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September 16, 2014

[liveblog] Hendrik Hertzberg on the quick fix for our Constitutional morass

I’m at a Shorenstein lunch talk where Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker is talking about the difficulty of electing a government with the infrastructure we have. The place is packed. HH was one of the very first Shorenstein fellows. When he was here he was covering the 1988 presidential campaign. (I’m sitting immediately behind him, so I will be able to report in detail on the expressiveness of the back of his head.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

He says that we keep thinking that if we could just elect the right president, everything would be fine. We have a cult of presidents. But the problem is in the Constitution. “The machine that elects the president is a machine for disappointment.” You get elected by announcing ideals, not by saying that you’re going to have to engage in a series of ghastly compromises. “So much is due to the Framers, who were at the cutting edge in their day.” He points out that when the Constitution was being framed, framing it was illegal, for we already had the Articles of Confederation that said any changes required a unanimous vote by the thirteen colonies. “We should try to be like them [the Founders] and think boldly about our system,” rather than merely worshipping them.

HH reads some selections from the Framers. First, a letter from G. Washington stating that the Constitution is imperfect but was the best that could be agreed upon; he put his hopes in the process of amendment.

HH says we should be wary of the Federalist Papers. “They were op-eds written to sell a particular compromise.” They’re high-minded and don’t reflect what really happened. E.g., Madison and Hamilton hated each state getting the same number of senators. Hamilton wrote that letting a minority rule would lead to gridlock, compromise, and near anarchy…our current situation, says HH.

We are still told the Electoral College exists to to protect the interests of the smaller states and prevent mob rule. “The truth is that it was adopted in order to protect slavery.” Madison, perhaps half-seriously, suggested that the lower house be elected by vote and that the upper house should be elected with the three-fifths rule. The lower would represent the interests of the citizens and the upper would represent the slave states’ interests, because that was the real distinction. “The Electoral College system was born in sin.”

In 1968, we almost got a Constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College, but it was fillibustered by Sam Ervin.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will change this. (The idea for making this into an interstate compact came from a Stanford computer science prof., John Koza.) The Constitution instructs the states to come up with electors who then vote for the state in the presidential election. The states that support the NPVIC say their electors will vote for whoever wins the national popular vote. It goes into effect when the compacting states add up to 270 votes, which would guarantee that the election goes to the winner of the popular vote. This does not require changing the Constitution. And it’s 60% of the way to happening: 11 states + DC. (Mass. has adopted it.) All eleven states are blue states, but there’s Republican support, although their platform came out against it. New Gingrich is a recent convert. Fred Thompson. Many others.

This reform would be an enormous move toward civic health, HH says. No more battleground states. No more spectator states. It would affect how campaign money is spent, although not how it is raised; it would have to be spent all around the country. It would boost turnout by increasing turnout in the spectator states.

Q: How does this compact ensure the electors keep their promise?

A: It’d be a state law. And it says states cannot withdraw from it during the campaign period.

HH continues. We have a controlled experiment: There are a lot of things wrong with Obama, but we’re not going to get anyone much better. This has made apparent the weaknesses in the system. Our dysfunction is the result of people responding to rewards and punishments built into the system. NPVIC is the “gettable reform.” We could get this one by 2016, although 2020 is more likely. “I’m all for campaign reform, but the Supreme Court stands in the way.”

HH says that NPVIC is a mom-and-pop outfit. He’s hopeful because the state electors have a reason to vote for this, because right now “no one returns their calls.” The focus now is on getting a first red state. If you’re interested in donating money, HH suggests you give to FairVote.

Q&A

Q: How might this change the geographic location of campaigns? Will this lead to an urban/rural divide? Will Dems campaign more in the North and Reps in the South, thus polarizing us more?

A: That ignores that only 10-15% lives in big cities. [The Census figures are somewhat hard to parse on this. source.] And it would be cost-effective to buy ads in the poorer and less dense parts of the country. “Every single vote is equally worth going after” in this scenario.

