Category: Politics

Election-Time Reading

Some folks out of Yale Law are starting a new publication called “Opening Argument,” “founded on the belief that most people are reasonable and much public commentary is not.” The first issue looks promising, with election-inspired commentary from Nancy Pelosi, Peter Schuck, Ryan Sager, and Reihan Salam. Schuck, ala Michels, offers a “wake-up call” to a Democratic party he views as too beholden to its base:

In crucial respects, the Democratic base . . . seems clueless about what the rest of America is like. America is deeply religious. The base is deeply secular. America is unabashedly patriotic. The base views outward patriotism as hokey and manipulative, if not embarrassing. . . Simply put, the base wishes that American society were more like Europe, and America does not.

The religion-friendly campaigns of Harold Ford and Bob Casey appear to show that some Dems are heeding Schuck’s advice. Jacob Hacker’s recent work The Great Risk Shift complements Schuck’s point of view, insisting that Democrats should emphasize insecurity, rather than inequality, as a key problem of economic policy, in order to broaden their appeal.

Whatever the results of the current election, Weekly Standard writer Reihan Salam warns Republicans that “every powerful social trend is moving in favor of redistributive, social-democratic politics:”

[C]onsider the sharp increase in income inequality we’ve seen during the post-Reagan years. . . [Managerial workers are] resistant to tax increases so they tend to vote for Republicans. Their days as a viable economic class, however, are numbered. . . . Living under conditions of diminished earnings power and smaller houses, it’s easy to imagine even well-off Americans growing resentful of the ultra-rich, and calling for more redistribution.

Regardless of whether you agree with Schuck or Salam, these are certainly some interesting “opening arguments.” They remind me of the pragmatism and realism I associate with my colleague Shavar Jeffries (at BlackProf) and the unconventionally sensible Tyler Cowen (at Marginal Revolution).


Pay the Poor to Be Citizens

money.jpgA colleague suggests that there might be a relationship between a series of seemingly random observations:

  • A sudanese cell-phone billionaire announced a prize for good governance, to be awarded to current African leaders when they step down from office. According to news reports, “each leader awarded the prize will receive $5 million spread over 10 years after leaving office. If still alive when the initial prize is exhausted, prize-winners will receive another $200,000 annually until they die.”
  • The Arizona Voter Reward Act, which would establish a $1,000,000 prize whose proceeds would go to a randomly-selected voter, is on November 7th’s ballot. The state’s Chamber of Commerce is opposed: Harvard’s Info/Law project is more open minded. Most think the law would be plainly illegal preempted by federal law even if passed.
  • Jury pay rates are embarassingly low, if meant to be compensatory. Some jurisdictions are funding pilot projects to study if pay raises will increase compliance with jury service.

Here is the question for debate: is there any meaningful way to distinguish the African prize (which many legal commentators no doubt would celebrate) from the voting and jury service problems? Or, more provocatively, are the powerful the only people who we will allow to make money from being good citizens?

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Life in Philly

I’ve previously noted that Philadelphia politics are fun to watch. From a distance, the chaos may even look like democracy in action.

In a recent dispute, a local write-in-candidate for state representative office, who happened to be the dominant party’s favorite son, challenged his May loss to the only candiate who was on the official party line. He won in court, after a judge found that voters writing in the wrong place deserved to have their votes counted, even if (apparently) they got to vote twice as a result.

Two reactions to nuggests from the article about this bitter teacup tempest:

First,“[the write in candidate] . . . was the beneficiary of an extraordinary write-in campaign on his behalf, with stamps and ink pads and training sessions for poll workers.” Stamp and ink pads, I sort of get. But training for poll-workers? Doesn’t that sound fishy, even for Philly?

Second, the court “dated his ruling Thursday, a ittle more than two months after a one-day trial on the issue . . .” I’m sure that it is tough to be a judge on a busy state trial court. But it strikes me that this dispute isn’t, you know, another Bush v. Gore. I doubt that Rick Hasen was waiting by his fax machine when it came out. (Although between the time I wrote this post and the time I put it up, Rick did talk about the decision on his blog, which shows me!) Doesn’t two months seems like a pretty long time to hold up a decision that upsets the status quo?


