Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Gary Johnson is appearing on the Daily Show this Tuesday night!

I admit I am excited. It has been over a year since I first emailed the Daily Show to let them know what a great guest GJ will be. I have sent several emails since; so, I am sure, have countless others of his supporters. And it seems they finally listened!

I am also nervous. It is important that Gary does a good job. The Daily Show is key to reaching a huge portion of his largest potential support-bloc: the young.

So, Gary, here are some thoughts from a young supporter — one who has watched most of your interviews over the last year.

  1. Be careful about some topics. For starters, there is the fair tax. You like to mention this in every interview. However, remember that the fair-tax is a drastic overhaul of the tax system, and to the uninitated, it can come across as wonkish, gimicky, or worse, make them deeply sceptical of your motives. The Daily Show audience is not a natural one to sell the fair tax to, and it might be best to avoid mentioning it. However if you must, here is how you should phrase it: “The current tax system is inefficient, overly complex, unfair and ends up hurting the middle class and small businesses, while the rich and big corporations end up taking advantage of its many loopholes. A much better system would be to tax consumption, rather than income, via a national sales tax. However, a pure sales tax is not progressive and will hurt the poor. So I couple with a prebate  so that each family unit can consume tax free at or beyond the poverty level, with the overall effect of making the FairTax progressive in application.” It is important (especially for a left-leaning audience as the Daily Show’s) to emphasize that the fair tax actually acts like a negative income tax for the poor, and thus couples as a welfare scheme for them. Another topic to be careful about is the abolition of certain departments, such as the Department of Education. This will not go down well unless you are careful about how you phrase it. Emphasize that this department has only existed since 1980, and education hasn’t improved since then. Emphasize that you think education is very important, but that the any useful public investment in schools and education is basically done by the states, and this particular federal department hinders far more than it helps.
  2. Know your audience. The Daily Show audience is young and left leaning. Emphasize issues like (ending) the war on drugs, upholding civil liberties, keeping the internet free of censorship or surveillance, and fighting against the military-industrial complex. Tell them that you believe in a woman’s right to choose, and that the government has no business interfering with goes inside the bedroom. Avoid talking too much about spending cuts or tax cuts. However, economic issues will come up, and your selling point is your sterling performance as governor of New Mexico. Remind the audience that the US is only a few years away from reaching Greek level of debt crisis, and your aim is to fix government, not to break it.
  3. Distinguish yourself. For starters, emphasize Obama’s betrayals. Obama promised to end raids of medical marijuana in states where they are legal. Instead these raids have gone up. He promised to protect whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing. Instead, he has gone after them with a vengeance, going so far as to target journalists. He has hugely expanded the drone attacks and resorted to sophistry (a militant is defined to be any military age male in the vicinity of an area targeted by a drone) to minimize official civilian casualties. He has shown he cannot be trusted. You can. Obama did not have the guts to veto the indefinite detention act (NDAA) despite initially saying he would, but if such a law had come on your desk, you would have vetoed it. Remember that most people who watch the Daily Show voted for Obama — tell them they should vote for you because you are far better than Obama on many issues they care about. Tell them that Obama has betrayed their trust. And lastly, do not start off your interview by talking about Ron Paul — as you did in the Dan Carlin interview. (By the way, I think you did well in the Colbert Report).
  4. Be substantial. I thought some parts of your interview with Carlin came across as vague or unspecific. Here are some criticisms on Dan’s forum by his listeners – go through them ( http://www.dancarlin.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=32905)  Be reasonable, but firm, clear and substantial. Talk of definite liberties that Obama has taken away (war on drugs, going after medical marijuana dispensaries, killing civilians abroad with drones and then killing the mourners all without due process, signing indefinite detention and renewing the Patriot act, targeting free speech as in the case of NY Times journalist Risen and ex-NSA Thomas Drake). Talk about your approval ratings in New Mexico and how you turned a debt ridden state into one with a surplus.
  5. Know your host. Jon Stewart is smart and he has interviewed libertarians before. Here are the 19 excellent questions he asked Andrew Napolitano (see http://texaslynn.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/john-stewarts-19-questions-for-libertarians-answered-by-a-constitutional-conservative/ look at the questions, not the answers). Think about them. A good place to start answering them would be tell Jon Stewart: “I want government to be effective , protective of our rights and respectful of our freedoms. I believe freedom is intrinsically valuable. But I am not a doctrinaire libertarian. As president, my main job will be to solve our problems and I am open to any ideas that will get us there.” Also be ready for questions that might put you on the spot (your support for private prisons (if this comes up, talk about strong safeguards to prevent abuse), your support for relaxing labor regulations that might potentially lead to child labor (tell them unambiguously that you do not intend to scrap all labor or underage work regulations, merely to improve them and cut the ones that go too far).

