Posts Tagged ‘democracy


Who Tells Us What

When you have data and a nuanced, long-view, of an area, it’s easy to say profound things. It comes naturally. Look at this sentence from a very recent pew report on the state of the media.

In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.

The point is striking, but I never thought about it before. When reporting manpower goes down, but total content output needs to stay the same, then something must give. In this case, Pew seems to think that other entities step in to provide content in a more packaged or ready-to-press form. This shouldn’t be surprising. If you go to, you’ll see that some of their content is put together straight from advertisers. There model is not really reporting so my analogy is flawed, but there is definitely something convincing about the hypothesis that as reporting and analysis dry up, powerful groups such as the government and the market can dictate the terms of content promulgation even more.

Again, I don’t want to shortchange the rise of bloggers and specialists. I’ve learned a ton from individual people who just decided to drill down on a complex issue. It just doesn’t seem to me like the burgeoning independent journalism sphere yet makes that much difference. It seems like there are established message channels and that they are still up for use/hijack depending on how you see it.


The relationship between fundraising and electoral support

Many people are worried about money in politics. They think that all the fundraising is bad because a candidate who raises money can then spend it on electoral success. In this way, money is supposed to be distorting American politics.

But there is an ongoing question in the social sciences about whether raising money makes a politician a strong candidate, or whether being a strong candidate helps one raise money. If the latter is true, then it seems that money is just a harmless byproduct or a demonstration or sign of how attractive the candidate already is.

But even if the latter is true, and fundraising is just a byproduct of being a good candidate, there may be reason to lament the money in politics.

If money is not an exogenous variable that can help a poor candidate beat a superior candidate, then money is an endogenous candidate which demonstrates which candidate had a more attractive history/platform/etc all along. So, the big spending by winning candidates is just proof that they’re attractive candidates in the sense that they are responsive to people.

But why is the candidate attractive? Perhaps they are attractive for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps they are a pretty face or have a talent for rhetoric. And every minute that attractive candidates spend raising and spending money is time that they don’t spend clarifying their positions to the people who already believe in them or convincing those who don’t yet agree that they should. In other words, the fact that strong candidates manifest their strength through advertising and fundraising says something about our democratic system. In a different democratic system, strong candidates might manifest their strength by other metrics that aren’t easy to quantify such as number of people convinced or number of new voters that voted for them, etc.



If you’re a Texan, you should read this (and also if you’re not)

Texas recently passed a law requiring voters to adhere to various requirements to vote, one being a photo ID requirement to vote. The law, SB14, is very strict compared to other states (student ID is not allowed), and is aimed at solving a problem that does not exist.

I’ve done some research on this because I was a little upset about this choice by my legislature. You see, I send a lot of my time correcting Yankee stereotypes about Texas and its culture, and Texas has made a lot of progress on a lot of fronts, but this sort of thing does not make my job any easier.

I’m not a cynic about politics: I think it can work and I think legislators care about the votes they cast and are not conniving bastards. So, I’m writing this to make a reasoned, and somewhat optimistic request that others who like Texas at least take a look at this. (If you went to St. Mark’s, know this: Dan Branch voted for and SPONSORED this bill. I sent him a letter expressing my dissatisfaction with this vote and perhaps you will too. His constituency site is attached below).

The issue is this: many students, minorities and old people don’t have photo IDs. “Ok” you say, “go get one.” What’s the big deal? Well, nothing really except that there is a small fee and if you think about how busy your own life is and how NOT likely you are to do small bureaucratic things that don’t really benefit you in any obvious way, you should be able to sympathize with the idea that for someone who is poverty or old, or just ignorant about this change (as many young people and minorities are) then you are going to be out of luck on election day. Remember, not many people vote, so we want the barriers to voting to be LOW so that we get elections that are representative of our national character and judgments.

