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When the Universe Pays Attention To You

Thursday, July 31, 2008
Have you ever been considering an intellectual problem, and start to see examples of it everywhere? Lately I've been contemplating the way I make decisions - and by that I mean the basic strategy I use when trying to decide what to do. It's predictable that I'd notice the instances of decision-making processes in people's behavior, since the idea is on my mind. But I'm not talking about the thing where you buy a car and notice that car everywhere, or want a puppy and notice lots of puppies. In the last few days I've repeated encountered intellectual discussions about decision-making - in Paul Krugman's recent editorial on the rationality of doing something about global warming, in a book I'm reading about John Rawls, with McCain's basic (only?) argument that Obama isn't a "safe" choice, and in discussions about what we did do in Iraq and might do in Iran. I might post more about the substance of my thinking in a day or so - but in the meantime I just thought it was worth pointing out there's a strange synchronicity about life.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:48 PM

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Deep Thought

Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Inspired by Atrios:

Conservatism is an ideology for slaves.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:39 PM

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Old Stuff Is New Again

Monday, July 28, 2008
This weekend I surreptitiously purchased Creedence Clearwater on ITunes. After having mothballed my tape collection and owning no Creedence CD's, I have felt deprived for quite some time.

Loaded up with Dad Rock goodness, this afternoon I was listening to "Fortunate Son" and it sounds like it could have been written...yesterday. This elitist warmongering thing really is a national habit, isn't it?

(Huh. I guess my illicit acquisition probably isn't so surreptitious any more.)
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:32 PM

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Book's I've Read

I think I read most of these in high school. I am a philistine.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:42 PM

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Doesn't Everybody Think This?

Friday, July 25, 2008
Or at least shouldn't they?

From Kathy G:

There are, I think, three basic propositions about which the netroots agree:

1) The Republican Party in general, and Bush in particular, sucks;

2) The media sucks; and

3) The Iraq War sucks.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:23 PM

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Obama's Berlin Speech

So last night I watched Obama's Berlin speech. Having a speech there was pretty bold, and an excellent move, since it brings up so many memories of Kennedy and Reagan. Obama's speech was a good one, but I don't think it was his best by any means. His main theme - tying the struggle against Communism in the previous generation to this generation's struggle against, well, everything, is a good one, but he seemed to lose the thread of it at times. The speech also wandered a bit in the middle with another of those damned "laundry lists" everybody seems compelled to slip in. I'm sorry, a bunch of one sentence lines about nothing in particular just kills the tempo of a speech. Obama never used to do this - I blame the consultants.

The other thing I didn't like was the speech's length, which ran to 25 minutes. By comparison, John Kennedy's famous address in Berlin was four minutes long, and included everything he wanted to say. I watched it on youtube immediately after watching Obama's speech, and there was no comparison. Obama has his moments, but he's no Jack Kennedy - yet.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:25 AM

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Sometimes It's the Devil You Don't Know

Thursday, July 24, 2008
While Obama's reception in Europe among the general population has been impressive, the reaction of Europe's leaders to his visit it truly remarkable - perhaps even unprecedented. Usually foreign leaders prefer that the incumbent party in the U.S. be re-elected, since they will know what they are getting and are generally risk averse. But this time they aren't making much of a secret of the fact that they would rather deal with a 47 year old novice on the international stage than the experienced heir apparent to the present administration.

Which tells you a great deal about how unpopular George Bush's policies have been. Usually our European friends prefer the devil they know. This time they've decided that the devil they know is so bad that anybody else would have to be better.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:22 AM

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Have Things Always Worked This Way?

Monday, July 21, 2008
I don't know if I remembered to put Marathon on my list of "what I'm reading," but I think the book is interesting and topical enough to warrant a short review. The book is a detailed examination of the long presidential election of 1976, written by professional journalist Jules Witcover. Now Witcover has done some good work over the years, and Marathon is definitely both detailed and readable. I read the book when I was in college, but the years since then have given me a very different interpretation of the book. When I was 20 I thought the book was a bit long and occasionally boring, if very informative. Now I think it's fascinating, but perhaps not for the reasons Witcover might have thought when he wrote it.

