Tuesday, December 28, 2010



This post will make no sense to me when I reread it in 20 years.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How WikiLeaks could lead to a more transparent state

Unusually for Ross Douthat, he makes some pretty compelling points in his blog post on the retrenchment of the secret security state post-WikiLeaks. Everything that he says is pretty plausible, and it's something I've been struggling to come to terms with myself: I think WikiLeaks is incredibly important, Julian Assange is a hero, and this kind of disclosure is long overdue for a purportedly open, democratic state like ours.

However, it's certainly the case that the easiest reaction to this will be to clamp down on internal document security, making it harder and less likely for future leaks to occur. So you could credibly argue that WikiLeaks actually makes the US government less transparent in the future, not more.

The problem with that argument is that it sacrifices the good on the altar of the perfect: what would Douthat, or any of WikiLeaks' critics, do to actually improve the state of government transparency? Would we even be having this debate? Would the idea that the federal government needs to stop classifying everything in sight be on anyone's radar right now? And doesn't that mean that it's even more likely that transparency will wither and die in a world without organizations like WikiLeaks, to keep us focused on the real problems with overclassification?

There's really no way we can design a system of transparency and openness that won't eventually be corrupted by the elites we put in charge of our national security. The best we can do really is to keep making this a public priority, keep talking about it, keep worrying about it, and keep doing whatever we can to encourage governmental transparency. Criticizing WikiLeaks for making a future government clampdown on embarrassing documents more likely is misguided, because it implies that that government clampdown isn't already happening.

In other words, Ross Douthat: Don't just tut-tut about the naivety of Julian Assange, without proposing something better. Otherwise you sound even more unaware of the world around you than you claim Assange is.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

For all his faults...

I'm still incredibly proud that we elected Barack Obama:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Occam's Elections

On election day, two worlds collide: the tiny, Plutonian rock made up of people who care about issues, politics, policy, parties and what happens in Washington smacks straight into the Jupiterian gas giant of actual voters who just don't know that much, and whose behavior is often fairly straightforward to predict.

The first dirty little secret of campaigns is that campaigns don't actually matter. By extension, all the political posturing surrounding them - "should we stage a vote on this bill, in order to force the other party to defend it in November? Is the election a big defeat for Democrats, a big victory for Republicans, or both?" - is also meaningless. This renders the lives and occupations of thousands of influential pundits, politicians, consultants and staffers irrelevant - which is why you never hear this point of view in the media. The media is heavily invested in the idea that political coverage is "serious" and so they take great pride in it, but the reality is that nobody watches it (look at FOX or MSNBC's ratings if you disagree - FOX was the 5th most-watched cable network a few weeks before an election; MSNBC, the second most popular news network, came in 24th, 12 places behind SYFY).

Sure, campaigns matter in individual races - Angle lost in NV even though a standard-issue Republican almost certainly would have won, and I'm sure you can find instances of a particularly well-run campaign winning a close race that they should have lost. But as Matt Yglesias points out, American elections (particularly Presidentials, but also the broad outcomes of midterms (instead of individual matchups)) are really pretty predictable. Typically, even if your staff is pretty smart and your tactics shrewd, the other side has a pretty smart staff and pretty shrewd tactics as well.

Think of it like baseball's Value Over Replacement Player (VORP): in a competition, all that matters is the difference between you and your opponent. At the highest levels, both of you are pretty formidable competitors, so most of your individual greatness cancels out. So the significance of, say, that amazing get-out-the-vote drive you're so proud of isn't that you registered 2 million voters; it's that you registered 100,000 more than would have otherwise done so.

The second dirty little secret of campaigns is that most voters don't know much. Voters, in the aggregate, are morons. Consider that 2/3 of voters thought either bankers or the GOP were responsible for the sorry shape of the economy, and yet Republicans won more House seats than they have since at least the 1940s. Those who said bankers were to blame voted 11% more for Republicans - the party of, by and for bankers. In California, Democrats ran the table by more than 10 points in every major statewide race - except Attorney General, where Steve Cooley and Kamala Harris are less than 1% apart. That means there had to have been hundreds of thousands of voters who voted largely Democratic, except for Cooley - a strident conservative. This doesn't make any sense at all, unless you assume that voters are stupid.

This might sound harsh, but it's been proven to be true in every single election ever: here's some more recent evidence. California's proposition system is also submitted for your consideration in this regard.

Most voters (whether or not they know it) are low-information, whose voting behavior is highly predictable in the aggregate and therefore more or less entirely independent of anything Democrats or Republicans actually do. That's why the second half of last week's This American Life is so painful to listen to - this guy is getting so worked up over the kind of small-bore tactics that just don't matter, and an election that was essentially decided the day after Obama was elected. Keep that in mind as you watch pundits, Republicans and conservative Democrats draw "lessons" from the results of last night.

EDIT: Yglesias feels me.

Last Night

While they were definitely disappointing, let's also not make too big a deal of the Democratic defeats last night: Republicans were always going to do well, and two successive Democratic "wave" elections meant there were a lot of Democratic seats that really had no business being Democratic. Couple that with a typical midterm slump, ridiculously high unemployment and not much to excite the Democratic base, and it's no surprise what happened.

