Tuesday, November 30, 2010

DADT Repeal

DADT repeal is typical of efforts to roll back discriminatory policy. There's been a lot of handwringing among Republican senators, conservative pundits, and... well... bigots about the rights of homosexuals to serve their country without deception. Asking gay and lesbian service members to hide a part of their identity is humiliating, despite the possibility that they might develop superior intelligence trade craft in the process. The Pentagon doesn't seen an upside in keeping DADT around in their report, despite all the protests from GOP quarters.

Removing discrimination against homosexuals is supposedly back-lash free, according to Dale Carpenter at the Volokh Conspiracy. Anti-sodomy laws being struck down, anti-discrimination and anti-hate crimes legislation have been passed alongside predictions of calamities. In the wake of reform, nothing. No ill effects and no backlash. Same sex marriage in Iowa follows the same pattern, except a did form.

While 92% of Iowans report same sex marriage having absolutely no effect on their daily lives, that didn't stop a highly energized coalition of conservatives from voting Iowa Supreme Court judges off the bench for recognizing an Iowa constitutional right to equality for homosexuals. Traditional marriage may not have been threatened (or affected in any way) by same sex marriage, but there are negative effects of safeguarding equal rights, as three former Iowa Supreme Court justices can tell you. Recall that the Presidential election of 2004 was won largely on the backs of anti-gay voters. The demographics of the 2010 electorate was very similar to the 1994 electorate, which was also largely motivated by religious right voters. There is no reason to deny equal rights to homosexual couples who want to marry--except political cowardice. We'll find out how rampant a condition that is in the U.S. Senate when DADT repeal goes to the floor.

Draft Any Democrat 2012

Yesterday the White House announced that federal employees would not be eligible for raises as part of an effort to "tighten the government's belt" This pay freeze will cut an estimated $28 billion over the next five years, and is a continuation of the Obama administration's continuing efforts to deal with the deficit through executive action. In the words of the newly confirmed OMB director Jack Lew:
Already, the Administration has taken a number of steps in this regard as part of its Accountable Government Initiative from the President freezing the salaries for all senior White House officials and other top political appointees upon taking office to his efforts to get rid of $8 billion of excess federal real property over the next two years, reduce improper payments by $50 billion by the end of 2012, and freeze non-security spending for three years – which will bring non-security discretionary spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy in 50 years.
The Obama administration is working to eliminate fraud and waste in the budget. The common complaint in Washington is that no one pays attention to the M in OMB, but management is what former OMB Director Peter Orszag had been doing by getting agencies to tackle waste and root out fraud. The money saved through these programs had a loss for the economy; societally unacceptable fraudsters and inefficiencies soaked up a few billion dollars.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Back Again - Security Theater in Partisan Politics

I haven't been able to update in the last week, as I'm currently in the process of moving (physically, like between two states). Luckily, nothing really is going on in the world. The economic and logistical impact of TSA opt-out day was predictably marginal--perhaps a new word, fringical, would better describe its political roots. There's a decent James Fallows piece on the myth of party-first response to security theater, privacy rights, and an intrusive state.

His main takeaway is that while individuals on the conservative end of the spectrum may have recently found a reason to hate airport security, the same liberals who grumbled about earlier iterations (remember when they banned books on planes for a couple weeks?) have not begun to support the government out of partisan fealty to the President. Whereas Fallows seems to say that conservatives are more susceptible to partisanship dictating moral outrage, I think the truth is that the conservative media was not interested in discussing the intrusive indignities of the modern state while Bush was in control. The individuals who are up in arms about "enhanced" security procedures may have been provoked to equal outrage and activism had they had earlier access to "intrusive state" stories in the media.

I think liberal blogs tend to assume that their readers have a certain baseline familiarity with the intrusiveness of the state, but conservative storytellers start at the beginning, as if the entire outrage were wholly new. This is just a guess, but maybe liberals do themselves a disservice when they frame new developments--in any field from airport security to tax cuts--as the latest in a long string of similar stories.