Maybe your response to this is something like “But how can we prevent voter fraud?” and that’s a fair point. The answer though is that individual voter fraud (voting under multiple names multiple times) just does not exist and in any case does not have a big impact when it does. If you don’t believe me, you can read about two VERY comprehensive reports on the phenomenon (here and here). This makes sense when you think about it. Who cares enough to vote multiple times in a single day, and even if they ran to every polling place as fast as they can, such a person might be able to generate at most something like an extra 20 votes. By contrast, adding hurdles to the process could prevent something like thousands of people from getting their fair vote in. Even the ACORN scandal a while back was, if you think it was really that bad at all (subsequent reports have shown that this episode of fraud was minor), just about fraudulent voter REGISTRATION, and most of the people fraudulently registered in this way don’t show up to vote.

So anyway, I wrote the following letter to my representative, Dan Branch, in an effort to just politely register my belief that SB14 was an error. His constituency site is here.

Further reading on this is here, here and here.

Here’s a hilariously bad and non-sequitur op-ed from the WSJ trying to defend these laws. The argument basically asserts “these voter ID laws are not as bad a Jim Crow.” Ok fine, I didn’t want to bring Jim Crow into this and I agree its not as bad as Jim Crow, but SO WHAT. If the law is net bad, then we shouldn’t have it. Case closed. There are also comparison to other places in society where IDs are called for, like at the airport, but the purpose there is completely and and obviously different (security, and also helping revenue for airlines by preventing people from transferring their tickets to other people). So this op-ed turns out to be one of the worst I’ve read.





Petrodollars don’t fund repression

The website I’ve been working on for a long time has finally launched its new interface and its really cool. I’m an editor and I also write for it (as do some of my friends) and I have some cool stuff coming out. Check it all out at

I saw this today which seems like a reputable, recent, quite well done paper. But the result is also incredible, which is that high oil prices do not help repressive regimes fund their repression. Now, in one sense, I can agree with this, because I think optimal profits from oil revenue come at around 40-50 dollars a barrel. So that at high prices, money per barrel goes up, but total barrels is going down because of conservation efforts that start making sense at higher prices (all of a sudden oil is so expensive that it makes sense to have your pizza delivery boys bike their deliveries, no matter how cold the pizza gets) This is oil elasticity stuff that some people spend their whole lives doing.

But this study doesn’t say that (well it doesn’t give that rationale), it just says that there is no link between prices and democracy, looked at from a rigorous statistical perspective. Really? If oil went to $10 a barrel, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t have to think about not spending 10% of its GDP on the military?

I guess, to be fair, the article’s conclusion, that there is no general relationship between democracy and oil prices, is compatible with thinking there is such a relationship in specific countries.

What does it all mean? Two things. One is that we don’t have feel so guilty about using oil cause it doesn’t fuel repression. Its a kind of “oil doesn’t kill people, oil dictators kill people” result.

Second, any argument for getting off of foreign oil will have to be pretty heavily (almost exclusively) environmentally based. Environmentalists step up.

(look at this for the opposite perspective)


Donald Trump, Bin Laden, and Buddhism

I’ve mentioned Buddhism several times on this sit before, and here is the most relevant post, but I’ve also talked about it here and here.

Buddhism has a commitment to the idea of observation and non-intervention. It’s not a doctrine (I don’t know about formal doctrines of the religion) but I’ve read some Buddhist writers who are contemporary and also talked to some, and they place a lot of emphasis on the idea of stepping back from one’s feelings and merely observing them, and NOT judging them.

In fact, the book I’m reading right now (short little thing, hardly worth calling a book, though not trivial in its argument) talks about aggression and war come from RIGHTEOUSNESS. One feels anger toward an enemy, but then judges that one can take action. Pronounce someone to be wrong or bad, and the possibility of action is opened, and in fact, stronger, sometimes one’s judgments command action themselves, “this act of aggression cannot stand.”

Buddhist believe that no society or order (even a just one) can survive on judgment and retaliation. Instead, the proper relation to other people and things is love, though that word is kind of loaded, and finds more fuller expressions in the admittedly somewhat Buddhist philosophies of someone like Martin Luther King. More pointedly, the proper relation to other people is acceptance as a kind of non-intervention policy combined with a desire to see their suffering alleviated. So, the Buddhist does not seek to shame the wayward husband, chastise the alcoholic, or execute a murderer. Instead, the philosophy being proposed here advocates a concerned inaction; an attitude directed toward the misguided person that does not TAKE ON an attitude of superiority, from which conflict and evil flow.