Three of the last three elections have now been "wave" elections, and at some point that term has to stop meaning something. It's pretty clear that at this point, Congressional elections have been highly nationalized - if Democrats are doing well, Dems will win a ton of seats without regard for much of what's happening in those individual districts. That might be a sign of something, or it might just be noise.

It's also sad to see Prop 19 go down, and particularly because it doesn't look like it really brought a high level of young voters to the polls, which had been my hope. But 2012 will be a very different election, with Obama back on the ballot and hopefully a reinstatement of gay marriage as well, so the electorate voting in California in 2012 will be vastly more predisposed to legalize marijuana than this one. 46% is a great place to build from, and considering this was our first bite at the full-legalization apple in decades, and considering there was basically no money behind this proposition until the very end, I'd say we're in pretty good shape.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Glenn Greenwald is the best political writer in the Americas today

"And then there's the more amorphous but arguably more significant self-justifying benefit that comes from condemning "Muslims" for their violent, extremist ways. I'm always amazed when I receive e-mails from people telling me that I fail to understand how Islam is a uniquely violent, supremely expansionist culture that is intrinsically menacing. The United States is a country with a massive military and nuclear stockpile, that invaded and has occupied two Muslim countries for almost a full decade, that regularly bombs and drones several others, that currently is threatening to attack one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, that imposed a sanctions regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Muslim children, that slaughters innocent people on a virtually daily basis, that has interfered in and controlled countries around the world since at least the middle of the last century, that has spent decades arming and protecting every Israeli war with its Muslim neighbors and enabling a four-decade-long brutal occupation, and that erected a worldwide regime of torture, abduction and lawless detention, much of which still endures. Those are just facts."

It's the politics, not the policy

The controversy over Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a perfect illustration of what the Obama Administration has gotten right the last two years, and where it still falls short. To begin with, they're absolutely correct on the policy merits: DADT must be defended vigorously by the Justice Department, unless there is no conceivable case for its constitutionality. While I believe it's definitely a bad policy, and quite possibly unconstitutional, I concede that an argument could be made against the latter. To therefore refuse to defend the policy, or to give it a halfhearted defense, would be an abject rejection of why Obama's election seemed so important: defending DADT while attempting to repeal it in Congress is the mature, adult, responsible, pragmatic and long-term-oriented decision.

Not only would refusing to defend a potentially-constitutional policy be a terrible precedent (what future constitutionally-valid policies would you like to see a Republican president fail to defend, if you disagree?), it's not just about precedent. One of many reasons our government is so broken is that it operates with a complex system of unwritten rules, and when those rules are violated, the country becomes harder to govern. For instance, while it's been possible to mount a filibuster for a century, it's been rare up until now because of those unwritten rules, and the current despicable Congress is a direct result of abandoning that system of genteel restraint. Presidents defending laws with which they disagree, while seeking to repeal them, is likewise a very important part of that tradition.

Perhaps more significantly for some, it makes much better long-term sense to repeal DADT through Congress. Doing otherwise would further entrench the notion that democracy is being subverted by an activist judiciary. It would leave DADT on the books, just waiting to be reinstated by a single judge who decided that, oh look, it actually is constitutional after all. It would keep GLBT soldiers in a much more precarious situation, knowing that if they disclose their sexuality, all that stands between them and discharge is a single federal judge, somewhere in the country. It would waste an opportunity for the public to express its will that Don't Ask, Don't Tell no longer should be the law of the land. It would violate what I imagine is the deal Obama made with the military, to work towards repeal and not do it overnight. And ultimately, as a law passed by Congress, the most appropriate way to reverse it would be for Congress, which initially created the injustice, to do it themselves.

What I find so illustrative about this situation, however, is that the Obama Administration is doing the right thing, and doing it in such a way as to send the biggest "fuck you" possible to its base at the same time, without even attempting to ameliorate the damage and for no good reason. I think the policy merits of this approach are something the left generally could be completely convinced to believe, if anyone in the Obama Administration had made the slightest attempt to do so. Instead, they've hunkered down and complained, as always, that their base - which currently believes it's getting reamed yet again by the Administration they elected - is whiny. This is just a stupid reaction, and the fact that they're doing it yet again just unnecessarily increases the frustration on the left, a week and a half before the midterm elections. This is such a huge unforced error that it beggars belief.

Compounding the situation, the person the Administration has sent to defend the policy is perhaps the person in the White House least suited to do so right now. Valerie Jarrett, who just last week referred to a dead gay teenager as having made a "lifestyle choice", has a serious credibility problem on this issue at the moment. Being gay is as much a "lifestyle choice" as being white or black, and to use that term as the Administration's senior GLBT outreach advisor is completely tone-deaf. To then send her out to defend the Administration's DADT policy, a policy they had to know would be extremely unpopular with a community that they have gone out of their way not to do any favors for since being elected, is just stupid. To so aggressively attempt to undermine any enthusiasm for Democrats among a substantial portion of their base a week and a half before the election hurts my brain.

But at this point, it's no surprise to see this White House get the policy right and the politics wrong. And frankly, after having spent the previous 8 years doing the exact opposite, I guess I can live with this arrangement.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Best political ad since...

