30 September, 2008

Vote early, vote often

Well... at least early. I just wanted to put a plug in for the Obama campaign's nifty application, VoteForChange.com, that allows you to quickly find out if you're currently registered to vote, and if so, where. It also gives you step-by-step instructions based on your circumstances: how to register, who to call about getting an absentee ballot, etc. I know that tracking down electoral information can be frustrating and time consuming (don't get me started on the evils of state-by-state electoral laws...) but Vote for Change puts it all in one place. So put your information in, and make sure you're ready to go on November 4th!

Or even earlier. Early voting is gaining traction in states that allow it, and I want to plug that, too. Much like absentee voting, people are coming to prefer it more and more because it allows them to vote according to their convenience within a certain window, rather than wait in line on election day or trying to make it to the polls after a long day at work (and don't get me started about the evils of holding elections on work days...) The Obama application will also give you information about how, when, and where you can vote early in your state.

For anyone who has made up their minds -- especially my compatriots in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or other swing states -- I highly recommend that you vote early. Besides making it easier on you, it is also extremely helpful for campaigns that are trying to allocate their resources most efficiently. The more people that vote before November 4th, the fewer people the campaign has to worry about contacting, persuading, and getting to the polls on election day, and the better they can do GOTV. If one-third of voters vote early this year (as some are projecting) that's a huge amount of people that a campaign doesn't have to worry about, making its outreach to the remaining two-thirds that much more targeted and effective. In a state like Wisconsin, which could be close, that advantage in the ground game could mean as much as 1-2 extra points for your side.

I think most of you are pretty set on Obama. Go git er done early for the team, and bring along your friends, classmates, and coworkers.

Bailout Exegesis

I wrote this trying to sort through the bailout issues in my own mind, but maybe someone else will get something out of this. Apologies for the length.

Why do we have a financial crisis? There are two reasons that a bank (or I-bank or insurer or any corporation) can fail: liquidity and solvency.

Every bank (and every company) has a balance sheet where they add up their total assets (what they are owed) on one side and their total liabilities (what they owe) on the other side. If liabilities are greater than assets, the bank is insolvent. At the same time, every day, week, or month, the firm receives some money from the people who have borrowed from them and they must also pay some money to the people to whom they owe money. If the firm does not receive enough from its debtors to pay its lenders, it is illiquid.

For example, take a small local bank. You deposit $1,000 with them. They loan out this $1,000 to someone who needs it for, say, their business. So on their balance sheet is a $1,000 asset, the loan, and a $1,000 liability, your deposit. Every month they get a payment from the business who took out the loan, and every once in a while you withdraw some money from your account. If, for some reason, you want to withdraw more cash than they currently have on hand or if the business misses a payment, then the bank is illiquid and cannot pay what they owe you, even though they may still be solvent. On the other hand, if the business that they loaned to fails entirely and goes bankrupt, the $1,000 loan disappears from the asset side of the bank's balance sheet. They are insolvent--they may have enough other loans to keep paying for your withdrawals for a while, but they will eventually go bankrupt because they owe $1,000 more than they are owed. So a bank can have solvency problems, liquidity problems, or both.

The key fact about the current crisis is that it is a solvency crisis, not a liquidity crisis. Why? The Fed has acted quickly and decisively to prevent a liquidity crisis (basically, what caused the Great Depression). If a bank needs temporary cash to service its debts, it can get a loan from the Fed at a very low interest rate. When the bank is able to call in some of its loans, it can pay the Fed back. So long as the Fed provides these cheap loans to financial institutions, we won't have a liquidity crisis.

Rather, we have a solvency crisis. For the banks, investment banks, brokers, and insurers involved, their assets are lower than liabilities. Why? They all made some investments that turned bad at the same time. They bought billions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) (basically a way of purchasing thousands of mortgages at once), betting that house prices would continue to rise and that because house prices were rising, the number of people who defaulted on their mortgages would be lower than normal.

Unfortunately for them, a variety of factors led to a far higher-than-normal foreclosure rate. In a nutshell, many mortgages were given with little or no downpayment and were given to people with little means to make payments if they increased (the so-called subprime mortgages). Because of inflation scares, the Fed increased interest rates in 2005 and 2006, leading to much higher payments on adjustable-rate mortgages. Higher payments meant more defaults and more foreclosures. At the same time, the housing bubble burst and home prices fell substantially. So, when banks foreclosed and seized homes from people who went bankrupt, those houses were worth much less than they were when the mortgage was issued. Finally, the lack of transparency in the construction of MBS means that no one really knows which mortgages are owned by whom. Therefore, no one is willing to buy MBS any longer. These assets are not worthless--because many of the mortgage-holders will eventually pay off their loans--but they are valueless--because no one is willing to purchase them, they cannot be valued for the purposes of balance sheet accounting.

And so a huge chunk assets simply dropped off every investment bank's balance sheet. Each failing bank now has billions of dollars more liabilities than assets. They may be liquid--able to service their debt--for the time being, but over time they will eventually go bankrupt, leaving billions of dollars in unpaid debts. The institutions who loaned them money will in turn have billions of dollars of losses and many of them will go bankrupt as well. As the contagion spreads, the number of banks that can loan money for business, home-buying, foreign investment, and any number of other productive uses will shrink. And as credit dries up, so will economic activity. People will lose their jobs and businesses will close their doors. We're already going into a recession, but there's no question the recession will be much deeper and longer if the financial markets collapse entirely.

