Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A little reality check on the choices in the Massachusetts Senate race

I'm as big a believer in throwing a monkeywrench into people's plans as anybody. Stripping the Senate Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority and reintroducing a wee bit of gridlock gives me a certain frisson of joy. But I don't get all the love for Scott Brown by critics of metastasizing government when there's a seemingly excellent candidate in the Massachusetts Senate race in the form of small-l libertarian Joe Kennedy, running as an independent.

Martha Coakley, the Democrat, is as disgusting a candidate as I can imagine. Not only is she for an ever-more expansive state that would intrude itself further into our lives, most particularly, into our medical decisions, but her record as a prosecutor has demonstrated a hideous disregard for civil liberties and even simple justice -- abandoning the usual advantage that Democrats, if only theoretically, maintain over Republicans.

But Scott Brown, aside from his clear appeal to straight women and gay men (and a reminder to the rest of us to do our sit-ups), seems to function largely as a representative of the dominant wing of the Republican Party that brought us eight years of suckage. On the issues, he's an authoritarian social conservative who supported Romneycare and is terrible on civil liberties -- even mediocre on gun rights, one liberty conservatives usually support.

A side-by-side comparison of the three candidates' positions shows Kennedy as the only one with consistent smaller-government, expanded-freedom credentials. Yet at least one faction of the Tea Party movement -- that supposedly independent, shrink-the-state grassroots network, urged Joe Kennedy to drop out in Brown's favor. (Kennedy declined.)

Yes, I understand that popular wisdom has it that only two candidates -- the Republican and the Democrat -- are serious contenders. But that's self-fulfilling prophecy. In other countries, when the dominant political parties prove to be repulsive to large swathes of the population, people start new parties or elevate small ones. I'm not just talking about nations with proportional representation, either. Canada and the United Kingdom, while parliamentary systems, use winner-take-all voting like the U.S. for picking legislators. Twenty years ago, the Canadian Prime Minister was Brian Mulroney, of the Progressive Conservative Party. That party doesn't exist anymore, having been challenged by the rather more ideologically rigorous Reform Party, and then absorbed by a new Conservative Party spawned by Reform.

In the United Kingdom, the twentieth century saw the replacement of the Liberal Party as one of the two major parties by the Labour Party. Having merged with the up-start Social Democrats, the Liberal Democrats continue as a significant player in British politics. More recently, the UK Independence Party has risen as a serious contender, out-polling Labour in the last election for the European Parliament.

In the United States, however, we treat the two major political parties as if they're features of the natural landscape, like the Grand Canyon, rather than human-made institutions than can be replaced when they cease to ... well ... not make us puke.

As long as we insist that we have to abandon something preferable in favor of officially approved Lousy Choice A or Lousy Choice B, we'll keep getting more of what we've suffered over the past decade.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Give the people what they want -- if you can figure it out

During the course of the heated health care debate, as during all matters of excited public discussion, there's been a lot of talk about "what the people want." Do people want single-payer care? Public option? Market-provided medicine? Everybody peddling a scheme for overhauling doctors' offices and chastising insurance companies seems very concerned about what the people want -- and claims to know the public's true desires. But, as most of the chatterers know, or should know, "the people" don't really exist, and they don't want any one thing.

The problem was illustrated in a recent Politico article, which fretted:

Legislators hoping to learn what their constituents think about the issue — and how to vote to keep them happy — face a dizzying deluge of hard-to-reconcile data, some of which suggests that voters are more than a little confused, as well.

What to make of it, for example, when one poll finds that 63 percent think “death panels” are a “distortion” or “scare tactic,” and only 30 percent think the issue is “legitimate,” while another finds that 41 percent believe that people would die because “government panels” would prevent them from getting the treatment they needed?

Or when one survey finds that 55 percent of Americans support the public option, while another says 79 percent favor one — but also notes that only 37 percent people surveyed actually knew what “public option” meant?

Part of the problem is, as Drew Altman and Mollyann Brodie wrote in a 2002 paper on the limitation of health care polling, "you always have to worry that you are polling about things that the average person may not be following closely enough to understand, and that the result you get is as much a response to key words and phrases such as 'federal government,' or 'Medicare,' or 'HMO,' as it is a response to the merits of the policy options being asked about. Policy-option polling pushes the limits of what polling can do, particularly if the policy options are complex."

Beyond that, though, is the problem raised by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu: "Putting the same question to everyone assumes that there is a consensus on what the problems are, in other words that there is agreement on the questions that are worth asking."

Another way of putting it, as presented by political scientist Sidney Verba, is that the “agenda reflects the interest of the poll taker” and “the set of issues covered may be very different from that which is on the mind of the respondents.”

And indeed, we've seen that dilemma at work in spades in recent months. The question that many D.C. insiders want to ask has to do with what the federal government can do to expand access to health care and control costs. The answers that they're getting back, in the streets and at town hall meetings, indicate that many Americans are more concerned with questions about other issues, including government overreach, immigration and federal spending. Plenty of respondents charge that the government caused the problems it now claims to address, and that letting it have any role in the solution will make matters worse. The range of the discussion has only been expanded by the complexity of the health care debate, with hot-button terminology and endless details.

In fact, there is no "the people" to have an opinion about health care (or many other issues). There are many peoples -- ultimately, hundreds of millions of individuals -- who have not just different answers, but different questions in mind. That is, when they even understand what everybody else is so exercised about.

Policy makers sometimes seem to want to frame public discussion as if we're all a group of friends deciding on where to grab a bite to eat. But how do you get 300 million people to agree on Chinese instead of pizza -- or even that it's supper time at all? Some of them just don't want to be bothered with questions or obligated to follow the discussion -- which isn't the same thing as saying that they don't care if you drag them along to a dinner theater.

Because of the fractious nature of any society and the suspect nature of an apparent majority opinion on any issue, democratically asking everybody's opinion is less an ideal way of deciding each and every matter than it is a least-bad means of determining what policy will tick-off the fewest people on those very few matters that require some sort of collective response.

Do you really want to come to a policy conclusion that will please a nation of 300 million people? Then get ready to craft 300 million separate solutions.

Or else concede that, no matter how much polling you do, no matter how much effort you make to discern what "the people" want, any effort to make top-down policy for an entire nation is ultimately authoritarian, with the solution crammed down the throats of dissenters.

Then again, we could just get rid of the top-down policy-making and let people run their own lives and come to agreement with one another on voluntary, non-coerced solutions.

Hmmm ... Perhaps we could come up with a poll to ask what people prefer ...


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pirates prepare to hoist jolly roger in Germany

According to Newsweek:
Schneider, a 24-year-old TV producer, and his crew—one of dozens across Berlin—are the grassroots base of a political phenomenon sweeping through Europe: Pirate parties. Concentrating on Internet privacy, copyright reform, and online freedom of speech, pirate parties have recently gained official recognition, public office, and tons of newspaper ink in 10 countries, most notably Germany and Sweden (where they are the third-largest party in terms of membership). ...

The Pirates are, at heart, left-leaning libertarians—they want to get government monitors off the Internet and reform copyright laws to allow file-sharing and copying. They oppose biological patents and call for greater government transparency. And they propose vastly increasing educational spending, particularly in IT-related fields, as well as a new Internet ministry that would coordinate the federal government's online activities. Schneider, like most Pirates, says that without his party he would probably back the Greens or the Social Democrats, but "we're really not for left-right politics. These old ideological fights don't work for us."
The article goes on to point out that both of Germany's major political parties -- the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats -- are hostile to the free-wheeling nature of the Internet and have tried to impose regulations and censorship on the cyber world. That, of course, helped pave the way for a tech-inspired quasi-libertarian party (the Swedish incarnation of the Pirate Party is explicitly market-oriented, with founder Rick Falkvinger calling himself "ultra-capitalist").

It's interesting how the parliamentary system in Europe has left many countries more open to new parties and political movements even though those countries are, in many ways, more top-down governed than the United States and, traditionally, less open to grassroots movements. My personal theory is that Europeans are much more skeptical of their governments and ruling elites, having seen too many regimes degenerate into horror and too many "respectable" leaders collaborate with dictators and occupiers. Americans, on the other hand, have a quasi-theological regard for electoral outcomes and authorities, rooted, I would say, less in any earned respect than in long-term stability that has blunted the majority's spidey-senses when it comes to the evil that governments can do.

Note: I'm on vacation outside Seattle, with a really unreliable Internet connection.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ahoy, me (Euro) maties

On this side of the Atlantic, voters get the shakes if anybody suggests they vote for anything more interesting than the moldering corpses of the donkey or the elephant party. Across the ocean, however, Europeans just threw themselves a (poorly attended) election for the European Parliament, in which small parties gained a respectable share of the vote.