Despite disagreeing wildly with the content, this really is one of the best political commercials of the decade:

In fact, I can't remember an ad I liked more than this one. As James Fallows notes, it evokes a foreign menace so pitch-perfectly, not as a threat in themselves but as the beneficiaries of mistakes we make ourselves, that it's remarkable for that fact alone. But it's also the production values, the art direction, the vision of the future 20 years from now (I want a future iPad!)...

Seriously, what was the last political ad this great? I really can't think of one, and I suspect that's because of Citizens United - CAGW was able to spend God knows how much money on it, and what they got was expensive, high commercial art. Since money's always been such a tight constraint on political organizations, they've always had to get cheapo commercials, with tacky, unoriginal visuals, cheesy music and voiceovers, and no imagination.

The artistry of political ads is, of course, not quite worth the further corporate capture that Citizens provided our democracy. But I guess it's a nice side benefit.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Boxer - Fiorina Liveblog

Got here a little late, but looks like this one is going to be bloody! Boxer takes a swing at Fiorina's "making no sacrifices" by taking $100M from HP while laying off thousands.

And now here's a question from a former HPer! SNAP!

7:21 - Fiorina pivots and makes the question about what she'll do to compete with China, Brazil and Texas. Well done.

7:22 - Now a pay-for-performance question about her $21M severance after HP's stock got killed. Nice! Fiorina claims "every dollar [I received] was tied to performance," and throws out some nice stats, but I don't think she can save this one. Boxer gleefully tries to jump on it and completely whiffs. Boxer is trying so hard to make this about jobs, and she's got some substantive points but they just don't land.

7:23 - Why did you say something mean to a general? WTF? I guess the question makes her sound a bit arrogant and elitist, but it's kind of left-fieldish. Her answer's ok, but the question is strange. Fiorina doesn't really know what to do with the question, so Fiorina tries to get mad about Boxer "using" HP as a "political football" - that makes no sense (isn't Fiorina only running because she was HP's CEO? Doesn't that make it just a little bit relevant?)

7:28 - Prop 8 question. Fiorina defends DOMA. Jerk. The voters "were quite clear" on Prop 8, and for that decision to be overturned by "a single judge"...yeah man, she's right! Fuck separation of powers! Fuck the Constitution! Especially when it means that two dudes can get a marriage license!

7:31 - What do you disagree with Obama on? Come on, Babs, hit him from the left! So far so good...Afghanistan exit strategy, Elizabeth Warren appointment. Fiorina again with the "only 4 bills" argument - that's pretty hard to believe, it's gotta be a bunch of procedural junk.

7:37 - Over 100 "Boxer provisions" on her website! Well then! And now she's on to Schoolhouse Rock.

7:40 - Fiorina FINALLY makes it about unemployment - what the hell took her so long?

7:42 - Yeahhhhh! Fiorina wants more money for Berkeley! Locavore weed for all! Wait...

7:43 - Do you support Prop 23? *HEM**HAW**HRM* You mean AB 32? I guess my opponent is kinda used to creating jobs in China. SNAAAAAAAAAAAP!

7:48 - Soooo...Carly Fiorina's explanation for why she wants to allow people on the no-fly list to have guns is that she pals around with terrorists?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

First-to-market with Democracy

People like Wilbur Ross, who argue America is about to become a "second-rate country," are wrong. It's not that the United States is slipping into mediocrity; rather, America's failure has become more interesting than America's success. In reality, the United States is the most prosperous nation on the planet, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

So why do people constantly make this argument? Aside from the fact that it's always easier to see your own flaws than anyone else's - that's the "grass is always greener in China" argument - the reason is simple: America has been so successful for so long that American success isn't fun to talk about anymore. People prefer reading about some young upstart working their ass off to steal first place than they do reading the same story about the frontrunner maintaining their lead.

In a sense, America has been the frontrunner for a very long time - you could date it all the way back to our founding at the end of the century. As the first large-scale democratic country, we've been the model for countries and revolutions for three centuries now. We weren't the richest or most powerful country on earth for the first two centuries of our existence, but we were always the first democracy. And that was both a blessing (then) and a curse (now).

As George Packer's recent New Yorker article demonstrates, our governing institutions are largely operating under rules that have been in place for, literally, centuries. When we were competing with countries ruled by kings, that was less of an issue. But now, other countries have remade themselves in our image, decades and centuries after we first did, and were able to take our best ideas while discarding our worst. In essence, they're running more recent upgrades of our democratic operating system, while we're still running the original version with some patches here and there - a system that was state-of-the-art 200 years ago, but that is beyond showing its age today.

There are many examples of these phenomena in today's technology industry, where change happens with a rapidity that seems like history on fast-forward. Microsoft, for instance, was first to market with a cheap personal computer operating system. They minted money for decades, but the initial blessing of being first-to-market became a burden, as they remained tied to decisions made in the 1980s - or at least to perceptions formed of them at that time. They continue to mint money today, but are struggling with a corporate culture that's become ossified and a series of products that have all sorts of legacy problems baked into them. If they could start over from scratch today, without any of their dominant positions in software but also without all the strategy taxes and legacy issues that plague a company that's been releasing products for decades, they'd be a totally different institution.

