Monday, November 26, 2012

We jam the circuit yeah

I've been complaining about the lack of good music these days and about too many kids on my lawn. Clearly my problem has been not listening enough to the Coup. The new album--"Sorry to Bother You"--is fantastic. If you're not familiar with the Coup, they're a hip-hop group from Oakland who've been a well-kept secret since the early '90s. Their music is a blend of political activist hip-hop with funky party music. Serious like Rage Against the Machine, fun and catchy like Outkast, imagining the revolution as a giant block party.

The new album has a different sound, less P-Funk and more the Clash. You can tell that Boots Riley has been hanging out with Tom Morello because the album has got lots of guitars, sometimes fuzzed out ("The Magic Clap"), sometimes thin and sharp and garage-y, like this one:
There's a lot of experimenting on this album and not all of it works, but for the most part the fusion of hip-hop with post-punk, new wave indie rock goes goes down smooth. In terms of rap-rock hybrids, I'll take this any day over Korn or Limp Bizkit.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


Obama wins! Here's a few random disconnected thoughts.

First off, I am greatly relieved that the gains of Obama's progressive coalition (most crucially Obamacare) will not be rolled back and that he will have 4 more years to make slow, frustrating, incremental progress. I'm glad that the birthers and the Muslim-baiters lost and that their simmering xenophobia against the president wasn't validated. Romney's gracious concession speech took some of the sting out, but man was he the wrong guy at the wrong time. I'm also ready to clear out some space in my head to think about something other than electoral politics. Consider this a mental spring-cleaning post.

The space of issues addressed in national elections is so narrow. On many of the most crucial topics there is either a bipartisan consensus or a conspiracy of silence: climate change, the war on drugs, the war on terror, incarceration, voting rights, the surveillance state, campaign finance reform, etc. This silence is a structural problem during elections, but for the other 4 years it's incumbent on us the citizenry to shift the debate and push these topics into the conversation. That's sort of where my head is right now.

Obviously, last night was a big break through for LGBTQ rights. Our first openly gay Senator and (possibly) 4 states legalizing marriage equality (!!!). Change seems so slow for so long and then it comes on so fast. And 2 states outright legalizing marijuana (not just the medical kind)? Wow. Is that the first shot in the war on the war on drugs?

I am also grateful that the tidal wave of Citizens United dark money did not put Romney o'er the top. In fact, the election proved pretty handily that the marginal value of that last ad buy in Ohio is pretty much zero. Maybe the tide of plutocrat-cash will recede a bit. In CA ballot initiatives it looks like Three Strikes has been reformed (yay!) and Prop 13 amended (yay!), although the Death Penalty survived (boo!).

If Obama were smart he would push immigration reform first thing in January. The big media narrative is that Romney lost due to demographic changes and that the R's will have to evolve or die. This might make a big bipartisan bill doable. We'll see. Best pundit line of the night: "Romney self-deported himself from the White House" with his far-right shift on immigration in the primaries.

Here are a handful of interesting takes on the results:

Finally, the polling averages were pretty bang on. If I'm reading it right Nate Silver went 51-for-51 (just barely calling FL for Obama) and so did Pollster. A lot of conservative pundits were waaaay off, and I'm not sure if that's just industrial-strength epistemic closure and the Fox Bubble, or more a function of needing to boost Team Red in the homestretch. I kind of suspect it was the former.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Your Election in Charts

Here's a bit of pre-election Obama propaganda in chart form, making the case that his domestic agenda has mostly been pretty good, if not the magical transformation some hoped for.

For me the policy that stands out as most worth saving are the pre-existing conditions ban and the coverage of 30 million uninsured under Obamacare. Mostly I want Obama to win so that those policies will come into effect in 2014 and won't be repealed as Romney has promised. More than the specifics of the law, the survival of Obamacare would signal the ability of government to actually make progress on the really hard problems facing the country (like health care), instead of just talking them over for decades on end. If Obamacare survives then it can be tweaked and improved, if it's repealed then all the political effort will have been wasted and we'll be back with the crappy status quo. The political repercussions of an Obamacare repeal would be enormous, to say nothing of the human toll.

In addition, whoever is elected will most likely get credit for the economic recovery. It would be crushingly unfair to see a President Romney take credit for Obama's tough, unpopular decisions.

