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Graduation Day!

[ 0 ] December 12, 2009 |

Today was graduation day at Patterson. For lack of anything better to post, below is the graduation keynote that I delivered to the Spring 2009 graduates:

Congratulations to the graduating class, and thank you for asking me to speak. I’m not going to make any claims about the superiority of the Spring 2009 Patterson School graduating class over any other class. But let’s be frank; I don’t need to. They’ve already sufficiently demonstrated their wisdom…

Graduation speeches are evaluated primarily on their brevity, so I’ll keep things short. Tonight I’ll only talk about two things; the first is service, and the second is myself.

A commitment to service binds all Patterson classes together, and by that I mean all Patterson classes that have been, and all that are to come. When someone decides to come to the Patterson School, they sketch out for themselves a career of service to their community, to their government, to something larger than themselves. Our students go on to work in the government, in the intelligence community, in non-governmental organizations, and in major companies around the world. In so doing, they take responsibility for making the world work; taking responsibility is, after all, what service is about. We live in a world of financial crises, terrible poverty, terrorism, cylons, piracy, and trade disputes, and those are only the exciting bits, the tip of the iceberg. Our graduates tonight will be taking responsibility for all of that, along with the daily grind that constitutes making policy in government, in an NGO, or at a private company. Our graduates, in short, are taking responsibility for making the world run.

I don’t think that this commitment to service, this undertaking of responsibility, can be understood independently of an appreciation of Kentucky. Kentucky is about community; circles of community reaching from family to town to county to state to nation. How this sense of community works can be mystifying, even maddening to an outsider like myself, but there’s no doubt that it exists. I think that this sense of community, and the commitment to service it produces, infuses everything that we do at the Patterson School. We’re not simply a school of foreign policy; we’re a school of foreign policy in Kentucky, and that distinction means something for what our graduates will do.

And so, what has all this meant to me? For four years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching at the Patterson School, and I’ve found it the most rewarding part of my career. If someone asked me, I’d say that teaching Patterson students is, I think, the most important thing that I’ve ever done. But I would also have to say that my attachment, and my enthusiasm, has thus far been detached; I’ve approached Patterson in an analytical sense, detached from the personal.

This has been a luxury of (relative) youth. As some of you know, my wife and I are expecting two baby girls this summer. I expect that many things will change; one thing that has changed already is my appreciation of service, of the acceptance of responsibility that our students have undertaken. Because now it’s not just me; it’s my daughters as well. Now, when we send our students out into the world, they’re taking responsibility for making sure my daughters have the opportunity to grow up safe, healthy and prosperous. And that means that the success of our graduates tonight has, so to speak, become personal. And so as you, the graduates, go forth, I say with all seriousness: Do well.

I should also say that I will be deeply honored if, some 24 years from now, my daughters join you all as Patterson graduates. We’ll see.

Thank you, and congratulations again to our graduates.

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I’m not saying that the Republicans prefer tokenism to equality…

[ 0 ] December 11, 2009 |

…but in the series of photographs of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and his interns that shani-o linked to this afternoon, we have:

  1. Steele and a white guy
  2. Steele and a white guy
  3. Steele and a white guy
  4. Steele and a white woman
  5. Steele and a white woman
  6. Steele and an Asian-American guy
  7. Steele and a white guy
  8. Steele and a white woman
  9. Steele and a white woman
  10. Steele and six white guys, five white women, and one black guy
  11. Steele and a white guy
  12. Steele and a white guy
  13. Steele and a white guy
  14. Steele and a white woman
  15. Steele and a white guy
  16. Steele and a white woman
  17. Steele and a white guy

Of the 28 interns Steele posed with, a full 93 percent of them are specularly (and most are spectacularly) white. This isn’t to say that the Republican National Committee has a racist internship program; after all, the “diversity” of his interns is also a reflection of the diversity of the applicant pool. Given the lengths to which the GOP goes to appear more inclusive than it actually is, I’m inclined to think those may have been the only non-white people who applied.

Matt Yglesias fails to understand that the founding fathers put the filibuster in the Constitution for a reason

[ 0 ] December 11, 2009 |

They understood that the best way to protect minority rights via legislation was to employ a three-step process.

Step One: Create a system of legislative rules so inherently dysfunctional that nothing could be done about serious national problems until blood was on the verge of running in the streets.

Step Two: And then a miracle would happen.

Step Three: Ponies!

Presidential Reputation Addendum

[ 0 ] December 11, 2009 |

Tracy Lightcap has a good comment in the thread below:


I’m not so sure that there are good and bad presidents, just good and bad opportunities.

