Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Good Quote

I was just listening to some lectures on the Birth of the Modern Mind in the background while working on a take home exam from one of my Stats classes when I heard this quote.

Though the Episcopal and Presbyterian sects are the two prevailing ones in Great Britain, yet all others are very welcome to come and settle in it, and live very sociably together, though most of their preachers hate one another almost as cordially as a Jansenist damns a Jesuit.

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Anglican depends on the Quaker's word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son's foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.

If there were only one religion in England, there would be despotism to fear; if there were but two, they would cut one another's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily and in peace.

Voltaire, "Letters on the English" c. 1778
I thought it bore (indirectly admittedly) on the relation between commercialism and religious tolerance. I've been thinking a good bit on the idea that economic and commercial freedom and the prosperity that tends to accompany them have been the driving force behind the rise of political freedom and civil rights. So the quote just kind of struck me. Anyway, back to work.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Some More Rawls Discussion

Speaking of meritorious blogging content, someone smart must have submitted this email to Andrew Sullivan. :) Having appeared on Fallows' blog some time ago, I wonder if this qualifies me as an Atlantic Monthly groupie.

The Brave New Media World


You raise a few interesting points. First, I would just note that your major premise is one that we've discussed a few times at Boys' events, although I can't recall whether you've been present for any of those discussions. It was the subject of a short but prescient book by Cass Sunstein titled He argued, precisely as you have, that proliferation in media sources will fuel self-selection of sources that confirm preexisting biases, undermining our cultural common ground and fragmenting our social beliefs. I think the threat is real, but can be overstated (as I'll discuss further below).

Second, I know exactly what you're talking about with regards to the comment sections on news sites. That stuff is purely toxic. It's even worse than you find on the purely partisan blogs and forums (e.g. DailyKos or RedState). News sites and YouTube comment threads and things of that nature appear to draw the absolute dregs for commenters. It's disturbing to read it, but ultimately I don't think that amounts to much. I suspect that it really is a very small percentage of the people who read the news stories or watch videos who post those comments (and probably with a high percentage of repeat players from one site to another). The numbers of people who participate in sites like DailyKos and RedState are more significant. Of course, those people also tend to suffer from groupthink and hyperbole and certainly represent a fragmentation in worldviews. But again, I'm not yet convinced that this is especially problematic. Their influence is ultimately fairly limited, as each party's Presidential primary this year demonstrated. In both cases the netroots favorites (Edwards for the Democrats, anybody-but-McCain (Ron Paul?) for the Republicans) failed to win.

Ultimately I think the democratization of public discourse via the Internet has been a tremendous win for the public. Contrary to your contention that we've seen a disappearance of sincere public discourse, I think we're seeing the emergence of new and important avenues for public discourse. There is a dialogue taking place on a community of blogs that surpasses in intelligence and candidness anything I can recall from the pre-Internet (or early Internet) days. To name just a few: Andrew Sullivan, Obsidian Wings, Matt Yglesias, Nate Silver, Al Giordano, Dan Drezner, Greg Djerejian, Ezra Klein, Tyler Cowen, John Cole, Cunning Realist, Josh Marshall. This short list covers a pretty broad spectrum of opinions (and certainly there are many others out there). These people are intelligent, generally well-educated, have diverse areas of expertise, and are interested in honest and sincere dialogue. Better yet, many of them read one another (and many other bloggers) and actually engage in back-and-forth discussion.

While the readership of the blogging community is still not at the same level as traditional media consumption, I think its influence is considerable. The bigger blogs (Sullivan, Marshall) draw in the neighborhood of a million page views a day, which is not insignificant. Moreover, that readership is disproportionately drawn from politicians (or at least political staffers), policymakers, and the media. This blogging community has the ability to affect campaign narratives. I think this is one of the reasons the McCain campaign flailed so wildly from one narrative to another over the Summer and Fall. The McCain strategists, all Karl Rove proteges, couldn't understand why their Obama narratives were not sticking the way the Al Gore - fibber and John Kerry - aloof liberal narratives stuck. The bloggers ripped their idiotic narratives to shreds and were quick to pounce if the traditional media went too far astray.

The emergence of this community presents a challenge to Sunstein's predictions. Certainly there is plenty of evidence on the Internet of Sunstinian self-selection and reinforcement of biases. But there is also a conscious acknowledgment among others that in order to be relevant as a thinker and a political writer one must be willing to inhabit the same world as other writers and one must be willing to engage differing views on more than a superficial level. Certainly this creates some tension between the self-reinforcing Freepers and Kossacks and the reality-based bloggers. On the conservative side this tension has spilled over into something like open warfare with the Freepers and Redstaters attempting to expel any conservatives who do not fully acquiesce in the Bush/Rove Republican orthodoxy. It's not clear how this is going to play out, although it seems inevitable that it will end badly for the Freepers, who are at this point quite remote from reality.

