Friday, February 26, 2010

Representation

I showed some of "The Times of Harvey Milk" in my state/local politics class the other day, and it ended up spawning a fascinating discussion on representation, which has been a recurrent theme in my class. Usually, I focus on the extent to which a district or a voter is represented ideologically. That is, do liberal districts get liberal legislators? What kind of legislators do moderate districts get?

As the film notes, Milk ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unsuccessfully three times, and finally got elected only because the city switched from at-large to district-based representation in 1977.  Suddenly, it was possible for the Castro to amass enough votes to send a gay man to city hall.  And Milk wasn't the only beneficiary -- that same year, the city elected its first African American, its first Asian American, and its first avowed feminist to the city board.

Several people in the film, including Milk himself, talk about what it meant to them to have an openly gay city supervisor.  Suddenly, the city government didn't feel like a hostile place.  Gays and lesbians had a voice.  And the film offers evidence that Milk's election affected people far outside San Francisco.

In his famous yet unpublished manuscript "Why Parties?", Tom Schwartz writes,
To get something from government, do not make the government more representative of you; make it more responsible to you.
I tend to subscribe to this theory.  Lord knows, there are plenty of hucksters who can get elected by looking like their constituents yet do very little for them once in office.  Yet, as this film shows, symbolic representation is not something to be taken lightly.

Update: Somehow I missed Jonathan Bernstein's excellent and substantively similar post on this subject.

From the Realistic Expectations Department

Denver Post:
Health summit unable to heal partisan rifts
Are partisan rifts actually a disease now?

Life before Google

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Relying too much on polls

So I was watching the Obama health care summit today on and off.  It was pretty fascinating to hear Republican members of Congress persistently repeating their claim that the administration's current health reform plan is unpopular, and therefore it should be scrapped and we should start the whole thing over.  One could call this hypocritical -- these same GOPers regularly criticize other politicians for following polls.  But it's hardly unusual for a politician to rely on polls when they support her position and to brag about her bravery when the polls oppose her position.

Nonetheless, the reliance on polls has been particularly misleading during this whole debate on health care. First of all, as Ezra Klein notes, Americans oppose health reform until they learn what's in it.  Basically, the public opposes it in general but supports every component of it.  Also, the polls reflect aspects of the political debate right now but can't really say how people will feel about health reform five or ten or fifty years from now.  As I suggested the other day, expansions of the social safety net usually start off controversial but then gain near-universal approval over time.  It's also reasonable to question the GOP's sincerity on this.  That is, it's not that they want Obama to work on more popular legislation.  They want to kill this legislation because that will benefit them in the midterm election.  Saying we should start over is another way of requesting a delay until the elections, or forever.

But the main problem here is that this just isn't a great subject for measuring public opinion.  Health reform is tremendously complex and the media don't do a great job reporting on it substantively.  Opinion polls on the subject are highly sensitive to issues of question wording and ordering.  If you want to know whether people approve of the job Obama is doing or for whom they intend to vote in the next election, polls are pretty reliable.  But for this subject, it's just not terribly revealing.

Civility

I'm not sure if there's a way to increase civility in our public discourse, but if there is, I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve courageously attacking anonymous commenters on unnamed websites.  Yet that's the path Dick Polman chooses.

It should be clear that using Internet commentary as an indicator of declining civility is methodologically problematic.  As I've mentioned previously, I take the percentage of jerks in society to be a relative constant over time.  I am entirely confident that there were people who celebrated the death of John F. Kennedy and who rejoiced when Ronald Reagan was shot.  Surely there were those who danced upon learning of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.  But those folks didn't write comments about it on websites, for obvious reasons.

Of course, one difference, other than the lack of an Internet, was that mid-20th century newspaper editors and TV news producers felt it was inappropriate to air certain views deemed too extreme or incendiary.  If you wanted to go public with a comment about how great it was that JFK got shot, there weren't many places for you to do so.  Of course, people who want to write stuff today about how great it is that Teddy Kennedy died still don't have a huge forum -- they mostly write anonymous comments on random websites.  These views don't get much of a public airing until, you know, syndicated columnists like Dick Polman choose to repeat them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Caprica" and balance

Marc, in previous comments:
It looks to me like fictional Caprica is a world that embraces tech in a more selective way that we do in the real world. It makes no sense to use a steam train, so they use a high-tech one. But there are a lot of arguments in favor of older cameras and even videotape over digital technology. In a show about the uneasy relationship to tech, I don't think this isn't mainly a question of the show wanting to look a certain way. I think they're saying -- though this may as well be my own preferences talking -- that adopting a technology simply because we can is the nut of the show's story, and on Caprica, some technologies have been rejected.
I think it's a bit unclear what exactly "Caprica" is doing with technology, and this also ties in with the portrayal of marriage on the show.  It is interesting that the destruction of Caprica by the Cylons, in both "Galactica" and "Caprica," is referred to not as a holocaust (the term used in the 1978 series) or a sneak attack, but as "The Fall."  This draws an immediate comparison to, say, the Roman Empire, or to any civilization that had a hand in its own destruction.