I’m a big fan of Skowronek’s scheme of political time and how it helps analyze how presidential leadership works. Johnson was in the same situation that John Tyler was when Harrison died: a veep chosen from the opposing party (or, at least, one faction of it) for purely political purposes. When he got to the presidency, he did exactly what Tyler did: he acted like a Democrat. Problem = that particular vision (especially the Jacksonian union aspect of it) had been cancelled by the Civil War and Lincoln’s presidency. But expecting Johnson to realize that is simply expecting too much; he had been in politics for decades, had been a Democrat (though with Whiggish tendencies) all that time, and he was a prototypical Southerner of the day, given to concern about “principles” and just as prickly when crossed as Jackson or Polk. So he acted accordingly and got impeached for it.

In another time, I think he would have done ok at the job: he was a man of no mean capacity. But, like most presidents of his ilk, his time was wrong and, like most of us, he couldn’t rise above his experiences or personality to meet the challenges.

I definitely agree with Tracy on a couple things. First of all, presidential rankings are indeed a parlor game and aren’t scholarship even when informed by scholarly expertise; I happen to like such parlor games and do think they can illuminate some things, but if you prefer not to make these kinds of judgments and focus on explanations I can’t argue with you. Secondly, I’m also a big admirer of Skowronek’s structural approach, and tend to find explanations that focus on presidential character or psychology tend towards unhelpful tautologies and the concealment of normative judgments in ostensibly objective language. (At my wonkier blog, I actually have a couple of posts wondering how Obama will fit into Skowronek’s framework, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

With respect to the specific arguments about Johnson, though, I would continue to disagree in some respects. As I said, I think the “no bad presidents, only bad situations” argument does have a lot of purchase in the case of Buchanan and Pierce; it’s hard to argue that they were effective leaders, but I’ve also never heard a convincing counterfactual explaining how even better leadership could have held the Democratic coalition together. (In a sense, their ineffectuality is what the situation demanded; a strong leader could never have successfully become the Democratic presidential candidate because too many people would have left the coalition.) Johnson, thought, is a whole different situation. I don’t think the analogy to Tyler is apposite, because while Tyler’s politics were different than Harrison’s, they were different in a way that was consistent with the dominant ideological regime of the era. Johnson wasn’t merely different than Lincoln; he was strongly opposed to the hegemonic politics of his time, which of course had been defined by Lincoln. Indeed, what makes Johnson so uniquely awful is that his behavior was highly unusual for a “pre-emptive” president that takes office during another party’s ideological ascendancy. Cleveland, Ike, Clinton (at least post-94), Nixon on domestic policy — they tried to attenuate and trim the existing ideological trends, but they also (for better or worse) fundamentally made peace with the larger political principles that dominated their era. Johnson — who, after all, was put into office thorough an assassin’s bullet rather than an election, and whose fundamental principles had not merely been rejected in a couple of elections but by a civil war — had much more reason to be modest than those four presidents, but instead was much more obstructionist and arrogant. Those were his choices; they weren’t demanded by his position.

Indeed, even Tracy seems to acknowledge that Johnson is one case where individualistic explanations say more than structural ones — the stubborn commitment to discredited principles and thin skin Tracy cites where his personal characteristics, not the products of political time. Given this, to say that Johnson wouldn’t have been such a catastrophic president in a different context is like saying that Juan Pierre would have been a better player in 1911 than Albert Pujols; if we’re going to make judgments about effectiveness or value at all, I don’t really think it’s relevant. Johnson was a terrible president for reasons that were much more under his discretion than is the case with most of the other presidents with similarly bad reputations.

Presidential Reputation

[ 2 ] December 11, 2009 |


In light of my recent Andrew Jackson bashing, Matt is right to note that his status as the most odious and overrated allegedly progressive president in history is far from clear-cut. And Matt doesn’t even bring up the fact that Wilson made what was almost indisputably the 20th century’s worst Supreme Court appointment, a guy who dissented in the Scottsboro Boys case (“hey, the fine people of Alabama went to the trouble of providing four show trials to railroad 9 innocent defendants into the death chamber — what do you expect?”) and wouldn’t even let his clerks talk to his Jewish colleagues.