To conclude, I think, Henry, that you and Sunstein both had useful insights into the impact of hugely diverse media landscape, but I think the danger here is easily overstated. The broad expansion of the media landscape has occurred because the barriers to publication have dropped to almost nil (case in point: the Boys Weekend Journal), and the elimination of these barriers has also had tremendously positive effects. It does require people to be more savvy in their consumption of, and interaction with, the news, but the Internet has also made a great many people far more savvy about news media than the public has previously been. And the ease of entry into the market and the ease with which consumers can move from one product to another has allowed for something much closer to a true meritocracy than has ever existed in the traditional media. Nate Silver could never have gone from obscure bystander to political media powerhouse in less than a year in the old media market. I would go so far as to say we are entering a renaissance of political discourse. But the interplay between substantial number of people who have defied Sunstein's expectations with the still considerable masses who have conformed to his expectations does warrant continued observation. While relations between the two groups may frequently be strained, I think by virtue of pure merit alone the reality-based bloggers will always remain relevant and important.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Is a secular "church" a legal possibility?

I've wondered about this for quite a while and I figured I'd put the question to you guys as legal experts.

The idea really became well formed in my mind when I was working on the printing press and would regularly read a Jewish newsletter for the Chicago area that we ran. It set me thinking about how valuable a resource a religious organization can be for it's members. They're really excellent models for how many non-market-based services can be provided outside of state action.

Prior to the major involvement of the state in things like charity (welfare), education, and health care, religious organizations were the major providers of these services. To some degree they still do provide these sorts of services and others which the state does not provide, such as social networking and adult education.

So, could you create a secular, tax-exempt, organization that has a set philosophy (humanistic, for instance) which provides adult education, social activities, private schools, scholarship funds, recreational facilities, counseling, etc., exclusively to members?

Election 2008 -- Viewing Guide

I've collected a few sites to check on election night as the polls come in.

First, here's Nate Silver on what to watch for.

Here are the poll closing times:

Intrade's realtime electoral vote predictor:

CNN Election Center:

MSNBC results:

Monday, October 27, 2008

American Politics

I was just watching a very good MIT panel on Media coverage of the presidential election when I heard a quote (1:56:50) I just had to transcribe and post here. John Carroll says:
I would like to think that actual reasoned conversation and argument might actually have some effect on people's perceptions and how they vote. I mean, that would be a giant step forward I think. But I'm not sure that's actually going to happen because the two sides have hardened so much. I think Tom [Rosenstiel] writes about this in his book, that there used to be a shared set of facts that people would argue from. They would agree on some basic facts and then, they would argue from there. I think people don't agree on basic facts anymore and I don't think that anybody allows for the possibility that someone who disagrees with them can have a reasonable point of view, a legitimate point of view. I think it's all about delegitimizing the opposition. I think that that makes a very hard dynamic for anything positive to happen.
This inspired me to make a post I've been meaning to add for some time. I've been feeling more and more in the past couple of months that the political climate in the US is becoming fatally ossified and polarized. Political discussion seems to be pretty much dead.

I don't own a TV, and I don't feel that either of the major parties comes comes close to representing me, so I haven't been following the election closely. I do however do some occasional reading at the Economist, the Atlantic, and elsewhere. What has gradually given me this creeping, skin crawling, feeling that political discourse has fallen into the abyss, is reading the comments which are ubiquitously attached to online articles. These pain me deeply.

I've been a long time user of the internet. Trolling and flaming on boards, forums, and news sites are nothing new to me. That is, I have a baseline. Yet, of late, I've found the comments on site like those I mentioned above to be particularly discouraging. A very high percentage of comments are incredibly hostile, loaded with vitriol and ad hominem attacks. It really doesn't depend on the article. Left or Right leaning articles tend to draw the predictable attacks from the opposing side (though it's disappointing that these are being phrased less and less in constructive and reasonable ways), but the really scary thing is that the articles that draw the most fire are those that take a neutral or centrist position. That is, the sides have become so polarized that any viewpoint that does not openly align with one camp or the other is fair game for vicious assaults from both.

The above panel helped me to think about why this is happening. The proliferation of the media, the creation of new cable channels and the new media, while adding depth and breadth to the discourse available to the average media consumer, has actually had a tendency to narrow their field of view. There are so many sources of information from any given perspective that a person can read many blogs and news sites, and watch several political TV shows while never actually exposing themselves any alternative viewpoints. While, a few decades ago, there may have only been a handful choices in terms of channels and papers, the very universality of these media sources required that they cater to both sides of the political divide. Today's media sources are so extensively diversified that we can each choose to steep in a carefully selected set of opinions that precisely support the very perspective that we have already chosen to adhere to.