That's small parties like the Pirate Party of Sweden, which won 7.1% of the total Swedish tally with a tech-savvy platform devoted to privacy, reined-in copyright laws, and free file sharing for all. That was good enough for two parliamentary seats. The Pirate Party no doubt benefited from the controversial legal ordeal of the Pirate Bay, a wildly popular (and very cool) peer-to-peer file-sharing Website.

Not only was the verdict against the founders of Pirate Bay considered a violation of the free spirit of the Internet, but it was also considered corrupt, given the judges' ties to copyright-protection groups. The verdict is now under review.

The Pirate Party couldn't help but reap public-relations rewards, with the result that the European Parliament will be a lot more interesting than the U.S. Congress. Even before the 2009 election, the party's soaring membership had made it the third-largest political party in Sweden. Its youth wing is the largest youth political organization in that country.

Wow! A major political party devoted entirely to online freedom. And in the United States, we get to choose between the security-state party and the nanny-state party.

Oh, such tempting options.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

And I couldn't bring myself to vote for that Nixon guy, either

So, I was having lunch with a friend of mine last week, and he was telling me how dissatisfied he was with our new congresscritter, Ann Kirkpatrick. In fact, he didn't like her before she ran for office, having been seriously turned off by her performance and attitude during a brief time when she was his attorney a few years ago.

Even so, he voted for her.

"I couldn't vote for Renzi," he told me. "He's so corrupt and he's on his way to jail."

True. I couldn't vote to return Rick Renzi to office, either. He is truly an impressive standout example of pure corruption in a sea of already festering pus. Then again, I didn't face much of a dilemma, because Renzi wasn't on the fucking ballot.

If you insist on looking at only major-party candidates (Libertarian Thane Eichenauer also ran), Sydney Hay was the Republican hopeful, taking the nomination after Renzi slithered away to his fate. Hay has a strong background in free-market economics at a time when that would seem to be a pressing need in Congress. But there are certainly good reasons to oppose Hay, especially on social issues, where she's a standard-issue, God-and-country conservative.

But to reasonably oppose Hay, you would have to know that she was on the ballot against Kirkpatrick, not Renzi.

So, here's an intelligent (yes, he is), better-informed than most, voter, who held his nose and voted for a candidate he disliked because he didn't bother to check who the alternatives were.

Tell me again why democracy is a good idea.


Friday, January 30, 2009

One nation, under ...

In the future, we will all be Obamians.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Kirsten Gillibrand isn't a libertarian, but she's better than expected (and pretty easy on the eyes)

Right after Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand's name circulated as New York Governor David Paterson's choice to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate, I received an email from my father saying, "she sounds like a good libertarian." Well, not quite, but Gillibrand is about as close to a consistent supporter of personal freedom as you're going to get out of either of the major political parties these days. As the new senator from New York, she could well be a breath of fresh air, whether she's a Democrat or a Republican.

In fact, Gillibrand's 90% score from the American Civil Liberties Union, 100% rating from the National Rifle Association, support for extending tax cuts and opposition (twice) to the TARP bailout scam suggest that she has a taste for both civil liberties and economic freedom. A taste -- even a limited one -- for leaving people to make their own choices in the bedroom and the marketplace both is a woefully rare characteristic in modern politicians. Usually we have to pick one or the other and hope for the best.

On the other hand, Gillibrand waffled early on when it comes to same-sex marriage, although, to her credit, she came to support it. She opposes Social Security privatization, a position that essentially locks Americans into a Ponzi scheme that dwarf's Madoff's fever dreams. She boasted during the last campaign of voting "against legalizing marijuana" (apparently a reference to her opposition to letting states go their own way on the matter). She voted to extend immunity to telecoms when they collaborate with the government on warrantless wiretaps (although she did vote against such wiretaps on another occasion). And she has favord some of her party's traditional chestnuts when it comes to nonsensical price controls and business regulations that address problems caused by earlier interventions in the market (I'm looking at you, Rep. Frank).

Then there's immigration. Gillibrand is a bit of a roll-out-the-barbed-wire type when it comes to the border. Newsday's John Riley suggests the hard-line on immigration may be "Clintonesque positioning," but whether it's heartfelt or a position arrived at through political calculation doesn't matter if she casts her votes that way.

But we're talking about a major-party politician -- from New York. That Gillibrand has stacked up an encouraging voting record on civil liberties issues, including the right to bear arms, supports lower taxes, and opposed a federal financial spending spree puts her head and shoulders above the usual crop of aspirants to political office.

No, Kirsten Gillibrand isn't a libertarian. But in the Senate she could well be a far better ally of liberty than we had any reason to expect.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hey, Mr. President. Don't let it go to your head

The best part about the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States is that it serves as a huge slap in the face to those retrograde meatheads who deserve to be slapped in the face on a daily basis. The worst part of Obama's taking office is the cult-like following he's acquired among a legion of devotees who, rather than look to their own efforts, see their salvation in a guy who couldn't find anything better to do with his life than seek government office. Whether the best part or the worst part seems more important a year from now depends largely on how the man of the day resists the temptation to wield the entirely too massive power he's just been handed.

About two weeks after the presidential election, I passed a gaggle of those retrograde types in a supermarket parking lot. Dad (I assume it was dad) was holding forth to his unwashed spawn about "nigger" this and "White House" that. There's nothing to be done about such racist idiocy -- except to hope that today's events drive him into such a frenzy that he pops an embolism and spends the rest of his immobilized-but-aware life in the care of a nursing home attendant of color whose tender ministrations convince the kids that "those people" aren't so bad after all.

Honestly, if President Obama does nothing else than demonstrate that bigoted jackasses like that are an impotent vestige of an unfortunate past, he'll have done us all a great service.

But then I sign on to Facebook and see that people I've known for 20 years are still -- over two months after the election -- joining groups titled something like "Barack, please wipe your shoes on me" (now with 120 million fans, including the entire state of Delaware!).

And the repeated videos and images of kids drafted into almost worshipful praise for the president-to-be are ... creepy as all Hell.

But President Obama isn't responsible for the cult-like devotions of the more loser-ish among his fans. The worst he's done is hold himself forth as a human movie screen on which Americans could project their own fantasies. And project, they did, creating personal visions of the leader so many of them seem to need.

Gene Healy has pointed out in his book, The Cult of the Presidency, that the president isn't supposed to be a leader at all.

Indeed, the term "leader," which appears repeatedly in Madison, Hamilton, and Jay's essays in defense of the Constitution, is nearly always used negatively, save for one positive reference to the leaders of the American Revolution. The Federalist is bookended by warnings about the perils of popular leadership: the first essay warns that "of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants."

So much for self-government. Lots of Americans missed the memo about running their own lives.

Will Obama resist those calls for leadership? I doubt it -- not because of his special flaws, but because few American politicians of any flavor seem willing to even try. With all those fervent admirers out there, Barack Obama would have to be made of peculiar stuff for an aspirant to government office to turn a deaf ear to his worshippers.

Not just in Obama's case, but in that of his predecessors and (probably) successors to come, I'm reminded of the example of the Romans. When a victorious general came home to be feted with a triumphant parade through the streets of Rome, a slave was assigned to stand behind the guest of honor and repeatedly whisper "memento mori," which means, "remember that you are mortal." The whole idea was to pee in the victor's punch bowl so he didn't get a swelled head during the celebration -- and aspire to greater power.

Throughout the inauguration festivities, we should have somebody up there by the president whispering "memento mori."

That said, I have high hopes for the new president.

I hope that he changes this country's recent poor record on civil liberties, especially Guantanamo and the security state.

I hope that he changes America's belligerent foreign policy.

I hope that he changes his own frighteningly government-empowering economic policy proposals.

I hope that he changes his plans for compelled civilian service.

But one thing I don't expect Barack Obama to change is this country's political trend toward concentrating ever-greater power in the office of the president.

Barack Obama represents a fresh start in a lot of important ways. But given the expectations of his supporters and some of his own announced policies, it's unlikely that restrained use of government power will be one of them.


Monday, November 24, 2008

More reason to worry about Eric Holder

President-Elect Barack Obama may have promised to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, stop abusing the inmates and bring them within the bounds of a legitimate legal system for trial, but his pick for Attorney General is unlikely to be enthusiastic about that plan. Here's Eric Holder from a 2002 CNN interview, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

One of the things we clearly want to do with these prisoners is to have an ability to interrogate them and find out what their future plans might be, where other cells are located; under the Geneva Convention that you are really limited in the amount of information that you can elicit from people.

It seems to me that given the way in which they have conducted themselves, however, that they are not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. They are not prisoners of war. If, for instance, Mohamed Atta had survived the attack on the World Trade Center, would we now be calling him a prisoner of war? I think not. Should Zacarias Moussaoui be called a prisoner of war? Again, I think not.