Wilson’s love for (and highly destructive promotion of) The Birth of a Nation reminds me of something else about presidential reputation. For my presidency course this semester, I assigned an article that compiles many of those presidential rating surveys conducted by historians. The 1948 Schlesinger poll had the expected Academy of the Overrated among liberal historians of the day, with Wilson ranking at #4 and Jackson #6 (with Old Hickory’s lickspittle Van Buren, a one-termer who did substantially less than Hoover to respond to economic catastrophe, checking in at an “average” 15.) Jackson and Wilson retained their ranking in 1962, too. Even more appalling (but not entirely unrelated) to this, however, is the extent to which the fascist reinterpretation of Reconstruction in which the South were the good guys seemed to hold sway among the historians of the time. Not only is Grant ranked as the second worst president in history — behind Pierce and Buchanan! — but Andrew Goddamned Johnson checks in at an “average” 19.

At least by the 2000 C-SPAN poll, Johnson had taken his rightful place near the bottom with the two ineffectual third-raters who preceded the Civil War (Pierce ranks 39, Johnson 40, Buchanan 41.) And while it’s arguable — when your presidency was followed by one of the bloodiest civil wars in history your argument to rank at the bottom is pretty compelling — I actually think Johnson was the very worst. Buchanan was a poor president, and he deserves extra demerits for the fact that his blundering over Bleeding Kansas chose the wrong moral and legal side of the issue. But it’s also true that Buchanan was dealt an essentially impossible hand; I don’t really see how even a great leader could have kept the Democratic coalition together given the ability of Republicans to capture the White House without Southern support and their obvious incentives to make slavery a salient issue. 2-7 offsuit is still going to lose if it’s being played by Johnny Chan. Johnson, on the other hand, had the opportunity to have a strong positive influence on American history and instead upheld the values of the losing side of the Civil War in the face of a rare Congress that was actually relatively unified and committed to doing good things. (And if the argument is that these ratings are supposed to measure influence rather than the merits of policies, leaving aside the fact that I don’t believe it when a president’s intervention into midterm elections is followed by 1)veto-proof hostile congressional majorities and 2)his impeachment it’s hard to claim that he was an effective leader.) You can’t really make a bad choice among the three, but if I had a vote Andrew Johnson would be at the bottom.

Bernie Sanders and Tom Coburn?

[ 0 ] December 11, 2009 |

Mmm…. polarization.

Honest Services

[ 0 ] December 10, 2009 |

Both Adam Liptak and Lyle Denniston see, after Tuesday’s oral arguments, a strong cross-ideological consensus (excluding John Paul Stevens) that the “honest services” statute often used to prosecute corruption cases is unconstitutional. My first reaction, admittedly, is to ponder the cynicism of the Court’s right flank; it’s hard to imagine Roberts and Alito, in particular, caring in the least about vague statutory language or the arbitrary application of criminal statutes in cases where the defendants weren’t frequently rich white men in suits.

Regardless of their motivation, though, and despite the fact that I have less than no sympathy for Conrad Black, I have to say that the arguments that the statute is constitutionally vague strike me as quite convincing:

Justices across the court’s ideological spectrum took turns on Tuesday attacking the law as hopelessly broad and vague.

Justice Steven G. Breyer estimated that there are 150 million workers in the United States and that perhaps 140 million of them could be prosecuted under the government’s interpretation of the law.

Complimenting the boss’s hat “so the boss will leave the room so that the worker can continue to read The Racing Form,” Justice Breyer said, could amount to a federal crime.

See also Scott Horton, who notes some of the highly flimsy prosecutions brought under the statue. The whole area of law is an object lesson of how vague statutory language is an open invitation to prosecutorial abuse, and the fact that some bad people have been caught in the web doesn’t change that. The government may need additional tools to prosecute corruption (although note that Joe Bruno was convicted for good old-fashioned mail and wire fraud, not on the vaguer charges), but the statutory language really does need to be more specific.

Stuff Blah Blah Blah More Stuff

[ 0 ] December 10, 2009 |

Let me give all the normal apologies for light/no posting; comprehensive exams at Patterson, travel, etc. Hopefully, there will be more opportunity to post this weekend; just ran a mini-simulation on a the US government reaction to the public announcement of the existence of vampires that might be of some interest. Until then, for those who can stomach it, I offer you Bob Wright and Christopher Hitchens:

Also note that the Recent Comments widget has resumed function.

Give Her This

[ 0 ] December 10, 2009 |

It used to be that Gail Collins would feign reluctance about having been forced by events to author her 75th consecutive column about some trivial political sex scandal or another. At least she seems to have given up the pretense. So, if you’re in the market for columns that don’t say anything interesting about issues of little importance, complete with au courant references to Lady Gaga’s eye makeup, you’re in luck!

A Couple Random Soccer Bits

[ 0 ] December 10, 2009 |

As the USA and England are renewing their bitter competitive rivalry after a 60 year hiatus (not counting friendlies), the NYT reprises the 1950 World Cup match won by the USA, 1-0.