My gut feeling is that this is leading us toward further calamity. I think that this trend toward polarization and the disappearance of sincere public discussion and debate has been underway for some time. I think our current circumstances (the Iraq war and the financial crises, the biggest political and economic disasters in recent memory) are the fruits of this trend. We are reaping disaster, and yet what we are sowing today is far more corrupted and virulent than the seeds that brought us our current sorrows.

I think this relates to what I have described in the past as the anthropomorphization of our problems. That is, we tend to blame the problems we see on the direct action and intention of other people. We implicitly believe that, if we can counteract the actions of these evil people, we can undo the problems of the world. Hence it makes sense to mobilize the base of our party at whatever cost. In our all out war we sacrifice the truth for political expediency. But if the problems are in fact much more complicated than we appreciate, the ends do not justify the means. In fact, the means do not lead us to our ends at all, but rather to folly and destruction.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Opens Source government.

I just posted the following on a /. thread about the idea of an Open Source model of government.

In response to:
Open source is a much closer model for no government - or, in other words, anarchy. The last few years have been pretty clear to me that democracy doesn't produce government that works in the people's best interest. A linux model for government would allow people to choose how to organize themselves on a voluntary basis. Government, even the democratic version, rests on the application of force. So the two ideals really are mutually exclusive.
I replied:
Quite right.

Government, logically, is force. The government is that entity in a society which has a practical monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Insomuch as there are others able to ignore the dictates of the government or to use force to their own ends (think corruption/organized crime), the government is not sovereign.

In this sense the Open Source approach is not suited to government. The actions of government apply to everyone and are supported by the application of force (i.e if you disobey you will be arrested, if you resist arrest you will be shot) while an Open Source project is defined by voluntary action and a pluralistic, meritocratic, approach to system design. The two are inherently contradictory.

I think that to apply Open Source principles to government would require a Minimalist, Libertarian, style government. The Government Proper, the entity with the monopoly on force, would be restricted to ensuring that the various open development units don't attempt to use force against each other. Other than that policy would be left up to non-government units.

For instance, rather than having a monolithic federal welfare system, we could have a plurality of nonprofit organizations for the reduction and alleviation of poverty. If you have resources or skills and are concerned about poverty, you could join one of the existing organizations (the one which takes the approach that you find most appropriate) and contribute your time or money to helping them. Or, if you don't really identify with the approach of any of the existing organizations, you could get together with a group of like minded people and start an organization of your own.

Rather than taking a single ad hoc approach to solving civic problems we could have a diversity of parallel approaches being undertaken. Those that prove most effective will draw more and more contributors and donors, and, if they become too big and crufty, concerned members can fork off, or fledgling organizations can step in to break new paths and undercut the giants.

Under such a system, enlightened people would ask each other what organizations they work with, rather than what party they support. Instead of flaming each other in bars about which set of leaders should rule us, we could argue about which social projects take the best approach. Instead of sitting around reading the news and getting pissed, we could be designing new tactics and strategies for our favorite organizations. In other words, we could have real participatory "government" (as opposed to submitting a laughable, 0 = Democrat, 1 = Republican, every two years).

I think that this has been the major failing of the Libertarian movement. They've failed to paint a picture of a compassionate Libertarian world. Eliminating federal programs to assist the needy (poor, unhealthy, undereducated) does not mean that we'd all selfishly go around ignoring impoverished people begging on our doorsteps any more than legalizing drugs would mean that we'd all be out shooting heroin the next day. It just means that, instead of passing off our problems as a people to some faceless bureaucracy, we'd take responsibility for them ourselves.

Individualism isn't about greed. It's about standing on your own two feet and taking care of the world yourself, like an adult, rather than handing all of your problems over to our paternalistic government and then wallowing in childish self-pity when the world goes to shit.

I'd like to develop this sort of thing further. I definitely think that this sort of 'fleshing out the alternative' is a fruitful avenue for more writing. I think political discussion tends to be so frequently futile because we have such strong emotional associations around a lot of our ideas. If you associate your opponents ideas with images of bleakness, desolation, and misery and your own, with images of hope, enlightenment, and progress (and vise versa), then obviously there is virtually zero chance of either of you convincing the other of anything (because how could you possibly be convinced that bleakness is better than hope).

