Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving at my house

I had another wonderful Thanksgiving with my family and neighbors. The turkey was moister this year, the sweet potatoes so sweet they stuck to my teeth (in a good way--thanks, Mary!), homemade sushi from my Japanese neighbors (anticipated with great delight now--thanks, Yuki!), etc.

For dessert, I decided on flourless chocolate cake instead of pie, and it turned out like a brick or an oversized hockey puck--10 inches across, to be exact. Hard to cut but melting in our mouths with a kiss of raspberry sauce.

I live in a wonderful mixed neighborhood. I get to buy the bounty of food at safe, spacious markets. I'd count my many blesses, but the numbers don't go up high enough. Also, I don't have a Thanksgiving like this:
"Police say a Pennsylvania woman chased her boyfriend around a dining room and stabbed him in the chest because he started eating Thanksgiving dinner while she slept off a bender."

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thoughts on the Ferguson shooting: No indictment

I agree with the grand jury's decision not to indict the policeman who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. For what it's worth, that's my opinion. It's not worth too much because I haven't been one of the jurors or investigators, so I haven't had access to the evidence. Instead, I've had to rely on news reports.

With those caveats, here is my reasoning. It's clear that Michael Brown strong-armed a store just minutes before. He shoved and intimidated a clerk. It seems pretty certain that Michael Brown attacked Officer Darren Wilson, punching him while he was in his police car. It's likely that he tried to get this gun.

I think this adds up to Michael Brown being a dangerous person at that time. After he attacked Officer Wilson, Wilson wasn't out of line shooting him when he didn't immediately get on the ground. Instead Brown stayed standing, possibly still moving, and therefore still a threat.

Proponents for Brown and for an indictment ignore a lot of evidence, and they make excuses for why Brown should be forgiven for his aggressiveness, while Wilson should be held accountable for his response. That's a double-standard, and I won't be part of it.

Policing is a dangerous job. Police are definitely a target for too many criminals. Lately, the death toll among cops has been quite high. This job is going to be impossible if police have to put up with being attacked, and then made out to be wrong in their responses. So, the decision not to indict Officer Wilson was the correct one. Here is a good summation:
"The grand jury accepted that Brown was the aggressor throughout the confrontation and that Wilson feared he might be overpowered and lose his gun. According to the grand jurors, that justified the officer’s firing of a dozen rounds. Wilson, therefore, will face no criminal charges in connection with the deadly shooting."
So, what evidence (through news reports) did I use in coming to the same conclusion? The video of Michael Brown pushing someone at the store. The friend who was with Michael neglected to mention the incident, so his testimony is questionable at best. The reports (with physical evidence) that shots were fired inside the police car. A picture of Wilson showing bruising on his face. Michael Brown's blood on the gun. Reports that witnesses on the scene contradicted the story that Brown's hands were up (not enough of a surrender anyhow), and that these witnesses were frightened of telling their stories due to the likely reaction in their neighborhood.

There is some contradictory evidence, but it isn't as strong. As for those who say that Michael Brown's robbery a few minutes earlier is immaterial--uh, no. It's quite pertinent. This isn't a case of a cop gunning down a black teen with no provocation or due to a mistake. The boy (18 years old, 300 lbs.) provoked the incident. That is something that should matter to everyone.


Extras. Abysmal forensic procedures, including washing away blood evidence. The transcript of Officer Wilson's testimony, which I haven't read yet. Very detailed article examining some of Wilson's testimony. Eye-witness testimony that was shown to be wrong and likely fabricated.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Short: Congressional hijinks

Wow. I don't know enough about how to stymie legislation and debate. Unfortunately, our Congressional representatives do, and they've been very hard at work making sure that there isn't embarrassing open debate on issues of national importance. Exactly how do they do it? Read this and weep.

I know that our system is far from perfect, but I hadn't realized how much worse it's gotten. I also don't know if I'll see an improvement in my lifetime.

Perhaps two major improvements in one life is too much to expect. When I was young, I got to see the end of Jim Crow. Maybe, just maybe, I'll get to see the end of this hyperpartisanship too.