There's another similarity between Microsoft and the US: Microsoft has an ungodly amount of money, and is bringing in ridiculous amounts even today. The technology press loves to write stories about their demise, and has largely written them off, but in reality 99% of companies in America would absolutely love to be in the position Microsoft is in. In Microsoft's case, the story that's fun to read and write isn't the same as the story that resembles reality, however dull.

The same is true of Google (my employer). As the first company to really make money off the Internet, Google was a really great story for years - a fast-growing, hungry tech wunderkind that could do no wrong. But after a while, the sheen wore off, and the same company that inspired such glowing press started inspiring legions of articles about how it had lost its edge, was being supplanted by competitors like Facebook and Twitter, and just wasn't cool anymore. And yet, Google makes tons of money, and 99% of American companies would love to be Google.

So it is with the United States. We're an enormous country, operating on a scale matched only by China and India, but we're also totally industrialized and extremely prosperous. Demography alone guarantees that our economy will be the biggest in the world for at least another decade or two, and unless we totally melt down, we should be the biggest for longer than that. But people love to write about our decline, because it's so much more interesting than our maintenance of a dominant position. You can't be the young upstart forever - we were once, but are no longer, and until we have another revolution and become reborn, we're only going to be getting older and older (until we have a "second act" and briefly become sexy to write glowingly about.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

They had our backs; let's get theirs!

Last night, Congress made history by passing the most comprehensive health care reform in nearly 50 years. For some representatives, a "yes" vote meant they were standing up for 32 million uninsured Americans in the face of a tough re-election fight. Health Care Reform was passed with only 3 votes to spare, which means every single one of those votes was essential - but it could cost these representatives their jobs.

They did the right thing anyway, and that's exactly why they need to be sent back to Congress for another term. We can help make that happen, by giving just a few dollars to any or all of them - they're going to need every penny. No matter how little you can afford to give, it'll make a difference by showing them, their constituents and the media that this was the right thing to do. Their opponents are going to make literally millions of dollars in contributions off of these gutsy votes. Let's get their backs, like they just got ours.

Here's the list of the most vulnerable Democrats to vote yes, from FiveThirtyEight.com (list was compiled before the vote; Space voted no). And here's the roll call vote from last night.

Donation pages for the 20 most vulnerable Democrats voting Yes on Health Care Reform:

Betsy Markey - CO 4th
Suzanne Kosmas - FL 24th
Earl Pomeroy - ND At Large
Brad Ellsworth - IN 5th
Tom Perriello - VA 5th
Baron Hill - IN 9th
John Spratt - SC 5th
Mark Schauer - MI 7th
Chris Carney - PA 10th
John Boccieri - OH 16th
Alan Grayson - FL 8th
Kendrick Meek - FL 17th, running for Senate
Mary Jo Kilroy - OH 15th
Paul Hodes - NH 2nd, running for Senate
Harry Mitchell - AZ 5th
Carol Shea-Porter - NH 1st
Allen Boyd - FL 2nd
Joe Sestak - PA 7th, running for Senate
John Salazar - CO 3rd, running for Senate
Bill Foster - IL 14th

Even if you can only spare a dollar, pick a candidate (from the top, ideally) and show your support!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Yet another health care post

I'm sick of them too, but this is the most important domestic policy debate we've had since 9/11, so it's worth getting a little sick and tired of talking about.

Matt Taibbi, who I ordinarily quite like, posted a note this morning expressing his skepticism that this health care bill is going to get us anywhere close to the kind of systemic fixes our health care system requires. I disagree, to the great shock of anyone strange enough to still be reading this blog, and posted a comment that I kind of liked, so I'm reposting it here:

Matt, it doesn't suck. Here's why.

First, in exchange for the massive "subsidy", insurers are going to be forced to stop screening for pre-existing conditions. This is a massive, massive win for the public, and the only way to make it possible (without moving to single-payer, which would be better but wasn't on the table) was to mandate coverage. You're a smart guy, you've heard this before, so I'm curious why you don't think it at least balances out.

Second, insurance companies aren't really the problem. They're a problem, but probably not the biggest. This American Life did a show on health care a few months ago that made a pretty compelling case that hospitals are at least as much to blame as insurance companies, who often have little leverage and get by by denying coverage (something this bill dramatically cuts back.)

Ultimately, the real problem is that we have a decentralized health care system - it relies upon thousands of hospitals making deals with hundreds of insurance companies, all over the country, and there are few if any efficiencies of scale, so we have to pay all kinds of transaction and opportunity costs. If we had a more centralized system - in the extreme, one nationwide "insurance" system paying one nationwide system of hospitals and doctors, and negotiating prescription drug prices - we'd save a ton of money and sacrifice little if anything in the way of care or benefits. This legislation moves us unambiguously closer to that, not just in terms of the system we'll be getting, but also by reorienting the political center around a more-progressive health care system. Ten or fifteen years from now, a sensible centrist will find nothing at all problematic in the idea of universal health care, or in the idea that the government has a role to play in making that possible. And that's how we move to a better system overall.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

What's Right with Lost

As Lost enters its final season, it's become clear that there is no better show on network TV (not that I watch basically any other network TV, so how would I know...) Although the final season is structured quite differently from all those that have come before it, it's still turning out to be an enthralling apex for the show to go out on, for at least three reasons:

First, it's ambitious as hell. The whole show has basically become an extended discussion of the concept and nature of fate, free will and causation. It's had a sideline into time travel, and alternate universes, and that sideline is still going, and somehow the show still works! There has never once been a character on the show whose motives weren't ultimately clear and understandable, and yet at the same time, basically every character appears to be driven by motives that, until they're explained, are a total mystery. I have no idea how they manage to strike this seemingly insane balance.

