The “50 Percent of the Votes, Plus One” Doctrine

Karl RoveOne thing I really hated about Karl Rove was his “50 percent of the votes, plus one” doctrine. I don’t go for that precisely because I believe in democracy and not in mob rule. Of course, it is all the worse in the United States where very few people vote. So getting 50% of the vote almost never means 50% of the people are in favor of a particular policy or candidate. And the conservative approach is always the same: get as few people to vote as possible.

There are some things that are not open to a vote, however. This is what the Bill of Rights is all about. This is why it is so frustrating to hear libertarians, who I think are totally wrong but usually fairly smart, say that if slavery were what the people wanted it would be okay. Wrong! And in a small defense of libertarians, the smart ones understand this very clearly. There are some rights that are not open to a vote. What’s more, we have rightly decided as a people that there are some rights you cannot even give up. If you want to be a slave, you can’t be. That is a freedom you do not have.

Scottish FlagSo even though I still believe that Scottish independence is a good idea if done properly, I find the vote quite questionable. What if the “yes” vote had received “50 percent of the votes, plus one”? Would that really have made it okay to upset the current reasonable state of things on the basis of a single vote? I don’t think it would be. And that brings up an interesting question: what level of support would justify independence? I wish there were an easy answer to that question.

There are two parts of it. First, I think there should be a very clear majority. I think some kind of supermajority would be appropriate — perhaps 60%, although maybe just 55% would be more appropriate given that it isn’t the only requirement. Second, I think there should be a high level of homogeneity in that majority. This is similar to the decision of the Second Continental Congress that all the colonies be on board before they decided on declaring independence. Clearly, this creates all kinds of problems of definitions. You wouldn’t want Scotland divided up by households so that some old crank is the only thing that is stopping Scotland from getting its independence. But Scotland is divided into 32 council areas and I think majorities (or maybe even submajorities) in all of those ought to do.

I’m sure this is the kind of proposal that is likely to make me hated by everyone on all sides of the issue. But the truth is that I don’t much care how Scotland wants to organize its affairs. I’m just using it as an example. When it comes to very important and disruptive things, I think more than a simple majority ought to be needed. Of course, here in the United States, we have a conservative movement that is the worst of all worlds. At the same time that they believe that they ought to be able to turn America into a theocracy with “50 percent of the votes, plus one,” they stubbornly obstruct the government on things they even agree on. See, for example, how the Republicans in the Senate use the filibuster against nominations that they later vote unanimously for.

The truth is that creating a governmental structure that works is really hard. My hat is off to Mr Madison. But it is also true that there is literally no free system that can work if the vast majority of the people don’t abide by social norms. That means that nothing works if we don’t treat each other with shared humanity. And I think this is why America is at such a dangerous point in its history. The leadership of a major political party does not accept the legitimacy of the other political party. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Supreme Court had canceled the Florida recount and anointed Al Gore president? The same people who concocted the Brooks Brothers riot, would have started a revolution. Liberals didn’t like how George Bush became president, but they accepted it because they accepted the system. I think most conservatives accept the system. But the people leading the movement do not. And things could go south quickly if “50 percent of the votes, plus one” ever worked in the liberals’ favor.

Woe Is Me!

Woe Is Me!Have I been slipping recently? I wonder — really I do. For the past week or so, writing this blog has been a real slog. But then, everything has. It’s just that I think it is more likely to show up here. It all started about a week ago.

I was at Trader Joe’s. I love that place. Things cost what they should cost, by and large. And I had just run in to get a couple of things. Really: the total was maybe $13. And I ran my card and it came up, “Insufficient funds.” That was shocking because I spend almost no money and am far too careful to ever get at the very end of my financial resources. But I did have a thought: the state of California was hungry again!

So I rushed off to the bank and they told me that, in fact, the state of California had put a hold on my entire account: checking and savings. You see, at the end of 2008, I got very sick. I ended up being in the hospital almost six months. I don’t even remember the first month there. I do remember getting to the hospital, but after that it’s all a blank. There were various things wrong with me, but the coolest thing was whatever was making fluid build up in my body. At one point, they drained three quarts of yellow liquid from the chest of my 99 pound body. And I have to admit: I felt a lot better afterwards! I had gotten so used to the pain that I didn’t even realize it was there.

