Friday, October 31, 2008

On Their Way Out the Door

While everyone is, shall we say, a little distracted, the Bush administration (yes, Bush is still President) is busy ramming through one last round of deregulatory rules. The proposed new rules would weaken regulation on consumer protection, the environment, and other issues.

Sheesh. It's not as though the Democrats were any better on this -- the Clinton administration tried to ram through a whole bunch of rules right at the end too -- but it's more than a little shady. Of course the next administration can undo rules, but it's cumbersome. Once an administrative agency adopts rules through a rulemaking process, it usually takes the same process to undo those rules. And while the rulemaking process is supposed to be fairly straightforward -- just propose the rules, receive public comment, and then announce your final decision -- in practice so many requirements have accreted onto the rulemaking process that it has become rather ossified. It's a big, complicated deal to do any rulemaking, even one that just undoes a previous rulemaking.

From the beginning, Bush has never cared much about public opinion. He's gone after divisive measures in a way that seems almost deliberate. One would hardly expect anything different now that he's immune to political reprisal. But it leaves a sour taste in one's mouth. This election can't happen fast enough.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

That Veep Role Again

It sure does seem to be hard for people to say what the Vice President does. Sarah Palin famously overstated the Veep's role when she said that the Vice President is "in charge of the United States Senate." As I have explained, that overstatement was not really so bad as people have been making out, inasmuch as she was trying to explain the Vice President's job in a way that would be understandable to a third-grader.

But now George Will, who should really know better, responds that the Vice President has "no constitutional function in the Senate other than to cast tie-breaking votes."

Look, what is so hard about this? There's just one sentence that sums it all up. The Constitution provides that "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided."

So while Palin overstated the Vice President's role, Will understated it. The Vice President does have a constitutional function in the Senate other than casting tie-breaking votes. The Vice President is the President, or presiding officer, of the Senate. So the Vice President presides over meetings of the Senate, which involves choosing Senators to speak and making rulings on points of parliamentary procedure.

It's not much of a role. The Senate rules rather sharply constrain the power of the presiding officer -- in part precisely because the Senate doesn't want the Vice President to show up and exercise a lot of power. Even in choosing which Senator to call on, the presiding officer is constrained -- the rules require calling on whichever Senator rises first. And rulings of the presiding officer on parliamentary questions can be appealed to the full Senate (although this rarely happens).

For this reason, the power of the presiding officer is sufficiently minor that most of the time the Vice President doesn't even bother to show up to exercise it. But it's not nothing -- it's sufficiently important that the majority party permits only members of the majority party to preside.

So if we're going to jump on Palin for overstating the Veep's role, we should be careful not to understate it either.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

More Nonsense From McCain

I'm sorry to have such a slanted headline, but really, the latest sally from McCain is just too much.

McCain is picking up on something Joe Biden said in a recent interview. In explaining Barack Obama's tax plan, Biden said that he and Obama disagree with the Bush policy of giving further tax breaks to people with huge annual incomes, and instead think the tax cuts should go to "people making under $150,000 a year."

McCain is leaping on this statement and saying that the Obama/Biden definition of "rich" is "creeping down." Pretty soon, McCain claims, Obama will be raising taxes on anyone who makes more than $42,000 a year.

Now, look. Biden misspoke. The Obama tax plan has been the same for months. He wants to cut taxes on families making less than $200,000 a year, not raise them on families making under $250,000, and have families making more than $250,000 a year pay the same tax rates they paid in the 1990s, or less. Biden said $150,000 when he meant $250,000. Even former National Review writer Jonathan Martin recognizes the possibility that Biden's statement is just a slip.

Biden is known for his gaffes, but there's a difference between making a gaffe and having a minor slip of the tongue. When you probably do 50 interviews a week (or about 50 more than Sarah Palin does), you're going to have some slips. If there were any reason to think that Biden's statement represented a change in policy, it would be fair game. But making a serious attack on a minor slip of the tongue is just absurd.

After all, it's not as though McCain is immune to slips. We all have a few laughs when McCain refers to problems on the Iraq-Pakistan border (which doesn't exist), or confuses Sunni and Shia in Iraq. But we don't imagine that every slip of the tongue he makes represents a change in his policy.

There's a week left to go. Let's run the campaign on real issues, not on imaginary nonsense.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty

Actually, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty.

That's the jury verdict on Senator Ted Stevens. The jury found Stevens guilty on all seven counts of failing to report gifts.

Now, I firmly believe that you can't make a fair judgment about a criminal case that you've followed only through news accounts. On the one hand, Stevens's defense, that he asked to be billed for all the work done on his house, and that it wasn't his fault if his builder included some freebies without telling him, was not wholly implausible. On the other hand, Stevens' claims about some of the gifts were a little hard to believe, such as, for example, the claim that a massage chair placed in his house wasn't his property and he'd never used it, even though it had been there for seven years and he sent an e-mail saying, "It is great: I can't tell you have [sic] much I enjoyed it."

