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The Primary Mess

Friday, August 31, 2007
We are witnessing the unraveling of the presidential primary system. To catch everybody up, the Iowa Caucuses, followed by the New Hampshire primary, have been the first two nomination contests for decades. Since the present system was established through the McGovern-Frazier reforms back in 1969, these two contests have served to winnow the field down to 2 candidates, who then duked it out through the other stakes to determine the winner. Gradually those other states have moved their primaries earlier in order to maximize their own influence over the nomination process - this is called front-loading. However, their attempts to do so have only magnified the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, allowing candidates with considerable momentum in those 2 states to quickly finish off their opponents. A few other states have played important roles, such as South Carolina for the Republicans, but the basic structure has remained the same: Iowa, New Hampshire, everybody else.

Until now.

The front-loading trend reached its latest absurdity this year when a whole bunch of huge states like California and New York moved their primaries to February 5 to create a new and more spectacular Super Tuesday than the old Southern-dominated variety. The original schedule was going to be Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and then the mega-states. But that plan has collapsed. Florida moved to January 29, then South Carolina to January 19. Wyoming has jumped ahead of Iowa, and Michigan has moved up as well. Iowa and New Hampshire are now having to consider moving their primaries into 2007 - the symbolic wall beyond which nobody knows what happens.

This anarchy is the product of a collective action problem. Nobody wants a nomination process that starts in 2007, but no state is willing to sacrifice its ability to gain a little bit of an advantage on everybody else. The parties are attempting to impose sanctions on states moving too close to IA and NH by depriving them of delegates, but the states are gambling that they'll get away with it (no nominee wants to piss off a state he'll be campaigning in).

I find this a fascinating problem, and over the next couple of posts I'm going to examine what I think are the pertinent issues: what we want out of nominating system, what's wrong with the current system, what's wrong with the major proposals out there to fix it, and what I think should be done about it.

Hey, it's better than working on my dissertation, right?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:36 PM

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Matching Rhetoric With Rhetoric

Thursday, August 30, 2007
Like a lot of liberals, I'm frustrated with the Congress' inability to undo any of the damage Bush has done to the Constitution. Hilzoy wants the Democrats realize how weak Bush is, while Kevin Drum asserts that coming up with effective rhetorical responses to match Republican demagoguery is actually quite difficult. The Carpetbagger Report chimes in:

When the debate gets down to soundbite to soundbite, as it often does, and the right says, “Destroy habeas or we might all die,” Dems haven’t quite figured out what to do.

The sooner they come up with something, the sooner they’ll stop losing. Any suggestions?

I find this argument difficult to accept. Is it really that hard? Let's try it, shall we?

"Destroy Habeas Corpus, and the terrorists have already won."
"Why are you so afraid of freedom?"
"Do you really trust George Bush with your freedoms?"
"You say the government will protect me, but who will protect me from the government?"
"If we give up our liberty, then what are we fighting for?"
Or an oldie but a goody...
"Give me liberty or give me death."

It reminds me very much of the ridiculous idea that Senate Democrats couldn't filibuster Samuel Alito because they were "afraid of 30-second spots." First of all, I can't think of a lot of cases where an incumbent lost because of how they voted on a judge - Al Gore Sr being the sole example and not a very good one at that. Second, all one had to say is "Sam Alito thinks he's allowed to strip search little girls." End of debate.

So this excuse just doesn't work for me. These are supposed to be professional politicians with expert communication skills. All I see are a bunch of blunderers whining that they can't think of anything cool to say. They're either incompetent, lazy, or cowards. No matter which, their behavior is unacceptable.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:15 PM

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Local Campaigning

Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Grass-roots organizing is usually painted in sepia tones, full of talk about "real democracy" and "citizenship at its best." That's all true, but..well there's always the buts about any romantic vision, aren't there? I won't lie to you - old-fashioned door-knocking is hard. The weather is frequently crappy, and you're often tired already from work.