This is why we need a bailout. But which bailout package would be best?

This brings us to the problem of moral hazard. One way to solve the problem would be to simply give giant checks to each bank. But this would tell future banks that they could make whatever risky investments they wanted to and if these investments turned sour, the government would step in to guarantee their salaries. It is important to let banks fail if they made risky decisions that turned out poorly. In particular their stockholders and executives should not benefit.

The Paulson plan will would have provided a market for MBS, with the government setting a price (or running an reverse auction) and buying MBS from everyone who was willing to sell at that price. What would this do? Remember that every bank has tons of MBS just sitting on its balance sheet. Since there's no market, the MBS is a big "ZERO" on the assets side. But a lot of the money invested in mortgages will eventually be recouped because many who got a mortgage will not default. And banks will get a lot of money back from reselling houses that have been foreclosed upon. If the government buys the MBS, the banks get to replace that "ZERO" with the amount of money the government paid for them. This will make some banks solvent that weren't before, but many (most?) banks will still be insolvent, because the price the government pays will certainly be less than the banks paid originally.

The question with this plan has always been what price the government will pay. If they overpay, more banks survive but there's more moral hazard and the government lose money. If they underpay, a lot of banks would go under that should not have. The Dodd-Frank version of this plan that just failed the vote in the House would have prevented overpayment by requiring banks to provide stock equal to the amount of overpayment, once we figured out what that amount was. But the basic problem with this plan is that it doesn't do enough--most banks will still be insolvent even after they get some cash back for these otherwise valueless assets.

The Krugman-DeLong-Yglesias plan that has been kicking around the blogosphere (otherwise known as "the Swedish plan") is that the government should basically nationalize failing banks by buying large amounts of stock in them. How would this help? Companies sell stock (or equity) to raise capital. Equity is different from debt. Debt is an agreement between the lender and the company that the company make a specified series of payments at some point in the future. Stock is ownership of the company. Owning stock entitles you to a share of the company's profits as well as votes on the company's Board, which hires and fires the company's management. During an IPO or when a company wants to make a major new investment, they sell new shares in return for capital. For example, let's say I start a company. I sell stock in my company and raise $10,000,000. I now have $10,000,000 in assets and my liabilities are zero. The difference between assets and liabilities is known as equity.

The problem for these banks is that total liabilities is greater than total assets--equity is negative. But the banks can issue more stock--this is how firms raise capital. No one out there wants to buy it right now because everyone is scared of what's under the hood, but the government could purchase said newly issues stock. Every share of stock purchased makes the assets side of the balance sheet higher and so the government can purchase enough stock to make every bank solvent again. Voila! Crisis averted. Not only that, but the taxpayers do not lose any money. If the banks are successful, they can be sold off later for a profit. This still leaves many problems. What are MBS worth? What will the government do with the banks that it purchases? Will they be politicized in some way?

So I think neither plan is perfect. The Paulson plan may not stop the crisis. The Swedish plan will definitely end the crisis but may lead to bigger problems down the road. And there are countless more possible plans that could be enacted.

29 September, 2008

If I were Jewish, this might be funnier...

But its still pretty good:



I am continually amazed by the amount of decentralized, creative force this campaign has unleashed.

26 September, 2008

Some things never change...

Here's part of the 1992 Presidential debate--Bush, Clinton, Perot:Notice how Clinton's rhetoric of "change" is basically identical to Obama's. And Bush is this close to saying "nation of whiners". Anyway, it provides some good perspective on tonight's spectacle. Here are more debate videos.

Let's get it on!

After much debate and deliberation, the Official Rules for the Friday Night Debate Night Drinking Extravaganza have been set in stone.

For tonight's spectacle, shots will be awarded for the following eventualities:

1. Any mention of POW experience.
2. Utterance of the phrase, "my friends."
3. Use of the words "hope," "change," or "reform" from either candidate
4. Should Obama provide a nuanced or ambiguous answer (specific terms subject to house rules)
5. Use of the term "maverick" in relation to either McCain or Palin.

Furthermore, a house social shall occur in the following instances:

1. Direct reference to blatant lies in campaign ads.
2. Should the mediator burst into laughter after a candidate's response.

Finally, and perhaps of most importance, all liquor or malt beverage within the domecile must be consumed in the event that any exchange between the candidates results in blows.

Note that these are the official rules and any amendment to such must be passed by a majority vote of debasers. Now go stock up and get ready to rumble!

A narrative of the last few days...

Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke propose a bailout package giving them sweeping authority to use $700 billion in any way they want.

Barack Obama calls John McCain, asking him to release a joint statement in support of a revised bailout package, keeping the same basic structure of the Paulson plan, but with strong oversight, among other changes.

John McCain, without telling Obama beforehand, announces that he will return to Washington to solve the bailout and will not debate until a deal is reached. Conveniently, he does a few interviews, makes a few fundraising stops, and gives a campaign speech before returning to Washington. (Even more conveniently, he suggests canning the veep debate in which Sarah Palin is almost guaranteed to make an ass of herself.)

Democrats stay up all night hammering out a deal-- it is broadly agreed to by all parties involved including Paulson, the President, and the House and Senate Republicans. One Republican says this was the most productive session of Congress he's ever been in, exactly because partisan politics played no role.

