Friday, December 30, 2005

Silly Libertarians

I was really hoping this article/speech by Bradley Smith, former FEC commissioner, would give me a chance to discuss the substantive objections to campaign finance reform. Then the guy referred to the Microsoft antitrust litigation as a "seemingly senseless regulatory legal assault" intended to extract campaign contributions from Microsoft. Uhh, right. It's amazing how quickly a person can drag their credibility through the gutter.

Smith's analysis of the harms of unregulated campaign money is largely limited to efforts to find quid pro quo returns on investment for corporate contributors. He takes this as far as analysis of the stock market reaction to McConnell v. FEC for companies that make political soft money contributions. What is this supposed to prove?

This sort of analysis is overly complex and makes it difficult to produce any sort of meaningful empirical data. What sort of scorecard do you use here? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of influence (not least of which the Microsoft example that Smith himself raised). Smith acknowledges that the data he presents has many critics, but claims that since they don't have better data, that makes his data somehow valid.

A simpler analysis is this: our system is based on democratic, one person-one vote principles. Does campaign money subvert those principles? Does it give influence beyond one-vote to big money donors?

In this view the analysis of harms should be considered from the other end. Does the money influence election outcomes? According to, the odds of a challenger for a house seat in 2000 beating an incumbent were nil for challengers who raised under $500k, 24:1 for challengers with $500k-$1m, 15:1 for challengers with $1m-$1.5m, and 3:1 for challengers with over $1.5m. That looks a lot like influence. Obviously there are still confounding factors here (primarily that one might suppose that campaign money flows to more attractive candidates). But this seems like more meaningful data than the sort referenced by Smith. Additionally you've got quotes like this one (one of my all-time favorites) from Senator Fritz Hollings:

"The body politic has got a cancer of money. I ran in 1998, and I raised $8.5 million. That's about $30,000 a week, each week, every week, for six years. If I missed Christmas and New Year's weeks, I'm $100,000 in the hole. So the race begins the next day [after your election]. We're collecting for six years out. That means we don't work on Monday. We don't work on Friday. I've got to get money, money, money, money. And I only listen to the people who give me money. With the shortage of time and everything else, you've got to listen to the $1,000 givers. I mean, no individual is corrupt, but the body has been corrupted."

It seems, to me at least, fairly obvious that money impacts election results. It seems also obvious that this gives political power to people who wield that money. That is problematic for a one person-one vote system. Smith never discusses this problem.

But he does talk about other evidence of corruption, apparently to show that BCRA is insincere. The hiring of spouses and children of politicians as lobbyists, contributions to personal foundations, and book contracts, for example. Frankly this only amplifies the need for regulation of money in politics. If anything this should support expanding BCRA into broader territory.

Smith criticizes McCain for speaking at a fund-raising dinner for the Brennan Center that raised money to support BCRA and to help defend it against McConnell's legal challenge. Apparently McCain also raises money to support campaign finance reform through his own Reform Institute. This is the sort of self-defeating argument often leveled at McCain and Feingold and other finance reformers: how can they argue for campaign finance reform when they accept the sort of contributions they argue against? A better question would be: if their argument is premised on the fact that the current political environment makes it necessary to raise large sums of money to get anything accomplished, how could McCain and Feingold hope to accomplish anything without raising money? Only people in the system can change the system. They have to play the game to change the rules. And ultimately this is not a discussion of the substantive merits of the issue anyway. It is merely smear attack against proponents of reform.

Here's an interesting thought I'd like to see some of these folks discuss. The Supreme Court appears to be increasingly coming under the control of Scalian originalists. There is a strong argument to be made that the original meaning for the First Amendment was merely to prevent prior restraint of speech. This was a system used in England where printers needed to get prior government authorization of material to be printed. The Sedition Act of 1798, for example, seems to our sensibilities to be a clear violation of the First Amendment. But no one seriously thought it was a violation at the time, and the courts never struck it down. The Republican (Jeffersonian) reaction against the Act was politically motivated (it was a Federalist device to squelch Republican press) and focused on the issue of federalism rather than the First Amendment. It did not implement prior restraint, and it allowed truth as a defense. This was free speech as compared to the English system. An originalist interpretation of the First Amendment would create a tremendous amount of breathing room for campaign regulation. I wonder how keen some of the conservative court cheerleaders would be for that..

