Saturday, July 12, 2003

My readership numbers, always low, have dwindled to nothingness lately. I am a big believer that, at some point in time, one should accept reality no matter how much it conflicts with cherished preconceptions. The reality is that people just don't see a need for this blog amidst all the great liberal blogs out there. So I must apologize to my loyal readers, both of them, and sign off. Please check out the great blogs in the role models list on the right if you are looking for timely commentary. Goodbye. 
Thursday, July 10, 2003

More than a couple decades ago, nearly all agreed that the news media and academic think tanks should be "objective," not partisan. But conservatives realized a while back that they could reap political benefits by establishing partisan institutions that stand out amidst the blandness of purportedly objective voices.

Progressives have woken up and realized they must respond in kind. Al Gore is trying to establish a liberal television channel to rival Fox News. Al Franken is trying to establish a liberal talk radio network to rival Rush Limbaugh and the dittoheads. John Podesta is trying to establish a liberal advocacy think tank to rival the Heritage Foundation.

I applaud all these efforts. It's about time liberals realized they were unarmed when facing incoming fire from these new conservative advocacy institutions.

But I also find this change to a more overtly partisan stance ironic. For advocacy journalism and academics unafraid to trumpet their own political views in the guise of academic theory were hallmarks of the Gilded Age, a time before generally accepted standards of objectivity were imposed. Well, the disparity between rich and poor is returning to Gilded Age levels. So if our economy is headed back to the Gilded Age, I guess it's no surprise that our politics are headed down that road as well. 
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

As I posted below, Republicans have a great track record at changing the subject when their assertions prove wrong. They also do well at taking some facts and trying to spread them far enough to rectify unrelated factual errors. They are at it again in responding to stories establishing that the documents purporting to show Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger were forged. The problem, of course, is that President Bush relied on those documents in his State of the Union speech when arguing that Saddam was trying to obtain nuclear weapons.

On NPR this morning, I heard an excerpt from President Bush's press conference in Africa where he was asked about it. He replied that there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction programs.

What does that have to do with the price of tea in Kansas? The fact remains that American intelligence knew the documents were forged months before the State of the Union speech and conveyed that information to the White House. So the real issue is whether President Bush himself knew that the documents were discredited. In that event, he should be excoriated for purposefully relying on information he knew was false in order to build political support for his agenda.

If he didn't know, the focus should be on the the high-level aides who did receive the information that the documents were bogus but still allowed them to be included in the State of the Union speech, one of the most thoroughly vetted speeches any President gives over the course of a year. In days goneby, there would be wide-spread calls for the resignation of any aide who played so casually with the truth when the lives of American service men and women were on the line.

Most importantly, we must not let this issue become confused with whether going to war with Iraq was the right thing to do or not. They are completely separate questions. Regardless whether the war was justified, there is no justification for fibbing to the American people about bogus documents to gin up war hysteria. That's the ball. Let's keep our eye on it.

[Update: Post was edited to remove reference to news story that has since been retracted by the source.] 
Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Yesterday I said we need to improve our democracy and mentioned in conclusion that fairer voting systems are part of the solution. Let me explain that last point.

Fairer voting systems include various methods of propotional representation such as instant runoff voting, choice voting and party list voting, which are explained more fully here and here. Although the details vary from system to system, the main outlines are the same. In each, the number of representatives to a legislative body tracks the number of voters who vote for a certain viewpoint, sometimes as expressed by individual candidate and sometimes as expressed by party. With our winner-take-all/single representative districts, however, if each legislative district splits 60/40 between two parties, the winning party will have 100% of the seats, not the 60 % they earned.

Fairer voting applies to executive elections such as races for Governor or President, but the real problem is legislative bodies, such as state assemblies and city councils, so I'll focus on those. Why is proportional representation so important?