So why would Caprica be responsible for its own demise?  Well, the civilization is portrayed as one that's reach its apex.  It has reached profound technological heights, but it's also decadent and amoral, making it ripe for the destructive monotheistic religion eventually adopted by the Cylons.  So the portrayal of widely-accepted same sex marriages and group marriages on the show could be perceived in different ways.  Maybe it's a sci-fi show doing what sci-fi does -- offering a different version of society as a way of critiquing our own.  Or maybe it's suggesting that these different forms of marriage are a sign of decadence and inevitable demise.

Back to technology.  Again, the civilization on Caprica is not much different than our own, except they have fantastically better robotics, virtual reality, and transportation.  But they've notably rejected some other forms of advanced technology.  So maybe, as Marc says, this is a sci-fi critique of our own society -- just because a technology can be developed does not mean that it must be.  Or maybe it's a sign of Caprica's inevitable demise.  After all, creating robots, like cheating death, is a form of hubris -- it's a way of having the benefits of slavery while avoiding the associated moral baggage.  Creating robot soldiers is even more of a sin in this light, as it allows for perpetual war without the main impediment to warfare: grieving families.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

My father-in-law introduced me to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan a few years ago, but it turned out I already knew his music -- or at least his voice.  I just didn't know I knew it.  He did some amazing vocals on the "Dead Man Walking" soundtrack, and he also provided some haunting sounds on Peter Gabriel's single "Signal to Noise."  If you don't know that latter song by name, it's the music that scored the opening battle in Martin Scorsese's  "Gangs of New York" (2002).

Anyway, NPR did a nice piece on Ali Khan yesterday, and only then did I learn that the Pakinstani has been dead since 1997.  Which explains why Gabriel used a recording of Ali Khan's voice when performing "Signal to Noise" live in 2003.  It all makes sense now.

The Times of Harvey Milk

A colleague recommended the documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" (1984) to me recently, and it was a great call.  Yes, it's a wonderful and very loving biography of Milk, but it also offers some wonderful lessons in city politics and civic engagement.  I'm actually using part of the film in my state/local politics class to teach about the consequences of a city choosing district-based or at-large council elections.  As the film explains, San Francisco switched to district elections in 1977, making it possible for the Castro area to elect the first openly gay city official in the nation a year later.

You can view the entire film for free on Hulu or YouTube.

Who's the incumbent?

2010 is likely to be a very difficult election year for Democrats nationwide.  The national political environment will affect state elections, too.  But how do they affect state elections in which the Republicans are the incumbent party?

I'm curious about this for California, where the Republicans have held the governor's mansion since 2003.  And keep in mind that as bad as the political and economic situation seem in Washington, they're far worse in Sacramento.  So, if the race comes down to Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, who benefits by being the party out of power?

So far, it's looking like a tight race.


Duplication in education

I'm a bit baffled by this article in today's Denver Post.
When the University of Colorado Denver announced a brand new bioengineering department this month, it took only a couple of days for Colorado State University to point out that it already had such a program.
The two, about 65 miles apart, are a bit different — CU's is an actual department; CSU offers a master's and Ph.D. — but each costs between $230,000 and $350,000 a year to operate, with professors, support staff and labs.
Never mind that this distinction between an "actual department" and a department that "offers a master's and Ph.D." is completely unclear.  And never mind that these departments undoubtedly bring in revenue, as well, via tuition.  Since when is two state universities having similar departments considered a market inefficiency?  But that's exactly the line of thought the article follows:
One school sees success in, for example, another school's criminal-justice program and decides to create the same major to lure in students.
"I think it's foolish to aggressively compete," said David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and a former assistant education secretary. "An efficient system isn't one that has a lot of duplications. . . . It doesn't make sense. That's not what public higher education is about. We should have clearly differentiated systems and missions."
Or, as Colorado Department of Higher Education director Rico Munn put it: "We are entering an economic environment, and we're also going to have to set priorities."
So let me get this straight.  If CU Boulder's political science program is considered to be the best in the state, then the continued existence of CSU's political science program is inefficient and unnecessary.  Students who want to student political science should go to Boulder.  Of course, if they want to study in a program in which CSU excels -- say, agricultural sciences -- they should go to Ft. Collins, and the corresponding program at Boulder should be closed.

What happens if a student wants to study both agriculture and politics?  Sorry -- you have to make a choice when you're 18.

Does this make sense?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Better Zoe?

Am I nuts, or is Alessandra Torresani (who plays Zoe on "Caprica") not that great an actor?  Yes, she's got a weird role to play on that show -- she's a teenage girl trapped in electronic format inside a giant robot, and she wants to stay hidden. So we get to see her as a girl, but others in the show see her as a machine.  But it just seems like this give her all sorts of opportunities to act with her face, and she doesn't rise to the occasion.  On the most recent episode, the sweet techno nerd was upgrading her breastplate, and commented, "Now that's a nice chest."  Not even a little eyebrow twitch from her.

Maybe I'm missing it.  After all, one of the things that distinguished "Galactica" was the creators' ability to extract rather good performances from actors not known for being good.  Think Richard Hatch.  So maybe Torresani really is doing what the director wants.  It just seems like it could be a lot more.

