Daily Archives: 07 May 2014

Liberals ♥ Democracy!

I Love Democracy

Jonathan Bernstein has written a really interesting article, Democrats’ Electoral College Edge. Who’d a thunk it? I’ve generally thought of the Electoral College as being something that benefited Republicans because of the tiny red states that get more than their fair share of electoral oomph. But that is no longer true. Political scientist Ben Highton looked at it and indeed, the Electoral College is good for the Democrats. Very good.

Now what does this mean? If the popular vote comes out evenly divided, the Democrats would win the presidency 80% of the time. And the reason is very interesting. Blue states are getting bluer, so that pushes against Democrats getting an advantage from the Electoral College. But this is more than compensated for by the fact that Red states are getting redder at an even faster pace. To give you an example, the most heavily Obama-voting states were Hawaii and Vermont with 70.55% and 66.57% of the vote. Compare this to the most heavily Romney-voting states of Utah and Wyoming with 72.79% and 68.64%. Admittedly, Utah was hotter for Romney because he was a Mormon, but if you look at 2008, Utah’s still number three for the Republican.

What I find fascinating about this is how what is happening to the Republicans on the federal level has long been happening to Democrats on the state level. While it’s true that gerrymandering greatly harmed the Democratic Party after 2010, at least as big a problem is that Democrats are clustered in urban areas. So even when congressional districts are reasonably drawn, there is a tendency for the Democratic districts to be very Democratic. Now that same thing is happening on the federal level because increasingly, the hatred of the conservative movement is relegated to little states no one especially wants to visit: Oklahoma, Idaho, West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, Kansas. (For the record: I know there are a lot of fine people in those states.)

But Jonathan Bernstein said something else that I take issue with, “If these results hold up through 2016, expect the parties to begin flipping their positions on the Electoral College, perhaps very rapidly.” Despite what readers may think, I don’t consider myself a partisan. Yes, I am mostly against everything that the Republicans have to offer. But I’m more than willing to admit when someone like Rick Santorum has some reasonable things to say about economic policy. And although I am a registered Democrat, I largely disagree with the economic policy of that party. Even more than most so called independents, I go my own way. And on this issue, I value democracy far more than I value an advantage to the Democratic Party.

Where I really disagree with Bernstein is in his false equivalence. Yes, I’m sure that the Republicans will rush to the realization that the Electoral College is a Very Bad Thing™(pending). But I suspect that Democrats—other than the hyper-partisans—will keep thinking that the Electoral College is a very bad thing. Because liberals actually do believe in democracy. But I will go this far in Bernstein’s direction: it won’t be high on Democrats’ list of priorities.

I find the whole thing fascinating and I am glad that political scientists can look at it. But as much as I think democracy is an incredibly flawed system, I also think it is the best system yet devised for creating governments. I’m pleased that right now it greatly favors the less terrible party. But I am as much against it as ever. I can’t put it any more clearly than the bumper sticker above: I ♥ Democracy!


If you haven’t seen it, you should watch the great CGP Grey’s video, “How the Electoral College Works”:

And then watch “The Trouble with the Electoral College”:

Thomas Friedman Is Wrong on Ukraine

Thomas Friedman - Artist's ConceptionYesterday, Thomas Friedman wrote another of his grand columns, Go Big, Get Crazy. It’s one where you can imagine him delivering it from a podium with big hand gestures that proclaim, “We will expand this great system of ours and let freedom ring…” On Mars or something. Actually, Friedman’s idea this week is for America to become energy independent to spite Putin. Instead of his old “Suck on this!” it is more “Suck on the ground to get them hydrocarbons!”

But Friedman wants to do it in an environmentally friendly way. But he’s no fool. He realizes that compromises must be made! And just like the “third way” moderate he is, all he thinks it will take is a little leadership™ on the part of Obama:

Obama should summon the congressional leadership to Camp David and put his own plan on the table: Offer the Republicans the Keystone XL pipeline, expanded oil drilling and fracking (but only at the highest environmental standards) and, in return, demand a revenue-neutral carbon tax, a national renewable portfolio standard that would require every utility in America to gradually introduce more renewable power, and a national California-level home building code for energy efficiency. I would also toss in incentives for expanding the share of nuclear power in our energy mix.

I think I have a new name for the man: Rip Van Friedman. Because he sounds like he’s been asleep for six years. Obama is not a Republican so there will be no compromise by the opposition. Remember the budget deal where John Boehner got 98% of what he wanted? That was the deal he turned down. This deal would be one that was overwhelmingly on the Democratic side. I don’t think there is a major environmentalist around who wouldn’t exchange Keystone for a carbon tax. The kind of deal that the Republicans would take would be Keystone in exchange for maybe some day considering a debate about the possibility that maybe we might want to think about global warming after Manhattan is under water.

Dean Baker was quick to hit back on the ridiculous economics in Friedman’s article, Thomas Friedman’s Big Deal on Fracking and Global Warming:

The same applies to his proposal for a carbon tax coupled with approving the XL pipeline. The tar sands oil that would go through the pipeline would be especially hard hit by a carbon tax. That would likely make it unprofitable, a point that Friedman himself notes. For this reason the industry is unlikely to see the XL pipeline as much of quid pro quo for a carbon tax. In short, it doesn’t seem like he has much of the basis for a deal here.

