Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Join the Crowd: Banned by Redstate

You may recall my recent posting suggesting that people periodically read websites they disagree with, and if unconvinced, politely disagree. Following my own advice, I went to and browsed a little. I came across a posting in which someone was criticizing recent moves by Democrats to raise the liability limit for oil spills to $20 billion, or even remove it altogether. The author was claiming that this was equivalent to making every driver buy incredibly expensive liability coverage for wildly improbable events.

I politely disagreed (after first registering, and then waiting a couple days for my registration to age before I was allowed to post). Why, I asked, should government be involved at all? Why should it be subsidizing oil companies by limiting their liability? If accidents are really wildly improbable, then insurance will be cheap. Why not let the market take care of it?

Not an absolutely invulnerable argument, but nothing there, you will agree, that should offend the sensibilities of any conservative. Against government intervention? For free markets? My reply was posted. A few days later I went back to see if there were any replies, as people are wont to do in a discussion.

Or rather, I tried to. Every time I tried to get to the site, whether via Google or by typing directly into my address bar, I got an error message. Specifically, it said: "601 Database redigestation error."

Redigestation? Redigestation? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

Genuinely puzzled, I typed "redigestation" into Google. It turns out I'm part of quite a trend. All over the Internet, people are getting the message, "601 Database redigestation error." All these people have tried to log into And all have previously posted comments disagreeing with something on the site.

It's not a computer error at all. In fact, it's become a bit of an Internet scandal. Wikipedia says [footnotes deleted]:

The site's moderators have been criticized for banning some users who disagree or dissent permanently from the site. Responses to any viewpoints deemed unwanted by site moderators have included replacing all of a person's diaries with messages designed to be offensive. Banned users may be accused of being "progressive trolls" or "moby," the latter being a person with over-the-top political positions making conservatives look bad. Banned users may be greeted with an error message reading "601 Database redigestation error." The site moderators' behavior is a topic of discussion among moderate conservatives and internet discussion sites. 

Not just moderate conservatives, actually. One moderate-conservative site has a thread of posts from more than fifty people who got the purported error message.  They include liberals, moderate conservatives,and some fairly extreme conservatives, all of whom disagreed with something posted on the site. A few people insist that all these people who think they're blocked just haven't tried hard enough, and one poor sap even says that this is a Microsoft error message (it's not). Please note, by the way, that I am not only blocked from posting, but even from seeing the site, even via links on other sites.

This is pretty disturbing. The site is not an obscure one. Its founder was recently hired by CNN as a political commentator despite, or because of, a history of making bizarrely vitriolic comments, like calling Justice Souter a child-molester and, let's say, a person who engages in bestiality with goats. Oh, and saying that he assumes "Obama's Marxist harpy wife would go Lorena Bobbit on him" if he were cheating on her.

So I'm not exactly crushed to be judged unworthy of participation in the feast of reason at But I am a bit depressed that denizens of the house of mirrors are trying so hard to exclude the outside world. Shouldn't the ideologically fervent want to convince people? Shouldn't patriotic Americans see polarization of the country as a bad thing? (Of course, I also keep expecting Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe to admit they've failed their countries dismally, and so far no luck there.)

Oh, well. On to ("Where you opinion counts"). Let's hope their database redigestates properly.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

BP's Sterling Character

Remember the Anglophobia phobia and all the talk of how BP was a British national icon, so Americans should stop saying such mean things? I do. It looks like that was pretty much a scam. Now everybody's fine with the national icon having an American CEO. An AP reporter comments, "While residents of Paris or Rome might be chagrined to see a foreigner running one of their country's corporate giants, politicians and the public here appear relaxed about it." She goes on to quote the editor of a British business magazine: "British investors care about one thing and one thing alone, and that is the share price."

