Monday, December 30, 2013

The Mysterious Orient/Occident (a politics-free post)

On Christmas Day, I followed the traditions of my people by eating in a Chinese restaurant. This particular one was a very good, and seemingly authentic, new one called the Sichuan Gourmet House. In between my bites of jellyfish (no tentacles; good but rather bland) and bitter melon (bitter), I pondered the age-old question: Why is the standard American spelling "Szechuan"? Where does the "z" come from?

Short answer: I don't know. I couldn't find a satisfactory answer on the Internet.

Slightly longer answer: I only know of one language where sz is pronounced as we pronounce the letter s (and s is not pronounced as we do): Hungarian. If you want to show an s sound in Hungarian, you have to write it sz. So I speculate that the distinctive cuisine of Sichuan was introduced into the US by some native of famously foodie Hungary.

Much longer answer: Blame the Romans.

When the Roman Catholic countries of Europe (some later Protestant) sat down to invent written languages for themselves, they used the Roman alphabet. This was natural, because the literate class read Latin, which was the language of the Church. (Similarly, the Persians, being Muslims, adopted Arabic script. The Eastern Orthodox Russians, Ukrainians, and Serbs used Cyrillic; not so the Catholic Poles, Czechs and Croats.) But there's a problem with using language A's alphabet to write language B: there are generally some sounds in language B that language A (in this case Latin) lacks, and for which it therefore has no letters.

People tried various ways of representing the missing sounds, usually by modifying existing letters. English relied heavily on adding h.  Thus we have ship and chip, whose initial sh and ch sounds do not exist in Latin. For the same sounds Polish made use of the z, baffling future generations of English-speakers by writing sz and cz where we would use sh and ch.

Hungarian, for some reason, used an approach opposite to Polish. It used the letter s for the sound the Poles write sz. But then it used sz for the sound that most languages use s for. Thus we have the financier George Soros, whose name is pronounced Shorosh in his native Hungarian. And thus, perhaps, we have Szechuan.

A couple more points. First, German doesn't have a sound like the ch of chip. So it used ch for the sound at the end of Bach. When English-speakers needed to romanize the Cyrillic alphabet of  Russian, they faced the problem that Russian has both a Bach sound and a chip sound  So English romanizations use kh for the Bach sound. Hence, Chekhov.

Finally, many people are puzzled by the way Qs and Xs have suddenly started popping up in Chinese words. What's the deal with tai qi for t'ai chi? Pretty simple. Romanization of Chinese has always been technically complex. As a result, there are many competing systems floating around, which is confusing. The Chinese government has tried to solve this problem by decreeing the correct system. That system ended up enlisting some otherwise unnecessary letters to represent some of the familiar problem sounds. Thus, q is (roughly) the ch sound in chip, and x the sh sound in ship.

Next time maybe I'll answer the question, "Tomato: Vegetable or Fruit?" Probably not, though.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

No Way

While Democrats are gleefully watching the fratricide in the Republican Party, they've had a little skirmish of their own. Perhaps you've heard about the brouhaha caused by Third Way, a think tank for centrist Democrats. Its president and vice president for policy published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal attacking "economic populism" (i.e., a focus on economic inequality) as a strategy for Democrats, and singling out for criticism Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York's mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio. This has provoked a strong reaction from the populists, with some of them pointing out that the board of Third Way is predominantly investment bankers and suggesting that the group represents the interests of the Wall Street rich.

Now, I've got nothing against moderates. The World's Smallest Political Quiz shows me just a smidgen, if at all, to the left of the boundary between liberal and moderate, and I would add that the party that purged all its moderates lost the last Presidential election. Also, it turns out that I (to my surprise) know one of the investment bankers on the board of Third Way, and although I haven't spoken to him in many years, I think he is a genuine Democrat rather than an agent of influence for Morgan Stanley.

But I have to say that I score this one for the liberals. This op-ed does read like the work of apologists for Wall Street, and not overly scrupulous ones.

They begin by dismissing the broader significance of the recent election of DiBlasio and Warren: Since they're from heavily Democratic New York City and Massachusetts, they're not very good indicators of the mood of rest of the country. True, but New York had a two-term Republican mayor (Rudy Giuliani), followed by a three-term centrist independent billionaire (Michael Bloomberg) who pretty much incarnates Third Wayism. DiBlasio represented a clear repudiation of Bloomberg, and he won not just in a landslide but in a big landslide (73%). As for Warren, she defeated an incumbent Republican, who ran on his regular-guy, moderate image against liberal "Professor" Warren. I don't know exactly what those elections mean, but it doesn't seem safe to say they mean nothing.

But even worse, the authors go on, are the actual policies of these woolly-headed liberals ("the Warren wing of the Democratic Party"). The authors first sneer at, but do not refute, "the 'we can have it all' fantasy" that we can pay for all sorts of good things if we tax the rich more, "close a few corporate tax loopholes, and break up some big banks." (No one that I'm aware of has suggested that breaking up big banks would raise money, but apparently Third Way is so much against it that they wanted to take an extra opportunity to sneer at it.)

But they quickly go on to their main targets, middle class entitlements. At the present rate, they warn, the Social Security Trust Fund will be used up in 18 years. Then they cross the line into deceit:

Undeterred by this undebatable solvency crisis, Sen. Warren wants to increase benefits to all seniors, including billionaires, and to pay for them by increasing taxes on working people and their employers.

The plan Warren is supporting would remove the cap on payroll taxation, thereby raising the marginal payroll tax rate from zero to 12.4% on earnings above $110,100. (For simplicity, let's assume that the employer share ends up being paid by the employee as lower wages.) The change would have no effect on anyone earning less than $110,100. Of course, anyone paying payroll taxes is by definition a working person, but somehow the phrase "working people" does not normally evoke images of people whose individual earnings are over $110,100, and only those people. That's why I call it "deceit" rather than "falsehood."

Because of the current cap, rich people actually pay a lower average rate on earnings than other people. If you have a salary of $1 million, you will pay payroll taxes of 12.4% x $110,100 = $13,652, for an average tax rate of 1.4%. Having that increase to the same 12.4% that most people pay will hurt, especially because your higher taxes won't increase your own social social security check, which will remain a tiny fraction of your income. But in the funhouse mirror of Third Way, working people are paying to benefit billionaires.

I could go on to discuss their comments about Medicare, or their peculiar interpretation of some election results from Colorado. But you get the point. I don't want to sound immoderate or anything, but this is hackery by Wall Street's performing monkeys.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Which Cause of Avoidable Deaths Is Bigger?

U.S. drunk-driving fatalities, 2010:     13,365

U.S. suicides using firearms, 2010:     19,392 

Yes, but if people who want to commit suicide don't have access to guns, won't they just use something else? No.       