Here's how it works. The party or campaign will give you a list of people who are likely Democrats. Your job is to remind them that there's an election. This isn't much of a problem in Presidential years, but in every other race (primaries, mid-term, and off-years) turn-out is the single most important factor separating victory from defeat. Of course these lists are frequently crappy (do the Republicans have this problem?). People move a lot, particularly in the precinct I live in now. This is a college town, which makes for a lot of year-to-year change, but on top of that I live in an area full of apartment buildings. Your list from the last election is useless in the next one, so a smart operative will start building a list from scratch. This means you knock on every door. Every one. The upside of apartment complexes is that they're faster. I hate working suburban housing developments - they take forever because the people are so much less concentrated. You spend more time walking than talking.

And think about this for a second. If you have a precinct with even just 1,000 homes, that's 1,000 door-knocks. And you can't just hit a neighborhood once. People usually aren't there, so you have to go back over and over again. You could do it full time up until the election and still not talk to everybody.

But let's assume that you have a good list, or live in a more stable area. Most f the time people are not going to be home, so you drop off a piece of literature and move to the next one. Is this a "voter contact"? I wouldn't think so, although some folks disagree. I don't believe you've made contact until you look a person in the. If they are home, you're probably bothering them. There are paranoid voters who don't want to answer the door, and families cooking meals or taking care of their kids, etc., etc. Even if they answer, they're likely going to be annoyed that you've interrupted them to talk about politics, of all things. And then there are the weirdos. Yikes.

So it's long hours and you meet a lot of freaks and annoy a lot of people. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well actually it is. I always hate the idea of campaigning, but as soon as I start I love it. You focus on those people who are happy to talk to you, and you do get a lot out of it. On election night when you look at your precinct results and you've doubled your voter targets, you know that not only do you have some great stories, but you're made a real, concrete, difference in the election. And that's why we do it. Not just because it's bizarrely fun, but because it works.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:45 PM

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An Extremely Small World

Monday, August 27, 2007
So I was reading this very interesting book for my lit review, and the author's name sounded familiar. "Did I meet her at a conference?" I thought. So I looked her up on the internets, and realized that I'm friends with her father-in-law. Weird!!!

I find this fact simply stunning. It's a tiny thing, but it brought home how close we are all to each other, in a Kevin-Bacon sort of way.

P.S. Also, I have a wonderful wife. Why do I write that, you ask? Because she asked me if that's what I was writing about, and I decided that's what I should be writing about. She's smart and beautiful and cool and I am continuously amazed that she loves me.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:02 PM

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This and That

Saturday, August 25, 2007
Hi everybody! Brazen and I are sitting in bed plotting our weekend. The undergrads are returning, so there are going to be whole quadrants on town we shouldn't go to. How annoying. At least the weather finally broke last night - it's not scaldingly hot anymore.

There are a couple of political things I felt like commenting on, but have been too lazy until now. (Blogging is more fun that actually getting out of bed, you see).

1) There are a number of sources stating that a lot of beltway types want to overthrow the Prime Minister of Iraq. The idea is that if we put someone new in charge, everything will somehow get better. I find this particularly funny given Bush's recent statements tying Iraq to Vietnam. Excuse, haven't we seen this movie? The U.S. was constantly meddling in South Vietnamese politics, toppling leaders and replacing them with new ones. It didn't really help, since it only introduced yet more instability and removed any semblance of credibility or autonomy in the regime.

The broader problem I have is with this obsession with men and not situations. It's all of a piece with the folks that we should just pick the right President (either a Gore or a Bush) and all of our problems will go away, rather recognizing objective reality or getting off the couches and doing it ourselves. Relying on men (and it's always men) is a form of authoritarianism in appropriate for a self-governing people. So there.

2) Hillary Clinton has been taking a lot of grief for saying that the Republicans would benefit politically from a terrorist attack. Look, I know it's unpleasant to think about it, but it's probably true! Clinton is referring to the "rally around the flag" effect - that in times of national crisis people look to whoever's in the White House. Add this to the Republican Party's insistent framing as the "tough" party and the media's likely response ("Yay! Republicans! Boo Democrats!") and Clinton's statement looks more like common sense than "furthering a right-wing meme." Honestly.