This is why we have juries. The jury saw all the evidence, not just the part they happened to read on any given day in a newspaper story. The jury weighed it all up and decided that they were convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Senator Stevens had failed to report gifts as required.

Well, there's no law against the people of Alaska re-electing him anyway, and who knows, maybe they'll be drawn to him as a contrarian reaction against the verdict delivered by the jury in Washington, DC. But it looks like Alaska might have a new Senator soon.

Sarah the Wealth Sharer

Sarah Palin has taken to calling Barack Obama "Barack the Wealth Spreader" to highlight his connection to what she calls socialism. Like everyone else who uses this argument, she's just displaying her ignorance of what socialism is.

And, as with so many things the McCain/Palin ticket is saying, she's also being utterly hypocritical. Let's flash back to an interview she gave before she was the vice presidential nominee. In commenting on the fact that Alaska not only has no income tax but actually sends each resident a check every year, she told Philip Gourevitch of the New Yorker:

"Alaska—we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs."

Collective ownership of resources! Share in the wealth! Now that's more like socialism.

Friday, October 24, 2008


There's a lot of talk lately about how Barack Obama's tax plans amount to socialism, or even communism. Let's take a look at a typical example, from radio talk show host Neal Boortz. Boortz recently wrote a letter "To The Undecided Voter," in which he says the undecideds should "try to base your final choice on some substantive facts." I'm all for that, but Boortz seems to be the one who needs to get his facts straight. Boortz says that "what Barack Obama is pushing here, at least insofar as his tax policies are concerned, is communism." He elaborates in this vivid passage:

"Let's talk heartbeats. Sounds weird, but I'm going somewhere here. A bit of Internet research led me to the fact that the average number of heartbeats in a life time for a human being is about one billion. To make this more understandable, the average human heart beats around 70 times a minute. In one eight-hour work day your heart beats around 33,600 times. This is your heart beating .. every beat subtracted from the one billion .. every beat a part of your life gone, never to be recovered. If you are a moderately successful human being Barack Obama is going to take about 13,000 (39%) of those heartbeats away from you every working day. Put your finger on your wrist and feel your pulse. Feel every heartbeat. Just count up to 100. How much of your life went by as you counted? You can't get those beats back. They're gone, for good. Remember, you only have a finite number of those beats of your heart left ... and Obama wants 13,000 of them every working day of your life. Those heartbeats – your life – being expended creating wealth. Your heartbeats, your wealth. Obama wants them. You don't need them. Someone else does. The police power of the state."

What Boortz might have said a little more accurately is:

"Barack Obama is going to take about 13,000 (39%) of those heartbeats away from you every working day if you make more than $250,000 a year. If, like 95% of all Americans, you make less than that -- say, you're one of those plumbers, waitresses, bricklayers or teachers whom John McCain loves so much -- then Barack Obama is going to take no more of your heartbeats than the federal government takes now. In fact, he's going to give most of you a tax cut, so that he'll take fewer heartbeats than the federal government takes now, and fewer than John McCain will take. For 95% of you.

"Yes, if you are in the top 5% of all American earners, Barack Obama is going to take 39% of your heartbeats. And guess what? John McCain is going to take 35% of them. That's what the federal government's been taking for the last 8 years, under President Bush's tax cuts for the richest.

"Somehow, it seems that I think that 35% of your heartbeats is the all-American, super-capitalist amount of heartbeats to take, but taking 39% constitutes communism.

"I guess the truth is that I, Neal Boortz, don't have the foggiest clue what communism even is, if I think Barack Obama is proposing communism at 39% but John McCain isn't at 35%."

Look, if people don't like Obama's tax plan, that's fine. But the essence of it is changing the top rate from 35% to 39%. The essence of it is going back to where we were in the 1990s for those making more than $250,000 a year. Maybe you think all progressive taxation is communism, in which case Barack Obama is a communist and so is John McCain and so is George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and every President we've had for nearly 100 years. But if you're willing to admit that we have capitalism now, and especially if you're willing to admit we had it in the 1990s, then calling Obama's tax plan communism is just plain stupid.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

In Charge of the Senate

Some people are jumping on Sarah Palin for saying that the Vice President is "in charge of the Senate." (Video here.)

Now, now, let's be fair. It's true that Palin's statement was not accurate. Under the Constitution, the Vice President is the President (i.e., presiding officer) of the Senate, but under the rules of the Senate the presiding officer doesn't really exercise much power -- certainly the presiding officer is not "in charge" of the Senate. And in practice, the Vice President rarely even exercises his (or her) power as presiding officer, such as it is.