Second, the fundamental mystery that drives the show remains satisfyingly unanswered. Think about it: what's the deal with the island? At the heart of the show, this question above all others remains unanswered. The two demigods, the lighthouse, the cave, the temple...all the recent additions to the mythology of the island have explained a ton, but at the same time left the basic question unanswered.

Third, each week is just a solid hour of gripping television. All of the above would be beside the point if each episode weren't packed with action, intrigue, mystery, good writing, solid acting, beautiful (if workmanlike) cinematography, and just pure fun. It's just a fun fucking 45 minutes, every episode, and that makes the whole magilla work.

What's Wrong with Lost

I think there are three big problems facing the show right now. I'm still going to watch every episode, of course, but they need to resolve these problems fast or the final season just won't be that great:

First, there's no mission. The first few seasons, this was obvious: get off the island. But now, some of them have been off, and nobody (Sawyer excepted) really seems to give that much of a shit whether they stay or go. In fact, none of them really seem to care about anything understandable, beyond survival or finding someone else. Without that driving force, the show is dramatically inert.

Second, there's no mystery. They've revealed too much, and at this point, the only thing we know we don't know is who exactly Locke is, and what his plan is. But pretty much everything else of consequence has either been explained or dropped (what happened to Charles Widmore?) Previously, everything we cared about knowing was unknown - what's the deal with the island, who are the Others, why is there a polar bear, what's the smoke monster, etc. Now, there are a few new characters whose identities or motives are mysterious, and that's about it. Even if there are many new surprises awaiting us, we don't KNOW that we don't know them.

Third, there are no stakes. Too many people have died and come back to life for the audience to really believe anyone dies on this show. The whole parallel universe thing means that even if something truly awful happens on the island, the characters we love will still basically be ok. And there just seem to be so many deus ex machinae that we can't take any bad thing at face value.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hacks and Hackers: The future of personalized news

The Hacks and Hackers meetup group had a panel tonight on the future of personalized news. I live-Buzzed my notes, though the app seemed to be fighting me a bit - I had to keep Saving/Editing in order for my updates to be posted to one URL; I guess I could have just put them in as comments to the original post. Maybe I'll do that next time.

The buzz is pretty long, so here are the highlights.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This post is going to appear in my Buzz extremely fast

Does PubSubHubbub and social aggregation (Buzz, Friendfeed, etc) mean that blogging could become as real-time as IM? Did I just use like 90 buzzwords in one sentence?

The future is now.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

At some point, a pattern emerges

Before you read this post, you should head over to the unparalleled Capitol Fax blog to understand what I'm referring to. If you can't bring yourself to read the last several days of posts (and if you're reading this blog, you're probably the kind of person who would love every one of them, but whatever) then just check this one out. And if even this is too much effort for you, then just know that Illinois Democrats, in last Tuesday's primary, nominated for Lieutenant Governor a man named Scott Lee Cohen, a pawnbroker from the Chicago suburbs who, um...allegedly attacked his prostitute ex-girlfriend with a knife, injected anabolic steroids, is behind on child support payments to his ex-wife, and has a long history of violence and harassment towards women.

Pretty vile stuff, and the Democratic nominees for Governor, Comptroller and Attorney General (my old boss!) have all distanced themselves from Cohen, more or less calling for him to get off the ticket. It looks like he might do just that, although he argues that he disclosed all of this months ago, and indeed he did.

But we've been down this road before. They're still filing new charges against our last governor, Rod Blagojevich, who among other crimes attempted to extort a bribe in return for appointing someone to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat. The governor before Blagojevich, George Ryan, is currently in jail following his conviction for corruption (he profited from the sale of drivers licenses while Secretary of State). Before Ryan, then-former Governor Dan Walker was convicted in an S&L scandal in the 80s. And before Walker, Otto Kerner, another former Governor, was convicted of accepting bribes as a federal judge in the 70s. In other words, since 1961, Illinois has had 9 governors, counting the current one. 4 have been convicted, or will soon be convicted, of federal crimes. Not to mention the other 76 elected officials in Illinois, Cook County or Chicago who were convicted between 1972 and 2006.

So there's clearly a pattern here. The question is, why does Illinois persist in electing criminals? The answer isn't just the state's peculiar political culture; while it's true that we take a joking pride in our track record, typically these scandals end the careers of their subjects. So once we know they're dirty, we don't often elect them.

You could argue that there are always whispers surrounding these politicians while they're actually running for office, before the convictions come, and that voters knowingly elect them. But the voters of Illinois don't typically hear those whispers, confined as they usually are to a tiny political class (perhaps a larger one than in comparable states, but still tiny relative to the state's population and voter base.)

