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Archive for August, 2006

Trashing the Wrong Compact

[ 0 ] August 29, 2006 |

I’m a little leery of the California compact to give its electoral college votes to the winner of the popular vote, not because of principle but because of my distrust of unilateral disarmament. Still, if this is what it takes to undermine the electoral college–and indefensible institution that (unlike, say judicial review) is an element of American constitutionalism was been highly uninfluential among other liberal democracies, for the obvious reason that it’s an irrational, anti-democratic institution–perhaps it’s worthwhile.

Pierre DuPont, conversely, tries to actually defend the electoral college itself. He starts off with a classic idiot-right talking point: “In 2000 Al Gore won 677 counties and George Bush 2,434, but Mr. Gore received more total votes.” Your point being? “Legislators,” as Justice Warren reminds us, “represent people, not trees or acres.” There’s a spurious argument about election fraud–whew, thankfully the current system prevents the possibility of a contested election decided by a lawless, hyper-partisan Supreme Court, and has been free of electoral fraud throughout its history! But really ridiculous is his claim that using a rational system would narrow the scope of the election: “Rural states like Maine, with its 740,000 votes in 2004, wouldn’t matter much compared with New York’s 7.4 million or California’s 12.4 million votes.” Pierre, I hate to tell you, but Maine doesn’t matter now, and nor do small states like Wyoming or Utah or Vermont or Mississippi, because the outcome of Presidential elections in those states is not in question. Our current system is the one that encourages a focus on a small number of states; and the salient characteristic these states have is not that they’re rural, but that they’re close–Florida gets far more attention from Presidential campaigns than Nebraska. Getting rid of the electoral college would significantly broaden electoral campaigns by making it rational for candidates to campaign in states where they can’t get a majority. It’s true that most small states will still not be the central focus of such campaigns, but their gross overrepresentation in the Senate will surely be a nice consolation.

Anyway, it’s useful to remember why conservatives actually like the electoral college: it’s indefensible, but it produces substantive results they like because it overrepresents small Southern states. Not surprisingly, since it was designed to protect the South’s peculiar institution. As Paul Fikelman says, while the issue of protecting small states “never came up” during election debates, slavery and the protection of the evil “compact” of sectional balance necessary to protect it certainly did:

How did the United States come up with such a crazy way to elect a president? The electoral college system seems to make no sense. It is quite undemocratic. The tiny states have proportionally more power then the larger states. In addition, the winner-take-all process makes voting seem meaningless in many states. As the 2000 election demonstrated, having more popular votes than your opponent does not guarantee that the candidate will win the election. This only reconfirmed what the nation learned in 1824, 1888, and probably 1800.

The system seems to be unique in the United States – applying only to the presidential election – and unique to the United States. I know of no western or industrialized democracy that uses such a system. As far as I know, the presidency is the only elected office in the United States in which the person with the most votes in the final election does not necessarily win…


This lack of discussion of slavery by scholars of the electoral college is surprising, because the records of the Convention show that in fact the connection between slavery and the college was deliberate, and very much on the minds of many delegates, including James Madison. Before turning to a more thorough examination the role of slavery in the creation of the electoral college, it is necessary to first consider the more common explanations for this system of electing presidents.


In order to guarantee that the nonvoting slaves could nevertheless influence the presidential election, Madison favored the creation of the electoral college. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina was more open about the reasons for southern opposition to a popular election of the president. He noted that under a direct election of the president, Virginia would not be able to elect her leaders president because “her slaves will have no suffrage.” The same of course would be true for the rest of the South.

The Convention quickly moved to accept the idea of an electoral college, following the lead of Ellsworth, from the North, and Madison and Williamson, from the South. This sectional balance is revealing. Ellsworth almost always voted with the South on slavery-related matters, and the agreement here seems part of the same New England-Deep South coalition that led to the Slave Trade clause. The Convention tied presidential electors to representation in Congress. By this time the Convention had already agreed to count slaves for representation under the three-fifths compromise, counting five slaves as equal to three free people in order to increase the South’s representation in Congress. Thus, in electing the president the political power southerners gained from owning slaves (although obviously not the votes of slaves) would be factored into the electoral votes of each state. Paul Finkelman, “The Proslavery Origins of the Electoral College,” 23 Cardozo L. Rev. 1145.

The electoral college cannot be defended in democratic terms. It was put in place to overrepresent the votes of property-holding white males in the south, and it continues to perform this function. The electoral college, then, is not only anti-democratic on its face but looks even worse if you use a definition of democracy that takes substantive equality or reducing illegitimate hierarchies into account. (Which is why reactionaries like it so much.) To the extent that states do what they can within the Constitution to mitigate this appalling feature of the Constitution, they’re on the side of the angels.