McCain arrives in Washington just in time to attend a meeting at the White House with Bush, Paulson, Obama, and the House and Senate leadership. Obama asks many questions, McCain says nothing and does not express support for any plan. John Boehner, House Republican leader, informs Pelosi that his caucus cannot support the bailout deal--they have an alternative that is completely different. No deal is reached.

What happened here? John McCain, in an act of either utter cynicism or utter stupidity, decided to inject presidential politics into a process that was working extremely well, while claiming he was setting politics aside. The Democrats, keen on preventing McCain from receiving any credit for a deal, kept the negotiators in session all night and arrived at a tentative deal by the next morning. But House Republicans did not want McCain cut out of the process and post hoc decided to withhold their votes from a deal that all had previously agreed to.

This puts Pelosi in a tight spot. The Democrats could pass the bailout bill through the House, but without Republican votes, the Democrats will take all the blame if the bailout is a failure. On the other hand, not passing anything could mean financial disaster. And giving in to the Republican's new plan is simply not an option. It's a classic Prisoner's Dilemma.

What could have happened here? McCain could have gone into the White House meeting and stated his unequivocal support for the bailout deal reached Thursday morning. But he didn't...say anything. It's important to mention that this revised deal is basically exactly what McCain wants on the merits as he has said many times over the past week. And McCain could have gotten that. But John McCain does not actually care about what he's said over the past week. He does not actually think about what's best for the country. John McCain has no honor. He does not put country first. He is blind to anything except his own ambition.

25 September, 2008

As I Predicted...

Some "news analysis" from the New York Times:

After Mr. McCain got out ahead of him Wednesday by publicly committing himself to help find a solution, Mr. Obama remained cautious, suggesting that he would not necessarily rush back to Washington or plunge into the negotiations himself. Still, Mr. McCain’s tactic focused attention on the two of them as the political leaders with the most power to get a deal completed.

[...]

Now the question is who will be seen as politicizing the issue, and who will come across as more presidential: Mr. McCain, with his decision to suspend campaigning and his striking call to delay the first of the debates, or Mr. Obama, with his warning that presidents must be able to multitask and that a dramatic return to Washington would “infuse Capitol Hill with presidential politics.”
No mention that Obama actually called McCain first, virtually nothing about the canceled debate, no speculation on McCain's preparedness for that debate nor anything about McCain's proposal to push Palin's debate back. And there's absolutely nothing about how Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer have both told McCain (and Obama) to stay away from DC and keep presidential politics out of the negotiations for the bailout package. Far from that, the article makes it seem as though McCain and Obama are the new leaders of the negotiations. When in fact, there's already a revised bailout bill circulating on the Hill.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

24 September, 2008

Brad DeLong is Scary

Even AEI scholars won't debate him:

As I understand it, originally Douglas Holtz-Eakin was supposed to debate Austan Goolsbee. Then Doug dropped out (I am not sure whether the statement that he had to go brief Sarah Palin was a joke or not). Kevin Hassett replaced him. Then Austan dropped out. And I replaced Austan.

Then Kevin said that he wouldn't come out of his hotel room if I were in the building.
Sadly, Hassett is a Swarthmore alumnus.

23 September, 2008

Stay on message...stay on message...



This is kind of a lame ad from Obama. What does it matter than McCain buys foreign cars? Even if it did, three of thirteen is hardly a shocking figure. This is, I'm afraid, pandering, in the worst sense of the word. My advice: turn off your targeting device and use the Force, Barack!

21 September, 2008

Everything in moderation

Forgot to post on this earlier, but I caught a brillaint discussion on WPR about Sufism while road-trippin' to Prairie du Chien a week or so back.

I believe the guest was one of the Vice Presidents of the Center for Islamic Pluralism--which I didn't even know existed and has a pretty great message--in D.C. Stephen Schwartz is himself a Sufi, and extremely knowledgeable about Sufism in general, it's history, and more importantly its recently history in relation to the major religions of the world.

For those of us (probably just me) who have only read Rumi or Bahauddin, I was pleased that the discussion didn't hinge on their poetry--it wasn't a literary discussion by any means, although several callers desperately wanted to make it such. Rather, Mr. Schwartz seemed focused on the ability of Sufism to draw one deeper into their own beliefs and act as a catalyst for the moderation of radical- or fundamentalism.

One thing he said about Islamic fundamentalists especially intrigued me. To those who have preached to him the need to live exactly as the Prophet had, he questioned if they drove a car to get to work or come to that interview, or if they kept a written Qu'ran in their home. I guess he's stumped more than a couple of people with that one.

At any rate, I'm interested in his book, "The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony" and I'd be interested to see others pick it up and discuss. Just thought I'd share.

-Cheers-

18 September, 2008

A Bridge to Somewhere

Here's footage of the 35W bridge opening in the Twin Cities. I've gotta admit, it's pretty touching.

Reflections on the Culture Wars

A couple more nuanced (than David Brooks, say) pieces on the "culture war" from Tim Burke. One is more historical and the other is personal:

It’s hard for me to pin the Scarlet Letter E for Egghead to my chest and beg apology for knowing things, or reading literature, or liking the heirloom tomatoes I grow in my backyard, or any of the things that compose my professional and personal being. It’s hard for me to see myself as some growling, powerful elite who daily intrudes upon the private lives of a humble family of church-goers in the heartland and forces them to watch pornography while I turn their children into Marxoislamicist transsexuals.
Of course there is no "growling, powerful elite" and neither is there a silent majority of hick Evangelicals that shoot moose every weekend. These are mere political constructions. So as satisfying as it may be to get all riled up for your side of the culture war--don't waste your energy.