I will be ice dancing for Ecuador in 2014

Is it just me, or is there an unusually high number of Olympic athletes this year competing for countries with which they have only minimal ties?  I'm thinking, of course, about the Reed family of Warren, New Jersey -- Allison is skating for Georgia while her siblings Chris and Cathy compete for Japan.  And then there's Errol Kerr, a Californian and former member of the U.S. Ski Team now competing for Jamaica.  There are others.

I'm just sort of curious -- is this on the rise?  And who makes the rules on this?  Does the IOC mandate that athletes be citizens of the countries for which they participate?  If so, how hard is it to get dual citizenship if one nation really wants it?

I'm not really against this sort of thing.  I mean, I get that if you want to make it as an American alpine skier, the field is pretty impacted here, but you might have a shot representing Tunisia, which might be up for fielding a ski team if they don't have to invest too much in the effort.  It's all about the free market.  But, taken to its logical conclusion, it kind of undermines the whole nations-competing-against-nations thing.

Anyway, I'm already working on my routine for 2014.  I'd like it to be a surprise, but let's just say it involves a cowboy hat and some six-shooters.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The big popularity contest

I love ColoradoPols and cite him/her frequently, but this post has some problems.  Here, Pols is trying to explain why the Colorado gubernatorial race is looking more favorable for Dems now that Hickenlooper is that party's nominee.  Reason one:
Democrat John Hickenlooper is really popular. For whatever reason (we could name many reasons, but this isn't the space for that), voters across Colorado really like the Denver Mayor. Elections are often popularity contests, because most voters do not educate themselves enough to know much of a difference between the candidates. It's more important for voters to like you than to agree with you on policy. Look at the 2004 Presidential election: A lot of voters knew that George W. Bush had not done a very good job in his first term, but they just didn't like Democrat John Kerry (and who could blame them?)
That's a rather crude and cruel assessment of the American voter.  It's also, as far as we can tell, pretty wrong.  Most voters, political scientists have found, vote consistently with one party or the other, so they're not being swayed by likability.  How do the rest vote?  To an astonishing degree, they cast votes based on substance: the state of the economy, the presence or absence of war, and the relative moderation or extremism of the candidates.

Why was Bush re-elected?  The economy was growing -- not hugely, but it wasn't in recession either.  The war with Iraq wasn't a great success, but it wasn't a national nightmare yet, either.  To the extent voters were retrospectively judging Bush's first term, they gave him a low, but passing, grade.  Hence his receiving the lowest reelection margin in presidential history.

Why is Hickenlooper popular?  Yes, he's got a great personal style, but part of it has to be that Denver has done quite well under his leadership.  The city remains a very attractive place to live, and parts of it that once weren't that interesting (e.g.: downtown) are now thriving.  That's not to say that all of this is due to choices made by Hickenlooper as mayor, but he is benefiting from actual substantive evaluations of life in the Denver metro area.  If Denver had started to look more like Detroit in the last few years, I guarantee Hickenlooper would not be perceived as so charming and lovable.

Health care = Iraq?

By now, you may have seen Charlie Cook's prediction that the Obama administration's push for health care reform will be like the Bush administration's push for war with Iraq.  This strikes me as wildly off the mark.  Wars and entitlements have entirely opposite life cycles in American public opinion.

Wars, as we know, tend to start off pretty popular.  People rally around the president.  And then the president gets a few months, maybe more, to finish things up.  Bush Sr. knew that and deliberately chose a limited war strategy in Iraq in 1991 that would minimize the length of the conflict and maximize political support, both foreign and domestic.  Longer wars, however, are costly for presidents, as Truman, Johnson, and W will attest.

By contrast, expansions of the social safety net tend to be initially divisive but very popular in the long run.  Republicans in the 1930s blasted Social Security as socialistic.  In the 1960s, Ronald Reagan (who by that point was comfortable with Social Security) compared Medicare to communism.  No serious politician makes these claims today.

If the Democrats manage to pass health reform this year, this is likely to be a long term boon for the party, rather than a festering wound like Iraq.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Winning schminning

Jonathan Bernstein points out that there are competing incentives within parties.  Some party actors want to nominate the most moderate candidates available to maximize the chances of winning; others are willing to risk losses for the chance to elect more ideologically extreme candidates so that they can better press an agenda once those people are in office.  But we've generally operated under the presumption that all these groups actually want to win.  That may no longer be the case:
There's just no getting around the fact that there is a large conservative marketplace, and that there's more money that can be squeezed out of that market when Democrats take office. I don't know that any conservative operatives actively follow the obvious incentive and consciously try to make their own side lose elections, but the incentive most certainly exists, and may well affect behavior in some cases.
Fox News functioned, in many ways, as a White House mouthpiece during Bush two terms, and it did fine in that mode, but of course the White House already has its own communications structure.  Conversely, Fox News was born under Clinton's presidency and has thrived under Obama's.  I don't know how Glen Beck voted in 2008, but if he'd known how good Obama's presidency would be for his career, I'd lay odds that he'd have pulled the donkey lever that year.

I once heard a comedian say that every election gives us a choice between a candidate that's good for your country and another that's good for your office.  Obviously, given such a choice, people don't always vote their pocketbooks (think Barbra Streisand), but they usually do.  And I think it's fair to say that the parts of the Republican coalition that profit by being in the minority are increasing in stature within their party.