And that, of course, is what the American bad-mouthing of BP really jeopardized. How crass. One doesn't like to stereotype, but obviously Dickens was right when he made Fagin a Briton.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

News From the Fringe

1. Fringe? Us?  You may have seen the story of the Iowa Tea Party billboard featuring pictures of Hitler, Obama, and Lenin, with the titles, respectively, "National Socialism," "Democrat Socialism," and "Marxist Socialism." If not, it's worth a look just for the photo. (Update: The billboard has been papered over, but you can still see the photo.) A few quick remarks:

  • One surprise for me was the comment of a leader of the national Tea Party Patriots, who not only made the obvious political point that, "It's going to make people think that the tea party is full of a bunch of right-wing fringe people," but added, "When you compare Obama to Hitler, that to me does a disservice to the Jews who both survived and died in the Holocaust and to the Germans who lived under Nazi regime rule." I predict a brief career in the movement for Shelby Blakely.
  • Less surprising is the comment of the Iowa coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, who said that the billboard was offensive and unproductive, but he can understand the North Iowa group's feeling that Obama is "Hitler-esque." What does that even mean? That he has a little mustache? That he plans to annex Manitoba? That he has caused literally millions of people to be loaded into boxcars and sent to death camps?
  • Finally, in the Sad Irony department we have the caption for the billboard: "Radical Leaders Prey on the Fearful & Naive." I would suggest that as a motto for the movement: "The Tea Party Wants You-- Because Radical Leaders Prey on the Fearful and Naive."
2. There's No "We" in "Capitalism." The AP reports that a group in Kentucky, some of them Tea Partiers, has started a sort of summer school to teach the truth about civics.

"If we're going to take our country back, we've got to remember where we came from — not only as adults, but we need to teach our children," said Tim Fairfield, one of the teachers, who wore a three-cornered hat at the opening class of Vacation Liberty School....organizers say the program has drawn interest from people looking to start new chapters in Ohio, Colorado, New York, Florida and other communities in Kentucky.

The curriculum includes "understanding the falsehoods of separation of church and state," but it's not all dry lectures. Students simulated the oppression of colonial-era England by being told they must suppress their laughter, sit apart from their friends and flawlessly recite "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Then after a difficult journey to America, they recreated the practices of John Winthrop and Cotton Mather by playing basketball, tossing beanbags, and riding a teeter-totter, while being showered with confetti.

After history, time for social studies. Students were given water pistols to shoot soap bubbles out of the air. They discovered that they could do it more quickly by refilling from individual buckets of water than from a collective one, thus demonstrating the superiority of the free enterprise system to secular communism. Good thing they weren't playing basketball in this part.

3. The Hall of Mirrors: Further Reflections. I was reading a few of the two thousand comments on a news story about the car bomb in Mexico, when I came across an utterly irrelevant comment. (This was not in itself surprising, as the same writer had posted several comments on the same story which were quotations from Thomas Jefferson about the evils of big government.) In this comment, he was inveighing (oyveighing? McVeighing?) against a recent statement by Sen. Chris Dodd, to the effect that a Republican attempt to require a 5% down payment on all mortgages was bad because it "would restrict home ownership to only those who can afford it." "You can't make up stuff like this!" he crowed.

As it turns out, though, you can. Dodd never made the statement. It comes from a "satirical" posting on a conservative website, and it immediately spread across the Internet. When I talked recently about politics blogs being like two mirrors facing each other and creating the impression of a vast corridor, I was thinking of opinions, not of the endless propagation of Internet urban legends. (Though since the Sherrod affair, that aspect has become more obvious.)

Anyway, this time I decided to look into the sociology a bit, and try to reconstruct some chronological order on this "quotation."