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Here are some recent articles on Wikileaks that are worth reading.

Glenn Greenwald:

The WikiLeaks disclosure has revealed not only numerous government secrets, but also the driving mentality of major factions in our political and media class.  Simply put, there are few countries in the world with citizenries and especially media outlets more devoted to serving, protecting and venerating government authorities than the U.S.  Indeed, I don’t quite recall any entity producing as much bipartisan contempt across the American political spectrum as WikiLeaks has:  as usual, for authoritarian minds, those who expose secrets are far more hated than those in power who commit heinous acts using secrecy as their principal weapon.


Before setting forth why these WikiLeaks disclosures produce vastly more good than harm, I’ll state several caveats as clearly as I can.  Unlike the prior leaks of war documents, there are reasonable concerns about this latest leak (most particularly that impeding diplomacy makes war more likely).  Like all organizations, WikiLeaks has made mistakes in the past, including its failure to exercise enough care in redacting the names of Afghan informers.  Moreover, some documents are legitimately classified, probably including some among the documents that were just disclosed.

Nonetheless, our government and political culture is so far toward the extreme pole of excessive, improper secrecy that that is clearly the far more significant threat.  And few organizations besides WikiLeaks are doing anything to subvert that regime of secrecy, and none is close to its efficacy.  It’s staggering to watch anyone walk around acting as though the real threat is from excessive disclosures when the impenetrable, always-growing Wall of Secrecy is what has enabled virtually every abuse and transgression of the U.S. government over the last two decades at least.

Democracy in America:

I think we all understand that the work of even the most decent governments is made more difficult when they cannot be sure their communications will be read by those for whom they were not intended. That said, there is no reason to assume that the United States government is always up to good. To get at the value of WikiLeaks, I think it’s important to distinguish between the government—the temporary, elected authors of national policy—and the state—the permanent bureaucratic and military apparatus superficially but not fully controlled by the reigning government. The careerists scattered about the world in America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices largely operate behind a veil of secrecy executing policy which is itself largely secret. American citizens mostly have no idea what they are doing, or whether what they are doing is working out well. The actually-existing structure and strategy of the American empire remains a near-total mystery to those who foot the bill and whose children fight its wars. And that is the way the elite of America’s unelected permanent state, perhaps the most powerful class of people on Earth, like it.

If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy. Some folks ask, “Who elected Julian Assange?” The answer is nobody did, which is, ironically, why WikiLeaks is able to improve the quality of our democracy. Of course, those jealously protective of the privileges of unaccountable state power will tell us that people will die if we can read their email, but so what? Different people, maybe more people, will die if we can’t.

Jack Shafer:

International scandals—such as the one precipitated by this week’s WikiLeaks cable dump—serve us by illustrating how our governments work. Better than any civics textbook, revisionist history, political speech, bumper sticker, or five-part investigative series, an international scandal unmasks presidents and kings, military commanders and buck privates, cabinet secretaries and diplomats, corporate leaders and bankers, and arms-makers and arms-merchants as the bunglers, liars, and double-dealers they are.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the recurrence of scandals, but, of course, we always are. Why is that? Is it because when scandal rips up the turf, revealing the vile creepy-crawlies thrashing and scurrying about, we’re glad when authority intervenes to quickly tamp the grass back down and re-establish our pastoral innocence with bland assurances that the grubby malfeasants are mere outliers and one-offs who will be punished? Is it because our schooling has left us hopelessly naïve about how the world works? Or do we just fail to pay attention?

Information conduits like Julian Assange shock us out of that complacency. Oh, sure, he’s a pompous egomaniac sporting a series of bad haircuts and grandiose tendencies. And he often acts without completely thinking through every repercussion of his actions. But if you want to dismiss him just because he’s a seething jerk, there are about 2,000 journalists I’d like you to meet.

The idea of WikiLeaks is scarier than anything the organization has leaked or anything Assange has done because it restores our distrust in the institutions that control our lives. It reminds people that at any given time, a criminal dossier worth exposing is squirreled away in a database someplace in the Pentagon or at Foggy Bottom.
Attorney General Eric Holder says his Justice Department is going after WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. At first glance, it seems like a straightforward case. Almost half of the 250,000 internal State Department cables Assange has published are classified, either at the confidential or the secret level (no top-secret documents are included), and rarely does the target of a criminal investigation commit his alleged crime so publicly. Holder knows it will not be easy, however. He realizes that as much as we may condemn Assange’s actions, they were not obviously criminal.
[…] The U.S. government has never successfully prosecuted a media entity for a leak. It is typically much easier to bring such cases against the government officials who do the leaking, because they sign nondisclosure agreements surrendering many of the legal protections they otherwise would enjoy.