Parties are certainly entitled to stay in the minority if they want to, but a lot of electoral outcomes are beyond their control.  So what happens if a party takes increasingly irresponsible stances and then becomes the majority party anyway?  We may find out later this year.

The 2009 California Senate

Not looking a whole lot less polarized than the Assembly:

Although I guess there are three senators who would qualify as moderates.  One of them is trying to become lieutenant governor.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dumb editorial of the day

The Denver Post's editorial board managed to offend the reader on several fronts today in their condemnation of Sen. Michael Bennet's urging that the Senate pass aspects of health reform via reconciliation.
Under reconciliation, which does away with normal Senate procedures, health care reform needs only a simple majority vote.
Okay, quick point here.  Reconciliation is a normal Senate procedure.  What has been abnormal lately is the rise in the use of the filibuster to stop normal Senate procedures.  I'll let Jonathan Bernstein elaborate:
Whether it's a bad idea or not, using reconciliation would certainly not set a precedent. Reconciliation actually goes back to the Carter administration, but it was first used as a way to pass major substantive policies in 1981, during the Reagan presidency.
Let's see, what else did the Post say?
Something of this magnitude, which would make generational changes to our health care system, shouldn't be forced on Americans by one-party rule.
Huh?  But... we currently have one-party rule!  Should a one-party government not be allowed to pass substantive legislation?  Maybe I missed it, but did the Post object to the expansion of Medicare or the Iraq War authorization on the basis that it's wrong to have such decisions made under one-party rule?

Oh, one last part:
Most Americans want Congress to start over on health care reform, but it seems Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet would rather jam it down our throats.
Ignoring the message that voters sent in Massachusetts, and shedding any notion that he intends to be a moderate Democrat, Bennet is leading a pack of liberal senators who want to push through health-care reform using a process known as reconciliation.
How is it possible that Sen. Bennet, yet to receive one vote from a Coloradan, has such a tin ear for what most Coloradans and Americans want?
This is where the stupid really starts to burn.  I'll leave things to Coloradopols:
We're going to skip over the relative merits of reconciliation here, because we're more concerned with this ridiculous idea that Bennet is "ignoring the message that voters sent in Massachusetts" when Republican Scott Brown was elected to the U.S. Senate last month. Michael Bennet is the junior Senator from Colorado. We don't give two shits about whether Bennet is listening to the voters of Massachusetts, and neither should you.
That feels better.

The Maldonado coalition

Remember that vote from last week in which the California Assembly either failed to confirm or failed to reject Abel Maldonado as the state's new lieutenant governor?  Well, I wanted to examine the coalitions on that vote.  It turns out it wasn't a uniformly party-line vote.  Republicans were united in support of Maldonado, but Democrats split 26-9 in opposition.

I managed to calculate some ideal points for the current California Assembly, based on the roll call votes from 2009.  (Jeff Lewis provided the raw data on that, and I used W-NOMINATE to calculate the scores.)  Here's a histogram, divided up by members' votes on the Maldonado confirmation:
My first impression was that the vote would be what Wesley Hussey calls a "coalition of extremes," where the far left and far right vote together against the middle.  But as you can see, there's basically no middle in the California Assembly.  Just that one person around the zero point (Democrat Alyson Huber of Lodi).

That said, there's still a bit of a pattern.  As you move further to the left among the Democrats, the chances of a member voting no increase.  However, you can find more ayes among the slightly more moderate Democrats.  So it's reasonable to say that Maldonado was backed by all the Republicans and some of the more moderate Democrats.

By my count, Maldonado still needs four Democratic votes in the Assembly.  If he starts with the most moderate and proceeds toward the extreme, that would meaning switching the following legislators (listed here with their W-NOMINATE scores):

  • Alyson Huber (-.083)
  • Manuel PĂ©rez (-.591)
  • Cathleen Galgiani (-.595)
  • Juan Arambula (-.632).

Arambula has recently shifted his party affiliation from Democratic to Independent, so it's possible he's more moderate today than his ideal point above would suggest.  Still, it's a notable how quick the jump is from the moderates to the extremes.  Switching these votes won't be easy.


Oh, and if you want to see what polarization looks like, here's a scatterplot of the first two dimensions of roll call scores in the 2009 California Assembly:

Yeah, it's all the economy

Kudos to Jim Stimson for his series of revealing graphs about public opinion and the economy (via Monkey Cage).  As Stimson shows, approval ratings for the president move pretty closely with those for members of Congress and governors, suggesting voters aren't drawing substantive distinctions between government figures:
  Moreover, those approval ratings move very closely with assessments of the economy:
These findings should remind us that basically every assessment of the popularity of a major public figure should include some reference to the economy.  Sadly, very few of these do.  

