Friday, July 31, 2009

Well adjusted

I take most presidents, even the good ones (maybe especially the goods ones), to be kinda messed up on a personal level. Lincoln was chronically depressed. Kennedy was a pill-popping philanderer. Clinton was a non-pill-popping philanderer. W was a dry drunk. Etc. Not that this is necessarily bad. The job itself is ridiculous in terms of its powers and responsibilities. We wouldn't expect sane people to take the job, nor to remain sane if they took it.

This is what makes Obama stand out. He seems almost disturbingly normal. Check out his little bit of self-analysis in Balz and Johnson's new book The Battle for America 2008 (via Ezra):
I'm pretty well adjusted. You know, you can psychoanalyze my father leaving and this and that, but a lot of those things I resolved a long time ago. I'm pretty happy with my life. So there's an element, I think, of being driven that might have operated a little differently with me than maybe some other candidates. The way I thought about it was more of a sense of duty, in this sense. I thought to myself: There aren't that many people put in the position I'm put in. Some of it's just dumb luck. Some of it maybe has to do with me embodying some characteristics that are interesting for the time that we're in. But when I made the decision to do this, it wasn't with the certainty that I was the right person for the job. It was more the sense of, given what's been given to me, I should probably just give it a shot and see whether in fact there's something real there.

But I went into it with some modesty, thinking to myself: It may be that this really is all hype, and once people get a sense of my ideas and what's going on there that they think I'm some callow youth or full of hot air, and if that turned out to be the case, that was okay. I think for me it was more of a sense of being willing to do this, understanding that the odds were probably -- I gave myself 25 percent odds, you know, maybe 30 -- which are pretty remarkable odds to be president of the United States, if you're a gambling man.
It's possible he's just a really good politician who does a great imitation of a well-adjusted person. But, of course, the easiest way to be thought of as well-adjusted is to actually be that.

Avoiding conflict in the European Parliament

Chapter 7 of Hix et al's Democratic Politics in the European Parliament is pretty interesting. The authors compare member's loyalties to their national parties to their loyalties to their European party groups. They find that, when there is a conflict between what a national party wants and what a European party wants, MEPs tend to vote with their national party. Not always, but usually. This isn't terribly shocking -- the national party actually has the power to re-nominate or de-nominate them. The European parties can't really exert much control over members' careers.

But what is particularly interesting is how infrequently these conflicts occur. As the authors write,
In almost 90 per cent of all MEP vote decisions in the fifth parliament [1999-2004], MEPs did not find themselves torn between the positions of their European and national parties, and so were free to vote with both parties' majorities.
Doesn't this seem like an awfully high figure? Particularly for the continent that was pretty much rife with internal warfare from the Renaissance until 1945? I'm really curious how this ends up working. One answer would be agenda control; the European parties manage to avoid taking on roll call votes that cross-pressure their members. But the EP has remarkably little agenda control. The bulk of their legislation is handed to them by the European Commission.

Another, I think more likely, answer is the organizing power of ideology. The left-right dimension in politics seems something close to universal across countries, at least from my limited reading on the subject. So a lefty in Romania will have a roughly similar set of views to a lefty in Denmark, and both will be able to join the Party of European Socialists with remarkably little internal dissent. Maybe this wouldn't work if you expanded the sphere somewhat more, but it is impressive how well it works considering the diversity of nations already in the EP.

Beer question

Which is the worse possibility: Obama got a Bud Light because it's his favorite beer, or because he thought that's what real Americans drink?

Meanwhile, if you were invited to the White House for a beer summit, what would you request? Would it be the same thing if you were president?

Me, I'd go with a Rogue Shakespeare Stout or a Dogfish Ale. (Maybe the latter since I'm guessing Biden would like to see a Delaware beer.) If I were president, Sam Adams or Miller Genuine.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

You need to read Palin in the original Klingon...