17 September, 2008

Mental Health Break

Poor guy:

Eerie Similarities

Paul Krugman points us to this article:

Responding to the collapse of several major investment banks this week, John McCain reassured us, "I think still -- the fundamentals of our economy are strong." That move comes from an old playbook: On Oct. 25, 1929, Herbert Hoover declared, "The fundamental business of the country, that is the production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis."
And Roosevelt:
Franklin Roosevelt knew how to answer: "The present administration has either forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army. These unhappy times call for ... plans ... that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the pyramid."
Obama needs to start sounding like that!

16 September, 2008

Console each other.

We Are All Elitists Now

David Brooks has a great column today for the questions it raises, if not for the answers it provides:

Conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement. Conservatives stood against radical egalitarianism and the destruction of rigorous standards. They stood up for classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience and prudence. Wisdom was acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said.

But, especially in America, there has always been a separate, populist, strain. For those in this school, book knowledge is suspect but practical knowledge is respected. The city is corrupting and the universities are kindergartens for overeducated fools.

[...]

The idea that “the people” will take on and destroy “the establishment” is a utopian fantasy that corrupted the left before it corrupted the right. Surely the response to the current crisis of authority is not to throw away standards of experience and prudence, but to select leaders who have those qualities but not the smug condescension that has so marked the reaction to the Palin nomination in the first place.

15 September, 2008

'There is poetry in our souls'


This is why FiveThirtyEight has quickly become my favorite election blog.

The final appeal is especially poignant, with the Kerouac quote:

Finally, an appeal to all Americans, regardless of voting age or partisan bent: do something tangible. It is now or never. Fifty-four days. Do something that will make the face you see in the mirror on November 5 proud. Push yourself. Suck it up. Work for it. Make a sacrifice you would not otherwise make. Leave the confusion and nonsense behind and perform your one and only noble function of the time – move.

High Finance Not So High Anymore

The news today has already been pretty shocking. Lehman Brothers has collapsed. Merill Lynch (I still remember the giant bull by the post office downtown) would have collapsed had it not been purchased on the cheap by Bank of America. My friend working at the New York Fed assures me that AIG, Washington Mutual, Goldman, and Morgan Stanley are next. Some of these companies will be saved by other, more stable companies. Some will be saved by the Fed or the Treasury, as were Fannie and Freddie. Some will simply go bankrupt, like Lehman.

The best thing you can read right now is this Paul Krugman column, in which he says we don't know anything:

Will the U.S. financial system collapse today, or maybe over the next few days? I don’t think so — but I’m nowhere near certain. You see, Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank, is apparently about to go under. And nobody knows what will happen next.

To understand the problem, you need to know that the old world of banking, in which institutions housed in big marble buildings accepted deposits and lent the money out to long-term clients, has largely vanished, replaced by what is widely called the “shadow banking system.” Depository banks, the guys in the marble buildings, now play only a minor role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers; most of the business of finance is carried out through complex deals arranged by “nondepository” institutions, institutions like the late lamented Bear Stearns — and Lehman.

The new system was supposed to do a better job of spreading and reducing risk. But in the aftermath of the housing bust and the resulting mortgage crisis, it seems apparent that risk wasn’t so much reduced as hidden: all too many investors had no idea how exposed they were.

And as the unknown unknowns have turned into known unknowns, the system has been experiencing postmodern bank runs. These don’t look like the old-fashioned version: with few exceptions, we’re not talking about mobs of distraught depositors pounding on closed bank doors. Instead, we’re talking about frantic phone calls and mouse clicks, as financial players pull credit lines and try to unwind counterparty risk. But the economic effects — a freezing up of credit, a downward spiral in asset values — are the same as those of the great bank runs of the 1930s.

And here’s the thing: The defenses set up to prevent a return of those bank runs, mainly deposit insurance and access to credit lines with the Federal Reserve, only protect the guys in the marble buildings, who aren’t at the heart of the current crisis. That creates the real possibility that 2008 could be 1931 revisited.

Now, policy makers are aware of the risks — before he was given responsibility for saving the world, Ben Bernanke was one of our leading experts on the economics of the Great Depression. So over the past year the Fed and the Treasury have orchestrated a series of ad hoc rescue plans. Special credit lines with unpronounceable acronyms were made available to nondepository institutions. The Fed and the Treasury brokered a deal that protected Bear’s counterparties — those on the other side of its deals — though not its stockholders. And just last week the Treasury seized control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-sponsored mortgage lenders.

But the consequences of those rescues are making officials nervous. For one thing, they’re taking big risks with taxpayer money. For example, today much of the Fed’s portfolio is tied up in loans backed by dubious collateral. Also, officials are worried that their rescue efforts will encourage even more risky behavior in the future. After all, it’s starting to look as if the rule is heads you win, tails the taxpayers lose.

