Tuesday, November 24, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

I forgot to mention in my previous post on the pending British elections that another aspect of potential fun out the of those elections is increased talk of electoral reform in the UK. 

Along those lines is a piece from the TelegraphJack Straw: new House of Lords to be elected by proportional representation:

But Mr Straw ruled out introducing PR for the House of Commons, saying that while the first past the post system for electing MPs was outdated, it was crucial for a link between voters and constituencies to be maintained.


In a speech at the Magna Carter Institute, Mr Straw said that electoral reform would help restore public faith in Parliament following the expenses scandal.

He added: “Crucially the Alternative Vote would enable us to retain the single member constituency link, which is one of the central merits of the current system – both because it delivers effective representation and allows MPs to be held directly to account.

“But AV would also ensure that every MP is elected with the support of over half of the voters in their constituency. In an age of multiparty politics, it could both enhance the legitimacy of MPs and enable the public to express a greater range of preferences.”

Of course, reform for the Commons would only be on the table if Labour wins in May (which isn’t likely).  And Labour favors AV over PR less, I suspect, for reasons of linkages of MPs to constituencies than the fact that they think that AV will benefit them more than would PR.

The Conservatives are also committed to an elected Lords, although David Cameron is unlikely to find time in the busy Parliamentary programme during his first term in office, but are opposed to electoral reform.

Of course, while an elected yet largely useless upper house is better than an unelected yet largely useless upper house, one wonders why there isn’t more talk of simply abolishing the thing.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Via WaPoSupport for legalizing marijuana grows rapidly around U.S.:

A Gallup poll in October found 44 percent of Americans favor full legalization of marijuana — a rise of 13 points since 2000. Gallup said that if public support continues growing at a rate of 1 to 2 percent per year, "the majority of Americans could favor legalization of the drug in as little as four years."

A 53 percent majority already does so in the West, according to the survey.

An interesting shift, if anything because we are currently spending a tremendous amount of money to interdict supply and to arrest and jail users and pushers to not obvious effect on the overall usage of the substance.

There is also this:

the American Medical Association reversed a longtime position and urged the federal government to remove marijuana from Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act, which equates it with heroin and cocaine.

Schedule I drugs are the most regulated of all substances as they are seen to have no medical value and have a high probability of being abused (see here).  One correction to WaPo along these lines:  while heroin is a Schedule I drug, cocaine is actually a Schedule II substance—meaning that it is less regulated and therefore considered less  dangerous from a legal point of view than is marijuana.  There are also a number of opiates that are are Schedule II drugs.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Readers may recall the bizarre death of census worker Bill Sparkman, whose grisly death (found hanging in a tree, bound with duct tape with “Fed” written on his chest)resulted in a great deal of speculation (everything from the fruit of anti-government sentiment to the result of our immigration policies).

It ends up that the authorities have concludes that Sparkman committed suicide.

A key passage from the report: “Mr. Sparkman had recently secured two life insurance policies for which payment for suicide was precluded.”

Quite the odd tale, to be sure.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Such was my first thought (an homage to this) when I saw this on a former student’s Facebook feed:  Paula Deen Hit In Face With Flying Ham.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Over the weekend, the Guardian reported an interesting poll:

On Sunday an Ipsos-Mori opinion poll slashed the Tory lead over Labour from 11 points to six – which, if it were translated into seats, would see the Tories 38 seats short of forming a government alone but just two seats ahead of Labour. The Lib Dems would be called on to decide which party to help get over the mark.

Certainly this would present an intriguing situation to watch.   Interestingly, the LDP leader, Nick Clegg, is quoted in the soty that he does notseek to be a kingmaker and that the party (i.e., Conservatives or Labour) that wins the most seats in the election should be given the chance to govern.

First caveat in regards to the Ipsos-Mori poll and its implications:  the election isn’t until next May.