William Shatner provides a dramatic reading of Sarah Palin's farewell speech:

(h/t Robert Farley)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I'm trying to very quickly become an expert on the European Parliament? Why? Well, it turns out it's a pretty fascinating legislature, and I'm considering spending some of my sabbatical year in London and/or Amsterdam studying it. What makes it fascinating from my perspective is the intense partisanship: there are strong, ideologically-driven transnational parties that hold together on a broad range of issues. This occurs despite the facts that members of the EP enjoy little control over their legislature's agenda and that the parties contain members from very different geographic regions. If you want to read up on this, check out Democratic Politics in the European Parliament by Simon Hix, Abdul Noury, and GĂ©rard Roland. It's quite good.

Another curious feature is that being a member of the European Parliament (MEP) is really not very prestigious, even though the EP's powers have been growing in recent years. It's actually a great deal of work, as MEPs must constantly shuttle between their home country, Brussels, and Strasbourg. Meanwhile, most voters don't really know who they are, so they enjoy very little glory for their efforts.

How lousy is an EP seat? Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to buy off a hooker by appointing her to the EP, and she felt that she'd been ripped off.

I really hope to meet some of these people.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bad journalism, sure, but is it bias?

(h/t Media Matters)

The masses

Take six minutes and enjoy some testimony of citizens before the Santa Cruz City Council.

While we may tend to think of Santa Cruz as a tad out there, I'm pretty sure you that if you shaved these folks, you couldn't really distinguish them from petitioners before just about any city council in the country.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mr. Stripey

Most of the tomato varietals I'm growing in my yard are turning out nicely, with the exception of one plant I bought called "Mr. Stripey." It's supposed to produce these nice yellow tomatoes with brown stripes. But as you can see in the photo below, it's rather anemic.
It's just two giant tomatoes dangling from a tiny, slender frame.

Must... not... draw... inappropriate... comparison....

Posse comitatus

This should be more of a scandal.

Some of the weirdest moments of the Bush administration are those in which W appears as the voice of moderation. Yes, it could have been worse.

Voting your conscience or your constituency?

There was a whole lot that was fascinating about the Senate's recent rejection of an amendment that would have required states to honor each others' concealed handgun laws. One of the interesting aspects was that Republicans were essentially voting against states' rights. But whatever. The thing that caught the attention of observers locally was the little Kabuki theater played by Colorado's Democratic senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet:
Only two Republicans went against the gun lobby, but that was enough to leave supporters just short of the 60 votes they needed. The slim margin was no accident: Other Democrats, such as Pennsylvania's Bob Casey and Colorado's Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, were said to have been willing to vote "no" if necessary. Twenty minutes after the voting began, Bennet and Udall left the cloakroom together and walked into the chamber. Bennet went to the well to consult with Schumer, who indicated that it was safe for Bennet -- a product of D.C.'s St. Albans School -- to vote with the NRA. Bennet looked to Udall, who gave an approving nod, and cast his "aye" vote.
Colorado Democrats are atwitter about the true preferences of Bennet and Udall... especially the former, who is up for (re)election next year. Does he really believe that Colorado gun owners should be held only to the minimal conceal-carry laws of places like Alabama?

Political scientists Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo helpfully remind us that we shouldn't try to divine politician's individual preferences from their votes. As they note, if there is a conflict between constituency and conscience, it nearly always makes sense to screw your conscience and vote your constituency. The reason is that almost no roll call votes are decided by just one legislator. That is, no given senator's vote is likely to be pivotal. So if you vote your conscience, you anger your constituency and get no real policy benefit out of it. If you vote your constituency, you make your voters happy (or at least avoid making some important and active ones angry) and the policy outcome is the same regardless.

On the dangers police face

If you haven't read JS' letter at TPM on policing, you really ought to. Excerpt:
Police work is not that dangerous compared to, say, driving a cab. Firefighters have a far more physically dangerous job. However, cops have a heroic job: much harder in so many ways than firefighting. Firefighters are almost never in a morally ambiguous zone and almost always are in the business of making people feel good. Cops handle humans at their worst.
It's a perspective on police work that we almost never hear, but it's probably a lot more accurate and appropriate than the usual militaristic descriptions we get. Read the whole thing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The politics of pity