Notice what this says about celebrating about Bin Laden. Let me be clear, I don’t think Buddhism is always right and I think its claims about inaction are likely to be wrong in such cases. But notice that this philosophy would condemn (or rather take an attitude of sympathetic inaction toward) people celebrating Bin Laden’s death. The view takes very seriously the idea of a cycle of violence and hatred. The proper response would be to respectfully note his death and go forward. When confronted by living incarnations of evil similar to him, the idea would be to adopt a non-violent approach and to work for change through the expression of one’s lament at the person’s wrong action. Lament without judgment. One never takes the moral high ground, because there is no such thing (Christianity, in a completely different way, has this view. Though like I said, the language is in terms of love and deistism — love as god’s love and all that).

Where Buddhism really does seem to be on to something though is regarding the media. In trying to talk about Donald Trump, we continually reinvent him and empower him. If we try to mock him, he shows up on youtube. If take jabs at his hair, pictures of it explode into the internet, and if we say that he is a poor candidate for president and an outright charlatan, then he comes into our lives through TV’s, iphones, and articles.

The best solution to Donald Trump is to ignore him, and this can be maddeningly hard to do, just like when you were getting bullied at school and your parents said “just ignore him; he’s not worth your time.” This seemed like hard advice to take, but notice that it was, in a way, very Buddhist (parents never known when they’re parroting eastern religions).

So rather than telling you about Trump and the silliness of it all, I’m going to try and meditate him away; to serenely accept him into nothingness, by encouraging you to simply observe and accept, and by ending this post with no further words.


Types of Democratic Barriers

Quick Note: my facebook publishing feature has been broken for some reason, so if you read my articles fairly regularly, you may have missed some of my recent past stuff. Also you should go to and type in my name in the search bar if you like this post, because I’ve done some stuff on democracy there too.

Some people put great weight on stalling and slowing down democracy. Such people are usually fairly conservative (but don’t have to be. Y’all know how I feel about stereotypes), and they see the supreme court (in our system) as a bastion of freedom. These people are very interested in the constitution as a writ of personal freedom that democracy cannot encroach on. Tocqueville was worried about this same problem; he worried about the “tyranny of the majority.”

The modern trend is very much against this thinking. After Lochner v. New York, many people lost faith in the judiciary to regulate democracies decision on the basis of some SUBSTANTIVE theory of morality, such as one including strong protections of property rights.

Many modern day constitutional lawyers argue that democracy should rule and that the supreme court should only step in to curb the legislature when it ITSELF, takes action that endangers democracy.

Free speech is a good example. Some believe we should preserve free speech because people JUST HAVE THAT RIGHT (like we have rights to property — so these people think). The constitutional democrats will claim that we have to enforce free speech because doing so SUSTAINS DEMOCRACY.

So there is a debate about whether we should put barriers in place of the majority’s will, whether those barriers be the supreme court or supermajority requirements or whatever. I think the whole democracy-versus-rights things is very complicated and so I don’t have a firm opinion on it yet, I do think there are more subtle and farsighted ways to get the majority to NOT get its way in some situations.

For example, some countries give the minority party in the legislature the power of investigation. This is smart because it doesn’t give the minority to hold up laws or legislation that the majority judges to be important. They cannot hold things hostage with their minority status as the filibuster allows minorities in the senate to do. However, the power of investigation means that the minority has a way to make its voiced heard. It need not get railroaded by the superior numbers of a majority party. Such a minority can MONITOR the ruling party’s activities and initiate investigations to reduce its credibility. In other words, it can hold the majority party to stricter account as governance goes on.

One might call this a deliberative rather than a supermajority or veto point check on legislative activity.

But really the whole point of this post was to introduce something I recently found out about, which is that Indian politics (the subcontinent that is) makes fairly regular use of fasting as a way to push for political action. Think about that for a second. This is what I would think is a CULTURALLY SPECIFIC type of deliberative (is it deliberative or just something close by?) democratic action.

