Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Some New Year's Thoughts

Some random thoughts…

There are a lot of people predicting a long reign of Democrat dominance due to Republican incompetence and corruption. According to this theory, the GOP will become like the Democrats of 2004 and face a long period in the political wilderness. (Of course, the Democrat party rallied quite well after 2004).

They’re wrong, and Rod Blagovich is a perfect example of the reason why. Power corrupts, and the party in power has many more opportunities for corruption. (As well as more members in positions of power). Democrats are just as susceptible to corruption as Republicans are—and controlling the government will give them ample opportunity to prove it.

An essential part, apparently, of any year in review column is a reference to the incredible inspiration to be found in Barack Obama’s election. Maybe it is, for Democrats and people who voted for him, but he hasn’t actually done anything useful yet (he couldn’t; he hasn’t had the opportunity), and his election proves only that a handsome, eloquent man with good media skills can be elected president, which isn’t exactly a transcendental notion.

Another essential year in review feature—a mention of Sarah Palin’s foolishness. Like someone who went from being a member of the Wasilla school board to a near Vice President could possibly be a bit lacking upstairs.

Another Palin point—Democrats hate and fear her every bit as much as Republicans hate and fear Hillary. I was talking to some very reasonable and sensible Democrats recently. We found common ground on most issues—until I mentioned that I thought Sarah Palin represented the future of the Republican party. They shuddered at the idea in a way that I had previously only seen during the climax of exceptionally scary horror movies.

Of course, if Palin is the future of the Republican party, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. She has a very annoying populist, Joe Sixpack-wannabe streak which sometimes seems to discount the advantages of education and learning. The intelligentsia don’t have all the answers—but they do have valuable knowledge. Palin is throwing the baby out with the bathwater—the fact that intellectual elites are often wrong doesn’t mean that a simple populist appeal is right.

Some in the RNC are proposing having the Committee publically condemn the bailouts of the economy. A nice thought—but isn’t saying, in effect, that about half the Republican party aren’t “true” Republicans a bit counterproductive? After all, the GOP can’t run only wholly conservative candidates for all offices.

Israel seems to be the only state in the world that doesn’t have the right to defend itself, at least according to many leftists. A whole book, or at least a whole blog post, could be written about this phenomenon, but one point seems especially obvious. Assume for a moment that Israel is what its detractors say it is—a bullying nation with a disproportionate response to any provocation by its enemies. Is that really the biggest problem that faces the world? By any rational measure, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the rest of the anti-Israel part of the Arab world are nasty, violent thugs, and dishonest ones to boot, given that they break nearly every treaty and agreement made. Given the plight of so many totalitarian ruled African countries, China’s and Russia’s civil rights violations, and the social injustice found in India, is there anything Israel could possibly do that could compare?

Happy New Year, everyone!!!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Things Aren't That Bad

As the year 2008 draws to a close, many are predicting dire things for the years ahead. This line of thought sees this decade as the final period of American hegemony, and as the end of the world as we know it. The American financial system will collapse, the environment will finally get its revenge for years of abuse, and American military dominance will end. Basically, many believe that America faces a Soviet Union-style bust, in which the U.S. loses its superpower status. Granted, the Soviet Union lost a great deal more than its superpower status, but the idea is the same—in a few decades, America’s role in the world will be fundamentally changed.

Things really don’t look good in the short term. The U.S. faces a recession, and probably a long and difficult one. The job market looks bleak, and much of the American auto industry is, in its present form, ruined. Barack Obama’s best hope for recovery is a massive stimulus package, and if it doesn’t work, and it probably won’t because stimulus packages rarely do, then the road to recovery will be very difficult.

So the short-term doesn’t look good. But the long-term looks, if not good, at least not bad. John McCain was right—the fundamentals—the deepest fundamentals—of our economy, and of our country, are still strong. (Although I doubt that McCain carefully considered the health of America’s economic essentials before making that statement; rather, it was probably an attempt at Churchillian confidence that backfired).

Before considering the economy, it’s worth disposing of the idea that climate change will ravage the world, at least in the short term. It’s easy to think of awful natural disasters—Katrina, Gustav, California wildfires, drought, blizzards, and tempting to try to explain them away by citing global warming. (If they are caused by global warming, at least we can do something). Maybe they are, to some degree, but the real reason for the devastation probably lies in the fact that our fastest-growing population centers are locating squarely in prime natural disaster zones. Florida (hurricanes), the Southwest (drought), and California (earthquakes and wildfires) have growing populations; North Dakota and Wyoming do not. But if the situations were reversed, the devastation caused by natural disasters would be much less.

The economy looks much more dire than the environment—after all, natural disasters usually happen to someone else, but a bad economy affects everybody. But while the short-term economy will be rocky, it doesn’t look that bad in the long term. Is doesn’t look particularly good either, but there’s no reason to think that America will lose its status as the world’s preeminent economy.

For one thing, who would replace it? China? Their economy is based, in large part, on making stuff for the United States and Europe. And if demand from the United States ceases, where will they sell their products? The Chinese economy is linked to America’s—if we collapse, so do they.

India? It faces the same obstacles as China, except India must also deal with an unfriendly Pakistan, and social unrest.

Europe? It can’t even reproduce itself, and faces massive unemployment and incredible public debt.

The United States has four percent of the world’s population. It consumes 25 percent of the world’s resources. And the world had better hope it keeps doing so, or the world economy will collapse from lack of demand. For better or worse, the United States still controls the destiny of the world economy, and probably will for the foreseeable future.

Two years ago, the U.S. economy was booming with no end in sight. Now it’s not. Such swings are part of free-market capitalism. There is no reason to think that the U.S. can’t recover from this recession.

Armageddon is not near. The economy will recover (probably; nothing is certain in economics), and we will continue to recover from natural disasters. There will, of course, come a time when the American hegemony will fall—but there is nothing to suggest that this is that time.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Running For the RNC

On January 9, the 168 RNC members will select the next chairman of the Republican National Committee. It is pretty much universally acknowledged that the Republican party must go in a new direction—the fact that the GOP has fared poorly in the last two elections confirms that notion.

So it’s a surprise to see that current chairman, Mike Duncan, is running for reelection, and by many accounts even has a decent shot of winning. Duncan wasn’t a total disaster as chairman—but the fact that he has even a prayer of winning reelection is an example of much of what is wrong with the Republican party. His performance as chairman has been nowhere near good enough to justify giving him another term.

First, the good about Duncan’s tenure: he raised a lot of money. The RNC consistently outraised the DNC, by significant margins. Raising money is one of the RNC’s most important goals, and Duncan deserves credit here.

Now the bad: during Duncan’s time as chairman, the Republicans were crushed in a disastrous presidential election. In fairness, Duncan didn’t start with a very good hand—the Republican party faced historically low approval ratings, and John McCain wasn’t particularly good as the national face of the party.