Try this as an experiment.  Ask a group of students, or political reporters, or pretty much anyone why Reagan was a popular president.  You'll probably get a range of answers talking about his charm, his charisma, his folksy story-telling, his deftness in dealing with the Soviets, etc.  But, of course, the actual answer is that the economy was growing pretty strongly during much of his tenure.  Furthermore, he wasn't always popular:



Reagan was actually pretty unpopular for much of his first term.  Why?  Wasn't he still charming and charismatic?  Wasn't he telling his folksy stories?  Well, sure, but the economy was tanking.  Once it started growing steadily, so did his approval ratings, until the big drop in the second term as a result of the Iran-Contra scandal.  Which makes you think -- what if that scandal had happened during a recession, when Reagan's approval ratings were already in the low 40s.  If he'd dropped into the 20s, would he have been impeached?

Running on a counterfactual

The big story this week seems to be the stimulus bill, which just celebrated its first birthday.  According to independent studies, it's been a great success, employing roughly two million people who would otherwise be unemployed right now.  And yet you wouldn't know that to hear people talk.  Most Americans oppose the stimulus, thinking that a lot of it was wasted money.  Almost no one seems aware that it involved tax cuts or that it helped create jobs.  This is being attributed to poor salesmanship by the Obama administration, but really, with ten percent of Americans out of work, they could hardly be blamed for thinking that a job-creation bill hasn't done much for them.

The political problem for Obama and the Democrats is that they're making a counterfactual argument.  They're not claiming that things are great, but rather than things would have be worse if the nation had not followed their plans.  Or, as Barney Frank famously said, "You don't get reelected by saying, 'Things would've been worse without me.'"

Actually, can't you?  The Bush administration spent a good deal of time boasting that it had protected the country after 9/11, and that we hadn't been hit again.  This was a major component of the 2004 reelection campaign.  Isn't this, in some way, a counterfactual argument?  After all, they weren't saying that we were actually safe -- we were always advised to be on guard, especially at airports, and we were reminded constantly that sacrifices had to be made to protect us from further attacks -- they were just saying that we were safer than we would have been under another course of action (no Iraq war, no warrantless wiretaps, etc.).  That's why electing John Kerry in 2004 was purported to be a bad idea; it might make us less safe.

Now perhaps the war on terror is a different sort of issue than the economy.  People have a pretty good sense of how much disposable income they have and how much more or less of it they had last year.  With terrorism, we're pretty dependent on the government telling us how we're doing.  Nonetheless, shouldn't it be possible to make these arguments?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

New flash: California needs a new constitution

Why do I like studying California politics?  Because it's a nonstop show:
Things are getting crazy in Sacramento with the Maldonado confirmation, with John Myers reporting that the Governor plans to swear in Abel Maldonado as Lt. Governor, despite claims from the Assembly that his nomination is dead.
The governor's view is that Maldonado had to get 41 votes against confirmation for the nomination to be refused. Since only 35 voted against, Schwarzenegger claims Maldonado is confirmed. But only 37 voted for confirmation, instead of the usual 41.
At first I thought this was a real over-reach by the governor.  But then I looked at Article V of the state constitution:
Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Controller, Treasurer, or Attorney General, or on the State Board of Equalization, the Governor shall nominate a person to fill the vacancy who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority of the membership of the Senate and a majority of the membership of the Assembly and who shall hold office for the balance of the unexpired term. In the event the nominee is neither confirmed nor refused confirmation by both the Senate and the Assembly within 90 days of the submission of the nomination, the nominee shall take office as if he or she had been confirmed by a majority of the Senate and Assembly; provided, that if such 90-day period ends during a recess of the Legislature, the period shall be extended until the sixth day following the day on which the Legislature reconvenes. [Emphasis mine.]
What does this mean?  Well, the first bolded clause makes it seem pretty clear that Maldonado needed 41 votes in the Assembly to become lieutenant governor.  He didn't get them.  But then the second clause is kind of weird.  I think the intent of that phrase is that if either the Senate or the Assembly haven't acted on the nomination within 90 days, the nominee takes office.  But it's worded poorly, making it seem like the legislature has to pass either a motion to confirm the nominee or a motion to reject the nominee.  The former motion was up today, and it didn't pass.  But they haven't passed a motion to reject him, either.  So Arnold can swear Maldonado in.

I'm guessing a judge would rule against the governor's interpretation here, but there's certainly some wiggle room.

The myth of the center

Here's Theora Jones, commenting over at Ezra Klein's blog.  Reprinted in its entirety:
I was just at a health policy conference where wonks were talking about the "parts of the bill we all agree on," which were various demos and health delivery system change provisions.
And I was like … "we all agree" on these? Any one of these provisions could be controversial if someone thought it was in their interest to demagogue it. Heck, we could make medical education and licensure sound like a Stalinist plot if it suited our purposes ("the ONLY doctor you are allowed to see in America is a doctor who has attended a government-approved school, who has studied at a government-approved hospital training program, who has passed a government-approved test of how he will practice medicine, who can be reported anonymously to a panel of government-appointed bureaucrats and then have to justify to them the way he practices medicine, and who must by law prescribe ONLY government-approved medicines!").
The only reason we think we all "agree" on these things is because nobody except honest, informed, smart and well-intentioned wonks are paying attention to them!
You see this over and over again that people "from across the spectrum" "agree" on something until, you know, there's a possibility it will actually HAPPEN.
At which point people who would be losers start digging into the details of this policy so they can demagogue it, while at the same time people who have a political interest to see their opposition fail start trumpeting these demagogued points, and the bill is suddenly "controversial."
At which point someone "centrist" says, "Hey, why don't we do this other thing that none of you have paid much attention to? It seems so much less controversial ... " At which point people start digging into the new thing and demagoguing it and then it's lather, rinse, repeat until we decide that it's "too hard" to address this issue and oh it's so lamentable that "Washington" can't find a "common ground, common sense" solution which is somehow, magically, not offensive to anyone.
At a certain point, reporters and politicians and observers of DC need to grow up and realize that "moderate" does not mean "uncontroversial."
Especially when, for goodness' sake, organizations and parties have figured out that they can gin up controversy over anything!