Which brings us to Lehman, which has suffered large real-estate-related losses, and faces a crisis of confidence. Like many financial institutions, Lehman has a huge balance sheet — it owes vast sums, and is owed vast sums in return. Trying to liquidate that balance sheet quickly could lead to panic across the financial system. That’s why government officials and private bankers have spent the weekend huddled at the New York Fed, trying to put together a deal that would save Lehman, or at least let it fail more slowly.

But Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, was adamant that he wouldn’t sweeten the deal by putting more public funds on the line. Many people thought he was bluffing. I was all ready to start today’s column, “When life hands you Lehman, make Lehman aid.” But there was no aid, and apparently no deal. Mr. Paulson seems to be betting that the financial system — bolstered, it must be said, by those special credit lines — can handle the shock of a Lehman failure. We’ll find out soon whether he was brave or foolish.

The real answer to the current problem would, of course, have been to take preventive action before we reached this point. Even leaving aside the obvious need to regulate the shadow banking system — if institutions need to be rescued like banks, they should be regulated like banks — why were we so unprepared for this latest shock? When Bear went under, many people talked about the need for a mechanism for “orderly liquidation” of failing investment banks. Well, that was six months ago. Where’s the mechanism?

And so here we are, with Mr. Paulson apparently feeling that playing Russian roulette with the U.S. financial system was his best option. Yikes.

12 September, 2008

Are You Experienced?

I've been a little soft on Sarah Palin in previous posts, but this clip from her interview with Charlie Gibson is really really scary:



Anyone who could possibly be considered for the office of Vice-President should know what the Bush Doctrine is; it is the single most important fact about our foreign policy in the last seven years. And yes, she may know that Bush is in favor of pre-emptive strikes where other presidents were not [Hilzoy points out that the Bush doctrine is less about pre-emptive strikes and more about preventative war, which she fails to even mention. --ed], but she should know what that policy is called. When Gibson asks her if she hesitated, she responds with quasi-religious fervor:



She clearly does not understand that assuming the office of Vice-President is an important undertaking requiring basic knowledge of foreign policy and world events. That she would not so much as reflect on this decision that affects the future of the country is mind-boggling. And what's this "mission" she keeps talking about?

This is why we have an electoral college. If the people choose a President or Vice-President who is clearly unfit to lead, the electoral college has the ability, in extreme cases, to override that decision. Should Obama lose, this would be such a case. She cannot be allowed to take office.

11 September, 2008

Sooooey!

Obama...is...besthingsinceslicedbread:

10 September, 2008

A Rhetorical Question

Elvin Lim, besides having a sweet name, has some interesting things to say in a Bloggingheads diavlog with Dan Drezner. Here's a teaser:

I think this gets at the reason for the frustration we (liberals) may feel about the rhetoric used by Republicans. It's not contentless, it's just that we don't understand the content--but conservative voters do. By the same token, conservatives see Obama's speeches as vacuous, but we see glorious visions of a better world.

Briefly, More on the Media

Here's Glenn Greenwald on the Yglesias/Ambinder exchange. Here's an awesome This Modern World cartoon.

He's lookin pretty good, you might say

Turns out, Obama is pretty good at dealing with O'Reilly's combative, shushing, mocking, shouting "interview" style.

He quiets him right down a couple of times, which I always appreciate. What I really appreciate is that Bill completely ignores Obama's points about his Bush/Clinton comparison. "Damn lies..." Love it.

Although, the class warfare comment O'Reilly fired back actually has some truth behind it, mayhaps.

At any rate, I think my favorite characteristic of Obama is that he is more concerned with, as O'Reilly said, building up from the bottom. "Neighborliness," I think Obama called it. It shows a real empathic concern for the average citizen that I feel is completely lacking from the Republican mindset. I thought trickle-down economics had been soundly proven BAD, but I guess I'm wrong. This interview simply highlights an opinion I've had creeping around inside for awhile: conservative Republicanism lacks necessary and fundamental human (I should probably say humanistic) characteristics to make for responsible government.

09 September, 2008

Public financing and free speech

There's a good discussion underway under Cassady's last post, and I thought I'd move my thoughts out of the comments. In almost any conversation about public financing, the first objection (and rightly so!) always relates to free speech. On the one hand, rich and myopic interests are clearly skewing policy away from what is good for most people. But on the other hand, how do you limit this distortion without trampling on the individual's (even the rich individual's...) right to free expression? Cassady tries to thread the needle thusly:

Maybe the restriction [on political advertising] wouldn't have to extend to the public, but those announcements could be marked clearly as independent and not associated with any campaign.

First, I would just note that this is basically the system we have now. Under McCain-Feingold, 527s can spend as much as they want as long as they don't mention the candidate they are supporting. What this has led to, predictably, is a lot more negative advertising - most notably, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. So it's hard to say that this really enhances our political discourse, and Feingold, at least, has expressed frustration with this loophole.

But in a broader sense, its helpful to remember when invoking free speech that rights are not absolute. And critically, that they are not absolute not because the government is justified in curtailing them when it wants to, but because equally legitimate rights often come into contradiction with one another. One of the central insights of democracy, to me, is that given that various rights are always conflicting with one another, only a government based on consent of the governed can legitimately (and thus peacefully) mediate between the competing claims.

Slavery is a seminal, if ironic, example. Freedom of the individual and the sanctity of private property are two of the basic rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and in slavery they came into grave conflict. The irony (a tragic one) is that these rights conflicted in a way so fundamental to the economic and social order of the nation that democracy wasn't able to mediate between them; only force was able.