The book suggests that despite all the changes that have taken place in American politics over the last 32 years, when it comes to media reporting nothing has changed. Witcover clearly didn't like Jimmy Carter - he thought he was a weirdo and a bit of a phony. Witcover just as clearly like Gerald Ford on a personal level, and was very close to Ford's key staff - in particular, Chief of Staff Richard Cheney. A great deal of the coverage of the campaign appears to have been filtered through the press corps' unease about Carter. The book makes the press seem petulant and trivial: angry at Carter's relative isolation from the press, and eager to focus on "gotcha" moments and "gaffes."

Most absurdly, Witcover seems to blame the candidates for this state of affairs. But I wonder, what a coincidence it would be if for the last 32 years we have only had candidates who were willing to wage trivial and boring campaigns. Might it be possible that it is the singular institution of the press, with its flagrant biases, loathing of substantial policy, and unbelievable sense of entitlement that has trivialized American political life? Wouldn't that be a simpler explanation?

All I can say is, after reading Witcover's book, the 2008 election seems distressingly familiar.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:38 PM

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Bruce Bartlett: Historian? Logician? Or Hack?

Thursday, July 17, 2008
Bruce Bartlett wrote yesterday asserting that the Republican Party is America's real civil rights party. To make this counterintuitive case he points to perfectly accurate historical facts: that for its first 100 years, Republican Presidents and members of Congress had a far better civil rights record than the Democrats, who were more often that not the party of segregation. He also takes a swipe at Franklin Roosevelt, who had big majorities but refused to do a thing for black Americans.

Notice anything interesting about this argument? Well, the principal actors in it are all dead. It's ancient history. Beginning in the 1960's, the Republicans prostituted their legacy of social justice in order to win over segregationist whites. Bartlett amusingly ignores the emergence of Republicans in the South at the precise moment the Democratic Party pushed for civil rights, or that very same segregationist whites flocked to Barry Goldwater in 1964, George Wallace in 1968, and Richard Nixon in 1972. Saying that Republicans are the civil rights party based on history is like saying that Democrats are historically in favor of states rights, or that Japan is expansionist, or that Christians think slavery is cool. Well sure, those statements all used to be true - A really long time ago. But Bartlett's facts are about obsolete as black and white TVs or record players.

As an aside, I'm not sure how much Republicans really cared about civil rights even before the 1960's. It made perfect sense for FDR to avoid civil rights, since his coalition was based on the South. But that wasn't true of the Republicans in the first part of the twentieth century. They had huge majorities too, and did precisely zero for civil rights at a time in which they would have paid very little price - the South wasn't voting for them anyway. Heck, Eisenhower could have passed civil rights in 1954-54 if he'd felt like it. But he didn't.

What's most offensive about Bartlett's piece is its subtext. He thinks African American voters are stupid: either stupid because they don't know their history, or (more likely) stupid for swallowing his ridiculous arguments. But of course they're not stupid. African Americans are acutely aware of where their political interests are. Unlike other groups I could name that do believe whatever Republican hacks tell them, however destructive the GOP is to their interests. Not that I'll name those groups. That would be mean.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:30 AM

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Updated Blogroll

Wednesday, July 16, 2008
I'm trying to update my blogroll, saying goodbye (sniff) to inactive blogs and hello to new ones that are on my bloglines but I haven't gotten around to adding to my blog. If I missed you (or if you're a lurker!) let me know and I'll add you!
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:57 PM

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They're Not Even Trying Any More

First John McCain's rape "jokes" and now this? I've tried to become a little less emotionally invested in the presidential election, since I'm cranky at Obama right now and have other things to do. But who in their right minds would really want to restrict access to birth control. And why aren't Democrats hopping all over this?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:26 PM

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Am I crazy, or is revising a paper more painful than writing it?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:31 PM

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Brazen Hussy's BIrthday Weekend

Saturday, July 12, 2008
We tend to make a big deal out of birthdays. They're not just celebrations on the given day: they're multi-day extravaganzas. So this weekend Brazen Hussy is going to be Empress (she's always the Queen!). We're going to go the movies, visit some wineries, have a nice dinner on Sunday, and then on her actual birthday on Monday I'm going to cook for her and give her presents. She actually got to start opening up presents yesterday, because it was after all the beginning of the Weekend of Hussy.

