Category Archives: Politics

The future for America’s broken government

Longtime readers will recall that this used to be primarily a political blog. Eventually, though, I fell victim to outrage fatigue and turned to other subjects. These days we have a different administration, but one reason I’ve been escaping into pop culture (for the first few posts since I started updating again) has been that my reaction to the current political situation can only be properly expressed by this Uncyclopedia page.
I’m very, very pessimistic about the political outlook for the next few years. The traditional norms that allowed Congress to function in the past have totally broken down: the Senate now requires a 60-vote supermajority for anything due to routine use of the filibuster, and as we’ve recently seen the Republican congress is willing to put a gun to the head of the national economy by demanding concessions before raising the debt ceiling.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is willing to use its executive authority to launch a new war in Libya, but not to unilaterally take action on the economy. Since the only stimulus the Republicans will accept is more tax cuts for the rich, we can expect that unemployment will continue to remain sky-high through 2012.
Then, Obama will lose re-election to whomever the Republicans nominate. It might be Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann. If we’re lucky (!) we’ll get Mitt Romney, who might be unprincipled but at least appears to be sane. The economy is by far the strongest predictor of presidential election results, and with unemployment as high as it is, the independent voters will go for the Republicans in droves. A very harmful political dynamic has taken hold whereby a minority can wholly obstruct the legislative agenda in the Senate, use this to prevent any measures that might help the economy, and take advantage of anti-incumbent sentiment to regain the majority.
So, basically, we’re doomed. At the very least the next Congress needs to change the rules of the Senate to eliminate the filibuster. It could be one upside of a Republican Senate: it would not be out of character for them to remove the obstructionist tools they relied on when they were in the minority. Maybe they’d get rid of the debt ceiling as well once they were the ones spending (or more likely, cutting taxes). It would result in a lot of policies I don’t like, but in the long run getting rid of both of those things would be good for the country.
If I had the power to rewrite the Constitution I’d get rid of the Senate entirely, and maybe just institute a parliamentary system, but obviously neither of those things are going to happen. Instead I’ll just watch old episodes of The West Wing and imagine what it would be like to have a functional government.

Politicizing history in Texas and elsewhere

Via Robert Farley, the Wall Street Journal reports on a fight over the history curriculum in Texas schools, which seems to be just a bit politically charged. For example, this proposal:

  • Replace references to America’s “democratic” values with “republican” values

While this is the only one that’s blatantly partisan, the conservatives on the board are also pushing to de-emphasize the contributions of women and minorities, and to get more religious content into the curriculum.
This is pretty unsurprising, and not just because it’s Texas. Probably history curricula have been politicized everywhere, since the dawn of time. Recently I read a book in which the author visited a number of post-Civil-War monuments, and was disgusted at the respect accorded to various Confederate figures in the South. Which in turn reminded me of my experience learning Civil War history in a Virginia public school, where guys like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were described with a kind of heroic aura about them. There was a real effort to obscure the fact that they were fighting for a truly evil cause: I still remember that when we started the Civil War segment, the teacher explained that we might have heard that the war was over slavery, but this was a naive picture. Instead, we were told that the Civil War arose from a set of complex causes related to states’ rights, such as disputes over congressionally-imposed tariffs. Later on in my education, there was a moment of realization that, wait a minute, it totally was about slavery!
And this was a good school in not-at-all-Southern Fairfax County! I can only assume that this was part of the state curriculum. And in a way it’s understandable that Virginia would want to whitewash the most shameful chapter in its history, but it’s not just about that. It’s about white supremacists being able to put up statues of Stonewall Jackson and fly the Confederate flag in the name of their “heritage”.
Another example: after living in Virginia I briefly attended a private school in Houston whose mascot was the Rebel (as in Confederate). And while I was there, there was talk of changing the mascot of this nearly all-white school. It’s amazing to me the outcry that went up among students and alums, who thought this was political correctness gone wild, and couldn’t see what was so offensive about naming the football team after people who fought on behalf of slavery. And of course the vast majority of them weren’t racists, they just didn’t think about the Civil War in moral terms, partly because of the way the Civil War is taught in the South.
But as much as I love to bash the South, this kind of thing goes on everywhere: look at how the American Revolution is taught in the U.S. versus in Britain. Or the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over Japan’s whitewashing of their own war atrocities. So what Texas is doing now is just par for the course (not that it shouldn’t be opposed).