Unless we engage people at this deeper level of meaning, feeling, and association, (with images of how you feel the world could be) people will probably continue to talk past each other.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Republican Strategy: Straight from Sesame Street

For some time, I have been meaning to post a couple of thoughts I had after reading The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality. At the time, I was worried that the book would launch a wave of attacks similar to those that hit Kerry in 2004. Thankfully, that didn't happen--largely due to prompt responses by the Obama campaign and supporters. The media has since moved on to other things (e.g., Palin-mania), but I wanted to get my points out there anyway.

The book epitomizes two of the things that trouble me deeply about politics today, particularly as it is played by the core of the Republican party (aka, the "religious right"). First is the abuse of science and academics to prop up completely bogus claims. "Dr. Corsi," and others in his camp, attempt to mimic the methods of scientists and academics but ignore the most critical aspects of those disciplines (such as refutability in science), in a blatant attempt to support their own views rather than to discover the truth. Second, there is a subtextual campaign to divide the world into "us" and "them," with McCain-Palin in the "us" camp and Obama belonging to "them." You remember the Sesame Street song that goes, "One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn't belong ..."? That about sums up the theme of The Obama Nation, and for that matter the entire Republican strategy this election season. (Though in all fairness, I don't think that's the message that the Cookie Monster was promoting.)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lessig on Technology Policy

Here, in just over 15 minutes, Larry Lessig says basically everything I've ever tried to say about telecom policy on the blog (in the context of a critique of John McCain's tech platform). Take a look, it's well worth the time:

Also, for a number of weeks I've been meaning to post a link to this ars technica article on customer-owned fiber. Projects like this, or like Utah's UTOPIA seem to present the best way forward for the domestic telecom market.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Gaffe That Draws Blood

I have to concede, I am really quite pleased that John McCain started running his mouth about the Anbar Awakening. Before he did, the Conventional Wisdom on the Surge was so firmly established as to appear immovable. Everybody knows, the Surge worked. The fact that there is very little evidence to support that assertion really never came up. And if anyone tried to bring it up, they were scoffed at (as Obama was in the USA Today editorial above). Now that McCain has brought to the fore the fact that the Anbar Awakening, one of the most critical elements of our recent success in Iraq, was unrelated to the Surge, we can start to revisit the Conventional Wisdom.

What I think we'll find is that the real root cause for the turnaround in violence in Iraq had less to do with the additional 20,000 troops than with a change in tactics of which the Anbar Awakening was one element. The dramatic rise of David Petraeus marked the military's final grudging acceptance of the need to engage in actual counterinsurgency operations. After several disastrous years fighting the insurgency, it dawned on the Pentagon that their only real successes came where officers like Petraeus and H.R. McMaster eschewed the major operations that were up to that point the mainstay of the Iraq occupation and adopted classic counterinsurgency tactics. Hell, Petraeus wrote the book on the topic. Petraeus's ascension and this shift in tactics is what made the Anbar Awakening and the later success of the Surge possible.

This is a fairly important distinction, for a couple of reasons. First, is its obvious political impact. McCain has staked much on the fact that he supported the Surge when few others did, and the apparent success of the Surge is supposed to justify any number of prior errors of judgment with respect to Iraq (note how the USA Today article asks Obama to admit he was wrong about the surge, but it doesn't ask McCain to admit he was wrong about invading). If the Surge was not the answer, what does McCain have left to hang his hat on? Even if McCain did back counterinsurgency tactics, and it's not clear he did, that wouldn't be a terribly unique position. This humble blogger criticized the major ops approach to fighting the insurgency as far back as 2003, called for the implementation of counterinsurgency tactics in early 2004, and praised the military's movement in that direction in late 2005. Where was McCain all that time? I could have used his help back then.

Aside from the 2008 election, this debate has other long-term implications. Crediting the Surge for all that has gone right serves the right-wing's ever-popular Green Lantern Theory of Foreign Policy. According to the Green Lantern Theory ("GLT") any military failure is caused by a lack of willpower, and any military objective is achievable given a sufficient reserve of willpower. A corollary to the GLT is that any domestic criticism of either the decision to engage in a military conflict or the conduct of such conflict is a direct attack on the one resource necessary to win such a conflict (willpower) and thereby equivalent to treason. Proponents of the GLT have long scorned concepts such as nationbuilding, the exercise military restraint, respect for local culture, winning of hearts and minds, and, indeed, just about every other element of a traditional counterinsurgency operation. Not only are such things considered to be pointless, but they might weaken our resolve and are therefore deemed harmful to the cause.