It's going to be an interesting few years.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Will Obama take Janet Napolitano off Arizona's hands?

Secretary of Homeland Security is a lightning rod position, charged as it is with harassing air travelers, chasing brown people across the border and preventing hurricanes from being inconvenient. That said, Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, is a perfectly competent choice for the person tasked to tell us if today's threat level is "orange" or "mauve" and to, more seriously, shake out some of the organizational difficulties at DHS. But she's unlikely to represent any sort of softening in policy at the department in terms of immigration or civil liberties. And let's hope that somebody other than her has control of the checkbook.

By Arizona standards, Napolitano is a moderate on immigration. That means she's capable of vetoing a bill requiring her to dispatch National Guard troops to monitor the state's southern border while, at the same time, dispatching National Guard troops to monitor the state's southern border of her own accord. Napolitano eventually persuaded the federal government to provide funding for about 2,400 soldiers. She also signed into law a measure that threatens to strip state businesses of their licenses to operate if they're caught hiring undocumented workers more than once.

This nails down the moderate position in a state where high-profile Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a cartoonish bully, has gone so far as to raid city hall in Mesa in a search for illegal immigrants. Napolitano has gone head-to-head with Arpaio in battles that are roughly equally about philosophy and ego, and it will be interesting to see if she continues that feud from a D.C. perch.

In civil liberties circles, Janet Napolitano gets some credit for formalizing Arizona's rebellion against the federal "Real ID" scheme to convert state-issued drivers licenses into standardized national ID cards. While she did sign the bill blocking the state from complying with the federal ID law, that was only after it became clear that her own "3-in-1" ID plan for bringing Arizona into compliance with Real ID was a no-go with the legislature and with state voters.

Even in putting her name on Arizona's pro-privacy rebellion, Napolitano framed her support in budgetary terms, saying:

My support of the Real ID Act is, and has always been, contingent upon adequate federal funding. Absent that, the Real ID Act becomes just another unfunded federal mandate.

Napolitano's rise to head Homeland Security may mean the end of Real ID -- or it may mean that she'll continue the push for a national ID card, but this time with more federal dollars attached.

Speaking of federal dollars ... Money management just might become an issue if Janet Napolitano is approved for the Homeland Security post. A new report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office reveals that spending oversight is a shambles at DHS. "15 of the 57 DHS major investments reviewed by GAO were designated by the Office of Management and Budget as poorly planned and by DHS as poorly performing."

But Napolitano won't just leave fond memories behind in Arizona -- she's washing her hands of a financial catastrophe. The state's budget, already bloated at $9.9 billion, is conservatively projected to suffer a $1.2 billion deficit this year. That's on top of a $2 billion shortfall passed forward from last year. Tom Jenney of Americans for Prosperity, an organization that has been tough on the governor's financial habits, flat-out says, "[Napolitano is] going to get off the Titanic as it slips under the water. I think Obama’s got a life boat for her, and if I were her, I’d probably get off the ship."

Of course, fiscal irresponsibility will be no more of a change of pace in D.C. than Napolitano's lines on immigration and privacy.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

What would Obama do?

Oh please please please tell me that this Website is a snarky joke meant to spoof the creepy cult of personality that has evolved among Obamatons toward the president-elect.

But I fear not.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Attack of the Obamatons

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My record at the polls -- not so great

With my track record at the polls, you'd think I'd just get the pretense over with, hire a dominatrix, and get my abuse the old-fashioned way: with whips and ball-gags. But no, I tried my hand at another election cycle, and look what I have to show for it.

OK, I didn't expect Bob Barr to win, but I was hoping for a vote total that could credibly be said to exceed that attributable to simple statistical error. He pulled 0.6% in Arizona and something rather less nationally. All because of the oh-so attractive candidates put forward by the major parties, I'm sure.

My congressional district (but certainly not me) is now represented by business-bashing, anti-immigrant, drug-warrior Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. I already miss the corrupt, graft-hungry son of a bitch she replaces.

Prop. 100, which forbids new taxes on the sale or transfer of homes, was a bright spot. It passed with better than three-quarters of the vote.

Prop. 101, which would have blocked the government from imposing socialized medicine, failed by a heartbreakingly slim margin: 49.9% to 50.1%. That's less that 2,200 votes out of 1.7 million total.

Prop. 102, the repulsive "Arizona doesn't like queers" measure, passed with 56.5% of the vote.

Prop. 201, a scam to turn every home sale into a legal free-for-all, thankfully failed with 77% against.

And state legislators won't get a raise, since Prop. 300 went down to easy defeat.

I'm happy to say that the campaign season is now over, and I can get back to the important business of bashing politicians and government officials without worrying about electoral outcomes.

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What do the major parties stand for again?

It's no secret that the Republican Party needs to retool its brand in a big way. But Democrats may face a need to repackage their own product, and that effort could be more difficult for an ascendant political party looking to hold on to its advantage than for one looking to recover from disaster.

After two consecutive ballot-box wipeouts, in 2006 and 2008, even the densest GOP apparatchik must suspect that a heady mix of militarism, nativism, enthusiasm for big government, abuse of civil liberties, neglect of free markets and contempt for anybody with a college degree may not provide a roadmap to a viable future role in American political life.

Republicans have a couple of options, The most obvious ones are:

  • a retreat to social conservatism combined with economic populism. This would take advantage of the current rush to blame free markets for the financial mess that politicians actually wrought without having to think too hard about the existing rural-exurban base of the GOP. Such a move would be relatively easy and advantageous in the short term, but it probably has a limited future in a country growing increasingly heterogeneous and tolerant, and in need of a free economy. Call this the Mike Huckabee alternative.
  • A return to an emphasis on free markets and small government while repudiating the nativism and intolerance that have marked the GOP in recent years. An explicitly libertarian approach is probably out of the question, but a willingness to set the culture war aside could make the party at least inoffensive to some groups that have found it repugnant in recent years. While probably a tougher sell in the short term, and one that could alienate some of the existing base, such a move might make the party once again viable in urban areas, on the coasts, and among the growing ranks of Latino voters. Call this the Barry Goldwater alternative.

How Republicans will position themselves in the months and years to come is up to them, and the ultimate decision will, no doubt, be hashed out in the post-debacle infighting to come. It will be fun to watch, at least.

Democrats, on the other hand are sitting pretty, enjoying the fruits of a hard-won victor--

Whoops. No, the Democratic Party faces challenges too, though its problems may come from its success.

Even as Barack Obama was rolling up a big win in California, gaining a 61% to 37% advantage over John McCain, Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, was simultaneously chugging along to a narrow victory. That win was almost certainly attributable to African-American voters who, while giving 94% of their vote to Barack Obama, were also giving 70% of their votes to Prop. 8. Latino voters also favored the measure, but only by 53% to 47%.

The fact of the matter is that the newly energized African-American base of the Democratic Party, and the party's growing Latino constituency, are more socially conservative than the party has positioned itself to be in the past. It's not just gay marriage; a 2004 Zogby survey found that 78% of Hispanic voters and 62% of African-American voters hold pro-life positions on abortion. The number for the general population is 56%.

The Democratic Party has traditionally sold itself as supportive of gay rights and reproductive freedom -- positions which seem unlikely to be compatible with the values of a large and growing number of its adherents. But its base includes gay and lesbian voters and socially liberal voters who like those traditional positions. To please one constituency may mean alienating the other.

To a certain extent, the woes of the Republican and Democratic parties are inevitable for broad-based political organizations in a diverse society. Trying to hold together a large coalition means engaging in a massive case of cognitive dissonance that inevitably causes conflicts when contradictory promises try to occupy the same politicians' attention at the same time.

The degree to which the parties successfully address those conflicts will determine their viability in the future.

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Hoping for a little breathing room under President Obama

Probably the greatest benefit to the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States is to see a man of mixed race rise to the highest political office in a nation with a troubled racial history. When the senator from Illinois was born, African-Americans were in the midst of a fight for equal treatment before the law that sometimes turned violent. Now he's set to take up residence in the White House.

Senator Obama didn't just squeak in with a plurality vote, either -- he won a credible 52% of votes cast, for a six-point margin over Senator McCain.

If nothing else, I think this election put to rest the increasingly tired canard that the United States of America is a "racist country." That's not to say that racism is dead -- tribalism of all sorts seems to be an inherent human failing. But racism is very clearly no longer a ceiling to the aspirations of Americans, including the descendants of people who were forced into slavery.

Another potential benefit of the election is a likely modest improvement in respect for at least some civil liberties by the federal government. As I've written before, Barack Obama enjoyed a clear advantage over John McCain in terms of his positions on important civil liberties issues. In particular, he's reliably pro-choice on abortion and related reproductive rights. He also favors closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and ending the use of military tribunals for accused terrorists. On the campaign trail, Obama has voiced suport for some elements of drug-policy reform, such as ending the federal government's jihad against medical marijuana and fixing the disparity in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine.