1) Nimbys ("Not in my Backyard"). We all want things like highways, landfills, and prisons, but most of us don't want them in our own backyard. In many legislatures, representatives agree that each will have veto power over projects in their own district. That is unlikely to happen in a proportional representation system where at least some representatives are not so narrowly tied to a particular district. More generally, proportional representation allows the election of representatives who speak for an ideology or interest group that is too geographically dispersed to win any particular single representative district.

2) Attack ads. In a two-person race, attack ads allow even a truly lame candidate to defeat an opponent he portrays as even worse. With proportional representation, however, attack ads are much less effective, because voters tend to jump to third choices who are not part of the mudslinging. The natural consequence is that ads focus more on policies that affect voter's lives, less on character traits irrelevant to a legislator's job performance.

3) Gerrymandering. We've always had gerrymandering, but its bad effects are much greater in the Information Age. For example, the recent brouhaha over redistricting the House delegation in Texas stems from the fact that the composition of the delegation can be changed from 17 to 15 Democratic to 20 to 12 Republican just by moving district lines. In the multiple representative districts of proportional representation, those shifts can only be made at the ballot box, not by the stroke of a mapmaker's pen.

4) Citizen Apathy. Winner-take-all districts are a big reason why voter turnout in the United States is near the worst among advanced democracies. The sad fact is that many non-voters are right when they say their vote doesn't matter. If you are a Democrat in a safe Republican district or vice-versa, you can't dream of electing a representative from your party. But if the campaign were hot and heavy to see if you could get an additional seat for your Vegan Feminist or Christian Hunter party, you'd be much more likely to turn out. Of course, the vast majority of representatives will be mainstream under any system, but I firmly believe that representing the full spectrum of political belief would invigorate our politics by giving everyone a fair shot to elect at least one like-minded representative.

The main reasons why the winner-take-all/single district approach persists are 1) we've almost always done it that way and 2) incumbents love it. But we've learned a lot about democracy since the Constitution was written, and proportional representation is a superior expression of the democratic principles underlying the document. The second reason is actually a good justification for abandoning the winner-take-all approach. Turnover in the House of Representatives has reached lows not seen since the hayday of the Superme Soviet. Surely, we can make our representatives more responsive than that. 
Monday, July 07, 2003

Too many current discussions about foreign affairs seem premised on the notion that we have already perfected the art of democracy here at home. But the perfect democracy has not yet been created. After the Constitution was enacted, we had the most democratic country in existence, but slavery was still practiced. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery was abolished, but women could not vote and African-Americans were effectively barred from the polls in significant numbers. Not until the 1960s was something as basic as "one person, one vote" required of state legislative elections.

Our history demonstrates that democracy is not an either/or condition. Rather, we have had to work over the course of centuries to extend and improve our democracy. Acting as if that process has come to a conclusion, as if we have arrived at "The End of History," is erroneous -- dangerously so.

Some of the problems with our current form of democracy are apparent in California. From the vantage point of 2003, it may seem inevitable that California would grow into a behemoth, but a lot of its growth is attributable to statesmen like Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Pat Brown, and Jesse Unruh, who provided the infrastructure -- including water systems, schools, and roads -- necessary to manage explosive growth well.

Today California's government is melting down. The combination of term limits, gerrymandered districts, and the fundraising process have lead to a logjam, despite a state budget crises where some form of action is urgently needed. Through the referendum process, however, voters created a system where a minority of legislators can hold a state budget hostage. And because so many Republican legislators are beholden to their ideological base, they prefer holding the budget hostage to making the compromises required for the state government to operate.

Many of the steps necessary to improve the functioning of our democracy are widely known, especially campaign finance reform. I've slowly come to the less well-known view that some forms of voting that are fairer than winner-take-all districts must be adopted to get us out of our current rut. But before we do anything else, we must stop the denial. We must recognize that our current mode of practicing democracy is flawed and has to be fixed, because we are not going to get better policies until we have a better political process for formulating them.  
Where Politics, Policy, Economics, History, and Foreign Affairs Mingle Uncomfortably

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