Q: Would this shift parties to nominating people more in the mainstream? And what about third parties?

A: The two-party system is essential to a winner-take-all system likes ours. (I’m also in favor of the instant runoff voting reform.) NPVIC gives its votes to the winner of a plurality.

Q: Why isn’t this being talked about more?

A: It’s weirdly hard to grasp. And it can be demagogued against: “So you think you’re smarter than the Framers??” The media will pay more attention once the count gets close to 270.

Q: Even in states that have passed it, nobody knows about it. It looks like a move among political elites.

A: You’re right that nobody knows about it. But people of all parties do favor electing the president by popular vote. The outcome reflects the wishes of the majority of Americans. But, yes, NPVIC is a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Rube Goldberg machine

Q: Have the Tea Party stars — Limbaugh, Beck, etc. — staked out positions?

A: It may have come up for a few minutes, but it hasn’t become a fixture.

Q: The question will be which party is losing more Electoral College votes.

A: Because of 2000, the sense is the Democrats throw away more. In 2004 if 30K votes had shifted in Ohio, Kerry would have won the election while losing the popular vote. [There is a rapid debate about which party throws away more votes. Couldn’t capture it.

Q: Has there been a non-partisan anaysis of this proposal? And why doesn’t the NPVIC campaign have more educational outreach?

A: There has not been much non-partisan analysis, although there’s some. And many governors are directly elected, so I don’t see how much more we need to learn about this. Plus, when you have a quiet, calm conversation with state legislators, they often tend to like it.

Q: Do you worry that linking this movement to others might break apart the coalition?

A: They’re only linked in my mind. “If I had my way, I would translate the German constitution into English and be done with it,” HH says. Americans wrote it. “If the Framers were around now, they’d write that constitution.” “I hope that once this reform kicks in, people will think more about imitating the Framers rather than worshipping them.”

Q: How is political coverage these days?

A: Political coverage tends to ignore the ways in which the hydraulics limit and affect politicians. And since by definition the US Constitution is perfect (we assume), when things go wrong, it must be because of bad people. It’s still basically a morality tale about Good and Bad. You still hear “If only Obama were more like LBJ: get in their and get stuff done” and it drives me nuts. LBJ did that, but he had a huge majority in the House and Senate. When he lost that, he got nothing done. Or, Tom Friedman pushing for a centrist third party, ignoring the fact that we already a centrist party: The Democrats — ignoring that this would make the right the governing party.

Q: Any major figures backing it?

A: I expect Obama and Clinton would be for it, but saying so wouldn’t help. Tying this up with particular personalities can be risky.

Q: Effect on primaries?

A: It wouldn’t affect that directly. They’d want a candidate who can do well in the entire country, not just in the swing states. It would likely cause people to look at the nominating system.

[Next day: I corrected a statement that I'd recorded as certain rather than probabilistic.]

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January 21, 2013

Popular for the right reasons?

Note that I understand that in what follows, I am wildly projecting my own feelings, without any data to support my hypothesis. So be it!

Americans by and large like Barack Obama. They like his wife more, but they do like the guy. My hypothesis is that people like Obama for the right reasons.

People liked W, too. I mean, I didn’t, but I’m a shallow, petty person. But people famously liked W because he’d be good to have a beer with. My data-free hypothesis is that people like Obama for better reasons. He isn’t particularly fun to have a beer with (although I am totally open to that invitation, Mr. President), but he is a thoughtful, sincere person who accords each person dignity.

If you’re one of those who don’t like President Obama as a person, none of this applies to you. But if you’re one of us who think it’d be fun to hang out with him (note to White House: Operators are standing by), I bet it’s for perceived qualities that are actually admirable.

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November 7, 2012

1.5 minutes of First Family beautifulness

Go ahead an give yourself a little treat. Here’s 1.5 minutes of the First Family last night.