And while Senator Obama disappointingly voted to renew the PATRIOT Act and to authorize warrantless wiretaps, he does have a somewhat better record on privacy and due process issues than his defeated main rival for the presidency.

Matters of concern include the potential for the imposition of political censorship on radio and TV via a renewed Fairness Doctrine. While he has disavowed any interest in such a move, high-level congressional Democrats do favor the Fairness Doctrine, and he'll likely be under some pressure from that quarter.

Senator Obama also favors some sort of mandatory national service for high school students, and has a history of hostility to the right to bear arms, although any strong moves in that area would run up against the recent Heller decision.

As for economic freedom ... Obama's increasingly obvious hostility to free trade, the free market, small government and the right of Americans to keep what they earn would be much more disappointing if Senator McCain hadn't himself been so contemptuous of free markets and private-sector success. Frankly, we were all going to lose on this issue no matter who won, though divided government might have slowed Leviathan down just a bit.

Overall, after eight years of overweening and often abusive government under President Bush, there's reason to hope for a little breathing room under President Obama. That may not be a lot to go on, but in an era when most prominent politicians seem to be competing to intrude the farthest into Americans' lives, that's probably the best we can hope for.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Proposition updates at Civil Liberties Examiner

If you're not following me over at The Examiner, you're missing out! Fresh off the virtual presses tonight is news of the fate of ballot propositions dealing with marijuana, gay marriage and abortion.

Tomorrow, I'll cover Arizona's propositions and give my thoughts about the election results, but the excitement is at The Examiner now now now.

Yes, I'm drinking.

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How I voted, in case you care

Who did Tooch anoint with his much-coveted vote this year? Which issues won his all-important nod? Read on and find out.

President: Bob Barr. He's a moderate libertarian with a conservative bent, which means he and I disagree on some issues. But his overall platform is one that expands liberty instead of contracting it. That's a rare thing in this day and age, and makes him unique on the presidential line of the Arizona ballot. I didn't have to agonize over this at all.

By the way, I do find his conversion convincing. Nobody abandons conservatism for libertarian ideas, works with the Marijuana Policy Project and consults for the ACLU in order to gain political advantage. And we need to welcome converts -- the future of libertarianism lies in one-time authoritarians who have seen the light.

Congress: Sydney Hay. Yes, Hay is a social conservative, but she's savvy on economics and very pro-free-market (she sat on the board of the Goldwater Institute). That'd be an important quality in a House that has engaged in serial ineptitude for years when it comes to economic issues. Democrat Kirkpatrick is sounding the economic populism bell and touting her drug warrior credentials, so to Hell with her. Libertarian Thane Eichenauer is on the ballot and would be my choice if Hay's economic credentials weren't so impressive and important.

County Attorney/Sheriff: After the Dibor Roberts affair, I was very much looking forward to voting against Sheriff Steve Waugh and County Attorney Sheila Polk, who rallied behind the thuggish Sergeant Jeff Newnum and prosecuted Roberts. Unfortunately, the ballot is Soviet-style for these offices -- their names, with no alternatives. I wrote in Dibor Roberts for Sheriff and her husband Merrill for County Attorney.

Prop. 100, barring new taxes on property sales and transfers: Yes

Prop. 101, blocking state officials from imposing socialized health care: Yes

Prop. 102, barring the recognition of same-sex marriages: No, goddamnit

Prop. 201, basically abolishing contract law and turning home sales into a litigious free-for-all: No

Prop. 300, raising state legislators' salaries: No

That's not everything, of course. Some of the races I took a pass on, several offices were uncontested (or contested only by a nice old lady whose memory has been slipping for a few years), and a few propositions were make-the-best-of-a-bad-choice situations. I also voted against a jail tax.

You think you did better? Bring it on.

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Today's voters have it easy

Whoever comes out on top in today's political popularity contest, we're bound to endure days if not weeks of allegations about voter fraud, voter intimidation and the "corrupting" influence of money on elections. Some of these concerns are real. From ACORN's very interesting take on voter registration to fliers urging Democrats to vote on November 5, this has been a year for shenanigans that could potentially influence the outcome of the election.

On the other hand, some of these concerns are nonsense. As former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith points out, the $2.5 billion expended on the presidential race this year isn't that large a sum for a nation this size.

"Americans will spend about $12 billion on potato chips this year; Coca Cola will spend more on advertising this year than will be spent by all the candidates who have run for president. It costs money to communicate, whether you are talking about cars, cola or politicians."

But realizing that $2.5 billion isn't all that much to spend to determine which ambitious demagogue gets an opportunity to mess with us requires a bit of perspective. That's something lacking in a nation notorious for forgetting its history.

A little historical knowledge would reveal, for instance, that big campaign budgets and long lists of donors are nothing compared to the outright vote buying that prevailed in the 19th Century, when color-coded ballots printed by the parties themselves made it easy for partisan enforcers to make sure that voters who'd accepted a coin or a lunch as payment for loyalty voted "the right way." It was a well-respected practice. Even pre-revolutionary George Washington greased his way into the Virginia House of Burgesses on votes lubricated with liquor.

And a little more historical perspective would make today's padding and trimming of voter-registration lists look like weak tea compared to the gauntlet voters had to run in some places in the past. From a fascinating article in The New Yorker:

Kyle was a Democrat. As he neared the polls in the city’s Fifteenth Ward, which was heavily dominated by the American Party, a ruffian tried to snatch his ballots. Kyle dodged and wheeled, and heard a cry: his brother, just behind him, had been struck. Next, someone clobbered Kyle, who drew a knife, but didn’t have a chance to use it. “I felt a pistol put to my head,” he said. Grazed by a bullet, he fell. When he rose, he drew his own pistol, hidden in his pocket. He spied his brother lying in the street. Someone else fired a shot, hitting Kyle in the arm. A man carrying a musket rushed at him. Another threw a brick, knocking him off his feet. George Kyle picked himself up and ran. He never did cast his vote. Nor did his brother, who died of his wounds.

Granted, that was rough even for Baltimore of 1859, but upon reviewing the election, the House of Representatives accepted the results, concluding the day's occurrences were no bar to voting for any “man of ordinary courage.”

I'll admit that I often get the feeling our ancestors were a lot tougher than we could ever hope to be.

None of this is too suggest that we ignore today's less exciting but no less subversive efforts to throw elections one way or another by corrupting the electoral process. But it's pretty clear that the path to the ballot box -- which these days might be a mail-in ballot perused at leisure on the sofa -- is a bit cushier than it has been in the past, and that the inducements to vote one way or another are much less overt.

Voting has never before been so easy or so safe.

And with voting so unchallenging, in historical terms, it's hard to take seriously the claims of the goo-goos that casting a ballot is just too difficult, and that's why voter turnout is so low.

Really? In the year George Kyle's brother died trying to cast a vote, turnout was around 80%. If it's lower now, difficulty isn't the issue.

So sure, address the real issues of voter fraud and voter suppression we have today. But don't make too much of a few speedbumps in a process that's an awful lot easier and cleaner than it was once upon a time.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Column in the East Valley Tribune

A trimmed version of my recent post on presidential power, published here and here, is now available online and in dead-tree format to a new audience courtesy of the East Valley Tribune: "The Inevitable Presidential Power Trip."

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Honest social studies for a three-year-old

My three-year-old son, Tony, recognizes the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates when their mugs appear on the TV news.

"That's McCain and Obama," he blurts when their photos pop up behind a couple of talking heads.

He also blurts out something else that he's heard me say in relation to those two men, which isn't going to endear me to the nice people at day care. So my wife and I decide it's time to explain just what's going on and why mommy and daddy have such strong feelings about the people in the news.

"John McCain and Barack Obama are bad men who want to tell us what to do," my wife tells Tony. "They're competing to become president of the country, and people will pick one of them for the job."

"That's right," I add. "They don't want to let us make our own decisions. They want to decide for us. That's why they want to be president."

"Your daddy voted for Mr. Barr, who doesn't want to boss us around. But he probably won't win."

Tony looks confused at this point. I don't blame him. I'm confused myself.

"Even though they're bad men, most people think either Obama or McCain will win," I say. "So they vote for the one they think will be less bossy, just like your mom did. But some people are really just big babies. They don't want to make choices, so they vote for McCain or Obama because they want somebody else to decide for them."

That's about as detailed as we get for a three-year-old, using terms he can understand. He definitely gets the idea of "bossy," since he got a time out last week for ordering around one of his friends. He was badly embarrassed -- more because his friend was so upset at being bossed around than because of the punishment.

