Monday, November 12, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Challenges to Democracy

How Not to Fix the Electoral College
Apparently the ballot initiative to give the Republican presidential candidate 20 or more of California's 55 electoral votes is back on track. In late September it looked like its promoters were giving up, but new money appeared at the end of October, and we should find out this month whether enough signatures have been collected to get the initiative onto the ballot in June.

Background: Currently, in every state but two, all the state's electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state. In Nebraska and Maine (9 combined electoral votes), two votes go to the winner of the state, and one vote goes to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district. Conceivably, a candidate who loses statewide could still pick up one electoral vote in Maine and two in Nebraska, though I don't remember it ever happening.

The proposal in question would convert California to the Nebraska/Maine system. Since California has become a very reliable blue state (Kerry won 54-44 in 2004), the most likely result is that the Republican candidate would get 20-plus electoral votes from California rather than none. That's equivalent to the Republicans winning a reliably blue state like Illinois.

What makes this initiative tricky is that it sounds good on the surface, but ends up working against the value it claims to promote. In any state that makes this change, electoral vote totals will more closely resemble the popular vote totals. Isn't that good?

Not exactly. The problem, of course, is that if you do it in California but nowhere else, you get the exact opposite result nationally: You significantly increase the likelihood that a Democrat might win the popular vote (as Gore did in 2000) but a Republican would take office. If the backers of this proposition actually wanted to fix the Electoral College, they'd borrow a trick the National Popular Vote Bill: That bill (in which each state that passes it promises to give its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote) only takes effect when it has been passed by enough states to represent an Electoral College majority. Fortunately, a recent poll indicates that the California proposition is unlikely to pass.

It's worth considering the general principle at work here, because it shows up often and is hard to capture in a simple slogan: It's the difference between random error and bias. Picture a football game whose referees make random errors that don't consistently favor either team. It would be better if they didn't make errors at all, but it would be worse if some infallible machine fixed all the mistakes that went against one team, while letting the bad calls against the other team stand. Such a machine would decrease the number of errors, but increase the bias. Imagine how hard it would be to argue against the machine: In each case where it intervenes, it does the right thing. But overall it transforms a flawed-but-fair system into an unfair system.

In politics the principle shows up in this form: Processes originally designed to do good things are applied in a biased way, and end up invoking the rhetoric of fairness to increase unfairness. So, for example, the Bush administration has changed the mission of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department so that it focuses on discrimination against already-powerful Christian groups rather than power-starved groups like blacks or the poor, or unpopular religions like Islam that face much more serious discrimination issues than Christianity does. The rhetoric of economic fairness is unleashed against the Estate Tax, which oppresses billionaire heirs and heiresses. When affirmative action causes a poor black student to get into college over better-qualified whites, you'll hear about it. But when Yale's legacy program admits a white aristocrat like George W. Bush over better-qualified minority candidates, you won't. Try to imagine a district attorney's attempt to railroad some black kids provoking the same outrage as the Duke lacrosse case. In short, our yearning for fairness is being invoked to fix any situation that unfairly handicaps the powerful.

I Know You're Sick of Hearing About Torture, But ...
The Senate approved Mike Mukasey as the new attorney general, without getting a clear answer to the question of whether he signs on to the Bush administration's bizarre and self-serving redefinition of the word torture. (Don't you long for the good old days, when it was outrageous for Clinton to redefine sex to exclude oral sex? It was another world.)

Glenn Greenwald points out the ridiculous behavior of Senate Democrats. Enough of them opposed Mukasey to sustain a fillibuster, but they didn't bother. Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein voted for Mukasey, although Schumer admitted that Mukasy was "wrong on torture -- dead wrong." I'll let Glenn react to that:
Marvel at that phrase: "wrong on torture." Six years ago, there wasn't even any such thing as being "wrong on torture," because "torture" wasn't something we debated. It would have been incoherent to have heard: "Well, he's dead wrong on torture, but . . . " Now, "torture" is not only something we openly debate, but it's something we do. And the fact that someone is on the wrong side of the "torture debate" doesn't prevent them from becoming the Attorney General of the United States. It's just one issue, like any other issue -- the capital gains tax, employer mandates for health care, the water bill -- and just because someone is "dead wrong" on one little issue (torture) hardly disqualifies them from High Beltway Office.
Here's something else to marvel at: Newsweek's On Faith page asked religious leaders the question "Can the use of torture ever be justified?" It wasn't unanimous. Former Nixon henchman Charles Colson is a religious leader now, having given his life to Jesus while in prison for his crimes. He finds "circumstances for an exception" to the moral obligation not to torture other human beings: "If a competent authority honestly believed that this was the only way to get information that might save the lives of thousands, I believe he would be justified."