Example: the Party of No. The narrative that the Democratic party attempted to spin over the last two years was that Republicans were consistently putting politics before country. That message never broke through to the mass audience, largely because saying "Republicans blocked progress again" is hardly news. "Republicans Launch Filibuster of X" is a bigger headline when the drumbeat for weeks hasn't been, "Republicans Will Probably Do Everything They Possibly Can to Block X." The blogs telling the anti-TSA story right now are telling their audiences about the screening as if the use of full body screeners wasn't a long time in the making. Maybe liberals need to learn to play dumb.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Who else thinks nuclear security is prudent?

Lots of people think that preventing the destruction of a nuclear detonation is a really good idea. Russia thinks so, the International Atomic Energy Association thinks so, NATO thinks so, the United States military thinks so, and so does the President. That's why they have been vocally supporting the ratification of the New START treaty, which recommits the United States and Russia to reigning in their cold war-era nuclear stockpiles, securing nuclear weapons and weapons-grade material, and closely supervising each countries' nuclear arsenal. Of course, Senate Republicans seemed to have decided that they want no part in nuclear security, holding out in favor of grand standing on tax cuts for the wealthy.

In time to assuage our fears that Republicans are the only people in the world against the START treaty and the principles it stands for, North Korea unveiled a new nuclear weapons facility. I'm not a big foreign policy blogger, but I'm sure there's a bunch of people who will tell you that it would be easier to compel the North Koreans to wind down their weapons programs if Russia and the United States presented a united front and if there were a binding legal model for controlling nuclear arms programs in operation. The Anti Defamation League and the National Jewish Democratic Council support New START because it will be an important tool in addressing Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Voting Rights Are Important

The right to vote is the fundamental right in a democracy. Democratic elections hold principal agents of the government accountable, allowing the population to exerciatse sovereignty through threats to elected officials that they'll be thrown out. Elected officials then go on to make laws, which are infused with democratic legitimacy. In theory, elected officials also control the bureaucracy and administrative agencies, meaning that these agencies are subject to attenuated popular control. Even courts, which are generally staffed by unelected judges, are constrained by jurisdictional grants within democratically made law. This is what it means to live in a democracy. Institutions are linked by some commitment to popular sovereignty which is enforced through free and fair elections.

If the individual right to vote is infringed, the legitimacy of this system quickly goes out the window. Popular sovereignty, while it only nominally controls decision-making within administrative agencies, loses all normative force when elections consistently fail to express the will of the people. The logical conclusion is that voting rights are important.

In fact, they're so important that voting rights should be suspended when we think that people haven't done enough to 'earn them.' You see, Ada Marijo Vik has this theory, apparently, that when rights are important--especially when they are fundamental in society--they should be highly restricted so that only the worthy enjoy them.
Why shouldn’t voting, the most important of our civil rights, be reserved for those who pay enough attention to voting to actually register in advance?

Tax Cuts

I simply don't understand why Democrats need Republican Senators to vote for extending the tax cuts for middle class Americans. The original Bush tax cuts were approved under a suspension of the filibuster rules. Because tax cuts "affect the budget" they can be passed as budget reconciliation acts which do not require cloture to proceed, therefore don't require a single Republican vote. The biggest obstacle to a more progressive tax code is the so-called centrist Democrats (e.g. Ben Nelson (NE), Mary Landrieu (LA), etc...) who might want to extract another pound of flesh for their states in exchange for a sane tax policy (as they did with the Affordable Care Act).