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Morning after hodge of podge-thoughts

1a. I know there are serious and real differences among us. Some can be argued, and some cannot. If you are as depressed and sad this morning as I would have been had the night gone differently, then I hope over the next four years you’ll choose to advance both your goals and our country by working together. Obstructionism does not stop the clock.

1b. DailyKos this morning reminds us of Molly Ivins’ words:

First rule: No gloating. Actually, there is gloating allowed, but only in the exclusive presence of other Democrats

Of course, the blogger, Bill from Portland, can’t resist adding: “Since I’m, indeed, exclusively among Democrats here, I’ve got three gloaty words about our landslide victory last night: ‘We Built That!'” [Yes, "landslide" is not the right word.]

2.DailyKos runs this chart, based on CNN exit polls:

We aging white guys are still in charge when it comes to most big businesses and government functions. But we are no longer in charge of elections. Which means that we aging white guys are toast. And nothing could make me happier.

3. Last night, Chuck Todd on MSNBC allowed himself a moment of self-congratulations, saying something like, “A lot of people didn’t trust the polls, but it turns out that to a remarkable degree the polls were right. I’m proud of our polling efforts.”

Ok, fine. Then why did the media so consistently insist that this was going to be a squeaker? If the polls were right, then why didn’t you read them right? (Obligatory genuflection in the general direction of Nate Silver.)

4. If you voted for Romney, you won’t want to hear what I’m about to say. In fact, many of my liberal friends — my co-religionists, so to speak — will find what I’m about to say ridiculous. Nevertheless: I think Obama is the most un-flawed president in my lifetime. Not perfect, but the least deeply flawed.

I acknowledge that this is based on my assessment of his character, and such assessments are notoriously unreliable. I’ve seen this throughout my lifetime: I watch Reagan in a debate and think he’s a silly old actor that no one could take seriously, and most of the country sees a visionary patriot whose visage would look good carved into Mount Rushmore. I watch Robert Kennedy and see a deeply empathetic person, and most of the country sees a selfish opportunist. George Bush looks into the eyes of a totalitarian thug and sees a good man. Our unmediated assessments of character are unreliable and unarguable. So I offer my sense of Obama’s character without argument.

In my lifetime, I think you’d have to go back to Dwight Eisenhower to find a president with fewer debilitating character defects, but Ike was uninspiring. JFK? A bag of MadMen vices. LBJ? A close to pathological bully. Nixon? Yikes. Gerald Ford seems to have been an upstanding person, but lacked the drive and vision to be an effective president. Jimmy Carter is universally lauded as an exemplary person and ex-president, but could neither inspire nor effectively lead. Reagan’s grasp of facts and reality was (in my view!) dangerously unreliable, and his commitment to the Constitution was problematic. Bush senior is a patriot and a family man, but lacked vision. Clinton had some famous weaknesses, of which triangulation was the most troubling to me. Bush junior is 189 lbs. of daddy issues.

And there’s Obama. I’ll skip the list of adjectives, since you either already agree or will think I’m crazy. But let me just say this: We have seen Obama tackle issues that other presidents have for decades simply kicked down the road for someone else to solve. That requires patriotism, courage, a willingness to pay the price, perseverance, vision, political skills, and leadership. I’m hopeful that in the next four years we will see similar focus on issues such as immigration reform, climate change, maybe even Mideast peace. We won’t get it all, and we’ll won’t get all that we want. But I frankly thought that we’d never have a president willing to step forward to work on the issues that have scared off generations of political leaders.

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November 4, 2012

Your vote counts, but exactly that way

If when the votes are counted you feel betrayed because you were told “Your vote counts!” but it turns out that the election would have gone the same way even if you had stayed home, I understand. If you take “Your vote counts” as really only being true when your vote determines an outcome, then in my lifetime of voting, my vote has never counted. (For a different reading, see the the incredibly smart Peter Norvig’s election FAQ.)