I'm not a big fan of the trend over the past few decades by which any political reform effort is expected to trot out victims. I mean, I get the point. People can relate to problems when they hear about real people suffering under the status quo. That's why Bill Clinton used to talk about specific people suffering due to the inadequacies of the health care system and why Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama did the same thing last year. Republican candidates do the same thing when talking about the burdens of taxation and regulations faced by small business owners. This style of rhetoric was parodied only slightly by "Al Gore" in a 2000 SNL debate:
Jim, let me tell about a friend of mine. Her name is Etta Munsen. She's 94, she's a widow living on Social Security in Sparta, Tennessee. Etta was born with only one kidney. She also suffers from poilo, spinal menengitis, lung, liver, and pancreatic cancer, an enlarged heart, diabetes, and a rare form of styctic acne. Now, several recent strokes, along with an unfortunate shark attack, have left her paralyzed and missing her right leg under the knee. Just last week she woke from a coma to find that, due to a hospital mix-up, her left arm had been amputated, infected with syphillis, and then reattached.
The problem is that it substitutes pity for argument. It parades human suffering around asking for handouts rather than explaining why a proposed change would improve on the status quo. But fine, I'm grouchy, this is the way things are.

But this criticism of Obama's press conference struck me as really weird:
He never detailed his own plan, or named a single victim of America’s broken system, and he spoke largely in the abstractions of blue pills, red pills, and legislative processes.
He never named a single victim? This is a criticism? I mean, first of all, he did. Second of all, really? Just how many names is the president supposed to produce?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How screwed is California?

I spent last week at the Lair of the Bear, a family camp in the Sierras just north of Yosemite. I'm pleased to report that the western Sierras are as beautiful as ever. But for a lot of the trip, I was inundated by anecdotal evidence of California's decline.

My brother, an employee of the University of California, kept getting e-mail messages describing one catastrophe after another: furloughs, pay cuts, layoffs, collapsing physical plant.... It just does not sound like a pleasant place to work. Even once UC schools start hiring again, I can only imagine that they'll have lost a good deal of their luster. Meanwhile, my cousin is an assistant principal at a school in the Bay Area. She's supposed to go on disability pay for maternity leave, but that pay is being given to her in the form of an I.O.U. She can't spend that, but she could sell it for 85 cents on the dollar.

Meanwhile, the freeways, the city streets -- everything that comes to mind when I think of the word "infrastructure" -- just looked really run down. It's not like this just happened all at once, but my recollection of California from when I was a kid was that the place always looked new. It just always seemed cleaner and better than any of the decaying cities in the East. Not any more.

There's a scene from "Taxi Driver" (1976) in which Peter Boyle is talking with a colleague about how things work in California. I can't recall or find the exact lines, but it had something to do with how when one member of a same-sex couple dies in California, the partner inherits the estate. The characters weren't even particularly fond of this imagined policy (they referred to the partners as "fags"), but they remarked that California was way ahead of everyone else. That really struck me. Even if you didn't particularly like the way the future was going to look, California was the place you could see it first.

I hope that's not true today.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The trouble with self-funders

There's a strain of thought that parties really like to recruit and nominate self-funding candidates. After all, such candidates draw few precious party resources, allowing the party to allocate those resources elsewhere. The problem, of course, is that sometimes those self-funders get elected, and then they don't owe anyone anything.

This represents an important distinction between the needs of the party when campaigning and the needs of the party when governing. To maintain a governing coalition, sometimes individual desires must be quashed in service to the united front.

The Democratic united front on health reform took a beating recently at the hands of self-funding freshman U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder):
Democratic leadership staffers scolded freshman chiefs of staff Monday for blindsiding House leaders with a letter protesting the tax on the wealthy designed to pay for President Obama's healthcare overhaul.

"They said that letters like this don't help anybody," said a freshman Democratic aide.

A bare majority of the Democratic freshman class, 21 of 39, signed the letter circulated by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) opposing their leadership's plan to raise taxes to finance a healthcare overhaul. Another signer, Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), is a second-term lawmaker.

It became one of the starkest signs of Democratic revolt against a healthcare bill that Pelosi had rolled out triumphantly days before...
Coloradopols has been all over this one:
Depending on what happens next, Polis' hamfisted 'contribution' to the debate could do more to scuttle health care reform this year than any Republican--a truly astonishing turn of events.
So, yeah, self-financers carry their own risks.