But the context of Palin's statement is important too. The question came from a third grader. The statement that the Vice President is "in charge" of the Senate, while not fully accurate, is an explanation that one might appropriately give to a child. The difference between "presiding over" and being "in charge" of a legislative assembly is probably too subtle for a third grader to understand.

Look, there are plenty of reasons why Sarah Palin is unqualified to be Vice President. She doesn't understand or have sufficient experience with national issues, and, for heaven's sake, she can't even face a press conference. We don't need to drum up extra reasons. Jumping on this statement is playing gotcha.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Real America

Sarah Palin just loves to talk about how small towns are the "real America."

Even putting aside her absurd comment that small towns constitute the "pro-America areas of this great nation," it's incredible how we've allowed ourselves to be gulled by the notion that "real America" consists of small towns (preferably in the midwest).

It's just not true. The census shows that 79.2% of Americans live in urban areas. Now, that defines "urban areas" to include "Urban Clusters" with a population of 2,500 to 49,999, which might seem inappropriate. To me, a place with 2,500 people is a small town. But the same chart shows that 58.3% of Americans live in urban areas with a population of more than 200,000. And another 10.4% live in urban areas with a population of 50,000 - 200,000. So 68.7% of Americans live in urban areas with populations of 50,000 or more.

So even if we give "small town" the very generous definition of anything less than 50,000, we're talking about 32.3% of America -- less than a third. More than 2/3 of Americans live in urbanized areas with a population 50,000 or more.

If you like to live in some kind of imaginary place where you define your own reality, you could say that the group that makes up less than a third of something is the "real" part. But if you care about actual facts, it seems pretty absurd to ignore the group that makes up more than 2/3 of the population you're talking about.

Oh, and by the way, I'm sure every real American woman has spent $150,000 on her clothes since August, plus $4,700 on hair and makeup!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Obama For President

Two weeks from today, Americans will choose a new President. I'm voting for Barack Obama.

As a law professor, my biggest issue is judicial appointments. The next President will probably appoint 1-3 Supreme Court Justices and scores of lower court judges.

We've had eight years of Bush judicial appointees. They've been highly qualified -- you have to give them that -- but highly ideological. John McCain has expressed his strong support for the Bush appointees and pledged to give us more of the same. That's not what we need.

The Supreme Court in particular is balanced on a razor's edge. If the Republicans win and get even one seat, the Court will be hard-right conservative for decades to come. Many constitutional rights would be endangered.

That alone is reason enough to vote for Barack Obama, but there are many more reasons.

George Bush and the Republican party have been in control for the last eight years. And what have they brought us?

A disastrous economic collapse. Lowered standing in the eyes of the world. Domestic spying. Torture. Implacable government secrecy and unaccountability. Terribly mismanaged government agencies run by unqualified political cronies.

We need change, not more of the same. John McCain is not George Bush, but so many of his policies are George Bush's policies. In particular, he believes in the same economic policies that brought us the mess we have today -- he thinks deregulation and lowering taxes on the wealthiest Americans will solve everything. We've tried that for 8 years, and look what it got us.
John McCain claims to be the candidate of plumbers, bricklayers, teachers, and waitresses, but his plan to help them consists of cutting taxes for rich people. It's the same old trickle-down economics that got us where we are today.

John McCain has also gravely disappointed those who respected him for his so-called "maverick" image. Over the course of the year, he's changed many of his basic positions to match those of President Bush: on the Bush tax cuts, on torture, and other issues. He's run a fear-mongering, negative campaign, in which we've heard endlessly about Barack Obama's slight connection to someone who did bad things 40 years ago -- as though that were the key issue.

In choosing a running mate, McCain violated his pledge to put country first. As even leading Republicans have recognized, Sarah Palin is not qualified to be President if that should become necessary. She can't even face a press conference! And her abuse of power in personnel matters and disrespect for legislative investigation are frighteningly reminscent of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

Barack Obama represents the change we need. He's shown good judgment throughout the campaign. He's got the better health care plan. He recognizes the importance of education. He'll work to restore America's standing in the world. And he chose a running mate with gravitas and experience who could step in and be President at a moment's notice if necessary.

He'll help the country on race relations. He's run a post-racial campaign. He's appealed to all American regardless of race and he hasn't asked for any special treatment because of his race.

And he's smart. The Republican party seems to think there's something wrong with being smart, eloquent, and talented. It's time to remember that these qualities are good. You don't get to be President of the Harvard Law Review without having something on the ball. We need a smart President.

Yes, one might wish that Obama had more years of national experience. But no candidate has everything. Obama has demonstrated wisdom and judgment beyond his years.

He's the future. He represents the change we need. McCain represents more of the same.