Pinning all success in Iraq to the Surge is a perfect narrative fit for the GLT. Just when everyone else wanted to discuss withdrawal, George W. Bush rode the rescue with bulging reserves of willpower and not only refused to withdraw, he upped the ante as a tangible demonstration of his generous endowment of resolve. And lo, victory was achieved. If this is the narrative that comes out of the Iraq war, we will all live to regret it. The United States and Iraq alike paid a painful and bloody price to learn the lessons that the GLT proponents hope to obscure in a haze of Surge-o-philia.

In truth what we learned this time around are a lot of the lessons we should have learned from Vietnam. Indeed, Robert McNamara basically did learn those lessons. It is no coincidence that so did David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster. Petraeus wrote a doctoral thesis at Princeton titled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam." McMaster also wrote a doctoral thesis on the mistakes of the American military in Vietnam. The lessons were there to be learned, but few among conservative policymakers and the Pentagon brass did, enamored of the GLT as they are. Will we walk away from Iraq with the public and policymakers learning all the same wrong lessons so that the next time around we will, at terrible cost, have to rediscover the right ones all over again? I surely hope not. And I hope that McCain's gaffe will open the door to a more robust public dialogue on this topic.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Too Big to Be Privatized

There has been buzz for the past several days that the federal government would move to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and now appears the rumors have proven correct. This follows not so long after the bailout of Bear Stearns. I don't know enough about the banking market to say whether the government has made the right moves with respect to these bailouts, but it strikes me as odd that any private entity should be considered "too big to fail". It seems there two potential routes around this: either ensure that no single firm in a given market obtains enough market share to make its collapse catastrophic, or simply put the critical functions under public control. The former option is problematic in that a) it would require a far more robust (and I mean FAR more) and aggressive type of antitrust regulation than we currently have, and b) it is easy to imagine that, even with a larger number of firms, intense competition might lead the firms to adopt similar approaches such that numerous firms would teeter on the edge of collapse at the same time, and a bailout would be required anyway. The latter option is problematic for the obvious reason that markets are generally more efficient than government management. But this system where private companies are free to reap really impressive profits (as the investment banks have), but the public ultimately bears the downside risk seems untenable.

This problem has always been at the foundation of my opposition to any sort of privatization of social security. In fact, it's worse for social security than for the banking system, because with social security you've got two levels risk to deal with--the institutional and individual. Because even if whatever private institutions we hand the system over to don't fail, if a significant number of individuals managed their risk poorly and get cleaned out, I find it inconceivable that the government wouldn't step in to rescue them. That is, after all, the entire point of the program. It's social security. And once that happens, of course we'd expect everyone else to try to shoot the moon with their investments, because what's the downside? This is the sort of risk we don't want to be distributed. It only works when the risk is pooled. Look for similar problems with some sort of hybridized public/private health insurance. Once we've made a social decision that some service is necessary, for whatever reason (economic stability, national security, moral obligation), handing it over to private entities will necessarily create serious problems with risk management and moral hazard.

I'm not necessarily arguing that, for example, our entire banking system or health care system should be government run. But I do think that in terms of structuring the mix of government and private management of such critical functions we need to try to identify key breaking points and either put them under direct government control or develop some clever system to ensure that private entities approach these functions with the right set of incentives.

Update (7/14): Sebastian Mallaby appears to have a similar take on the issue to mine.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Public Service Announcement

It's been quite some time since I've done a public service announcement, but I just randomly happened upon this, and people ought to know. I haven't really heard anything about it, but I figure you can't go too far wrong with Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion. Here's the story. The first act is out on Tuesday.

Policy Outcomes

It may not always be immediately obvious what the consequences of screwing up telecom policy will be, but here's an illustration. To be honest, I'm not sure that broadband penetration is a terribly meaningful statistic at this point. There are some outliers in difficult to reach locations who still have no access to broadband, but as a general matter, broadband in some form or another is available to those who want it, at least in those in the countries towards the top of these charts. The more meaningful statistic is the average throughput. Japan, Korea, and France have all passed the threshold where IPTV is practical. In fact, just based on those bandwidth numbers I ran a search for IPTV in France and came up with this. Broadband in the United States, by contrast, is five times slower than Korea or France, and ten times slower than Japan. The real kicker is that we pay more for that privilege than consumers in those other countries. We must be paying extra for our wonderful customer service... The other key point is that around the time of the boom, the United States was the clear global leader in Internet and broadband service. Japan and Korea, in particular, were late to the game and got to where they are now almost entirely as a result of aggressive regulatory policy. Our steady decline is similarly tied to our moronic telecom policies. Rambling on about the power of the free market (as an alternative to regulation) doesn't get you too far when you're dealing with non-competitive markets, and at some point that starts to show.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Bear Market for Ideas

