28 February, 2009

Elliot, are you secretly conservative columnist George Will?

If not, it would make a good Halloween costume.

Edited for tease.

26 February, 2009

Should we repeal the 17th Amendment?

A couple months ago, I remember hearing lots of praise for the ability of a certain cross-section of conservative thinkers to take off their blinders and realize the clusterfuck that was the McCain-Palin campaign, among them George Will. But Will has really been headed downhill recently (or reverted to the mean?). First, he makes up a bunch of shit about the non-existence of climate change that should make the Post blush.

Then he attacks Senator Feingold's proposed constitutional amendment, which would revise the 17th Amendment (which provided for the popular election of Senators) in order to do away with gubernatorial appointments to the Senate. Will doesn't just think we shouldn't amend the 17th, as a good federalist he thinks we should repeal it. He states:

The Framers established election of senators by state legislators, under which system the nation got the Great Triumvirate (Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun) and thrived. In 1913, progressives, believing that more, and more direct, democracy is always wonderful, got the 17th Amendment ratified. It stipulates popular election of senators, under which system Wisconsin has elected, among others, Joe McCarthy, as well as Feingold.

Now, I am pretty biased in favor of Feingold, and I think such an amendment is a good idea. That said, I don't think its impervious to criticism or counter arguments. But Will's argument here doesn't make much sense:

a) The Framers establish indirect election of Senators
b) thus we get the Great Triumvirate
c) and so the Nation thrives

But then!

d) 17th amendment requires direct elections
e) Joe McCarthy

Even if you swallow the insult to your intelligence that is this narrative of American history, what are the mechanisms at work supposed to be? Why did (a) lead to (b)? Wasn't there a massive breakdown of our political system resulting in a holocaust of a civil war between (b) and (c)? And how did (d) create (e) exactly? Will thinks the answer is that

Severing senators from state legislatures, which could monitor and even instruct them, made them more susceptible to influence by nationally organized interest groups based in Washington. Many of those groups, who preferred one-stop shopping in Washington to currying favors in all the state capitals, campaigned for the 17th Amendment. So did urban political machines, which were then organizing an uninformed electorate swollen by immigrants. Alliances between such interests and senators led to a lengthening of the senators' tenures.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah for conservatives, whose primary attack against their opponents is to fling around the charge of elitism, to lament the ability of the "uninformed masses" to elect their own representatives (although the anti-immigrant xenophobia still fits right in). Yes, the 17th increased the urban machines' power, and the impact of national interest groups probably rose. But the alternative was an upper chamber forever in the grip of a tiny racial, economic, and social minority that could legislate according to its narrow interests with little or no pressure from the mass of people that had to live with their decisions. This didn't improve governance; it allowed slavery, led to civil war, tolerated Jim Crow, and barred women from the political process.

Look, the Senate is clearly still an exclusive, myopic millionaire's club which legislates far too much on the leverage that various interest groups can bring to bear. And Feingold's amendment will ultimately do little to help that. Neither would a repeal of the 17th, however - it would just make the interest group lobbying and myopia more state-based, which may be reason in and of itself for a federalist like Will, but its not good enough for those who want better policy. Something that would actually help reform the Senate away from interest group distortions, however, is citizen funded elections:

But of course, public financing would be a tragedy for our democracy while disenfranchising millions would re-invigorate it.

22 February, 2009

Nico Vega

So I've been rather amazed at the extent to which owning an iPod has revolutionized my music habits. Basically, since about sophomore year of college up until earlier this year I didn't listen to music on any regular basis, and so my already accumulated musical favorites sufficed for those times when I did want music on. But now with my pod, I am listening to music orders of magnitude more often - which means my current stock gets old, and I in turn seek out new music, which I have never really done before. I have been open to new music when it comes my way through recommendations or what have you, but I've never been motivated to seek it out.

Anyway, thought I'd pass along a musical recommendation - Nico Vega. I don't know if they are indy enough or not for some of my blogmates, or if you already know them, but I didn't until today. They are a trio from LA fronted by a woman with a powerful, sharp, sultry voice. It's heavier than most of what I have been listening to, but the mixture of the female vocals with metal-style guitar hits a good balance. Here's one of their singles, "Burn Burn". Take a listen.