I wish ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Moderating forces and their opposite, Part 2

Democrats moderated after their losing streak in the 60's through the 80's, which included their very wild 60's. The motivating force came from not wanting to lose so many elections, not from the idea that moderation was inherently better. However, many Dems might have started questioning how far the Great Society and welfare state could or would go under the liberal aegis, and they may not have liked what they saw. So a bunch of Dems set up the Democratic Leadership Council. They had a lot of success, with Bill Clinton winning the Democratic nomination, and then the presidency as a 'third way' New Democrat.

No Moderation in the GOP 

The GOP haven't had a moderating period for 35 years, except for a brief period when Bush was campaigning in 2000. He acted like he cared about the environment, but promptly dropped that. He did care about education, but his proposals were always tinged with partisan jabs against teacher unions, who are strong Democratic supporters.

After eight years of Bush as president, suddenly the farthest right component of the GOP realized that he was too moderate and they hadn't gotten what they wanted. They disavowed Bush and became even more hard-core.

Free Rein to Go Left among the Dems

The GOP's pivot to the right allowed the Dems to end their moderation jag. They shifted to the left (though they didn't become more extreme than they were in the 70's). Leaders were no longer claiming to be 'New Democrats.' Nancy Pelosi, the House leader and a big fundraiser for the party, is not from the DLC group but is instead one of founders of the House Progressive Caucus. The DLC disbanded in 2011, but hadn't had much influence since 2000. I'm not sure why, but the driving force and probably the money machine among Dems has been on the progressive side.

The sad consequence of this is that no party right now is trying to be moderate. All this is playing out against a backdrop of the parties becoming more ideologically polarized, rather than being coalitions.

There may not be forces that can correct this. The GOP has managed to fight off the most extreme Tea Partyers, but they certainly haven't become more moderate after their rightward turn in 2008, when their House members at first rejected legislation necessary to stabilize the banks and the economy. Many are still vehemently against TARP and the stimulus, even though these programs were successful in preventing a full blown depression.

If there are moderating forces working in the Democratic party, they aren't apparent to an observer like me. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are still the heads of their respective caucuses. Dems aren't forming new groups to spearhead a centrist message of responsible budget trimming and cost controls for entitlement programs. I wonder whether they need to lose the presidency before that happens. If so, the Dems will end up losing a great deal. 

What's At Stake

If the Dems lose the presidency, the GOP will most likely also have the majority in the House and Senate too. What, aside from Democratic filibusters, will keep the GOP from legislating a lot of their program? The GOP might be able to slice up Obamacare so that it no longer provides access to health insurance for anyone who's hard to insure (older, pre-existing conditions, women of child-bearing age, etc.). The GOP can also remove the Democratic-favored cost-control measures and substitute their own measures--a Medicare voucher system. That will probably lead to a class-based healthcare system for elders rather than the current one which is fairly equal. 

However, if the GOP remains true to form, their first move will be passing tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and that also massively inflate the deficit. If the GOP goes for tax cuts, I don't think they'll attach a sunset clause this time, so the tax cuts will last until the Dems finally win back the White House, House and Senate. How hard will it be to undo what happens in the next few years? Isn't that a good reason to be moderate  now?

Which trajectory will we take?

Extra. Part 1 here.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Don't call American voters 'stupid'

Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist, had the worst week in Washington when video surfaced of him talking about the ACA law. He broke one of the rules--you have to pretend that American voters are logical and willing to take some pain for the greater good. Gruber actually used the words "the stupidity of the American voter."

COME ON! REALLY! Politicians insult the intelligence of US voters all the time. Videos of stupid voters go viral ALL THE TIME. Who can forget the Obamaphone woman or the "he's a Muslim" woman? These are iconic stupid voters, but there are so many types of stupid voters. For example, there are the stupid voters who want their tax cuts, but then can't understand why deficits are so high. There are the stupid voters who think the US is so rich that only reason we don't have a better safety net is because too many people are mean-spirited. We have stupid voters who think that we shouldn't have any cost controls on Medicare. We have stupid voters who think every Democrat is evil or every Republican is racist and greedy.