But Duncan played his poor hand badly. The Democrat campaign was much more technologically savvy—it used the Internet, networking, and IT to mobilize volunteers. The Republican strategy was much less advanced, and depended on outdated and ineffective (at least compared to the Democrats) techniques.

Liberals don’t like Republicans because they feel they are out of touch with the country. Many conservatives are angry with the GOP because they feel that the party has abandoned its conservative principles. Duncan didn’t really address either problem—the party elite remained rich white men, while the party’s principles were the kind of watered-down, unconservative principles that angered so much of the base.

As noted, Duncan was not put in a very good situation. But he failed to make anything of his situation, the party is still weak, and needs new leadership.

There are, fortunately, plenty of strong candidates. Chip Saltsman did an excellent job of catapulting Mike Huckabee into the national spotlight. Saul Azunis did good work in Michigan as head of the Republican party there. And Katon Dawson exhibited competence in South Carolina.

But two of the strongest RNC chair candidates are Ken Blackwell and Michael Steele, two men with strikingly similar political histories. Both spent time as high-ranking state officials (Blackwell was Ohio’s Secretary of State, Steele was Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor), who ran excellent campaigns for higher office (governor and Senator, respectively) but lost in the 2006 Democratic landslide. Both men are telegenic and smart, have good organizational skills, and have strong opinions about the future of the party. And, of course, both men are black, and while that has no bearing on their competence, it does have some symbolic meaning.

Both men have gotten some impressive endorsements—Blackwell was endorsed by Steve Forbes (who, come to think of it, endorsed Rudy Giuliani in the primaries, so his endorsements haven’t always panned out), while Steele got William Bennett. Both men recognize that the party needs a new direction, and either would be a far better choice for RNC chairman than Mike Duncan.

For the record, I would be more tha
Publish Post
n happy with either candidate. I have liked Steele for years, and Blackwell is a very smart guy who happens to come from my state of Ohio. Either would make a very good chairman, and I would whole-heartedly support either one.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Don't Count Britain Out

A lot of conservative pundits spend a lot of time predicting the imminent spiritual demise of Great Britain. Mark Steyn wondered “whether a nation that has "lost the stomach for a fight" has also lost its survival instinct,” pointing out that Great Britain is ignominiously withdrawing from Iraq, with most of its troops leaving before spring.

Theodore Dalrymple, in an article entitled “The Quivering Upper Lip,” writes that “when my mother arrived in England…she found the people admirable, though not without the defects that corresponded to their virtues. By the time she died, two-thirds of a century later, she found them rude, dishonest, and charmless”. And Britain is saddled with dozens of ridiculous laws seemingly designed solely to protect criminals. (For example, a man who held off two robbers with a toy gun was arrested for breaking gun laws; barbed wire is illegal in some parts of England because it’s dangerous to criminals). These laws have a predictable effect, with crime rates skyrocketing in many English cities.

And not only is England dangerous to live in, its culture seems to be coarsening to the point that no one would want to. Binge drinking is, apparently, shockingly prevalent among young people, and the many embrace the “chav” culture. (“Chav” is a British term for a working class hooligan, used in much the way “white trash” is used here).

And British political correctness is infamous. Catholic bishops are discussing modifying Catholic school restrooms to permit Muslim ritual washing—but spend time trying to make doing the “hokey pokey” a hate crime. (The hokey pokey was originally a bit of anti-Catholic doggerel). In England, no effort is spared to promote any culture, belief system, or religion (particularly Muslim)—except anything connected with Western culture.

So it doesn’t look very good for Great Britain—it is losing it’s culture war, it has lost its war on crime, and it has seemingly lost its will to fight abroad. So are Steyn, Dalrymple, and the rest justified in predicting England’s demise?

Maybe. But there are at least a few things in England’s favor, and it would be premature to count Britain out.

First, the Conservatives will almost certainly win the next British general election, making David Cameron the next Prime Minister. Cameron is no Margret Thatcher—but he is no Liberal either. He won’t stop England’s leftward tailspin—but he could slow it significantly.

And Britain’s army is still strong—by all accounts, its problems in Iraq stem from poor leadership. Britain’s individual soldiers did their country proud, and Britain still has a technologically advanced military force.

And England was one of the first to join the “coalition of the willing.” So it hasn’t lost all its martial spirit—just its stamina for war. England hasn’t wholly lost the will to fight—it just doesn’t see what is widely regarded as an American war as worth fighting for.

England’s cultural problems run a bit deeper. Like many liberal-dominated countries, it seems to feel that its culture is something to apologize for, and that every other culture has been so oppressed that it requires massive affirmative action to compensate. And the rule of law is spotty at best—serious criminals get off due to technicalities or absurdly light sentences. And that sort of cultural coma is very difficult to change.

But it can be reversed. During the twenties, Germany was in worse shape than Britain—apathetic and unruly, but with runaway inflation and a weak government. But ten years later, it conquered most of Europe. (Although Germany’s revival came at a horrible cost). And after World War II, both Germany and Japan overcame devastated cities and huge loss of life to become powerful economies.

Britain could see a similar turnaround. A hundred years ago, Britain had the largest empire on earth. It would be foolish to preemptively relegate England to second-class nation status.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Broken Democracy

It’s a stretch to say that the U.S. electoral system is broken, but it’s hard to argue that it’s running on all cylinders. Democracy only works if the people have confidence in the system’s fairness. So by that standard, American democracy works—but there are some serious cracks in our democratic structure.

For example, consider the Minnesota Senate recount between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. The race was close on Election Day, so a recount was needed. Fair enough. But the recount is still going on, and will continue into the new year.

And sadly, the recount’s length isn’t due to careful, take-your-time thoroughness. It’s length is due to controversy, challenges, and disagreement, which guarantees that the losing party will feel cheated. And it will have reason to—much of the debate revolves around missing ballots, found ballots, and improper ballots; and whatever decisions are made will be very much open to criticism.

Whatever happens, half of the people of Minnesota will feel cheated. And that’s never good for a democracy.

Norm Coleman will probably win (though Franken nurses a slender lead right now). If he does, he will rejoin a Congress in which an increasing number of members seem to be elected either a) because of their last names, b) because of their money, c) because they have incumbency.

George Bush is probably the best example of political nepotism, given that he more or less came out of nowhere to become governor of Texas and then President. Hillary Clinton is another; she would have been wholly unknown had it not been for Bill. Jesse Jackson Jr., Elizabeth Dole, Ted Kennedy, Bob Casey Jr., Jay Rockefeller; individual accomplishments notwithstanding, it was their heritage that was their first qualification.

The “last name” phenomenon is very apparent when one examines the frontrunners for the Senate seats to be vacated by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Hillary may very well be replaced by Caroline Kennedy, whose sole qualification for office seems to be that she’s a Kennedy. Joe Biden’s replacement will probably be a seat warmer so that his son Beau can take over the family seat in 2010. And the frontrunner for Barack Obama’s seat was Jesse Jackson Jr., until the Blagovich scandal erupted.