And it's not just the case that corruption breeds corruption. Certainly that plays a role, especially at the Chicago City Council level. But statewide? Blagojevich probably didn't learn to be as dirty as he is (though he's the son-in-law of a powerful Chicago alderman, I don't think Dick Mell taught him to be this brazen). I don't think Ryan did either, and I don't know much about Walker or Kerner, but I don't think a "culture of corruption" explains them either.

Honestly, and I know this is a lame answer: I think it's bad luck. The City Council is a different story - it once was a filthy cesspool where the only way to get ahead was to play a certain game run by people too powerful to worry about getting caught - but I just don't see that much that connects our four felonious governors. And political scandal is hardly unique to Illinois: Louisiana, New York, New Jersey and Michigan all come immediately to mind, though we may well be the worst. But, recent events notwithstanding, it's hard to see our run continuing - it's getting harder and harder to get away with corruption in high-level American politics, as too many people are paying attention, and information is more freely available than ever before. And the Cohen debacle is just going to mean that the press will be even more hungry for any morsel of scandal going forward; no more long-shot Lite Gov candidates will be able to sneak under the radar with such easily-discoverable notoriety.

And even though that's probably a good thing, it does make me a little sad. There's something romantic about corruption on the scale Illinois has endured over the decades.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Doing things is hard, and other thoughts

I remain optimistic that House Democrats are going to pass the Senate version of Health Care Reform. They're making all kinds of unfortunate noises about taking a break from the health care debate, but at the end of the day, they've already voted for a more-liberal version of the plan anyway, so I can't see any upside to voting against this one. If they do, they'll have all the same electoral liabilities they would have if they pass the plan, PLUS a base that would spit in their face sooner than knock on a door on their behalf.

The problem I'm worried about is, what happens once they pass the Senate bill? Since the pressure is overwhelmingly coming from the Left, and since Members apparently regard this as some sort of difficult vote, Congressional Dems will want to argue that now they don't have to do anything big that liberals like, since they'll have already stretched their necks out for us and now they need to protect their moderate/conservative flank.

That would be beyond galling, as the Senate plan is vastly inferior to what liberals wanted, but what's even worse than that is that the only reason we're even in this predicament is because Congress took so damn long to come up with legislation in the first place, and then took so damn long to get any votes on it to happen at all. Really, Democrats in Congress need to be embarrassed and ashamed, afraid of what's already happening to their base, rushing to pass this bill and looking for ways to make it up to us.

Instead, they're going to make us force them to grudgingly pass what we all know to be a terrible bill, and then hold that over our heads whenever we try to get them to do anything else they should be doing in the first place.

It's all very frustrating, but I'm beginning to think it's inevitable for a political movement like contemporary American liberalism: since we're the ones identifying societal problems, we're the ones who actually want to do new things, which are always harder to do than old things. As an example: a national mandate to purchase health insurance from a private insurer is literally without precedent. Nothing like that has ever happened before in the US. Since it's never been done before, everyone's afraid of it, it sounds really weird, there are all sorts of institutional impediments to doing it and, since it's without precedent, it's unclear whether it's even constitutional (for the record, it almost certainly is; but "without precedent" means what it says, so who knows what the Supreme Court will hold.)

This is a general problem facing the party of action. In any debate, if one side says "We need to change X" and the other side says "We need to stop changing things like X", the latter always has the easier burden of proof. Most people remember the past fondly, and in the past we didn't have X and everything worked out fine, so do we really need it after all? And since we've never tried it before, isn't there some risk it could lead to catastrophe? We know we've been ok going without X; but maybe, doing X will tip us over the edge into socialism/fascism/totalitarianism/vegetarianism/somethingbadism. It's always harder to do something than to not do anything.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Should we be happy Coakley lost?

I hate knee-jerk "counterintuitive" posts as much as the next person, but hear me out. Had Coakley won, Democrats would've been in the same position we were in a month ago: on every major issue, we'd need to get that 57th, 58th, 59th, 60th vote in the Senate. We'd need to make substantial concessions to so many centrists, let alone such repugnant excuses for humanity as Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman, that every bill we tried to pass would be at least as flawed as the health care shitpile that finally oozed out of the Senate.

Actually, it would be worse than that. In the last month, Coakley's collapse has fed the narrative that the country is backlashing against Democratic overreach. With midterm elections coming up in 2010, getting conservative Democratic senators to vote for controversial legislation would have been even harder. In other words, the difference between 60 and 59 isn't really all that great.

But the very fact of having 60 votes has forced Democrats to govern like milquetoast centrists that only stand up for what they believe in until someone mentions the word "filibuster". Then they need to get all hands on deck, throw out any remotely controversial provision of legislation they're debating, and feed the narrative of weaklings too scared to stand up for what they believe in. This perception, combined with the fact that they've achieved so little to actually defend, means that the only way marginal Dems can defend their seats is to run even further to the right, and against the "excesses" of Washington.

An alternative exists, though recent history doesn't make me optimistic it'll be taken. But if Democrats decided that, rather than scraping even harder to get 60 votes for worse legislation, they'd rely on their still-historic margins in the House and Senate to pass legislation that they actually like, and that is actually popular with voters, their prospects would improve. If they forced Republicans to the mat on issue after issue, they'd win a lot more respect, stand up for better legislation and even get some surprises to go their way. They'd lose a bunch of votes, but it would be because Republicans were voting against popular, good ideas - not a bad way to go down. The base would be more energized, the media would have to write stories about Democrats fighting for their ideals, and good legislation would stand a better chance of passage.

