Monday, November 26, 2007

The Ron Paul Phenomenon

Media continue to proclaim themselves somewhat bewildered by Ron Paul's "improbably successful" presidential candidacy.

There's nothing bewildering about it, because it's not that successful. Even after all the hoopla, and the one big day of fundraising (Paul raised $4.3 million on November 5), Dr. Paul's national poll rating is a whopping 6%. In New Hampshire, he gets 8%. I haven't seen him out of the single digits anywhere.

Ron Paul is just the Republican equivalent of Ralph Nader's failed presidential bid on the Democratic side. It's not that hard to appeal to 5 or 6% of the voters. You just take extreme positions. Paul has called for abolishing income tax (he's the darling of the anti-income tax crazies) and withdrawing from international organizations. He deplores the Federal Reserve and yearns for the days of the gold standard. He thinks the federal government lacks constitutional power to fund schools. That sort of thing.

Becoming President is not about appealing to 5% of the country. Anybody can do that. You have to take positions and forge coalitions that get you to a majority, or at least somewhere in the high 40s.

Sure, it's refreshing when a politician candidly speaks his mind about everything and takes undiluted positions without worrying about the consequences. But politics is the art of compromise. In a few months Ron Paul will be an amusing footnote in this important election.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Despite the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, the United States Senate was in session yesterday -- for 30 seconds. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia gaveled the Senate into session, had the clerk read a vital communication to the Senate (namely, the one from Senate President pro tempore Robert Byrd, appointing Webb to the Chair for the day), and then announced that under the previous order, the Senate would stand in recess until Friday. Bang went the gavel again, and the Senate officially receded.

Why this little bit of theater? It's all a plan to block President Bush's ability to make recess appointments. Under the Constitution, the President has "Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate" by making a "recess appointment." By holding these pro-forma sessions, the Senate, technically, is not in a sufficient "recess" to justify the use of the recess appointment power.

The question of just how long a recess has to be before the recess appointment power kicks in is unsettled. I recall that when I was at the Department of Justice, President Bush the Elder made a recess appointment with just a couple of weeks left in his presidency: following the 1992 elections, the new Congress convened on January 7, 1993, and promptly recessed until January 20, 1993 (Inauguration Day). On January 8, President Bush, purportedly by virtue of his recess appointment power, appointed one Thomas Ludlow Ashley to be a Governor of the United States Postal Service. President Bush was having a titanic struggle with the Postal Service at the time and wanted to get his own people in charge as much as possible.

The validity of a recess appointment during a 12-day recess became another difficult issue in a case filled with hopelessly difficult issues. Fortunately for us, and perhaps for the Republic as well, the issue mooted out and melted away quietly once the Clinton Adminsitration came in. So we still don't know the answer.

But here's my small contribution to the debate: notice that the Constitution provides for the President to have the recess appointment power during "the" recess of the Senate. Could the definite article "the" suggest that the recess appointment power is not meant to apply during something that would merely be "a" recess? After all, once you allow recess appointments during "a" recess of, say, a month, it's tough to avoid noticing that the Senate is frequently in recess for a few days, over the weekend, overnight, or even over lunch. What line distinguishes these recesses from recesses during which the recess appointment power is active? If the answer is "hmmm, hard to say," then perhaps the definite article "the" in the recess appointment clause indicates that the recess appointment power exists only during an intersession recess, not during an intrasession recess of any length.

That's not how Presidents have treated the power, but it's a potential solution to what is otherwise a constitutional conundrum.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Inauguration Day

Quite a rare ceremony at George Washington University today -- the Inauguration of our new President, Steven Knapp. (No, no, not Stephen Knapp, expert on "Spirituality, Vedic Culture, and Eastern Philosophy," Steven Knapp, expert on 18th- and 19th-century English literature and literary theory and former Provost of Johns Hopkins University). Dr. Knapp is our first new President in 19 years and only the 16th in the history of the University.

There was pomp and circumstance aplenty in the ceremony, as faculty and administrators looked splendid in full academic regalia -- all except our immediate past president, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg who displayed his appreciation for the event by wearing a baseball cap with his academic robes. It was, to be sure, a GW baseball cap, but still, one was reminded of the unfortunate parka and ski cap that Vice President Cheney wore to a ceremony celebrating the liberation of Auschwitz. It showed a lack of respect for the importance of the event. A pity our President Emeritus couldn't have dressed properly.

Still, everyone else did a great job and it was a pleasure to hear Dr. Knapp's scholarly address. Good luck, President Knapp.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Great Bridge Scandal of 2007

Quite a story roiling the bridge world: the U.S. women's bridge team, winners of the of Venice Cup, the international women's world bridge championships, held up a sign saying "We did not vote for Bush" at the gold medal ceremony in Shanghai, during the playing the U.S. national anthem. The United States Bridge Federation, the organization that represents the U.S. in international play, wants to ban the winning team from play (including not just USBF play but American Contract Bridge League play as well) for a year. The story has already made the N.Y. Times and of course it's all the rage on the bridge newsgroup.