Early in his primary campaign, Barack Obama indicated that if his Republican opponent opted into the public financing system for the general election, he would follow suit. In a highly publicized decision last week, Obama decided to forgo public financing. In a column for the Atlantic, Reihan Salam uses Obama's decision as point of entry to a general condemnation of campaign finance regulation. I've written on this topic before (here, as well as several other occasions), and don't want to rehash everything I've said previously, but I do think Salam's column merits a response. Salam cites examples like Stewart Mott contributing massive amounts of money to Eugene McCarthy as laudable examples of civic participation. I have a number of objections to this line of thinking. For one it strikes me as a terrible subversion of the one person, one vote principle. For another, it seems inconceivable that massive contributions would not alter the behavior of politicians (Salam's attempt to brush this off as a "theory" in the same sense that the Loch Ness Monster is a theory is cute, if not perhaps the mark of someone engaging in an honest discussion). But my previous posts on this topic cover those objections pretty well. Instead I'd like to consider a basic premise of Salam's column and of the campaign finance discussion in general: the money is somehow fundamental to (or even indistinguishable from) political speech.

The basic point of raising all of this money is to pay for television advertising. This is no secret, and Salam's absurd vision of candidates launching nationwide chains of day-care providers aside, this assertion is unlikely to elicit much objection. I think it is critically important to frame the debate in this manner. To refer to the money as being for political speech makes it sound considerably grander than it really is. It is really money to bankroll TV ads. To be sure, TV ads can be a form of political speech. But they make up a very narrow category, and one with some rather noteworthy characteristics. Think about the most important and memorable political TV ads. Like this one. Or this one. Or this. And this. And this. (As an aside, I would have included the Clinton 3 A.M. ad, but it has apparently, and remarkably, vanished from the internet now that Hillary has dropped out.) When we talk about campaign finance, we are not discussing political speech writ large, we're discussing a very narrow subcategory of political speech that consists almost entirely of non-substantive, emotionally manipulative, and often misleading, but objectively speaking highly-effective, advertising. This sort of political speech is representative of the "marketplace of ideas" only in the same sense that Stephen Colbert has decided that global warming is real because the success of Al Gore's movie indicates that the market has spoken.

Certainly the Obama model of fundraising, garning small contributions from a huge base of donors, is an improvement over the traditional big donor approach. Some of the concern over influence is abated when the contributor base is more diffuse. But the sums of money involved have only increased in this cycle (in fact, more money has already been raised than was spent in total in 2004), and that itself represents a loss for the civic dialogue. A debate conducted via TV advertising is an impoverished debate. Even Barack Obama's message is necessarily infantilized by translation to ad format. As Matt Yglesias noted of Obama's first general election ad, the message boils down to: "My mom is white! And I'm from America!" If this is our marketplace of ideas, it's pretty clearly a bear market.

I recognize that TV advertising is an important tool for candidates. It's one of the only ways for them to directly reach a mass audience to answer attacks and spread their message. The Obama ad, for example, is probably quite necessary given the breadth of the campaign of misinformation that has already been waged against him. It's a tricky problem, and I don't plan to offer any easy solutions here. But I do think we need to be clear about what we're discussing, and in the discussion of campaign finance regulation I think we can do without any grandstanding about the cherished role of political speech. The sort of political speech we cherish is not the sort that gets funded by this money.

Update (6/23): This amusing Slate video on cookie-cutter political ads seems rather appropriate to this discussion.

A Positive Story from the Blogosphere

I don't have much of point to make with this post, I just think it is a really interesting story demonstrating the meritocratic impact of the internet and blogging. I'm referring to the meteoric rise of Nate Silver as a respected name in election-year journalism. Silver began as an unknown, posting on DailyKos under the name poblano. Before the voting began poblano penned diaries on a broad variety of primary-related topics. He gained a reputation on the site as a thoughtful and insightful Obama-backer. But it wasn't until late January, after several states were in the bag and super Tuesday loomed large that poblano's brilliance as a number-cruncher really emerged.

A pair of super Tuesday previews (initial diary, updated diary) drew huge amounts of attention, and deservedly so. poblano's previews included polling numbers, but greatly exceeded the depth of analysis offered anywhere in the commercial press, incorporating endorsements, fund-raising, and in-state campaign presence. While some of the delegate spreads were off, poblano correctly called the winner in every state (he considered AL, CT, and MO to be toss-ups). Super Tuesday itself provided a wealth of voting data to be mined, and poblano was soon off to the races, dissecting the results and turning them into projections for the general election. Again, the analysis found here was hands down better than anything I encountered in the commercial press.

