November 30, 2004

Is VH-1 Fascinating, Or Am I Just Ill?

I played in a volleyball tournament Saturday and Sunday (second place, thanks for asking). I usually feel a bit run down after a big tournament, so when I plopped down on the couch after work I didn't think anything was wrong. I went shopping for food, ate some mushroom-cheese soup and then watched 4 hours of TV on VH-1. I'm really bad at setting the scene, but you should realize that my weekly TV viewing habit runs about 1 hour per week. Today I watched an hour of "inspired by Pink" "Flab to Fab" where they took 3 women and put them through 90 days of a personal training program with a chef and a stylist and the end. I bet I could look even hotter with 3 months of personal training. I was impressed by how the Asian personal trainer really got into the psyches of the trainees.

Next two hours of the top 100 video cliches. It was hilarious. They had categories like "slow-motion hair toss", "underwater", "swan to sexpot", "fire", "robots", "black chorus" and "little people". They showed some of the best videos using each cliche. I didn't realize that Total Eclipse of the Heart had so many cliches packed into one video.

Then right when I was going to turn off the TV there was a fascinating hidden camera show about people singing in their car. This one 50-something lady was great.

Hmmm, I'm tired from volleyball, my roommate has the flu, and I just thought almost 4 hours of VH-1 was fascinating. Did VH-1 suddenly get great shows, or am I getting sick?

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 12:45 AM | Comments (618) | TrackBack

November 24, 2004

More on the Ukraine

Bush's policy team took the proper stance on the Ukraine election despite the fact that stance put it in opposition to Russia's Putin--a man whose help Bush is likely to need in the future:

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday the United States cannot accept the results of elections in Ukraine, which the opposition says was marred by fraud.

Powell warned "there will be consequences" for the United States' relationship with Ukraine as a result of the developments in the former Soviet bloc nation.

Powell spoke shortly after election officials in Ukraine declared that Kremlin-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych won the election over opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The announcement raised fears of violence in Kiev, where tens of thousands of demonstrators have been demanding that the results be overturned.

"We cannot accept this result as legitimate because it does not meet international standards" and allegations of fraud hadn't been investigated, Powell said at a news conference.

Powell said he spoke with outgoing Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma and urged that his government not crack down on demonstrators. He also spoke with other regional leaders, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Powell did not elaborate about his conversation with Lavrov, but said he advocated a solution to the crisis in Ukraine that is "based on the law, using legal procedures."

The State Department confirmed Tuesday that it had summoned the Russian ambassador and discussed Ukraine. The Kremlin described the meeting as "unprecedented interference" in another country's affairs.

The Ukraine is in the middle of a very important election. It is trying to successfully transition from the horrible Soviet model of pseudo-elections to establish a democratic tradition. It is appropriate, especially in view of Bush's democracy rhetoric, for the US to support a very careful review of the election rather than go along with more short-term interests by siding with Putin's favorite. If any country can positively effect the outcome (which is by no means certain) the US is that country.

Note to commentors. Please don't reveal your inability to make useful distinctions about 'fraud' by blithely comparing the election to the US election. If you absolutely must insist on turning this into further Bush-bashing please have solid arguments.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 03:07 PM | Comments (1051) | TrackBack

November 22, 2004

Eagle Platform

One of my on-line acquaintances is developing what he calls the "Eagle Platform": a political platform which is not closely tied to either current political party in US politics, though it draws from a slightly conservative and more strongly libertarian bent. It provides an excellent starting point for useful political conversation and can be found here at the website of DerekJames.

Since I haven't received permission to reproduce in toto, I will just comment on two aspects of it.

The abortion and death penalty statements are not directly in line with my personal moral intuitions, but represent an excellent compromise--especially if taken together:

Abortion

We recognize the inherent rights of a woman to make decisions about her own body, while acknowledging that personhood is contingent upon an individual's level of development. As a pregnancy progresses, an increasing amount of rights should be conferred to the developing child, and accordingly balanced against the rights of the mother. We agree with the wisdom of the Roe v. Wade decision, in allowing women unrestricted abortion rights in the first trimester, allowing states to limit those rights at their discretion in the second trimester, and allowing states to completely ban the practice, if they choose, in the third trimester.