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Religion and Violence

I once mentioned to a colleague that, according to something I had read, if Christianity hadn't happened along, a Roman Emperor might have ended up converting to Judaism. Presumably, the rest of the Roman Empire would have followed. "Wow," he said. "The world would look really different if that had happened."

Only later did I ask myself, "Would it?" Would Judaism have changed the Roman Empire, and the history of the West, and of the world? Or, possibly, would the Roman Empire have changed Judaism? Would Tomas de Torquemada still have been Grand Inquisitor, but as a rabbi--or, perhaps, a Jewish monk--and would Bloody Mary have burned Jewish heretics at the stake?

I am reminded of these questions frequently nowadays when I read all the debate about whether Islam is an inherently violent religion. The claim that it is has become common, mostly in Tea Party circles (here, here and here, for instance), but also among right-of-center Jews and Catholics, and even the occasional left-wing atheist.

To me, this argument seems absurd on its face.  If Christianity is by its nature less violent than Islam, then one would expect this to be true at all different times and places.

Here's the conquest of Jerusalem by the Christians of the First Crusade in 1099:

Writing about the Temple Mount area alone Fulcher of Chartres, who was not an eyewitness... says: "In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared".

And this was not an aberration; it went on for centuries. In 1209 there was the crusade against the Cathars of southern France

Prisoners were blinded, dragged behind horses, and used for target practice.... Arnaud-Amaury wrote to Pope Innocent III, "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex."

In the sixteenth century there was the aforementioned Mary I of England, who executed 283 Protestants, mostly by burning. Her successor is not known today as "Bloody Elizabeth," but she executed hundreds of Catholics.

Obviously, Christianity is not violent like that today. But equally obviously, that is not because of anything intrinsic to its basic nature that makes it different from Islam.

The best test, though, would be if we could find a faith whose canon included no endorsement of violence whatsoever, and yet whose adherents were now behaving violently. Horrifyingly, there is such a case today:

“There are casualties and damage on both sides,” Mr. Thein Sein said on state television.

But according to accounts from the police officer, Lt. Col Kyaw Tint, and a villager who witnessed some of the fighting, the violence followed a disturbingly familiar pattern: sword-wielding Buddhist mobs rampaging through Muslim neighborhoods.

“All the people who were found dead were from the Muslim community,” Colonel Kyaw Tint said.

After flaring up last year in western Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence has spread to areas around the country this year, leaving dozens of people dead, almost all of them Muslims and some of them children. Buddhist nationalist groups have called for a boycott of Muslim shops, and radical Buddhist monks have stoked anti-Muslim feelings in sermons across the country.

That's right. Burmese Buddhist mobs are carrying out pogroms against Muslims. Violence is a virus, and the virus is no respecter of religious belief.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Debt-Ceiling Problem, and How to Perpetuate It

As you probably noticed, we recently had another political crisis over the debt ceiling. When the government is spending more money than it takes in, it has to borrow the difference to pay the bills. By law, there's a limit to how much it can borrow. Since total government debt has been growing over time (except for a few years in the Clinton Administration) we periodically bump up against the limit and have to raise it to be able to pay the bills. The recent kerfuffle was over a Republican threat to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, thereby leaving us unable to pay the bills, unless various unrelated political demands were met.

The debt ceiling is in fact completely pointless, because it has no effect on what the government spends, only on whether it has enough cash on hand to pay the bills for what it spends. It's become the subject of two major political crises over the last two years. Can't we do something about it?

Now Eric Posner, a University of Chicago law professor, has written a column for Slate in which he suggests a solution to the debt ceiling problem: amend the Constitution.

[I]t would be easy enough to propose a constitutional amendment providing that “the president shall have the power to enforce Section 4 of the 14th Amendment.” If such a constitutional rule had been in place, President Obama could have announced that he would borrow as necessary to pay interest on the debt. 

As a solution to the problem, this is bizarre.  "Easy enough to propose," indeed. But as Posner notes, "Amending the Constitution is extremely difficult." You remember, the whole thing about two-thirds of both houses and three-quarters of state legislatures. The idea of getting two-thirds of both houses to agree on an amendment like this is mind-boggling.

And yet! Tea Party politicians regard the threat of a debt default as a short-term tactic ... not... as a policy goal that is desirable in itself.... Disagreements about the size of government can proceed apace, and conservatives still can prevail if they obtain majorities for cutting spending. Meanwhile, the financial health of the country is not put at risk. Once tempers cool and people move on to other issues, the amendment process—which will probably take many years—can begin.

Oh, you beautiful dreamer. This gives new meaning to the term "ivory tower." People have just lost their tempers! Once they cool down, they'll see their common interests. Then all conservatives need to do is get a majority for cutting spending. No sweat!

There is a much simpler way of dealing with the problem of recurring debt-ceiling crises: repeal the law. Simple majority in both houses. President's signature. Done.

Is that it? A good chunk of the American public seems to believe that the debt ceiling is in the Constitution. Not so. The debt ceiling was established in 1917. It was made obsolete in 1974, when Congress established a regular budget process to deal with spending. But it remained, I don't know why. Everyone knew it would have to be raised from time to time.

Posner is, of course, aware of all this. He even mentions repeal as one of a number of alternatives to a Constitutional amendment. But, he argues, the "problem with these fixes is that they can last only as long as a majority in Congress want [sic] them to last. A better solution is a constitutional amendment."

To see how strange this line of argument is, suppose the Republicans had won both houses of Congress and the Presidency in 2012. They're all set to repeal Obamacare, when.... Wait! Don't repeal Obamacare! If you do that, what happens if the Democrats come back? They could pass it all over again! Instead of repealing it, let's pass a Constitutional amendment against it.

How enthusiastic do you think the Republicans would be about that idea? They would argue that it wasn't at all easy to pass Obamacare in the first place, so Democrats are not just going to wave their hands and restore it. They would point out that such an approach would leave Obamacare in place for years. They would say that first they would repeal the law. Then they would entertain suggestions about a constitutional amendment.

The only sure results from Posner's approach are, first, that people would continue to believe, wrongly, that the debt ceiling is some sort of Constitutional requirement; and second, that nothing would change for a long time. We should do what you're supposed to do with a bad law: Repeal it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Silent Dogs at the Shutdown

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
  --"Silver Blaze"

The late government shutdown  took a good whack at conventional wisdom in Washington. We've been hearing for some time that no matter how badly the Republican majority in the House behaves, nothing can be done about it. The Republicans, you see, have gerrymandered the congressional map so expertly that there is no chance they can be thrown out until after the next redistricting in 2020. Oops, maybe there is.

The conventional story never really hung together for me; I could never figure out how the arithmetic was supposed to work. When you gerrymander, you want to get as many seats as possible for a given number of voters on your side.  As Sam Wang explains it:

Gerrymandering is not hard. The core technique is to jam voters likely to favor your opponents into a few throwaway districts where the other side will win lopsided victories, a strategy known as “packing.” Arrange other boundaries to win close victories, “cracking” opposition groups into many districts.