20 February, 2009

Bigger than Jesus!

Amaing. We all knew this day was coming. The disturbing thing is that George W. Bush clocks in at number five.

Thanks, Wonkette!

19 February, 2009

Irony not their strong suit

It really just goes over these peoples' heads, doesn't it?

[Santorum] said he believes that Muslims are America’s enemy because they read their religion literally and apply it to real life, instead of in historical context.

That's right, that's former US Senator Rick Santorum speaking to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This from a man who wanted to mandate the teaching of intelligent design, considers homosexual relationships to be the legal equivalent of rape, and thinks that the importance of enforcing the tenets of his religion through statutory law overrules the privacy clauses of the US Constitution.

But wait, there's more!

The lecture continued when Santorum pointed out what he thought were the main differences between Christians and Muslims. Santorum said Christians, who believe in Jesus Christ, never governed or conquered anyone, but Mohammed was a warrior and killed people.

“A democracy could not exist because Mohammed already made the perfect law,” Santorum said. “The Quran is perfect just the way it is, that’s why it is only written in Islamic.”

I feel that with crazy people there is a fine line between needing to respond to what they are saying and only giving them more legitimacy by treating their ridiculousness as worthy of response. But given that Santorum was a US Senator barely two years ago, and one who was considering running in the Republican presidential primary, its worth an earnest reply. Beyond the obvious idiocies like thinking that "Islamic" is a language or that Christians have "never governed or conquered anyone", this is a really, really dangerous way of thinking. Indonesia, Turkey, India, Pakistan - these are among the highest-population Muslim nations in the world, they are all our allies, and they are all moderate, secular democracies. (They are surely imperfect democracies, but not any more so than equivalent Christian countries such as, say, Brazil or Mexico.) One of the fundamental flaws of unilateral Bushism is in not understanding that successfully fighting terrorism requires an unprecedented amount of international cooperation, because these enemies transcend state boundaries and their operations fall under many different jurisdictions. Cooperation with our traditional European allies is great, but what we really need is for these huge Islamic democracies to see us as their allies against a common threat of nihilistic fundamentalism - so that we can coordinate legal, intelligence and military operations, yes, but also so that their citizens continue to reject theocratic political forces like the Taliban or the Muslim Brotherhood that would, in gaining power, underwrite the project of international terrorism.

Our goal should be to make our pool of enemies smaller, not larger. Santorum and those who think like him would apparently be delighted to see that pool expand from the roughly thousands of true-believer adherents of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates plus the opportunistic elements of autocratic governments or regional security services that utilize them for tactical power politics to the currently 1.5 billion people that consider themselves Muslims. This deserves little but contempt. And relief that, for now, this philosophy has been run out of the highest levels of our government.

17 February, 2009


Yglesias points to the NRO's list of the "25 Best Conservative Movies." It's pretty funny that they claim "Ghostbusters" as a conservative movie and even funnier that they claim "Pursuit of Happyness" as a good movie. But Yglesias points out what is perhaps the most telling selection:

Isaac, meanwhile, likes any list that encourages people to go see The Lives of Others. And I agree, but we’re really defining conservatism down if we take “the pervasive intelligence state of Communist East Germany” to be a distinctly conservative notion. Perhaps more truly typical of the conservative worldview is that after Lives of Others comes in at the number one slot, The Dark Knight takes position number twelve specifically because of its alleged advocacy of pervasive surveillance.
That is to say, the conservative movement has no coherency whatsoever. What will become of them?

(Not to mention that nearly all of their films were made by liberals. Perhaps they're engaging in a bit of overinterpretation?)

12 February, 2009

Dep't of things that don't make much sense

Looks like New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg has withdrawn from his nomination as Commerce Secretary.