Yeah, my take on the political system and its stakes isn't really out of the classic social-studies curriculum. That's because I'm honest, unlike most textbooks. I'm not peddling a fairies-and-rainbows version of the political process to my kid. I'm raising him with an appreciation of liberty as the core value of politics, with an understanding of politicians as the children on the playground who grew up without ever learning to keep their hands off other kids' toys, and with a healthy dose of wariness about that bossy clique of overgrown bullies called "government."

Later, I can fill in the shades of gray -- that we can have disagreements even with the "good" guys, and that the bad guys might not be all that evil if they never entered government and gained the opportunity to push people around.

I'll instruct Tony that, as with bossy kids, just because government officials tell you to do or not do something doesn't mean that you should pay them any attention. But you have to be careful about how you ignore them since they can be very mean.

And ultimately, I hope, he'll become an independent adult who, whatever choices he makes about his allegiances and his values, doesn't let other people substitute their whims for his preferences.

Of course, I want him to have a sense of perspective and to enjoy life without getting hung up on things he can't control. So I tell him the truth: Halloween should be a lot more important to him than Election Day.

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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Bad news for the LP may still be good news for libertarians

Come Wednesday, Libertarian Party officials will almost certainly turn to their traditional task of putting a positive spin on miserable vote totals (don't blame me folks -- I threw you a bone). But amidst the spare electoral pickings, there may be more than a bit of hope for those of us who prize the message more than the messenger. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram tells us:

Shrink the government. Cut taxes. Respect a person’s property and right to privacy.

In Texas, those are widely embraced political ideals.

They’re also bedrock principles of the Libertarian Party, which is fielding a whopping 174 candidates on Texas ballots in Tuesday’s election.

But 20 years after South Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul ran for president as the Libertarian nominee, introducing America to the message of economic conservatism and social tolerance, the party is still very much an underdog.

The culprit, as always, is the bipolar nature of American politics. People are convinced that they have to vote for Coke or Pepsi, so RC doesn't get a hearing (and unlike in the beverage marketplace, supporters of niche political products don't get to enjoy their minority selection). Nominally, that means a choice between free markets or social tolerance, although that's giving the major parties entirely too much credit. In real terms, it's turned into an oh-so-attractive race between know-better-than-you nanny-statism and thuggish meatheadism.

But people still project their expectations on the Democrat vs. Republican dichotomy.

As the Star-Telegram article points out, though, there is a constituency for a libertarian-ish message -- perhaps not a purist one, but certainly ones that tends in a more-freedom rather than less-freedom direction. The question is, does anybody other than the LP care enough to cater to that audience?

Democrats are poised to win the current election on a platform of general social tolerance, lukewarm enthusiasm for civil liberties and economic idiocy, so there's little incentive for the donkey party to fine-tune its message, unless it's concerned about holding on to gains in the West.

The Republicans are poised to suffer just desserts for eight years of militarism, authoritarianism, intolerance of legal niceties and general cronyism, so they're more likely to reconsider the product the party is selling. But all signs now point to the GOP positioning itself as a party of populist flag-wavers, sort of like the Australian National Party which, while it wanders a bit, tends to blend social conservatism and nationalism with "agrarian socialism."

The Cato Institute says that libertarians, broadly defined, make up about 10%-15% of the electorate, and Ryan Sager writes in Reason that those voters are up for grabs, though generally disgusted with the mouth-breathing program the Republicans have been peddling.
An early October Zogby Interactive poll found that self-identified libertarians (about 6 percent of the poll's sample) give McCain only 36 percent of their vote, lower than the 45 percent and 42 percent Zogby found them giving Bush in the last two elections. The libertarian voters claim to be defecting mainly to Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr and other third-party candidates, not to Obama. A Gallup poll conducted in September, which identified libertarian-minded voters with a series of ideological questions about the role of government in the economy and society (pegging them at around 23 percent of the electorate), found that only 43 percent of these voters plan pull the lever for McCain, slightly fewer than did for Bush in 2004. The Gallup poll also finds a significant uptick in libertarians planning to vote third-party, with 3.5 percent supporting Barr. ...

Tax cuts or no tax cuts, a party that can be roused in time of deep crisis only by fear and tribalism—a party that a supposed moderate is now deeding to its most extreme elements—can scarcely serve as a safe home to liberty or the voters who cherish it.
That leaves an opportunity for the Democrats looking to hold on to recent gains, for reinvented Republicans, or for somebody else (a professionalized LP?) who wants to court a constituency interested in both economic freedom and civil liberties.

Or maybe we'll just get neglected. Again.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Beware of anti-Buddhist bigotry

I realize that I've been meaner to Obamatons than to McCainiacs on my blog recently. That's partially a function of my expectation that the Democrat is going to win (it's less fun to kick a man when he's down). That's also a reflection of my disgust at the cult of personality around Barack Obama. Frankly, nobody but Cindy likes John McCain; people are voting for him out of resignation.

Enthusiastic mass movements around politicians scare the living shit out if me.

But I will relate the following story. I was at the bank the other day, and the bank teller volunteered that she was voting for John McCain because she heard that Obama "is some kind of Buddhist or something."

"You mean a Muslim?" I asked.

"Yeah, that."

I briefly offered that I didn't give a damn what god the guy worshipped, then just dropped the subject. I mean, I need my checks to end up in the right account in a timely fashion more than I need the pleasure of an argument.

A Buddhist? And, if true, that would be reason not to vote for him?

Tell me again why democracy is a good idea.

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And Obama will buy us all ponies, too

You gotta be kidding me ...

And the amazing thing is, I see Barack Obama about to win the presidency based on expectations like that, and I still don't find John McCain to be an attractive alternative.

Does anybody want to make an offer for my citizenship?

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Florida speech restrictions get slapped -- a bit

In my "so what?" column about Barack Obama's untraceable donations, I quoted former FEC chairman Bradley Smith to the effect that , "Campaign finance reform is creating an intrusive regulatory regime that’s steadily eroding Americans’ political freedoms. Making matters worse, it does little or nothing to combat corruption."

Steadily eroding Americans' political freedom? How?

Well, a court decision handed down in Florida yesterday offers a little window into the restrictive nature of these laws. Summarizing the effects of a state law on the way to suspending the enforcement of that law, United States District Judge Stephan P. Mickle writes (PDF):

None of the above-mentioned publications contain express advocacy (that is, phrases such as “vote for” or “vote against”), which is regulated by Florida’s laws concerning political committees. But because the publications are “electioneering communications,” Plaintiff must first register with the state and comply with rules that are nearly identical to those that political committees must follow; failing to do so will subject them to fines and even criminal prosecution.

What does that all mean? Under the law in Florida, a group that makes an "electioneering communication" must register as an “electioneering communications organization.”

Under Florida law, an “electioneering communication” includes “a paid expression in any communications media” other than the spoken word in direct conversation that “[r]efers to or depicts a clearly identified candidate for office or contains a clear reference indicating that an issue is to be voted on at an election, without expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate or the passage or defeat of an issue.”

There are certain narrow exceptions to the rule, including a requirement that to be defined as an "electioneering communication," a message must be intended to reach 1,000 or more people. Publishing on a Website certainly qualifies.

So, if you and your group want to post political information on your Website, you have to register as an ECO. And then, "[e]lectioneering communications organizations are 'required to register with and report expenditures and contributions . . . to the Division of Elections in the same manner, at the same time, and subject to the same penalties as a political committee supporting or opposing an issue or a legislative candidate." Requirements include:

  • Registering with the government within 24 hours of its organization or receiving information that causes it to anticipate receiving or expending funds for an electioneering communication, Fla. Stat. § 106.03(1)(b)
  • Appointing a campaign treasurer (or custodian of the books), § 106.03(2)(d)
  • Designating a depository, § 106.03(2)(k)
  • Making regular reports, § 106.07(1)
  • Recording expenditures, § 106.07(4)(a)
  • Disclosing all donors—even those who never intended their gift to go towards political speech, § 106.07(4)(a)1 and Gall Decl., Ex. A at 3
  • Restricting expenditures and contributions, including not spending money raised in the five days before the election, refusing contributions by 527s or 501(c)(4)s that are not—themselves—registered, and refusing all cash contributions over $50, § 106.08(4)(b), § 106.08(5)(d), & § 106.09
  • Including a prominent “disclaimer” on each communication that reads “Paid electioneering communication paid for by (Name and address of person paying for communication).” § 106.1439
  • Allowing random audits by the government, § 106.22(10).

This gets a little complicated -- so complicated, that plenty of organizations big and small found it easier to say nothing than to risk fines and prison. And, ultimately, they found it better to sue than to say nothing.

What sort of organizations?