I have to admit that I look forward to Brazen's birthday far more than my own. Not because I don't like getting older (I sort of don't care), but because I like doing stuff for her. She's wonderful and deserves it. So all hail Brazen Hussy!
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:24 AM

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McCain's Dilemma

A few days ago I wrote about what I see as a series of strategic blunders by the Obama campaign. What I didn't do was situate these mistakes within the context of the broader electoral context. I do not want to leave people with the idea that I think Obama is going to lose. I don't. Frankly, I'd be stunned if he lost, given the underlying structure of the election: A soft economy, an unpopular war, 8 years of rule by one party, really high wrong track numbers and presidential disapproval, and a divided Republican Party? Are you kidding? George McGovern would have a shot this year.

Relatedly, there has lately been some discussion about why John McCain's campaign has been so terrible. He's an awful speaker, his campaign lacks strategic focus and can't seem to settle on a narrative, he's gaffe prone, and he doesn't really seem to have any idea why he wants to be President. If he didn't have such a fawning press corps to prop him up, he'd be 20 points behind rather than 5.

But to be fair, even if McCain were witty and charismatic, he'd still have an almost unsolvable problem. The conservative base of the party has become so powerful within the party (pretty much swallowing it whole) that McCain has absolutely no strategic flexibility. The conservatives were spoiled by Rove's catering to them - in Bush, they got pretty much everything they wanted: tax cuts, de-regulation, militarism, evangelical christianity, hostility to social and domestic policies advocated by liberals and moderates, and fierce partisanship. Now the conservatives expect that EVERY Republican nominee will be exactly the same. Bush is still rated fairly highly among conservatives, and even the ones who now claim he's not a conservative are only putting a higher burden of ideological purity on McCain.

Of course, Bush is so unpopular that McCain can't adopt these positions without forfeiting the election. And even when he tries to do so he looks ridiculous, since he clearly doesn't believe a word of it (except for the militarism). This the dilemma that any Republican candidate would face. So for all McCain's faults, it's not totally his fault he's behind. Even a good poker player would find it hard to win the pot holding nothing more than 8 high.

Not that I feel the least bit sorry for the thug.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:12 AM

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Local Political Break Over

Wednesday, July 09, 2008
I haven't written very much lately about the local campaign I'm helping run - mainly because it's considered bad form to campaign between the primary and July 4, so there hasn't been very much to write. However, I should have more to post now that the magic date has passed. On July 4 I walked in a parade with my candidate for a local parade - we got rained on, but at least our float won!

Anyway, one of the nice things about the Obama campaign is that their people are working very closely with candidates at other levels (it's called a "coordinated campaign"). Most Presidential campaigns don't do this - they typically run totally independent campaigns that do zero for the down-ballot races. Sometimes it's even worse, because they can suck up all the resources and volunteers and make your life extremely difficult. Obama's not doing that - his people really seem to want to help. We're meeting with his staff on Friday, and I'll let you know what they're like. I talked to one on the phone today and he seemed very young. Maybe I'm just getting old.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:58 AM

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The Least Fun Part of My Job

I was originally hired to help write grants. Since then my responsibilities have been expanded into more substantive research areas, but I'm still expected to do all the stuff I used to. What makes this somewhat bizarre is that I don't really know much about the subject matter of the grants - my own research is on totally different topics. Let me tell you, trying to write grants when you know close to zero (and care even less) about the content is...interesting.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:55 AM

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Obama's Faltering Campaign

Tuesday, July 08, 2008
I have a confession to make: I think that Obama has been running a pretty bad campaign lately. Now some of his difficulties stem from dealing with a press corps that wants to McCain's BFF. The coverage of McCain's campaign has given "kid gloves" a new meaning, and the argument that Obama changed his position on Iraq or will raise taxes on middle class people is just silly. However, Obama has lost the crisp counter-punching style he exhibited shortly after he won the nomination, and is instead running like Al Gore or John Kerry - or worse, like someone who is protecting a lead.