Those politicians who lack name recognition often compensate by spending massive amounts of their personal fortunes. Mitt Romney (who also has name recognition) is probably the best example of this; John McCain (who married a beer heiress) is another. Barack Obama is too—he made a great deal of money from his writing career.

McCain and Romney are the most spectacular examples, but every major 2008 presidential candidate was rich. (Obama is a millionaire, and he was one of the poorest of the lot). And it’s the same in the Senate—it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a Senator or Governor who lacks a large private fortune.

Senators have to be rich, due to the limits on private donations required by campaign finance laws. Campaign finance reform was supposed to limit the power of money in politics. Instead, it made it almost impossible for anyone without independent means to win, since anyone who can’t afford to finance at least a portion of his campaign is almost out of the running before he starts, since a few wealthy donors can no longer help finance a campaign. So it falls on the candidate himself to do so (at least until he gets his fundraising machine up and running).

A good name and money are big advantages for getting power, but incumbency is the biggest advantage of all. It’s almost impossible to defeat a member of the House, and difficult to beat a Senator. Even in the Democrat dominated 2008 election, 96% of the House of Representatives kept their seats.

Gerrymandered House districts help incumbents, as do congressional perks. Incumbent Congressmen get public financing equal to about $1.5 million in the form of franked mail and staff support, while challengers must make do on their own.

And their own is none too good, again thanks to campaign finance laws limiting individual donations. This ensures that candidates spend massive amounts of time fundraising, time which an incumbent Congressman can spend doing other things (or increasing his fundraising lead). And since the incumbent always has superior name recognition, a built-in fundraising advantage makes beating an incumbent nearly impossible.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Newer Comment Policy

Okay, I've decided to stop screening comments now, since I haven't had to reject any for a few days. But even though comments aren't moderated, please keep the insults and personal attacks to a minimum. Anyway, you can comment away without fear of moderation.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The White Man's Burden

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child. - Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden, 1899

Those lines haven’t aged very well, both because that style of poetry is outdated and because the sentiments in it are now considered racist and imperialistic. The imperialistic attitudes of Kipling’s era have been utterly rejected since; now, perhaps the greatest crime a nation can commit is invading an innocent, weaker country. Modern people, particularly liberals, claim that they cannot conceive of the mindset behind Kipling’s words. (Few conservatives are really fans of imperialism, either, though some, such as Bill Kristol, seem to think that free countries have an obligation to forcibly export democracy).

Liberals might think that the attitudes of The White Man’s Burden are utterly foreign to them, but they’re wrong. Modern liberalism regards undeveloped foreign countries as “half-devil and half-child”; as entities that require good White aid if they are ever to really succeed. Only the language and methods have changed—instead of using war to better uncivilized countries, activists use money, and they now say market their efforts as a “test of our humanity” (as Bono’s website says) instead of as the “White Man’s Burden”. The face has changed—but underneath, the same old Westerncentric ideas prevail.

Think of the faces behind African aid. There’s the aforementioned Bono, who’s made Third World debt his own private crusade—as if, say, Zimbabwe would be a perfectly functioning country if not for the crushing weight of its national debt. There’s Bill and Melissa Gates, and all the artists who performed at the Live 8 concerts in 2005. Then there are the G8 leaders, who constantly promise increased amounts of aid money to Third World countries (which usually means Africa).

There are almost no African faces behind Western aid, as apparently real live Third Worlders don’t have anything to say. Much of the allure behind foreign aid is not based on good results (of which there are few), but rather because seeming to do something is so appealing. Bono is a good man, and wants an outlet for his better nature. So he pushes for Third World debt relief for the “half-child” poor nations, and feels good about himself. Nobody cares that his efforts don’t actually produce any results.

Meanwhile, people like Ian Khama get no recognition at all. You probably haven’t heard of Ian Khama—he is the current President of Botswana, which is the kind of country most of the rest of Africa hopes to be—peaceful, prosperous, and successful. And it doesn’t rely on foreign aid to thrive.

(Botswana and Zimbabwe, by the way, have nearly identical histories and geographies, which makes Robert Mugabe’s oppression all the more tragic since Botswana is an example of what Zimbabwe could be).

The Botswana model should be considered a blueprint for the Third World. It isn’t. Instead, the Tanzania model is. Tanzania is rich in natural resources, with vast resources of gold, gemstones, and natural gas. But the country’s economy is dependant on foreign aid, and has been for decades. The idea is that the money supplied will be used for investment in industry and infrastructure, producing a working economy. Yet that hope has failed—today, Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world.

It will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, for Africa and the rest of the Third World to join the ranks of industrialized countries. Africa is mostly desert, has few large waterways, and is of little political importance. Tribes still play a powerful role in government, and most African nations are ruled either by oppressive, incompetent dictatorships or weak, corrupt democracies. All of these factors make transforming Africa into a thriving continent very hard.

But if it ever happens, it will happen due to the strength and will of the people of Africa. And excessive foreign aid stifles that strength—it forces Third World economies into an unhealthy dependence on the generosity of foreign countries. And you can’t build a functioning economy on charity.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

United Around Corporatism

For years, people have complained about the polarization of American politics; of the wide expanse between Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, red and blue. Most voters claim to want politicians who were more into dialogue than diatribe, and willing to make compromises for the sake of unity. They wanted to see all branches of government work together to address the problems facing the country.

Well, all branches of government are working together now. True, there’s the odd difference—Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on the terms for the Big Three bailout, and the incoming Obama Administration doesn’t seem to have much confidence in George W. Bush. But those squabbles are just over details—on the big issues, all three lawmaking bodies and both political parties see eye to eye (on the economic issue, at any rate, and there aren’t any other issues on Congress’ agenda at the moment).

But the government hasn’t embraced either conservatism or liberalism, at least as either are usually understood. (I suppose that there are both some “conservatives” and some “liberals” who each claim that the government’s present course of action is exactly in line with their beliefs). Instead, we’ve been saddled with what is, essentially, a form of corporatism. The federal government and large corporations have united in an attempt to direct the ebb and flow of the economy.

That sounds like the sort of charge that obnoxious far-left conspiracy theorists and Ayn Randian uber-libertarians are always making, so a bit a clarification is necessary. Our current economic plan isn’t some premeditated, Bond Villain attempt to take over the world—in fact, the intentions behind the plan are not nefarious at all. Nor is it premeditated—rather, the recent spate of bailouts came as needed as the economy collapsed. The massive government expansion wasn’t really intended—it was almost an accident; the result of panic. But the fact remains—the American response to the credit crisis has resulted in a dangerous union of big government and big business.

It probably wasn’t supposed to happen this way—originally, Henry Paulson just wanted to buy some bad mortgages—but the TARP Act has become a free money supply for failing businesses. Corporation after corporation has been saved from bankruptcy by a quick infusion of free cash courtesy of the federal government. The government is many things—but it is not a massive insurance agent. (And, of course, I’m fairly sure that the Constitution frowns on the federal government sending out billions of dollars to private businesses).