[…] What law did Assange violate? It will surprise many that there is no statute making it illegal to reveal classified information. There are statutes that criminalize the disclosure of very specific types of classified information, such as the identity of a covert operative (think Valerie Plame) or “codes, ciphers or cryptographic systems.” But there is no catch-all law that simply says, “Thou shalt not disclose classified information.”

Indeed, when Congress tried to enact such a statute, President Bill Clinton sensibly vetoed it. His reason: The government suffers from such an overclassification problem – some intelligence agencies classify even newspaper articles – that a law of this sort would end up criminalizing the disclosure of innocuous information. And even that vetoed statute would have applied only to government officials, not to private individuals or journalists.

[…] The fact that classified information is involved does not preclude First Amendment safeguards. In the AIPAC case, Judge Ellis rejected the prosecutors’ categorical – and dangerous – argument that when classified information is at issue, the First Amendment affords no protection. Of course, the First Amendment is no license to disclose the recipe for the plutonium bomb to Osama bin Laden. But the Justice Department would have to prove that Assange’s disclosures were so dangerous to national security as to override the First Amendment. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the prosecution would have to demonstrate that what the defendant did was as immediate and as dangerous as “falsely shouting fire in a theater.” That is a heavy burden to meet.
[…]In 1971, Solicitor General Erwin Griswold asked the Supreme Court to bar publication of the Pentagon Papers because it would cause a “grave and immediate danger to the security of the United States.” Twenty-eight years later, he reversed his position in an op-ed piece in this paper. “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication” of the Pentagon Papers, Griswold wrote. Moreover, he expressed the view that “there is very rarely any real risk to current national security from the publication of facts relating to transactions in the past, even the fairly recent past.” 

What took 28 years to happen with the Pentagon Papers is already happening with the WikiLeaks cables. Although the State Department is of the opinion that Assange’s leaks have done serious damage to our national security – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called them “an attack on America” responsible for “endangering innocent people” and “sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations” – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a savvy Washington veteran, has expressed a different view.

“I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer and so on,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon last week. “I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. . . . Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.”

If Assange is ultimately charged with disclosing information that is potentially damaging to national security, Eric Holder now knows who Assange will call as his first witness: the secretary of defense.


I do not have much to add beyond the articles quoted above. Suffice it to say that I believe that Wikileaks is playing an invaluable role in improving the world. Anything that acts as a counter-force against State secrecy is a good thing.

There are not many heroes in our era. Julian Assange is one of those rare few.

If you think similarly, or feel strongly about issues like censorship and free speech and government openness, I think it is imperative that you support Wikileaks by donating to them. Here’s the link.

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I often write about politicians running for office but I am rarely really excited about any of them. (When I say really excited, I mean excited enough to donate serious money, and passionately hope, and perhaps volunteer, and do everything else I can to help them win.)

A little clarification here: I am talking of serious politicians here, not someone who is eloquent and thoughtful but with no political skills or chance of winning.

With that prologue, let me talk of Gary Johnson.

He is a serious politician. He was twice elected governor of New Mexico where he, by all accounts, did an excellent job and still enjoys remarkable popularity in that state. He is a republican in the Ron Paul libertarian mould, only much better, for unlike Paul, he is also pro-immigration and pro-choice. He is as libertarian as a mainstream American politician can get.

According to insiders, he is  running for President in 2012.

Now, I am a guy who knows both probabilities and American politics very well — I won about $500 over the last few months betting on various outcomes of the midterm elections on the futures market site Intrade — and Gary Johnson, plainly speaking, is very very unlikely to win. But yet his win, while very very unlikely, is not so unlikely as to not excite me. And besides, the thought of him winning even one primary, and possibly being on a nationally televised debate with the rest of the lot excites me. I mean really, really excites me.

Here’s a very nice profile of Gary Johnson at the New Republic.

An excerpt from the article linked above:

Ask about church, and he says he doesn’t go. “Do you believe in Jesus?” I ask. “I believe he lived,” he replies with a smile. Ask about shifts in position, and he owns up to one. “I changed my mind on the death penalty,” he tells me. “Naïvely, I really didn’t think the government made mistakes.” Ask about his voting history, and he volunteers (without regrets) that he cast his first presidential ballot for George McGovern (“because of the war”). Ask about his longstanding support for marijuana legalization, and he recalls the joy of his pot-smoking days. “I never exhaled,” he says. (An avid athlete, Johnson forswore marijuana and alcohol decades ago when he realized they were hurting his ski times and rock-climbing ability.)