So the Republicans have 41 votes in the Senate? Make them filibuster everything! Make them grind the Senate to a halt, and make them own it! Call for up-or-down votes! Let the country see who's really paralyzing the process!

Monday, January 18, 2010

How bad is a corporate Internet?

The Internet's future as a place for (near)-universal free expression is threatened by the increasing dominance of corporate actors online, according to Dave Winer. This is an important debate to have, and though I disagree with the argument, I absolutely want people continuing to make it: the balance of online power is not fixed, and it could easily shift much farther toward corporate centralization than it has so far. If that happens, I want people calling it out, and I hope I'm one of those people.

However, at this moment in time, I think it's not really the case that, as Winer says, "Your Internet presence is owned by corporate media as much as the newscaster on NBC Nightly News, or a reporter on All Things Considered, or the Public Editor of the NY Times." In fact, he's completely wrong about that.

The key difference between a reporter for a mainstream media organization, and you or I (assuming you are not a reporter for a mainstream media organization) (and leaving aside for the moment that I work for a large corporation myself) is that there is basically nothing compelling us to say anything other than whatever we feel is the truth. We have personal blogs and twitter accounts and, though the properties are owned by corporations, what we say on them absolutely isn't. We face zero recriminations for what we post, beyond a few corner cases (I can't leak trade secrets, and you probably don't want to see what happens if you publish Nazi propaganda). The fact that the medium is owned by corporations in no way impedes my ability to say whatever the fuck I like. If one corporation changes its policies and restricts my speech, I'll simply switch to another platform, and nothing about the architecture of the Internet impedes my ability to do so.

It is the case that corporations are trying to dominate the Internet by originating and controlling content that appears on it, but the Internet is made richer by that action. The more quality content there is online, the more people will come to seek it out, and the higher the likelihood is that they'll stumble across more independent voices in their travels than would otherwise be the case. The alternative for those seeking entertainment right now is the closed-off world of TV, or movies or newspapers or magazines or books - every one of which represent at their best a pale shadow of a small fraction of the amount of free expression that can be found online when you type two or three words into a search engine.

Winer also goes off on Wikipedia for some reason (kinda the antithesis of corporate-controlled media, I would think) and comes off sounding like he's got more axes to grind than valid arguments about why it's a degenerate force. He's concerned that Wikipedia squelches dissenting voices, and that's valid, but Wikipedia has a relatively robust tolerance for debate on its site. To the extent that articles don't reflect that debate, that's as it should be: people will dispute facts for all manner of illegitimate reasons (say, objecting to the theory of evolution for political gain) and I don't want those debates coloring what Wikipedia has to say at all. In cases where legitimate debate exists concerning a given fact or facts, I think Wikipedia does a pretty good job of either discussing the debate, or leaving out the fact until it can be resolved.

There are a number of other sentiments I object to in Winer's post itself, but to an extent that doesn't change the fact that I'm glad he wrote it. The Internet needs people to be over-vigilant when it comes to independent, free expression. The fact that what they say can be annoying or wrong is a feature of their perspective, not a bug.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sarah, Failin

Glenn Beck interviews Sarah Palin for AN HOUR. Dear God almighty.

"Sarah, I want to read to you what I wrote last night in my journal. Because it's about you."

And so it begins...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thank You, Harold Ford, For Clarifying

I do shoot [guns], and I shoot them at things that can’t shoot back. And will continue to do that. And by that, I want to be clear, I don’t mean children.

Screw the flying cars

I know this is a point that's been made ad nauseam, but it still continues to blow me away.

When I was born (and I'm not that old):

Music was stored on huge platters that could only hold about 4 songs at a time (and which couldn't be rewritten (and which skipped if you so much as jumped in another corner of the room they were being played on))

If you needed to look up a fact, you basically had to go to an encyclopedia. The more facts you wanted to have on hand, the larger the number of shelves you had to have to accommodate them.

If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to a movie theater. If you were lucky, you had a limited collection of VHS or Betamax tapes that you could only watch a handful of times before their quality degraded substantially.

If you wanted to play an arcade game, you could pay a lot of money for the ability to play glorified Pong on your huge, heavy, low-resolution tv.

If you got lost, you either had to have a map of wherever you were, or ask someone for directions. If it was dark out (so you couldn't tell where you were) and there was nobody around, you were screwed.

If someone wanted to get ahold of you, you had better be near your home phone (or possibly your office phone).

If you wanted to get ahold of someone else, you needed a quarter and a dime and to find a working pay phone.

If you wanted to listen to the music and you weren't at home, you listened to the radio.

If you wanted to look at porn, you had to spend a ridiculous amount of money to buy a magazine from someplace kinda shady. If you were underage, you had to convince someone else to do this for you.


The device in my pocket that's about the same size as, but a bit lighter than, my wallet, can do all of the above, infinitely better in every single instance, often by connecting to a global network that represents basically all of human knowledge, most of it 100% free.