The bailouts haven’t really worked—the stock market is still down, and the credit situation is just as shaky as before—perhaps worse. But apart from the fact that it hasn’t worked (which is kind of a big problem), the bailouts set a horrible precedent. The federal government has established that it is there whenever a failing corporation needs a quick hit of cash, and business has proved that it is more than willing to grant Washington a bit of control in return for capital.

This situation really isn’t good, and most people don’t really like it—most polls showed that the majority of the American people were not in favor of the bailouts. But people were scared, and didn’t complain (I didn’t), leaving the government with a massive amount of control over business—and business with a massive amount of control over the government. And that situation probably isn’t going to change soon either—politicians like power, and business likes money, and there’s no way Washington—or Wall Street—will give this opportunity up. Americans wanted their politicians to present a united front and try to fix the economic problem together—and they got what they asked for.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Real Christmas Wars

Christopher Hitchens, who is (I think) often wrong but always interesting, just wrote a column bashing Christmas, which is apparently an annual practice for him. (Hitchens makes Scrooge look like Santa Claus). I think Hitchens is overreacting a little—Christmas carols are annoying, perhaps, but it’s a stretch to compare their ubiquity to fascist propaganda, or to say that the “United States—a country constitutionally based on a separation between church and state—turns itself into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a one-party state,” like pretty soon they’ll start clapping people who aren’t enthusiastic enough about Christmas into irons and force them to listen to “Jingle Bells" for hours on end.

It’s not really hard to see the weak point in Hitchens’ argument—the government is hardly the primary celebrator of Christmas—rather, Christmas’ massive popularity is more a creation of corporations concocting an excuse for consumers to buy massive amounts of stuff. And any separation of church and state obviously wouldn’t apply to either the “cultural” or “commercial” sectors, which should alleviate fears of a “one-party state.” Anyway, the “separation of church and state” isn’t in the Constitution, so Hitchens can rest easy.

Hysteria aside, though, Hitchens does have a point. Christmas really has become an aesthetic nightmare—awful pop renditions of Christmas carols, the painful commercialization of Christmas, and the constant attempts to extend the holiday beyond Christian consumers combine to make the Christmas season something of a nightmare. Not Hitchens’ fascist orgy, of course. But Christmas has just become tacky.

For a time, it seemed that large stores tried to stay away from religious Christmas songs, preferring to play new covers of “Rudolph” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Of course, these songs were usually terrible—most Christmas carols aren’t improved by being set to pop music. Then people realized that religious songs didn’t really offend anyone—and that was worse. If “Frosty the Snowman” set to a steel guitar is bad, “Silent Night” set to the same instrument is far, far worse.

It’s become a cliché to criticize the commercialization of Christmas, but such complaints are still valid. It’s ironic that the birth of One who advocated poverty and self-restraint should be marked by an orgy of consumption. It’s unavoidable, of course—were Christmas to disappear, sellers would find another excuse for people to shop (maybe Thanksgiving? Give people something to be thankful for?). Still, the irony is there.

But by far the most annoying and tacky element of Christmas is the constant attempts to market the holiday to all cultures. This always fails—on two fronts. First, the generic “holiday” is always represented with traditional Christian elements such as Christmas trees, so I doubt that many of other cultures feel very included. And given that all “holiday” commercials, celebrations, and the like always stop right on Christmas Day, the commitment to other cultures looks pretty shallow.

And the embarrassment about invoking Christianity also rankles. There’s nothing wrong with stores trying to attract a wide range of customers—in fact, that’s a good thing, and they really have to if they want to stay in business. But there does seem to be something amiss when businesses feel that they can’t even mention the word “Christmas,” as though that will drive people away in droves. Over eighty percent of Americans are Christians—saying “Merry Christmas” welcomes a lot more people than it repels.

And if you’re worried that “Merry Christmas” will offend people—if “Merry Christmas” has the power to offend someone, that person probably has problems that require a lot more than “Happy Holidays” to fix.

Worst of all, though, is the awful disrespect towards other cultures that leads people to think that they can group other cultures’ holidays with Christmas. There are two other major holidays near Christmas—Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. And trying to include Jews in a comprehensive “Happy Holidays” is incalculably insulting; trying to include blacks with that phrase is just stupid.

I’m not Jewish, but I know enough about the religion to know that Hanukkah is an important holiday in that tradition—and absolutely nothing like Christmas. Hanukkah is not simply the Jewish version of Christmas, and trying to pass it off as an excuse for Jews to join the Christmas fun is simply insulting.

And Kwanzaa isn’t really a holiday at all—Ron Karenga invented it forty years ago as a black alternative to Christmas. And the notion that blacks need their own special Christmas makes our treatment of Hanukkah look respectful in comparison.

For all its flaws, Christmas is still a wonderful holiday. It may be tacky—but its good points far outweigh the annoying.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Try to Spread Democracy

Conservatives don’t talk about it much anymore, but there was a time when “spreading democracy” was one of George W. Bush’s highest ambitions. The idea was that peace and democracy were bound together, and that any permanent peace (especially in the Middle East) required the existence of widespread democracy.

In fact, much of Bush’s second inaugural address addressed the vital importance of spreading democracy. He pointed out that “success in our relations [with other governments] will require the decent treatment of their own people" and reminded the nation that “we do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery.” Bush’s quest for worldwide democracy was (and is) inspired by the idea that totalitarianism is unacceptable and that lasting peace cannot occur without democracy.

Conservatives, for the most part, supported (and still support, though they are not nearly as vocal as they once were about it) that idea. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, many Americans congratulated themselves for giving Iraqis the gift of democracy. After the first Iraqi elections, pro-war types made the post-election purple Iraqi fingers a symbol of progress. Even anti-war Democrats jumped on the “spreading democracy” bandwagon; the only debate was over the most effective way to facilitate that goal.

It’s a mystery why so many conservatives jumped on board a cause that is so stupid, futile, and Wilsonian. Not to mention counterproductive. The dream of worldwide democracy is nice to think about. But it’s just that: a dream. There is simply no way it could ever become a reality, and there’s even less chance that deposing dictators by force will advance that cause much.

First, too many people forget that implementing a democracy—even in the most favorable circumstances—is hard. Take America. Our democracy was created by a set of absolutely brilliant men. America was a young land without an embedded ruling class or system of government, and came into existence around the time the Enlightenment vision (which stressed individualism and democracy) was at it’s most influential. And our democracy experiment still nearly failed. Had the Founding Fathers not called a constitutional convention, and had the first election been a power struggle and not a George Washington coronation, American democracy might well have failed.

Democracy nearly failed here in the best possible conditions. How much harder must it be to create a democracy in, say, Iraq, where there is literally no democratic tradition (the Middle East is mostly tribes and dictators), massive internal strife, and the ever present threat of invasion?

And even once the democracy gets off the ground, it isn’t out of the woods yet. Democracy is fragile. Those who count the votes must be honest, those in power must be willing to give it up. If both of these conditions aren’t met, democracy is meaningless. And they aren’t met very often.