That makes sense. It implies, though, that your side doesn't get safe seats--the other side does, while your side gets "close victories." There's a trade-off between maximizing the number of seats and maximizing the safety of each seat. As long as the are some moderate voters who might go either way, "close victories" are going to be nail-biters.

But are there any moderate voters left? Democrats need a swing of 18 seats to take control of the House. A quick check of the Cook Political Report (scroll down after you jump) reveals that 17 Republicans in the House were elected from districts that voted for Obama in 2012. Another dozen come from districts than went for Romney by two points or less. It doesn't take much of a shift away from Republicans to flip the House.

In the survey linked above, Public Policy Polling presumably was using this reasoning by polling in districts of the most vulnerable Republicans. They found that seventeen Republican representatives would lose to a "generic" (i.e., unnamed) Democrat, and another four trail the generic Democrat when voters are reminded that the representative voted for a government shutdown.

If you examine the PPP poll more closely, there are some odd things about it that might prevent one from putting a lot of faith in it. (For example, take a look at California 21, which according to Cook, Obama carried by 11 points.) But there's plenty of other evidence that things are not going well for Republicans. Both Gallup and the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll show that approval of the Republican Party is at its lowest point since they began asking the question. Granted, it's still a long way to the midterm elections. but if I were a Republican in an Obama district, I'd definitely be pretty nervous.

What is strange about the whole shutdown crisis was the dog that didn't bark: "moderate" Republicans. We heard quite a bit from the press about the "suicide caucus" of 80 Republicans who pushed Speaker Boehner into the shutdown. Those people probably are electorally invulnerable; the shameless Randy Neugebauer, for example, comes from from a Texas district where Romney got 74 percent of the votes in 2014.

But what about the representatives from districts where Obama won or nearly won? Clearly a lot of them are in jeopardy from the Republican collapse in popularity. Why didn't they protest publicly? A few have, such as Peter King (district: 52% for Obama). But even King voted for the shutdown, and later refused to sign a discharge petition that would have permitted a new vote. Why? Why didn't the self-preservation caucus speak up? Why didn't they just say no?

All I can imagine is that even representatives in fairly liberal districts face a threat from the Tea Party in the Republican primary. That leaves a lot of Republicans in a pretty tough place (call it the Straits of Mitt), having to survive both a primary challenge from the right and a general-election challenge from the left.

Curiously, one of the few pundits to pick up on the key role of the "moderates" is Paul Krugman. He concludes, however, "The biggest problem we as a nation face right now is not the extremism of Republican radicals, which is a given, but the cowardice of Republican non-extremists..." That's like saying the biggest problem we as a nation face is that pigs lack wings. The problem is not that "moderates" lack fearlessness, which is normally lacking in politicians; it's that they are poised between two fears, of the primary and the general election.

One would think that their professional colleagues in the House would have some sympathy for their plight, perhaps even some understanding of what's necessary to hold on to a majority, but the rookies seem completely clueless.“It’s pretty hard when he has a circle of 20 people that step up every day and say, ‘Can we surrender today, Mr. Speaker? Can we just go away? Can we make it easy?’” said [Kansas Republican Rep. Tim] Huelskamp.... “I would say the surrender caucus is the whiner caucus, and all they do is whine about the battle, as if they thought being elected to Washington was going to be an easy job.” Well, of course, the job's a lot easier when, like Huelskamp, you come from a district that voted for your Presidential candidate by 70%.

Finally, this episode, and the whole phenomenon of being "primaried," point once again to the need to get rid of the institution of party primaries. But that's a tale for another time.

Remarkable Victories in History

A sequel to this, of course.

Cruz: It was a ‘remarkable victory’ until Senate Republicans caved on the shutdown

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Wednesday blasted members of his own party after he said that they wasted a “remarkable victory” by making a deal with Democrats to re-open the government and avert a default on U.S. debt by raising the nation’s credit limit....Months ago, when the effort to defund Obamacare began, official Washington scoffed, they scoffed that the American people would rise up, they scoffed that the House of Representatives would do anything and they scoffed that the Senate would do anything.”

“We saw the House of Representatives take a courageous stand, listening to the American people, that everyone in official Washington just weeks earlier said would never happen,” he continued. “And that was a remarkable victory, to see the House engage in a profile in courage.”

“Unfortunately, the Senate chose not to follow the House...


“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby, died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he;
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Monday, October 7, 2013

Epic Battles in History


Boehner Urges G.O.P. Unity in ‘Epic Battle

...But on the matter causing all the Congressional stress, the speaker offered no clue as to how he expected Congress to get out of the dead end it has found itself in, with the government shut for a fourth day and no clear path to raise the federal debt limit to avoid the nation’s first default. “We are locked in an epic battle,” the speaker told his rank and file, those who attended the meeting said, urging them to “hang tough.”

The overarching problem for the man at the center of the budget fight, say allies and opponents, is that he and his leadership team have no real idea how to resolve the fiscal showdown....
  The New York Times, October 4, 2013


“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Frant's Law of Bureaucracy At the Government Shutdown

To understand how government works, you need to know Frant's Law of Bureaucracy, which states:

Problems with bureaucracy are almost never caused by bureaucrats. They're caused by politicians.

Public-sector bureaucracies, as we know, can be inflexible, and sometimes do things that seem irrational and counterproductive. For the most part, this is not because bureaucrats are inflexible or dumb. Nor is it because they lack the bracing effect of a profit motive or competition. No, for the most part bureaucrats do the things they do because that's what legislators have told them to do. They're following the law.

Of course, when following the law has bad results, politicians rarely see much advantage to taking the blame. Much better to be outraged by bureaucratic bungling and leap to the voters' defense. The hypocrisy of this strikes the untutored eye only rarely.

Here,  for example:

Heteronym of the Month

“I think it’s just the idea of, ‘Oh, I’m a sewer,’ that doesn’t thrill the average young individual today,” she said.

  From a New York Times article  on the return of the apparel industry to the US.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Head-Bang of the Month (Con Law Division)

A recent New York Times article talks about a new approach by voting-rights advocates after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act. It seems that in another recent decision, Justice Scalia affirmed Congress's right to regulate Federal elections under Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, known as the "elections clause." The article goes on to say:

The clause is much less well known than, say, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and yet Congress’s power under it, Justice Scalia wrote, “is paramount, and may be exercised at any time, and to any extent which [Congress] deems expedient.”

Now "a growing circle of legal scholars" is looking this decision,  which "may point the way to a new approach to protecting voting rights."

Huh? Much less well known? A new approach?

Guys, the Constitution is only a little over 4,000 words long, not counting the amendments. That's 16 double-spaced typed pages. It's the shortest constitution in the world. I am not a Supreme Court justice, nor even a constitutional lawyer, nor even a lawyer, but I knew about this clause, and even cited it in connection with voting rights.