Obama for President.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Listen to the General

Nothing I could say today could match the sober, thoughtful, eloquent endorsement of Barack Obama yesterday by General Colin Powell. I'm sure you've heard news of the endorsement, but if you haven't seen the actual tape, be sure to watch it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Poll-Driven, Part II

I've mentioned before that I always lose some productivity in the weeks running up to an election because I waste too much time checking the polls. Now I want to raise a mathematical question about the websites that aggregate polling data, particularly the two that I check most: Real Clear Politics and It seems to me that their analysis is off statistically (although both are terrific sites). I don't actually know much about statistics, but I do have an undergraduate degree in mathematics, so I think I at least have a valid question, although I'm not sure of the ultimate answer.

Here's the thing: these websites are gathering up polling data and averaging the data for each race. They weight polls equally. So if one poll shows Obama ahead by 6 in a state and another poll shows Obama ahead by 4, the websites average the two polls and say that Obama is ahead by 5 in that state.

That seems too simplistic to me. At the very least, I think the polls need to be weighted to reflect the number of voters polled in each.

Let’s do a simple example to show why. Suppose one poll surveys 1000 likely voters in a state, and 600 say they’re voting for Obama and 400 say they’re voting for McCain. This poll reports that Obama is ahead 60-40. (I'm making the simplifying assumption that the pollster just reports the raw numbers, which is not what most pollsters actually do, but the issue would be the same regardless.)

Another poll in the same state surveys 500 likely voters, who are evenly split. So this poll reports that the race is 50-50.

Now, the aggregating websites would simply average these two polls and report that Obama is ahead 55-45. But that’s not what the numbers show! Altogether, the two polls surveyed 1500 people. Of those 1500, 850 said they were voting for Obama (600 in the first poll and 250 in the second) and 650 said they were voting for McCain (400 in the first poll and 250 in the second). And 850/1500 = 57% (actually 56.67%), not 55%. So the correct reporting of the two polls combined should be 57-43, not 55-45. That’s a noticeable difference.

So there’s something wrong with just averaging poll numbers equally.

That’s not even considering the fact that the polls might be taken on different days and use different methodologies. But I don’t see any easy way to correct for that. But there is an easy way to correct for the different number of people surveyed in each poll. I think the aggregating websites should take this into account., another poll aggregator, does assign weights based on sample size. But they also assign weights based on other factors that seem pretty subjective.

So the bottom line is that polling, and taking "polls of polls," are more complicated that they appear. The votemaster has a good run-down of polling issues.

Update (10/20): I sent my question to the Votemaster, who kindly sent me a reply, in which he said that my point was correct, but that there were so many other issues regarding polls (such as the order of the questions, or whether party identification is given) that the sample size is "down there in the noise."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Political Potpourri

Too busy for serious thought today, but here are a few tidbits from the election:

Nation's Biggest Jerk. Ladies, how would you like to be married to this guy? He and his wife agreed to name their daughter "Ava Grace," but without her knowledge he named the child "Sarah McCain Palin."

Michael Palin No Longer the Funniest Palin. Check out John Cleese's insightful thinking about Sarah Palin. His view -- she's clearly unqualified and running with a 72-year-old cancer survivor!

Be Careful What You Wish For: Joe the Plumber sure is getting a lot of publicity out of Wednesday's debate, but not all of it is favorable. Turns out he's not a licensed plumber and he owes back taxes. His income is such that he'd get a tax cut under Obama's plan, not a tax increase. Oh, and his full name is Samuel J. Wurzelbacher.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Last Debate

I live-blogged the final debate last night -- see the series of posts that follow. They come out in reverse chrono order, so you might want to start at the bottom and work up.

As I said, Obama won the debate, in fact by a substantial margin. Viewers thought he explained his positions clearly and was more likeable.

McCain's testy comment about Obama's needing to travel to Colombia was a highlight, as I thought. I don't think that played well.

The bottom line is that McCain needed a big, game-changing win here, and he didn't get it. He didn't even get a draw. I'm not saying he was a flop, but Obama did better. There's a long way to go yet, but this was a big chance for McCain and at the end of it Obama's still on top.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Big Finish

Obviously I am biased, but I think Obama won the debate. He was undoubtedly cooler, clearer, and more eloquent. He gave better policy explanations. McCain warmed up a bit after a while, and made a few decent points, but he was tense, and the Joe the Plumber business didn't work out. And certainly McCain didn't score the big, game-changing win he needed. Obama's finish returns to the main theme: he represents change, McCain is more of the same.


The last question! I think this means Obama wins. McCain needed a big shift, and we haven't seen it.

Supreme Court

Finally, my main issue. McCain is misspeaking slightly (saying that Obama voted against Breyer -- he means Alito), but he's claiming to care about qualifications, not litmus tests. I guess that would be nice if it were true. Obama will probably say the same thing. Yup, here it is.