It's hard out here for a moderate

Remember good ol' Abel Maldonado?  He was the Republican California state senator who was willing to vote for Governor Schwarzenegger's budget last year, a move that seemed likely to cost him his career.  Well, Arnold decided to repay him by appointing him lieutenant governor, replacing John Garamendi, who won a seat in the U.S. House late last year.  But Maldonado needs the approval of both chambers in the legislature to take the job.

This is tricky, since, as Boris Shor notes today, Maldonado is caught between the two parties.  He's one of the most liberal Republicans the state has seen in decades, but he's also too conservative for the Democrats.  The system is rigged against moderates like this -- they almost never make it through the primaries, and when they do, they usually get de-nominated or even recalled.  The only reason he has any shot at public office today is because of actual moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger who, let's remember, got into office via a recall election which had no primary.

Anyway, I haven't had a chance to analyze the vote yet, but it's looking like the Maldonado vote is some sort of Cofex, with the quasi-moderates supporting him and both liberals and conservatives opposing.  He survived a state senate vote, but the Assembly is a tossup right now, and Schwarzenegger is coming up with some creative interpretations of the constitution to keep this nomination alive.

Stay tuned.

Are independents a lost cause, or just slow?

Nate Silver produces an interesting chart showing approval ratings of congressional Democrats over the past few months, broken down by party affiliation and marking events related to health care reform:
He notes that when a chamber passes HCR, it seems to produce a boost for Democrats among the base, while independents don't seem to react at all.  This leads him to argue that Dems might as well pass the thing -- it'll help the base, and independents won't care.

This is probably true, although note the pattern among independents.  They don't seem to move in the time period right after chamber passages, but they move downward in the time period right after that.  So it's possible that independents aren't reacting to these events, but it's also possible that independents are reacting, just more slowly than the partisans.  This is consistent with a lot of what we know about independents from Zaller and others -- they don't follow political events as closely as partisans, their interpretation of events is mediated by others, etc.

Silver is probably right that approval of congressional Dems by independents can't get much lower, although we should also keep in mind that most people always hate Congress anyway.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Romanoff not dead yet

Andrew Romanoff picked up some pretty big labor endorsements today, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Colorado Teamsters.  These are not trivial endorsements -- they come with election labor, the kind that can flood precinct caucuses and affect primaries.  Others would know better than I about the endorsement histories of these unions, but it's rare for such prominent groups to throw their weight behind candidates they don't think can win.  I assume they're motivated both by their history with Romanoff and some recent polling suggesting Romanoff might be a stronger candidate in the general election.

The odds are still rather long for Romanoff.  Bennet has a huge financial advantage (the president's visit next week will only increase that), and the bulk of major endorsements are currently going Bennet's way.  But the odds are somewhat less long than they were a week ago.

My daughter, the toaster

Wow, my Phantom Menace post has generated 21 comments so far.  That's a record for this blog.  Probably reveals a good deal about the nature of my readership.

At any rate, while we're on the subject of prequels that purport to show the origins of great cinematic badasses, I'm pleased to report that Caprica does it right.  The first three episodes, which take place about six decades before the Galactica series starts, have chronicled the creation of the first Cylons on Caprica. Don't read on if you don't want to know...

Well, I won't say too much, except to note that it was a stroke of brilliance that the creation of the Cylons, which will eventually lead to the near-annihilation of humanity, began with an act of love -- a grieving father trying to resurrect his daughter.  Yes, it's also an act of profound hubris, making the punishment somewhat justified, but given Graystone's talents and resources, would any of us not follow in his path under the same circumstances?

Also, good choice to cast Esai Morales as Bill Adama's father.  (Weren't Morales and Edward James Olmos brothers in Mi Familia?)  The show's handling of ethnicity is quite interesting, with the Taurons (the Adamas' ethnic group) functioning as a kind of Arab/Latino blend.  Caprica, with its advanced technologies and beautiful cities, is clearly meant to represent the U.S., while immigrants from other worlds live in modestly-assimilated enclaves and complain about discriminatory treatment by the Caprican government.

The show's discussion of religion and terrorism is great.  The pilot begins with a terrorist act committed by a group of secret monotheists -- a precursor of the religion the Cylons will follow decades later.  Caprica and Galactica remain probably the most mature and thoughtful fictional treatments of 9/11 that television has seen.