As a result of this, I never paid the taxes on the money I had made that year. I’m sure I knew this somewhere in my mind. But this is not the kind of thing that I keep focused on. Finance is not my kind of thing. But this was a bad year to do this on, because I made a lot of money with a company that was paying me as an independent contractor, even though that was illegal. Not that it matters. They were rich people and the law in America is very clear on the fact that if you are rich, the law doesn’t apply to you.

So suddenly, I found I had no money — or very close to it, anyway. And then, I got into this extended argument with someone who is nominally an ally in the political blogging world. It was about Scottish independence. You know: an issue that I don’t care that much about. So I was my usual cavalier self. I mean: good God! The vote was over and my side lost! Is it that big a deal to note that 45% of the Scottish people voting for independence is actually a shockingly good showing? I mean, actual Scot who was against independence Alex Massie admitted the same thing. But this brought on a rage out of all proportion.

This shouldn’t have been that big a deal. But as always, I wondered if I had done something wrong. I don’t mind going to battle over things I care about with people I disagree with. But in this case, neither of these conditions were met. I mostly agreed with my adversary. And every comment I made was an attempt to extricate myself, only to be told that my latest attempt just showed what a terrible person I was. Of course, this wasn’t the first time I had gone toe-to-toe with this guy. I get the impression that he is the kind of guy who has nothing but strongly held opinions and so gets his back up over the smallest of disagreements. I admire that, and I’m glad he’s on my side. Of course:

But it was just one of those things. He felt very strongly about the issue and I didn’t. He thought I was being a jerk because I wasn’t engaging in debate the way he thought I should. And I thought he was being a jerk by not letting me ease out of the debate. I fully admit I should have just dropped it. But I was determined to find some common ground and come to a gentle landing. That didn’t happen. He ended up deleting our last two comments and then not publishing my final comment. I have no idea what our current status is, but I plan to go back over to his site and comment in a week or so. Hopefully, I’m still welcome.

Regardless, with the financial problems and the fact that the internet really is a terrible place, I’ve had this idea in my mind that giving up everything might be a very good idea. Unfortunately, I don’t have that option. So as a result, in addition to taking work that I’m really not looking forward to, I will probably soon be putting up some ads on this site. I figure that ought to at least pay for my phone bill. Although I’d actually rather just get rid of my phone. Unfortunately, I’m going to need it for the work that I don’t want to do.

Woe is me!

Budget Crises Can Be Fixed Fast; Global Warming Can’t

Paul Ryan - Reagan 2.0Philip Klein interviewed Paul Ryan at the Washington Examiner yesterday, Paul Ryan to GOP: Don’t Assume a Wave. Unfortunately, it’s in video form. But Jonathan Chait decided to take the week off from ranting about what a little dweeb Thomas Frank is and how opponents of education “reform” are big ol’ meanies who don’t care about the kids. This allowed him to write an actually interesting article with quotes, Paul Ryan Declares War Against Math. Go read the article if you are interested, it is rather good. But it isn’t surprising. Paul Ryan is a fraud and we have yet more evidence.

What I’m interested in is what Ryan had to say about the big bad budget crisis that is coming Any Day Now™. “The shame of it is, we just wasted eight years of knowing this crisis was coming, it’s the most predictable economic crisis we’ve ever had in this country, knowing about it, and not doing anything about it for eight years because of this presidency.” Wow. We’ve known about it since 2006, but it’s Obama’s fault. Bush was the guy who pushed the big tax cuts. Bush is the guy who provided the big give away to the pharmaceutical companies known as Medicare Part D. Obama actually cut costs with Obamacare, rolled back some of those tax cuts, and over all savaged the budget, which has been bad for the economy. He’s done what all the pretenders like Ryan claimed they wanted, but still Ryan says he has done nothing.

Of course, Ryan’s idea of dealing with the impending budget crisis that will now and forever more be here Any Day Now™, was to cut taxes. But this is nothing new. Paul Ryan is a hero of the Very Serious People, which means that he is by definition very unserious. But let’s look at his hysterical claim. “We’s just wasted eight years!” This is Social Security Paradox thinking: we must cut spending now or else we will have to cut spending later.