But heaven help us if someone connected to the administration should say that voters are stupid. Here is Reason magazine, pretending that it's extraordinary that Gruber wouldn't be totally upfront about the bill:
"What it shows, in other words, is Gruber openly embracing a strategy of messaging manipulation and misleading emphasis even while the bill was still being debated."
Wow! How dare he participate in messaging manipulation. How could this happen in our country--that someone would even contemplate manipulating the perception of a political issue?

OK, enough faux outrage.

I don't know if honesty has a place in politics anymore. I certainly don't see consistent honesty from any politician. I see so many lies that I expect it 100% of the time. Because of this, I work like crazy to dig out the truth, and most of the time I don't know if it's truth or not.

The only good thing I have to say about politicians is that what they say isn't the exact opposite of what they truly believe or want. It's maybe within 30 degrees of what they believe to be true. So a politician may say that the economy will surge when we cut taxes, and the economy won't tank. But he made that prediction, not based on knowledge, but on hope and partisanship. Politicians could never get anywhere if they only spoke the truth, so let's give them a break and not go ape-shit over the inevitable double-speak we get from them.

One final point--what about the hypocrisy of those who complain about stupid voters? I bet everyone who complained about Gruber's comments actually believes a lot of US voters are stupid. Does anyone really believe that American voters are largely intelligent and well-educated about the issues? HAHAHAHA. No one believes that.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Short: ISIS is profitable terrorism

Here is a moderately long article about the financing of ISIS. Does that sound boring? To me it doesn't, but maybe to other people. I always wonder how it is that there seems to be bottomless funding for Islamic terrorist groups. At least for ISIS, this article contains some answers.

In Muslim countries, the problem with funding of terrorists groups isn't well addressed. It seems that enough wealthy people feel that their money is well-spent on armed thugs, as long as they have the right religious persuasion. I imagine that donors hold these views when they aren't personally subject to the thuggish behavior. So I'm left hoping that they either wise up or get a taste of their own medicine (preferably the former).

The financing of ISIS reminds me that some Somali pirates were also well-financed, but with the clear aim of turning a profit. Who would have known that the pirates would be replaced with an even bloodier threat. I hate to think about what's next.

Extra. Another article focuses on ground-level operations--extracting protection money and controlling financial hubs.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Post Mortem: Will the 2016 election be like 2012 or like 2014?

In 2012, the Dems were the lucky ones. The GOP had been having their equivalent of the Cultural Revolution for 3 years. RINOs were denouncing themselves and going to reeducation camp, where they were swearing to close the deficit with tax cuts only. Some of the nuttier ones were saying that we must go cold-turkey on deficit spending--cutting budgets immediately and deeply.

In that situation, all the Dems had to do was not be crazy: Don't have a hundred new, expansive proposals. Acknowledge that you have to work with the GOP-led House, so there are going to be limits on what you can do. The Dems were able to avoid crazy, so they won.

In 2016, the Dems might be running against sane opponents, so it's going to be much harder for them. The sane crop of candidates in 2014 didn't push the idea that all pregnancies are sacred (so no abortion even in the case of rape or severe deformity) They didn't say the government should be shut down if we don't get our repeal of Obamacare. Actually, I assume they didn't do this. I didn't see their TV commercials. But I didn't see over-the-top commercials critiqued or lampooned either.

So if the 2016 GOP candidates aren't going to be crazy, how will the Dems win? That's a question they should be asking themselves. If the Dems don't want to lose in 2016 the way they just lost, they will have to come up with a damn good answer to that question. I'll be looking for how that shapes up.

It was easy to beat this bunch. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Post Mortem: "We're not the problem"

The Democrats may be on the cusp of being exiled in the wilderness for another period like the 70's and 80's, due to their leadership and money machine being too liberal/progressive. They've lost a lot of popularity between 2008 and now, but they are behaving like it's 'not their problem,' but a problem with midterm electorates. Maybe this is true, but it's a big gamble with 2016 coming up. Look at this popularity graph:


Popularity of the GOP has been going up in the past year, while the Dems' popularity has dropped. Isn't it time for the Dems to try reversing that trend?