It's not totally obvious where the plot is going at this point, but it appears that deep inside every Cylon beats the heart of a brilliant but bratty teenage girl, which makes all kinds of sense.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Geek break: In defense of The Phantom Menace

I am in agreement with pretty much everything Eric says about the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  Regardless of quality, those films are morally repugnant, and they thoroughly cheapen Anakin's transformation from perky grade schooler to evil incarnate.  And I thank one of the commenters for linking to Patton Oswalt's brilliant routine on the subject.

That said, I do not think the films are uniformly bad.  "Revenge of the Sith," for all its flaws, I maintain, was superior to "Return of the Jedi," although I concede that's not saying much.  And while my early reaction to both "Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" was that they were irredeemable trash, I have come to believe that the former actually has several kernels of quality film in there that just aren't fully realized.

One of the recurring themes in "Phantom Menace" is the idea of symbiosis.  Qui-Gon describes the midi-chlorians as symbiotic beings, living off our cells yet providing us with guidance from the Force.  We are frequently told that both Jedi and Sith travel in pairs -- a master and an apprentice.  Each needs the other. Beyond that is the suggestion that good and evil are never found alone.  The light and dark sides of the Force are, in a sense, symbiotic.

And yet the great irony is that the Jedi, while teaching about symbiosis, seem blind to these relationships.  The concept that evil might be nearby continues to escape them.  They are slow to perceive the Sith threat.  And Qui-Gon, for all his preachings, fails to acknowledge his dependence upon his padawan, Obi Wan.

This failure on Qui-Gon's part is best articulated wordlessly, through the three-way light saber duel at the end of the film.  This duel, by far the best and most creative of the entire six-film series, conveys story in a way that George Lucas' ham-handed dialogue cannot.  Darth Maul is fierce and talented, but he knows he will lose against two Jedi unless he can separate them.  This is his entire motivation early in the fight.  Rather than going for an early kill, he instead tries repeatedly to kick one of them away from the action so he can focus his energies on the remaining one.  He ultimately succeeds in this and lures Qui-Gon further away from Obi Wan, a task that is only possible because of Qui-Gon's short-sightedness.  Remember early in the film when Obi Wan talked about being mindful of the future, and Qui-Gon advised him to keep focused on the present?  That blindness killed Qui-Gon.  In later films, a similar blindness by the Jedi would lead to similar results.

All this is to say that there were a lot of interesting ideas and themes bandied about in the film that served the entire trilogy well.  They were, of course, buried under some pretty crappy filmmaking.  Lucas has a real knack for sucking the life out of actors.  The principal actors of the prequel trilogy were much more talented than those of the original series, but Lucas still managed to make them all sound like middle-schoolers in a class play.  And the film also gets very boring at times and generates needless plot holes.  And then there's Jar Jar.  But still, there's interesting material in here.  Attention must be paid.

"Attack of the Clones," by contrast, is pure shit.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Giving up privacy can be cool

I took my son skiing today at Winter Park, about a 90 minute drive northwest of Denver.  I enrolled him in the ski school for the morning.  Unbeknownst to me, the ski school fitted him with some sort of LoJack ankle bracelet created by a company called Flaik.  We turned in the device at the end of the day, and they gave us a card with an ID number on it.  When we got home, we got to see my son's entire day of skiing:

The information in there is fantastic.  Not only does it show every lift and run he took, but it also reports his speed, elevation, and total distance skied at any point during the day.  (That graph at the bottom shows elevation over time.  You can see our lengthy lunch in the middle there, plus the two runs we did at the end of the day near the bottom of the mountain.)  You can replay the day to see where he was at any given moment.

If I get the chance, I'll strap one of these on me the next time I ski.  It's nice to have a record of the day, and also to know how fast I ski.  But I can't help finding something slightly creepy about the whole thing.  Ah, it'll pass.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The perception of corruption

I'm confused by Ezra Klein's recent post about Lawrence Lessig. Ezra agrees with Lessig that there's a crisis of faith in the American political system, in that many Americans believe that their governing system is hopelessly corrupted by money. But Ezra also claims that the system itself is not really corrupt. So what to do? Get the money out of politics.

If what you're attacking isn't just money in politics, but the perception of money running politics, you can't content yourself with half-measures.

This strikes me as perverse. If the system is not corrupt but people believe that it is, the solution can't be to drive out corruption. It's not corrupt! And people will clearly believe it's corrupt irrespective of the reality.

I'm not sure what the solution here is - I'm not often impressed with civic education efforts - but tinkering with institutional rules to change perceptions strikes me as both risky and doomed.

Put some bigotry in your Tanc

Wow.  Apparently Tancredo was muzzling himself the whole time he was in office.  Now that he's out of the government, he can let you know how he really feels.
In his speech Thursday to [Tea Party convention] attendees, former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo invoked the loaded pre-civil rights era buzzword, saying that President Barack Obama was elected because "we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country."

Romentum?

Interesting new Rasmussen poll out:
Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton now posts a 14-point lead over incumbent Democrat Michael Bennett, but her lead over Bennet’s intraparty challenger, Andrew Romanoff, is not as big in the race for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
[...]
She runs just seven points ahead of Romanoff, a former state House Speaker who is challenging Bennet for the Democratic Senate nomination – 45% to 38%. In January, Norton had a 12-point lead, 47% to 35%.
Romanoff cut Norton's lead in half over the past month?  That's a lot of poll movement for a period in which essentially no campaigning occurred.  And it doesn't seem to be related to party -- Norton's lead over Bennet is virtually identical to last month's.