And with that I'm going to make some toast. Regrettably nothing I do to toast is going to turn it into sausage.....
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:27 AM

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Singing My Song

Thursday, August 23, 2007
I'm not endorsing anybody for the 2008 election, but I have to tell you that this speech by John Edwards is music to my ears:

But small thinking and outdated answers aren't the only problems with a vision for the future that is rooted in nostalgia. The trouble with nostalgia is that you tend to remember what you liked and forget what you didn't. It's not just that the answers of the past aren't up to the job today, it's that the system that produced them was corrupt -- and still is. It's controlled by big corporations, the lobbyists they hire to protect their bottom line and the politicians who curry their favor and carry their water. And it's perpetuated by a media that too often fawns over the establishment, but fails to seriously cover the challenges we face or the solutions being proposed. This is the game of American politics and in this game, the interests of regular Americans don't stand a chance.

Heck, I'd have block quoted the whole thing if it weren't so damn long.

UPDATE: Ed Kilgore makes a pretty good point . Edwards' critique could be used directly against Hillary, it's true. I wonder whether Republicans would find it so easy to employ Edwards' indirect comments in a negative ad, but I get his point. I do think it's important to note, however, that Edwards' general point - that there is a bipartisan washington establishment that is powerfully influenced by corporate interests - is quite simply true.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:15 PM

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I Been Tagged! Again!

From Seeking Solace....

Four Things Meme

Four Jobs I Have Had In My Life:
1) Radio Shack "Sales Associate"
2) Convenient store checkout guy
3) Adjunct lecturer in political science
4) State legislative aide

Four Places I Have Lived:
1) Hometown, Georgia
2) Nashville, Tennessee
3) Washington, D.C.
4) Bronx, NY

Four Favorite Foods:
1) Sushi
2) Mexican
3) New Orleans cuisine
4) Indian

Four Places I'd Rather Be:
1) Curled up on the couch with a book
2) Spain
3) Eating fancy French food
4) Hanging out with Brazen

Four Movies I Can Watch Over and Over
1) Stranger than Fiction
2) When Harry Met Sally
3) Office Space
4) V for Vendetta

Four TV Shows I Like To Watch
1) Gilmore Girls
2) Buffy the Vampire Slayer
3) Daily Show & Colbert Report
4) Rome on HBO (when I can get it)

Four Websites I View Daily
1) Bloglines (okay, that's cheating)
2) American Prospect
3) TPM Cafe
4) New York Times

Four Computers I Have Owned
1) Apple IIE
2) E-Machine (my god I hated that piece of junk)
3) Dell Dimension 8400
4) MacBook (Is that what it's called?)

Four People To Tag
1) Right, like I know four people
2) At least people who haven't been tagged already
3) Why am I always picked last?
4) whaa


Four People to Tag
1) Canada
2) Canada
3) Canada
4) Canada
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:56 PM

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I Don't Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Wednesday, August 22, 2007
This is just stupid. The New York Observer (via Political Wire) on Michael Dukakis' activities with the Democratic National Committee:

True to his technocratic roots, Mr. Dukakis has the idea of replicating, on every street, avenue, and rural route in the country, the kind of personal relationships that once powered big-city political machines—with precinct captains calling on their neighbors every few weeks, asking them about their concerns, talking up their candidate and following up on any questions they might have. Mr. Dukakis’ vision is rooted in good government—making sure, for instance, that a neighbor’s concerns about school vouchers are satisfactorily addressed.

"True to his technocratic roots"? What? What could be less technocratic than grass-roots organization? Technocrats are supposed to be in favor of top-down, expert-dominated decision-making, with a focus on policy over politics (Don't be fooled by the voucher aside. The bulk of the article is about fighting smears). Creating a massive precinct organization is the opposite of technocracy. It also happens to be fabulous idea.

Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:24 AM

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I Have A Problem

Tuesday, August 21, 2007
When I have a good book to read, I can't put it down. I greatly enjoyed "Know-It-All", by A.J. Jacobs. It's a memoir of a man who decided to read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. Brazen Hussy thought I would like it, and boy was she right. I stayed up way too late last night to finish it, which means along with the depressing weather I have about as much spare energy as a dessicated turnip.