Death Penalty

While the death penalty might be just in principle, for any civilized society, it is impractical. For the state to put a citizen to death, the burden of proof of their guilt must be far beyond the normal threshold for reasonable doubt, facilitating multiple appeals and a prolonged process that in itself could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. We therefore find it reasonable and humane to eliminate the use of the death penalty at the federal level as well as prohibiting states from using it.

I would avoid officially ratifying the trimester system, because I expect that as technology improves it will be possible to support babies outside the womb at some point earlier than the beginning of the third trimester. I don't see any reason why a woman should have an unlimited right to abort when she can remove the child from her body and let it live. These two concepts might be interesting in tandem, because they represent two sides of a raging debate that often go hand in hand. I would have no trouble giving up the death penalty as part of a compromise to allow full protection for viable fetuses.

The drug legalization proposal is likely to be very controversial, but I think it strikes the proper tone for further debate:

Drugs

We feel that the criminalization of drugs has been a costly, wasteful, and unneccesary distraction. Recreational drugs, if regulated by the FDA, and sold under restricted conditions, would lead to less crime, less abuse, and would contribute an additional source of tax revenue.

I am conflicted about drug legalization. I have seen drug use destroy the lives of many people around me, so I am not at all indifferent to the costs of its use. But there are costs to criminalization as well, and they are under-appreciated. There is a black-market cost. Criminalizing common drugs feeds the creation of gangs and gang-warfare. Both have contributed greatly to the destruction of many of our inner-cities. Fighting those gangs and the enforcing the criminalization of drugs has led to more erosion of our civil rights than the Patriot Act ever did. Because drugs are easily hidden and greatly in demand, police have pioneered ever-intrusive search and detection techniques, and the perversion of police-forfeiture without criminal level review has gotten out of control. Furthermore the criminalization of certain organic drugs (grown elsewhere) has led to common use of far more dangerous synthetic drugs. This can be seen in the popularization of crystal-meth which can be produced at great risk in a bathtub over cocaine (a bad drug but not nearly as horrific in its effects) which is grown outside of the country and imported. Furthermore the drug trade is currently paying for terrorism, which we certainly can't like. Drug abuse is bad, but it is possible (as with the Prohibition) that criminalization is worse. Certainly we could legalize some of the currently prohibited drugs without the world coming to an end.

Anyway, I find the Eagle Party platform very interesting. Future of the Republican Party? Maybe we should discuss some of it.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 07:51 AM | Comments (410) | TrackBack

November 16, 2004

Nuclear Iran... Again

Iran is playing rope-a-dope with the Europeans again. They recently sort of agreed to an enrichment freeze as the US threatens to submit the issue to the Security Council (BTW, what kind of pathetic threat is that?) It seems to me that the proposed nuclear deal is an exact replay of the Agreed Framework which gave North Korea time to get nuclear weapons. Presuming that a fact-based community would be interested in learning from previous mistakes, how do we design an agreement that isn't just marking time while Iran gets nuclear weapons? What should we do the first time Iran blocks inspections? The second time?

Foreign Dispatches has a good post outlining the problem.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 12:25 AM | Comments (451) | TrackBack

November 15, 2004

Democrats and Foreign Policy

I know this seems like an unusually dead horse to bother beating, but American foreign policy would be best served by having two parties both strong on national security so we can adequately debate the best course forward on the large number of serious international issues which are before us. On that note, Matthew Yglesias has an excellent post which reminds me of why I like reading him.

You should read the whole thing. But here is the quote I find most interesting:

One common response to my suggestion that if Democrats want to do better with the politics of national security liberals need to think more about the substance of national security as been the "Billy did it too!" defense. This takes note of the fact that the GOP does well on the politics of national security without offering much in the way of policy proposals (what, for example, was it exactly that Bush committed himself to doing in his second term?) so the Democrats don't need to either. That's fair enough, but it's also irrelevant. Democrats need to recognize that the two main brands in American politics are assymetrically situated with regard to national security policy. The Republican brand has been built up over a series of decades, while the Democratic brand was dragged through the mud by the events of 1968-1972. The Carter administration further weakened the brand. The Clinton administration did much to improve the Democratic brand in some other areas, but had little impact on public perceptions of national security.

When, like the GOP, you have a strong brand, you can run a candidate like George W. Bush in 2000 who's obviously very weak personally on national security and still win the "world affairs" vote.