May 15, 2010:; labeled By John Semmens: Semi-News — A Satirical Look at Recent News 

May 15:; labeled A Semi-News/Semi-Satire From AzConservative

June 1:; letter to Rep. David Obey from a constituent

June 4:; reader comment

June 6:

June 6: (breakout into mainstream media)

June 7:; reader comment

June 7:; reader comment


June 7:

June 8: Debunked

June 11:

June 15: (Kewanee, Illinois)

June 18: Debunked

June 20: Debunked

June 25:

July 7: (survivalists)

Sociologically, what is interesting is how much this looks like a classic Internet rumor-spreading, with much of it going on through individuals rather than formal (even by Internet standards) outlets. As for Mr. Semmens, whose other rib-ticklers include "Hispanic Caucus Wants Illegals to Be Covered by Obamacare," "Justice Department Rebuffs Inquiry on Kagan Pay," and "President Calls Sherrod Firing 'Racist,'" two points. First, you're no Jon Stewart. Second, there gets to be a fine line between satire and lying.

4. Ingratitude. The AP recently reported that the California Highway Patrol arrested a man involved in a shootout with them on a freeway, who told them that he had been planning attacks on the ACLU and a liberal-leaning foundation in San Francisco. The most disturbing thing about this story is that it's so funny: as you peel the layers off the onion, there's a punchline under each one.

  • You may recall that former Attorney General Ed Meese once referred to the ACLU as "the criminals' lobby." Apparently not all criminals agree; Mr. Williams had two previous convictions for bank robbery.
  • According to the Oakland police, Williams wanted "to start a revolution." Here's a tip for revolutionaries that I read somewhere, possibly Mao's On Guerrilla Warfare: When you're out on parole and you're driving on the freeway carrying three guns and wearing a bulletproof vest, do not speed and weave in and out of traffic.
  • His mother told the San Francisco Chronicle her son had been angry with "the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items." This makes sense. After all, who values liberty  more than an ex-con? And who values capitalism more than a bank robber?
  • Williams was arrested while driving his mother's  Toyota Tundra. So he planned to take back our country while driving a Japanese car. Well, it was probably built in San Antonio. By legals.

    Sunday, July 11, 2010

    Saving the Republic: A Primer

    You've no doubt noticed that the views represented in Congress these days seem more extreme than in the past, with moderates disappearing. As a result, it has become harder and harder for parties to work together, and therefore harder and harder to get anything done. I don't think even libertarians could rationally consider this a good thing.

    A large part of the problem can be attributed to party primaries, as I observed in my post "Bring Back the Smoke-Filled Room." When party nominees are chosen by primary, they represent the mainstream of opinions in their own parties, which may be far from the mainstream of opinion in the country as a whole. Even though candidates start scuttling toward center as soon as they're past the primary, they still have to act in Congress with one eye on the next primary, lest they  find at re-election time that their disloyal moderation is still resented by the party faithful. (See under McCain, John.)

    It is perhaps a sign of how desperate things have become that people have started seriously discussing alternatives to the party primary. It turns out getting rid of party primaries is fairly easy, as the Constitution gives states a lot of freedom to decide how to run their elections-- no amendment required. There are a couple of prominently proposed replacements. 

    The Jungle Primary. The simplest alternative is to hold non-partisan primaries, with the top two candidates going on to the general election. This alternative is sometimes referred to as the "jungle primary" (I have no idea why) or the "Louisiana primary." The idea is that now candidates will be able to appeal across the full spectrum of ideologies, rather than having to cater to a narrow slice of it. This alternative was recently urged in an Op-Ed in The New York Times by Phil Kiesling that does a good job of summarizing the "pro" side of the argument. More remarkably, California just passed a ballot measure establishing a non-partisan primary, referred to as "top two," for all elections other than presidential. This, of course, has generated lots of comment pro and con.

    Some of the pundits warn of unanticipated consequences-- particularly, that the added expense of appealing to a broad electorate (without a party to pick up the tab) will further empower interest groups and the rich, and force out third parties. But the biggest unknown is: will it work? Will more moderates get elected?

    At, Nate Silver has done a simulation of the two different electoral systems, and finds that moderate candidates do much better with the jungle primary. His post not only gives a good summary of the logic, but has very pretty bar graphs showing the difference in outcomes (Bactrian versus dromedary, or to be pedestrian, bimodal versus unimodal). I am not wholly convinced by this approach, however. Silver's simulation generates candidate ideologies randomly, but real candidates are likely to adjust their ideologies depending on which other candidates are running-- for example, running as an extremist when many moderates are running. In technical terms, it's less a statistical problem than a game-theoretic one.

