Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mitt Romney probably isn't going to win Iowa in a landslide, which is good for... Mitt Romney

According to the New York Times, the Iowa caucuses are still up in the air. Okay, true enough, even if the paper is sort of stating the obvious. But while he may lose the battle, I think we can now safely say Mitt Romney is well on his way to winning the war.

Why is this? Because for all the money and time Mitt has poured into winning Iowa, the best-case scenario for Romney may well be that no clear frontrunner emerges from the caucuses -- Mitt Romney included.

I know. It sounds crazy. Why wouldn't Romney want to win in Iowa? But I think if you look at the dynamics of the race, it makes sense.

Right now, you have Romney and a field of competitors, who are widely perceived as being more genuinely conservative than Romney. Romney perhaps has the organizational advantage -- he's been at this a long, long time -- and, relative to most of the competition, the financial advantage. But he has one crippling weakness: the simple, unavoidable reality that a huge number of Republican partisans absolutely do not want him to be the nominee. And thus, we have the rhythmic Dance of the Not-Romneys, each taking their turn at the head of the field and then receding dutifully into the background, as the 20-30% of Republican voters who are chiefly voting against Romney shift their allegiances.

Romney can't quite conclusively take the lead, but the Anti-Romney forces don't have the numbers to overwhelm his candidacy, and anyway, their own candidates keep imploding.

Ultimately, though, something is going to have to shift the balance of power, so to speak. There has to be a winner. And I really see only a couple of ways to break the stalemate.

Scenario A: The field stays crowded. Romney fails to score an early KO on any of his opponents. Everyone thinks they have a shot, and most of them stay in the race. Over the long haul, Romney's financial and organizational advantage becomes more important. The Iowan political scene is oversaturated, but advertising can actually move the needle in other states. Without a clear alternative, Republicans eventually throw up their hands and settle for the Mormon from Massachusetts.

Scenario B: Iowa winnows the field. One candidate wins by a large margin, and most of the Not-Romneys drop out. And here's the thing: I just don't believe that anyone who was voting for Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum would jump happily into Romney's camp. More likely, these voters will coalesce around whatever Not-Romney is still remaining. Undivided, the Not-Romneys actually become stronger.

Think about this way: there are enough people in the Republican Party who oppose Mitt Romney to catapult Rick Perry, and then Herman Cain, and then Newt Gingrich to the front of the pack almost overnight. And that's when the field is fractured. Add in most of the 20-30% that the other Not-Romneys were collectively receiving, and suddenly the Anti-Romney forces aren't picking temporary frontrunners... they're picking the nominee.

Romney's best strategy, then, is divide and conquer. And the only way his opposition stays divided is if as many of them stay in the race as possible. And if anyone, including Mitt Romney, wins decisively in Iowa, the field is going narrow very quickly. (The sole exception here is Ron Paul. Everybody knows Paul can't win the nomination, so it's possible nobody will drop out if Paul takes Iowa.) Fortunately for Mitt, right now, Iowa looks like a photo finish. And that brings him one step closer to the White House.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

U-S-A! U-S-A!

"The US is the greatest nation in history." You always hear this sort of statement on the campaign trail, but for obvious reasons, no one ever really bothers to question its truth. Until today, when Yglesias decided he'd take Mitt Romney's claims of American superiority seriously, and tested the premise from a variety of angles. His verdict? It seems to be a flat no: potential winners are Norway, China, the Mongol Empire, or the British Empire. But he just can't come up with a metric under which the US takes the blue ribbon.

I'm no ultra-patriot, but in his own words: "Really?"

Look, I get what Matt's going for here. "There are lots of countries, today and throughout history, which have done lots of things really well!" He's right.. but he's missing the forest for the trees. Because, be that as it may, America still dominates any number of indicators of national "bestness." For instance, most obviously, take virtually any indicator which relies on absolute size. Economic size, military strength, cultural influence: the US overwhelms all other potential claimants.