What’s really going on with Paul Ryan and the Serious crowd is that they are afraid that if we don’t cut spending right now, later the problem will be urgent enough that the people will call for tax increases. On the rich. The horror! But Paul Ryan would never say that. And anyway, his prescription has always been to cut taxes on the rich right now and savage social programs. So he isn’t even fine with the status quo of keeping taxes very low on the rich.

But the terrible thing is that if there really is an impending budget crisis that will happen Any Day Now™, we can fix it on that very day. We can cut spending on that day. We can raise taxes. It might be a bit painful but it would not be catastrophic. In fact, it would probably not be any worse than the last six years have been for the poor anyway. But there is an impending crisis that does not allow for quick fixes like the budget: global warming.

Climate Change Is a HoaxRyan, of course, doesn’t care about climate change. It is hard to say where he is on the stages of global warming denial, because he bounces around. But that’s the point of the stages: you decide to deny doing anything about global warming and then you pick a reason. The more you know or the more your audience knows, the higher the stage you pick.

Doing something about global warming will take decades. The lifetime of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is uncertain because of how much it cycles, but more recent estimates indicated about 50 years. The lifetime of methane is about 10 years. And the lifetime of nitrous oxide is about a hundred years. Of course, this isn’t the amount of time that it takes to remove these gases. This is the amount of time it takes to remove a molecule on average. Think of it as a half-life, but it is actually the amount of time it takes to remove somewhat more than half. Still, you can see: if we stopped putting carbon in the atmosphere today, the problem would be with us for decades to come. And it might cause changes that would stay with us for thousands of years.

Paul Ryan, like pretty much all Republicans who seem to shop at the same store for their suits and their ideologies, thinks that we absolutely must do something about the budget crisis that will happen Any Day Now™, even though we can easily address it. But global warming is a problem we can put off until things are catastrophic, even though there is really nothing we can do at that point but wait it out. This is modern American conservative thinking. And it is terrifying.

The Tragedy of Typhoid Mary

'Typhoid' Mary MallonOn this day in 1869, Mary Mallon was born. She is better known as Typhoid Mary, because she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever who infected many people in New York.

She was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States when she was 15 years old. I don’t know what she did for the first 15 years in the States other than live with her Aunt and Uncle. But at the age of 30, she began working as a cook for a number of wealthy families in New York. She must have known somewhere in her mind that there was something wrong. She would start a new job, people would get sick. She would move to a new job and the same thing would happen again. During the first years of the twentieth century, she worked for seven different families. Eventually, one of the families hired the sanitation engineer George Soper and he figured out that it had to be Mallon.

This led to Mallon’s being quarantined (jailed) for three years at North Brother Island. After that time, she was released under the condition that she not work with food. She was given a job working in a laundry, but it paid very poorly. So she changed her name and went back to cooking. She always maintained that she was not a carrier of typhoid fever. And indeed, asymptomatic carriers of the disease were unheard of. I’m sure there was a lot of cognitive dissonance. After infecting a whole lot of people over the course of five years, she was arrested and sent back to North Brother Island, where she lived for the remaining 23 years of her life.

There are a few interesting things about her case. One is that other asymptomatic carriers of the disease had been discovered, but the state did not lock them up. Specifically, there were three men who were all responsible for as many or more cases of the disease. Was it sexism or racism or just that she was the first discovered? I don’t know. Clearly, something needed to be done. But it needed to be done for all the cases, not just this one.

What’s more, this is one of those cases where I just don’t understand government policy. Here was Mallon who didn’t want to be confined to hospital/prison all her life. She had been okay working as a laundress but found she couldn’t make it on the salary. This is clearly a problem you could throw money at. And indeed, the government did. She had to be cared for on North Brother Island. Why not instead set her up in a dress shop and give her a guaranteed salary? But no. We have the same problem today. We are more than willing to spend $50,000 per year to lock up drug users, but spending $20,000 per year to send them to school is just unacceptable.

Regardless of all the damage that Mary Mallon did in her life, she is still a tragic figure. And the great crime is not hers, but the government’s. And in terms of how people are treated, things really haven’t changed in the century since she lived. We have certainly gotten much better at the science and at treating the disease. But in terms of humanity, we are still as primitive as ever.

Happy birthday Mary Mallon!