2008 Election Thread

I’m at an election night party tomorrow, so I’m posting the election thread tonight. I might check in on the comments via iPhone, however.
Endorsements: My support of Barack Obama is well-known to any reader of this blog so a formal endorsement at this point is unnecessary. And in the downballot races I’m generally endorsing the Democratic candidates as well. After years of failed governance, it’s time to send the Republican Party into the wilderness.
I’m no longer registered in California, but I will still endorse Yes on 1, No on 4 and 8. (I haven’t looked at the others.)
Predictions: Obama wins the Kerry states plus CO, FL, IA, NM, NV, OH, VA for a total of 338 electoral votes.
The Democrats pick up 7 Senate seats: AK, CO, MN, NC, NH, NM, and VA. Convicted felon Ted “Series of Tubes” Stevens loses in AK by a small margin; Norm Coleman barely holds off Al Franken in MN. In the House, the Dems pick up 30ish seats.
Races of interest:
Obviously, the presidential race, but I think the outcome is pretty certain at this point.
Of the Senate races, the aforementioned AK and MN races will be the most exciting. I’d love to see Minority Leader McConnell lose in Kentucky but it doesn’t seem likely.
In the House, my own representative is Jerrold Nadler (D). I don’t think he’ll have much trouble getting re-elected in solidly blue Manhattan. I don’t know much about him yet, though. Anyway, it was pretty funny to hear McCain say that New York City isn’t “real America”; my district alone (NY-8) contains such un-American landmarks as the Statue of Liberty, the New York Stock Exchange, and the World Trade Center site.
Likewise, my previous representative, Barbara Lee of CA-9, is in a pretty safe seat. I’ve moved from one of the bluest counties in America to another. But one of my past residences is the location of an interesting race:
CT-4: My old district in Connecticut, home of the last House Republican in New England. As Republicans go, Chris Shays is not that bad, but we’re still talking about a member of a party that enthusiastically supports torture. I’ll be rooting for his opponent, the awesomely-named Jim Himes.
Meanwhile, if I can stay up late enough, there are some ballot initiatives to watch in California. Prop 8 is the big one, which would actually revoke marriage from thousands of couples. It’s been close in the polls so this will give you Californians a reason to go out and vote even though the state’s electoral votes aren’t in question.
Tomorrow morning I’ll go find out just how long the lines are to vote in Hell’s Kitchen. I never had to wait very long in North Berkeley, but the population density is just slightly higher here…
Go out and vote! Then come back here and comment.

Fusion research

I have a confession to make: I haven’t decided which party to vote for in the presidential election next week.
Of course, I phrased that statement carefully. As any regular reader of this blog knows, I long ago decided which candidate to vote for. But this month I changed my voter registration to New York from California, and here in New York there are two ways to vote for Barack Obama.
What’s going on is that New York is one of the few states with an active fusion voting system. Here a political party is permitted to cross-endorse another party’s candidate, so that voters can express different preferences from one of the major parties without feeling that they’re throwing their votes away. So there are two lines on the ballot with Obama’s name: one for the Democratic Party, and one for the Working Families Party. Similarly, John McCain’s name appears three times, under the Republican, Conservative, and Independence party lines.
The result of this is that, while California’s minor parties are pretty much all total crackpots, the electoral system in New York has the potential to reward serious and pragmatic third parties that align with a major party most of the time, but can withhold an endorsement in a close race and thus have an influence on the outcome.
For a while it seems that this created an effective four-party system with the Conservative Party to the right of the Republicans and the Liberal Party to the left of the Democrats. Recently (in 2002) the Liberal Party failed to qualify for the ballot (you need 50,000 votes in the gubernatorial election) and the Working Families Party became the sole progressive alternative. Meanwhile the Conservative Party is still around, and there’s also the Independence Party which appears to have no ideology and seems to endorse whoever is the most mavericky, so they’re backing John McCain.
So, back to my dilemma. Back in 1998 when I was first qualified to vote (having turned 18 just after the ’96 election), I was only leaning Democratic. After eight years of Republican governance, I have become a staunch Democrat, and if I were still in California I’d vote a straight Dem ticket. But since I’d like to see more leadership from Dems on progressive issues, a vote on the Working Families line would help send that message.
I’ve thought of a compromise. I’ll vote Democratic on the federal offices, since this is a year when I’m not just voting for the least bad alternative: I’m proud to be a Democrat and I have no reservations about supporting our presidential ticket. But in the elections for the state legislature, I’ll vote Working Families to keep them honest. (Either way I’m voting for the same candidates–in all of the races on my ballot Working Families has endorsed the Democratic candidate.)