I guess a lot of people think the whole Supreme Court comes down to Roe v. Wade. That's the only decision McCain, Obama, or Bob have mentioned. At least Obama is talking about rights generally, how they shouldn't be subject to a vote. Ah, and now he's bringing up the Ledbetter case. With a full description of the facts! So there is a case besides Roe! And McCain knows something about it too. But he just gives one line about it and now he's back to abortion.

Sigh. The Supreme Court is such an important issue, and all anyone wants to talk about is abortion. At least Obama is giving a good answer trying to reconcile views.

And McCain attacks Obama for "eloquence"! Sheesh, when did intelligence, eloquence, and drawing big crowds become negatives?

Health Care

I think Obama is winning with the last jab. Under his plan, employer-based health care doesn't have to changed. McCain wants to tax health care benefits, so that would create a risk of employers terminating health care benefits.

Joe is back

Man, I'm getting tired of Joe the Plumber. I think I get it -- McCain is trying to be Reaganesque. Maybe it's playing well with tens of millions of voters, but I don't see it. This is not Reaganesque, it's just weird.

Running out of Time, Running out of Steam

There's half an hour left, and I don't think McCain has shaken up the election yet. I don't think it's going to happen.

The debate is running out of steam. I know I'm running out of steam. Can people really stand another thirty minutes of wonkishness?

Where are the Followups?

You know, Bob Shaffer was saying that he was going to nail down the candidates with follow-ups and make sure they answer the questions. Has he done it once? I think maybe once. But mostly he's just asking the questions and then sitting there.


"Maybe you ought to travel down there and maybe you could understand it better"? Getting a little testy there, Senator McCain. I'm just surprised you didn't say "maybe you could understand it better, my friend." Obama is handling this one smoothly. I'm guessing this will be one of the clips tomorrow morning, and it won't reflect well on McCain.

Energy and Climate Change

Well, hooray! In ten years we won't be importing any oil from the Middle East or Venezuela! They agree on this so it must be true!

Running Mates

This should be a big winner for Obama. I'm eager to see how McCain praises Palin over Biden.

More on Campaign Tone

Obama is taking on the Lewis remarks. He carefully distinguishes between the proper and improper Lewis remarks. I still think this topic is a waste of time.

McCain says he's repudiated all the improper remarks. Except the one about Obama palling around with terrorists. Aha, he's actually addressing it -- he says we do need to know about Ayers and ACORN.

And now Obama's going through it! And more in response from McCain! Enough with this topic already. There are actual issues to discuss. Wake up, Bob.

Campaign Tone

Interestingly, Bob's question isn't whether the candidates would pledge to stop the negative attacks, but whether they'd repeat them tonight.

McCain asks Obama to repudiate Lewis's remarks. Is he going to repudiate Palin's comment that Obama pals around with terrorists?

Frankly, this question is a waste of debate time. The tone of the debate is going to be nasty no matter what. Let's get on to something important.

Good Jab

Obama gets off a smooth jab as he commends McCain for his occasional challenges to his party, but then clearly and calmly explains that McCain's policies are more of the same we've had from President Bush for 8 years.

Budget Cuts

This is a good question. Obama's actually mentioned a particular program to cut. Only one, true, but that's one more than most politicians mention.

McCain's going back to home values. Now he's on his $700 billion a year we're sending to countries that don't like us. I believe that include Canada, Mexico, and Great Britain.

OK, finally he mentions an across-the-board spending freeze. And aha, he's opposing marketing assisitance and subsidies for ethanol. And eliminate a tariff. So he's mentioned some programs too.

Man, he's back to the $3 million overhead projector! That one's been exploded.

And we're back to hurting and angry! This is the fourth time.

Joe the Plumber

Boy, we're hearing a lot about Joe the Plumber. I have to agree that it doesn't sound like the greatest time for a tax increase. But Obama is giving a reasonable answer. Is it just me or does McCain seem pretty tense?

We're Hurting and Angry

Goodness, it's only 2 minutes into the debate and McCain's in trouble already. I mean, I'm sorry, and I'm sure I'm looking at this through biased eyes, but did he really have to repeat his line that voters are hurting and angry three times? It seemed to me that he was struggling to remember his lines and clutching at the one line he could remember.

Divided Government

Apparently John McCain's latest argument is that we need divided government. Since it looks pretty safe that Congress will remain in Democratic hands, we supposedly need a Republican president to check it.

This might come up at tonight's debate. Here's what I would say if I were Barack Obama:

"First of all, let's remember the good that could come of unified government. The good is that we might actually get some things done. People are frustrated with Congress. Congress has low approval ratings right now, because Congress isn't getting enough done. Well, why isn't Congress getting enough done? One reason is divided government. With a Republican President and a Democratic Congress, it's tough to agree on anything. With a unified government, we can get things done and make the changes we need to make.