…a commenter notes that the California system doesn’t go into effect until enough other states do it, so the unlitareal disarmament objection is largely inoperative. Rob also notes DuPont’s claim that abolishing the college would lead to a crazy new party system, which is about as likely to happen as it is at the state level (i.e. not at all.)


Mickey Kaus etc. etc. etc.

[ 0 ] August 29, 2006 |

Chris Matthews:

All signs point to a continued degradation of our situation in Iraq.

Shorter (well, roughly the same length) Mickey:

Nonsense. There’s this letter here from a Marine who says that everything is going to be fine. How can it be “all signs” if this Marine wrote a nice letter?

If you’ve been paying attention to Mickey for the last three years (and, sadly, I have), this is fairly typical; his only commentary about Iraq comes in the form of “the press seems to have come to a consensus that it’s a disaster, but aren’t they cocooning?” He’s now moved on to “Washington policymakers seem to have come to a consensus that it’s a disaster, but aren’t they, uh…”. Ten years from now: “Historians seem to have come to a consensus that it was a disaster, but who listens to them anyway?”

Katrina Y+1

[ 0 ] August 29, 2006 |

Speaking of Spike Lee, the parts of his Katrina doc I saw suggest a first-rate piece of work, and the whole thing will air Tuesday evening. As far is the blogospheric reaction, Shakes has everything you need.

Sure, She Hate Me Sucked, But It’s Not Like He Wrote Scenes From A Mall Or Anything

[ 0 ] August 29, 2006 |

Hackery just doesn’t get much more hackish than Roger L. Simon. This is the kind of thing that happens when you don’t actually care about movies, but just like using them as a pretext to share various half-cooked reactionary bromides.


[ 0 ] August 28, 2006 |

I’m watching the Athletics-Red Sox game, and I’m wondering when Javy Lopez picked up his reputation for being so bad defensively. I know that everybody has to love Jason Varitek, and apparently I’m supposed to believe that his pitch-calling is crucial to the success of the Red Sox staff, but I’m at a loss as to how Lopez has presumably lost all ability to call pitches. Apparently it is beyond the capacity of the commentators to recall the 1990s, but I seem to remember that Lopez regularly caught a few Hall of Fame caliber pitchers (although I recall now that Lopez rarely caught Maddux). Still, it’s not as if we’re talking about aa raw rookie. Even if we allow that some of the pitchers became used to Varitek and have trouble shifting to Lopez, that doesn’t explain Beckett, who has sucked all year and is new to the Red Sox in any case. I’d be much more inclined to assign responsibility for the Red Sox pitching problems to the Tim Wakefield injury and the Trot Nixon injury, the latter of which has resulted in more playing time for the defensively challenged Wily Mo Pena. I’d also be more inclined to believe the Varitek-centered explanation if anyone had ever been able to produce solid statistical evidence that pitch-calling ability matters for ERA.

Imperial Ambition

[ 0 ] August 28, 2006 |

In the midst of explaining how it’s more important to stay in Iraq than it was to stay in Vietnam, William Stuntz writes:

But on any plausible scale of strategic value, Iraq today easily beats Vietnam in the late 1960s or Korea in the early 1950s. America has three enemies in the Middle East today: secular or Sunni Baathism, violent Sunni jihadism, and violent Shiite jihadism. These three enemy forces have demonstrated their willingness to work together: witness Baathist Syria’s alliance with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, and the sometime cooperation of Zarqawi’s Islamist killers with
pro-Saddam Iraqi insurgents. All three are dangerous because all have imperial ambitions; each seeks not control of a small piece of Middle Eastern real estate but regional hegemony–even, in the case of the jihadists, world domination. Needless to say, all three hate the West.

Ok, but I don’t recall any advocate of the Vietnam War or the Korean War ever suggest that the conflict was only for local goals, either. In Vietnam, hawks relentlessly argued that the aims of Democratic Republic of Vietnam were dominion over all of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Moreover, the North Vietnamese were supposed to be the vanguard of international communism, the doormen for Soviet and Chinese imperialism. In short, the United States was fighting against forces who had regional and global imperial ambitions, and showing weakness in the face of those forces yada yada yada. In Korea the same claims were made, with the presumed victim of the aforementioned imperialism being Japan and a terrified Europe…

There’s certainly a strong argument to be made that Iraq is more strategically important today than Vietnam was in 1968, but to ma ke that argument by hyping the goals and capabilities of the enemy is a tactic that we’ve seen before.


[ 0 ] August 28, 2006 |

What a depressing ending for Deadwood, not simply in the substance (which, in the last two episodes, was crushing) but also in the sheer incompleteness of the project. Knowing that the program would not be renewed, the producers decided to press on with the original plan even though it would leave numerous plot threads dangling and the absence of a meaningful conclusion. The third season was filled with plot elements that were designed to lead to something in the future (Tolliver’s thread, and virtually the entire Brian Cox storyline) but that served, under the circumstances, to detract from what was our central interest, the conflict with Hearst. Wu’s partisans and Landgrische’s troup may have yielded narrative payoffs, but we’ll never know.