You might think that's cheating -- it's true, as Matt points out, that there have been, at times, nations with relatively more economic weight, relatively greater military might, or amazing cultural longevity. And you might say "Well, if the Mongol Empire had been around when the world population was 7 billion and electricity had been invented, it would more impressive than the US." But it isn't around, and that's the whole point! These nations couldn't exist in the modern day, not at the scale of the United States. It was possible for the Mongol Empire to conquer enormous swaths of the world because the world was sparsely inhabited. The British Empire built up incredible cultural and economic dominance because most of the world hadn't even developed industrially. And let's face it: most people living under the British or the Mongols were not exactly reaping the benefits of the vast might of their respective empires. By contrast, Americans live pretty high on the horse, historically speaking. While American living standards might pale next to Norwegian living standards, they're vastly higher than the living standards of about 99.8% of the people that have ever lived (that statistic is science, people). So all and all, I'd say we're making out pretty well in the "national greatness" department. Add in America's relatively high degree of political stability -- we made it hundreds of years without schisming or self-destructing, and seem to have at least a few more decades left in us -- and the total ubiquity of American culture around the globe, and I don't think this is even a close call. You don't have to like it, but it's hard to argue there's ever been a nation greater than the good ol' US of A.

Hopefully, I'll never have to say this again, but... Mitt Romney: 1, Matthew Yglesias: 0.

Monday, December 19, 2011

There's a movie coming out called Act of Valor and it's an affront to democracy

Here's the trailer. Thrill as Actual Navy Seals engage vaguely threatening terrorists and destroy them with massive firepower!

I'm not some puritan who wants to ban action movies, of which I am an avid viewer. I play and enjoy lots of video games with, well, dubious takes on the proper role of the military in civil society. By no means do I want all popular entertainment to be weighted down with leaden morals.

But something about this film just gives me the creeps. Maybe it's the way it intermixes solemn dialogue about brotherhood and claims of verisimilitude with pure gun porn. Maybe it's the way that the trailer shows Our Fighting Men annihilating the enemy with overwhelming force, but asks us to cheer for them anyway. Maybe it's because the film actually does seem intent on foisting its leaden morals upon us, but is unwilling to extend those morals beyond rough-spoken paeans to the nobility of following orders. One immediately senses that the film received the financial backing and technical assistance of the U.S. military -- it's hard to rent out an aircraft carrier for a film shoot otherwise -- and one can thus safely assume that all moral grayness will be expunged. (Soldiers feeling the pangs of homesickness while pressed into the defense of their country does not count as "moral grayness." Even Stalin's films had that.) All sacrifices will be noble and necessary, all killings will be justified, and the skill and professionalism of the U.S. Navy Seals will be demonstrated time and again.

It gets worse, though. I looked it up and it turns out that film actually began its life as a recruitment ad for the military -- a purpose it clearly has not abandoned. It's not just a piece of entertainment with questionable morals, but an actual attempt to direct young men and women into the business of violence and slaughter by celebrating violence and slaughter. Remember when the military recruited with promises of a college education and self-betterment? Now it's trying to lure in unsuspecting children with the promise of heroism and the chance to look really awesome while shooting really big guns at really bad dudes. Of course, in reality, a lot of kids who join up will get their limbs torn off by anonymously planted explosives. Their friends will retaliate by accidentally blowing up a Pakistani wedding party. Acts of valor, indeed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ciao Newt (maybe)

It's fair to say, I think, that Newt Gingrich's latest outburst is absolutely the craziest thing to come out of Republican primary season. Crazier than Perry forgetting which pieces of government he wants to abolish, crazier than Santorum's intense focus on starting a war with Iran, crazier than Herman Cain not remembering whether we supported the Libyan regime or the Libyan rebels. Crazier, even, than Newt's own demented fantasy of building a lunar colony. I'll let Steve Benen sum it up:
Just so we’re clear, this week, a leading presidential candidate articulated his belief that, if elected, he might (1) eliminate courts he doesn’t like; (2) ignore court rulings he doesn’t like; and (3) take judges into custody if he disapproves of their legal analyses.