"Unified government also means responsibility. Divided government means each side can blame the other for not getting things done. If you put the Democrats in charge of Congress and the White House, then we're responsible. We're responsible for what we do, and if you don't like it, you can vote us out next time.

"Is there any danger to unified government? Sure. There's some danger of things going too much to one side. But I'll be there to check Congress. I'm interested in good ideas and good government. If Congress goes too far in one direction, I'll rein it back."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Oh, This is Good

Apparently Texas Congressman Ron Paul will be on the ballot in Louisiana and Montana. It seems that he didn't personally have anything to do with this -- local parties in the two states just chose him as their nominee.

Presumably Paul will take some votes from both major party candidates, but it's got to be more votes from McCain than from Obama. Louisiana isn't particularly close, but it's just conceivable that Paul could take enough votes from McCain to give Montana to Obama, and wouldn't that be ironic?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Quote of the Day

Gotta love the McCain campaign. After reports about some of the outlandish things said by crowd members about Barack Obama at McCain rallies (he's an Arab, he's a terrorist, off with his head, kill him), McCain adviser Mark Salter said, "“I think there have been quite a few reporters recently who have sort of implied, or made more than implications, that somehow we’re responsible for the occasional nut who shows up and yells something about Barack Obama."

Gee, could those nuts be responding to anything said over and over again by the McCain campaign's most official representatives, John McCain and Sarah Palin? Which campaign has said that Obama goes "palling around with terrorists"? That's straight out of Sarah Palin's mouth.

Yes, Mark, you are totally responsible for some of the things being said about Obama. Your candidates are fomenting irresponsible attacks by making them themselves.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Big Surprise

You hardly needed to be told, did you, that Sarah Palin abused her power when she fired her Commissioner of Public Safety? It was all pretty obvious once Palin decided to stonewall the investigation and paint it as a Democratic witchhunt, even though it was instituted by the unanimous vote of a panel that was 2/3 Republican, and even though it got started long before Palin was on a national ticket. The Palins are busy now trying to spin the story by emphasizing their lack of a financial motive. Of course, no one ever suggested the scandal was about money.

The bottom line is simple. Sarah and Todd Palin tried to get Sarah Palin's former brother-in-law Michael Wooten fired from his job as a state Trooper (see p. 52 of linked report). When Commissioner of Public Safety Walt Monegan wouldn't cooperate, Palin fired him. The Wooten affair, the report concludes, wasn't the sole basis for the firing, but was a contributing factor (p. 69). In short, Palin abused her position as Governor for personal reasons.

McCain knew this scandal was brewing and that this report was coming when he picked Palin as his running mate. As early as July 26, the Votemaster over at concluded that Palin was "out of the question" as Veep because of the Troopergate scandal. So no one can say that the Republicans were blindsided by this report. McCain knew it was coming and decided to pick Palin anyway. I leave it to you to decide what this says about McCain's judgment.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Irresponsibility Prize

I know I've said this before, but now that John McCain is making it his official policy, I have to say again that I don't get why the government should take the tax dollars of responsible people like me, who live in reasonable, modest homes that we can afford, and use them to bail out people who irresponsibly bought homes they couldn't pay for.

In last night's debate, McCain said, "I would order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes." In other words, if you profligately bought a bigger home than you could afford, the value of which has gotten killed in the housing downturn, you'll be rescued at taxpayer expense. Meantime, there's no benefit for people like me, who responsibly live within their means. We'll have to pay our own mortgages and fund paying irresponsible people's mortgages too.

I don't get it. I'm sounding like a curmudgeonly Republican and John McCain is sounding like a profligate, big-spending, big-government Democrat. What's wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Credit Crisis

Best explanation I've heard of why the credit crisis is wreaking such havoc on the economy, on This American Life, of all things.

Companies don't like to keep a lot of cash on hand -- if you have cash sitting in the bank, it's not invested in your business earning money. So each day, the company treasurer tots up the company's income and expenses and determines whether the company has extra cash or needs some cash. If it needs cash, it goes to the commercial paper market and borrows the money for a very short time -- perhaps just overnight. That's what commercial paper is: very short term borrowing by companies.

But for the last couple of weeks, there's been no money to borrow or lend in the commercial paper market, because money-market funds, which are big investors in commercial paper, are going crazy because one of them "broke the buck" -- it lost money -- because it had too much invested in Lehman Brothers commercial paper. So lots of people are trying to get out of money market funds, to the point where the government had to guarantee them. And then another fund broke the buck, and then money market fund managers decided to stop lending in the commercial paper market and just buy government bonds instead.

So there's no money to lend. Companies from small businesses to General Electric are having trouble borrowing money, even short term.