I’m not sure how much the production should be faulted for this decision. In the face of a very similar situation with Angel, Joss Whedon decided to accelerate certain plot developments and craft the rest of the conclusion out of thin air, leaving us with a finale not nearly as sastisfactory as it should have been. I would think that there must be a happy medium between these two extremes. It could be fairly argued that a show like Deadwood should never result in some sort of happy equilibrium, in which we are more or less satisfied that the narratives of importance to us have come to a close. True enough, but that still misses the target a bit; I feel no greater sense of closure having seen the last episode of the season than I did seeing the sixth, and would have preferred if at least some gesture towards finality had been offered.

Then again, we are apparently supposed to get a couple feature length episodes to finish off the tale. There’s no timeline, and I’m skeptical that they’ll ever see the light of day, given the difficulty associated with reuniting the cast in a couple or three yeears.


[ 0 ] August 28, 2006 |

In extremely tepid defense of Joe Biden, I don’t think he was BOASTING that Delaware was once a slave state; rather, he was pointing out a basic fact about one of America’s most obscure states that many people don’t know and that, in particular, his Fox News interviewer seemed ignorant of. For a variety of reasons it is quite wrong to refer to Biden as a “northeastern liberal”. Delaware isn’t really a northeastern state, and, more importantly, Biden really ain’t that liberal.

The much more irritating aspect of his interview is that he was willing to go on Fox News and essentially dis northeastern liberals, one of the most important and most loyal constituencies that the Democratic party has.

Acting and The Wire

[ 0 ] August 28, 2006 |

Although I don’t fully agree, I think ogged has a point about acting and The Wire. It’s a really, really, outstanding show, and getting better too. But part of me does wish that Simon had been able to do Homicide on HBO. Particularly in the first season, when you compare McNaulty and Pembleton you have to notice that while the latter character is one of the greatest in TV history the former is a pretty stale cliche, and one also notices that Dominic West ain’t Andre Braugher. (Of course, The Wire doesn’t rely on a central police character either, but that’s only partial mitigation.) So, myself, I still say that while The Wire towers over anything on network TV, it’s also not as good as Season 1-5 of The Sopranos; the fact that the latter is more immediately compelling, more likely to convert the unconverted, is actually related to aesthetic strengths, not a reflection of bad compromises. (Part of what’s going on, I think, is like what Bill James says about great teams; you can’t write a book saying the ’27 Yankees were the best team ever because it’s not surprising, and you can’t write a book saying they weren’t because they were. The Sopranos, being the first great HBO drama, has been so widely praised to say that it’s the best show the medium has ever produced isn’t an interesting argument; nonetheless, it happens to be right, although The Wire and Deadwood are in a similar general class. The Wire has a stronger case because it’s different and innovative in a lot of ways. But still, The Sopranos is at least as well-written, and generally has better acting and direction, and is also funnier than most comedies.)

With respect to whether The Wire‘s reliance on amateur actors hurts it at the Emmys, I would simply note that apparently Kiefer Sutherland–Kiefer Sutherland!won the Emmy for “best actor.” I feel pretty confident in arguing that The Wire‘s ultimately minor aesthetic flaws have nothing to do with its failure to win an Emmy…

Plan B: Sober Second Thoughts

[ 0 ] August 28, 2006 |

My reaction to the decision to make Plan B available over-the-counter to women over the age of 18 was positive. And, in a sense, it still is; the current policy is preferable to the status quo ante. I feel like Stevens in Casey: “The portions of the Court’s opinion that I have joined are more important than those with which I disagree.” Casey was, on its own merits, a serious setback; not only did it overrule the crucial protections of Akron, it was also something of a jurisprudential disaster, creating a standard that gave virtually no guidance to lower courts and legislatures and also failing to defend it convincingly. Nonetheless, given the personnel on the court it was also victory, because it was the best result viable under the circumstances, and the same is true of the FDA as long as Bush remains in office.

Still, as ema notes in detail here, it must also be noted that the exclusion of women under 18 is a ridiculous decision: “There is no more medical justification to restrict Plan B sales to women 18 and older, than it is for sales of the drug to be restricted to males only.” And it’s not merely that the exclusion of women under 18 has no medical justification. Just like the irrational “reasonable” regulations of abortion rights favored by so many legislators, it increases the burdens on the class of women who are already burdened the most. Women under 18 are more likely to have difficulty acquiring a prescription, and the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy are on balance more severe for these women. The FDA’s decision was an important first step, but this irrational and counterproductive rule should be amended as soon as the Democrats re-take the White House.