Arcane Gazebo’s financial crisis FAQ

I won’t attempt to explain the financial crisis here, but I will answer a few questions that have frequently been asked of me.
Q: Why haven’t you been blogging about the recent events in the financial sector (or anything else, for that matter)?
A: One reason is that I don’t have a lot of insight to add over what others are already saying. On top of that, since I work in proprietary trading I’m not at liberty to talk publicly about the aspects that affect me the most. As for blogging on other topics, I’m spending a lot of time at the office, and posting to the blog from firm systems is (I believe) frowned upon in the same way that using personal e-mail accounts is.
Q: Do you still have a job?
A: Yes.
Q: What’s it like starting out in the finance industry right now?
A: Sort of like you got the last ticket on a luxury cruise, and the cruise ship was the RMS Titanic. Or you moved to Tokyo just in time for a Godzilla attack.
And now, some questions that have not been asked of me but to which I have answers:
Q: What’s happened to the Lehman Brothers building since they went bankrupt?
A: Since it’s on the edge of Times Square, it has a big TV screen on the front that used to show attractive video of various landscapes. When Barclay’s took over the building, it didn’t change for a few days, and then turned into a still Barclay’s logo on a hideous blue background–BSOD blue. They later figured out how to animate the logo, but it’s still that awful blue and the entire block glows with the color at night.
Q: Is there a blog collecting those dumb trading floor pictures you complained about a while back?
A: Yes: Sad Guys on Trading Floors.
Q: Can you give me financial advice?
A: I think my employer would frown upon this.
Q: I work in the financial services industry. What is a good song to play at the office this week?
A: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”
Q: Is there a bright side to all this?
A: Barack Obama is now the overwhelming favorite in the presidential election.
Q: So why haven’t you been blogging about politics?
A: The political news cycle moves so fast that by the time I get home from work my commentary is redundant.
Q: What about the music blogging?
A: I’ve just been lame. I did catch a couple shows at Austin City Limits a couple weeks ago (Spiritualized, and Iron & Wine). And I’ve been listening to the new TV on the Radio album, which is excellent.
Q: Should you put a disclaimer on a post like this?
A: It should go without saying, but the opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer. I should just put that on the sidebar.

Palin in comparison

Some days, not being able to post to the blog from work can be frustrating. Now that I’m home, let’s talk politics.
I was not one of the 38 million people watching Obama’s speech last night: I watched the speech on PBS, whose viewers weren’t counted in that number. As almost everyone has said today, it was a great speech. Indeed, it so unnerved John McCain that he pulled up the wrong name on his cell phone and accidentally offered the VP slot to Sarah Palin instead of Tim Pawlenty. (To be fair, newfangled gadgets like cell phones give McCain trouble in the best of times.)
As Michael Bluth would say, “Her?” I was hoping for a more obviously and hilariously bad choice like Mitt Romney or even the ridiculously unpopular Joe Lieberman, but figured the McCain campaign was too smart to think either one was really a good idea. Palin was an option I wasn’t even aware of, and I kept going back and forth on whether it was a politically shrewd move or a bizarre, impulsive mistake.
I’ve decided on the latter. One of the biggest themes of McCain’s campaign is experience, and by picking Palin they’ve given up any ability to claim that experience matters. Her political resume consists of being mayor of a small town, followed by two years as governor of a small state; compared to this, Barack Obama is a senior political veteran.
The whole thing is obviously a cynical ploy to win over disaffected Hillary voters, in the apparent belief that they will vote for any candidate with ovaries regardless of whether or not they happen to oppose everything Hillary stands for (as the pro-life, ultraconservative Palin does). And yet, if the campaign really wanted to reach out to Clinton supporters with a pioneering female nominee, McCain advisor Carly Fiorina was the obvious choice. Kay Bailey Hutchison was another possibility that has been mentioned today, although she’s pro-choice, and the social conservative wing of the GOP has made it clear that a pro-choice VP was not an option.
The vice-presidential debate should be interesting; all Joe Biden has to do is demonstrate that Palin is out of her league, something that should be an easy task for him given his extensive policy knowledge and skill as a debater. I would have much preferred to see him debate Lieberman or Romney, either of whom he would have utterly demolished, but this matchup will probably be worth sitting down with some popcorn.
However, Biden does have a bad habit of making offhand comments that come back to bite him (remember when he referred to Obama as “articulate”?) and it’s quite likely that, at some point in the campaign, he’ll get in trouble for some unfortunately-worded attack on Palin. Hopefully he’ll be careful about this.
(This could be part of McCain’s plan to attract Hillary voters: rather than nominating one of the experienced and qualified women in the GOP, pick a total lightweight and then accuse the Obama campaign of sexism when they point out that she’s a lightweight. This plan does have its downsides, though.)