After four years I am still mostly positive toward Obama. He hasn't been perfect. Some of his failures are his fault (such as the drone/terrorism fiasco), while others are the result of a broken Senate and a remarkably skillful and unified opposition. But he's pointed in the right direction.

(sources: Benen - CBPP - CBPP - CBPP - CTJ - EPIThinkProgress)

Friday, November 02, 2012

Does the Drone War Disqualify Obama?

Just a few thoughts on voting, Obama and the Drone War. There has been a cottage industry in articles arguing that liberals and progressives should refuse to vote Obama due to his continuation and extension of the most egregious abuses of the War of Terror. These articles mostly come from conservatives (Conor Friedersdorf), libertarians (Glenn Greenwald) or the far left (Freddie DeBoer). More mainstream liberals like Jonathan Chait and Andrew Sullivan condemn his civil liberties record, but are quite positive about his presidency. There's been a lot of discussion in my Facebook stream on this point too.

It's a legitimate question and it should be a troubling one for progressives who hoped that Obama would usher in a more reasonable foreign policy. Still after the Bush-Gore-Nader debacle, I've generally viewed voting in national elections as a strategic act. There are too many important issues at stake to tolerate protest votes. As ugly as the drone war is, it isn't the only issue in the election. I like having a social safety net and Romney/Ryan look poised to shred it. I like Obamacare and would like to see it extended, not killed off.

From my perspective, Obama is superior to Romney on virtually every issue. Romney hasn't given many details on what his foreign policy would look like, but it seems unlikely that he would be any better on civil liberties. Executive power seems to ratchet in one direction absent any checks or balances from Congress or the courts. Plus Romney is generally more hawkish than Obama and is surrounded by the neo-con establishment in exile. War with Iran would be a lot worse than targeted drone strikes (bad as they are).

It also has to be said that Obama's foreign policy is a big climbdown from the unmitigated disaster of the Bush years. Obama ended torture and is winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations. Whatever you might think of Libya it was at least a limited affair. It's no surprise either that the sticky issue has to do with foreign policy. For decades U.S. foreign policy has been something of a bipartisan train wreck of almost constant overseas military presence and actions. There is virtually no constituency in Washington for a more peaceful or restrained foreign policy and domestic policy is typically more important to voters. Those affected by our bad policies can't vote.

Still, Obama's critics typically frame the question as a moral one: when has a president you generally agree with done something so bad that you cannot in good conscience pull the lever?

The internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII is a horrible stain on our history. Should we have therefore dumped FDR in 1944? Does that blemish erase the good that was done by the New Deal? Martin Luther King Jr. was famously agnostic about the Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential race, saying that both parties were bad on civil rights, although he did say he voted for JFK in 1960 and would have publicly endorsed him in 1964 had he lived.

I do sympathize with those who want to wash their hands of the whole thing. The U.S. establishment has decided that we will wage endless war, but always in other peoples backyards. Deaths of innocents seem to have little weight in the DC calculus. Here in Nicaragua we can see that people are still feeling the consequences of that consensus twenty years after the Contra War. It's a hard question and a personal one, obviously, so here are a few thoughts:

  1. Withholding a vote in a presidential election may feel right but it is unlikely to actually fix the problem. Elections are blunt instruments.
  2. Much better to participate in a citizen movement that works strategically to change public opinion and policy. There are many groups that are working toward this end and they could use our support. Voting is a lagging indicator of social change, real change starts at the grassroots.
  3. The President is not the only branch of government, he just gets more press coverage. Congress needs to step up to the plate and push back against executive overreach. That's the reason why the Constitution has checks and balances.
For me that adds up to a vote for Obama, which I mailed off several weeks ago. And a commitment to be a pest on foreign policy for the next four years. Vote strategically, act locally.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dept. of Analogies

Since the election is coming up I thought it would be fun to re-link to the most brilliant piece of political meta-commentary I've read in a long time: an old 2008 post by Nate Silver where he uses the Google-machine to track down every historical analogy made about Barack Obama in the press. It turns out that, according to someone somewhere, Obama is (or was) the new Bush, the new Clinton, the new Carter, the new Reagan, the new Kennedy, and so on down the line.