This whole kerfluffle strikes me as bizarre. Unlike others in the blogosphere, I thought the original nomination made quite a bit of sense from both sides. Obama gets to have another Republican in his cabinet, albeit in a relatively small-potatoes post, that could make his case to the opposition - and he cleared the way for another Democratic senator from NH come 2010. From Gregg's side, maybe you don't agree with Obama 100%, but you know which way the wind is blowing, and you know that re-election in 2010 is looking like a tough, tough fight at best. Why not bow out gracefully by accepting the position - and perhaps even using your position there to push the Administration towards entitlement reform or other center-right economic goals?

But now he pulls a complete 180, and declares in addition that he's not running 2010, either. This makes no sense. He cites disagreement over the stimulus, but if you disagreed with Obama that much, why did you agree to the post in the first place? Obama was pushing his 800b stimulus three weeks ago too; its not like the administration's policy goals have been a big secret. So maybe its for political reasons? It sounds like the GOP is furious with him - but if you are not going to run again in 2010, what in the world does it matter? And if you did want to run again in 2010, you had to damn well know that serving in Obama's adminstration was going to make that impossible. What leverage, then, does the GOP have to scare him out of the position?

And for God's sake, if filling the Commerce post is going to be this difficult, why not just pick me? I'm a fast learner, I have no constituency to answer to - I'll just do whatever Larry Summers tells me to do. Promise.

Waste and Spending

Yggles makes a really stupid argument in favor of apathy about what we spend the stimulus on:

In other words, when the primary point of spending money on something is to get the thing you need to worry a lot about efficiency. You don’t want “wasteful” procurement wherein you overpay for stuff, or spending on stuff that doesn’t work. For the purposes of fiscal stimulus, however, while it’s better to spend the money in an efficient way on useful items, it’s not essential to do so. Which doesn’t mean we should totally throw caution to the wind and pay people to dig holes. But it does mean that it makes perfect sense to relax our criteria for what counts as useful and what counts as efficient. The efficacy of stimulus as stimulus just has to do with how quickly the funds cycle into private hands and then out into the wider economy and has relatively little to do with “efficiency” in an ordinary sense.

This is of course the classic broken window fallacy.* Even though Matt disavows any hole-digging aspirations, let's use that example for the sake of argument. We hire 1,000 people to dig holes and fill them back in. We pay them each $40,000 a year and, voila!, we have reduced unemployment by 1,000 jobs and have increased GDP by $40,000,000. These 1,000 people take this money home, spend a lot of it, save the rest, and create demand for goods and services. The economy has been stimulated.

What's missing here is any analysis of what the alternatives to hiring hole-diggers are. Why not just give each of the 1,000 potential hole-diggers a transfer of $40,000 a year and not actually make them dig the holes? Each person would take their $40,000, spend most of it, save some of it, and create demand for goods and services. It's not like people are more likely to spend money just because they get it as "income" for a "job" instead of as a "transfer". This is exactly as stimulative as the first plan.

Except there are two big differences between these plans. One difference is that the second plan increases GDP by $40,000,000 less than the first plan. This is because the first plan's distribution of the $40,000,000 counts as "jobs", which is recorded in the GDP numbers, whereas the second plan's distribution of $40,000,000 counts as "transfers", which is not recorded as GDP.

The other difference is that the second plan, while having the same stimulative effect, is far less wasteful. Instead of wasting everyone's time by requiring them to do a completely useless chore in order to get the money, the second plan allows people to do something productive with their time. They could spend time with their family, cook, start a business, get a job, go to school, and any number of other things that are clearly better uses of their time than digging holes and filling them back in.

Okay--so as Matt says, what's in the stimulus bill is not hole-digging. All of these projects do have a positive benefit. But as long as that benefit does not exceed the project's cost, the argument above still applies. It would be better to give the money directly to the unemployed workers that would have been employed by the project. And it's likely that many of the projects in the stimulus don't pass a cost-benefit test. More fundamentally, we just don't know if they do or do not. There's not nearly enough time to evaluate each one.