Hopefully campaign finance will not cause a civil war. But my point is that the free speech argument is often given as a deus ex machina that ends the debate without considering what other fundamental right that particular manifestation of free speech is infringing upon. In the case of "you can't shout 'fire' in a packed movie theater" that we all remember from grade school, the opposing right is that of citizens to not be subject to bodily harm. In the case of political contributions, I would argue that an equally legitimate right is being violated: the principle of "one person, one vote" that lies at the heart of representative government. This is the principle that we are equal, if not economically, intellectually, or physically, then at least politically and legally. But in the current situation, economic power is distorting political representation: an oil CEO and his buddies have many times the "vote" that I and Cassady have.

I think we have a hard time seeing rights like this because we are accustomed to thinking of them as absolutes - using language like "innate" and "inalienable". Which in some sense they are. But rights are also a balancing act, an outcome of continual negotiation. We'll get further if we start thinking of the problem in terms of the give and take between them. What particular balance, then, is best, and what kind of solution does this line of thinking lead us to? I'm still trying to collect my thoughts on that one.

08 September, 2008

The Media is Not a Mirror

Now that Matt Ygs is no longer on the Atlantic's payroll, he's free to stick it hard to Marc Ambinder. Ambinder:

No blowback, though: the electorate doesn't seem to penalize campaigns for deliberately distorting the record of their candidate and their opponent. It's probably an artifact of twenty years' worth of campaign advertisements and has something to do with the way consumers process news.
Yglesias:
But couldn’t it have something to do with the way the campaign press reports news? ... So where’s the narrative about how McCain’s key strategy introducing Sarah Palin to the public and turning his campaign around is based on putting lies at the heart of the presentation? There are a few dozen people, of whom Marc is one, in a position to create this narrative. They’ve chosen not to do so, but that’s a decision they’ve made not a fact about “the way consumers process news.”
Ambinder:
The positive point is that a small but significant fraction of the electorate seems astonishingly inured to misleading charges and negative attacks. They seem to understand that charges are false, but they don't seem to penalize the offending candidate.
Yglesias:
All I was observing is that it’s perverse for members of the press to make claims about how dishonest campaign tactics are likely to play that treats themselves as non-participants in the process. Creating false beliefs in the public about yourself and your opponent is politically helpful. But acquiring a reputation as a liar is politically damaging. And the public gets a lot of information through the press. Thus, the political impact of telling a lie will have a lot to do with how the media chooses to cover it. If John McCain’s decision to release an ad that contains a thoroughly debunked lie about his running mate’s record was greeted with lead stories on network news about John McCain has a reputation as a straight-talker but really he’s a big fat liar, that would be bad for McCain. But they haven’t covered it that way.
Marc Ambinder sees himself and his friends in the press as a purely reflective surface. The electorate decides how to view the candidates and the issues, he just reports it. Ezra has more:
It's sort of like a TV show: If Friends had had an episode where Ross and Rachel hooked up, but never mentioned it again, that would've been weird, but their tryst wouldn't have been a big part of the story. Since they mentioned it all the time, and came back to it, and fit future events into that context, it was a big story. Similarly, if the press reports something and never mentions it again, the public knows to forget it. It's not important. If they mention it constantly -- "I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it" -- they know it is important. The job of the media, in other words, is now to also emphasize the right parts of the story.

This requires deciding what matters. And on this, people have different opinions. Take the Bridge to Nowhere, which Ambinder mentions in his post. I think it's important that one of the central arguments the McCain campaign is making for Palin is a lie. I think that should be reported a lot, at least as often as the McCain campaign repeats it, and then if the McCain campaign doesn't stop repeating it, their lying should be emphasized a lot, because that's also important. On the level of first order principles, I know the press agrees with me, because they did this with John Kerry. The crucial problem in this discussion comes here: The press isn't allow to admit that they construct these narratives at all, and so can't transparently justify why they choose to use one and not another. Which creates mistrust and anger.

The Joys of Public Broadcasting

Interesting chat on NPR today: the real role of TV in political campaigns and the career of politics in general.

I can't remember who the guest was, but near the end of the program a caller made the comment that television media is the biggest special interest group in politics--furthermore, the single most influential group in that arena today.

The guest speaker actually agreed, to a point. Consider the gargantuan amounts of money raised for, spent on, and raked in by the major media outlets--seems a bit much, doesn't it? Back in the good old days, candidates pounded the turf, speaking to comparatively tiny audiences just trying to get their messages out. I mean, there's a reason it's called a "stump" speech, right? The advent of televised debates and speeches really highlighted the differences between candidates in their abilities to think on their feet, and go off script and demonstrate their conversability on issues. If a candidate couldn't clearly, concisely, and articulately state their policy positions, they suffered greatly for it. Nixon was susceptible to this--not helped at all by his somewhat sinister appearance. One of Kennedy's or Reagan's real strengths was image; they both looked good on camera.

The radio discussion turned to the recent pooh-poohing of Mr. Olberman by the McCain campaign. Word on the street is the campaign went to GE and the MSNBC boss-men and did some school-yard tattling. Read: threatened to pull a debate from the network, thus costing MSNBC untold amounts of money. Quite honestly, I wouldn't put it past them. Wounded pride is one of the greatest publicity tactics of the Republican party, and has been since Nixon appealed to his silent majority.