Let me state one thing first - Obama does not have a lead. While he consistently has 4-6 point lead in the polls, only rarely does he break 50% in these polls - which means that all he has done thus far is assembled the base Gore/Kerry percentage of around 48% of the vote. The reason he has a lead is that McCain is doing much worse then Bush, and is only polling at around 43%. The other roughly 9% is still undecided, but by definition most of them voted for Bush last time. Now if Obama was running at 55% in the polls, THAT would be a real lead, and perhaps one worth protecting. But 48%? Not a defensible lead.

Second, Obama's "positioning" moves lately have been hamfisted. Yes they have been portrayed in their worst possible light by the McCain campaign and the national press corps. But Obama's folks should expect this - it's what's happened in previous election cycles, so why should it change now? Therefore, Obama should be EXTREMELY careful about any shifts in position - but he's not. There is now an emerging narrative that he is shifting to the center, the subtext of which is NOT that he's middle of the road, but that he's the same old type of politician who'll say whatever he needs to to win. Not good.

Third, even if some re-positioning is important, it is an elementary part of campaign strategy to not do so by changing one's (perceived) policy stances. The way you feint to the left in the primary is to emphasize those positions you have that are liberal, and then feint to the center by emphasizing your more moderate positions. There's nothing immoral about this, necessarily, and it protects one from a) looking shifty, and b) saying thing one doesn't mean.

Fourth, blurring the distinction between one's self and one's opponent only works when you do so where you are weak, while preserving the distinctions where one is wrong. Obama is weak on experience but strong on Iraq, therefore to moderate his position on Iraq is just dumb, since it lets McCain off the hook.

Fifth, Obama's re-positioning on abortion in particular has been a major blunder. His ability to rally Clinton's feminist supporters to him is most easily achieved through a defense abortion rights, and McCain is vulnerable on that issue (a lot of people mistakenly believe he's a moderate, when he's not). Rather than shifting to the center, he should just run as a pro-choice Democrat. Now what I think is happening is that Obama is trying to neutralize the religious right - to reduce their turnout, because they're already disillusioned with McCain. But this approach comes with tremendous risks, since you also risk fracturing your OWN base.

I'm pissed at him on FISA, but regrettably I don't think it's a mass voting issue, so it probably won't hurt him that much. Which is why I think his vote on the issue is so frustrating, since he's not going to lose on it. He's going to get attacked for being soft on defense anyway - why not using civil liberties and the protection of the Constitution as his defensive ground? It's stronger than a lot of other defensive postures he'll have to take on the subject.

Obama is clearly ahead at this point, but I really don't think he's been doing very well. Over the last couple of weeks he has been on the defensive, and if he doesn't make adjustments, he's going to stay that way.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:28 AM

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My 4th of July Happy Thought

Saturday, July 05, 2008
The eternal torment of Jesse Helms in hell.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:38 AM

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A Constitutional Conundrum

Thursday, July 03, 2008
Okay, I have a problem. I think that that the preservation of the Republic, and in particular the protection of the constitutional order, trumps every other political criterion. So when Obama writes this, I am getting ready to abandon him:

And going forward, some of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker.

Damn right it is.


If John McCain wins, he's going to get to appoint probably 2 Supreme Court judges who will....gut the constitution and civil liberties. And the environment. And abortion rights. And regulations of corporate america, etc., etc., etc.

So I'm faced with a no-win situation: I either vote for a candidate who has enabled the undermining of the Republic, or I don't vote, and thereby tacitly assist the election of a candidate who will actively work to undermine the Constitution.