Still, I vote and I hope you do too — even the young, despite some contempt for them). But my reasons have more to do with community than outcomes.

First, voting is a a rite that affirms the most basic and magnificent thing about our country: We believe everyone has an equal voice.

Second, my vote is unlikely to determine an outcome of an election, but it is certain to affect — fractionally, for sure — the total number of people who have voted. And that bears on our sense of the success of our democracy and of our national community. This is not merely information about community, but is information that forms community.

Third, if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain. So, vote or for God’s sake STFU.

As for who to vote for: (a) check my Twitter feed for links to the vids etc. that I find amusing/moving, and (b) really?


(To volunteer to help Pres. Obama’s Get Out the Vote effort, click here. And because I’m a liberal, here’s Romney’s GOTV site.)

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October 17, 2012

Taking the fun out of Binder Women

I’m of course loving the Binder Women meme. Hilarious.

But let me for the moment take all the fun out of it:

1. The first thing President Obama did upon taking office was sign the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Meanwhile Romney refuses to commit to equal pay for women.

2. Romney’s story about his Binder Women was utter BS. In fact, according to The Phoenix

in 2002 — prior to the election, not even knowing yet whether it would be a Republican or Democratic administration — a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts formed MassGAP to address the problem of few women in senior leadership positions in state government. There were more than 40 organizations involved with the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus (also bipartisan) as the lead sponsor.

They did the research and put together the binder full of women qualified for all the different cabinet positions, agency heads, and authorities and commissions. They presented this binder to Governor Romney when he was elected.

His administration had fewer women than the national average.

For those keeping score, it’s now: Bullshit 3, Truth 0.

3. Joe Biden today wonders why Mitt had to search for “qualified women.” (If I weren’t on a train with crappy wifi, I’d post the meme: “Some of my best friends are qualified women. I have a binder full of them.”)

4. [Added an hour later] As plenty have pointed out, Mitt’s idea of supporting women last night was to give them flex time (wow, there’s an idea that was innovative 30 years ago) so they can go home and cook dinner. See ladies, you can? have it all! (Some brilliant analysis — and writing — by Binder Person Amy Davidson.)

5. I think this tweet from the Obama campaign sums it up well: @BarackObama: Last night, the President talked about women as breadwinners. Romney talked about them as resumes in ‘binders’. http://OFA.BO/AEWhjM

This hilarious meme is deadly serious.

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October 7, 2012

Obama’s argument

This is by Lucas Gray, a Simpson’s and Family Guy animator. (Hat tip to Gawker)

 


[Minutes later:] I came across this at Gawker as well.

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September 16, 2012

[2b2k] Decisions and character

I just read Michael Lewis’ tag-along look at President Obama. It shows aspects of Obama not readily on display. But mainly it’s about being the President as Decider.

The article makes it clear to me that the presidency is not a possible job. No one cannot be adequately prepared to deal with the range of issues the president faces, most of which have significant effects on very real people. The president therefore needs processes that enable him (so far it’s been hims, kids) to make good decisions, the personality that will let him embrace those processes, and the character to continue making decisions while fully appreciating the consequences of his actions.

Mothers, don’t let you kids grow up to be presidents. Holy cow.

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September 7, 2012

Mitt Romney’s distrust of entrepreneurship

Mitt Romney is taking some flack for using some notoriously flaky science as his example of good science. But in the same passage he betrays a Big Corporate view of how innovation works that should cost him the support of every entrepeneurial startup in the country.

Here’s the passage from his Washington Examiner interview (with a hat tip to BoingBoing):

CARNEY: What role should government have in promoting certain industr

And keep in mind that Romney here is not talking about the auto industry specifically; rather, he is explaining why governments ought not to back entrepreneurial companies. It’s not just that governments are bad at picking winners, it’s that when the winners are startups — even when they’re way out of the prototypical garage — they’re unlikely to get past “delight.” So, wies or economic activities such as homeownership, or manufacturing, renewable energy or fossil fuel energy, eBig Corp xports, or just advanced technology? What sort of subsidies and incentives do you favor? You had some of these in Massachusetts, I know.