How do we explain this? I suppose that laymen have an incorrect picture of what constitutional lawyers do. We think of them as sitting around reading the Constitution all day. Actually, they are probably sitting around reading Supreme Court decisions, and lower-court decisions, and journal articles about Supreme Court decisions and lower-court decisions. So they probably never think about parts of the Constitution that don't happen to be the subject of court cases.

But still....All I can say is, thank goodness for Justice Scalia. That's the first time I have ever written those words, and probably the last. Granted, he was (the most offensive) part of the majority that created the problem. But without him, who knows how long it could've taken "legal scholars" to come up with this idea?

Attack of the Zombie Philosophers

The New York Times online recently ran a guest column called "What Is Economics Good For?"  It is framed as advice for the incoming chairman of the Federal Reserve from two philosophers of science. Their main advice: Don't think that economics is a science.

When we put a satellite in orbit around Mars, we have the scientific knowledge that guarantees accuracy and precision in the prediction of its orbit. Achieving a comparable level of certainty about the outcomes of an economy is far dicier.

That's because it's a more complicated problem, right? No:

The fact that the discipline of economics hasn't helped us improve our predictive abilities suggests it is still far from being a science, and may never be. Still, the misperceptions persist.... The trouble with economics is that it lacks the most important of science’s characteristics — a record of improvement in predictive range and accuracy. This is what makes economics a subject of special interest among philosophers of science. None of our models of science really fit economics at all.

This is just depressingly superficial. Apparently there's been essentially no progress in philosophy of science since I encountered it thirty-odd years ago. Here is the way a philosopher of science thinks: "Physics is science. Therefore, the more closely something resembles physics, the more scientific it is. Social science is not very much like physics, therefore it's not very scientific."

Might not the problem be, instead, with the philosophers and their "models of science"? It appears the philosophers haven't done much over the last three decades about understanding sciences other than physics, even natural sciences. Science, in their view, is all about prediction. Begone, Charles Darwin, you pseudo-scientist! Where are your predictions? Begone, paleontologists and seismologists! Come back when you've got some predictions. Meteorologists, you're improving, but you'll never be true scientists, because you'll literally never be able to know what the weather will be 30 days from now. You'll never have the accuracy and precision of physics.

The philosophers never say this, of course. They take it for granted that Darwin was a scientist, even though he doesn't fit the model. What the examples above suggest is that not all scientists make predictions; some spend their time understanding and explaining things. I'm reasonably satisfied that we understand earthquakes better than than we did a hundred years ago, even though seismologists have made no progress over that time in predicting them. And similarly for the origin of species.

Nor do I follow what the authors mean by "prediction", or, for that matter, "economics". Apparently what they mean is that economists haven't done very well in forecasting recessions-- not much better, in fact, than seismologists in forecasting earthquakes.

But there's more to economics than that; even just within macroeconomics, some theories have done very well at predicting what would happen after the recession began. And there's more to prediction than forecasting. Any time you formulate a  testable hypothesis, you're making a prediction. Chemistry had one stunning success in forecasting, when Mendeleev's periodic table predicted the characteristics of elements that hadn't been discovered yet. Since then, chemists have continued to do science, without, as far as I know, making forecasts.

Finally, one would expect that philosophers of science would have a reasonable acquaintance with the particular science they're talking about. But here's their advice to the new Fed chairman:

An effective chair ... will be one who understands that economics is not yet a science and may never be. At this point it is a craft, to be executed with wisdom, not algorithms... What made Ben S. Bernanke, the current chairman, successful was his willingness to use methods — like “quantitative easing,” buying bonds to lower long-term interest rates — that demanded a feeling for the economy, one that mere rational-expectations macroeconomics would have denied him.

Paul Krugman calls a foul:

Whoa! They apparently imagine that QE was an intuitive reaction by Bernanke, one that academic macroeconomics would never have suggested. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Philosophy of science, of course, doesn't claim to be scientific. But it does claim to be true. The philosophers need to get to work gathering some evidence for their theories, in places other than the comfortable precincts of physics. Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn wrote about physics; what are you going to write about?

Friday, August 23, 2013

It's Not Just Libertarian! It's Populist! The Latest Republican Attempt at Self-Reinvention

Ross Douthat, one of  The New York Times's two conservative columnists, has another column about "reform conservatism," the struggle of the Republican party to define itself as being for something, at least something that people will vote for. The latest is about one of the next big things, "libertarian populism." 

The basic idea seems to be to adapt the conventional libertarianism exemplified by Ron Paul, giving it more of an anti-insider edge. As libertarians, they can't be against Big Business per se: what would they suggest, regulation? Government intervention to break it up? So they talk about the evils of government collusion with Big Business: special legislation favoring particular industries or firms, by protecting them from competition or outright subsidizing them. 

Douthat links to an exponent of another variety of reform conservatism, there termed "lower-middle [class] conservatism." The author is excited to read an article about libertarian populism:

Here’s the outline, in bullet points:

  •        Tough anti-Wall Street reform.
  •      “Cut or eliminate the payroll tax.”
  •      “End corporate welfare.”
  •      “Cleaner tax code.”
  •       Less corporatist health care reform.
  •      “Kill anticompetitive regulations.”
  •      “Address political privilege.
When I read Tim Carney’s great column, my first thought was: “This is actually 100% compatible with lower-middle conservatism!”
Well, perhaps you see the problem. This is also 100% compatible with liberalism.  Say you'll stop trying to cut food stamps, and I bet any liberal would support a platform like this. This leaves one wondering: So what is the difference, exactly?

It turns out that in several areas there's less here than meets the eye. By "corporatist" health care the author apparently means employer-provided health care: "Health insurers have been protected from competitive forces by the employer-based system .... End the policies that protect the employer-based system, and you begin to introduce competitive forces into the industry." 

I have no idea what he's talking about here. How is the employer-based system protecting insurers from competition? And if you get rid of the employer-based system without adding a purchase mandate, you'll have every American buying individual insurance, or rather not buying, because no one will be able to afford it. Competition is not going to save the day there. Somehow, "Get rid of employer-provided health insurance, and replace it with you're on your own" doesn't strike me as populist political gold. Oh, and by the way, he also wants to means-test Medicare.

But the most problematic part of the proposal is in the section titled "Address political privilege." That turns out to be about ending the "revolving door" between, for example, Congress and lobbyists. OK, fine.... but is that it?

Surely at some point someone will wonder, How does all this collusion between government and Big Business happen? Are businesses innocent virgins ravished by the evil State? Of course not. Everyone knows how a business becomes influential on Capitol Hill-- its executives make political contributions to politicians.

This is the fundamental contradiction, not just in populist libertarianism, but in all libertarianism. You're never going to make much progress on ending collusion between business and government until you get rid of the influence of money on Capitol Hill. That requires either public financing or sharp limits on political contributions. Both of those violate core libertarian principles.