Extremely bad blogger

I was vacationing in California last week with limited Internet access. This week, I'm totally swamped with work while trying to entertain my son, who's not in camp. I apologize for the lack of posts. I'll try to get something going soon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Facebook is weird

I just got friended by the guy who beat me up in fourth grade. Bygones.

Those clever bastards in marketing

How do you get a girlie-girl interested in baseball? Why, sell pink mitts and balls, of course.

Unnecessary "quotation marks"

An "awesome" new blog. (h/t Ezra)

Strange week for former SNL stars

Al Franken gets sworn into the U.S. Senate, while Victoria Jackson goes absolutely nuts. I'm guessing she and Al didn't hang out much at the wrap parties. She was probably over on the Dennis Miller side of the room.

At least they're staying relevant!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Palin's effect on the 2008 election

The usual political science wisdom on vice presidential candidates is that they have very little effect on presidential election results. The most they usually do is improve their parties' prospects in their home states, and when their home states are places like, say, Alaska and Delaware (states that are tiny and reliably in one party's corner), that doesn't make much of a difference to the Electoral College.

But there's a lot of talk going around that Palin was the exception. Due to her outsized personality or a ton of media coverage or whatever, the story goes, she may have had a big impact on the vote. Maybe she rallied a somewhat depressed conservative base to get out to the polls. Maybe she cost McCain the support of prominent endorsers like Colin Powell. Maybe these effects cancelled each other out.

Back in April, John Sides wrote up a paper by Richard Johnston and Emily Thorson allegedly showing a huge Palin effect. Matt Yglesias cited this study last week. The paper produced three very interesting graphs showing that voters knew the economy was tanking long before they started turning against McCain, and also showing a very close relationship between voter approval of Palin and of McCain. The interpretation is that Palin, not the economy, cost McCain the election:
Judgment on her was incontestably important. The correspondence between dynamics in her ratings and dynamics in McCain vote intentions is astonishingly exact. Her marginal impact in vote-intention estimation models dwarfs that for any Vice-Presidential we are aware of, certainly for her predecessors in 2000 and 2004. And the range traversed by her favorability ratings is truly impressive. But why? We are unaware of any theory that opens the door to serious impact from the bottom half of the ticket.
I'm going to somewhat disagree with this interpretation of the graphs. For one thing, it shouldn't be a shock that a presidential candidate's approval rating moves in tandem with that of his vice presidential candidate. If you're going to vote for one, you're going to vote for the other -- people know that. (Indeed, it's more surprising that Obama's and Biden's ratings don't jibe more.)

Second, while we would expect the incumbent party's candidate (in this case, McCain) to bear the blame for a sour economy, we wouldn't necessarily expect voters to make that connection overnight. It was a confusing and very sudden collapse in the financial sector that caught the public's attention in mid-September. It probably took a few weeks of campaign noise and media coverage for voters to apply the information to the political sphere.

Finally, note where the McCain plunge begins -- right around October 8th (pace Dave Barry). What happened that week? Well, October 7th was the night of the second presidential debate, the town-hall format one that included McCain's famous "that one" reference to Obama. That debate turned mostly on economic matters, with the candidates charting out different positions on how to rescue the economy. Sixty-three million people watched the debate - a 21% increase over the first Obama-McCain debate and the biggest viewership for a presidential debate since 1992.

So here's my interpretation: By the 2nd week of October, voters recognized the economy was tanking. The high public attention on the 2nd debate gave voters an opportunity to apply their knowledge of the economy to the political world, and they chose to blame the economy's collapse on the incumbent party. Palin was along for the ride on this. Her star was tied to John McCain's, and his to the interaction of party and economics.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The politics of victimhood

Josh Marshall on Palin's future:
What very little shot she had as a future presidential candidate (and it was a much longer shot than I think many realized) is over. She's done. She's back to what she was -- a small person looking for someone to be angry at.
Well, she didn't have to look far. Now she's angry at all the people who are criticizing her decision to resign as governor. As she said on Facebook recently,
How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it's about country. And though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make.
I've quit jobs before, although it never occurred to me to inform my boss that I was doing it for my country. And I'm hard pressed to name an elected official who was praised for quitting in the middle of a term. But whatever. She's the victim.