The suit against the law was brought by the National Taxpayers Union, the University of Florida College Libertarians, and the the Broward Coalition of Condominiums, Homeowners Associations, and Community Organizations.

That's right, a college political club, among other groups, was expected to abide by the above rules before posting information on its Website or sending out mailings. Do you see the problem?

Fortunately, Judge Mickle ruled that the law in question is overbroad, excessively vague, and reaches beyond the cope of permissible regulations on "express advocacy" -- calls to vote for or against something or someone.

But that still leaves the requirements above in place for organizations that do want to directly address candidates and issues. To engage in political speech, they must still navigate through a legal minefield, with a blast of fines and potential imprisonment as the penalty for a misstep.

Still curious? John Stossel did a nice roundup on the damage to free speech done by campaign finance restrictions.

Oh, and don't forget that John McCain's name adorns the abysmal McCain-Feingold law, and that Barack Obama has also been a supporter of such restrictions (although, as his online fundraising efforts demonstrate, he doesn't take that position excessively seriously).

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So, just how are anonymous donations going to corrupt politics?

Much is being made of the news, reported by the Washington Post and Fox, among others, that the Obama campaign is taking in a large haul of cash from small donors who are using anonymous pre-paid credit cards to support their chosen candidate's efforts to take up residence in the White House. The campaign took in $100 million in September alone. The Obama camp is fueling the chatter with its nudge-and-wink attitude toward the whole affair:

Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign is allowing donors to use largely untraceable prepaid credit cards that could potentially be used to evade limits on how much an individual is legally allowed to give or to mask a contributor's identity, campaign officials confirmed.

Faced with a huge influx of donations over the Internet, the campaign has also chosen not to use basic security measures to prevent potentially illegal or anonymous contributions from flowing into its accounts, aides acknowledged. Instead, the campaign is scrutinizing its books for improper donations after the money has been deposited.

There's no doubt that the pre-paid cards and lack of security enable contributions beyong legal limits and by people forbidden by law to support campaigns, but much of the reportage simply assumes that's cause enough to be concerned. Kudos to Fox News, then, for asking Kenneth Gross, a former Federal Election Commission Associate General Counsel, if it really matters if a candidate takes in untraceable donations, especially since such anonymity inherently ensures that the candidate won't feel any sense of obligation to the unknown donors.

Gross's response, is that "the harm is that illegal money is coming into the campaign coffers. It's not permitted." That's circular reasoning that doesn't explain why the donations should be illegal to begin with.

American political "reformers" have been obsessed for years with the idea that the expenditure of money to support candidates or promote causes is a harmful -- even, they seem to suggest, sinful -- activity that taints a fragile process and leads politicians to wander from the path of righteousness. It's a crusading mindset that has led to the imposition of complex and intrusive rules that make it legally perilous for grassroots groups to pool funds to buy lawn signs or newspaper ads.

Bradley A. Smith, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, warned in a July 2007 article for City Journal, "Campaign finance reform is creating an intrusive regulatory regime that’s steadily eroding Americans’ political freedoms. Making matters worse, it does little or nothing to combat corruption."

The fundamental assumption about the supposedly corrupting influence of money has always been that moneyed interests will buy influence. How can hundreds of thousands of anonymous donors with presumably diverse opinions bribe a candidate to do anything?

That's not to say that Barack Obama is completely blameless. If nothing else, the senator from Illinois has long been a proponent of arcane restrictions on campaign finance, so his sudden discovery of the advantages of extra-legal donations is a bit ... convenient.

But, at the end of the day, it's hard to see any actual harm being done when political activists bypass restrictive laws to donate to the candidates of their choice.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The email humor that will determine the most important election ever!

It's the final lap in that demolition derby we call the 2008 election (yeah, yeah, I know demolition derbies don't really have laps -- bear with me). And the tribes are making their purest, most true-to-self last-minute appeals.

As a one-time-New Yorker, graduate of a liberal Eastern college, who likes to mountain bike and shoot, writes about civil liberties and supports free markets, I have friends on both the right and the left who insist on sending me their rally-the-troops emails, just so I can mock them and burst their bubbles. Below are realio-trulio emails I received within the past couple of days.

From the conservatives in my life:

Twas the Night Before Elections

'Twas the night before elections

And all through the town

Tempers were flaring

Emotions all up and down!

I, in my bathrobe

With a cat in my lap

Had cut off the TV

Tired of political crap.

When all of a sudden

There arose such a noise

I peered out of my window

Saw Obama and his boys

They had come for my wallet

They wanted my pay

To give to the others

Who had not worked a day!

He snatched up my money

And quick as a wink

Jumped back on his bandwagon

As I gagged from the stink

He then rallied his henchmen

Who were pulling his cart

I could tell they were out

To tear my country apart!

'On Fannie, on Freddie,

On Biden and Ayers!

On Acorn, On Pelosi'

He screamed at the pairs!

They took off for his cause

And as he flew out of sight

I heard him laugh at the nation

Who wouldn't stand up and fight!

So I leave you to think

On this one final note-



From the liberals in my life:

What I especially like about these emails is how effectively they sum up the essentially accurate rule of thumb that lefties think conservatives are stupid, and righties think liberals are evil (libertarians, of course, know that they're both right. Just kidding!). You have (terrible) poetry about the thieving hordes to come competing with a smug-o-gram.

Oh, by the way, Tooch's law holds that the side screaming loudest about voter fraud is about to get cremated at the polls, and judging by my in-box, that puts the Repubs at a distinct disadvantage this time around.

Anybody out there have more interesting political missives to share?

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We probably will get fooled again

Legend has it that comic Lenny Bruce started his downward slide at least partially because many of the hipsters who had boosted his brief career into the stratosphere turned against him. They did so when Bruce kept focusing his acid wit on the powers-that-be, even after Eisenhower made way for Kennedy. It was all well and good to mock conservatism and conformity, but to go after Camelot was too much. And then Bruce dared to suggest that Jackie was less courageous during JFK's assassination than instant mythology insisted.

"Bullshit!" said Bruce, suggesting instead that she "hauled ass to save her ass"!

Of course, there's more to Bruce's downfall than that, including a huge dose of self-destruction. But that's a good place to start in describing the occasional fate of people who critique power rather than party. I make this point because we're very clearly about to have a changing of the guard, and in the months and years to come, I'm almost certainly going to be tough on the new president and his "change you can believe in," along with the inevitably increased congressional majority that president's party will enjoy.

And some of you, my loyal readers, even those who have enjoyed swipes at the current administration, will be upset with me as a result.

That's going to happen even though I've been writing about civil liberties for over a decade, took the Bush administration to-task for its due-process-busting military tribunal schemes as early as 2001, and haven't exactly let up in recent years.

Yes, yes, I understand that President Bush is a right-wing baddie and that we'll all get to ride unicorns under President Obama. But what happens if that's not the case?

Or, rather, what happens when that's not the case?

As I've written before, "it's not so much the president as the presidency." I'll add that it's not so much about the party in power as the power itself.

And the government under which we suffer wields an awful lot of power.

Some looming issues that already set off my virtual canary in a civil libertarian coal mine are: the potential reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine and the stifling of political speech that would result; the threatened passage of the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act or a similar bill, which has the potential to criminalize political advocacy rather than violent action; and renewed assaults on the right to bear arms before the full protections that should be accorded by the Supreme Court's Heller decision are formalized and become established law.

Which is to say, the personal freedom concerns raised by the new boss will probably be different than those raised by the old boss, but I'm still going to have plenty to write about.

As much as some people think that salvation arrives when their team wins at the ballot box, the sad fact is that elections generally result in little more than the turning out of a tired set of control freaks with a worn-out agenda and their replacement by a fresh set of control freaks with an all-new list of things to be done. Honestly, do you think people with a restrained sense of their right to mold the world to fit their views are attracted to a career in political office? From any party? What normal person gives up privacy, proximity to family and peaceful relations with their neighbors for life in the spotlight, largely spent far from home, in a state of eternal combat with people who hold opposing views?

With few exceptions, normal people don't do that. The folks who do find that an attractive career choice are those who can't resist the siren call of access to power to, by proxy, hold guns to people's heads and make them do things they wouldn't do on their own, or to stop them from doing things they want to do.

And all too often, they're cheered on by tribal loyalists who think that a temporary victory at the polls is a swell opportunity to sock it to the evil folks who dare to favor the other tribe, or just think and live differently.

We'll go through this regularly scheduled charade for as long as government retains the power to seriously intrude into and disrupt our lives in so many ways. When government ceases to be such a handy bludgeon for whoever is in power, it will stop being abused. So long as it remains so powerful, it will continue to wreak havoc on life, liberty and property no matter what political tribe currently holds the reins.