Populist libertarians may be able to gloss over this contradiction for a while, if no one examines their ideas too closely. But faced with a challenge from a real populist, who really wants to get rid of special privileges for business, I think they're in trouble.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Peace Talks and Prisoners

As you've probably heard by now, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have resumed peace talks after Israel agreed to release over one hundred Palestinian prisoners. The prisoner release has caused some controversy. Just over half the cabinet (13 out of 22) voted for it. There were protests that included people who lost relatives to terrorist attacks. "It rips our heart out that they are aiding and abetting the terrorists," said one protester.

Sorry, but I can't share in the outrage. First, of course, there's the Gilad Shalit case of 2011, in which Israel released over one thousand Palestinian prisoners, including people responsible for some truly heinous crimes, in exchange for an abducted Israeli soldier. It would take us too far off topic to go into all the things wrong with that decision, but it was generally supported by Israelis. The difference is that they knew what were getting; one of the ministers who voted "no" said that this time, "there is no certain reward for Israel and its citizens." So, on the one hand, a thousand terrorists in exchange for  a single soldier with certainty; on the other a hundred terrorists in exchange for the possibility of peace. I think that any reasonable estimate of lives saved by peace would show that even if the possibility is small, the second is a better deal.

Second, the normal sentence for ordinary murder in Israel is 20-30 years. All the prisoners were convicted before the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993, so they've all served at least 20 years.

Third, and most important, there was an easy alternative to the prisoner release: a freeze on the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank . That has been the Palestinian demand all along before they would return to peace talks, and it's not hard to see why. Without it, Netanyahu could just string the talks out indefinitely, while the settlements got bigger and bigger. But the Israeli government wouldn't do a settlement freeze. So, no talks, until the U.S. came up with the prisoner-release plan..

Actually, I am a bit surprised that the Palestinians agreed to the deal. It was a brilliant idea by John Kerry (or, more likely, some State Department policy wonk) to come up with this alternative, to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a face-saving way of going back to negotiations without getting his key demand. I would presume that he got some kind of guarantee from the U.S. that the talks would not drag on forever.

Do the talks have any chance of success? This episode suggests that the toughest problem will not be, as many think, Jerusalem or the refugees. The political hot potato for any politician of the Israeli right is the settlements, which have strong support from parts of the right's political base. How hot is the potato? Hot enough that Netanyahu would rather release a hundred convicted terrorists than deal with it,

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Whence All These Hitlers? Rescuing Hayek From His Fan Club

Have you noticed, on the extreme right wing of American politics, a tendency to use images of Hitler and the Nazis? These images are not, as they might have been in past extreme right-wing movements, used to express admiration. Rather they are used to condemn adversaries on the left. Glenn Beck is especially fertile in this regard (here,  here, and a medley here).

The choice of Hitler  may seem odd. A man who hated socialists, communists, and labor unions, who believed there was a conspiracy, made up mostly of Jews, to destroy the country... this is actually a pretty good description of Glenn Beck himself. (In fairness, Beck never identifies any members of the conspiracy as Jews-- it's just that almost all of them are.) So why Hitler? Why is his face so much more common than Stalin's, and why are the two likened so often?

The answer, I believe, is a book that has been widely praised by right-wing pundits, Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. Glenn Beck has presented a lengthy segment about the book on his show, which resulted in a spike in sales on Amazon. Rush Limbaugh has recommended it on air (another spike in sales). And Paul Ryan lists it on his Facebook page as one of his favorite books.

Who is Friedrich Hayek and what is The Road to Serfdom? Hayek was an Austrian economist, who later became a British subject to avoid returning to Austria under the Nazis. Hayek was what is called in Europe a "liberal." This means first and foremost a belief in free markets, but Hayek saw liberalism as a more general philosophy of individual rights going back to the Renaissance, which had resulted in enormous progress for humanity. An essential for that progress was the development of free markets and competition.

Most of Hayek's arguments for liberalism were as an economist-- for example, this very good paper, arguing effective central planning of an economy is impossible because no central planner can possibly have the necessary information about all the rapidly changing local conditions. The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, is a venture into the political: it is an argument that a centrally planned economy must inevitably lead to totalitarianism. He cites as examples of totalitarianism Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Stalinist Russia.

Hayek says that Naziism, Fascism, and Stalinism are products of a single philosophy, which he calls "collectivism." This is the idea that ends of society, and production in society, should be determined collectively, as opposed to liberalism, which believes that they should determined by individuals acting individually. The collectivism embodied in socialists' advocacy of central planning, Hayek thinks, prepared the ground for the rise of totalitarianism in Germany and Italy as well as Russia.

But Hayek places the most emphasis on Germany. He says in the foreword to the paperback edition of the book that this was because in Britain during World War II it was impolitic to be too vocally against Stalin, but as an Austrian he was also more familiar with events and ideas in Germany than in Russia. The Road to Serfdom is undoubtedly the origin of Glenn Beck's obsession with Nazis.

I found Hayek's argument that socialist central planning will lead to a gradual loss of individual freedom surprisingly convincing on logical grounds. It also makes sense on empirical grounds: even with the rigid state control of politics in China, for example, Deng Xiaoping's relaxation of state economic control clearly led to an increase in individual freedom. Less convincing is the claim that the ground was prepared for Hitler and Stalin by the intellectual ascendancy of collectivism over liberalism. This is a hard claim to prove or disprove.

But a larger problem is that the target Hayek is aiming at no longer exists. Nowhere in the world (with the possible exceptions of Cuba and North Korea) does anyone believe any longer in socialism in the sense of a centrally planned economy. Hayek admits as much in his 1956 preface to the paperback edition, but warns that tt is too soon for complacency:

The increasing tendency... to resort to direct state controls or to the creation of monopolistic institutions where judicious use of financial inducements might evoke spontaneous efforts is still a powerful legacy of the socialist period which is likely to influence policy for a long time to come. (xxxiv)

This is pretty weak beer for today's Republicans. It suggests that Hayek would have approved of a carbon tax, or even that great bugaboo of today's right, a cap-and-trade program, as a means of controlling greenhouse-gas emissions.  The problem for Republicans is that Hayek was not a knee-jerk ideologue but a serious thinker. He was pro-market and pro-competition and not, like many of today's Republicans, pro-business and anti-poor.