Oh that's right, that's because it's a Politico story, which automatically discounts any courses of action that don't meet the demands of the right wing. Those actions are illegitimate, I presume, because they do not fit Politico's preferred narrative.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This Journalism Sucks

Not that this is a new or particularly interesting complaint, but journalism today lacks a lot of the value we wish it would provide. I don't really know if journalism used to be that much better, but here's an example of some terrible journalism:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

National Invasive Security Opt-Out Day

There seems to be some tailwind for the National Opt Out Day, which encourages airline travelers on Wednesday, Nov. 24 to decline to be 3-d scanned into the TSA's new security device and teleported into the 'clean' area of the airport. There seem to be both health and privacy concerns about the new scanning technology, which can probably determine if your nipple is erect.

I'm not a big fan of the security theater that is airline travel; American airline passengers are no safer than Israeli airline passengers, which uses a vastly different paradigm of airport security. I would, however, like to point out an additional feature to the National Opt-Out Day activism envisioned.

Apparently when you refuse to be visually inspected, you cannot get onto your flight without submitting to a "touch my junk" tactile inspection. My guess is that most people would acquiesce to the visual inspection when the choice is made explicit (ogling is preferable to fondling). However, if you refuse to choose either, airlines are likely to refund your non-refundable ticket without too much of a fuss. American Airlines doesn't want to be complicit in violations of your intimate privacy. If enough people truly opt-out of the invasive security choice of ogle/fondle by asking to have their tickets refunded, that will send a much stronger signal in favor of abolition of that choice. The airlines cannot afford to have 5% of their passengers drop out of reserved flights on the day of due to passenger discomfort with TSA demands. An enterprising group of libertarians might organize an entire flight to pursue this strategy, which would certainly raise airline eyebrows if 40% of a plane went from being booked to empty on the day of the flight. Air carriers also have much better leverage over the TSA than individual citizens do.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Individual Rights and Federalism

I've been reading Judicial Policy Making and the Modern State by Malcolm Feeley and Edward Rubin, which investigates the 20-year period in which federal courts transformed state prisons around the country. It's a pretty fascinating story, but especially in their contention that this period of judicial policy-making amounted to a final rejection of federalism:
"In imposing national norms on the state prisons that were following distinctly different models, the courts were rejecting the essential principle of federalism. As stated, federalism is distinguished from decentralization because it allows governmental subunits to follow separate norms rather than simply following separate managerial strategies for achieving a single, centrally established norm. The prison cases decisively rejected the state's power to follow separate norms in prison administration."
The federal courts saw that prisons were across the nation were adopting standards of the American Penological Association and the Federal Bureau of Prisons' guidelines everywhere but in the deep South, where penal institutions were spitting-image imitations of antebellum plantations. Federal judges, first in Arkansas, then independently across the South, decided that prisoners' Eighth Amendment rights against "cruel and unusual punishment" were being violated by the Southern Plantation model of prisons. Judges assumed jurisdiction over prisons in defense of prisoners' rights, and in vary degrees, assumed ultimate administrative control over state prisions. Judges implemented hundreds of reforms, in some prisons going so far as to designate a minimum wattage of bulbs to be used in lamps and schedules for washing windows.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

This Blog Post Paid for by Joe Miller

The Anchorage Daily News seems to be doing a pretty good job covering all the malfeasance in Alaska ballot counting, which seems to be that every possible permutation of Lisa Murkowski's name is being challenged, including the correct one.
But the reasons for the challenges are pretty obvious.  As you might recall, Alaska Elections Law requires that the name on the ballot appear "as it is written on the write-in declaration of candidacy." The Miller campaign has sued the Department of Elections to make sure than any ballot which deviates from the write-in candidacy declaration form is thrown out.  The following are ballots that have been challenged by the Miller campaign- see if you can guess why they were challenged (answers below the fold).






Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Social Networking IRL

I hate facebook. Not from a personal privacy standpoint, but because I simply don't like the necessary upkeep, the constant monitoring, the expectation that I've seen your pictures so you don't show them to me. Yet the internet still should be able to connect me to people and events that I am interested in- right around me, right now. Enter Get Spontaneous, a tool which invites users to post events ranging from pick-up soccer games to door-knocking staging areas to multi-million person concerts. I'm a big fan of where this might go, and right now, it looks like the only thing it's missing is users. I want to use the internet to enrich my life, not the other way around.

