest in Washington and identify with it”. This set overlaps with, but is slightly different than, the set of government employees; the latter ostensibly serve at the pleasure of the people who elected them (or elected the person who appointed them), while the former are unabashedly self-interested (“Certainly the Washington insiders have their own interests at heart. Whenever a new president comes to town, he [or she] will be courted assiduously by those whose livelihoods depend on access to power.”). The seminal article on the Village was written in the Washington Post by Villager Sally Quinn in 1998, during the Clinton impeachment. It’s where I got those quotes above, and it’s where the term ‘Village’ comes from, and it’s full of other descriptive lines. For example:

“This is our town,” says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Democrat to forcefully condemn the president’s behavior. “We spend our lives involved in talking about, dealing with, working in government.”

…Muffie Cabot, who as Muffie Brandon served as social secretary to President and Nancy Reagan, regards the scene with despair. “This is a demoralized little village”

…”We have our own set of village rules,” says David Gergen, editor at large at U.S. News & World Report.

…”[Bill Clinton] came in here and he trashed the place,” says Washington Post columnist David Broder, “and it’s not his place.”

…Presidential historian Michael Beschloss … “When everything is turned upside down it affects our psyche more than someone who might be farming in Wyoming.”

That’s one big aspect of the Establishment mentality – the idea of entitlement, that being part of this rarefied group gives their opinions and feelings more weight than “someone who might be farming in Wyoming”. The other, equally important, part is that the Establishment is out of touch with the rest of the country.

Around the nation, people are disgusted but want to move on; in Washington, despite Clinton’s gains with the budget and the Mideast peace talks, people want some formal acknowledgment that the president’s behavior has been unacceptable. [incidentally, this is what MoveOn refers to and why it was originally founded]

… this disconnect between the Washington Establishment and the rest of the country is evident on TV and radio talk shows and in interviews and conversations with more than 100 Washingtonians for this article.

The article is pretty fascinating in that Sally Quinn is obviously aware that she and all her companions are out of touch with the rest of the country, but instead of being bothered by this, she simply seeks to justify the Establishment opinions (showing off that first Establishment aspect of entitlement).

It is probably inevitable that a semi-permanent class of entitled and insulated people will assemble around power (think Versailles), but this fact seems to me to be largely unacknowledged in the national discourse (except for blogs, where it’s extremely acknowledged). Just keep in mind when attempting to critically evaluate something you hear or read about Washington politics: a true public servant considers himself or herself to be fundamentally accountable to the public. “Cabinet members Madeleine Albright and Donna Shalala, Republicans Sen. John McCain and Rep. Bob Livingston, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, PBS’s Jim Lehrer and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd”, as well as David Broder, David Gergen, Michael Beschloss, Cokie Roberts, Joe Lieberman, and all the others, are Villagers, and consider themselves to be fundamentally accountable to the Washington Establishment. They’re not the same thing.

Democratic Incompetence
January 6, 2009


Sunday’s news about Bill Richardson has me moderately worried. I have no idea if he did anything wrong, but either way I see a pattern of incompetence developing that will be really problematic if it continues. Democrats have been politically incompetent for as long as I’ve been alive (although Obama was thought to have ended this streak with his successful campaign). But while the old pattern is Democrats caving to Republicans, now I’m also seeing examples of Democrats being corrupt and getting outmaneuvered by other Democrats. The former is annoying, but it’s already the subject of most of the important lefty blogs.

But the latter is just pure political malpractice. Here’s three quick examples from the last three weeks. 1: Being close to appointing Caroline Kennedy to a Senate seat against the will of the people, purely because of her family connections. 2: Letting this Blagojevich situation fester. (Nate Silver put it best: “The Senate Democrats may have let this situation get away from them when they got greedy and pulled back from the promise of a special election [to replace Blagojevich].”) 3: And now inviting more corruption questions because of this Richardson investigation. Each of these messes can be traced to Democratic overreach – cutting corners on ethics to eke out marginal political advantage (to wit: easier fundrasing if a Kennedy runs in the 2010 New York senate race, preventing a Republican from possibly winning the Illinois senate seat if there were a special election, and winning diversity points by appointing a Hispanic-American to the Cabinet).

Democrats need to stop this now. There’s a lot of change they need to deliver in a very short amount of time, and making these sorts of mistakes is going to hamstring them before they can even start legislating. The responsibility to stop this behavior lies with Obama, but so far he hasn’t done a great job of curbing these excesses. And, as far as I can tell, the Rezko thing is actually an example of Obama making the sort of overreach I was just talking about. So my concern is that, while he’s great in most other respects, Obama might have a bit of blind spot to petty corruption (and I have to admit, it doesn’t cause anything close to the damage from Bush’s style of corruption). If so, we might be seeing a lot more investigations and media witch-hunts, and a lot less change next year.