Second caveat:  Mike White notes that other polls indicate a far larger Tory lead:

It’s not yet a week since the Guardian’s ICM poll gave David Cameron a 42:29:19 lead – enough to give Dave a 70-seat Commons majority if translated into real life on 6 May.

That’s consistent with most recent polls, though the trend does suggest Labour may be closing the gap.

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By Steven L. Taylor

USAT notes:  Democrats at risk in 2010 shift from offense to defense, which hardly should be a surprise.  The historical patterns would indicate that that the Democrats will lose seats during next year’s mid-term elections.  Indeed, understandings of this fact is part of what is driving the current health care agenda, as the current Democratic seat counts are almost certainly the highest that the Obama administration will see in its first term (and, perhaps, into a potential second term):

The Democratic shift from offense to defense is partly a product of history: After World War II, the party of a first-term president has lost an average of 16 congressional seats in midterm elections, says Cook, editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. And 2010, he says, is shaping up as even more challenging for the Democrats.

However, losing seats and losing control of the legislature are two different things.   There are currently 258 Democrats and 177 Republicans in the House (or +81 for the D’s).  There is no way, barring some unforeseeable political cataclysm, for the Democrats to lose enough seats to lose the House.  The Senate is divided 58 D, 40 R and 2 I (who caucus with the Ds).

Based on analysis from the Cook Political Report, there appear to be 14 toss-up seats held by Democrats (and one that leans GOP).  If the Dems win all of those and pick up one more they would match the post-WWII average for seats lost by the president’s party during his first mid-term election.  This would, indeed, be good for the Reps.  It would not, however, be the loss of the House.  Indeed, the Dems would have to lose roughly two and a half times that number to lose the House.1   This strikes me as rather unlikely.

Here’s the list:

Where GOP could pick up House seats

Democratic seats considered by the non-partisan Cook Political Report to be the most vulnerable:

Tossups (14)

State  DistricIncumbent

Alabama 2nd Rep. Bobby Bright

Arkansas 2nd Rep. Vic Snyder

Colorado 4th Rep. Betsy Markey

Florida 8th Rep. Alan Grayson

Idaho 1st Rep. Walt Minnick

Kansas 3rd Rep. Dennis Moore{+1}

Maryland 1st Rep. Frank Kratovil

Mississippi 1st Rep. Travis Childers

New Hampshire 2nd Rep. Paul Hodes{+1}

New Mexico 2nd Rep. Harry Teague

Ohio 1st Rep. Steve Driehaus

Ohio 15th Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy

Pennsylvania 7th Rep. Joe Sestak{+1}

Virginia 5th Rep. Thomas Perriello

Leaning Republican (1)

State District Incumbent

Louisiana 3rd Rep. Charlie Melancon{+1}

Those marked “{+1}” are not running for re-election.

  1. The Reps need 41 seats to get to 218 and a majority. []
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By Steven L. Taylor

For some reason, there is an ongoing interest in some quarters as to what Lou Dobbs is going to do now that he is no longer on CNN.  The most logical move, it would seem, would be a move to Fox Business Channel, although one doubts CNN would have let him out his contract without a fight if he was just going to go to the competition.  Instead, there has been a dribble of stories about how Dobbs might become more active in politics (he is well known for his strident views on immigration) including speculation about runs at public office.

There are a couple of stories at Politico highlighting the possibility that Dobbs is at least contemplating a presidential run.

Dobbs: 2012 presidential run not "crazy"

Ex-CNNer Lou Dobbs tells WTOP this morning that he feels "liberated and emancipated" since leaving the network — and he’s not ruling out the possibility of running for president in 2012.

When one of the WTOP anchors joked that pundits were floating the crazy idea of the immigration-fixated Dobbs running for president, he shot back: "What’s so crazy about that?" — and disclosed that he’s talking to advisers to suss out his political options.

Lou Dobbs mulls White House bid

Less than two weeks after announcing his departure from the cable network—and following a series of interviews in which Dobbs encouraged speculation about his political plans—the anchorman known to fans as "Mr. Independent" finally made his presidential ambitions explicit on former Sen. Fred Thompson’s radio show Monday.