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Whatever you think about Obama — and he is not very popular these days — the fact remains that he is one of the most talented politicians of our age. At his best, he gives a heck of a speech, he is undoubtedly intelligent and thoughtful, and while I disagree with most of his policies, he did inspire a lot of hope and passion during his amazing  — and succesful — campaign for the Presidency two years ago.

When I see Marco Rubio, I see the same qualities that Obama has — charisma, charm, a great personal story, and an excellent speaker. He is the star of this mid-term election. He will be a senator in 5 days. And I believe he will become President within the next ten years. Mark my words.

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A pretty fair article by Ed Kilgore on the widening rift between progressives and libertarians.

One mini-saga of the past decade in American politics has been the flirtation—with talk of a deeper partnership—between progressives and libertarians. These two groups were driven together, in the main, by common hostility to huge chunks of the Bush administration’s agenda: endless, pointless wars; assaults on civil liberties; cynical vote-buying with federal dollars; and statist panders to the Christian right.

This cooperation reached its height during the 2006 election, in which, according to a new study by David Kirby and David Boaz, nearly half of libertarian voters supported Democratic congressional candidates—more than doubling the support levels from the previous midterm election in 2002.

Well, you can say goodbye to all that. The new Kirby/Boaz study reports that libertarian support for Democrats collapsed in 2008, despite many early favorable assessments of Barack Obama by libertarian commentators. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has raised the salience of issues on which libertarians and Dems most disagree. And there’s no question that during Obama’s first year—with the rise of the Tea Party movement and national debate over bailouts, deficits, and health care—libertarian hostility to the new administration has grown adamant and virtually universal.


So could “liberaltarianism” make a comeback in a not-too-distant future, when today’s passions have abated? You never know for sure, but the next major obstacle to cooperation may well be the Supreme Court’s decision on corporate political spending in Citizens United v. FEC, which libertarians celebrated as a victory for free speech, and most liberals denounced as a travesty if not a national disaster.

Cancel the Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers; this romance is dead.

I agree that “liberaltarianism” is kinda dead at the moment. Ed Kilgore thinks that progressives shouldn’t mind that too much. I disagree with his reasoning.

But 2008 showed that libertarian support is hardly crucial: Obama still won “libertarian” states such as Colorado and New Hampshire handily, even without their backing, and he generally performed better in the “libertarian West” than any Democratic nominee since LBJ.

I am sceptical of the claim that Obama lacked the backing of libertarians. Yes the Kirby-Boaz paper does say that McCain won libertarians about 70-30, but I suspect that study  oversamples southern conservatives. It is unfortunate they do not have a state-by state cross-tabs, which would give some indication how the libertarians voted in Colorado and New Hampshire. Moreover, even Kirby-Boaz conclude that Obama won the younger libertarians, the ones who will really matter in future elections.

True, most libertarians disagreed with large parts of the Obama agenda, but they also typically thought that McCain was far, far worse. Reason magazine’s survey of its writers in 2008 showed almost no support for McCain, almost everyone supported Obama or Barr. A majority of libertarian intellectuals, despite their misgivings, certainly preferred Obama over McCain.

Many of these people are now turning away from the Democrats. Kilgore is probably right about the inevitability of this break-up. From the point of view of electoral politics, however, the Democrats will ignore the libertarian vote at their own peril.

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Megan’s article reminded me of some thoughts I have had in the past about political polarizations.

There are several commonly held intellectual blinkers, or, to use a Robin Hanson terminology, roads to rationality ruin, that prevent us from properly appraising the value of a political position. This is true with respect to positions we support as well as those we oppose. In the past, I have blogged or linked to articles about several of these. One that is unfortunately rather common among  people who feel alienated from the thinking of the masses is the pleasure they derive from believing something different than most people. As Hanson says, this pleasure is evil because it clouds rational thinking. Another that seems to afflict a lot of people of every political stripe these days is to assume bad-faith on the part of their opponents. Megan’s article, linked above, is a great take on this issue. Then, there is the confirmation bias, which means that we tend to put more weight on evidence that agrees with things we already believe in, and discount those that don’t.