Racial Politics and Eminent Domain in Brooklyn

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Two hotly contested issues — the role of race in political representation and the use of eminent domain for economic development — collided in the contest for the 11th Congressional District in Brooklyn yesterday. The 11th has been represented by an African American since Shirley Chisolm first won in 1968. The Congressional race began to receive national attention when David Yassky, a white city councilman, moved into the district to seek the seat vacated by Major Owens against three black challengers, Carl Andrews, Yvette Clarke, and Chris Owens (Major’s son) . The District is also home to the City’s controversial plan to use eminent domain to support the Forest City Ratner development in Atlantic Yards, which will include an arena designed by Gehry and 6,800 units of housing. Yassky and Clarke both supported the Atlantic Yards development — with some criticisms of scope, while Owens vocally opposed it.

Yvette Clarke won the seat with 31% of the vote to Yassky’s 26%. Andrews won 23% and Owens trailed behind with 20%. What is the message to draw from Clarke’s victory? What role did race or gender play? How significant was her support for Atlantic Yards?

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When Congress Is Undemocratic

Capitol 2a.jpgRecently, several senators have been accused of putting a “secret hold” on a bill designed to curtail pork-barrel spending. According to Reuters:

Any member of the Senate may place a secret “hold” on legislation, which prevents it from being brought up for a vote until concerns about the measure are resolved.

A lot of attention thus far has been spent trying to out the senators who used this option. But not that much attention has been paid to this Senate rule that allows for a “secret hold.” This rule strikes me as immensely undemocratic.

Congress is often touted as the most democratic branch. After all, this is where the people through their elected “representatives” are to enact their preferences into law. But Congress (especially the Senate) often functions with a set of arcane rules that are more befitting to a secret society than the voice of democracy. The “secret hold” rule allows just one senator to block consideration of a law — and to do so without any accountability. There’s also the seniority system, which rewards longevity with more powerful committee assignments, helps entrench incumbents. Voters who bring in a new congressperson lose the plum committee assignments held by an ousted senior incumbent.

Of course, there’s the filibuster — perhaps the most well-known and oft-criticized Senate rule. But at least the filibuster rule allows a supermajority to override it, so it still can be deemed democratic — just not majority wins.

Rules like a “secret hold,” however, undermine Congress’s ability to act like a democratic deliberative body. Perhaps it is time for Congress to reform itself and begin using a more democratic rulebook. I’m far from an expert on Congressional rules, so I’ve only cited a few rules that I find undemocratic. Can anybody provide other examples of undemocratic rules?


FDA Lets Morning After Pill Go OTC, Partially

After a few years of paralysis, driven by the political views of its conservative base, the FDA finally followed the experts and authorized over the counter sale of a morning after contraceptive pill. It limited sales to those 18 and over. I can’t imagine this was a purely bureaucratic decision. I assume this means that the Republicans now feel they’ve earned enough cred with the Right that they can stray a bit and try to win a few independents. That, or they’re desperate to keep control of some shaky moderate districts.

But for an administration that seems more intent on obscuring science than utilizing it, this is one small nugget of good news.


Can Dead People Still Vote on an Electronic Voting Machine?

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With close votes apparently the norm for now and recounts causing all sorts of upheaval, one group has claimed that a certain electronic voting machine can easily be manipulated to change votes.

According to the Open Voting Foundation (OVF), Diebold’s TS voting machine has a major security flaw. (Note: The group and site are quite new. The link is to a press release on the home page, so it may move). OVF asserts that “with the flip of a single switch inside, the machine can behave in a completely different manner compared to the tested and certified version.”

OVF’s President has stated “Diebold has made the testing and certification process practically irrelevant,” … “If you have access to these machines and you want to rig an election, anything is possible with the Diebold TS — and it could be done without leaving a trace. All you need is a screwdriver.”

In addition, OVF claims that the model in question lacks a verified paper trial against which votes could be cross-checked. For those who want to see the innards of the machine OVF has posted pictures and the most important one is of the boot configuration.

Why does this matter? If this assertion is correct, “in the TS, a completely legal and certified set of files can be instantly overridden and illegal uncertified code be made dominant in the system, and then this situation can be reversed leaving the legal code dominant again in a matter of minutes” it appears that dead people can again vote and entire groups of votes can be excluded. As VerifiedVoting details the Help America Vote Act may have great potential to eliminate punch cards and other dubious voting systems but just because new technologies are available that does not mean that we should blindly assume the dangers of voter fraud and election rigging are gone. They may indeed simply be harder to detect.

HT: Slashdot


Closing Public Access to Social Networks: Should Web Sites or Parts of Them Have Ratings?