And what about those places where democracy does take hold? That’s the tricky thing about democracy—things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to. Lebanon had some elections a few years back. Hezbollah won. Hezbollah is composed of brutal terrorists—but brutal, elected terrorists. So democracy isn’t a guarantee of peace.

It’s also worth noting that Hitler (along with Stalin, Mussolini, and most of the rest of the twentieth century’s bloodiest men) took power with significant popular support. The weakness of the democratic Weinmar Republic gave Hitler his opening, which led to World War II. However, when Germany was ruled by the Kaiser, well, there was still a world war, but at least there wasn’t any genocide. And France and Great Britain were democracies in World War I—but were every bit as senselessly brutal as the nondemocratic German Empire.

But nondemocratic countries such as Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, and Diaz’s Mexico were peaceful places; places where diplomacy could work. It’s clear that democracy and peace don’t correlate.

In practice, of course, Bush’s attempt to advance the cause of democracy was essentially a failure. We will probably succeed in putting in a reasonably stable democracy in Iraq, but I doubt anyone wants to go through that that again. Likewise with Afghanistan: there will probably be democracy there eventually, but at a great cost. Both democracies will be fragile in the extreme, and will probably have short lives. Bush’s democratic adventure didn’t work.

It’s indisputable that democracy is better than dictatorship. But it is also indisputable that not all countries are philosophically and culturally ready for democracy. It seems better to support the next best thing such—such as humane, progressive dictators (think the Shah of Iran)—rather than trying to reach the unachievable goal of creating a full-blown democratic state.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Obama As Bush II

You have to feel a little sorry for George W. Bush. Right now, his approval ratings hover at around thirty percent (on good days), the Iraq War is nigh universally regarded as a dismal failure, and many believe that he is one of the worst presidents in our history.

Bush is not only regarded as incompetent, but stupid as well. No Bushism is considered too unlikely to be believed, (and while Bush has had his share of awkward moments, the story about Bush waving at Stevie Wonder, among others, can’t possibly be true) and it is impossible to imagine a movie like W. being made about any other political figure (except maybe Sarah Palin). Bush might be the most hated and least loved man in America—conservatives tolerate him without much enthusiasm, while liberals unreservedly loathe the man. Barack Obama ran a winning presidential campaign based largely on the fact that he is different than Bush.

Nobody likes Bush—but Obama seems ready to carry on the policies of the Bush administration during his time in the White House. During the election season, there were two vitally important issues: the War in Iraq and the economy. Both candidates spent a lot of time harshly criticizing the President on his handling of these issues. Yet now that he’s in the White House, Obama’s policies on both issues mirror those of Bush.

After years of condemning Bush for his decisions in Iraq, Obama seems set on concluding the war pretty much exactly as Bush would have. He has inserted pro-war Hillary Clinton as his (future) Secretary of State, and is plans on keeping Robert Gates as his Secretary of Defense. (That means that two of the nation’s most influential foreign policy positions will be filled by people who enthusiastically supported the Iraq War). Obama has ceased talking about withdrawal schedules; instead, he seems confident in Gates’ ability to bring the war to a close. And Gates’ position is, of course, that of the Bush Administration.

On the economy, too, Bush and Obama’s positions seem to overlap. After the economy started it’s meltdown, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson thought the best way to bring the economy back would be to implement a massive rescue package. Obama agreed. Seven trillion dollars later, Obama is still on board with most of Bush’s economic rescue plan. His plan (which he has been quite vocal about) seems to be almost exactly that of President Bush—inject money into failing companies in order to stabilize the credit market. Obama and Bush differ on some details—Obama, for instance, is more enthusiastic about a possible autobailout—but generally, the two sides seem to agree on broad details.

On these two issues, at least, it is not easy (so far) to see a significant difference between Obama and Bush.

Granted, events forced Obama’s hand a bit—the surge, however little Democrats want to admit it, fundamentally altered the Iraq situation and made Obama’s old anti-war position outdated. And Bush’s response to the financial crisis is Keynesian and probably at least somewhat similar to what Obama’s plan would have been anyway. So it is not as if Obama is suddenly experiencing a conservative epiphany. But Bush’s strategy was hardly the only one Obama could have chosen, and Obama seems to be following Bush’s lead on these issues.

No liberal would ever admit it, but perhaps Bush is not as incompetent as many think he is. And for all his talk of “hope” and “change,” perhaps Obama is a great deal more pragmatic than he seems to be. But it is ironic that the man who condemned John McCain for representing “more of the same” is starting his presidential journey by continuing many of Bush’s most controversial policies.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An Opportunity for Civility

Barack Obama is, I think, a good and honorable man. Many (such as I) disagree with his policies, but he has steered clear of any personal scandals (so far), and ran a reasonably respectable campaign. Conservatives and Republicans disagree with Obama—but have no reason to be bitter or angry towards him.

So perhaps conservatives can use the advent of the Obama administration to attempt to lower the level of vitriol in our public debate. Broadly speaking, conservatives seem to think that liberals are stupid, while liberals are under the impression that most conservatives are evil.

Of course, neither notion is accurate—conservatives and liberals see the world in different ways. Conservatives tend to have a darker, more cynical view of a world in which good intentions rarely work out, well-meaning government programs cause only harm, and supporting peace quite often only leads to war. Liberals see a more friendly, utopian world, where if we all work together, we can accomplish great things.

In other words, liberals think that life is a sports movie (scrappy underdog overcomes the odds), while conservatives live in a Shakespearean tragedy (everybody dies, and we get only a glimpse of restored order).

Neither worldview is stupid, or evil (though one is wrong). And the level of anger, fear, and sometimes hatred in our public discourse is troubling. Fox News’ and MSNBC’s opinion shows exist only to mindlessly bash liberals and conservatives, respectively, with nuance and intelligence kept to a minimum. Talk radio has become, in large part, only a forum for Republican talking points. (Rush Limbaugh is an exception). The Internet is by far the worst—most of the political commentary found there (or here) combines nasty and stupid.

There’s no way that American politics will ever be wholly civil and well-mannered. Ever since Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a political spat, Democrats and Republicans (and Whigs) have never gotten along very well. And the present political polarization is mild compared to what we’ve seen in the past—after the Civil War, crafty Republicans basically disenfranchised the entire South, giving them a lasting majority for as long as they could get away with it.

But politics has also been a great deal more honorable and civil in the not-so-distant past. Richard Nixon idealistically decided not to challenge suspected voter fraud in after his 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy in order to preserve confidence in the American electoral system. In the postwar era, relations between the two parties were cordial enough that Dwight Eisenhower could consider running on either party’s ticket, and a soft-spoken man like Adlai Stevenson could get the Democratic nomination. It wasn’t a perfect time (McCarthyism was widespread too), but it was immeasurably more civil than ours.