Palin to PA Education Board: Stay out of Education!

In the same vein as "Keep Government Out of My Medicare," we get this straight from the jowls of Mamma Grizzly herself: government should stay out of public education. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Joe MIller Needs A Better Lawyer

In a few hours, the State of Alaska will begin to count the write-in ballots from the midterm elections. Expect results to be reported by state house district. There are roughly 11,500 more write-in ballots than ballots cast for Republican Joe Miller, so he is understandably concerned with exactly how those ballots are counted, and for whom they will be counted. His also-Republican opponent, Senator Lisa Murkowski, ran as a write-in candidate, and the presumption is that the vast majority of the 91,000 write-in votes will have her name on them.

Miller is seeking every advantage he can get, especially in knocking out any misspellings or permutations of Lisa Murkowski's name. To this end, he is seeking an injunction against the Department of Elections for implementing their plan to count ballots this year. Specifically, he contends that the directions allow for counting misspellings of Murkowski's name and would 1) incorrectly include 'protest votes' of people who intentionally misspelled her name (because people would apparently do that in Joe Miller-land) in Murkowski's vote total and 2) violate state law requiring the write-in section to contain the candidate's name "as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy" to count for that candidate. Joe Miller's legal team thinks that "as it appears..." requires perfect spelling. They note that the legislature says that there can be "no exception" to the rule that the name must be on the ballot "as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy."

Obviously, "as it appears..." is a very harsh standard, but that is what is required by law. Miller's suit notes that a vote cannot be counted if there is any deviation between the name of the candidate on the ballot and the name as it appears on the declaration of candidacy, "no exceptions." Alongside with deviant spelling, reasons for rejecting write-in ballots must include deviation in ink color, deviation in the size or shape of every individual letter, deviation in the placement of the dot over Murkowski's 'i', deviation in line thickness, and deviation in writing implement. Lisa Murkowski's campaign to provide supporters with wristbands that displayed her name clearly was mislead; they should have provided self-inking stamps to their supporters with the exact image of her signature "as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy." Of course, the original form would have to have been stamped with one too. With the write lawyering, Joe Miller could whittle down Murkowski's vote share to a literal 0. I don't know why he's wasting time with these amateurs who just want correct spelling when the standard that he's advocating for requires far more.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dept of Ed: Considering Effect of CA Marijuana Decriminalization

One of the most noxious aspects of our nation's drug policy is that since 2000, resources to students dry up if he or she is convicted of any drug offense. The provision was inserted into a bill amending the Higher Education Act of 1965 by Rep. Mark Souder(R-IN) and appears as subsection (r) of 20 U.S.C. 1091
A student who is convicted of any offense under any Federal or State law involving the possession or sale of a controlled substance for conduct that occurred during a period of enrollment for which the student was receiving any grant, loan, or work assistance under this subchapter and part C of subchapter I of chapter 34 of title 42 shall not be eligible to receive any grant, loan, or work assistance under this subchapter and part C of subchapter I of chapter 34 of title 42 from the date of that conviction for the period of time specified in the following table:
"Offense" is not defined in the legislation, though "controlled substances" is. "Controlled substances" certainly includes marijuana.

California students may be able to escape this penalty if they are 'convicted' of possession. California recently enacted a law changing possession of under an ounce of weed from a misdemeanor to an infraction. Criminal infractions do not appear on standard criminal records. The Department of Education's policy says it looks to "the student's record" in determining eligibility for grants, loans and work study under the Higher Education Act. When asked by the San Francisco Chronicle, a Department of Education spokesperson acknowledged the need to clarify the procedure, remarking, "We will review the changes in the California law to see how it affects the federal provision."