I hope it’s unnecessary to note that Gingrich’s vision is stark raving mad.
In a lot of ways, the GOP race has been all about exploring the furthest reaches of what the Republican Party will accept from its candidates. And thus far, while candidates have suffered deficiencies of what we shall gently call "competence" and "morals," nobody has really run up against a rightward ideological bound. So it's a bit of relief to discover that a lot of Republican bigwigs and commentators find Gingrich's authoritarian instincts just a bit disturbing. I suppose we can all sleep easier knowing that "threatening to dissolve the court system in order to protect conservative social mores" is a bridge too far for the thought leaders of the American right.

Then again. Was Gingrich ever the candidate of the elite? Not really. His candidacy -- like that of Cain, Perry, and Bachmann before him -- was always driven by the Tea Party grassroots, the mass of GOP voters who hate Obama, hate Washington, hate liberals, but most of all, hate Mitt Romney. These people were never following the "thought leaders" in the first place.

So until they abandon Gingrich, I maybe wouldn't exhale just yet. Oh, they probably will sooner or later -- I mean, Santorum hasn't even gotten his chance at the front of the pack yet -- but do they care that some pointy-headed so-called conservative writer in DC thinks that Newt is flirting with fascism? Not likely.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A minor victory for the GOP's dimmest bulbs

Score one for the Tea Party: it's temporarily staved off the incoming regulations that would have phased out incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient incarnations:
The traditional incandescent light bulb won a nine-month reprieve late Thursday from new federal rules that would have led to its demise.

The deal to avert a government shutdown starting Friday night includes a provision that prevents the Department of Energy from spending any money to implement or enforce the energy efficiency standards for light bulbs that is set to start going into effect for 100-watt bulbs in 2012.
From a certain perspective, this isn't that big of a deal. The delay is temporary, the regulations only speed a process that would probably occur anyway, and the meaningful impact of a later start date on the environment is probably pretty low. There are Democratic concessions worth getting angry about, and this isn't one of them.

Which isn't to say that you shouldn't get angry at Republicans for just being so unbelievably petulant all the time. It's hard to think of a simple issue that better illustrates the great gaping ideological void at the heart of the Republican Party than the Light Bulb Kerfuffle of 2011.

Here what's incredible about the light bulb "debate": unlike virtually any other environmental issue, manufacturers and environmentalists are on the same side. The light bulb industry supports the new standards! Now, obviously, the manufacturers aren't being driven by altruism. The new bulbs are more expensive, and I expect their manufacturers see the potential for higher profits when the new standards are adopted. But consumer don't lose: they save money over the long run, by reducing energy costs. It's win-win, unless you're the power company.

The predictable conservative rejoinder is that market forces would resolve the problem eventually, as consumers opted for new bulbs. But why wait? There are plenty of obstacles to an efficient market solution here, as energy efficient bulbs will be sitting on the shelf next to cheaper incandescents, while the long-term savings are hidden away on electric bills. There's every reason to expect that widespread adoption by the market would take a long time, and no particular pragmatic reason to oppose government action to speed that process. And frankly, it's such a small thing. These regulations are totally bog-standard. They don't disrupt the economy. They don't meaningfully expand the regulatory power of the federal government. They're just a small step towards solving a very serious problem.

Not that I've seen very many attempts to mount a good-faith argument against the regulations. As best as I can tell -- and admittedly, I don't hang out with the kind of imbecile that gets tremendously worked up over common-sense attempts to increase energy efficiency -- opposition to these regulations arises from the same fearful adoration of the status quo that drives all reactionaries. Republican concerns seem to be less about what's being done -- "Oh no, our light bulbs are being replaced with slightly better light bulbs!" -- and more about who is doing it; namely, Obama, and the dreaded environmentalists. Oh, it's possible that their brave stand against energy efficiency is the product of short-sighted adherence to first principles, but if we're being completely honest, it's hard not to think that the only principle illuminated here is the GOP's principled opposition to anything supported by one of the many, many groups it fears and loathes.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Remember the Fourth Amendment? It was nice while it lasted [Updated]

This is exactly why the ostensible privacy advocates clamoring for a "subject-based" approach to Fourth Amendment jurisprudence are making a horrible, horrible mistake:
The Los Angeles Times reports that police in North Dakota this past summer made what are believed to be the first arrests of U.S. citizens with the help of a Predator spy drone.

Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke called in the unmanned, unarmed aircraft after he was chased off of a family farm by three men with rifles, the Times explains. It circled the 3,000-acre plot, tracked down the suspects and showed they were unarmed, allowing police to converge and arrest them.

Local police said they have also used Predators for at least two dozen surveillance flights in recent months.
It seems at least plausible that in the most recent case, a warrant was obtained. But I seriously doubt that warrants were issued for all of the dozens of "surveillance flights." Not that you'd have a prayer of challenging a secret search conducted from 30,000 feet, anyway.

Update: according to the original story, the officers did have a warrant. But speaking as someone with more than a passing familiarity with the development of Fourth Amendment law, it's only a matter of time until cops start ignoring the warrant altogether.

Drones actually set up an interesting theoretical question for courts. It's clearly permissible for the government to conduct a search of a property from a low-flying airplane. But there's also always been an implicit floor -- officers can't sit in a helicopter 50 feet above a house and watch you through your sunroof. But drones, if anything, create the opposite scenario: the risk they pose comes from them being too far away to be noticed.

It raises, in unusually stark terms, the question of which interests the Fourth Amendment protects, and what it's intended to guard against. Obnoxious and disruptive searches (in which case, drones are probably okay)? Secret and invasive searches that are difficult to guard against (in which case, they're probably not)? Or is the Fourth Amendment entirely agnostic to the method of the search being conducted, and only intended to protect specific subjects, areas, and spaces (in which case, officers can go absolutely hog wild with drones, so long as they keep their cameras away from private residences)?

Someone tell Matt Yglesias that Chris Paul is doing just fine, thanks

One Yglesias' better qualities as a blogger is his tendency to get bogged down in obscure corners of the policy arena. Land use, monetary policy, Northern European politics... the list goes on. The latest addition seems to be, roughly put, trust-busting. And unfortunately, while I generally agree with Matt's take on economic policy, I think this latest obsession has led him quite badly astray, most notably in this recent post of his.

In his post, Yglesias attacks Democrats generally, and Obama more specifically, for focusing on wealth redistribution as the solution to income inequality. In his view, Obama, et al, ought to be focusing more on policies that addressing the underlying causes of wealth inequality. These policies should differentiate between ill-gotten fortunes, earned through exploitation of the marketplace (think cartels, monopolies, and the like), and well-deserved fortunes, earned by providing a valuable good to willing market consumers. In a timely example, he calls our attention to Chris Paul: CP3 is certainly well-compensated, but he also provides a skill few other people can, and he himself has been continually victimized by cartels in the form the NBA, and previously, the NCAA. Wealth redistribution equally punishes Chris Paul and the cartels that exploit him; it doesn't differentiate between their very different economic roles.

Okay, first, there are a couple of major -- if ancillary -- problems with this argument. For starters, it is not exactly obvious what constitutes correct behavior in the marketplace. Undoubtedly, in many situations, cartels and monopolies are inefficient. Subsidies are inefficient. But not always! And many modern goods and services lie in one of the economic gray areas where it is possible to advance at least a cognizable argument that unconventional market structures are, in fact, ideal. Yglesias is hiding his subjective determinations of correct economic policy behind broad appeals to supposedly-universal market ethics. In reality, the answer isn't usually so clear.

I also object to the idea that taxes should be mentally processed as some sort of punishment. Hardly. Taxes are a contribution towards mutual self-interest. Most calls to raise rates on the rich don't represent an attempt to punish the rich for misbehavior while earning their wealth, but arise instead from a sense that the rich are shirking their responsibility to chip in after they earned their wealth. I don't see why someone' responsibility to their countrymen would be greatly altered because they made money producing valuable goods.