Sometimes, you just have to say wow.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Noam Chomsky says "Love Thy Teabagger!"

And he makes a lot of sense...

So take right now, for example, there is a right-wing populist uprising. It's very common, even on the left, to just ridicule them, but that's not the right reaction. If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances. I listen to talk radio a lot and it's kind of interesting. If you can sort of suspend your knowledge of the world and just enter into the world of the people who are calling in, you can understand them. I've never seen a study, but my sense is that these are people who feel really aggrieved. These people think, "I've done everything right all my life, I'm a god-fearing Christian, I'm white, I'm male, I've worked hard, and I carry a gun. I do everything I'm supposed to do. And I'm getting shafted." And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened, the children are going crazy, there are no schools, there's nothing, so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well Rush Limbaugh has answered - it's the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don't care about you—they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.

It's not that hard to understand. Living standards and socioeconomic opportunity have been generally increasing for most demographic groups for the last several decades, but all that positive movement has been coming at the expense of the few heavily-privileged demographic groups (i.e., white people, especially white males). Their (our) cultural hegemony was so absolute for so long that it could go in only one direction, and it shouldn't be a surprise that they're not all thrilled about it.

Something similar is true of Americans who grew up in a world where American dominance was nearly absolute: culturally, militarily, economically, ideologically. As that dominance erodes, you'd expect such people to feel threatened, angry, and/or sad about the whole thing. But their kids, for whom such erosion is the norm, will have a totally different reaction to it: not necessarily happier about it, but more at peace with it.

The point is, it's an understandable reaction and it doesn't make the people who have it morons. Even if sometimes they say moronic things.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Held captive at walletpoint

Upon reflection, this article didn't piss me off nearly as much as it should have. Perhaps the nadir comes when one anonymous, bailed-out banker whines that salaries of well over $500,000 in cash were necessary because "A lot of our folks have second and third homes and alimony payments..." Who are these people that think like this? That work for banks that have literally brought the world economy to its knees with their greed and incompetence, that see headlines about record foreclosures and evictions every day, and still feel comfortable arguing for their massive salaries because, God forbid they have to sell one of their three homes!? What country do they think they live in?

Perhaps Chris Lehmann is right, and it really is time for us to clean out the cash-swollen gutters of Wall Street, but I can't help but be pessimistic. Not because I'm worried about retribution leading to a talent drain - one Wall Street lawyer quoted in the piece says, "If people in these industries — which are a main American export — see that Congress can jerk them around whenever they want, they’re going to stop going into these businesses, just the way people have stopped becoming doctors." and I can't help but hope that he's right (also, by the way? You people are waaaay less essential to society than doctors. Fuck you. Seriously.) But because they've got us by the throat, and they know it:
Why obsess over $20 million or $30 million in extra payouts at businesses that have billions in other expenses and where the government had billions at risk? What if some of those people really did leave? Even if replacing them would just cause a hiccup or two, the risk wasn’t worth it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Conservatives once again condescend to the intelligence agencies

No, Erick Erickson, this is not "the greatest and potentially the deadliest of Obama's screw ups so far". Or perhaps it is, in which case you have a surprisingly favorable impression of the administration.

Erickson refers to the recent suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed 7 or 8 CIA officers, the deadliest day for the Agency in decades. He specifically criticizes the Obama administration for publicly acknowledging the tragedy, and mourning the loss of life. In so doing, he alleges, al Qaeda and the Taliban are gifted a major propaganda victory, and Obama's relations with the CIA are seriously undermined, while doing further damage to the Agency's morale.

Even if all of this is true - and I grant none of it, since Erickson doesn't even come close to describing a single source in his post, beyond "members of the intelligence community," (which only narrows it down to about 100,000 people) - it says infinitely more about the incompetence and unprofessionalism of the American Intelligence Community (IC) than it does about the Obama administration.

For one thing, I thought these people had rather important jobs. It surprises me to learn that they're so easily distracted from their work by press releases from the White House. I would have thought they wouldn't let so important a task as national security be imperiled by their hurt feelings and grumpy moods. Certainly, Republicans, who've spent decades telling us just how serious, professional and dedicated the members of the IC are, aren't alleging that they make decisions about whether or not to protect the country based on whether they're annoyed with the President.

For another, what has the Obama administration actually done wrong here? The information about the bombing victims leaked out well before Obama made any sort of statement, so the essence of the Taliban's propaganda victory was already out there before the White House did anything. Maybe there's some super-secret IC rationale for not saying anything once the cat is clearly out of the bag, but I can't really see it.

Finally, to the extent that the CIA was licking its wounds already before this attack took place (and therefore deserve to be treated with kid gloves right now), I call bullshit. America spends far too much money ($50 billion/year or so) for the level of performance we get from these folks. We have the right to demand they do a better job, and to criticize them when they screw up, which happens repeatedly and on pretty major issues (WMDs in Iraq sure were a "slam dunk," huh?) I'm sure they've saved us from thousands of attacks and saved tens of thousands of lives over the years, but that shouldn't earn them any special immunity from criticism: that's their job! That's why we pay them $50 billion a year! And it does them no favors to treat them like fragile children who can only be reassured that they're doing a great! job! all the time, lest their feelings get hurt.