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CNET reports that the House just passed (by a 415 to 15 vote) the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) (text of the bill here)

The bill seeks to reduce, if not eliminate, the ability of sexual predators to use social networking sites to prey on teens at least when the teen user is at a school or library that receives federal funding which according to the article is at least two-thirds of libraries in the United States. The goal is laudable but the bill, which leaves the definition of social networking to the FCC (nice dodge there), mandates the FCC shall consider whether the site: “(i) is offered by a commercial entity; (ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information; (iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users; (iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and (v) enables communication among users.”

As the article note the language is so broad that not only MySpace but Amazon, Slashdot, and even the conservative would be subject to the law. Indeed, blogs, parts of Yahoo!, and more would no longer be available to students or those who do not have computers at home. Of note to this readership, a Pew report found that 38% of 12-17 year olds read blogs and 19% create them. To me encouraging young people to write and read more is a goal we should keep in mind as well as protecting them from online nuts.

Another Pew report on teen Internet usage found 87% of teens are online. 81% play games but 76% read news. The report points out that of the 13% who are not online, they are “clearly defined by lower levels of income and limited access to technology. They are also disproportionately likely to be African-American.” Yet despite the possibility that the bill will take away access to lower income groups, note that in general 78% access the Internet at school and 54% at a library.

What does this move say about access to information by teens? It seems crazy to try and have schools or libraries police teens’ activities and the definitions are so broad that healthy activities are curtailed. Maybe some sort of rating system would make sense. I am not sure that it would, but as a quick thought it seems better than shutting off access to a growing, key part of American social and in some cases mental growth (in a sense I think Zittrain’s Generative Internet has some some insights here in that it addresses the tensions between openness and security on the Internet). I could be missing something here and I would love feedback on ways to protect youth users without cutting them off from the Web in public places. My instincts are that parents should be sitting down with kids and continually teaching them about the online equivalent of “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”


Populism, Markets, and Walmart

walmart.jpgI have a friend who is something of a populist. A political philosopher and sometime resident of the rural south, he is in favor of things like a living wage, dry laws, prayer at town meetings, and a high protective tariff. In particular, provided that there is substantial support by “the people,” he is willing to support all sorts of measures that are fairly authoritarian by the standards of traditional liberal political theory. Needless to say, his thinking is much, much more nuanced than I have presented it here, and he can talk about Rousseau, Marx, and Herder is all sorts of sophisticated and interesting ways. He doesn’t, however, much like markets, and in this he is typical of many self-described populists. I can’t help but thinking that there is something odd about this.

In a real sense populism is all about taking expressed preferences seriously. The populist response to liberal concerns about the distinction between the right and the good, public reasons, and all of the other conceptual hedges against overweening democracy is to point out that much of this stuff is simply elitist clap trap, a set of spurious distinctions designed to insulate what affluent and well-educated coastal populations happen to like from the rawer, more authentic sensibilities of the heart land. “Down with it!” the populists argue. People ought to be able to live in a society that actually reflects the values and commitments that they have, rather than one where the expression of those values has been manipulated by elite categories into a more antiseptic form that conforms to elite sensibilities rather than popular sensibilities.

Markets are also about taking expressed preferences seriously. They are frequently not pretty. Both Britney Spears and Walmart are products of the market, and both seem to satisfy expressed preferences. Nor are these preferences the atomized, individualistic things that the heirs of Rousseau like to impute to liberals. Price is about the aggregation of preferences, and it is price that allocates goods within the market. Hence, the desire for cheap stuff — and with it a bit more real disposable income — is, like school prayer and dry laws, an authentic expression of the will of the people. Indeed, given that participation in politics is sporadic at best, while participation in the market is ubiquitous, if anything prices have a greater claim to expressing the General Will than plebiscites.


The ACLU wants to be your estate planner

I got an unusual letter from the ACLU a little while ago. This one didn’t really focus on freedom of speech, or religion, or defendants’ rights. Instead, it was a pitch. Apparently, the ACLU would like to help me plan my estate. In fact, there is a section of the ACLU website dedicated to helping you avoid the estate tax. How? By giving your assets to the ACLU, of course!

Now I understand that these kinds of letters are a practical reality. Testamentary gifts are an important part of fund raising, and the ACLU (like many other charitable organizations) wants to encourage its members to make these kinds of gifts. Still, discussions about protecting assets and making smart investments and creating tax-advantaged gifts — well, it all sounds a little strange coming from the ACLU. After all, aren’t the Republicans the ones who are supposed to worry about me paying too much in estate taxes?