I have generally given 3rd party voters a very hard time, because they have let the best be the enemy of the good. But at some point, it's not a question of "best" - it's a question of minimum acceptability. I would argue that Al Gore was more than minimally acceptable in 2000. In this election, however, Barack Obama's FISA position is so sophistical, and so morally repugnant to me, that I am tempted to conclude that he has moved beyond the point of minimum acceptability. The only thing that gives me pause is the permanent damage to the country that would take place by the installation of John McCain. I suppose I could hold my nose and vote for Obama, but wouldn't that make me as complicit as he is?

I feel very much as those citizens of Rome alive in 49 B.C. might have. On the one hand you had Caesar, who was clearly aiming for dictatorial powers. On the other hand you had Pompey, who was facilitating the ruination of the republic by the aristocratic faction and had himself undermined the stability of popular government in the past. So does a citizen of good will stand aside and let the two fight it out, or does he support Pompey, for all his flaws, because Caesar is so terrible?

The answer is not clear to me either in the case of ancient civil wars or this year's election. For the present I will hew to my position of abstaining on principle, but this question is one I will be agonizing over for some time - probably until November.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:10 PM

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Something Not Political

Wednesday, July 02, 2008
I'm capable of that - I swear.

Lately I've been experiencing one of those "what am I doing with myself?" periods, focused principally on my job. Ever since I finished my dissertation, I've been trying to redirect my intellectual energies to what I get paid to do, but so far I haven't had any real luck. While the stuff I'm studying is interesting at one level, it's just not what I'd call stimulating. I just don't care that much. At one level maybe it's good that I'm not emotionally committed to my work - I certainly don't get obsessed about it, or stress out too much. But I see Brazen Hussy and how she's doing work that fascinates her and I feel a bit jealous. I suppose most people just do work for a paycheck, but it certainly isn't much fun. Particularly when you decades more of it to look forward to. Maybe this is just reality, or perhaps I should just stop whining, but I don't know if I can keep doing this for the next 30 years.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:14 PM

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Obama to Liberals: (Updated)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Drop dead

It turns out the AP screwed this up. Why am I not surprised?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:09 AM

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The Problem of Plutocracy

The modern campaign finance regime is dead. Founded in the 1970's in response to the abuses of the Nixon administration, the laws meant to regulate spending in election campaigns has slowly unraveled over the last decade. It would be easy to blame Barack Obama's opting out of the presidential public financing system, or the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the millionaire's amendment, but the reality is that the attempt to prevent elections from being dominated by wealth was murdered in its crib, when the Supreme Court's Buckley vs. Valeo decision equated spending money on campaigns as a form of political speech. To use Rawlsian terms, this ridiculous decision neglected the problem of the equal worth and fair value of political equality - namely, that if spending money is a form of protected political speech, then those with greater wealth will have more "speech", and therefore more control over the public forum, than everyone else. There is a word for a political system in which political power is weighted based on one's personal financial assets, and it is not called a democracy.

I won't spend time discussing the narrative of how the campaign finance system was created, or the various ways it has been amended, or why it has failed. I want to underline fact that the three-decades battle to limit the influence of money in politics is over. From now on only candidates who can raise tens of millions of dollars will be eligible for high public office. Barack Obama's success in mobilizing small contributions is more likely anomalous, because one must have substantial fame before such a strategy is workable.

I also want to make very clear the consequences of an unregulated political financial market. If political advertising (whether true or not) determines elections, if media outlets are focused on trivia at best and are slanted towards particular ideological perspectives at worst, if only candidates who are either a) wealthy or b) owned by the wealthy have a realistic chance at public office, how representative will the system be? What then do you think will be the direction of public policy? We will continue to be a republic by, for, and of the people - but which people? I fear that we are trending ever-further into some modern version of the Roman Principate, where the polity exhibits all the outward forms of the old republic, while the substance is something very different.

Cheery thoughts looking to July 4th.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:54 AM

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