Asked if he might make a run at the White House in 2012, Dobbs answered flatly: "Yes is the answer."

Now, one should only take such public musing so seriously, as he certainly has every incentive to keep his name in the press and this is a great way to do so.

However, let’s assume that he is actually devoting at least a few stray neurons to seriously consider the option.  Certainly even if he is not, there are members of the press that take the story seriously enough to keep asking him about it/writing stories about it.

But, how useful a launching pad is a cable news show as a means of pursuing a career in electoral politics?   In terms of perhaps moving in to local politics it might be useful, given the value of name recognition.  Still, national politics (especially of the presidential variety) is not a place where political amateurs thrive (ask, for example, Ross Perot or Wesley Clark).

Beyond that, it seems that there is an increasing proclivity of cable news personalities to take their relative significance on their respective channels a tad too seriously.  We have the topic of this post, Dobbs, and his presidential fantasies and we have Glenn Beck promising grandiose plans.

If one looks at the 3Q 2009 ratings, we find that Dobbs averaged 658,000 total viewers per night and Glenn Beck 2.403 million per night.  Those are impressive numbers, numbers augmented in Beck’s case1 by a substantial number of book-buyers (he has had three NYT best-sellers).  However, these are actually rather small numbers when compared to the number of potential voters in the US (~231,000,000) or even the number of votes won by Obama in 2008 (~66,800,000).

One can make a fabulous living if one can attract hundreds of thousands of viewers and/or readers (certainly I would be more than pleased to be able to sell books in numbers like Beck).  However, such success in the cable news milieu can give one an outsized view of one’s actual relative significance.   Not only is that the case, but the thing that makes one successful in that context (strident, divisive views) often creates as many opponents as it does adherents.

And a passing observation that goes into the overall discussion: Sarah Palin is trying the book route as a means of furthering her political career and Mike Huckabee is trying the cable news show route (but sans Beckesque ratings…).

  1. Quite frankly, I am not so sure that Beck doesn’t fully understand exactly what he is doing:  doing whatever works to sell books and attract viewers. []
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Monday, November 23, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

For those unfamiliar, the above is a title from a short story by Harlan Ellison, which contains a hellish account of the torment visited upon the last remnants of humanity at the hands of an intelligent computer.  It was one of the first things that came to mind when I read this horrific account of a true living hell experience by a man who was paralyzed yet conscious for 23 years while his doctors thought he was in a vegetative state (via the Daily Mail):  ‘I screamed, but there was nothing to hear’: Man trapped in 23-year ‘coma’ reveals horror of being unable to tell doctors he was conscious.

It is a breathtakingly horrible tale.

Another thought was Terri Schiavo, as I expected that someone would immediately leap to the notion that she, too, was in a similar state.  Indeed, Quin Hillyer at Amspecblog jumps on Schiavo: Why Schiavo Mattered. In fairness, Hillyer only infers the comparison without actually making much of an argument.

The two cases are not comparable.  In the case of Mr. Houben cited above, appropriate testing found normal brain function:  “new hi-tech scans showed his brain was still functioning almost completely normally.”  It is unclear as to whether the test in question was not available 23 years ago (the inference one gets from the reference to “hi-tech”) or there was a failure to use the appropriate test.

In regards to Ms. Schiavo, however, tests made clear that her brain was irreparably damaged and was incapable of normal functioning, a fact confirmed by autopsy.

Despite Hillyer’s assertion, the issue for Schiavo was not one of simply choosing death, it was a question of her actual medical condition (as well as a question of whose legal rights were relevant not to mention a great deal of political wrangling), and not a case that parallels that of Mr. Houben.

There are legitimate and difficult issues raised by cases like Schiavo’s, but they are blurred, not clarified, by making false comparisons to dissimilar cases.