I’m going to love being in England for the England v USA WC match. Just love it.
Landon Donovan appears set for a three-month loan move to Everton. As regular readers know, I naturally support this.
I’m probably going to be largely inactive over the next few days, as on Saturday morning I depart for a month in the USA, and have a sea of lectures to give between then and now. The only lengthy layover I have on this itinerary is at SEA, eagerly awaiting a wee little Horizon flight down to PDX that was originally forecast to deposit me in the midst of an ice storm. At least I’ll have a long spell on board an Air France A330 across the Atlantic to consider that flight, which will get my mind off of the less-than-perfect record those AF A330s have going across the Atlantic.

More on felon disenfranchisement

[ 0 ] December 9, 2009 |

In the thread to the post below, Scott P. suggests denying felons the right to vote is consistent with social contract theory. I think that’s probably true for some but not all versions of social contract theory, but not a particularly helpful observation. Another commenter, Thomas, suggests “One who has wronged society should not get to participate in the legislating of that soceity until their debt is paid.” This is, I think, simply too abstract a way to think about the issue to be of much use.

I’d recommend that anyone who finds this line of thinking persuasive read this old Matt Welch piece. Central to his argument is that, when we take a closer look at the laws, most of us are probably unprosecuted felons. It’s much more helpful to think of the disenfranchisement of felons as the disenfranchisement of a subset of felons–those who live in populations where felonies are agressively policed, and who commit felonies we choose to actually enforce.

Once we view the matter in this light, abstract social contract theory about the treatment of ‘those who have wronged society’ becomes much less helpful in thinking about this issue in the context of contemporary American politics. We’ve chosen some felonies and some populations to agressively police and prosecute, and others to almost entirely ignore. In the contemporary American political context, the relavent question is not “should those who have wronged society have their participation in collective governance suspended?” A better question would be “should everyone who has ever taken a hit of X have their voting rights stripped if they happen to get caught and for some reason are not given the opportunity to plead out?” An even better one might be “should communities whose illegal drug use is heavily policed deserve their collective voting power diminished vis a vis communities whose illegal drug use is not heavily policed?”

Next British Election May Not Comply With European Court of Human Rights Law

[ 0 ] December 9, 2009 |

and not because the Tories may win, or even that the election may result in a hung parliament.

Rather, the EUCouncil of Europe is upset that the UK has been delaying the enactment of a 2005 European Court of Human Rights judgment that it is inconsistent with human rights law to disenfranchise convicted prisoners.
Come on, Britain, if Maine, Vermont, and even Canada can do this, so too can you.
Seriously, this places the lifetime voting ban of convicted felons, a grotesque anti-democratic practice of 14 U.S. states (according to Wikipedia . . . 11 of which, shockingly, are located in the South; I’m certain race does not factor into this policy whatsoever) in context. Of course, as this is state jurisprudence, felon enfranchisement law varies; I am having a difficult time confirming the wiki numbers. However, let it be duly noted that a resident of Mississippi convicted of timber larceny (whatever the hell that is) permanently banned from voting. This heinous crime doesn’t appear to be on the Alabama list, so I’d recommend crossing the border and setting up home in Alabama after release . . . but beware of committing treason (against the U.S.A.? The C.S.A.? The State of Alabama?) because that will blacklist you there.
A number of states require the convicted, and released, felon to appeal to the governor for a full pardon or clemency in order to enjoy the restoration of their voting rights. I guess that’s because in a number of states the governor doesn’t have anything better to do than determine, on a case-by-case basis, the fitness of his or her citizens to cast a ballot.
In attempting to understand how prisoners are treated for apportionment purposes, I found no clear guidelines, but I did find this observation:
“The American incarcerated population, 2,212,475 persons strong, is larger than the population of the fourth-largest city in the United States, commands a greater population than fifteen individual states, and contains more people than the three smallest states combined. If the incarcerated population of the United States were a state of its own, it would qualify for five Electoral College votes.”

And two U.S. Senators!

According to this source, 5.3 million Americans are denied the franchise due to past or current felony status. Again I’m stunned to note that there’s a race element involved:
African-Americans in particular were disproportionately disenfranchised and living in states where disenfranchisement is permanent even after a felon completes their sentence. Today, an estimated thirteen percent of black men are unable to vote due to a felony conviction.

13%. This is bonkers.
But at least the Europeans (and Canadians!) have a handle on the issue. Those wacky Europeans. What the hell will they dream up next as a human right, I wonder?