Today’s injustices: telecom immunity and show trials

As the results come in from today’s Potomac Primaries, I’m very happy to see Barack Obama continue to defeat Clinton by huge margins. Meanwhile, political news today brought reminders of why this stuff matters.
We had the Senate vote to grant retroactive immunity to telecoms who participated in the warrantless wiretapping program. The Dodd/Feingold amendment, which would have held the telecoms accountable for breaking the law, was soundly rejected by a 31-67 vote. It’s probably too much at this point to expect Republicans to stand up for the rule of law, but it’s shameful that so many Democrats voted nay here. Once again I wonder why the increasingly useless Dianne Feinstein is one of the senators from California. Meanwhile, Obama voted for the amendment, but Clinton didn’t bother to show up. I’ll give her some slack since the vote wasn’t close, but some leadership on this issue from her might have helped.
Meanwhile, the military is finally preparing to file charges against some of the Guantanamo detainees; they are seeking the death penalty. Parts of the article inadvertently highlight just how badly this system has gone wrong.

Col. Steven David, the chief military defense lawyer for the Guantánamo cases, who must provide detainees with military lawyers, said he did not have six lawyers available to take the cases, which the Pentagon described as a milestone in the war on terror.
In addition, he noted, a tangle of questions are unanswered in the military commission system, which has yet to begin a single trial. They include whether waterboarding constitutes torture, how statements obtained by coercion are to be handled, whether detainees may be so psychologically damaged that they may not be able to assist in their defense and exactly what the rules of the trials are to be.

The fact that any of these things are questions at all is appalling. Yes, waterboarding is torture. If this isn’t obvious from a simple description of the procedure (and it should be), it’s obvious from the fact that it has historically been used to torture people. No, statements obtained through torture should not be admissible as evidence. Historically, the primary use of torture has been to obtain false confessions, and there’s no reason whatsoever to think this information is reliable. It’s horrifying that any of this is even up for debate in this country.
Whether or not these men are guilty of the charges against them, executing them based on statements elicited through torture will not be just. That would make these military commissions no better than the show trials Stalin used against his political opponents. I can only hope that the military comes to its senses on this and gives these men a fair trial.
Meanwhile, as long as we’re charging people with war crimes, let’s do Donald Rumsfeld next: he personally approved the torture of these detainees.

Mitt’s parting shot

I had a moment of sadness when I heard Mitt Romney was dropping out, until I was helpfully reminded that I actually dislike him, just less so than the other candidates:

Romney is speaking before CPAC right now, explaining why he’s suspending his campaign, and according to advance excerpts given to the Associated Press, Romney will say:

“If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”

Classy! It’s easy to get outrage fatigue with this crowd, but this kind of thing never fails to make me angry. Somehow Republicans keep getting away with labeling as “surrender” any counterterrorism approach that doesn’t involve (a) knocking over random Middle Eastern countries, (b) torturing innocent people in secret prisons, and (c) massive illegal domestic surveillance programs.
On the other hand, Romney’s attempt to spin his departure as a maneuver in the war on terror is actually pretty hilarious.

Wall Street rethinks coal

Via Stoat, the Wall Street Journal reports that some major investment banks are anticipating new regulations on carbon emissions:

Citigroup Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley say they have concluded that the U.S. government will cap greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants sometime in the next few years. The banks will require utilities seeking financing for plants before then to prove the plants will be economically viable even under potentially stringent federal caps on carbon dioxide, the main man-made greenhouse gas.

I’d like to interpret this as an expectation of a Democratic victory in November, but if I remember right global warming is one of the policy areas where John McCain deviates from Republican orthodoxy. Thus it’s more likely driven by his success in the primaries, making this kind of regulation more likely no matter which party wins the presidency.
This decision is driven by the political situation but I’ve often wondered how much the scientific consensus on global warming impacts the investment world. After all, major climate change will cause a lot of economic damage and so it seems like there’s incentive for Wall Street to try to limit it. Probably, though, it’s a tragedy of the commons where the marginal coal power plant brings more short term profit than long-term costs to the individual investor. (And a lot of the fossil-fuel industry’s disinformation campaign on the issue is designed precisely to keep their stock prices up.)
Since I’m looking at some finance jobs, it would be nice to think that I could have a positive effect on this side of things, but in fact my skill-set seems more suited to high-frequency trading problems that don’t have this kind of look-ahead.