Hey, despite the abuse I expect to get from people who loved what I wrote just a few months ago, I look on the bright side: so long as I can retain an audience, there's always job security in writing about government excesses.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Did Obama just get a tad redder?

This 2001 interview from Chicago's WBEZ 91.5 FM is making the rounds. Then state-Senator Barack Obama explicitly endorses economic redistributionism in a calm, academic way, and criticizes the old Warren court for maintaining the founders' interpretation of the Constitution as a protector of "negative rights" -- that is, protections against the state, rather than guaranteed goodies from the state.

With the polls standing where they are, it looks like it just might be a good time to get your assets overseas.

Oh, and don't think you're going to hide your assets in your 401(K) -- not if Democrats follow through on plans to effectively end private retirement investments and replace them with government-controlled plans returning 3% annual interest.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Could Fox News become watchable again?

I was jogging on a treadmill at a hotel in San Diego the other day (I was talked into accompanying my wife to a conference so I could babysit the kid, who she really wanted along) when another apparent conventioneer wandered in for his morning workout. He glanced at MSNBC, playing on the tube, and asked if I minded if he changed the channel. Not thinking, I said, "go ahead."

Of course, he changed it to Fox News.

Oh crap, I thought. I'm in for it now.

But then, a funny thing happened. I found Fox News watchable.

That hasn't happened in a long time. It's not because Fox News is overtly conservative. Much of the media veers to the left, after all, and MSNBC has deliberately positioned itself as an explicitly liberal news channel. I can deal with -- even enjoy -- opinionated news. But Fox News has been the house organ of the Bush administration, and watching it duck and dodge to cover for the White House's abuses and failings has been a bit too much like watching a driver deliberately steer into a ten-car pile-up.


So I've generally avoided Fox News and stuck with other outlets because the opposition press, whatever its biases, is always more interesting than the state's pet.

But Fox News is suddenly watchable. It's actually interesting. Why? Because with a political campaign underway, Fox finds itself in opposition again -- if only to one of the leading presidential candidates. And the candidate Fox opposes is favored to win.

Oh sure, Fox talking heads fawn over McCain and Palin, but that will pass unless extraterrestrials invade and install the senator from Arizona as president-for-life (or undeath, if his appearance before the cameras is any indicator). And then Fox News will be back to where it was the last time it was interesting -- when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

And MSNBC and company will almost certainly take their turns as unwatchable media outlets because their slavish treatment of candidate Barack Obama is likely a taste of their roles-to-come as house organs of the Obama presidency.

In the months ahead, it'll be interesting to watch the slick apparatchiks of Fox (I don't even know their names anymore) rediscover their inner insurgents -- and to see Keith Olbermann discover just how un-fun it is to be a sock puppet.

Fox News watchable. Who'd've thunk?

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Look into my eyes, what do you see ...?

Hmmm ... What kind of politician could Living Color have been singing about back in 1988?

It couldn't have been the same type who inspired this atrocity, could it?

Remember, kids. As Corey Glover sang, "only you can set you free."


Monday, October 13, 2008

Beware the next 'illegitimate' president

Deranged lefties have been howling for eight years that George W. Bush stole the White House -- courtesy of a cabal of conservative Supreme Court justices in 2000, and then by disenfranchising voters in 2004. The result, of course, has been the illegitimate rein of King Bushitler.

Well, now the righties get their turn to chew the loco weed. In the midst of revelations about voter-registration shenanigans by the left-left-left-way-left ACORN organization, and stories of Barack Obama's ties to the same group, some conservatives are already howling about the impending coup of Obama's red brigades. Writing on his organization's Website, Americans for Limited Government President Bill Wilson has all-but written off the election as a fraud:

But the question should be asked: If Obama does win based on a plan of massive voter fraud, intimidation, and outright criminal activity, how will he govern? How can anyone who has attained the office through tactics more akin to tin-horn dictators ever have the legitimacy to govern?

The answer is self-evident, he will have no legitimacy. Every act he and his dutiful lackeys in Congress take will have no legitimate base with the American people. As someone who will have only attained power through the crude, thuggish actions of ACORN and their allies, nothing he says will carry the authority or respect all law depends on to function.

(A little full disclosure: I used to work for ALG under a less hyperventilating regime.)

Obama better hurry with his coup preparations, if he heeds Naomi Wolf's warnings and plans to beat Sarah "Evita" Palin to the punch.

I have no doubt that some extra-democratic finagling of the electoral machinery is under way -- on both sides. The dead have had a way of rediscovering their enthusiasm for democracy (and Democrats) at least since the days of LBJ, and Republicans have a funny way of cleaning up voter registration lists along lines that shed minorities from the rolls in disproportionate numbers.

Big deal.

The real outrage isn't that a few percentage points are shifted one way or another in these regular popularity contests, it's that the contests have come to matter so damned much. Red and blue tribal loyalists shriek about each other's perfidy because they have conspired to intrude the state into virtually every area of human life. Having created a government so powerful that it tells them what size toilet they can install in their homes, steals the lion's share of the average shmoe's gross play, and kicks in people's doors for smoking the wrong plant (weed or tobacco -- your choice) or playing poker without a permit, they've suddenly discovered that who's in charge is really important.

And so, yeah, they're playing fast and loose with the electoral rules to get the "right" people into office.

Didn't see that one coming, eh?

Here's a small suggestion for both lefties and righties, for whatever it's worth. You know that nasty, slobbering beast you've created out of the government? Take it out and shoot it.

We'll start over again with something that minds its manners and leaves us all alone. Then it just won't matter in which cemetery ACORN is finding its latest registrants, or which neighborhood got dropped from the voter rolls.

Until then, these battles are just going to get nastier.

And every president will be "illegitimate."


Who's afraid of Obama the gun banner?

The inevitable rise of President-for-Life Barack Obama will soon unleash his Stalinist hordes to ransack the gun cabinets of the nation and ravish Red America's newly disarmed womenfolk (and menfolk too, I guess, since Obama gets the bulk of the gay vote). That seems to be the nightmare keeping gun-rights advocates awake at nights. On Gunbanobama.com, the NRA-ILA warns that "Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history."

There's some truth to those warnings. That is, Obama is rather anti-gun. Sure, sure, he says he supports the Second Amendment. But he also endorsed the D.C. ban on handguns. That makes Obama's support for gun rights about as thoroughgoing and enthusiastic as Anthony Comstock's regard for free speech.

But that doesn't mean that America will be disarmed under an Obama presidency, even if that's how the hypothetical new chief executive wants to expend his political capital. For starters, law just doesn't matter as much as people think when it comes to how people live their lives.

Honestly, I come from at least three generations of illegal gun owners in New York City (I now live within the law in Arizona, so don't think you're going to drop a dime, you tattletale). I say "at least" because I don't know for sure about my great-grandfather, but he owned a popular speakeasy. If he didn't keep unregistered weapons, the Sullivan Act would have been one of the few laws he obeyed. In fact, the gun laws are so byzantine and arbitrary that many New Yorkers have stopped trying to comply.

The result? Nobody knows how many illegal guns are in the city, but the most common estimate is two million shared among a population of about eight million. That's far more illegal guns than legal guns.

The city's meddling class likes to blame the black-market trade on looser rules and scofflaw dealers in other states. But even a professional busybody like Mayor Michael Bloomberg should have learned some basic economics from the financial news network he owns. Demand will always find a supply.

That's the case in Germany, where the German police union estimates that the country's 82 million people own twenty million illegal firearms -- above and beyond the legal weapons in private hands.

How can this be? Doesn't Germany have strict gun laws? Well ... yes. But laws are only as good as compliance, and people tend to comply only with laws that don't make them gag. In Gun Control and the Reduction in the Number of Arms (PDF), Dr. Franz Csaszar, professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, wrote in 2000, "Non-compliance with harsher gun laws is a common event." Referring specifically to Germany, Csaszar found, "In Germany the general registration of long guns was enforced in 1972. The existing stock was estimated at between 17 and 20 millions, while only 3,2 million guns have been registered within the legally set period."

Germany's black market keeps the supply of guns flowing, mostly from Eastern Europe, according to the Small Arms Survey, to satisfy continuing demand -- despite the law.

Flipping the bird to gun-banners is a popular game around the world. Csaszar estimated that compliance with Australia's ban on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns may have gone as high as 20%, Canada's ban on "military-style" rifles pulled in from 3% to 20% of targeted guns, depending on the model. When Austria banned pump-action shotguns, only 10,557 were surrendered or registered out of 60,000 in private hands.

What about something closer to home?

In Can Gun Control Work? (Studies in Crime and Public Policy), James B. Jacobs, Warren E. Burger Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, wrote:

In Boston and Cleveland, the rate of compliance with bans on assault rifles is estimated at 1%. Out of the 100,000 to 300,000 assault rifles estimated to be in private hands in New Jersey, 947 were registered, an additional 888 rendered inoperable, and 4 turned over to the authorities. In California, nearly 90% of the approximately 300,000 assault weapons owners did not register their weapons.