Deborah Wasserman Schultz, the first Dem to address the problem, says that it's not the policies that have to change. She's ordering a post-mortem with changes to be announced early next year. These reporters (obviously biased toward progressives) seem to think that only progressives Dems support a higher minimal wage and reform of overly long criminal sentences. And since these measures are popular, Dems need more progressives. I say that they're looking at a very skewed picture there. Lots or all Dems support those measures, not just progressives. Mistaken assumptions lead to mistaken conclusions.

If the progressives get their way, and the Dems become even more progressive, they don't have a bright future ahead in 2016. But maybe they'll have to run the experiment and find out (because the whole of the 1970's wasn't enough). It will only cost them... the presidency. No big deal.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Who was obstructing whom in the Senate?

The Democrats have been saying since 2010 that the Republicans have been obstructing legislation with endless filibusters. The GOP has been charging the Dems won't talk with the GOP, won't let them offer amendments, and won't allow votes that the GOP would like to take.

Not a surprise, but both charges are true. However, a commenter (somewhere on the internet--it's not important where) suggested that it started with Harry Reid stopping amendments and other votes. If this is true, then Reid is responsible for a lot of dysfunction, in fact a cascade of dysfunction. So I decided to check this out.

It was quite hard to do. The accusation hasn't been generally raised and examined, so I didn't find a convenient summary of the issue. Instead, I found lots of tit-for-tat fighting. So here it is.

Yes, Harry Reid filled up the amendment lists on most or all bills. This pissed off the Republicans, who wanted to offer amendments that put Democratic senators on the spot. The GOP didn't get to do this, but they still managed to defeat lots of these senators in the midterm elections just last week. So, if we identify the goals, they are something like this:

  • GOP goal: Make Dem senators take embarrassing votes.
  • Dem goal: Protect Dem senators from embarrassing votes.
So, did the Republicans get angry at being stymied, and then start filibustering all nominations? I found one brief mention of the possibility in a Norm Ornstein piece. Mostly, the GOP wanted to make it hard for the Obama administration to appoint officials to carry out their policies. They particularly targeted the Consumer Finance Something Something and the National Labor Relations Board. And also the EPA. The GOP also wanted to restrict the number of judges appointed by Obama to appeals and circuit courts. [Disclosure: I'm not sure what the difference is between appeals and circuit courts, but that information isn't really relevant here.] Almost everything I read talked about the GOP's motivation not being revenge for blockage of amendments, but being attempts to slow or block.

The Dem senators threatened many time to end the filibuster on appointments (except Supreme Court nominees). The GOP backed down several times, then returned to the practice, and finally the Dems went nuclear and ended the rule that allowed the GOP to filibuster. In most of this, there wasn't public discussion/negotiation of what Harry Reid was doing with amendments. The usual GOP stance was that they had every right to exercise oversight of appointments, and they were making sure that inappropriate people weren't being appointed. This excuse was generally bullshit, and was understood this way at the time. To summarize:

  • GOP goals: Block the administration personnel and appointed judges. Revenge on Reid for when he blocked Bush nominees.
  • Dem goal: End the blockage, end the filibuster if necessary.
So I didn't find that Harry Reid's tactics were the ultimate cause of the appointment blockade. I did find lots of bad behavior spanning decades as each side tried to maximize its advantage, and also tried to avenge the history of insults. It's an ugly feud that only gotten uglier.



Tons of Extras. I checked a lot of conservative sources to read their rationale for the blockade of appointments. That explains the imbalance below.


  • The Dems have brought the law of the jungle to the Senate. When the GOP gets control, they should use it to the max.
  • Mark Levin against the blockade of judicial nominees, circa 2003: "Nowhere in the Constitution, in the Federalist Papers or in any contemporary writings during the Constitutional Convention or the ratifying conventions can the Senate Democrats find support for their use of the filibuster to block judicial appointments."
  • Weekly Standard against it too.
  • Yeah, it's revenge for Dems blocking Bush's judicial nominees.
  • The next set of obstruction tactics after the nuclear option was exercised.
  • Recent: Keep the nuclear option on judicial appointments. It's more in keeping with tradition anyway.