The whole economy runs on credit. People deliver the goods and settle up at the end of the month. If you can't do that, it's a crisis.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Extra Post

I just posted my main post for today (see below), but there's one thing that's so important that it merits a quick extra. Today is the last day to register to vote in many states. If you aren't registered, go register now. And if you think you're registered, check this page to make sure -- it lists people who've been purged from voter rolls in some important swing states.

Personal v. Political

Interesting contrast between pundits today, if you read the columns of Paul Krugman and Bill Kristol in the New York Times. Go ahead and take a look -- I'll wait.

Obviously, Krugman is in the tank for Obama and Kristol is gung ho for McCain. But that's fine -- they're columnists, not reporters.

The interesting thing is the difference in what they say. Krugman makes a sustained policy argument. He points out that McCain's health care proposal is to impose taxes on health benefits received from employers, which are currently tax free for most people. The current system encourages employers to provide health care benefits to employees. McCain's proposal would probably lead many employers to drop health care benefits. In exchange, McCain would give people a modest tax benefit that they could allegedly use to buy health care themselves. But probably, as Krugman points out, that would be a disaster, because insurance companies would try hard to sell policies to healthy people and deny them to those who might actually need coverage.

Individual purchasing is not a good way to run the health insurance market. Groups have more purchasing power. Yes, it's true, this means that healthy people end up subsidizing sick people to some extent, but this is one area where some cross-subsidization seems eminently fair and reasonable -- we'll all be sick at some point in our lives, so we'll all get our turn being subsidized. (I'm usually very healthy, but I had my turn in 2005, when I was in a minor bike accident.)

McCain thinks the magic of the free market will somehow make everything work, but the market is not good at everything, and this doesn't look like an area where the market would do a good job. As Krugman points out, the McCain website says that competition will do for health care what it's done for banking -- not something that's working out too well lately.

Krugman lays out all these reasons for opposing McCain -- it's a reasoned, policy argument.

Now take a look at Kristol. His column is about a phone call he had with Sarah Palin yesterday. And what did they talk about? How they don't like the mainstream media, how Palin should have another debate with Biden, since she did so well in the first one, how Palin heard from her son, who's deployed in Iraq, and mostly, how Palin wants more talk about Obama's associations. She wants more about how Obama knows Bill Ayers, formerly associated with the Weather Underground, and she'd do more on Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, although she'll leave the decision up to McCain. The only policy issue mentioned is one sentence fragment about how Palin thinks Obama will kill jobs by raising taxes.

What a microcosm of the difference between Democratic and Republican campaign styles. It's policy v. character assassination. Krugman gives a sustained policy argument about what's wrong with McCain's health care plan. Kristol has Palin spout off half a sentence about the vaguest of policy ideas and then goes after Obama's character. And in a pretty unfair way, to boot. Yes, Obama knows Bill Ayers, who was indeed in the Weather Underground, a really bad organization. But Ayers is reformed, he's now a professor of education at the University of Illinois, his association with bad guys ended long before Obama knew him (Obama was a child in the Weather Underground days), and the two were never close -- as detailed here, they overlapped in serving on a charitable board and have had little contact since 2002.

Reasoned policy argument v. unfair guilt by association. Do we care about what the candidates will do for the country, or do we just want to throw slime around?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Then as Farce

On the 13th anniversary of his famous acquittal, O.J. Simpson has been found guilty of all charges, including armed robbery and kidnapping, for barging into a hotel room with a group of men and trying to recovery some sports memorabilia that he claimed were his own property.

Now, the case obviously has all kinds of weird resonances, but I want to focus on one point: kidnapping? How the heck was this kidnapping? Armed robbery I understand. If you use guns to take property from people, that's armed robbery -- although there might be some technicalities if it really is your own property. I'm sure he'll fight that out in the court of appeals. But kidnapping? If you never move the victim, where is the kidnapping? If someone is where they wanted to be, and you held them there at gunpoint for a while, you've doubtless committed a crime, but to call it kidnapping seems like quite a stretch.

Let's take a look at the legal definition to see if it matches our intuitions. According to Black's Law Dictionary, the common law definition was "the crime of forcibly abducting a person from his or her own country and sending the person to another." That obviously required movement of the victim -- quite a bit of movement. The more modern definition, again according to Black's, is "The crime of seizing and taking away a person by force or fraud." So again, the concept of movement is there.

Black's doesn't really have any official standing and can be a little old-fashioned, so let's look around some more. An online legal dictionary, which obviously also has no official standing but which seems a little more modern, says that kidnapping is "The crime of unlawfully seizing and carrying away a person by force or Fraud, or seizing and detaining a person against his or her will with an intent to carry that person away at a later time." That seems to match what I would say -- there doesn't absolutely have to be movement of the victim, but it at least has to be part of the plan.