Having gained considerable notoriety among political bloggers during January and February, in early March poblano moved off DailyKos to his own website, FiveThirtyEight. There he continued providing projections of the primaries and general election, and he also did something professional political writers never do: hold pollsters accountable. In May, poblano crushed the professional pollsters with his projections for Indiana and North Carolina, identified himself as baseball statistician Nate Silver, and finally began to garner attention outside the sphere of political blogs. Not only will Silver likely be a mainstay of election coverage for the rest of the year (and following election years), but I suspect that he has an awful lot of professional analysts reconsidering their methodologies and approaches to political projection. Oh, and, by the way, the projections for Obama at FiveThirtyEight are looking awfully nice these days.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Resistance is Futile

Tim Wu on the state of the wireless market:
Who would have guessed that Apple—onetime victim of IBM and Microsoft—would today be an agent and symbol of industry consolidation? I don't know that it's fair to say this is Apple's fault. A telephone monopoly has been the norm for most of American telecommunication history, except for what may turn out to have been a brief experimental period from 1984 through 2012 or so. Like the short British experiment with republican government under Oliver Cromwell, it may be that telephone monopolies in America are a national tradition. In this larger story, the iPhone matters just as one of the last nails in the coffin of Bell's would-be competitors.
Brutal, but true. AT&T and Verizon cleaned house in the FCC's recent 700 MHz auction and appear to be scooping up spectrum and independent carriers faster than they can consume them. Sprint has been driven, in its desperation, into a last ditch joint effort with Clearwire, Comcast, Time Warner, Google, and Intel to offer an alternative data network -- a high stakes gamble that faces numerous business and technological obstacles. T-Mobile, the only other nationwide wireless carrier seems content to slowly sink into irrelevance. If the Sprint gambit fails, AT&T and Verizon will stand alone atop the wireless market. And even if it succeeds, the three viable national wireless networks will, by no coincidence, be under the control of the same four entities that have established total dominance over wireline voice, video, and data service in the United States: AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Time Warner. Either way, the mass extinction of competition in the American telecom marketplace is all but complete. To make matters worse, on the wireline side Comcast and Time Warner have few (if any) overlapping markets, and the same is true of AT&T and Verizon. To the extent that consumers prefer quadruple play offers (voice, video, data, and wireless), a proposition all the major carriers are betting heavily on, the vast majority of consumers will have only two options, if that. What has befallen the telecom market over the past 10 years is a disaster.

While we can only hope that help will be on the way once Democrats (hopefully) take over the White House and the FCC, it may be too little too late. To undo what has been done would require drastic measures. It would mean breaking up these big four, forcing some open access regime on them, or (best of all) forcing a separation of their physical network assets from their content and service delivery businesses. Any of these options would entail a major battle fought simultaneously on political, legal, and regulatory planes that, in all likelihood, would take the better part of a decade to play out. I doubt even an enlightened Democratic government would have the stomach for that. The only real alternative will be for the FCC to increasingly re-regulate these businesses. When the market cannot enforce discipline on providers of necessary services, regulators have to step in and assume the task. Net neutrality will only be the beginning...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Back from the Dead: Obama and Political Process

As a first step to reviving this dormant blog, I'm going to cobble together various thoughts from discussions in email and elsewhere over the past half year or so. These thoughts are perhaps less novel and certainly less timely now with the primaries concluded than they were when they initially occurred to me, but I think they're still worth discussing.

Back when the Democratic primary was still hotly contested between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards (who, let's not forget, was the clear favorite among the netroots), Obama was not infrequently attacked as a "process" candidate. This charge was advanced derisively, with suggestions that such focus on process was a sign of vanity with little appeal beyond upper-middle class young white professionals who don't care about Real Issues. Typically it was accompanied with comparisons to other such vanity candidates like Bill Bradley, Paul Tsongas, and Eugene McCarthy.

In response, I first must concede that I believe these critics are correct: Obama is a process candidate. While some conservatives have looked to Obama's liberal policy positions and scoffed at his supposed post-partisanness, Obama's post-partisan approach is a matter of process, not policy. Post-partisanship has to do with refocusing the process on substantive issues rather than the partisan circus we've seen the past 10-15 years, with having amicable disagreements, treating everyone with civility and decency instead of demonizing political opponents, with having a willingness to critically analyze issues without viewing them solely as an opportunity to score political points, with prioritizing competence over patronage and loyalty in government bureaucracy, with not letting elections be dominated by hot-button bullshit issues (e.g. Terry Schiavo) instead of the actual and quite serious issues facing our nation. This is really the defining attribute of Obama's campaign, particularly in comparison to his Democratic opponents with whom he had relatively few policy differences. So, yes, Obama is a process candidate.