Now, I am not saying we should necessarily start sending $40,000 checks to people. Who would we send them to? When would they end? (Note that these are questions that apply to stimulus projects as well. In fact, I challenge you to think of a criticism of this plan that doesn't apply as well to hole-digging.) But this example illustrates why it's important to look at the possible alternatives to stimulus projects. Saying that it's not essential for stimulus to use the money in an efficient way is about as useful as saying that it's not essential for eating that I consume any vegetables. The important thing to me is not eating, per se, but the health that I get from eating. Similarly, the important thing when considering government policy is overall welfare, not an arbitrary measure of "stimulus".

* For nitpickers, no, it's not technically a logical fallacy.

10 February, 2009

Maddow. Is. Awesome.

Here she is on the recovery package and the flavors of Republican opposition: stupid, wrong, and disingenuous. Also, an interview with Ben Nelson (D-NE), in which it appears he may be some delicious mix of all three. The first half is the best (she uses graphs!); Nelson is just annoying. And he's a muppet.

(h/t Coates)

09 February, 2009


Cloture is a sexy word. I never realized this. Just roll it around on your tongue: cloture. Clooooture. A motion, in the US Senate, to bring debate to a close. E.g., a motion to save us from any more of Senator Vitter's rants on about how if we pass the stimulus bill Acorn will take over the world.

Well, President Obama just squeaked out his first major legislative victory with the cloture vote that just passed with 61 votes (cloture requires 60; otherwise, any senator can filibuster indefinitely). The votes of the moderate Republicans - Snowe, Collins and Specter - cost the bill almost 100 billion of its most effective stimulus, but a 830 billion bill in just over two weeks isn't bad. And once the bill is actually passed tomorrow (which is much less dramatic, since simple passage requires only 51 votes), it will then go to committee which could put some more of that 100 billion back in.

And just think how much worse the bill would have been if we needed 2-3 more Republicans...

Update: So apparently for some reason this bill needs 60 votes for simple passage, demonstrating my embarrassing lack of understanding of how the Senate functions even after 5+ months. Well, it still passed. But lets stop and recognize for a moment how unreasonable it is that major legislation functionally needs a 2/3 majority for passage, not even considering a filibuster.

07 February, 2009

Decline of America blogging

One of the interesting and amusing aspects of inauguration week here in DC was the explosion of the informal sector. With the huge influx of crowds and the skyrocketing-but-temporary demand they represented, some parts of the city took on an aspect usually reserved for Bangkok or Beijing. The sidewalks were lined with vendors selling hats, t-shirts, books, posters, layed out on blankets for easy roll-up if the popo van came patrolling around. You were constantly accosted by entrepreneurs hawking their homemade CDs, or buttons, or whatever. And given the dearth of taxis and the insanity of the metro, you even saw a fair amount of rickshaws (!) buzzing around.

Most all of this dried up the day after the 'naug. But lately as I walk home from the bus stop, I've been noticing that the rickshaws haven't disappeared, at least around the U Street/ Shaw neighborhood. I haven't actually flagged one down to see how much a ride home would be, but it would seem that the mix of growing unemployment and people wanting to save money has led to informal rickshaws finding a stable (if small) niche in the market. Rickshaws.

I for one, welcome America's slide into the third world. Perhaps now we can actually get some decent street food.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Opposition!

Here. There's no need to click the link. Just know that it leads to a video discussion of our nation's problems featuring Glenn Reynolds, Michelle Malkin, and, yes, Joe the Plumber. This is what we're up against, folks.

Obama. Is. Awesome.

06 February, 2009

Google Earth is really cool...

As if you didn't already know. I just downloaded Google Earth 5.0, and took a ride. I scoped out the Marianas Trench, the Davidson Seamount, tried to find Elliot in Congress, then thought, "let's go to Mars!" Of course, I forgot that there's a Mars, California--which was neat, don't get me wrong. But this was much cooler! It would be impossible to hide my childish glee at being able to do this whenever I want!