But of course I have to wonder why Brazen knew I would like it. Because I love useless trivia? Because I tend to obsess about things? Because I used to read the Britannica on CD Rom whenever we visited her parents (In the end her dad finally gave me the thing)?

The book did bring to light one thing lacking in my life - learning. Dissertations are intellectually demanding, of course, but I can't say that I'm really absorbing anything new. My brain feels like it's in a big old rut. I need to think of something else to think about.

Speaking of, is it just me or has the national press corps anointed Hillary already? I seem to recall this happening to several other Democratic candidates, all of whom received very favorable coverage right up until the moment they got the nomination (Gore, Kerry,...). Then the press savaged them. I suppose it's not really the same, since Hillary's already been savaged, but I fully expect her to have to endure a major-league Gore-ing by the press come next summer.

My question is, why is this acceptable? Why is it appropriate to give unadulterated positive coverage to a candidate, usually right before they announce or when they start winning, only to then move to unremittingly hostile coverage? Is the political press really so incompetent and lazy that they can't manage a little balance? Silly question, I suppose.

Okay, you're right. That's me thinking about politics again. See what I mean? I need a new hobby.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:16 PM

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Dorks Run the World

Friday, August 17, 2007
I am a dork. How can I deny it? I used to collect comic books and play role playing games,I love sci fi and fantasy novels, and I play video games. Along with my pasty white skin, this makes me a nearly quintessential dork. For years and years I wanted to run for office, but was worried that I was just too nerdy. I had visions of people like John Kennedy in my mind, and I knew I didn't have 1/1000th the charisma of that guy.

Part of my barely mitigated geekdom was my fascination with politics. I watched C-SPAN, practically memorized the Almanac of American Politics, and followed the 1992 Presidential election campaign obsessively. When I visited Washington D.C. in college and met a lot of the people I'd seen on TV and read about, I was a little star-struck. To me, they were like rock stars.

Then I got to know some of them. I realized that far from being too dorky for politics, being a dork is virtually a requirement. These Senators and Congressmen were just regular people. If not for their entourage, you'd never know they weren't managers at Wendy's or something.

When I was interning for a Senator on the Hill, I saw a lot of those people I'd been so dazzled by. There was the one who was obnoxiously stupid (with a fixed and slightly creepy grin on his face), the one who hated his job, and the one who was afraid of crowds (odd career choice). When I was living in New York I got to know a lot more elected types, and once again, they seemed...normal. There was the one who couldn't get over that one big race he lost (the fish that got away), the one who ate nothing but pizza, and the one who really loved his mom -he talked about her all the time). I mean all this in a good way. After a while you just stopped being intimidated by their titles and saw them as human beings - the usual mix of weirdness and surprises.

I guess what I'm try to say is that the people who get elected to office aren't much different from you. Sure, a few of them were the popular kids in high school who were "most likely to succeed." But far more of them were the sort that got stuffed in lockers and not asked to the prom. In my experience, the latter type greatly predominate in politics. I'm not sure whether that's because there's just more of us in the general population, or because we have more to prove (while the popular kids just coast through life).

Whatever the cause, let's just say that I learned that I fit right in, and that a surprising number of people who don't like politics would fit in just fine too.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:38 AM

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Re-casting a blog

Wednesday, August 15, 2007
or....Politics for Real People

My original purpose for this blog was to vent about politics. Like a lot of political bloggers, I started because I was tired of yelling at the TV. Over the last 2+ years (my how time flies) I've kept to that focus, but now I'm reconsidering. It's not just that there are plenty of political blogs out there, or that the stuff I say that is fairly unique is also pretty abstract (and hence boring to everyone but me).

Brazen has said on many occasions that she doesn't think my blog is personal enough, that my personality doesn't translate itself into this blog. And it's true that I generally don't write about myself, or from my own perspective. I've been writing from the point of view of a 3rd-person analyst rather than a human being.

I'm still as interested in national politics as I ever was, but I think perhaps I could make better use of my time that just being another pundit. So I'm going to try something a little different. I'm going to attempt to focus not on the phenomena of national politics (both the sweeping and mundane), but write instead about politics of a different sort - the politics of personal activism.