I must strenuously disagree, however, with the position that Obama's process-focus is a matter of vanity, or is in any respect a political weakness. John Edwards thought that the Democrats needed to move left and take more populist positions in order to win. Hillary Clinton initially seemed to think we needed to move back towards her husband's centrist approach (i.e. the Democratic Leadership Council position). Later she seemed to adopt the Edwards populist angle, and later still she decided the Democrats needed be more ... white. The reality is that Democrats don't need to do any of that. What Democrats desperately need to do is fight back against the political circus and force people to look at real substantive issues. This is what Obama's post-partisanship is meant to achieve.

Along with criticism that he was too process-oriented, one of the chief netroots complaints about Obama was that he is insufficiently harsh on Republicans. He failed to call them out for being the repugnant, evil, spiteful people that, in the eyes of the netroots, they so obviously were. Obama failed to demonize the opposing party. What Obama understands that the netroots failed to grasp is that this road leads to tribal politics. That's the Republican way, the grand political circus. Everyone will retreat to their old familiar identity groups and fling flaming dog poop at each other and we'll rehash the same election we had in 2000 and 2004. In a year where the fundamentals so strongly favor Democrats, we might even win with that approach. But as a long-term strategy, it is a loser.

Bitterly divisive partisan politics is a game that Republican will always ultimately win. It's the game they've chosen and written the rules for, and they did so because it best fits the philosophy of their party and the memes they're trying to sell. It demeans politics, belittles the political process, and sows cynicism and distrust of politicians and government alike. For Democrats to fight back on the same terms concedes a decisive advantage to the Republicans right up front. For Democrats to succeed people need to believe in government, and for that to happen they need to first believe in the political process.

In order to break out of the long downward spiral of hyper-partisan politics it will be imperative to get some people to vote on issues rather identity. This is a difficult task, because it so easy for people to flee to the comfort of their identity groups. But the upside is we don't need a lot of them. All it would take would be to flip 10-15% of voters who've gone Republican in the last two election cycles to win a landslide victory. And here's the real key: these voters already agree with Democrats on all the major policy questions. A large majority of Americans favor universal health care (including a majority of Republicans!). A large majority of Americans believe the government needs to take serious action on climate change. A large majority of Americans want our troops out of Iraq within a year. A large majority of Americans agree that we should have diplomatic meetings with Iran without preconditions. Let me say this again: Democrats do not need to change their policy positions to go after independent and Republican voters. They already agree with us! The only key to victory is to figure out how to bust people loose from identity politics.

If Democrats can only break off a chunk of the Bush voters and get them to vote on issues instead of identity, they will win big. Hillary Clinton could never have succeeded in this task because she is a creature of hyper-partisan politics. Her political career was born of it, the hard feminist core of her support was built on it, and she personally revels in it. Her pitch to the primary voters was that we should support her because she could play this game better than anyone. And John Edwards, having failed with a more moderate, centrist approach in 2004, embraced identity politics himself this time around, pulling together an odd alliance of white working-class union voters and the most vociferous leftists of the netroots. But the fiery rhetoric and demonization of others required to win these groups was self-limiting, and Edwards consequently had no success extending his appeal beyond these identity groups. Neither of them could have avoided the trap of hyper-partisanship. Neither of them could have significantly altered the playing field. Either probably could have won, given the overall dynamics of this election, but neither would have been a game-changer.

But Obama did something different. Obama has built a campaign around rejecting the circus. His campaign is constructed from the ground up precisely to be a game-changer. He properly understood that concern over the political process is not a vanity issue; it is the difference between continued frustration for Democrats and clear political dominance. Obama treats all Americans with dignity and respect. He discounts no one and tries to engage everyone. He wants voters to believe that under his administration
the government will take into account all of their views, positions, and beliefs and negotiate them in a reasonable and sensible manner. He recognizes that people don't always need to win every argument as long as they feel the system is fair and that their voice is heard. His campaign is built around these basic values.

It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to break the cycle. I think the approach is right, and Obama personally has demonstrated a level of
wisdom, charisma, and leadership that leads me to believe he can really pull this off. But I don't underestimate the difficulty of the task. The Republicans wouldn't have invested so much in this approach if it didn't work so goddamned well. But if Obama prevails, this could be an incredibly meaningful victory, and a breath of fresh air that we all, at this point, desperately need.

Update (6/12): just for added emphasis, check out this Obama quote that they've put at the top of their anti-smear page: "What you won't hear from this campaign or this party is the kind of politics that uses religion as a wedge, or patriotism as a bludgeon -- that sees our opponents not as competitors to challenge, but enemies to demonize. Because we may call ourselves Democrats and Republicans, but we are Americans first. We are always Americans first."