If you want, you can choose to interpret this purely as a marketing advantage for the Republicans. But if you look at it that way, you are missing the key part of Matthew's metaphor. The Democrats have acquired a weak brand in foreign policy because they have allowed themselves to be tightly associated with elements that much of the American public strongly dislikes. The post-Vietnam Democratic Party has associated with and promoted elements with a strong pacifistic bent. With respect to the clear danger of the Soviet Empire, much of the Democratic Party took an extremely passive posture--effectively declaring that the US ought not fight against the violent spread of Communism in the third world except with useless paper treaties which the USSR could ignore because it knew that the US would not fight back. This strategy might have worked except for the fact that the USSR was willing to fund and equip violent revolutions all over the world.

The incredibly angry reaction of the Democratic Party to Reagan's foreign policy reinforced all of these associations. But it was such a success that many in the Democratic Party attempt to pretend that many of his key insights were obvious to everyone at the time--especially the concept that the USSR was so brittle as to be susceptible economic crisis with a strong push.

This association with accomodation has been going on for at least 40 years. It isn't so much that paper-based foreign policy is completely ascendant in the Democratic Party as it is that even more realistic members of the party have to appease that wing because it has become such a strong part of the coalition.

In the 1990s, the Democratic Party appeared to give up on foreign policy and play up its stronger brand in domestic issues. This worked as long as everything seemed safe, but in retrospect it was the time when many of our enemies gathered strength and resources. In the 1990s most Democrats focused on their strengths. As a result, there is a political generation where Democrats missed out on studying and becoming immersed in foreign policy. If you wanted to be a highly successful Democrat you didn't need to study foreign policy, you needed to be involved in domestic issues. As a result many of the younger Democrats in Congress are not knowledgable on foreign policy, while many of the older Democrats in Congress are those who helped cause the 'weak on foreign policy' brand in the first place.

Democrats can of course hope that Bush defeats Islamist terrorism so decisively that domestic policy becomes the most important thing again. But it would be far better if they worked hard at foreign policy successes so that they can reform the brand identification. It may seem counterproductive to help Bush become successful, but it would allow you to A) make things better and B) defeat the idea that the Democratic Party can't be trusted with foreign policy.

On that note, see my post above.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 11:13 PM | Comments (634) | TrackBack

November 09, 2004

Misleading Polls

The meme suggesting that Bush won largely on the strength of anti-gay backlash seems to be undergoing a rather thorough debunking. See for example Kevin Drum, Andrew Sullivan, Slate, and David Brooks (NYT Nov. 6).

Andrew puts it most succinctly:

The percentage of people who said in 2004 that their vote was determined by the issue of "moral values" was 22 percent. In 1992, if you add the issues of abortion and family values together, that percentage was 27 percent. In 1996, it was 49 percent. In 2000, it was 49 percent. So the domestic moral focus halved in 2004. Obviously, the war took precedence, especially if you combine the categories of the Iraq war and the war on terrorism more generally. Again: the Republicans should be wary of over-playing their hand. If they believe the entire country is the religious right, the backlash could begin very soon.

I'm not going to try to wade in further. My initial intuition is that the gay issue may have played a slight role in the election, and that in this election every slight role could be looked at as decisive.

Instead I want to talk about my problems with polls. This may become a quarterly project, but I really want to convey that people put far too much stock in polls.

Lots of polls play into our own preconceptions. For instance look at the poll which asks "Generally speaking, would you say things in this country are heading in the right direction, or are they off on the wrong track?" According to this poll, lots of people, for quite some time, believe that the country is heading on the wrong track. You might look at a poll like that and think: "I believe that the country is on the wrong track, apparently lots of people agree with me." You would almost certainly be wrong if by 'people agree with me' you mean that people have the same reasons for thinking that the country is on the wrong track.

Suppose you think the country is on the wrong track because of our invasion of Iraq. There are some number of people who think we ought to have nuked Iraq. They probably think our invasion put us on the wrong track. Do you agree with them? Some people think that we should never go to war. They think that any war puts us on the wrong track. Do you agree with them. Some people think we should have used quite a bit more force and not worry much about civilian casualties. They probably think we have gone on the wrong track in Iraq. Do you agree with them? My point is that we assume that if people respond to poll questions like that as we would have, that they shared our reasoning. That almost certainly isn't true. My examples show that you could believe a number of wholly contradictory things about Iraq and conclude that our conduct put the US on the 'wrong track'.