  • Reactions to the Dems going nuclear. Republican apoplexy: You're going to regret this.
  • Well-paced history of senators behaving badly for decades, tracing escalation through Frist and Reid. Discussion of the amazing number of maneuvers that can be abused. Blocking amendments--they both did it. Breaking agreements, ditto. I especially enjoyed pages 12-19.
  • How that amendment-blocking maneuver works.
  • Post-nuclear, but still blocked.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Messy post-mortem of the 2014 election

I was going to call this post "Learn or lose," but I'm not so sure what the lessons are. My first thought is that the Dems actually have to follow through on their sensible rhetoric about sensible budget restraint. They also have to pay attention to developments like the immigration crisis and how it changes public opinion.

Obstruct = Win ??

But perhaps the lesson from the election is that the GOP can obstruct, be irresponsible and uncooperative, not offer any sound alternatives, and they can still win. That's the message from this progressively-biased writer. If it's true that the GOP can get away with such behavior, what exactly can the Dems do about it? They've been messaging about the GOP obstructing non-stop for 6 years. That's an incredibly direct, simple message, backed up by loads of evidence, yet it made no difference in this election.

Incompetence = Lose ??

So pointing out the flaws of the GOP didn't help the Dems. Did the GOP win because it was able to make a coherent attack on the Dems? Perhaps to a certain extent. Obama's popularity has dropped into the low 40's, being especially hurt by the incompetence of the ACA roll-out. Obama hasn't been able to demonstrate strong problem-solving since. Conflicts in foreign countries have ramped up. It's not Obama's fault, but he didn't prevent or solve them. He didn't get to be the hero by quickly dealing with an Ebola outbreak here because we didn't have one. His reaction to the immigration crisis was to 1) ask for money, and 2) punt on his announced "big change" in immigration policy. Just what problem has Obama solved in the last 9 months? It's no wonder his popularity is stuck below neutral.

The Electorate is just plain tired ??

However, the popularity of the GOP in Congress is even lower. So how did they win? It could be that GOP voters were energized and went to the polls, while Dems were demoralized and stayed home. This often happens six years into a presidency. It happened in 2006, less so in 1986 (when Reagan remained popular) or in 1998 (when the electorate punished the GOP for its impeachment follies).

So in the absence of either party looking good, the out-party fared better because people blamed the in-party. Perhaps that's the explanation. Of course some die-hard progressives are again saying the president was too accommodating, and the Democrats will actually do better as a smaller, more ideological congressional caucus.

I disagree. I doubt there's a single shred of evidence that Democrats fare better at the polls when they're more liberal. Most of the evidence shows otherwise, including the long drought between 1968 and 1991 when only one Democrat was elected president.


Extras. Some exit polling numbers and analysis. Most interesting numbers: 45% didn't think the election was a referendum on Obama. A surprising number of people who are neutral or somewhat opposed to the Tea Party voted Republican. The Tea Party wasn't the boogeyman that it had been in 2012. Dems couldn't successfully run against Tea Party as they did in 2012.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The high stakes of culture: Mississippi

I continue to see the effects of culture almost everywhere. I listen for cultural differences, and the effect of culture on values and the choices that people make.

So I thought this was a very striking observation by Jamelle Bouie, a black political columnist:
"White supremacy built a politics of racist antagonism. Blacks were substandard people & thus received substandard schools, services, & law. Anything public had to be kept separate from blacks, and if that wasn’t possible, it had to be degraded..."
Further down in the same post, the author links to a tragic story of what happened to ACA in Mississippi. It's a worthy of Shakespearean treatment. There are the heroes who try to step above the usual bitterness, and the banal villains who shred those attempts and congratulate themselves while doing it.

I'm a northerner and  hardly know about the south. But when I read these kinds of stories, and consider what I do know about the south and about Arizona (settled by southerners, and where my parents now live), I start to see the patterns that Bouie writes about. Why do northern states spend more on education than southern states? Entrenched racism and the resulting antipathy to public services could be the answer. What a sad answer that is. And is it just a 'neutral' cultural difference, or is it actually a inferior culture that should change? I can't be a fair advocate for southern culture, but I'll keep my ears open for such an advocate.