So why would the poll show so much movement for Romanoff?  Well, it's possible that we're talking about polling methodology issues.  The survey involved only 500 voters, so we might be seeing just a lot of random fluctuation here.  Also, Rasmussen is using a "likely voter" screen, and I imagine who is considered a likely voter for November 2010 has shifted around quite a bit recently.

But assuming the poll is capturing something real, it suggests, as Rasmussen notes, that Bennet is facing the worst of both worlds: As the incumbent, he gets blamed for being in power during tough times, but he doesn't have any of the built in advantages of incumbency (e.g.: massive name recognition).  Romanoff, while still trailing Norton, doesn't carry as much baggage as Bennet.

So I'd call this relatively good news for Romanoff.  But he should really stop having Ken Gordon write his press releases:
Bennet now trails Norton by 14% while Romanoff has closed to be within 7% - the momentum is all on Andrew's side. It is sort of a Massachusetts moment.
Ken, did you really just compare Romanoff to Scott Brown?  Really?

Prediction

Should Democrats incur substantial congressional losses in the midterm elections, Scott Lee Cohen will be to 2010 what Mark Foley was to 2006.

Doing better than Reagan seems like a realistic goal

I've been staring at this chart (via Yglesias) for the past few days with some degree of horror:
The red line shows unemployment starting in January 1982; the blue line starts in January 2009 and projects forward.  What the chart nicely shows is the parallel economic situations faced by Reagan and Obama -- a sharp rise in unemployment peaking at around 10%.  But unemployment under Reagan dropped pretty precipitously after that.  This was due, in part, to aggressive moves to loosen up lending by Fed chair Paul Volcker, who believed (correctly) that inflation would not be a significant concern.  Conversely, current Fed chair Ben Bernanke seems more concerned about inflation and is willing to tolerate much higher levels of unemployment as a result.

The horrifying part, to me, is that the Obama administration seems okay with this.  Indeed, they just pushed Bernanke's renomination through the Senate.  Remember, Democrats are supposed to be the party that generates jobs.  If Obama is someday asked why his administration wasn't as good at generating jobs as Reagan's was, "Reagan had a more liberal Fed chair" was always going to be a pretty lame excuse, but now it's a useless one since Obama decided to keep Bernanke in charge.

Hopefully, the economy will outperform these dour expectations. Today's news is encouraging.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rare photos of famous people

These are mesmerizing.  (h/t Ezra)  And yeah, that's the cast of "Star Wars."

The futility of question time

Okay, I loved Obama's exchange with Republican members of Congress last week.  Yes, I thought he did very well there, but beyond that, it seemed like a very healthy activity for American democracy.  Our polarized system features a lot of choir-preaching and not very much debate or discussion across ideological lines.

So will we see more of this?  Not likely.  As Kevin Drum (via Bernstein) points out, it's tactically stupid for Republicans to invite Obama to do this again:
Right now Republicans have a built-in advantage when it comes to attack politics and they'd be fools to give it up. A format like this, which puts the president front and center, allows him to directly call out distortions and lies, and rewards conversation rather than machine-gun style talking points, is something Republicans should justifiably be very afraid of. Unless they're suicidal — or somehow figure out a way to take better advantage of the format — they'll never allow this to happen again. Without the noise machine, they're lost.

Beyond that, notes Ezra Klein, it's not in Republicans' electoral interests to have reasoned public discussions with Obama.  These members of Congress need to run for re-nomination among Republican primary electorates, substantial pluralities of which believe that Obama is a socialist and a foreigner and a racist and otherwise unfit to be president.  Not only do they despise Obama, but they're likely to regard anyone who collaborates with him as a traitor.  Unless you can figure out a way to be outwardly defying Obama in a venue in which he has the microphone, it's a risky venture.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Every news report ever


(Thanks to Cousin Liz.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Seeing race everywhere

Paul Passavant noticed that the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address looked weirdly like an alternate universe in which the president was a white guy.  He suggests that this is by design:
Finally, and most disturbingly, is the significance of the venue for the Republican response to the SOTU—the legislature in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, of course, was the capitol of the confederacy. Although the significance of the locale was apparently missed by the networks and the Democrats, it likely would not be missed by the core Republican constituency—southern whites.
I don't know.  For some reason, everyone's making a big deal about the fact that Gov. McDonnell's speech was delivered in the well of a state legislature.  No one seems to remember Gov. Christie Todd Whitman's response to President Clinton's 1995 State of the Union address.  Like McDonnell, she spoke in front of her state legislative chamber.  Surely there was no racial component there.  And I'm guessing it wasn't the GOP's intention to conjure an alternative universe in which women ran the nation.

I think the visual was actually the key here.  The president has an enormous advantage when delivering a SOTU, including a built in audience, roughly half of which is likely to cheer wildly for him at the drop of a hat.  A governor speaking in front of a legislature has at least a fighting chance of looking good by comparison.