The reality is that most politics is not the D.C.-based stuff we see on TV, but the politics of local communities. The race for President gets far too much attention, I think, compared to contests for mayor, city council, the state legislature, or even congress. The vast majority of people who work in politics do so at this more human level, and I think it's worth writing about. There's a lot of participation that falls in between voting (literally the least one can do) and running for office. And it's that kind of participation that generally gets lost in discussions about politics.

What's not widely known is how easy local political activism is, and how rewarding. There's nothing quite like getting to know a small-time candidate and helping them win a tough race, or seeing a law that will do some good passed in part because of your efforts. Knocking on doors, passing out fliers, meeting people in you neighborhood, forging friendships with other activists from all walks of life - it's an entire world that people never hear about. Folks watch negative ads on TV, hear the nastiness of national political debate, and the vacuousness of national political coverage, and think that politics is some bizarre and twisted activity that only the lunatic or power-mad would get involved in. But that's not what I see.

Politics should not be intimidating. If you'd met the number of elected officials I have, you'd no longer view them as alien beings or celebrities, but as very normal people. There are many decent people who given substantial amounts of their time to politics, either as professionals or volunteers. It's those stories we don't usually hear, stories I'm going to try to tell more of from now on.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:27 AM

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Dy! er...Die!

Monday, August 13, 2007
Typos suck.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:15 PM

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Working to Work

I wrote last week about how I didn't want to be an academic, in part because I just couldn't see myself dedicating the amount of time it would require to become really good at it. In some senses this has been the story of my life. I can't tell you how many things I've gotten involved in, reaching a certain level of proficiency only to decide that pursuing it further wasn't worth the investment.

What I really enjoy is real life political activism - working on campaigns, arguing about policy, etc. I know that comes as a big shock, given the proportion of political content on this blog. For a long time I wanted to run for office. I decided against it not just because of my personal baggage (which is real but probably not insurmountable), or the fact that I hadn't lived anywhere long enough to really put down roots (that turned out not to be such a big deal), but for the very simple reason that I have seen up close what it's like to be an elected official.

Now being a city councilperson or the like is very time-consuming. It's like having a part-time job on top of whatever you actually do for a living. But what's shocking are the lives of those who serve in higher positions (like Congress). Those people literally do nothing but politics. Their families, their friends, their private interests - anything and everything is sacrificed to the public service (or if they're bad guys, to power-mongering). I like taking weekends off and having dinner with my spouse. I like reading books and watching Buffy re-runs. I'm not prepared to give everything else in my life for the sake of ambition, either of the public or personal variety.

So I thought about it awhile and decided that maybe being a professional political type would be fun. Not the guy whose name is on the ballot, but a campaign manager or something. But it turns out that those sorts of jobs have all the same kinds of time pressures, except on top of them you a) have all the problems with working for someone else, and b) have to travel constantly. Seriously, these people live like nomads.

These days I'm considering doing politics part-time. I'd like to get involved in local, grass-roots activism and help good people get elected. That kind of activity is much, much less strenuous than doing politics for a living, and I can still do some good. While I think I might be very good at higher-level politics, and that I might have a lot to offer, I'll never know. However much I enjoy waging political campaigns, or legislative maneuver, or public speaking, there's just not any way to live a whole life while doing politics professionally.

I'd say this is a very sad situation, except that I've discovered that it's in no way unique to politics. It's the same with every other profession too. From talking with Brazen Hussy about academia, watching my father in the corporate world, and simply paying attention to the world, I've realized that those of us who want to be the Best and Brightest (or even the Pretty Good) are asked to pay an intolerable price for our ambition. I could expect CEO's of Fortune 500 companies and Heads of State to have to devote every waking hour to their professions. But how is it we've created a world in which to even have a modicum of real professional success, we are expected to sacrifice everything else that makes life worth living? Why is it that we have to spend 60-80 hours a week to get tenure? Why are we surprised that celebrities of every stripe can't seem to have healthy relationships, or are afflicted with some sort of addiction or weird psychology? It's manic and destructive to ask human beings to turn themselves into professional automatons, creatures of work and work alone. Why in the world would any sane person of ability want to rise to the top of their profession? As far as I can tell, it looks like more of a curse than an achievement.

