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Good Norms, Bad Norms

[ 3 ] August 4, 2010 |

I am reading a fascinating new addition to the literature on the influence of transnational advocacy networks in world politics: Mark Lawrence Schrad’s The Political Power of Bad Ideas. Essentially a history of the prohibition movement, his broader theoretical point is that transnational advocacy networks not only influence governments into doing what they should (like banning landmines and the recruitment of child soldiers) but also, sometimes, into making bad policies. His book is interesting because most case studies of advocacy networks focus on worthwhile campaigns that succeeded – abolitionism, women’s sufferage and the like – rather than either good ideas that failed or bad ideas that succeeded.

To Schrad, prohibition is a uniquely illustrative case. He details the nineteenth century’s temperance movement as an early example of transnational activism, and traces its influence on the epidemic of prohibition policies across the globe. I haven’t finished the whole book, which includes in-depth comparisons of U.S., Swedish and Russian policies on alcohol, but I’ve read enough to recommend it to those interested in global civil society.

Of course the book doesn’t preach about current issues, but it does invite certain questions about other, comparable bad ideas that have taken root globally in recent years.


On Lighting A Candle Instead of Cursing the Darkness…

[ 9 ] August 3, 2010 |

Noah Shachtman’s article on USAF targeting procedures in Afghanistan is worth re-reading.

… despite some speculation to the contrary, it appears that David Petraeus will retain the restrictions described in the above article.

“I Support the Concept of Evasive Wankery.”

[ 40 ] August 3, 2010 |

Beloved Maverick and Man of High Principle John McCain gives us some of the Straight Talk (TM) for which he is justly famed:

TPMDC asked, “Do you support the Minority Leader’s push for hearings into the repeal of birthright citizenship?”

“Sure, why not?” McCain said briefly.

“Do you support the idea itself?”

“I support the idea of having hearings,” McCain said.

“Do you have a problem with the 14th amendment?” another reporter asked.

“You’re changing the constitution of the United States,” McCain said. “I support the concept of holding hearings.”

“I support the concept of holding hearings,” McCain repeated, turning to the rail car conductor.

There really is a book to be written the dreams journalists spent a decade projecting onto this hack.

Landmark Preservation Commission To Bigots Who Despise Principles of American Constitutionalism: Drop Dead

[ 8 ] August 3, 2010 |

Good. And here’s a blast from the past with a winning strategy:

On Tuesday, Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for governor, appeared at the vote, in an auditorium at Pace University near City Hall, to oppose the project.

Rick Lazio is still alive? And running for governor? Sad, really; I’m old enough to remember when the Republicans had a greater chance of winning state-wide elections than the Prohibition Party.

…Wherever there’s wanktastic pandering to wingers to be done, Joe Lieberman will be there!

The Abritrary Torture Tautology

[ 13 ] August 3, 2010 |

Discussing the recent whining of Alberto Gonzales who, like Jay Bybee, wants it known that he’s one of the real victims of the arbitrary torture regime he helped conceive of and implement, Dahlia Lithwick points out that according to reasonable, moderate, thinking man’s advocate of arbitrary torture Michael Mukasey there can never be any basis for holding people involved in said arbitrary torture regime accountable:

Those who distorted and upended the legal rules during the Bush era have hermetically sealed themselves inside a legal tautology that provides that lawyers cannot be held accountable for merely offering legal advice, and nonlawyers cannot be held accountable because they believed that what they did was legal. But now we are poised to drown in an even more dangerous tautology—first offered up by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey—which holds that the Bush administration lawyers made mistakes because they were the victims of the “difficulty and novelty” of the legal questions before them, and then victimized again by “relentless,” “hostile,” and “unforgiving” critics who would hold them responsible for their decisions. Under this view there can be no legitimate criticism of the Bush lawyers—no matter how well-intentioned or how well-reasoned, such criticism is partisan and political and vengeful. There is no law. There is only your team versus mine.

Nice racket if you can get away with it. And, alas, they can.

GOP Lawbreakers

[ 14 ] August 3, 2010 |

Republican contempt for the Constitution continues:

In the House, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009, which would attempt to deny children of illegal immigrants U.S. citizenship through statute rather than a constitutional amendment (thereby lowering the vote threshold). He has 93 co-sponsors for that effort including Rep. Nathan Deal, the Georgia Republican who is in a runoff to be the party’s candidate for governor.

Since many elected members of one of our major parties seem unfamiliar with the document, why don’t we quote this again:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Nice when the text just straightforwardly resolves a controversy, isn’t it? Bigotry being such a high priority it trumps the text of the Constitution, rather less nice.

[Edited to include correct passage from article.]

How not to treat cancer (or anything else)

[ 40 ] August 3, 2010 |

So long as we’re debating the legal and ethical conduct of certain Australians of recent public note, there’s this bit of unsurprising news:

Penelope Dingle died in August 2005 after initially refusing surgery for rectal cancer, opting to be treated with alternative remedies instead. The 45-year-old underwent emergency surgery in October 2003 to remove a life-threatening tumour but the cancer had already spread to other parts of her body.

Delivering his findings on Friday, West Australian Coroner Alastair Hope said homeopath Francine Scrayen “was not a competent health professional” and had given “dangerous advice” to Mrs Dingle when treating her.

He also said Mrs Dingle’s husband Peter, a prominent toxicologist, was “a victim of his own misinformation” and had “no qualifications in health and wellness”.