But the real problem with Yglesias' approach is that it's not outcome-oriented. In his concern over market ethics, he's lost sight of the fact that liberals favor wealth redistribution because it works. His recommended policies, by comparison, aren't really about closing the wealth gap at all. They're just wonky methods for fine-tuning the economy and making it more equitable for a select group of participants.

Let me explain. If you take a step back, Yglesias is talking about policies along two separate axes here:
  1. rules, regulations, and other government intervention to enforce a code of "market ethics" that breaks up inefficient monopolies and cartels, and

  2. straightforward wealth redistribution that takes money from all rich people (yes, even people like Steve Jobs and Chris Paul) and gives it to all poor people, be it in the form of health care, food stamps, or tax breaks.
Imagine a world in which we enact the first bundle of policies and ignore the second. Does this approach really move the needle on wealth inequality? Maybe a little -- certainly, market pressures would ensure some goods would be available to more people for less cost -- but I can't think of any historical evidence of a correlation between "market fairness" and economic equality. It's libertarian fantasy to imagine that a correctly managed marketplace would flatten itself out and begin correcting wealth imbalances. Indeed, his own example works against him: the cartels themselves might get poorer, but the genuine producers (again, think Chris Paul) would just enrich themselves even further. There might be increased opportunity for competition in the marketplace, but opportunities would remain finite: for most, economic pressures would probably remain basically unchanged. In short, while the composition of people holding the lion's share of wealth might change -- and for the better, because high-earners would be theoretically contributing more to society -- it's far less apparent that the divide between the haves and the have-nots would significantly subside.

Now imagine the opposite scenario: we enact robust wealth redistribution policies and leave bad market behavior untouched. Here, the wealth gap narrows dramatically. The standard of living of the poor noticeably improves, although the total productive capacity of society remains somewhat below the optimum. And who suffers as a result of these priorities? While everyone is less well off than they could be in an idealized, maximally productive economy, the only people who are worse off than in the previous scenario are, in fact, the well-off. People like Chris Paul, and other well- but under-compensated economic producers. They still fall victim to bad behavior in the market, and some of their money is skimmed indiscriminately away by the government.

And look, I love Chris Paul. But cartels or no cartels, taxes or no taxes, Chris Paul isn't really suffering. And it's not just him: most of the people who are seriously harmed by bad market behavior aren't suffering either. They're only victimized relative to some theoretical measure of their worth in a economy that isn't our economy. Taxes aren't going to change that: one of the nice things about marginal tax brackets is that they can't actually drive anyone into poverty. In absolute terms, these people have got more than enough money to get by without undue physical or mental distress.

The same, of course, cannot be said for the people at the very bottom of the economic food chain. Market fairness doesn't help them, but wealth redistribution sure does. Reduced income inequality sure does.

In reality, it's never going to be all one or all the other. And there's nothing preventing us from pursuing both. We should! But to the extent that progressives hope to rectify wealth disparities -- whether it's because they think it's important to help the less fortunate, or because they believe a more equal society functions more efficiently (and I happen to believe both) -- they can't get too caught up in the task of distinguishing between earned and unearned wealth. Old-fashioned redistribution is a far better means of creating a more equal society, and deserves its centrality in liberal policy and rhetoric.

Friday, December 9, 2011

This is your government.

Dave Weigel describes the ever-mounting appointments crisis.
I asked Lugar how IPAB would be affected if no one was confirmed to it. “There’s always the possibility of filling these jobs during a recess,” he shrugged. But perhaps Lugar doesn’t even need to worry about that possibility. Since the end of May, the Republican-run House has effectively ended recess appointments. How? By simply refusing to go into recess.

This isn’t a new idea. When Democrats took the House and Senate in 2006, they declined to pass adjournment resolutions during breaks. Keeping Congress in “pro forma sessions” turns out to be easy—you send a member from Virginia or Maryland in to bang the gavel every third day, and voila, no recess. Republicans aren’t saying anything on the record yet about how they’ll handle the end of the year, when there’s typically a short recess to mark the interregnum between sessions. (There’s a chance that the payroll tax fight could drag on longer than they planned.) We do know what they’re allowed to do. The House could refuse to adjourn until the moment before the next session begins. On Jan. 3, at 11:59 a.m., it could end the first session of the 112th Congress; at noon, the second session would begin. No time for a recess. No way for Obama to appoint someone to the CFPB or anything else.