I don't have a great deal of exposure to the rest of the world, but it seems like Americans are simply work-obsessed. Perhaps it's the Protestant work ethic run amok, or the lack of strong labor unions. It might be some sort of collective action problem, in which every person has an incentive to work a little harder in order to get a leg up - which means that everybody is trapped in a very unhealthy spiral of overwork. This might make for a very productive economy (or it may not - I've seen evidence of real declines in productivity after a certain number of hours), but at what price? Americans at all levels take fewer vacations and work longer hours than anybody else in the industrialized world. Meanwhile we don't read books, we eat crap, we ignore our friends & family, we dy younger, and at night we're so physically exhausted and mentally drained we do nothing but dull our minds with TV. How is this the American dream again?

Maybe I'm just whining, or wrapped up in my own sense of frustration, but it seems to me that something is very wrong with the way we live. I fail to grasp any reason why anyone should have to spend more than half their waking hours working. It just sounds crazy to me.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:26 PM

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Don't Beat Me!

Thursday, August 09, 2007
Okay, I want it on the record that I took this quiz before Brazen Hussy did and got this score. (via Matt Yglesias)

You Are 100% Feminist

You are a total feminist. This doesn't mean you're a man hater (in fact, you may be a man).
You just think that men and women should be treated equally. It's a simple idea but somehow complicated for the world to put into action.
Are You a Feminist?

I mean seriously, how does anybody take this quiz and not get 100%?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:08 PM

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Not About Politics

Wednesday, August 08, 2007
I know, I know, it's hard to believe.

To tell the truth, blogging has been somewhat of a chore lately. I haven't really been keeping up with what all of my wonderful blogfriends are up to, which makes me feel guilty. And I've been a bit burned out on politics, although I still write about it. Of course I'm somewhat disillusioned that the Democrats in Congress STILL won't stand up to Bush, but that's not actually what's got me down.

No, what's getting to me is this damned dissertation. I'm not worried about finishing it. I'm right on schedule to complete a working draft of the whole thing by the end of December, so that I can defend it in the spring. My committee hasn't really been a problem either. My advisor and the graduate coordinator have both been very supportive.

So what do I have to complain about? I feel like a liar. I have absolutely no intention of remaining in academia once I've finished my PhD. There are a lot of reasons (like how easy it is for 2 people to get tenure track jobs at the same school), but the biggest one is - I just don't want to. I liked teaching at first, but I grew to hate it. I'm deeply at odds with a the dominant mode in my discipline (All abstract modeling. Yuck.). And the idea of the whole tenure track grind just makes me tired. I don't know how you guys do it.

I feel like I'll be disappointing everyone when I don't go into academia. I have these horrible fantasies of finishing my defense and having to answer the question "So what are you going to do now?" Of having to explain to my family that I've spent 10 years and tons of money on a degree that I'm not going to use, that I have no interest in. It just sound stupid. And it makes me feel ashamed.

Brazen Hussy has been great about this (In fact I wonder if she ever thought I'd become a professor). But when I look at my student loan bills and the decade that's passed since I started my graduate work, it's hard not to feel like a fool. But I'm not foolish enough to compound my mistakes. Once I've received my PhD, I'm walking away from it for good. I just wish that I knew where I'll be walking to.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:52 PM

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Welcome to the Party, Kos

Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Markos' disinterest in campaign finance reform has always really bugged me. He always had this crazy idea that a bunch of small donations would be able to outweigh large contributors. Of course, this has never happened in the history of elections, for the simple reason that middle class people are both far less likely to give (they have less money, you see), and far harder to organize. As such, wealthy interests have a huge advantage in the game of campaign finance. Duh.

Now it looks like Kos is finally beginning to come around. While I'm glad that he's finally got one foot on board, I have to wonder - what took so long??? You'd think that a grass roots organizer would want to de-emphasize the importance of money. You'd think that a partisan Democrat would like to take away the single biggest advantage the Republicans have - the bottomless coffers that come with representing the wealthiest sectors of society.