Read more…


[ 9 ] August 2, 2010 |

Dusty Baker removed Travis Wood after 103 pitches tonight, despite the fact that he was pitching a two hit shutout. I am duly impressed. I also worry that these Reds are going to break my heart…

Breaking: Giuliani Exploits 9/11 For Crass Political Purposes, Betrays Contempt For Basic Rights

[ 10 ] August 2, 2010 |

Of course! It’s also worth noting that Rudy 9/11’s bigoted logic here is straight out of the Jim Crow playbook.   According to Dixiecrat senators, the “decent” African-Americans in their states always knew that segregation, disenfranchisement, and arbitrary police states were best for all concerned…

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Ad Hoc Defenses of the Indefensible, Part Deux

[ 7 ] August 2, 2010 |

BTD asserts:

The second problem with this question is Bowers not imagining what a GOP President and GOP Congress would have achieved with the elimination of the filibuster. You thought the actual Bush tax cuts were bad? They would be TWICE as bad without the filibuster. And twice as hard to undo as they would have been passed in regular order, meaning that to undo them would require passage of new legislation

You can be for eliminating the filibuster on principles of democracy, as Ezra Klein is. But you can not be against the filibuster, as Chris Bowers is, based on advantage to Democrats and progressives.

There are all kinds of problems with this argument, some of which Kevin has addressed: most notably, it is well understood in the political science literature that most welfare state programs create constituencies that make them very difficult to repeal even in Parliamentary systems. A few other points.   There’s an additional asymmetry from the fact that liberals are simply more likely to want to adopt new federal programs that provide assistance to non-powerful constituencies.    Defense spending isn’t vulnerable to the filibuster; attempts to provide better health care to lower-income people are.

At any rate, the fact that the filibuster made public policy marginally less bad when the Republicans had control of the government (and only very marginally: note that the filibuster wasn’t necessary to prevent the privatization of Social Security, and also note how little of the major parts of the Republican agenda was successfully filibustered) isn’t a serious argument.     No way of structuring institutions can entirely prevent bad politicians from doing bad things when they get into power.   It’s a question of net benefits, and the history of the filibuster makes it overwhelmingly clear that it’s not just bad from the standpoint of democratic principle but is also bad for progressive politics.    It’s always been much more useful for reactionary elements and on balance always will be.

Bowers was right; the Democrats screwed up by not doing what they could to put the filibuster on the road to destruction (and that goes triple since the Democrats didn’t actually get anything useful from the Gang of 14.)

Ad Hoc Defenses of the Indefensible

[ 35 ] August 2, 2010 |

As if to illustrate the point made recently by Jon Chait, Doug Mataconis hauls some of the hoariest defenses of the electoral college out of the mothballs:

Without it, Presidential candidates would concentrate their resources even more in the areas where the votes are, ignoring the vast middle of the country. That’s exactly what the Founders were trying to prevent when they set the current system up; the Presidency was supposed to be an office that represents the entire country, not just it’s population centers. Eliminating the Electoral College would leave small states at the mercy of large ones even more than they are now.

Some of the problems here:

  • Small states are already mostly largely ignored during presidential elections.  How much money do presidential campaigns spend trying to win Wyoming and North Dakota and Vermont?   In a more democratic electoral system, 10,000 votes would be 10,000 votes and might be worth persuing in states with cheap media markets, but under the status quo candidates have little incentive to pay attention to small states and none at all to pay attention to the (majority of) small states where the winner is not in doubt.    The states that benefit from the electoral college are not small states but the few relatively large states where the outcome of presidential elections is in some question.
  • The phrasing suggests that the electoral college merely helps to level the playing field, that the “vast middle” gets less attention that the big coastal states but it’s not as lopsided.    But in fact the “vast middle” gets a disproportionately high amount of attention, while the big coastal states are essentially irrelevant to presidential campaigns.
  • So, to get to the key point, what’s glaringly absent here is a case for why states like California, New York, and Texas should be almost completely ignored in presidential campaigns in favor of Ohio and Florida.   The latter two would surely get attention under a more rational and democratic popular vote — what’s the argument for their disproportionately high impact?   The ressentiment about “the great middle” isn’t an argument.
  • Moreover, the idea that electing the president by popular votes will leave small states defenseless ignores one rather important feature of the American political system — the United States Senate.   Far from being left defenseless, small states already have a grossly disproportionate ability to shape public policy.   There’s no good case to be made for preserving an anachronistic means of electing presidents to make the small state bias even greater.

As Chait says, as the weakness of the arguments makes clear almost nobody would defend the electoral college if designing a system from scratch.   Nor is there a good Burkean argument about how the alternatives are untried — not only every other country the democratically elects an executive but every state in the union uses the popular vote and it works perfectly well.    (And note as well that gubernatorial and Senate candidates in large urban states do not focus exclusively on large cities, although if the claims of electoral college defenders were true they would.)     It’s just that the status quo tends to generate defenders, even those elements that can’t be seriously defended.

A Few Positive Externalities from the Afghan War Diaries.

[ 26 ] August 2, 2010 |

This is my last post on Wikileaks for a bit because I’ll be on the road with my son for a few days. So far, I’ve been making the case that the potential negative externalities of the “Wikileaks Papers” outweigh the potential value of the “revelations,” and I stand by those claims.

However for balance I’d like to acknowledge some bright sides to all this as well: Read more…