Take a situation. The majority party wants to pass something bad. The minority does not have any legal or legislative options to stall this option. In what way they can employ pressure to get the majority to reconsider? How can they get the majority to RETHINK its preference rather than simply THWARTING IT? Fasting seems like an answer, and in an article that will be coming out on the site I edit in the next day or two (, one of the writers I work with talks about how the vice president has even used fasting (fasting for only 30 minutes at one point!) to try and stir political change. This is a courageous cultural feature of Indian democracy and I hope they preserve it even as they gain the institutional trappings of a modern democracy.

The bigger lesson is that culture can matter for politics in a very serious way.


Something No One Is Talking About

Wish I knew more about the Wisconsin stuff, but there’s at least some thing I can figure out on my own, and this is one of them, and it’s not really being talked about.

So a friend passed this article around (its weird because it seems like a fashion site for women, but it happens to have this inside-baseball type article on Wisconsin. Who would have guessed?)

Democratic legislators have not been at the Capitol because their presence would allow for a quorum which would then allow for legislation they opposed to be passed (legislation pertaining to the strikes and stuff).In response, Republicans in the senate have passed some bills ordering law enforcement to round up the recalcitrant Democrats.

As the Wisconsin Capitol remained in almost complete lockdown Thursday in violation of a standing court order, senate Republican leadership turned up the heat on the missing 14 Democratic legislators with an unprecedented series of new rules, some of which were quickly assessed by lawyers as flatly unconstitutional. On Thursday, 19 Republican senators passed a resolution authorizing the missing Senate Democrats to be taken into custody by any Wisconsin law enforcement officer for “contempt of the Senate.” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the actions were justified because the 14 “have pushed us to the edge of a constitutional crisis.”

But who are these lawyers that declared this move “flatly” unconstitutional. I could not find any commentary on this, and usually lawyers like to make it clear why they think that the law points in a certain direction.

Of course, many commentators mentions this clause in the Wisconsin Constitution (read the whole damn thing here, if you want):

Exemption from arrest and civil process. SECTION 15.
Members of the legislature shall in all cases, except treason, felony
and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest; nor shall
they be subject to any civil process, during the session of the legislature,
nor for fifteen days next before the commencement and
after the termination of each session.

Seems pretty decisive right? Seems like what the Republicans are doing in having law enforcement go after democratic officeholders is EXPLICITLY PROHIBITED.

But as with most things, this is not the fully story. Because though it is true that officeholders are exempt from civil proceedings, it’s not obvious that the bill has anything to do with civil proceedings.

As the above-cited paragraph suggests, Republicans passed a bill holding the democratic senators in CONTEMPT, and this has a different importance under the Wisconsin constitution. Here’s some language I found:

Organization of legislature; quorum; compulsory
attendance. SECTION 7. Each house shall be the judge of the
elections, returns and qualifications of its own members; and a
majority of each shall constitute a quorum to do business, but a
smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may compel
the attendance of absent members in such manner and under
such penalties as each house may provide.

Rules; contempts; expulsion. SECTION 8. Each house
may determine the rules of its own proceedings, punish for contempt
and disorderly behavior, and with the concurrence of two−
thirds of all the members elected, expel a member; but no member
shall be expelled a second time for the same cause.

So, it seems that when the issue is attendance, the chamber in question has the authority to punish the absent members or to hold them in contempt, just as the republicans have done. In other words, these democratic lawmakers are immune from arrest, but they aren’t being arrested. Rather, they’re being held in contempt, just as judges can hold people in contempt for not answering questions on the witness stand, but this isn’t the same as arresting that person.

Now from here, things probably get technical. Maybe the republicans didn’t check the right boxes or label their bill correctly (supreme court cases have been decided on such technicalities. See Powell v. McCormack). So, things might go wrong in certain ways, or maybe the sections I’m reading don’t apply. I’m not familiar enough with the whole document to have an informed opinion. What I do know is that it would be nice if some Wisconsin constitutional lawyers (I doubt there are very man) would step up and try to give some arguments for thinking things are one way or another.

As a first look at the issue though, it seems to be a very strong statement to say that republican actions here are obviously constitutional, and you can see why the constitution of Wisconsin (of any state really) would probably have rules in place preventing legislators from just leaving the Capitol in order grind democracy to a halt.