Where would Hayek stand on today's policy debates? Clearly, he was against unions, viewing them as a restriction on competition. But he would have probably have approved of many institutions that Tea Partiers abhor:

  • OSHA and parts of the Department of Labor: "To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs which they impose." (43)
  • Food Stamps and housing vouchers: "...there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody." (133)
  • Social Security Disability Insurance: "Where [there is no problem of insurance weakening the incentive to avoid risk] the case for the state's  helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong." (134)
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the agency that Elizabeth Warren designed) as well as other regulatory agencies: "Even the most essential prerequisite of [competition's] proper functioning, the prevention of fraud and deception (including exploitation of ignorance), provides a great and by no means yet fully accomplished object of legislative activity." (45)
So how would Hayek have reacted to his current lionization by the American right? Probably much the way he reacted to his lionization by the American right in the fifties:

"... occasionally the manner in which [the book] was used brought home to me the truth of Lord Acton's observation that '...sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and [their] triumphs have been due to ... associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous.'" (xxx-xxxi)

The political debate in this country would be much saner if Hayek were alive today.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Free vs. the Brave

You remember Allen West, right? The Republican Congressman who said there were 80 members of Congress who were members of the Communist Party, and so on and so on?

He's been booted out of office, but he's raising money for his own PAC. The home page has the headline "Allen West Is Leading the Fight Against the Radical Left" followed by this message:

"America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. But which one will prevail over the next four years depends on you, me, and how we together fight to win the battle for our beloved country."

Huh? Which one will prevail? What were the choices again?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Egypt: Democracy and Details

As I write this, Egypt is being convulsed by huge demonstrations, by some accounts larger than those that brought down Hosni Mubarak, demanding the resignation of the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The Army has said it will step in if there is no resolution.

This presents a dilemma. Morsi is a fairly hard-core member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose dedication to democracy is suspect. Indeed, many say he has shown authoritarian tendencies. And the size of the opposition cannot be disputed. On he other hand, he is the first democratically elected president in Egypt's history.

I don't have a suggestion for the short run. But for the long run, let's look at how we got to this point. Before Morsi was elected he had to get through a primary where the top two finishers went on to the final election. Here's what the results looked like:

1. Morsi 5,553,097 (25.30 per cent)
2. Shafiq 5,210,978 (23.74 per cent)
3. Sabbahi 4,739,983 (21.60 per cent)
4. Abul-Fotouh 3,936,264 (17.93 per cent)
5. Moussa 2,407,837 (10.97 per cent)

Morsi was considered the most hard-line Islamist in the race. Shafiq was prime minister under Mubarak, and was thus considered a representative of the old, pre-Arab-Spring regime. Faced with that choice, people narrowly chose Morsi. But notice that both final-round candidates combined were the first choice of fewer than half the voters

Now suppose that instead of using a top-two primary, Egypt had used what is known as instant-runoff voting, known in Britain as alternative voting. Under this system, people state not only their first choice, but their second choice, third choice, etc. If nobody gets more than fifty percent of the first choice votes, then we go on to second choice votes, and so on.

How would this have worked in Egypt? We don't know for sure, but my guess is that people who voted for one of the more centrist candidates were likely to have voted for other centrist candidates for their second and third choices. So Sabbahi or Abul-Fotouh (probably not Moussa) could have ended up as president. This is how instant-runoff voting is supposed to work; the winner is supposed to be someone that represents the views of the majority.

I discussed the case of Egypt a year ago. My point then, as now, is that there's more than one way to pick a democratically elected president. (More than two, in fact.) It was clear then that it was unjustified to say, "See? When Arabs get democracy, they just vote for radical Islamists." It's even clearer now. And, boring as this topic may be, it matters.

Further Comments on Gas Masks and Settlements

In a recent post, I cited David Harris, the executive director off the American Jewish Committee, as saying, "I have a son who lives in Israel, not on the Upper West Side, and he lives with a gas mask..." The implication, of course, is, How dare an American criticize Israel from the safe distance of New York, when Israelis are the ones living in daily peril?  Apropos of this, the following story:

When I was leaving Israel in the summer of 2001, a guy I had hired to help me pack came across a small cardboard box in my closet. "What's that?" I asked. It was my gas mask. "Well, you won't be needing that!" he said. We had a good chuckle. It didn't seem so funny a couple of months later, in September of 2001.

While it's true that Israel faces a level of existential threat unknown to other countries, that doesn't mean that living there is like being in an Army outpost in Afghanistan. Add together terrorism, street crime, and traffic accidents, and I think it's about as dangerous as the U.S. And if you're hit by a car, there won't be a lot of hassle about whether you have medical insurance.

The reason Israelis now have gas masks is that they were subjected to missile attacks by Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war. Saddam did this, presumably, to increase his popularity with the Arab street, particularly in the countries that were fighting him. What would undercut  this as a political strategy would be reaching some kind of agreement with the Palestinians. Israelis tend to focus on how much the Arabs hate them, and a peace agreement will not move them from hate to love. More like from hate to indifference. I don't think there's much enthusiasm for being more pro-Palestinian than the Palestinians.

And, of course, all this is irrelevant to the issue of the settlements, whose contribution to Israel's security is zero, if not negative. Here's my take on the Israeli politics of the settlements, and I'm eager to be corrected by someone who knows more than me:

Most Israelis don't care much about the settlements, and don't like the occupation much either. However, Israelis, understandably, place a high value on national unity (where "national" is understood as meaning "among Jews.") The settlers are a small but significant minority who have made it clear that they are willing to resort to violence rather than see Israel leave the West Bank (or, if you prefer, Judea and Samaria). One of them was responsible for the assassination of the prime minister in 1995, an event deeply traumatic to Israelis. Therefore, Israelis prefer to leave the settlement issue untouched, however costly that may be in the long run. [Update: When I say "settlers" I'm not referring to every Israeli living in the West Bank, but rather to members of the settler movement.]

It would make me sound like an arrogant, meddling American to say that Israelis need U.S. pressure on the settlements to save them from themselves. So I won't say it, even though it's true.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Crisis of Zionism? What Crisis?

I just read the paperback edition of Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. It's a very good book,which you should go out and buy. It's also a pretty disturbing book. But not as disturbing as the reviews.

If you are an American who pays particular attention to Israel, you may have heard of Beinart and his book. Beinart is a former editor of The New Republic who is a practicing Orthodox Jew. His book is an attack on the American Jewish establishment, of which he was formerly a part, for its enabling of what he regards as destructive tendencies in Israel.