05 February, 2009

Leftists and Science

VerBruggen at the NRO agrees with John Derbyshire that the Left poses more of a threat to science than the Right:

I insist that ideologues on both sides are science-hostile; but which kind of politics is more of an obstacle to the advance of our understanding, is arguable. Since science is mostly carried out in places where Right Creationists, Geocentrists, etc. have no influence, but blank-slate Left “culturists” and po-mo words-have-no-meaning deconstructionists have tremendous influence, I’d guess the Left has the potential to do more damage, at least in the human sciences.
I'd guess that Derbyshire is speaking largely from his 'gut' and giving his brain a break on this one. The Right is largely founded on assumptions derived from an absolute moral standard (gay marriage, abortion, small government, foreign intervention,...), which it puts before any 'derived' or proven methods or beliefs. In that respect, the Left seems to be less constrained in accepting new ideas and ultimately uncovering new truths, be it in the human or natural sciences.

04 February, 2009

You know you're doing something right...

When Dick Cheney thinks your policies are doing harm to American national security interests. In the interview with Politico, he is clearly trying to implant the narrative that if another attack occurs, it will be because of Obama's lack of resolve in the matter of torturing detainees. Fortunately, his arguments are about as laughable as Joe the Plumber holding forth on the economic crisis. Shall we review?

First, the tired straw men that

we’re not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.


I think there are some who probably actually believe that if we just go talk nice to these folks, everything’s going to be okay.

Anyone who says this manner of thing should be automatically disqualified from occupying a serious place in foreign policy debates. Diplomacy and negotiation are about using the tremendous amount of leverage we and our allies have to apply incentives and disincentives, and never about appeals to conscience or Christian agape. And everyone in the world understands, without us shouting about it, that the words of the US are backed up by overwhelming force. (Unless, of course, we are being tied down by a useless occupation...) Cheney must have missed Obama's talk of doubling force levels in Afghanistan and using all means at our disposal to crush al-Qaeda. That's ok; it was only the central plank of his foreign policy platform.

Second, his calling the new Administration naive:

The United States needs to be not so much loved as it needs to be respected. Sometimes, that requires us to take actions that generate controversy. I’m not at all sure that that’s what the Obama administration believes.

Lets just stop to note the irony of this man, who thought that a unilateral US occupation of a hostile Middle Eastern country riven by ethnic disputes would quickly result in a bastion of liberal, pro-American democracy, throwing out the charge of naivete. Also, are we supposed to believe that Bush-Cheney policies generated respect in the world? But more to the point, Obama's insistence on retaining the right to cross border strikes in Pakistan (and now his statement that he will retain the use of certain types of rendition), among other things, demonstrate that his policies will not be held hostage to some sort of world opinion poll.

Finally, with regards to Obama's plans to close Guantanamo (which even Bush came to realize was necessary):

But he said he worried that “instead of sitting down and carefully evaluating the policies,” Obama officials are unwisely following “campaign rhetoric” and preparing to release terrorism suspects or afford them legal protections granted to more conventional defendants in crime cases.

OK. I'm pretty sure what Obama's team is actually doing as we speak is sitting down and carefully evaluating the policies, causing a delay which I've seen some on the left interpret as hesitation. But what gets me is how Cheney can be so worked up about these terrorism suspects when his administration failed to maintain any organized collection of evidence, and much less any comprehensive case files, on most of the current detainees. So lets summarize: Bush and Cheney scooped up hundreds of suspects willy nilly (many of them, it was found, framed for ransom money), stocked the Justice department with sympathetic lawyers who wrote sham opinions justifying their unconstitutional treatment, and then failed to organize or upkeep even the most basic dossier on their backgrounds and evidence against them so that when a new administration took over and began to "sit down and carefully evaluate" the policies, they are left more or less in the dark about the details of the individuals.

I needed to vent about this interview, but I think the healthiest thing going forward is simply to ignore the man, who, as Ackerman points out, will need to continue to push this line out in order to salvage what's left of his reputation. Obama is certainly not perfect, and I may not agree with how he eventually resolves the legitimate challenges of holding terrorism suspects, but for once Andrew Sullivan is not exaggerating when he says that right now, especially after reading that interview, the overwhelming feeling is relief.