This whininess is of a piece with Megan McCain's recent appearance on Bill Maher's show, when she argued that Obama is blaming too much on the Bush administration. When guest Paul Begala shot back that Reagan blamed Carter for everything, McCain replied, "You know I wasn't born yet so I wouldn't know." Begala then retorted, "I wasn't born during the French Revolution but I know about it." McCain, having been exposed as a fraud who couldn't back up her arguments, decided to play the victim at that point: "You clearly know everything and I'm just the blond sitting here."

So there's the tactic. Say something stupid. Get criticized for saying something stupid. Say that the critics are persecuting you and are evidence of what's wrong with this country. I don't think this is a great way to get elected to anything. But if your goals is to make liberals mad, this is pretty effective.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Palin's flailin'

I feel obligated to say something about Palin's resignation, but it still just seems so damned weird. When I first heard about it, it seemed like an obvious move toward the 2012 presidential nomination. Leaving office would free her up to campaign across the nation without having to jet back to Juneau every time there was a flood or an avalanche or a moose attack.

But then I read some of her statement, and it just seemed so bizarre. It's like she made this decision in a real hurry, suggesting either that there's some scandal about to pop or that she tends to make important decisions based on gut instinct without thinking them through.

And then there's this weird statement, in which she suggests that only quitters stick to their jobs:
Life is too short to compromise time and resources... it may be tempting and more comfortable to just keep your head down, plod along, and appease those who demand: "Sit down and shut up", but that's the worthless, easy path; that's a quitter's way out.

So part of me thinks that there might be some clever calculation in this unorthodox move on her part, but it's the same part of me that though that McCain's naming of her as his VP candidate was a clever move. The rest of me is back where I was after the Katie Couric interview, thinking that I have no idea what Sarah Palin is talking about.

I'm reminded that the political system may be rational, but individual politicians may be occasionally irrational. This seems to apply especially to governors of late. What does resigning in the middle of her first term do except bolster her reputation for inexperience while undermining her claim to endurance? She looks weirder now than she did in 2008, and she looked plenty weird then.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Personhood amendment, part deux

Interesting spin:
Colorado voters in 2008 trounced an amendment that would have defined a fertilized human egg as a person, but supporters of the "personhood" battle are angling for a rematch in 2010.

This time, though, they're avoiding the word "fertilization" in the amendment's language, saying that it confused voters, who may have visualized chicken eggs.
Um, yeah, I'm sure that's why it lost. It must have been the voters misreading the initiative. I'm sure it didn't have anything to do with the initiative's backers misreading the voters.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Video dump

(Thanks, Marc.)

(Thanks, AM and Sarah.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Vox Populi = Vox Dei?

Chris Kelly has an awesome piece up at Huffington Post about Gov. Sanford's patent inability to shut up. (Thanks, Susan.) Okay, it's not just about Sanford. It's about Sarah Palin, too, and really any politician who believes she should run for and stay in office because "God has opened a door." That metaphor, Kelly reminds us, comes from the Book of Revelations. He adds,
American Evangelicals love Revelation, because it doesn't make a lick of sense and then everything explodes. Kind of like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
The whole piece is worth a read.

So, a question: Who is scarier, the politician who thinks the people want him to run, or the politician who thinks God wants him to run? I know, the voice of the people is the voice of God, but not really. Ross Perot was a serious egomaniac, but when he claimed that the American people were demanding leadership from someone like him because the two parties weren't providing it, he could at least point to a poll that, if you held it sideways and squinted, sort of backed up his point. But you can't poll God. I assume Mark Sanford's evening prayers are along the following lines: "Dear Lord, if you do not want me to remain in office and keep talking about my sexual liaisons, please signify now. [Pause] Thy will be done!"

There's an interesting partisan angle to this whole thing, too. I haven't seen the numbers, but I'm guessing that within the first 24 hours of Sanford's revelatory press conference, more Democrats than Republicans wanted him to resign. I'll bet those numbers are reversed today.