Of course, what actually matters is the law of the state of Nevada, where the crime occurred. The definition there is:

"A person who willfully seizes, confines, inveigles, entices, decoys, abducts, conceals, kidnaps or carries away a person by any means whatsoever with the intent to hold or detain, or who holds or detains, the person for ransom, or reward, or for the purpose of committing sexual assault, extortion or robbery upon or from the person, or for the purpose of killing the person or inflicting substantial bodily harm upon him, or to exact from relatives, friends, or any other person any money or valuable thing for the return or disposition of the kidnapped person, and a person who leads, takes, entices, or carries away or detains any minor with the intent to keep, imprison, or confine him from his parents, guardians, or any other person having lawful custody of the minor, or with the intent to hold the minor to unlawful service, or perpetrate upon the person of the minor any unlawful act is guilty of kidnapping in the first degree which is a category A felony."

Well, that's pretty different from what you would expect. Simpson and his cohorts did "hold an detain" the victims, "for the purpose of committing . . . robbery upon" them. So I guess, under Nevada law, this was a kidnapping.

But really, that seems ridiculous. Basically, this means that every robbery in Nevada is also a kidnapping. Because doesn't a robber always hold and detain the victim? It's pretty tough to commit a robbery without holding and detaining the victim. If the victim can just walk away, a robbery is not going to succeed. And if the robbery occurs indoors, the robber will always "confine" the victim, so that makes it doubly a kidnapping.

It's not the prosecutor's fault if his state has stupid laws, but prosecutors do have some duty to apply discretion in bringing charges. I would say O.J. got unfairly screwed on this one. Armed robbery, yes, and he should be sentenced accordingly. But calling it a kidnapping seems like overkill.

Friday, October 3, 2008


After all the hoopla leading up to the vice-presidential debate, they both did fine. Palin exceeded expectations (she could hardly have done otherwise), and Biden did too. Palin didn't have any of the painful deer-in-the-headlights moments she's been having in her one-on-one interviews, and Biden didn't run on endlessly and didn't make any gaffes.

I agree with the general verdict that Biden did better. He answered more of the questions and showed his great depth of knowledge, particularly on foreign policy matters. If he were compelled to take over the Presidency on a moment's notice, you know he could do it. Palin showed that she might not be as bad as her performance over the last three weeks suggests, but you still feel she couldn't possibly handle being President next spring if that should become necessary.

I did think Biden could have jumped on a couple of Palin's statements a little better. When Palin kept saying that Obama and Biden are looking backward at the Bush administration too much, a good riposte would have been, "we're looking back at the Bush administration because you and John McCain are planning to keep doing the same things!" The bad policies of the Bush administration are relevant when one of the tickets is promising more of the same in most every way. Also, he didn't respond to Palin's "white flag of surrender" comment. That would have been a good chance to explain again that setting a timeline to leave Iraq is not surrendering, but a necessary step to make clear to the Iraqi government that it's going to have to stand up for itself and not count on American support forever. But Biden did a good job of hitting on the basic campaign theme of change v. more of the same.

As to Palin, she ignored a lot of the questions. For example, she certainly didn't answer the question about what should be the trigger for use of nuclear weapons, and when Ifill asked if she agreed with Senator Biden's statement that there should be no distinction in rights between a committed gay couple and a committed heterosexual couple, all she said was that she was against gay marriage. Of course her goal wasn't to answer questions, but to win votes. Sometimes you do that better by ignoring questions than by answering them.

It still comes down to change v. more of the same. Palin kept trying to say that her ticket is all about reform and change, but Biden convincingly pointed out that McCain is not for change on the war and he's not for change on most domestic policies either.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

McCain's Next Gamble

John McCain's tactics have been pretty obvious recently -- when the polls show him heading for a likely loss, he takes quirky and unexpected action. It's risky but smart. If you're losing, you want to change the game. There's no point going down to a safe, boring defeat. You might as well try something risky. It might backfire and make things even worse, but if you were going to lose anyway, so what? You're not really any worse off than you were, and at least this way you might turn things around. This kind of thinking explains McCain's choice of the untested and unqualified (hey, that's George Will saying it not me) Sarah Palin as his running mate, and his bizarre "suspension" of his campaign last week.

So what's next? Here's my guess: McCain does a 180 and votes no on the bailout bill when it reaches the Senate floor tonight. Sure, he's already endorsed it and he's lobbying opponents right now. But so what? Public sentiment was apparently running 100-1 against the bill. People don't like the thought of bailing out Wall Street. And besides, these roll-the-dice moves are beyond rationality. You just have to do something different than your opponent, and something unexpected. So McCain votes no, decries the thing as a big-government giveaway to the rich and tries to pick up voters from both parties.

I'm just totally guessing. But remember, you heard it here first.