Are there ways for the administration or Senate Democrats to get around this? There are theories, and the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has been collecting the best ones. ThinkProgress judicial blogger Ian Millhiser has called for Obama to use “the Teddy Roosevelt precedent” and copy what the original progressive did in 1903, when a half-day recess turned into an orgy of 160 appointments.
There's something not-so-vaguely revolutionary about the Republican Party's de facto rejection of any outcome that runs counter to its own interests. After all, isn't that what a revolution is? Political disputes that spill outside the usual arena because the opposition refuses to honor the ordinary process for resolving political conflict. Whatever substantive differences divide the combatants, opposition becomes an attack on the legitimacy of the system itself.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why I like LMFAO

This probably always inevitable. The punditocracy has discovered LMFAO. Even as we speak, a flock of Ivy-educated intellectuals are cautiously circling the group, eying it up like some incomprehensible cultural artifact from a long-forgotten race. Slate's take is positive. TNR's is mostly about Mitt Romney.

So the time has come, I suppose, for me to publicly confess: I'm a LMFAO fan.

Sorry, mom. I know you had high hopes for me.

I don't listen to their music, of course. Does anyone? Even more than most Top 40 artists, LMFAO makes no attempt to disguise the formula behind their craft. Even someone as musically inept as me can listen to any of their songs twice and immediately recognize that there's nothing more to any of them than a dance beat, some slurred "rapping," and a catchy, hooky bit that stays in your head far longer than you'd ever want (the wiggle, if you will).

Still: thank god for LMFAO. Because implicit in all their stupid music, in their stupid personas, and their stupid songs, is the idea that pop music ought to be fun. That pop music is silly, and that it's okay to be silly, and that anyone who takes pop music too seriously is absolutely missing the point.

That might seem obvious, but I don't think it is, to a lot of people. There are people who take their dance clubs very seriously. Go to any club on a Saturday night and you'll scads of them, the girls in little dresses and the guys in too-tight button-ups, all grossly cocky and prettified. The atmosphere is toxic. These people think they're having fun, but it's nasty sort of fun, more about strutting and self-regard and sexual conquest than about simply having a laugh and letting loose with some friends.

Next to this sort of peacockery, LMFAO seems positively wholesome. With absurdly over-the-top lyrics, class-clown antics, and leopard-print, LMFAO repudiates the idea that dancing and clubbing should be an act of sexual predation. Their message to the club-creeps: "We might look stupid, but so do you, and at least we don't care."

It's refreshing, and more: it's eminently relatable. Normal people, after all, don't look good on the dance floor. They look goofy! And LMFAO embraces this. Smart people have always known that dancing and self-deprecation go hand in hand, but LMFAO takes it a step further: the very act of dancing to "Sexy and I Know It" is necessarily self-deprecating. It's a song designed to humiliate anyone who takes it seriously, and good riddance.

In that way, "Sexy and I Know It" and much of the rest of LMFAO's oeuvre forms the very antithesis of the skin-crawling date-rape anthems that sometimes creep onto the Top 40. (Enrique Iglesias, I'm looking at you.) Was this intentional? I don't know, and I don't care. At least for now, LMFAO and their wiggles have helped drive some of the leering machismo out of dance music, and that's no mean feat. It's the first step towards making the club safe for the rest of us.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Romney uncertainty principle

Has anyone else noticed that any observation of Mitt Romney supports two equally plausible, contradictory conclusions?

For instance, this chart:

gives rise to:
  • Wow, even with his mediocre poll numbers, look at all the support Mitt Romney has garnered from party elites! Surely, he's wrapped the nomination up.
  • Wow, even with his huge amounts of support from party elites, look how mediocre Mitt Romney's polls numbers are! Surely, the nomination is still in the air.

(For the record, I'm more in the latter camp. But of course, who can say?)

h/t Jamelle Bouie