There is a common way in which many of these biases express themselves when actually appraising a political position. In a way, this expression is so common that people rarely write about it. However for precisely that reason I will repeat it here. And that is simply this, when evaluating a policy proposal, people tend to disproportionately look at only one side of the cost-benefit equation. (Those who support it, mainly look at the benefits, those who oppose it, mainly look at the costs). I am not saying that people are unaware of the other side, simply that they put far less effort in making an intellectually honest appraisal of it. This is related to but not the same as the confirmation bias. Think of the confirmation bias as a kind of blinker that biases evidence-gathering, and this as a blinker that biases decision-making.

Sometimes this blinker leads to contradictions within the views held by the same person. To start with an almost trivial example, polls show that most people favor cutting taxes. Yet, they also want the government to provide for a lot of things that would be impossible unless accompanied by extremely high levels of taxation.  Clearly there is a wide gap between what most people want and what most people are willing to pay. This is an example of the kind of dissonance I have been talking about. When thinking of benefits they want, people often fail to properly appraise the cost that is necessary to provide the benefit.

But at least the issue of taxation, when posed in a plain-vanilla style, is one that unites most people. So it is not really an issue that causes political polarization. Things get trickier when one moves on to more subtle questions.

For instance, should some version of the Glass-Steagall act, that was weakened over the years and ultimately repealed by Clinton, be reinstated? Most progressive say yes, conservatives and libertarians say no. And anyone who follows politics seems to have an opinion on that matter.

What seems to clear to me however, is that most people have something of a blinker on when appraising this issue. Progressives rarely consider in a detached manner the question of whether there are gains of uniting commercial and investment banking. Very few have read papers like this which argue that unified banking is actually safer, while they have all certainly read Krugman’s pieces. They tend to forget that that without the repeal of the Glass-Steagall, many of the acquisitions that mitigated the effects of the crazy financial meltdown in 2008 would have been legally impossible. On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives tend to ignore anything written by a liberal economist. This is perhaps justifiable when the issue is one you have thought deeply about already but such is rarely the case, especially about questions on current affairs which are politically charged. For instance, if asked whether unified banking (repeal of Glass Steagall) led certain institutions like Citi to make riskier ventures than they would have otherwise (this question, which is a very different one from whether the effects of the repeal were a net negative, has in my opinion the correct answer Yes), many conservatives would reflexibly answer no.

So my prescription to those wishing to seriously understand a subtle political issue is this. See what you initially think of the proposal. Do some research. Form an opinion. Then, look around. Think seriously about practical and philosophical objections to your position. If you are supporting a law under discussion, have you really considered its fiscal, social and moral costs? If you oppose it, have you considered its benefits?  Even if your morality/basic philosophy impels you to take one side, it is still important to research both sides. This is because of two reasons. One, you may otherwise overlook some opposing point that is also morally relevant to you. Two, because your moral philosophy can sometimes change or get more refined when faced with new arguments and evidence.

In short, do not claim to have a well-formed opinion on an issue until you have exhaustively researched the  opposing view. Anything less is intellectual laziness.

Talking of intellectual laziness, I am struck by two different contexts in which the word ‘extreme’ in used in politics.

One of them refers to people with political opinions that are fringe or out of whack with the mainstream. But having an opinion that is out-of-whack but well-considered should really have no negative connotation attached to it. If anything, it is among these people that one usually finds the visionary thinkers of each era. Furthermore, it is very difficult to evaluate out-of-whackness. What do you call someone who does not neatly fit into the conventional left-fight spectrum, for instance? Yet, the words extreme and extremist are bandied about in this context with implications that are not particularly positive.

The second, very different, context in which the word ‘extreme’ is used is with respect to strongly held political feelings, rather than fringeness of views. At the edge, it refers to people who are bitter, violent or reactionary in their political expression. Going through the blogosphere, I would estimate that about 80% of those who regularly comment on partisan blogs fall in this category. They tend to demonise the opposing view, assume bad-faith from the outset, are verbally vicious and show remarkable little evidence of having deeply considered both sides of the matter. Of course, it is possible I am wrong about some of them; after all, one reason to write is to quickly release frustration. Nonetheless, I do think that many of these people, which include not just a lot of commenters but also certain popular writers and journalists, radio and TV show hosts, and film directors, suffer from all the biases I have mentioned above. In short, whether they are right or wrong, they certainly are intellectually lazy, and thus do not deserve to be taken too seriously. People like those are much more deserving of the epithet extreme in a derogatory sense.

Now I of course realize that those who are extreme in the one sense are occasionally extreme in the other sense, but the difference between the two meanings is worth emphasizing.

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A pretty great post by Megan McArdle on open-mindedness, spite and political polarization.

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