There is an historical analogy on hand to fit every single campaign narrative you can think of. Romney is going to surge like Reagan in 1980! Obama will be narrowly re-elected like Bush was in 2004! For a certain brand of pundit, every year is 1939 and our guy is always Winston Churchill. Historical analogies are kind of like crack for talking heads, because they shine reflected glory on the current candidate and do not require any, you know, actual analysis of the political situation at hand.

[Update: Also this.]

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Cap'n Dividend

Since I was very recently complaining about how conservatives and libertarians really should care more about the environment, it was great to see this article by Jonathan Adler on a conservative approach to combating climate change:
It is a well established principle in the Anglo-American legal tradition that one does not have the right to use one's own property in a manner that causes harm to one's neighbor. There are common law cases gong back 400 years establishing this principle and international law has long embraced a similar norm. As I argued at length in this paper, if we accept this principle, even non-catastrophic warming should be a serious concern, as even non-catastrophic warming will produce the sorts of consequences that have long been recognized as property rights violations, such as the flooding of the land of others.

My argument is that the same general principles that lead libertarians and conservatives to call for greater protection of property rights should lead them to call for greater attention to the most likely effects of climate change. It is a well recognized principle of common law that if company A is flooding the land of person B, it is irrelevant whether company A generates lots of economic prosperity for the local community (including B). A's action would still violate B's property rights, and B would be entitled to relief of some sort. By the same token, if the land of a farmer in Bangladesh is flooded, due in measurable and provable part to human-induced climate change, why would he be any less entitled to redress than a farmer who has his land flooded by his neighbor's land-use changes? Property rights should not be sacrificed as part of some utilitarian calculus. Libertarians readily accept this principle when government planners violate property rights in the name of economic development (see e.g., Kelo v. New London). Yet they seem to abandon their commitment to property rights when it comes to global warming.
Here begins the path of wisdom!  I would quibble with a lot in the article, but mainly I'm just happy to read a conservative who's not convinced it's all a giant hoax. And really, quibbles aside, it's striking how similar his solutions are to what you might hear from a dirty-hippie liberal environmentalist.

In particular, I was glad to see him hype a cap-and-dividend plan (also known as a revenue-neutral carbon tax), since I've always been a fan of that particular policy. You can read the details of the plan here, but the basic idea is that we implement an economy-wide cap on carbon emissions, where energy producers or importers must buy a permit for each ton of carbon. This will naturally lead to higher prices for dirty energy from coal and petroleum (in contrast with clean energy sources, who will not need permits), but the proceeds from the permit auction are automatically refunded back to the public in equal shares (the dividend), rather than going into the general fund of the federal government.

This means that if you emit exactly the national average of carbon emissions, your rebate will exactly cancel out those higher energy costs.  If you use less than the national average you get a cash bonus, and if you use more than your share you pay a price. What's more, when the cap gets slowly lowered (to slowly reduce national emissions), the size of the rebate will rise with energy costs. This gives everyone an incentive to switch to cleaner energy. A cap-and-dividend plan is also more politically feasible since it is clean and simple and everyone likes getting a monthly check in the mail.  By contrast a regular cap-and-trade plan (e.g. Waxman-Markey) is easily demonized as an economy-killing tax on the working man.

Now we just need a Congress who will pass it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Green Libertarianism?

When I used to work at UCS, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about environmental regulations and the forever war waged against them by conservatives, libertarians and business groups.  Since the start of the Great Recession, the conservative line against EPA regulations is that they supposedly kill jobs (even though they don't really) without mentioning that pollution actually kills people and that maybe we should do something about that.  (Warning: long and wonky ahead.)

Cuyahoga River Fire, 1969

As a progressive (slash lefty slash liberal) the concept of environmental protection is pretty much a no-brainer.  A clean and healthy environment is a common good and something that all humans benefit from.  Environmental degradation therefore arises as a result of some variant of the tragedy of the commons (as described in Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay) where we are all, to some extent, the culprits of pollution as well as its victims.  (Although the environmental justice movement has also shown that environmental burdens and benefits are never shared equally in society.)