ROMNEY: Very limited — my answer Big Corp to your first question. I’m not an advocate of industrial policy being formed by a government. I do believe in the power of free markets, and when the government removes the extraordinary burdens that it puts on markets, why I think markets are more effective at guiding a prosperous economy than is the government.

So for instance, I would not be investing massive dollars in electric car companies in California. I think Tesla and Fisker are delightful-looking ve

And keep in mind that Romney here is nBig Corp ot talking about the auto industry specifically; rather, he is explaining why governments ought not to back entrepreneurial companies. It’s not just that governments are bad at picking winners, it’s that when the winners are startups — even when they’re way out of the prototypical garage — they’re unlikely to get past “delight.” So, whicles, but I somehow imagine that Toyota, Nissan, and even General Motors will produce a more cost-effective electric car than either Tesla or Fisker. I think it is bad policy for us to be investing hundreds of millions of dollars in specific companies and specific technologies, and developing those technologies.

I do believe in basic science. I believe in participating in space. I believe in analysis of new sources of energy. I believe in laboratories, looking at ways to conduct electricity with — with cold fusion, if we can come up with it. It was the University of Utah that solved that. We somehow can’t figure out how to duplicate it.

So, first the problem with his science remark. I understand that he’s boosting Utah. But the 1989 experiment by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann was famous not only because it could not be replicated, but because it was prematurely hyped by Pons and Fleischmann before it had gone through peer review or had been replicated. (As BoingBoing points out, the Wikipedia article is worth reading.) No matter what you think of the experiment, it is a terrible example to use as proof that one appreciates basic science…unless you’re citing the rejection of the Pons-Fleischmann results, which Romney explicitly was not. The issue is not merely that Romney continues to believe in a discredited claim. The real issue is that this suggests that Romney doesn’t understand that science is a methodology, not merely the results of that methodology. That’s scary both for a CEO and for a possible president.

I’m at least as bothered, however, by Romney’s casual dismissal of entrepreneurial startups as a source of innovation: “I think Tesla and Fisker are delightful-looking vehicles, but I somehow imagine that Toyota, Nissan, and even General Motors will produce a more cost-effective electric car than either Tesla or Fisker.” “Delightful” is a dismisive word in this context, as evidenced by the inevitability of the “but” that follows it. Romney, it seems, doesn’t believe that startups can get beyond delight all the way to the manly heavy lifting that makes innovation real. For that you need the established, massive corporations.

Wow. Could there be a more 20th century vision of how a 21st century entrepreneurial economy should work?

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September 6, 2012

One way Obama’s speech might go

He can’t possibly top Bill Clinton’s speech, but here’s what I hope President Obama does tonight.

First, I hope he stays entirely on policy points, although I wouldn’t mind a little uplifting rhetoric. I certainly don’t need to be told again about Bain.

Second, while Clinton did a superb job explaining what’s wrong with the Republican argument, there’s still work to do. So, I hope tonight President Obama reminds us of all that he has done, for his achievements are epic. But I hope he does so in a way that neatly folds and stacks each item on that laundry list.

For example, he might remind us of how bad the circumstances were, and then show us the method by which he addressed those problems. First, you stimulate the economy: what was the money spent on, and what were the results. Second, you take care of the most vulnerable: here’s what we did, and here are the results. Third, you make investments for the future: here’s what we invested in and here’s why it matters. Fourth, you do this while you also deal with the developments and opportunities the world presents: here’s what happened, and here’s how we responded. Fifth, from Ledbetter to ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, you try to make life more fair for all our citizens.

That’s my idea for conveying the methodological competency with which the Administration has dealt with the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. But, I’m looking forward to hearing the speech tonight and thinking, “Man, that’s waaay better!”

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