I don't know. I suppose I'm just not being charitable enough. I'm simply of the belief that reducing the influence of money in politics would make everything else we want to do easier.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:23 PM

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My Birthday

Monday, August 06, 2007
Aw. Thanks, guys.

By the way, Brazen got me the greatest t-shirt in the world:

Married To The Sea
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:59 AM

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I used to be a moderate, I swear

Friday, August 03, 2007
Kevin Drum:

What's happening now isn't a youth revolt, and it's not powered by free love, free acid, or fear of being drafted. It's powered by a lot of bog ordinary moderate liberals who have been radicalized by George Bush and the Newt Gingrichized Republican Party. I think a lot of journalists (though I don't mean to include Hertzberg here) don't quite get this because they haven't internalized just how far off the rails the modern Republican Party has gone. Until they do, they're going to continue to misunderstand what's happening.
I'm not sure what a "bog ordinary moderate liberal" is, but Kevin seems pretty much on target. Sounds like he could be describing me. I used to be a Sam Nunn Democrat, for pete's sake. It's not all Brazen Hussy's fault that I'm a crazy lefty now.

P.S. Does anybody have any idea who the "pete" is in that phrase?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:23 PM

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Re-inventing American Democracy

Thursday, August 02, 2007
A grandiose title for a very simple post. Basically I think people are getting a little too loose when it comes to recreating American politics. We need to slow down. Way down.

My main area of interest in studying politics is political institutions, both of the formal variety (like Congress), and the informal (like Political Parties). My research has generally been directed to the effect of those institutions on egalitarian politics. (I'd say more, but then I'd be easy to find!)

As a consequence, I view with alarm the remarkably swift change in our fundamental political structure over the last few years. The obvious examples would be the concentration of power in the executive branch and the creation of a nation-wide Republican patronage machine. But it's not limited to such recent events, and certainly isn't restricted to the scary side of the aisle.

In the last week we've seen serious attempts to alter the Electoral College, a suggestion that we allow for direct voting on legislation, and a proposal to revamp the Presidential Primary System. These are fundamental alterations in the way we practice politics, and I am horrified to see such ill-thought-out ideas presented by supposedly responsible civic leaders and supported by activists on the left and right. It's not that the presidential election process doesn't need reform - it most certainly does. What is crucial is to carefully think out the consequences of every idea, which the advocates of these two plans have most manifestly not done (unless they're out for personal advantage, which just makes them jerks).

The gerrymandering of congressional districts makes the Maine-Nebraska a non-starter - it's trying to solve one problem by grafting it onto an entirely different problem. Think trying to kick a liquor habit by picking up cocaine. For some reason people are referring to it as a "proportional" plan, when it is most clearly not. A proportional plan would allocate electoral college votes based on the share of the popular vote. The Maine-Nebraska plan doesn't do that at all - it's just moving the winner-take-all feature to the sub-state level, and in the process making it more likely that the electoral vote winner received fewer popular votes.

I could spend days burnishing up my intellectual credentials by bashing the idea of popular referenda on federal legislation. Let me just leave the subject with a single word: California. Can anyone with the slightest familiarity with that state's politics believe that the state is well-served by its initiative & referendum process? I didn't think so.

The rotating regional primary plan offered up in the Senate is an equally bad idea. It would leave Iowa and New Hampshire in their early status, while creating 4 regional primaries that would alternate in order every 4 years. While I have no principled objection to keeping Iowa and New Hampshire, the latter feature is just absurd. It does nothing to mute the impact of big money on the process, and its schedule would be just as arbitrary as any other.

It's frustrating that these hare-brained proposals are getting any attention, because there are much better ideas to solve these problems (which I won't get into today). My point is that a lot of people are acting in a very cavalier fashion towards changing America's political structure. There is nothing that should be done with more caution than (small-"c") constitutional change. There are far, far too many examples of unintended and disastrous consequences to approach regime questions with a light heart.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:34 PM

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