I think that much of the anger in our political discourse can be traced back to the advent of the new media. Talk radio and cable gave alternate viewpoints the opportunity to be heard. That was good in many ways—it broke the liberal stranglehold on the media—but also bad, as it gave any moderately talented rabble-rouser an audience. And hate tends to escalate, meaning that political discourse in America has become more and more aggressive.

Conservatives should take advantage of Barack Obama’s seeming decency to try to reverse this trend. Bill Clinton actually deserved the names conservatives called him, and Hillary did too, or at least seemed to. But Obama is simply a liberal, and not mean-spirited or corrupt. Conservatives can oppose him without being hateful or bitter towards him.

This is not to suggest that conservatives are to blame for the political tone today—both sides share blame nearly equally. But the right has the ability to elevate political discourse in this country—and it should take it.

And had John McCain been elected president, he would have offered liberals a similar opportunity. He, too, is a good and honorable man. But he isn’t in the Oval Office, and Obama is.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New Comment Policy

Okay. The comments here have gotten way out of hand. I don't know where some of the commenters here come from, but they seem to be here only to post stupid diatribes about pro-lifers, and refuse to engage in actual debate.

I started to realize how bad things were when I noticed that I there hadn't been any interesting threads here in a while, and how superior the commenters at The Next Right were when I crosspost there. And when an offline friend who reads my blog mentioned the stupidity of many commenters, well, that was another indication.

So I'll have to start moderating comments--your comment won't be approved till I see it. I wish I didn't have to do that--it's hard enough finding time to blog, without having to bother about comments too--but it seems necessary.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Era of the Little Man Is Over

Congress is getting ready to bail out the Big Three (or at least two of them, G.M. and Chrysler—Ford is apparently healthy enough to survive on its own) automakers, by giving them billions in short-term loans. As part of the deal, the U.S. government would take a substantial stake in the companies, in essence insuring that that the Big Three could never fail, and that the federal government would have a considerable amount of influence over the management of the automakers. The present management of G.M. and Chrysler would probably go, almost certainly to be replaced with new management close to Washington. For a while, at least, the federal government would indirectly control G.M. and Chrysler (and possibly Ford, depending on that company’s health).

Apart from the obvious fact that this action is possibly unconstitutional and probably socialistic, it seems that there are two points to be made.

One: for decades, the Democrats, and to a lesser extent, the Republicans, have claimed to be the allies of the little man, the workers, against the depredations of Big Business. Both parties promised to look out for the proletariat and ensure that corporations didn’t use their wealth and power to unjustly enrich themselves. All Democrats, from Barack Obama on down, have promised to prohibit favoritism towards Big Business.

Yeah, and the Republicans are the party of small government. Obama hasn’t wasted any time promoting policies that are, in essence, taxpayer insurance for foolish CEO’s. When Wall Street fell, it rushed to Washington to get free money to fix its mistakes. The president and Congress fell all over themselves in their haste to give it to them. And Barack Obama plans on continuing this course of action.

Democrats are supposed to be the party of big government and the little man; Republicans are supposed to be the party of small government and big business. Both notions are incorrect. The Democrats are actually the party of big government and big business—and so are the Republicans.

You can’t blame the politicians though—they are only doing what they must to get elected. Voters want lots of government services. They get them. Money wants government cooperation with business. It gets it. Washington does what it does only with our approval—and not only with our approval, but our active endorsement. Don’t blame Harry Reid or Barack Obama or George Bush for the bailout—blame the voters who elected and support them. And between the three, that is practically everybody.

Why aren’t there any politicians who try to break the big government/big business alliance? There are. And there’s a name for them: defeated.

A final point. The federal government plans on taking a management role in the Big Three (or two, depending on Ford’s fate) in order to prevent them from going bankrupt again.

Federal government revenues are, give or take, $2.5 trillion. Federal government debt it, give or take, $10 trillion. Its last budget was well over three trillion, and it just spent seven trillion dollars on the bailout. Does anyone think that the federal government has the financial know-how to keep anything, much less an entity as complicated as an automaker, out of bankruptcy?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Why Is the Internet So Stupid?

The Internet is a wonderful place—it’s the information superhighway, a wonderful resource, it provides a valuable soapbox for thousands of different voices. It gives everyone a chance to make their voice heard. The web changes our idea of media.

But really, why does so much of the Internet have to be so stupid? Online magazines such as Slate and the Daily Beast have so much potential—they have the ability to provide late-breaking news and trenchant commentary. And they do—sometimes. But they also seem to feel a need to print dreadfully stupid, pointless drivel.

Take Slate. It has some talented writers—Christopher Hitchens is often brilliant, and John Dickerson and Christopher Beam (among others) bring interesting views to the magazine. And it’s owned by the Washington Post, so its owners know journalism.

But the front page of Slate features a) an article which explains how Obama used a “new emotion” called elevation to boost his presidential bid, which proves that well-crafted speeches inspire people (no way!), b) an article claiming that the Pirates have outsourced their bullpen to India (because they’ve invited two Indians to spring training), and c) an article on the banking system by Eliot Spitzer (!). Not that those articles are worthless (though I’d venture to say they aren’t worth much), but is that really the best Slate has to offer, worthy of being featured on its front page?

Or take the Daily Beast. It claims to be a “smart, speedy edit of the web” with a “good helping” of original content, seeking to provide us with the best the Internet has to offer. And what’s that? Well, the front page currently features articles about how Obama really should grow a beard, how to dance your way to a Ph.D (apparently, pretending to be a blood cell helps), and a piece explaining how one college student found herself a sugar daddy. (It’s depressing for me to ponder that that one rather stupid piece has probably gotten more hits than every one my posts combined). Then there’s Michael Moore proposing that we nationalize the Big Three, and Christopher Buckley relating his experiences on the Quiet Car during his Amtrak commute. (That article is almost as interesting as his last one, which told a twenty-year-old anecdote about an encounter with Obama;s top spy that wasn’t that interesting when it happened).

Slate and the Daily Beast have their share of readers, but they are nothing compared to the phenomenon that is the Huffington Post. HuffPo gets almost as many readers as Drudge, and has broken into the offline world. It probably represents the future of the Internet—it provides late breaking news and a great deal of opinion. Fairly evaluating the value of the Huffington Post’s liberal content is hard for a conservative to do. But many of the top stories on the Huffington Post are clearly second-rate. The first opinion piece up right now is an article by John Ridley arguing that the Obama’s should provide a black Santa for their kids, which probably isn’t the most pressing issue out there. Another seeks to explain why Al-Qaeda is an imaginary threat; a third post complains that Obama’s election won’t increase media diversity much. These posts aren’t necessarily bad—but if they are the best that HuffPo has to offer, that’s a pretty low standard. I can’t believe that you could ever find an actual newspaper willing to print those three articles. (Not because the content is too hot to handle, simply because these articles aren’t that interesting).

For this post, I only went to more or less respected newspaper-blog combos for examples. Most of the rest of the Internet is much worse—it combines stunning banality with astonishing and wholly inappropriate vitriol. The Huffington Post is the New York Times compared to sites such as the Daily Kos.