Here are some of the main points:
  1. Jewish organizations in the US, which once had a liberal outlook in tune with the ideology of most American Jews, have been taken over by by wealthy right-wingers with close ties to right-wingers in Israel.
  2. The Israeli government is now dominated by such right-wingers, whose goal is permanent Israeli control over the occupied territory of the West Bank.  
  3. In support of this goal, the right, both in the US and in Israel, has funded a huge program of construction of settlements in the West Bank. The settlers are protected by the Israeli military, which has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure their safety.
  4. The result is that there are now two Israels. The Israel that is not under military occupation is a democracy. In the West Bank, however, Jews have the vote and Arabs don't; there are roads that Jews are allowed to drive on and Arabs are not; there is one judicial system for Jews and another (much harsher) one for Arabs. In short, it looks very much like apartheid. Moreover, many of the worst tendencies of the undemocratic Israel, specifically its racism and its violence, have begun to infect democratic Israel.
  5. A real possibility, therefore, is the destruction of the idea, expressed in Israel's Declaration of Independence, of a democratic, Jewish state with equal rights for all. Beinart would personally feel this as one of the greatest tragedies of his life.
  6. Young American Jews do not see Israel as an embattled democracy. They see a militarily powerful country that is oppressing the Arabs of the West Bank. The response has largely been to distance themselves from Israel, even among those who have retained, or developed, an attachment to Judaism.
The book has been received by reviewers with an astonishing combination of vitriol and dismissiveness. A review in The New York Times accuses Beinart of ignoring the contribution of the Palestinians to the conflict ("While there is a chapter called “The Crisis in Israel” and a chapter called “The Crisis in America,” there is no chapter called “The Crisis in Palestinian Society” or “The Crisis in Islam”"), and says that he uses "several formulations favored by anti-Semites."

The Washington Post review says the book is "...calculated to appeal to disillusioned Jewish summer camp alumni, NPR listeners and other beautiful souls who want the Holy Land to be a better place but do not have the time or ability to study the issues... ." The reviewer "heartily endorse[s] many of his talking points," but says that according to Beinart, "if you disagree with the current Israeli administration but don’t regard it as a font of evil and corruption, you are blind, deaf and dumb." And again, Beinart is guilty of absolving the Palestinians: "From this book you would think that Palestinians are just the passive and helpless victims of Israeli sadism, with no historical agency; no politics, diplomacy or violence of their own...."

And so on, through the Wall Street Journal ("Here is what he thinks: Israel is an oppressive, apartheid-type state.") and on out to the extreme right wing, where Beinart is, inevitably, a "self-hating Jew."

This is all complete nonsense. Some of it may arise from mere intellectual laziness or personal animosity; some of it must be intentional deceit.

To begin with, why is the book called "The Crisis of Zionism"? Because that's what it's about. Obvious, you say, but it seems to have escaped the reviewers: Why on earth should a book about the crisis in Zionism have a chapter called "The Crisis in Islam"?

Indeed, the reviewers above have virtually nothing to say about the topic of the book. Nothing about young American Jews' weakened attachment to Israel. Nothing about the settlements. Nothing about the poisoning of Israeli politics. They don't deny these problems. Nor do they affirm them. They simply ignore them.

To fill up the space on the page, they instead go the ad-hominem full monty. Thus, the reviewer for the Washington Post observes, with no supporting evidence, "'The Crisis of Zionism' is most interesting when seen for what it is, at least in part: a political stump speech for...the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews." The online Jewish magazine Tablet, in a feature that largely follows this theme (here's Tablet, being even-handed: "Even his fiercest detractors concede he has a genius for publicity"), quotes former New Republic owner Martin Peretz: “It’s a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive...I always knew he was a very vain man, but a lot of us are vain, and.. if I had his mother, I’d be even more vain than I am.”

The problem with the argumentum ad hominem, of course, is that it's not an argument at all. Why should anyone care whether or not Peter Beinart is a narcissist? One gets the sense of a magic trick, in which the hand is quicker than the eye and the real issues are made to disappear. Tablet quotes the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris:  "'I have a son who lives in Israel, not on the Upper West Side, and he lives with a gas mask...' The main problem with Beinart’s argument, Harris told me, was that it seemed designed to be maximally appealing to people who don’t want to confront the ethical complexity of the situation as it stands today."

Well, Mr. Harris, I had a gas mask too, and guess what? The situation is not ethically complex at all! Want something Israel can do to improve the prospects for peace, and at the same time, make the lives of Arabs on the West Bank less miserable? Want something that has no effect on Israel's security, and requires no assumptions about whether the Palestinians are ready for peace? Here's the plan: Stop building settlements. Stop building settlements.

The settlements are the rabbit that has disappeared from the American Jewish establishment's top hat. Nobody can explain to liberals (i.e., most American Jews) why Israel should build them, so they are gone in a puff of complexity.

But the rabbit keeps coming back, and more prestidigitation is required. The latest distraction is the tarring and feathering of Peter Beinart.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fun Quiz: Cops In Your Kindergarten

I won't go into how I stumbled on this, but here are three videos showing small children being arrested by the police: a five-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl, and seven-year-old boy. All had their hands cuffed behind their backs after being arrested.

Fun quiz: Can you spot the characteristic these three kids have in common, one that might have some connection to their being arrested when kids with similar behavior are not? Please post your answer, together with any other remarks, in the comment section below.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Antinomy of the Geek

Please watch this video about an award to the inventor of the Graphics Interchange Format (it's less than a minute and a half). Note the paradox: there is no consistent pronunciation that makes the following statement true:

The word 'GIF' is pronounced 'JIF', not 'GIF'.

Flying Low

I was writing a long post about the whole air-traffic control brouhaha in Congress, starting with an explanation of the sequester, but I got so bored I couldn't finish it. So here's a pared-down version.

Thanks to Congress,  across-the-board cuts have been made to military and domestic discretionary spending. They call this "sequestration," even though that's not what what "sequestration" normally means. (They make the laws, after all, so when they use a word it means just what they want it to mean.)

These across-the-board cuts are, everyone agrees, a terrible idea. They were conceived as a way to get compromise on reducing the budget deficit. Republicans would agree to getting rid of tax loopholes to avoid draconian defense cuts, and Democrats would agree to some spending cuts to avoid across-the-board cuts -in domestic spending. But Republicans decided they'd rather be soft on defense than soft on taxes. So the across-the-board cuts went into effect. Oops.

It took a while for anything much to happen, but pretty soon cuts started appearing among the people and places that you don't need to pay attention to: the long-term unemployed, public defenders, food pantries... I mean, drug and alcohol treatment for Native Alaskans? Puh-leeze. No one really noticed. Fox News asked, "Did the White House mislead on sequester impact?"

Eventually, though, the cuts did start to affect people who matter.  Furloughs of air traffic controllers started to cause delays at big airports, and there was talk of having to shut down the small airports. Immediately there were moves to exempt this part of the FAA from the sequester, or at least give it more flexibility.

Democrats in Congress knew full well that the best chance to get rid of the domestic cuts was to hold firm and let the sequester affect more influential people.  But in the end, the bill to bring back the furloughed controllers passed Congress with overwhelming support, 90 percent in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate. Food pantries? Not so much.

Why did the Democrats cave? One possibility is self-interest: nowadays, many members leave their families in their home districts and fly home every weekend. Another is the wishes of people that Congressmen spend four hours a day talking to: the people who can contribute a significant amount to their campaigns. That group includes more than just the Gulfstream crowd; the business-class crowd and the Cessna crowd are also worth calling. All have a stake in the fate of air-traffic controllers.