If you value equal access to education, now would be a good time to call or email the Department of Education to help them shape their rule. The California law takes effect on January 1st, so the Department will probably shore up their rules by then.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Good News for Democracy

It's nice to see Wikipedia getting some respect from the scholarly community. After all, everybody seems to use it, and it seems to work pretty well. This review of scholarship on Wikipedia's "Good Faith" culture points in some interesting directions about the democratized encyclopedia.

Wikipedia provides its excellent content because it has a wide variety of input, yet produces a class of users who are incredibly engaged. Partisans (called POV warriors in wiki terms) are certainly present in the wikipedia ecosystem, but their efforts seem to produce a synthesis with the moderating influences of the more engaged editors. It should be noted that this group operates as a sort of privileged class, but without any structural privilege. Highly engaged contributors are not paid, and their comments are subject to the same systems of feedback as any other users. They gain a larger influence by the brute force of how much they work on wiki edits, integrate into the community, and gain recognition from their peers.

Why is this good news for democracy? If we are to believe Joseph Reagle's theory that Wikipedia's culture results from the dictum to "assume good faith" and enshrining "neutrality" as the goal, we can gain some insight into how true democrats should approach voters. Respecting the views of others seems to have tangible results in wikispace; it might have similar results in a political culture. Secondly, a purported stance of neutrality does seem to create lasting consensus. Consensus building is a particularly neglected goal in the current political environment, as power is conferred once one candidate gets 50% of the vote plus 1. Wikipower certainly seems more likely to come up with good policy than electoral power.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Useful Way To Digest Lots of News

Tomorrow morning, America wakes up to find that there's a ton of news that happened last night. So what news will an interested reader look at? Local media still provides the most intense contact that people have with national news. After such an interesting and multi-faceted night, local news might have more particularized, interesting concerns than weekday morning variety show broadcast. That's why I check out gallery of today's newspaper front pages from around the globe.

Minnesota Majority Voter Suppression Tactics

In the absence any evidence that enough voter fraud exists in America to turn any election, conservatives are pouring money into "uncovering" instances of voter fraud. Last night, I was able to attend an event with one of the foot soldiers of the voter intimidation effort in Minnesota, the blogger over at Fightin' Words, North Star Tea Party Patriots Media Relations Director Walter Hudson. In prepared remarks, he identified two goals for his tea party group this year: elect judges and stop voter fraud. He willingly acknowledged that there is no evidence of wide-spread voter fraud; so it is incumbent on the coalition of Minnesota Majority, the North Star Tea Party Patriots, and Voters Alliance to manufacture that evidence. Conservative paranoid delusion holds that the 2008 Minnesota Senate race was stolen by fraudulent Democratic votes.

When pressed on exactly what the Minnesota Majority tactics would be, Mr. Hudson gave this answer:

1) His group would wear buttons asking elections officials to ID the wearer. A federal judge yesterday instructed that this counts as electioneering and could not be done in a polling place. 2) The group would be flagging any buses which delivered voters to the polls, as the conservative groups believe that buses of voters vote multiple times at multiple locations 3) Staffing a hotline to help document cases such as these.

Obvious problem with point #2 (explicated at 1:58 in the video) is that there is no obvious way to tell if a bus carrying "a bunch of voters" is engaging in double-voting. The Minnesota coalition of conservatives pursuing this "voter fraud" story will clearly presume that any organized group of voters is engaging in voter fraud. After all, the warrant for believing that voter fraud was being perpetrated by ACORN despite evidence of an absence was the fact that they were registering low-income voters.

Monday, November 1, 2010

HuffPo No Better Than Cable News

It's a good thing that I never attempted to set limits on topics that I would touch on this blog, because this post will violate any reasonable standard of what is a worthwhile to blog about.