Amanda has more.

Did Welfare Reform Work?

[ 0 ] August 28, 2006 |

Great post by Brad Plumer on the subject of the 1996 welfare reform bill. The key point is that most assertions that welfare reform has “worked” reference nothing more than the fact that fewer people on welfare. And as Brad notes, this is just a tautology; fewer people receiving welfare benefits isn’t a test of whether the policy worked; it was the policy. It’s like saying that the Medicare drug plan “worked” because, in fact, more government money went to pharmaceutical companies. The meaningful test is whether the policy was better for poor people, and as Brad notes on that score the evidence that the reform has been effective is scant-to-nonexistent: even people who got jobs aren’t making more money on average, poverty rates have stayed the same despite considerable economic growth, and children aren’t faring noticeably better either. While it may have been a political success, as policy while it hasn’t been catastrophic it also hasn’t been effective.

His punchline is worth quoting as well:

Many liberals will say that welfare reform can and will be a stunning success story if only we increase the Earned-Income Tax Credit and raise the minimum wage and provide heaps more funds for child care and heaps more money for job-training and so on. Well, no kidding. Cup Noodle makes a great meal if it comes with a side of steak. If people are going to be forced to work then the government should make work pay. If society isn’t willing to do this, then cash assistance is the way to go.

It may be that indirect subsidies and tax credits are more viable politically than welfare payments, and perhaps they’re even better policy. But welfare reform won’t be effective until the government gets more serious about providing the funds.

Dancing On Parody’s Grave

[ 0 ] August 27, 2006 |

Shorter Verbatim Mark Steyn:

“Ann Coulter’s new book Godless: The Church of Liberalism is a rollicking read very tightly reasoned and hard to argue with…Lest you doubt the left’s pieties are now a religion, try this experiment: go up to an environmental activist and say “Hey, how about that ozone hole closing up?” or “Wow! The global warming peaked in 1998 and it’s been getting cooler for almost a decade. [Sadly, No! –ed.] Isn’t that great?” and then look at the faces. As with all millenarian doomsday cults, good news is a bummer.”

The fact that a third-rate theater critic who knows nothing about foreign policy (or anything else) is taken as a foreign policy guru by the right-blogosphere makes perfect sense; after all, a fusion jazz musician and a Second Amendment scholar who know nothing about foreign policy are the most popular “warbloggers.”

Speaking of which, flogging the deadest of dead horses Reynolds has a post totuting an idiotic WaPo story (amazing how much less scrutiny the dread MSM “527 Media” gets when it reaches politically convenient results) which compares death rates of American soldiers in Iraq to the death rate of the American population, and finds that it’s only half–apparently it’s like a gated suburb! Surely, you say, the Post must have at least taken death rates for the age segment of the population most likely to serve in the military? I’m afraid not–it really does compare the population as a whole to the frequency of much younger soldiers dying in Iraq. An intellectually honest five year-old could see the utter uselessness of the comparison. Reynolds, conversely, crows that “it’s hard to look at these numbers and see the catastrophe that the “527 media” are proclaiming.” Needless to say, to Reynolds the death rates (not to mention the basic inability to even make a living or purchase essential goods because of the lack of a functional state) of Iraqi civilians who don’t live in heavily fortified areas and walk around with flak jackets aren’t weighted in the discussion at all; as long as American soldiers have less chance of dying than an 85 year-old with cancer, everything is great over there! Perhaps he’ll be leaving soon to report, without a military escort, from a typical Iraqi city and confirm his analysis…

…more at The American Street.

…and, of course, it’s not just age demographics; soldiers are pre-selected to be healthy and fit, and are further trained. As Brian notes in comments, “So, it’s seven times more dangerous to serve in Iraq as it is to serve somewhere else among the identical popuation (the peacetime military). In fact, peacetime soldiers are 2.7 times less likely to die than the same male age cohort in the United States, according to the article.”

Also, some commenters make the (correct) point that calling the Post article “idiotic” was glib; it did a bad job of presenting the data, but did ultimately conatin some more useful information. All of this is irrelevant to the central point about Reynolds, who cited only the first (entirely meaningless) data, and made the even worse mistake of generalizing substantial-but-not-catastrophic American casualties to the success of the situation in Iraq itself while completely ignoring the more relevant question of the casualty rates among people in Iraq who don’t have access to armored bodies and vehicles, heavily fortified areas, etc., as well as broader questions of the efficacy of the current Iraqi (non)state.

…and, as Brad notes, it’s unclear why the ozone hole closing up after a set of regulations favored by environmentalists was put in place should be embarassing to environmenalists, but then maybe I lack Ann Coulter’s deft reasoning abilities…

…And I’ll give Kieran the final word.

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