None of this should be all that surprising. Jacobs points out that many gun control advocates are among the first people to admit that drug laws are unenforceable. As he says, "Does the drug war not cast doubt on schemes for gun prohibition or stringent regulation?" Why should gun laws be different?

What this all means is that if Barack Obama is elected the next president of the United States, and if he's fibbing and plans to seize private guns or seriously restrict the ownership of firearms, he's likely to be about as successful at targeting guns as the government has been at eliminating the use of marijuana in this country. He won't succeed because, if you're a gun owner, you almost certainly won't obey. If you're a gun control advocate, Obama-the-banner will ultimately be left standing with his pants around his ankles because his efforts will have about as much effect on your stubbornly armed brother-in-law as Nancy Reagan's just-say-no scolding had on your college dope habit.

That's not to say that the law can't do damage. It can impose fines, send people to prison and make Americans increasingly hostile toward the government. I won't minimize the damage to lives that implies.

But that's government as usual -- pointless, repressive intrusions into people's lives without actually changing the way people live.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

The dead walk ... to the polls

Texas Watchdog, an online journalism outfit in the Lonestar State, has published a report about thousands of names coexisting both in the death records and on the lists of Houston's registered voters. That sounds like the usual efficiency of any government agency, except that more than a few of the recently departed continued to exercise their democratic rights even after joining the choir unseen.
Linda Kay Hill, a homemaker and Louisiana native, died Aug. 2, 2006, of a heart attack, her husband recalled, and is buried at Houston Memorial Gardens in Pearland. But Harris County voter records indicate she –- or someone using her identity –- cast a ballot in the November election that year. Linda Hill of Woodwick Street voted in person on Election Day, records show. ...

Gloria Guidry passed away last May, but Harris County voting records indicate she cast a ballot in the March 2008 Democratic primary.
Such enthusiasm for the political process is, frankly, a bit unseemly among those who have gone to their final reward.

In a year when government officials are purging legitimate voters from the rolls almost as frantically as ACORN is adding bogus registrants and urging like-minded folks to vote early and vote often, the news of the voting dead makes it increasingly likely that we'll have yet another election steeped in chaos.

Anywhere the results are close, be prepared for allegations of a stolen election.


Monday, October 6, 2008

The presidency breeds monsters

What kind of president will the winner of November's national popularity contest be? If history is any judge, the nation's next chief executive, whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, will be something of a monster.

It's not because either of these men are overtly evil. I very much doubt that Obama or McCain is secretly plotting to create the American Reich after Inauguration Day, no matter what dire warnings are floating around the Internet about the supposed dictatorship to come. But both men are likely to leave the government more powerful and intrusive than they found it, and to do some measure of damage to our liberty.


Well, it's not so much the president as the presidency. In the nation's chief executive, we've created an office of vast powers -- but powers still insufficient to satisfy the even vaster demands we put upon whoever holds that position. From a station of what were once really very limited powers and few defined responsibilities, the presidency has taken on the roles, as Gene Healy describes in his excellent book, The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, of "Chief Legislator, Manager of Prosperity, Protector of the Peace, World Leader -- and more."

These are impossible responsibilities for any person to fulfill. They are in fact, impossible responsibilities for any human institution, no matter how enormous, to fulfill. But we insist that our presidents try, or at least appear to make the effort. The result, says Dana D.Nelson, author of the equally important Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, is that "[n]early every president, regardless of party affiliation, has as a candidate denounced the presidential power grabs of the current officeholder. And every president since FDR has attempted to overpower the judicial and legislative branches."

That's every president -- all of them. The dynamics of the office and the demands placed upon it haven't changed this year, so there's no reason to assume that President McCain or President Obama will be that singular officeholder who leaves the presidency less powerful than he found it. Indeed, this is the era when some conservative constitutional scholars espouse the idea of the "unitary executive" -- an explicit formulation of the increasingly imperial status of the presidency under presidents from both parties. And it's a year in which Obama's campaign has evolved the gloss of a cult of personality that promises to gift the candidate with freewheeling power even as it burdens him with superhuman expectations. And let's not forget pundits like the New York Times's David Brooks wheezing that,"What we need in this situation is authority."

No, this is not the year for a modest candidate. This is the year for ... Superman.

In fact, "Superman" is exactly what both Healy and Nelson say is expected of the modern president. Coming from very different perspectives -- Healy is senior editor at the libertarian Cato Institute, while Nelson would likely describe herself as a progressive and is a professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University -- these authors have written remarkable parallel analyses of the rise of the imperial presidency. Nelson points to presidential action figures as evidence of the cartoonish superhero attributes we've come to expect of presidents. Healy emphasizes a line of movies dating back to the 1930s in which presidents are celebrated for exercising unilateral and even (in the case of 1932's Gabriel over the White House) supernatural powers to vanquish hardship and evil.

This celebration of the power of one politican wasn't manufactured in Hollywood or in the offices of a toy company. It came in response to grassroots demands that presidents take on more responsibility than any official of a republic should be permitted to assume, or that any human being could ever shoulder.

"In fact," writes Healy about FDR's expansion of presidential power, "Well before the war, it had become clear that increasing numbers of Americans looked to the president for personal help in a way that would have seemed peculiar -- even dishonorable -- to their fathers and grandfathers."

Politicians were all too happy to take advantage of the opportunities provided by cries for presidential intercession. They built up the myth of a special relationship between the people and the "national leader" (a role that was never supposed to adhere to the presidency) despite the clear constitutional role of the House of Representatives in representing the people. Says Nelson, "Significantly, the notion of the mandate suggests that the basis for presidential power comes not through the Constitution but directly through the people. ... This idea, combined with the ambiguity of the Constitution itself with regard to the specifics of presidential power, installed a creative new logic that presidents could exploit in defining the office's scope and reach."

Scholars have been all too happy to drink the imperial Kool Aid. Before ever assuming the office that he would abuse at great cost to American liberty, Woodrow Wilson penned books calling for expanded presidential power. Historians took to celebrating the expansion of the office -- and excoriated those who tried to hold to the presidency's modest scope. "Whether they're conservative or liberal, writes Healy, "America's professors prefer presidents who dream big and attempt great things -- even when they leave wreckage in their wake."

Healy points to some sickening sentiments voiced in recent years by pundits who regretted the relative peace of the 1990s and seemed excited by the potential offered by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Two days afterr the world Trade Center's collapse, Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's Hardball and a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, praised George W. Bush's good fortune: "Lucky though he was, Bill Clinton never had his shot at greatness. He could lower the jobless rate, balance the budget, and console us after the Oklahoma City bombing. But he never got the opportunity George W. Bush was given: the historic chance to lead. Our American spirit, power and enterprise now stand ready for orders. Only the president can give them."

Oh great. A chance for President Bush to issue orders -- we know how well that worked out. But it would have been bad to one degree or another no matter who was in that office. Superhuman responsibility and superhuman power are a terrible combination to hand to or inflict upon any mere mortal.

Unfortunately, but logically, neither Healy nor Nelson has a clear plan for breaking the cycle that has turned every president into an overburdened focus of ridiculous expectations who reaches, in response, for ever greater authority to meet the demands of the office. Nelson asks us all to step "away from the childlike fantasies of complete harmony with each other and the dependencies that presidentialism fosters in us, into a clear-eyed and adult awareness of human limitations and human creativity." To this end she explores several ideas to encourage or require increased citizen participation in democracy, including increased volunteerism, mandatory national service, national initiative and referendum and an extended series of representative councils on the congressional district level. All of them seem intended to make Americans be other than they have been -- the fantasists who created the imperial presidency to begin with.

Healy, on the other hand simply concedes that "overweening government and the swollen presidency that inevitably accompanies it are the product of incompatible public demands." He hopes that the skepticism and cynicism toward government of recent years might produce something resembling the Revolutionary-era consensus that the president should not be a stand-in for a king. But today's skeptics and cynics also handed George W. Bush -- however briefly -- an approval rating of around 90% after 9/11.

Healy and Nelson shouldn't be slighted for failing to come up with a solution, though, in their otherwise excellent and timely books. There probably is no solution.

The presidency will continue to grow in power and scope for as long as Americans insist as seeing it as the center of the political universe -- or even of the whole universe. It will be a problem so long as the office is loaded with unreasonable power and inhuman expectation. And so long as that is the nature of the office, contenders for White House residency will be politicians who (insanely) think they're up to the job or else are simply willing to grin and promise everything under the sun.

And that's why President Barack Obama or President John McCain will certainly be a monster.

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