The Cold War Wasn't So Cold

Timothy Noah has a great column on Slate about post-Cold War decline of global violence. Noah rightly points out that while the Cold War may have been cold for Americans and Soviets, it was hot as can be for many third world nations where we staged proxy wars. These, not coincidentally, are many of the nations we now refer to as "failed states" and worry about as sources of terrorism. This is an important element of framing in the GWOT discussion. It is easy for diplomats and statesmen to get caught up in the Great Game, but nations and peoples are not chess pieces and this is a game more complex and unpredictable than our leaders generally imagine.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Monday, December 19, 2005

Democracy Doesn't Mean You Can Vote for Hamas

Speaking of problems with democracy.. CSM reports that Hamas is appearing increasingly dominant in Palestinian elections. First off, I told you so. That aside, the E.U. and the U.S. are quite unhappy about this turn of events and are threatening repercussions should Hamas gain a majority of the Palestinian legislative council. Not so excited about democracy anymore? It's not at all clear yet that Hamas could win a national majority, but if they do, the E.U. will demand that they renounce violence or forfeit aid money (as if that ever stopped Arafat's Fatah party from doing anything). The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a resolution threatening to cut off all support for the Palestinian Authority if Hamas has any participation in the government.

This is pure stupidity. I've argued before, and I'm sure I'll argue again, that there will not be a peaceful settlement of this conflict without Hamas' participation. They already have an effective veto over the process through violence, which they exercised over the Oslo agreement. It sure seems like it would be better for everyone if they could exercise their veto through voting in the Palestinian legislature rather than through detonating bombs in cafes in Jerusalem. Here there is an opportunity to mainstream Hamas, to bring political leaders within the organization to its front and into legitimate negotiating positions, and to support and strengthen Palestinian democracy, all in one blow. And it looks like we want to squander the opportunity...

Spreading Democracy

I haven't had a Democracy is Hard to Do(TM) post for a while, so here's a good one. Fred Kaplan discusses a book called Electing to Fight in relation to the recent elections in Iraq. The book argues that emerging democracies are more prone to violence and instability than any other type of government, and stresses the importance of establishing democratic institutions over holding elections. They see all the hallmarks of disaster in the emerging Iraqi government. Established democracies, they agree, tend to be peaceful. But the process of democratizing is dangerous and loaded with pitfalls.

A Healthy Change for the Military

I've complained about this more than a few times, so I'd like to give some recognition where it's due. It seems the U.S. military has (somewhat belatedly) realized that peace-making and peace-keeping (that dreaded nation-building stuff) is an important part of their mission and something that they should train their soldiers to do. This may come too late for Iraq, but it's a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The End of Faith, God Willing

I recently finished reading Sam Harris' book The End of Faith. It was a fascinating read that really made me rethink the utility and danger of faith, most prominently demonstrated by religion. In particular, Harris is concerned by faith that is out of reach of both criticism and debate. This is especially dangerous in the Big Three religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), all of which claim that their religion is the only true religion and that those not subscribing to it are damned. Thus the setup for inevitable conflict. The only reason that Christianity has mellowed, Harris claims, is due to secular influences. I would very much agree.

Such criticism of faith and religion is not new. What was new to me, however, were Harris' criticisms of religious moderates. He claims that moderates are complicit in the acts of terrorism or harm done by religious extremists. Because moderates believe in at least some of the dogma of a given religion, they have no grounds on which to argue against a completely literal interpretation of the religious text. In other words, they are on the same spectrum of belief as the extremist, where at some level their faith becomes dissociated from reason.

Harris covers a broad range of topics in the book. One I would like to mention is torture, given the recent press coverage and Joe's recent post (see Torture Nation, 10/7). Harris' arguments were a little harder to follow here, but I believe his main thrust is that torture is no different than collateral damage caused in a war. In other words, in fighting a war, both are potential unfortunate consequences necessary to succeed. He seems to forget about intention through all of this: there is certainly no intention to kill innocent bystanders in a war (although we might expect this to happen), but there is clearly intention to torture someone as a means to an end.

With that said, I continue to struggle with the torture issue. In the oft-cited example, a captive holds information about a bomb he has planted that will kill thousands of people, but he is unwilling to give that information. Should he be subject to torture that we might save thousands of lives? Assuming we know him to be guilty and involved, the answer is clearly yes from a utilitarian perspective. And yet, therein lies the potential of gross misuse of torture, for how can we ever truly know whether we have the right man? Is the information gained by torture reliable? From a practical standpoint at least, there are many doubts about cost-benefit of torture.