"Oh! How could they accuse us of such behavior, we love America and they're Communists!"

It's the most evident, and sadly most effective use of double-speak that I see, at any rate. Just my opinion.

I digress. So, what would the ramifications be--political and for the media networks--of some system of public political access, and what would such a system look like? Set numbers of debates televised across the board on the goodwill of the media? Tightly controlled ad content with rigorously scheduled and policed airtime? To be done with independent ads of 527 groups?

It seems to me that campaiging could potentially be done with less money--and less need for campaign finance reform all the time--and with candidates consequently being less beholded to, dare I say it? The Eastern Media Elite...

Food for thought, at any rate.

Wow.

Brady out for the season. It is so clear now: God has opened the path for the Jets to face the Packers in the Super Bowl.

07 September, 2008

McCain's Bump

This does not look good... .

Since we're only posting videos these days...

This is hilarious but somewhat disingenuous:

More Adversarial Journalism

From the tonic that heals all wounds...

Adversarial journalism at work

Check out this interview between Papa Bear O'Reilly and Barack Obama. This is actually a really good discussion, in part because O'Reilly, as a political adversary, is constantly trying to prove Obama wrong, rather than glossing over areas of possible contradiction or vague-ness. Granted, many of O'Reilly's interviews are bullshit, but this one is very informative, if energetic. 

06 September, 2008

Of open mics and amateur musicians.


Few things are as cringe-inducing as open mic nights at your local coffeeshop. Admittedly, a small part of me enjoys the trebly, off-pitch warble of your local 'up-and-coming' bedroom musician in a mascicistic (and slightly empathetic) sort of way.

I took the above picture a moment ago of this evening's schmuck with a guitar. I've gotta say, these types attract a full house of weirdos. Most of the songs are nothing more than some poorly-written lyrics over three or four barre chords, with a completely predictable bridge or chorus thrown in. Every once in a while, you hear one start out with some potential, only for the singer to open his mouth and exclaim, "I only knew you onnnnce, Melissa. 3 AM and my eyes are droooopy..." Apparently, the fellow onstage is good friends with a guy who recorded with a rising star who opened once for Robert Plant. THAT'S street-cred. Unfortunately, street-cred doesn't keep your guitar in tune or your voice on key.

The Daily Show is a Tonic that Heals All Wounds

Matt Yglesias: DEBASER!

See here:

Slicin’ Up Eyeballs

Having a frustrating air travel situation (managed, after some difficulty, to get myself booked on a red eye back to DC that I’m pretty sure is going to wind up getting canceled) but sitting around at the gate I stumbled across the “Debaser” video for the first time and it kinda cheered me up:



Meanwhile, tribute albums are lame, but I think Where Is My Mind? A Tribute to the Pixies is actually quite good. Still, a couple of weeks ago I was talking to someone who referred to “Alec Eiffel” as a Get-Up Kids song and there’s really no excuse for that.
If he happened to be taking shots of tequila at the time...

Axis and Allies Fishiness: Was Cassady Right?

So I dumped the logs of all of my active Axis and Allies games into a file and wrote a program that counts all of the die rolls. Here are the results for 20-some games and a total of 16,335 rolls:

1: 2,871 rolls
2: 2,790 rolls
3: 26,89 rolls
4: 2,625 rolls
5: 2,706 rolls
6: 2,654 rolls


This is really sketchy because, as you can see, there are a lot more of the lower rolls than there are of the higher rolls. The average roll is 3.457, when it should be 3.500. These may seem like small deviations, but statistically they are quite large. If you rolled an ideal die (with each side coming up exactly 1/6 of the time) 16,335 times, what is the chance that the die would come up showing "1" at least 2,871 or more times? 0.09%. Essentially, this means you'd have to roll a set of 16,335 dice 1,063 times in order to get 2,871 rolls of "1" in just one of the sets.

One explanation is that the game does not show any battles where neither the Attacker or the Defender gets a hit. I have suspected this for a long time and I used my program to check it. There were no battles where no one got a hit in any of my games. That's good enough for me...

A little Biden action for y'all

What physicists do in their spare time...

If you haven't already seen it:

04 September, 2008

Return of the culture wars!

I've put up Giuliani and Palin's speeches at the RNC last night below. I thought Palin's speech was pretty good, actually. She got a few good shots in at Obama, but they weren't below the belt.

Giuliani's speech, on the other hand, was incoherent, hateful, mocking, and the crowd loved it. Some comments:

  • Does anyone else find it a bit creepy that "Drill, baby, drill!" has become a popular political chant in the Republican party? As if using oil were a patriotic duty.
  • I also don't understand why "Obama was a community organizer" is a laugh line (this was in the Palin speech as well). I guess
  • Oddly, Giuliani mocked Obama's alleged cosmopolitanism. Considering that Giuliani himself was the mayor of New York City, has been married several times, is a well-known transvestite, and probably fits in much better in any major city than in Wasilla, Alaska, some enterprising MSNBC producer decided to highlight the cognitive dissonance by switching to a shot of Giuliani in front of the giant NYC-skyline backdrop just when he delivered the Wasilla line. Ama-ing!