Evidently, these sites are giving their readers what they want. But I’d like to think that the Internet is smarter, and it users demand more than odd facts and silly opinion pieces.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An End to Abortion

The abortion issue is one of the most controversial and divisive subjects today. Everyone has an opinion about it, and everyone’s opinions are strongly and unshakably held. It divides liberals and conservatives, and also divides many of the different factions in the conservative movement.

Right now, the pro-life position is the dominant one in the Republican party, as it must be, if the GOP wants to win elections. There are a lot of people in the Republican party—Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, as well as millions (perhaps tens of millions) of social conservative voters—who feel strongly about abortion, and would like nothing more than to see it banned.

It won’t be, at least not in the near future. No democratic government can act in advance of the moral will of its people. And the American people support legalized abortion.

A 2006 Rasmussen poll has some revealing findings about America’s attitude towards abortion. A solid majority (55%) believes that abortion is usually morally wrong; a relatively insignificant 32% disagree. (One wonders how the other twenty percent feel—do they have an opinion they are afraid to share, or are they simply unable to decide?). So far, the findings look encouraging for pro-lifers.

But when asked about their feelings towards legalized abortion, people feel differently. Only 47% feel that it is too easy to get an abortion in the United States, and 42% feel that the difficulty of getting an abortion is either “too hard” or “about right.” And bear in mind that the United State’s abortion laws are very lax—it is already quite easy to get an abortion.

Granted, this is only one poll, but it is consistent with other polls on this issue. And it is backed up by the behavior of actual voters. South Dakota, hardly a liberal mecca, has twice (in 2006 and 2008) attempted to pass referendums outlawing abortion. Both failed, by sizeable margins. And South Dakota is a very conservative state.

It seems that most Americans are uncomfortable with the morality of abortion—but like having the option available. In a sense, both the pro- and anti-abortion sides lose—abortion is still considered wrong by most people, but will remain legal for the foreseeable future.

Will abortion ever become illegal? I believe it will, and future Americans will be shocked that it was ever widely accepted. But this will only happen once it becomes obsolete and no longer needed.

It’s a pattern—people awaken to injustice only after whatever use the wrong served is no longer needed. The abolitionist movement existed since our nation’s creation—but only became widespread after advances in technology rendered slavery unnecessary. (True, many of the Founding Fathers personally opposed slavery, but caved when Southern states objected to any proscriptions on the practice). Before the Industrial Revolution (which brought many agricultural innovations), slavery was accepted by most as a necessary evil. After the Industrial Revolution, more and more people came to support abolition.

The same phenomenon can be seen with the history of Jim Crow laws. In the first half of the twentieth century, it was beneficial for white Southerners to keep blacks in poverty—there wasn’t much of an economic pie in the South, and it profited whites to keep blacks from too much prosperity and power.

After World War II, the economy boomed, and there was more to go around. It was at that point that integration became a popular cause with whites. Segregation wasn’t needed anymore, so it was phased out, with a great deal of moral indignation by abruptly morally offended whites.

A final example: environmentalism. People have been concerned about the environment since the advent of technology—it’s not hard to find Victorian writers, for example, complaining about factory pollution. But nobody cared much—until relatively clean energy came along. Suddenly, the survival of our fragile plant became the most pressing issue imaginable.

I believe that we will see a similar pattern with abortion. Eventually, medical advances will make birth control one hundred percent reliable, to the point that there will be almost no unintended pregnancies. Then, people will have their eyes opened, and realize what a horrible and frankly unnecessary crime abortion is. After a short but morally heartening battle, abortion will be prohibited, giving people a valuable chance to feel good about themselves.

I hope I’m wrong. But given our current political climate, it seems like my scenario is all too plausible.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Moving Apart

Nastiness and dirty tricks have been a part of politics ever since democracy was invented. In ancient Rome, politics was brutal—Julius Caesar, for instance, was aided in his rise to power by some pretty dodgy voter suppression tactics. John Quincy Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which many believed were enacted in order to silence criticism of his administration. And it’s hard to forget the “mushroom cloud” ads run by the Lyndon Johnson campaign against Barry Goldwater.

So politics have never been particularly ethical or unifying, and polarization isn’t a new phenomenon. But it does seem as though the divisions between left and right in this country are widening to a dangerous extent.

Case in point: an anti-Proposition 8 ad in California features two smug Mormons storming into a lesbian household, ripping the wedding rings off the inhabitant’s fingers, and ruthlessly ripping their marriage license in half. As they smugly stroll out, they wonder what to ban next, while a voiceover tells Californians not to let a Church (sic) take over their government.

(Apart from the obvious unfairness to Mormons, this ad is notable for its dreadful acting. Apparently, the people making it couldn’t afford good actors, so they went with some decidedly second-rate performers. My favorite parts are the overdone expressions of horror on the lesbian’s faces and the scene where the Mormon thugs take a moment to cackle evilly (bwahahahaha) before starting their dirty work).

This ad is obviously ridiculous—it’s an over-the-top example of the straw man fallacy, and is clearly trying to play on anti-Mormon fears. (Fortunately, it wasn’t very successful, as Proposition 8 passed).

But this ad isn’t only unfair and bigoted—it also reveals a deeper problem. Evidently, many, perhaps most, proponents of gay marriage see Mormon opposition solely as the result of bigotry and hate. It’s arguable, and I argue, that conservatives spend too much time on the issue of gay marriage, far more time than the issue really deserves. But their opposition is based on strongly held moral beliefs, not on irrational bigotry.

Proposition 8’s passage must be stressful for the gay community—but it is disturbing that gay marriage supporters can’t realize this. They attempt to stereotype and demonize opponents of gay marriage as bigots, without even attempting to understand, much less respect, their opponent’s position.

This phenomenon is not, of course, limited to the Left—the Right is equally guilty. A Pew poll taken shortly before the election showed that twelve percent of voters thought that Obama was a Muslim, in spite of the fact that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support that claim.

How did these voters come to believe this? It could only have been through word of mouth. Over the campaign, I saw dozens of email forwards—from more or less responsible people—pushing claims about Obama that five minutes Googling—or simple common sense—could have instantly debunked.

In this election, many conservatives wanted to believe the worst of Obama. Another myth supporting that statement is the idea that Obama is not fit to be President due to the existence of a picture showing him not putting his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. This was a major point for a lot of people—yet accepted national anthem etiquette says nothing about putting one’s hand over one’s heart. Many conservatives harped endlessly on these two—and neither had any basis at all in reality.

After the election Peggy Noonan wrote that she was glad that the election had been decisively settled, as opposed to narrow, litigatious election, as in 2000. I agree. It seems that things are at a point where liberals and conservatives cannot conceive of the other side as being anything but knowingly harmful, objectively immoral agents of destruction. (Would this be a good time to point out that one cannot judge subjective intent by objective consequence? In other words, no matter how poorly the other side performs, that is not sufficient evidence to suggest that they meant for any negative consequences to happen).