Now, one thing that the Houben case does provide is that clearly there are tests that need to be used in cases like his to determine if, in fact, they are truly in persistent vegetative states or not.  No one should be consigned to the hell that Houben lived through.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Some noteworthy stories from my morning read through the news:

Via the BBC:  Retired US official and wife admit spying for Cuba.

Via the BBC:  Mexico’s rural Mennonites feel impact of drug violence.

Via The Narco News Bulletin:  A Week Before “Elections” in Honduras, Candidate Resignations, More Censorship and Repression.

Via the AP:  Honduras election sets return to business as usual.

Via the BBC:  Bolivia election: Cocaine casts shadow on campaign.

Via the NYTBrazil Elbows U.S. on the Diplomatic Stage.

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By Steven L. Taylor

An editorial from the Miami Herald highlights two ongoing problems that have plagued US politics for some time.  One is an institutional factor, the other a purely political one that often interacts with various institutional features of our system to produce very specific political outcomes.

The piece (Unblock ambassador nomination) argues against a hold being placed by Senator George LeMieux (R-FL) on the nomination of Thomas A. Shannon, Jr. to be the US Ambassador to Brazil.

The institutional factor of issue is the Senatorial hold and the political one is the importance of the Cuban vote in Florida.

The idea that one Senator can block any nomination (ambassadorial, judicial, etc.) basically on a whim is a problematic aspect of senatorial privilege.  And this is a problem that is bipartisan in nature, where the ability to score specific political points with a specific voting bloc in a given state encourages this type of behavior.  As Matthew Yglesias rightly wrote in Newsweek recently, the hold is “archaic, undemocratic, and essentially destructive.”

Shannon’s qualification for the position are unassailable, and he has served both Republican and Democratic administrations.  He has worked extensively in the region, and did a stint in Brazil.  The reason for LeMieux’s opposition:

Mr. LeMieux has chosen to side with critics who feel Mr. Shannon was not tough enough on the Castro regime in Cuba during his stint as the top U.S. diplomat in the region, to which he was appointed by President George W. Bush. He told The Herald’s Washington Bureau that he has heard concerns about the nominee’s record from constituents and fellow members of Congress, including Cuban-American members of the House. “I feel like I have a role and a responsibility far greater than other senators do in terms of anything that deals with Latin America,” he said.

In other words:  the United States is being denied an ambassador to arguably the most important state in the region because he wasn’t mean enough to Cuba.  Given the economic embargo of Cuba and its diplomatic isolation from the US, it is not clear to me what Shannon was supposed to have done, but the bottom line is that a small voting bloc has sufficient sway in Florida to stop a key nomination.

LeMieux’s isn’t the first hold:  Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had a hold in place because Shannon favored dropping the US’ tariff on Brazilian ethanol (the fact that ambassadors cannot unilaterally change US tariffs apparently didn’t figure into the equation).1

The kowtowing to Cuban-Americans in Florida and corn farmers in Iowa underscore how specific institutional features (the disproportionate power of Senate, and individual Senators, the electoral college, and our presidential nomination process) can amplify (to the point of absurdity) very local political issues to the over detriment of the country as a whole.

To wit:  we currently have not ambassador to Brazil because of very parochial interests.  Further, it is clear that given our energy needs that it would make a lot more sense to import cheap Brazilian ethanol rather than tax it out of the marketplace.  However, because the parties have decide to place Iowa on the presidential nomination pedestal of pedestals, corn and corn-based ethanol has a privileged place in US politics that is out of proportion to its real significance.  Likewise, there is little doubt that the perpetuation of a pointless embargo of Cuba is perpetuated, at least in part, because presidential candidates fear alienating the Cuban-American vote in Florida (a vote whose overall significance vis-a-vis the rest of the country is radically amplified by the electoral college).

Certainly if a given Senator believes that a nominee is unqualified, he or she is free to make that case in committee and on the floor. However, this hold business is wholly problematic.

  1. Senator DeMint (R-SC) placed a hold as well–part of his own personal protest of Obama’s Honduras policy. []
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