In any case, I am saddened to see John McCain trying to turn this campaign into a culture war. On the other hand, I think Obama will profit from this because there are more people who want to get past this than there are who want to wallow in it. And it's so weird that a McCain-Palin ticket would go for this--he missed the sixties because he was in Vietnam and she missed it because she hadn't been born yet. Neither has the profile of a tried and true culture warrior. So it must have been McCain's cynical and opportunistic decision to attempt to plunge the country back into these tired disputes. This is his Hail Mary pass--the cultural politics that have divided us for the last fifty years are in their last throes. Will we let them divide us one last time?


03 September, 2008

Christ, Christianists, and our Troops

Watching Mike Huckabee's RNC speech this evening, I realized something that had eluded me since the onset of modern Christian Conservatism influence in Republican politics. Before concluding, Huckabee told a story about a grade school teacher who refused to give her students desks on the first day of class:

Allow me to tell you about someone who understands this type of sacrifice better than anyone.

On the first day of school in 2005, Martha Cothren, a teacher at Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, was determined that her students would not take their education or their privilege as Americans for granted. With the principal’s permission, she removed all the desks from her classroom. The students entered the empty room and asked, “Mrs. Cothren, where are our desks?”

“You get a desk when you tell me how you earn it,” she replied.

“Making good grades?” asked one student.

“You ought to make good grades, but that won’t get you a desk,” Martha responded.

“I guess we have to behave,” offered another.

“You WILL behave in my class,” Mrs. Cothren retorted, “but that won’t get you a desk either.”

No one in first period guessed right. Same for second period. By lunch, the buzz was all over campus… Mrs. Cothren had flipped out ….wouldn’t let her students have a desk. Kids had used their cell phones and called their parents. By early afternoon, all 4 of the local network TV affiliates had camera crews at the school to report on the teacher who wouldn’t let her students have a desk unless they could tell her how they earned it. By the final period, no one had guessed correctly.

As the students filed in, Martha Cothren said, “Well, I didn’t think you would figure it out, so I’ll have to tell you.” Martha opened the door of her classroom. In walked 27 veterans, some wearing uniforms from years gone by, but each one carrying a school desk. As they carefully and quietly arranged the desks in neat rows, Martha said, “You don’t have to earn your desks…these guys already did.

Of course it's important to support our troops*. But the allusion made by Huckabee is that our troops are Christ-like figures who have fought and died for our rights [sins] and who therefore represent the image of a perfect citizen [human] deserving of our worship.

This is bogus on two accounts. First, very few among the Christian Right actually preach that we are saved by Faith and Grace alone, but (rather deceptively) put a strong emphasis on the Law (Old Testament) and salvation by our individual acts. Second, the biblical Christ was not just a figurative soldier going through the actions; to imply such is tantamount to denying the Trinity.

In their attempt to draw parallels between our nation's servicemen and the Son of God, the Christian Right fails to remember a repeated teaching of Jesus: pacifism. Pretty quickly, the pick-and-choose, skewed world of the Christian Right disintegrates into a sort of Stalinism where war heroes are exalted and peaceful intellectuals persecuted.

*That said, "supporting our troops" should have threefold meaning. First, to acknowledge that it is their job to obey orders, and that no soldier should be individually held accountable for erroneous decisions made by their superiors. Then, that we should hope/desire/pray for their safe return home. And last, that they should be respected upon their return for the risk they took with the greater good of our nation in mind.

What Republicans say when they're at home

They've been putting on a brave front, but the smart ones at least are faking. Here is the transcript of a mistakenly-recorded conversation between Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, Mike Murphy, former McCain campaign director, and journalist Chuck Todd:

Peggy Noonan: Yeah.

Mike Murphy: You know, because I come out of the blue swing state governor world: Engler, Whitman, Tommy Thompson, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush. I mean, these guys -- this is how you win a Texas race, just run it up. And it's not gonna work. And --

PN: It's over.

MM: Still McCain can give a version of the Lieberman speech to do himself some good.

CT: I also think the Palin pick is insulting to Kay Bailey Hutchinson, too.

PN: Saw Kay this morning.

CT: Yeah, she's never looked comfortable about this --

MM: They're all bummed out.

CT: Yeah, I mean is she really the most qualified woman they could have turned to?

PN: The most qualified? No! I think they went for this -- excuse me-- political bullshit about narratives --

CT: Yeah they went to a narrative.

MM: I totally agree.

PN: Every time the Republicans do that, because that's not where they live and it's not what they're good at, they blow it.

MM: You know what's really the worst thing about it? The greatness of McCain is no cynicism, and this is cynical.

CT: This is cynical, and as you called it, gimmicky.

MM: Yeah.


This is basically my (and I think much of the Left's) take on the whole thing: that Palin is a tone-deaf disaster, that there were many more qualified women, and that McCain's decision making process will come to be seen (if it isn't yet) as myopic and cynical.

Disturbing...

Is this CBS's answer to Big Love?

Is it a remake of the Brady Bunch?
Is it the new hilarious docu-come-drama "Everybody Loves McCain?"

Can John McCain get a down-home Alaskan family with a working mom and a beer distribution billionairess and her prissy daughter to live together in the same house?...the WHITE House?

Or is it some weird hybrid of "Seventh Heaven" and "The Girls Next Door"?

01 September, 2008

The Palin Experience

I always love it when journalists let you know that they know they're not getting an answer. Watch this McCain campaign spokesman squirm under Campbell Brown's scrutiny. Looking forward to more of these fumbles.