A little analysis: it's not actually a First Amendment matter, because there's no government involvement. The USBF is a private organization. The NFL bans players from displaying political messages during games and that doesn't violate the First Amendment. So while it seems reflexive (to Americans) to invoke the First Amendment, that's not actually the issue.

No, the issue is whether the penalty makes any sense. I do think the players were naive to imagine that people wouldn't get offended. Injecting politics into a bridge event is naturally going to raise some hackles. We all know what happened to the Dixie Chicks when they mixed an offhand political comment with music -- and that was at their own concert. And of course the 1968 Olympic incident involving Tommie Smith and John Carlos is an even closer parallel. So the team should have known they were asking for trouble.

Still, the penalty seems way over the top. It's not clear, first of all, that the USBF actually has any rule that was violated; the Federation seems to be proceeding under a general rule forbidding "conduct unbecoming a player." That's a bit of a stretch. Second, the USBF's authority to ban players from ACBL play seems mysterious. Finally, the penatly just seems far too harsh. Players may not have a right to express political messages at the awards ceremony, but, being Americans, we should let free speech be a value that informs how harshly we treat it. What kind of message are we sending to the Chinese hosts of the game with such a harsh penalty? "Yes, stamping out dissenting political messages is a great thing"?

Probably what's happening is that the UCBF is run by a bunch of humorless Republicans who can't bear to see Bush criticized and who are flexing their muscles. If I were in charge, I would give the players a talking-to and institute a rule of decorum for awards ceremonies. The players can make whatever statement they want afterwards. But for this incident, let's chill a little.

Monday, November 12, 2007

No Problem

I had lunch at a restaurant with a friend this weekend, and, after each of us ordered, the waiter said, "No problem."

What's up with that? An increasing number of waiters say "no problem" or "not a problem" when you order. Don't they realize what that sounds like?

"No problem" is what you say after someone has apologized for inconveniencing you. By saying it in response to your lunch order, the waiter is suggesting that, by ordering, you are annoying the waiter, and that a lesser waiter might have walked off in a huff, but that he will graciously bear the inconvenience of having you around.

Perhaps some waiters actually feel this way, and there are days when we all feel annoyed at being asked to do our jobs. But a waiter is supposed to make you fell welcome. I don't expect waiters to respond to orders with "At your service," although I loved it when I got that response from a concierge in Nice, but they could come out with something positive or at least neutral, like, "thank you," "certainly," "coming right up," or "OK." "No problem" is a problem.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Latest Crazy Idea to be Taken Seriously

A certain Giovanni Maria Pala, of Italy, claims that if you draw a musical score across Leonardo Da Vinci's "Last Supper" and put musical notes on the bread loaves and the hands of the disciples and read the result from right to left, you get a composition that Leonardo secretly worked into the painting. This has gotten a lot of press coverage for something so obviously, well, dotty.

Let me be honest here -- I haven't read a word of Pala's book. The news story claims he has some extrinsic evidence that the painting encodes a musical composition. Maybe he does. Maybe the whole thing is as true as, let's say, gospel.

But boy, I have my suspicions. My guess is that if you draw a score across any painting and choose your own rules about where the score goes and what items count as notes and whether you get to read left to right or right to left, you can come up with a pleasing tune. Heck, years ago researchers started making music by assigning notes to DNA strands (the DNA elements are named C, T, A, and G, so three of them are musical notes already, and if I recall correctly the researchers substituted B-flat for T), and it sounded pretty good.

My guess is that this is up there with the Bible Code -- a ludicrous attempt to claim that hidden messages were encoded into the Bible if you only chose the right starting point and read every nth letter, with the research getting to choose the starting point and the value of n, of course.

If anyone reads Pala's book and finds it persuasive, please let me know. But I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Strike Solved

Dear me, the Hollywood writers have gone on strike. How will we get by without our Daily Show fix? Well, it'll be good for the blog -- content-starved viewers will become readers.

Apparently the big issue is payments for DVDs, Internet sales, and other new media. What I don't understand is this: the studios say that they can't increase payments for these media because "it is too early to know how much money they can make from offering entertainment on the Internet and on cell phones, iPods and other devices."

That statement would make sense if the contract had to call for some fixed payment, such as $1 per DVD sold. If it was too early to know whether the studio's profit on the DVD sale would be $10 or 10 cents, the studio would indeed be in a poor position to figure out what the writer's cut should be.

But I presume the studios have heard of percentages? Why can't the contract just provide that the writers get 3% or 5% or whatever percent of the studio's profit? That way, whether the studio makes a lot or a little, the writers get an appropriate share.

I know, I know, Hollywood is beset by bizarre accounting practices that ensure that studios don't earn profits, so everyone has to take a cut of the gross instead, which brings us back to the same problem as a fixed dollar payment. Well, do you want your accounting practices or do you want to solve your labor problem? You'd just have to provide for some fair accounting practices in the labor contract. Probably that would be better for everybody in the long run anyway.

There, I solved the strike. Can we get the Daily Show back now?