At any rate, it makes sense that conserving and protecting the environment should be a collective responsibility -- something worked out through the democratic process with an eye toward fairness and effectiveness.  And while it might be true that "free markets" are occasionally quite good at providing certain goods at a low price (iPods and blue jeans and whatnot), there's no reason to think that a healthy environment is one of them.

But of course, conservatives and libertarians don't really truck with the whole idea of "common" goods, instead preferring to talk about private property rights.  Indeed the typical conservative response to the tragedy of the commons is to say that the commons should simply be privatized.  Voilá! Tragedy solved!  However, we don't actually need to invoke the idea of the commons to see that environmental degradation is harmful.  For one, pollution directly harms the health and private property of people who live downstream or downwind.

In the language of economics, pollution is a negative externality.  If pollution only affected the buyer or the seller in an economic transaction, it wouldn't be as big a deal since the seller would decide if the environmental risk was worth the price she was paying.  But of course, pollution affects third-parties too, people living half a world away who had no involvement with whatever that factory was selling anyway.  To give just one example, read this article about the outrageous harm done to our health and economy by coal power alone.

So you might think that the property rights issue might attract the attention of at least a few C/Ls, right?  Don't Bangladeshi farmers have property rights too?  Don't they deserve compensation when their land gets submerged?  Or home-owners living next to the oil refinerey?  Or is it just rich, politically-connected capitalists who get property rights? (Don't answer that one.)

As it turns out, the vast majority of conservative opinion on the subject is focused on minimizing and downplaying the problem, if not outright denying its existence.  Which is kind of weird.  Libertarians who think all taxes are a form of theft (or even partial slavery) should really be up in arms about this sort of thing.  Past libertarian thinkers like Hayek understood that this was a problem that required government intervention, but it doesn't seem to be much on the radar these days.

Actually there is a traditional libertarian answer to these sort of questions, but it's not very good.  The idea is that, instead of "burdensome" government regulation, people harmed by pollution should sue polluters in the court system ("courts and torts").  This makes a certain sort of sense until you think about it in detail.  For one thing, the harm from pollution is usually statistical.  We may know that exposure to, say, a carcinogen causes an excess of 100 cancer deaths in a population in a year, but cancer has a lot of different causes and it is well-nigh impossible to win a tort claim that cancer Y is directly caused by chemical X.

Even harder are situations like automobile pollution or electricity generation where we are all polluting and all suffering the consequences.  Are we then all financially liable for the harm done (to ourselves)?  What does that mean?  Our clean, elegant solution has turned into a horrible mess.  Why not just have the government set some science-based limits and be done with it?

All of which is an overly-long introduction to this post by James K over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.  He makes the case that libertarians should care about the environment and even advocate for (limited) government action (see also here and here for similar thoughts):
"In many ways environmental issues are “ideologically inconvenient” for libertarians – life would be easier if they didn’t exist. Of course that’s not sufficient reason to actually act as if they didn’t exist, something I don’t think enough libertarians are willing to recognise."
After a brief discussion, James winds-up proposing a tax on pollution "equal to the marginal cost to society of the pollution."  So, on the one hand it's bold of him to use the t-word and it's great that he's even talking about the subject.  On the other it's interesting that he's come around to an idea (a pollution tax) that progressives and environmentalists have been pushing for several decades now.

I think it goes to show that some form of government regulation or taxation is really the only way of dealing with the problem of pollution.  Sure it would be nice if some less intrusive fix was available, but it doesn't seem to be.  It's worth the effort to make these regulations as simple as possible and its worth asking what the balance of costs and benefits might be.  But it's always going to be cheaper to dump waste on your neighbor than to dispose of it properly, so there will basically always have to be some sort of cop there to prevent that.

DC Metro Ads, Part 3

One of my occasional blog obsessions (see here and here) have been the absurd advertisements in the DC Metro system, which entice you to buy helicopters and troop transport planes and whatnot:
"At first my mind was boggled that a defense contractor would spend so much money just to subliminally pry the brains of (literally) a handful of people -- presumably congressional appropriation and DOD procurement staffers -- but then I realized that I have no conception of the type of money defense contractors routinely deal with."
Anyway, Kevin Drum passes along a chart showing exactly what type of money we're talking about here -- an ad campaign two to four times more expensive than usual if you're shooting for either the Pentagon or the Capitol South metro stations.