    Did someone say game theory? Eric Maskin, a Nobel laureate in economics, points out in a reply to Kiesling that a top-two system is essentially what made Jean-Marie Le Pen, an extremist's extremist, a candidate in the final election in France in 2002, pushing aside a candidate who would easily have beaten him in a head-to-head matchup. Similarly, the Louisiana ancestry of this voting system is not reassuring; this is the system that led to David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, getting more than 40% of the vote for the U.S. Senate. True, neither Le Pen nor Duke was elected, but when one of the two final candidates is a wacko, voters could not be said to have a real choice.

    There's not much empirical research on the effects of non-partisan primaries. What there is suggests a real but modest moderating effect. We'll have more evidence soon in California.

    Instant Runoff Voting. In Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) voters rank-order some or all of the candidates first, second, third, etc. Then the last-place candidate is eliminated and those voters are reassigned to their second choices. This process continues until someone has more than fifty percent of the votes. So there's no need for a runoff; in effect, the primary and the general election are the same.

    Like the top-two (jungle) primary, IRV keeps a minority from being gatekeepers to a general election. Unlike the top-two primary, it keeps an extremist from profiting from a split vote among moderates. To my knowledge, no one has mentioned another benefit, which is that it would give much more information on what voters actually intended when they voted for a particular candidate, because we can see whom else those voters liked.

    IRV has gotten support from some surprising places recently. Thomas Friedman endorsed it in an op-ed in The New York Times, and even more remarkably, it was used in the last Academy Awards, where it is credited with allowing "The Hurt Locker" to beat "Avatar." It's in use in Australia (in case anyone in America cares about that), and, under the name "alternative voting," it recently became an issue in coalition negotiations in Britain, where the centrist Liberal Democrats have gotten tired of being everyone's second choice. (The Conservatives agreed to hold a referendum on it next year, which should give it more visibility in the US.)

    IRV does seem to me to have significant advantages over the jungle primary. It might be a little tricky to make it easy to use with optical scanning, but the main obstacle is probably getting people used to the idea. A good place for some of that "states as laboratories of democracy" stuff that lovers of federalism are always talking about.

    What's Wrong With Partisanship? There is a counter-argument that, rather than being a problem, partisanship is a good thing, because it gives voters a clear choice and accountability; voters should know what they are getting when they vote for a party. The argument is stated by Matthew Yglesias here. Moreover, some argue, other countries, such as those in Europe, seem to get along fine without bipartisanship. (See, for example, comment 1 here, and my reply at comment 3.) Even in those parliaments where coalitions are the norm, nobody worries about reaching across the aisle to parties outside the coalition.

    The problem with this argument is that we're not a parliamentary system. In our system, extreme partisanship does not produce accountability. It produces paralysis, which is pretty much the opposite of accountability. But we theoretically could, and perhaps should, tinker with the system to make partisanship much more workable. The obvious place to begin would be to eliminate or drastically curtail the filibuster. The Founders listed quite specific situations where supermajorities are required in the Senate, and never intended to make it a body where nothing can happen without three-fifths support. Other Senate rules are even more inimical to accountability, such as the one that allows a single Senator to keep a bill or appointment from coming to the floor.

    The argument that paralysis has more to do with structural rules than with partisanship has even more force in California. The surest way to overcome dysfunction there would be to abolish the two-thirds supermajority requirement for tax increases-- itself, ironically, a product of the referendum process as part of Proposition 13.  It's going to take an awful lot of moderation to overcome that rule.

    But at the Federal level, there are Constitutional limits on how far we can go toward workable partisanship. As long as there's the possibility of a House and Senate, or a Congress and Presidency, controlled by different parties, the parties will have to work together to get anything done. So it looks like we may need to take seriously the idea of reforming the primary system.