America faces some big problems—and in order to have any hope of solving them, both sides will have to reach some degree of cooperation and unity. If they don’t, there is simply no way that the federal government will be able to solve important issues such as the national debt, Social Security, and education.

Sadly, I rather doubt that liberals and conservatives will draw together—on the contrary, I believe that they will draw farther apart. Television, radio, the Internet—all are becoming more opinionated and passionate, and much of that opinion is simply nonsense, which is still regarded as gospel by millions. I hope that things will change—but if the situation continues as it is, then the country will become more and more polarized.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Losing Democracy

With Saxby Chambliss’s win in his Georgia Senate race, the last remaining undecided Senate race is the Minnesota contest between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. It’s important (if not as important as it could have been, as Chambliss’s victory means that the Democrats will not get a filibuster-proof majority), as Coleman is a reliable Republican, while the thought of Senator Al Franken is the stuff of conservative nightmares.

The whole election is a mess. The original vote was close enough (only a few hundred votes separated the candidates) to justify a recount. Then a voting official discovered—whoops—that she had accidently left a couple dozen absentee ballots in the backseat of her car. Most of those ballots favored Franken.

Some voters are idiots for whom the task of deciphering a ballot is like cracking the Rosetta Stone, and Minnesota has its fair share of disputable ballots. So both campaigns hit upon the idea of challenging as many ballots as possible, in the hope that at least some of their challenges would stick. This led to some absolutely absurd challenges, many of which clearly were intended to disqualify legal ballots. (Decide for yourself—here are some disputed ballots).

Coleman’s lead is around 340 votes with 91% in—but officials have discovered just under two hundred more votes that everyone just kind of forgot about. It seems that the voting machines broke, and the vote counters forgot to reenter these votes. )These votes come from pro-Franken areas).

And Franken is complaining about another twelve thousand (give or take a few thousand) absentee ballots that he thinks were improperly rejected, and should be recounted.

So this election is a mess. And won’t be decided soon.

Both candidates claim to be confident about their chances—Norm Coleman has declared victory at least three times, and Franken’s campaign claims that it has no doubt that Franken got more votes. For what it’s worth, Coleman is probably right here—his lead has grown in the course of the recount, and Franken is running out of both votes and options. So Coleman is will probably win—but this saga represents a problem bigger than just the results of a Senate race.

One of the foundations of our democracy is the notion that one’s vote matters; that every vote is equal under the law. In the absence of this principle, democracy is meaningless. In order for democracy to function, people must believe that their vote matters, and will be counted. And it seems that many people are becoming skeptical that their votes will be accurately recorded, and with good reason.

In 2000, the Florida recount was a mess—and it is still an open question as to which candidate received the most votes. It is simply embarrassing that a presidential election came down to a legal technicality decided by the Supreme Court. That sort of fiasco undermines voter confidence.

(That fact that the Florida election was mishandled doesn’t mean that Bush shouldn’t have won—according to the letter of the law, he should have, and his victory was legitimate. The fault lay with those who devised Florida’s voting procedures, and made the recount necessary).

Voter registration is a major issue as well. ACORN managed to sign up thousands of ineligible voters, while escaping any repercussions for years. Granted, the vast majority of those registrations were rejected—but some surely must have slipped past, and those few could make a difference in a close election. But nobody cares—ACORN got a black eye over its voter fraud—but that was due mostly to its relationship with Obama, and it retained enough support to stay in existence.

It’s a standard far-left talking point that voting machines are basically rigged towards the Republican party. This doesn’t seem to be the case, or the Official GOP Vote Riggers really fell down on the job in 2006 and 2008, but there is little doubt that voting machines have some major security holes.

In eight years, there have been no less than two elections for national office decided by extraordinarily sloppy recounts. That isn’t acceptable, especially for the world’s largest democracy. The United States should reform its voting system quickly—or risk seeing the American people lose faith in American democracy.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Obama: From Radical to Moderate (Maybe)

Before Barack Obama was elected, conservative pundits spent a lot of time warning that he was a dangerous radical who would shift the country drastically leftward. They warned that he would virtually end the War on Terror, raise taxes dramatically, and expand government to unprecedented levels. Many warned that electing Obama would mean a total shift in U.S. political philosophy, from a center-right governing system to a European style welfare state.

Obama can’t do anything yet, but given his actions so far, he won’t do any of the things his detractors worried about most. He’s appointed pro-war Hillary Clinton Secretary of State. He’s keeping Robert Gates as Defense Secretary. Of Obama’s foreign policy team, not one opposed the Iraq War.

Obama might not be the hawkish president many conservatives would like. But his actions so far indicate that he wouldn’t be the foreign policy disaster that many conservatives feared.

A major part of Obama’s platform was his promise to raise taxes on the rich. It’s almost impossible to imagine him doing so. He hasn’t mentioned the possibility since becoming president, and Keynesian economics frowns heavily on the idea of raising taxes during a recession.

Granted, perhaps Obama is merely waiting to be sworn in before proposing the most radical tax hike in history—but given his willingness to share the other points of his vision for his administration, probably not.

(It should be noted, though, that Bush’s tax cuts will expire in 2010, and it is hard to see Obama pushing to extend them, especially as the country will probably be out of recession by then).

And Obama doesn’t seem to be making expanding welfare a major part of his plans. Granted, that’s due largely to the economic crisis—if the world’s markets are melting down, then universal healthcare will just have to wait its turn. But if Obama’s post-election statements are any indication at all, then government expansions such as universal healthcare are not on the immediate horizon.

And for all those who thought Obama would expand government to unprecedented levels—President Bush’s seven trillion dollar bailout means that Obama would have to work hard to do that. And given that Bush’s government has nationalized a large segment of the banking system, it’s hard to see Obama managing to top Bush’s interference with the private sector.

It’s possible that Obama will radically shift leftward when in office—but not likely, at least for the first part of his term. His choice of advisors seems to indicate that he is setting a moderate course for his administration, one that Republicans can live with, if not be enthusiastic about.

Obama’s rhetorical shift from radical to moderate is a reminder of one of the most oft forgotten aspects of governing—it’s hard. It’s nearly impossible to advance an agenda in Washington—compromises are necessary to gain sufficient support, and doing too much can scare voters. If Obama wants to promote “change”, it will have to be done gradually and with a measure of bipartisan support.

Neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush pushed the country very far to either the right or left—in fact, but taking a look at their accomplishments, it’s a bit hard telling who is the Democrat and who the Republican. (Clinton balanced the budget but raised taxes; Bush cut taxes, brought back the deficit, and promoted an aggressive foreign policy). Both those men, presumably, had visions for the country—Clinton’s vision liberal, Bush’s conservative. Both men tried to make those visions a reality—Clinton tried to implement universal healthcare, Bush tried to privatize Social Security. But both left the country (ideologically) much as it was when they found it. I think it probable that Obama, like those who preceded him, will discover that shifting the country’s political center of gravity isn’t easy.