There's a lot of interesting fall-out in the media from the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Most of the commentary is incredibly shallow or plays up the same high noise-to-signal ratio which is my complaint about the modern media landscape. Take the HuffPo noting Keith Olbermann attacks Jon Stewart for "Jumping the Shark" article for example. Keith Olbermann tweeted that Jon Stewart was espousing "naiveté" in suggesting that "everybody on Thr cable is the same," which is a valid position: If Jon Stewart wants to criticize the rhetorical arms race in establishing competing echo chambers/noise machines, the players in the noise game should point out that they are in a dilemma. Hegemonic discourse is probably worse than splintered discourse for the country, even if the tone of the splintered discourse is vitriolic. Olbermann reacts to the criticism of the media environment by pointing out that liberals are forced to engage in this game. I think that Olbermann's and MSNBC's tactics are not optimal in responding to the GOP/Koch Brothers Media/Fox News complex, but that's what they're hired to do. Essentially, the "hate the game not the player" principle applies. That's Stewart's point, and he provides a viable alternative (after all, 200K+ came out to hear a critique of the media which was based on an hour of comedy each night).

And this is precisely the discussion that the Huffington Post could explore by calling a few sources, getting some sides of the story, and writing a thoughtful piece. They could do some basic journalism. Instead, they focus on the non-substantive lead-in to Olbermann's comments, "It wasn't a big shark but Jon Stewart jumped one just now...". That's a pretty annoying example of the media failing to reach the substantive level, deciding to amplify the pointless bickering when in fact Olbermann was trying to get a point across. There's simply no room to get an argument into the media, even for a media start like Olbermann. It seems that in today's media environment, as soon as a message gets outside of your immediate control, you lose all ability to transmit information.

I guess that's why I started a blog- to allow other people's arguments to retain some meaning, as well as provide my viewpoint. It's just too bad that your popular journalism today doesn't attempt to transmit other people's messages. The HuffPo is trying to get hits, and like the Drudge Report, you do that by putting in big simple headlines that seem provocative regardless of the substance of the story. I don't think I should have to produce my own media to avoid this type of avoidance of journalistic responsibility.

Media Upset Jon Stewart Not Focused On Real Problems

An interesting dynamic is evolving in the wake of the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear over the weekend. The media is striking back, claiming that the nonpartisan nature of the rally forced Stewart, Colbert to attack media instead of the real originators of the partisan warfare which has crippled Washington. I kind of agree with the New York Times here, and wish that the rally focused a little more on the obstinate party, but honestly what good would come of that?

In going after the media exclusively, Stewart and Colbert at least forced this article in which the New York Times is decrying the lack of confrontation and real questioning of the failure of the political system in the modern Congress. Of course, the media (the Times included) have facilitated the decline of the political process, so getting them to pen a piece complaining that the rally didn't focus on the structural failures of rhetoric and serious democratic discussion is a massive accomplishment in Jiu-Jitsu.
His barrage against the news media Saturday stemmed from the fact that, on this day, attacking the message would have been bad manners, so he stuck with the messengers.
Of course, the general critique of the media is exactly the same- that the news reporters are too polite. The thrust of last Monday's Daily Show segment with Wyatt Cenac cozying up to lobbyists and noting the incestuousness of the Washington media-political scene struck exactly this chord. The New York Times has been doing too little "afflicting the comfortable." The media, if you listen to anybody outside of it (or inside of it attempting to claim a populist mantle), is complacent. Now they're charging that the Comedy Central News Hour is as complacent. And that's the big story from today's media coverage of the event: journalists are publicly calling politeness a vice.

Depending on how cynical you are, this either bodes well for a burgeoning media self-awareness and reform or is emblematic of the psychoanalytic concept of projection. Of course, companies don't maintain psychologies, but the principle is the same- a component (journalist) of the psyche (corporation) sees a problem, but a supervisory node (editorial norms) attributes the problem to an external actor in order to save face (job security). I'm not holding out much hope that media executives will have the realization that their companies should be filling the void of serious criticism and digestion of politicians' behavior and talking points, but blaming the Daily Show host for not doing so evinces a real unease that journalists aren't doing it.