Strangely, Colson finds no similar wiggle room for stem cell research. Competence and honesty and saving thousands doesn't justify anything here, because the issue is absolutely black and white:
Our greatest service as Christians is to do what we best do, that is, raise transcendent moral arguments. To sacrifice one person for the good of many can never be justified. Evil often masquerades as good; the worst atrocities are performed in the name of humanitarian causes. And we must press the logic of the utilitarian argument to its ultimate conclusion: Sacrificing one to benefit all soon makes all vulnerable.
I wonder what Colson thinks about using a bogus religious conversion to regain a platform for pushing your political ideas. Is there a transcendent moral argument against such a thing, or might there be circumstances for an exception?

Matthew Yglesias gives an example of a pattern I noted last month: Torture may not be good at getting people to tell you the truth, but if your goal is to get a false confession you can use to support your policies, it works great. On Balkinization, Marty Lederman tells a similar story about forcing a false confession, and then goes on to make an interesting legal point: In this case the FBI managed to get the court to seal not just the evidence of the case, but the accusations made by the plaintiff. "This is, I think, an ominous development -- the increasingly common notion that the government can insist that no one be permitted to publicly disclose what they know about how the government itself investigates crimes and terrorism, and how it treats those suspected of wrongdoing."

Keith Olbermann does one of his only-slightly-over-the-top "special comments" on torture here.

TPM Muckracker collects the video highlights of House committee hearings on torture. The best part starts around the 1 minute mark, with the testimony of an actual interrogator, Colonel Steve Kleinman.

Pakistan and Us
General Musharraf is now promising elections in January, which (apparently) makes everything all right.

This, in my view, is another example of the neo-conservative perversion of the idea of Democracy -- similar to what we have seen in Iraq. The traditional American ideal of "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" is completely foreign to the neo-conservative mind. Instead, elections are a totemic ritual by which you sprinkle the fairy-dust of Democracy onto your regime. So it doesn't matter if government secrecy prevents citizens from casting an informed vote, whether a free press examines the government's claims or just repeats them, whether anybody can check that your voting machines actually work, or even if the whole campaign takes place during a "state of emergency" in which journalists, lawyers, candidates, or anybody else can be jailed at the Leader's whim. As long as votes are cast and a winner is announced, you have a Democracy.

Scarecrow on Firedoglake makes the connection between Musharraf's policies in Pakistan and Bush's in America:
Nothing General Musharraf is doing to Pakistan is morally different from what Bush and Cheney have been doing, piece by piece, to America’s democratic principles and institutions. At best, we are dealing with matters of degree but not of kind. ... The Administration has worked tirelessly to convince Americans to believe they must give up their democratic values to fight terrorism, but from 9/11 forward, Bush has gotten it backwards. Instead, we have to give up our fear of terrorism to preserve our democratic values. Protect the Constitution and the rule of law, defend democratic values and institutions here, and provide an inspiration and support for those who struggle for them elsewhere.
Short Notes
If you're feeling too optimistic and need to do something to bring yourself down, read economist Joseph Stiglitz's "The Economic Consequences of George W. Bush" in the current Vanity Fair. Here's the gist, as I get it: At the end of the Clinton administration America faced economic challenges, but we had a budget surplus and a number of other resources that we could have brought to bear on those challenges. Well, by now we've pissed all those resources away on an insane war and on throwing a big tax-cut party for the rich. Our crumbling levies and bridges and dams (the ones that survive) are seven years older -- eight by the time the next president takes office. We're still not educating our children for the 21st century. We're losing our edge in basic research. But we've run up a huge debt already, so what can we do? Have a nice day, everybody.

A hoaxer announced a non-existent paper in a non-existent journal, claiming that global warming is a natural phenomenon unrelated to human activity. Just as naturally, the anti-global-warming folks jumped to promote it, including Rush Limbaugh -- because a transparently fake scientist who agrees with you is far more convincing than the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.

On the blog Political Animal, Kevin Drum has been searching for the worst blog posts of all time. After consulting with his readers, he presents the five finalists for the Golden Wingnut Award. The winner is John Hinderaker of the blog Power Line, who wrote on July 28, 2005: "It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile." Congratulations, John. You must be very proud.

I'm not for Ron Paul, but if you want to understand the people who are, watch this video.

Even some conservatives are starting to catch on. George Will writes: "Republicans, supposed defenders of limited government, actually are enablers of an unlimited presidency. Their belief in strict construction of the Constitution evaporates, and they become, in behavior if not in thought, adherents of the woolly idea of a 'living Constitution.' They endorse, by their passivity, the idea that new threats justify ignoring the Framers' text and logic about shared responsibility for war-making."


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