What's harder to understand is what happened next: President Obama signed the bill. He doesn't fly home every weekend, has all the air-traffic control he needs, and doesn't need campaign contributions. Why didn't he veto it?

Yes, there was an overwhelming vote for it; it's likely the veto would've been overridden. I suspect the opinion of his staff would have been the conventional Washington wisdom: that having his veto overridden would have made him look weak, and if he looked weak, then he would be weak.

Going beyond that view would require the mindset that Obama's been so painfully dragging himself toward: that Washington politics is about more than his relations with Congress, that President shows leadership by talking to the voters, that voters admire a President who has strong convictions even when they don't fully agree.  Try this, for example:

"I know that this bill passed Congress with huge majorities and that a veto of it is likely to be overridden. Nevertheless, I cannot in good conscience sign it.  I cannot see how I can say that air travelers should not suffer from budget cuts, while the long-term unemployed are facing benefit cuts, homeless people cannot get housing vouchers, and children are turned away from Head Start programs. I have no wish for air travelers to be inconvenienced. But suppose you were one of the Medicare cancer patients who have been told by their clinics that they can no longer afford to treat you. That would be really inconvenient."

I think that works. Best case: he shames a third (plus one) of one house into voting against override. Worst case: He fails to stop the override, but pleases his restless base in the Democratic Party. Either way, he shows that he is not afraid to do the right thing even when it's unpopular.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Influence a Senator

What does a member of Congress want? Money? Yes, absolutely. But it's important to remember that members of Congress, aside from the few who are outright corrupt, don't want money for its own sake. They want it as a means to an end, and the end is reelection.

If you assume that politicians act in whatever way will help their chances of reelection, you will almost always be right. This need not be cynical self-interest on their part. Perhaps they're playing a long game, and reason that reelection is a precondition for getting anything done in the future. Or perhaps they convince themselves that that's what they're doing. In any case, you'll rarely go wrong by assuming politicians will choose the course that maximizes their chances of reelection.

This brings us to the defeat of universal background checks in the Senate. Given that support for this proposal was around 90%, how can voting against it possibly help senators' chances of reelection?

We have some evidence on that. Here's one of the Democratic defectors, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota:

“I think I always had a reputation as somebody who will listen, somebody who is pretty independent-minded but also believes that at the end of the day, you got to listen to your constituents,” Heitkamp told Politico. “In this office, the calls literally were before the last day at least 7 to 1 against that bill. This was after a series of very extensive ad campaigns done in my state saying call me and tell me to support it."

Then we have Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona. He announced that he would vote for cloture on the background-checks amendment, meaning voting to allow it to come to the floor for a vote. This was in opposition to the NRA position, which was to keep it bottled up forever. You can go to his Facebook page and scroll down to April 10 to read about it. Here are the first ten comments on the screen I was looking at (sorry about the HTML problems):

    Jimmy Young we need you defeat this attack on our 2nd amendment right's if not you don't have to worry about us ever supporting you again we will be supporting your challenger.
    Gordon Jones Vote NO on more gun control, criminals don't follow laws by definition. "Universal background check" will only apply to law abiding citizens, not criminals. 

    Abolish the "Gun free zone" law, it only disarms law abiding people, not madmen intent on mayhem. All celebrities and politicians have armed guards and send their kids to schools with armed security, the average American deserves the same protection.

Jeff -Oliver Madly- Clark You'll never have a chance to even read it.

Joe Hannis Harry Reid cannot be trusted. He has an agenda and will stop at nothing to achieve it. BEWARE.

Tim Musa Thanks for letting us down with that douche McCain. I am in AZ and I vote.'I will be happy to vote against you next time around if you go down this path.
April 16 at 12:18am via mobile · Like · 2

Scott Shepherd Jeff Flake, you are a traitor to the American people. You swore to UPHOLD the unites states constitution, not destroy it. I will remember how you vote when it's my turn to vote.
April 16 at 12:46am via mobile · Like · 4

John Crook I am very disappointed in the fact that I supported you by voting for you. NOT one single notch should be made in the second amendment!! I feel that both you and John Mccain have betrayed us!!
April 16 at 12:57am via mobile · Like · 1

David Fischer another more votes for you, you should jump the isle, hell the dems probably wont have you either.

Steve Eacret I did not vote for you to be another of the sheep. I will not make that mistake again...
April 16 at 2:04am via mobile · Like · 3
Jake Box Vote No on s649! Vote No on Manchin-Toomey! Vote No to Amnesty or a path to Citizenship! Secure the Border!

Flake ended up voting for cloture but against the background-checks amendment.

Now, are phone calls and Facebook comments a random sample, and thus representative of constituent opinions? Obviously not. So why pay attention to them?

One possibility is that senators are too dumb to realize that these comments are unrepresentative. Here's Heitkamp:

When asked about polling that has consistently shown upwards of 90 percent of Americans supporting an expansion of background checks on gun purchasers, Heitkamp said she doubted that they really reflected public opinion....

Much more likely, though, senators do know that the comments are unrepresentative. But just as politicians care about money as a means to an end, they care about representing constituent opinion as a means to that same end: reelection.

From the standpoint of reelection, politicians have to worry not only about their constituents' preferences, but also about the intensity of those preferences.  A lot of people will have an opinion on issue A, but most of them will decide whether to vote for a politician based on issues A through H. A minority will be single-issue voters, whose entire voting decision will be based on issue A. On that issue pleasing those people is a lot more important than pleasing most people.

Calls and letters are a pretty good way of identifying those people-- if people are willing to go to that trouble, they may feel intensely enough about it to be single-issue voters. I doubt Heitkamp really thinks that all the polls are wrong, but it's pretty unseemly to say in public, "I don't care what my constituents want; I just care what the fanatical minority wants." Note that Heitkamp was just elected this past November and won't be up for reelection for another five and a half years, but she's already worried about it.

You might say, "There's nothing really wrong with this; legislation should reflect intensity of preferences. People who care a lot about an issue should carry more weight than people who don't much one way or the other." Indeed, this is the point of view of one of the best-known theories of political philosophy, utilitarianism.

But in applying that philosophy here there's a problem, one of the biggest problems with representative democracy. We could call it "threshold effects." There are costs to organizing and lobbying. So people with less at stake may choose not to bother, and so may not get represented at all. Their preferences may be not just weighted less, but ignored altogether. It's the same reason there's a milk-producers' lobby, but no milk-drinkers' lobby.

There is a silver lining, though, for believers in democracy. Apparently, you  don't need huge amounts of money to influence a senator.  If you can get a good phone list organized, you may be able to have a significant impact on policy. Of course, it helps if your phone list is made up of paranoid nut cases, but it's time for normal people to step up.

Note: Sometimes you guess wrong about how much the silent majority cares about an issue, as Jeff Flake has found out, to his cost.