I would encourage everyone out there to read Harris' book (by the way, Harris has a degree in philosophy and is a doctoral candidate in neuroscience - I love him already). I would also love to hear any discussion on these issues. Some excerpts from the book you might enjoy:

“Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.” (page 19)

“We live in an age in which most people believe that mere words— ‘Jesus,’ ‘Allah,’ ‘Ram’—can mean the difference between eternal torment and bliss everlasting. Considering the stakes here, it is not surprising that many of us occasionally find it necessary to murder other human beings for using the wrong magic words, or the right ones for the wrong reasons. How can any person presume to know that this is the way the universe works? Because it says so in our holy books. How do we know that our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so. Epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world.” (page 35)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Fuck Iowa and New Hampshire

Pardon my language, but seriously. I can't believe this is the best we can do to remove their nominating privilege. And still they bitch and complain. Let them have their primaries last, I say. Actually, I say let's have a national primary. Please! I understand that arguments about how this would decrease attention to the individual states (particularly small states), and I sympathize with that. But the way the press covers these things (something around 80% of the coverage is coverage of the "horse race" rather than coverage of candidates and issues), and the way people react to it (voters in later primaries vote to reward winners in early primaries), the primaries are effectively over after the first 4-5 states. Better to have the states get less personal attention than to have the same five states select the presidential nominee and have everyone else locked out of the process.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Memo to South Korea

Dear South Korea,

Apparently you have not figured out how this antitrust thing works. The proper procedure after you find Microsoft guilty of multiple antitrust violations is to roll over and play dead. Alternately you could send Bill Gates a fruit cake. Certainly you don't make them remove Windows Messenger from their operating system, because that harms customers, who obviously have no reason to want Windows without Messenger. Please try to learn from our example.

U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division

Gold Rush

It's been some time since I've posted anything on currency issues. It appears Henry was ahead of the curve on investing in gold. Gold recently hit a 22-year high, and is getting a fair amount of attention from the press. The very fact of this attention may signal that the market has already made its move, at least for now. But score one for the anti-fiat-currency libertarians...

Torture Nation

I had thought that the Bush administration's policies favoring torture grossly misrepresented America's values to the world. Apparently not. The polling data at the bottom of this CSM story little more than a third of Americans believe that torture should not be used in interrogations. A slightly higher number favor the use of torture "sometimes" or "often". Have we always been like this? Or has the media's "fairness" on this controversy (treating both sides as substantively equal) legitimized torture for some Americans? It's disturbing in any case...

Stylin' Like Saddam

Ths is weird, yet somehow predictable...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Sweet Smell of Corruption

CSM is also running a wonderful editorial on corruption in Congress. It still burns me up how many people argue against campaign finance reform...

Expert Opinions on Iraq

CSM has a bit on a Strategic Studies Institute report on the continuing occupation of Iraq. The authors doubt that the U.S. will be able to put down the insugency before leaving, or train Iraqi security forces sufficiently to do the job themselves. Moreover, they suggest that the U.S. start to consider that an undemocratic government may be necessary to create a stable Iraq. Additionally they argue that a timetable for withdrawal would not be helpful.

There is also a link to an NPR interview with a former director of the NSA, who argues that the best thing we can do for democracy in Iraq is leave now.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

So Stupid It Hurts

So we're planting P.R. pieces in Iraqi media outlets. I can't say I'm shocked. As some of the comments in the story point out, these sorts of stunts continue to drag our credibility through the mud. I can't help but recall the Defense Science Board's insightful Report on Strategic Communication (blogged here). Now a year old, I still believe it to be the single most intelligent document on the War on Terror. The report stated:

"Information saturation means attention, not information, becomes a scarce resource. Power flows to credible messengers. Asymmetrical credibility matters. What's around information is critical. Reputations count. Brands are important. Editors, filters, and cue givers are influential. Fifty years ago political struggles were about the ability to control and transmit scarce information. Today, political struggles are about the creation and destruction of credibility."

There are some very smart people in our government. Sad that nobody pays attention to them. Al Qaeda doesn't need to destroy our credibility. We do it to ourselves, over and over and over again.

Exercises In Futility

I feel somehow obligated to blog articles where some poor idealistic fool writes about the budget deficit and fiscal discipline. As if anyone cared. I have to say I like the line about the House deficit reduction plan giving new meaning to the phrase "women and children first" (I wish Holt would have said who originated it).

Random thought: I know there are various organizations that send questionnaires to political candidates to survey their positions on various issues. I'd like to see one in the form of a spreadsheet that provides an extremely dumbed down version of the federal budget (ie. on the income side provide the rates of the major tax brackets (with built in calculations to reflect the revenue change that results from adjustments to the rates) and an "other" category encompassing everything else, on the spending side have military (including foreign interventions), social security, medicare/medicaid, homeland security, and "other" encompassing everything else). On one line have the actual numbers as of this year. On the next line invite the candidate to fill in the budget that they would institute if they were king. I'm tired of politicians talking about reducing the deficit, but never committing to any sacrifice (on either the tax side or spending) that would make it happen. This system would apply a very simple reality check to the usual B.S. rhetoric.