But the whole article is predicated on the idea that we must do something about Ukraine. Now, I don’t like what’s happening in Ukraine either. But it is a whole lot more justified than the United States’ invasion of Iraq. And Thomas Friedman was not only a big supporter of starting that war, he was a big supporter of it long after things had gone terribly wrong. I just don’t see how he is in any position to complain about Russia at this point.

After the Ukrainian revolution, Thomas Friedman was on the Sunday talk shows to gush about how great it all was. He said, “The West didn’t do this. The United States didn’t do this. The EU didn’t do this. The Ukrainian people did this.” Not really. Patrick Smith explained in Slate at the time:

Every one of the above sentences reflects what we are supposed to think we have just witnessed in Ukraine. And every one is false. The “revolution” in Ukraine was orchestrated, not bottom up; the West by way of the Europeans and Americans did the orchestrating, and the Ukrainian people—that portion who favor a Westward tilt—were the instruments, not the composers.

It’s interesting that Mr Globalization is also Mr Nationalism. But it isn’t surprising. That’s the thesis of Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans (my last discussion of it: Bad Samaritans). The whole free trade business is really about enriching the advanced countries and keeping down the developing countries. But even apart from that, Friedman should shut up. He has no credibility to complain about Russia doing something that is more justified than policies he’s recent led cheers for.

Republicans Just Don’t Want Reform

Stacey CampfieldJonathan Chait wrote an excellent article this morning, Springtime for Obamacare. In it, he goes through a number of arguments that conservatives have made about Obamacare and discusses how recent events have refuted them. I recommend reading the whole article, especially because I’m only going to talk about one small aspect of it.

He used a quote by Tennessee Republican State Senator Stacey Campfield to make a general point. Campfield recently argued that Obamacare is like the Holocaust, because it was the government deciding who lives and who dies. It’s actually a hoot if you brush aside the fact that it was said by a man with a lot of political power. I mean, you need extremely twisted logic to come to that conclusion. You have to assume, for example, that providing more healthcare will actually kill people because it will make the care so much worse. But I suspect that Campfield also thinks that huge numbers of the “right” kind of people don’t have health insurance because they’ve been priced out of the market by the government’s paying for the “wrong” kind of people.

Jonathan ChaitChait’s point is that wackos like Campfield are actually in an easier position because they make no factual claims to be refuted. After all, they aren’t saying that Obamacare will lead to death. They are simply claiming that the very idea of Obamacare is deciding who lives and dies. No proof needed. But here’s the thing: those who present actual claims and those who do not are against Obamacare for the same reason. They just don’t want the old system changed.

This fact is clear enough in one of the standard arguments against Obamacare: “Health insurance doesn’t make you healthy.” This was a big deal last year when a small study out of Oregon didn’t find health improvements in a couple of categories for people who had health insurance. Of course, since then, a much larger study out of Massachusetts has found that increased health insurance coverage actually saves lives. So that argument ought to be gone, but of course it will continue on because facts don’t seem to matter in these cases.

What’s interesting about this argument is the subtext. It argues that health insurance is not useful. And if its not useful, it isn’t worth helping people get it. That’s what I’ve always said about the conservative position on healthcare reform: they don’t want to do anything. Obamacare is based upon a private market system developed by the Heritage Foundation. But it was never meant to be law; it was mean simply as protection against something like a single-payer system. This is actually a concept that Chait himself pioneered, The Heritage Uncertainty Principle (HUP): as soon as a Republican healthcare idea becomes politically viable, it disappears. He noted this early example of it:

In 1993, Republican minority leader Bob Dole supported a version of it to demonstrate that Republicans did not endorse the status quo, until Democrats, facing the demise of their own plan, tried to bring up Dole’s plan, at which point Dole renounced his own plan.

The principle that lies beneath the HUP is that the Republicans absolutely are for the healthcare status quo. Yes, they are for certain changes to the healthcare system, but they are for them for other reasons. The best example of this is tort “reform,” which is just a way of giving more power to powerful at the expense of the powerless.

But in this way, regardless of the argument—”Premiums will go sky high!” or “Welcome to the Holocaust!”—the conservatives are disingenuous. What they want is to do nothing at all that will upset the power elites. But they can’t say that. So they come up with ridiculous rationalizations. But at least the Nazi comparisons have the advantage of being transparently bogus.

Johannes Brahms

Johannes BrahmsOn this day in 1833, the great German composer Johannes Brahms was born. As you may know, I’m not a big fan of Romantic music. But that’s mostly because the period brought out the worst in mediocre composers. Pretty much any Classical composer could grind out an acceptable piece of music. But that just isn’t so in the Romantic period. I blame Beethoven who inspired many people who shouldn’t have been inspired. Although in a fundamental sense Beethoven was the greatest composer of the period (although I generally think of him as transitional), I prefer to listen to Brahms.

Brahms was a protege of Robert Schumann, who was probably the biggest influence on the young composer. They became friends when Brahms was only 20 years old. This may be why Brahms was considered a conservative composer, at least compared to the other dominant composers of the time. But this gets to my general problem with Romantic music. The excesses of the period are well on display in Wagner and Liszt. What’s more, I find Brahms constantly innovative, just not in such a flashy way. His Symphony No 1 is a great example of restrained brilliance. Not that he couldn’t be more ostentatious as he is in the Violin Concerto in D.

But of the most interest to modern listeners is probably Brahms’ work with folk tunes. That’s especially true of the Hungarian Dances. And since I know from experience that people will not listen to hour long symphonies or concertos, here is the most famous of those dances, No 5 in F♯ Minor:

Happy birthday Johannes Brahms!