Furthermore, you have to realize that huge numbers of people might not agree with Iraq as being an important factor in their 'wrong track' analysis. Maybe lots of people think we are going on the wrong track because states are resisting gay marriage. Maybe even more think that we are on the wrong track because we are even considering gay marriage. A couple of people may think we are on the wrong track because we aren't listening to the messages from Mars carefully enough.

Such problems are enormous in the relatively straight-forward 'wrong track' arena. But ask if 'moral values' are important in an election, and the range of possible reasons for saying "yes" is even more vast. If someone said "yes" were they talking about homosexuality, honesty, steadfastness, resolve, abortion, or some other topic which they personally found important? We don't know. And making assumptions about it because most of the ones who answered "yes" voted for Bush isn't sound analysis.

So when analyzing polls, it is important to remember that matching conclusions might not mean matching reasoning, and that ambiguous terms might not have been interpreted by the answerer in the same way as you would interpret them (or in the same way as the questioner meant for it to be interpreted.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 12:30 AM | Comments (506) | TrackBack

November 08, 2004

Israel

With the election out of the way, some parts of the blogosphere that I could hardly bear to read are becoming interesting again. There is an interesting post over at Crooked Timber where Henry Farrell asks why it is so difficult to have even remotely rational discussions on the subject of Israel.

Matthew Yglesias raises an interesting point:

At the end of the day, whether Israel ought to start removing far-flung settlements first or whether the Palestinians ought to start disarming militia/terrorist groups first is not really the grandest clash of principles one can imagine. But people on the pro-Israel side think the Palestinians are lying about their ostensible position and really seek the destruction of Israel. People on the anti-Israel side think the Israelis are lying about their ostenisble position and really seek the destuction of Palestine. Both sides can marshall some non-trivial evidence for their point of view.

But it’s impossible to have a reasoned debate if you’re not willing to accept that the people on the other side really mean what they say they mean. The rules of the “civil discussion” game simply require that you take your opponent to be arguing in good faith and not acting as a screen for some other nefarious agenda.

In response to both that and the main post, I wrote:

This is an interesting problem, because it is not a physical impossibility for someone to actually have a position which is a screen for some other nefarious agenda. Once you get to the point where you can credibly suggest that the other side is just engaging in propaganda instead of real peace talks, it isn’t obvious that you shouldn’t point that out. Israel believesthat it got there with the Palestinians either two years after Oslo, or after the rejection of the Clinton proposals. Palestinians think they got there after Oslo and the things that they contest forced them to engage in the first intifada (especially the settlements).

Once the debate has broken down to that extent, the question is: what can you do (short of genocide on one side or the other) to bring it back?

My guess is that (whichever side you are on) you have to climb down from your own hugely divisive tactic AND do so at such a time where the other side does not or cannot immediately respond by increasing the potency of their hugely divisive tactic (which makes you look like a fool and contributes to the idea that the other side is really just proceeding after their nefarious agenda.)

In the spirit of Henry's original post, I think it would be interesting to think about why it is so difficult to even have a discussion about solving the problem between the Israelis and the Palestinians (much less actually solving the problem).

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 12:47 AM | Comments (778) | TrackBack

Theo Van Gogh Assasination

I'm not sure if you have heard of the Theo Van Gogh assasination in Holland. But if you haven't, Wretchard, Bjørn Stærk, and Andrew Sullivan all have interesting things to say about it.

The most eerie thing I found was this from the Belmont Club:

The murder caused widespread popular anger, yet political correctness forced much of the public reaction into unconventional channels. The Mayor of Rotterdam Ivo Opstelten had a mural with the words "Thou Shalt Not Kill" removed in the aftermath of the Gogh murder because it might inflame Muslims. Gogh's film "Submission", which offended his murderers in the first place, was pulled from the Stedelijk Museum of modern art because it might cause an "uproar"; the same film was yanked off Rotterdam TV West for fear it would endanger their employees.

Something tickles the back of my head wanting to draw a parallel between this assasination and the assasination of Pim Fortuyn. The parallel isn't just that both took place in Holland or that both have a mild whiff of "blame the victim" in some of the discussions about it. There is something tickling around but I can't quite articulate the thought. In any case, it is somewhat frightening that a nation as small as Holland should have two such murders in the course of two years.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 12:33 AM | Comments (365) | TrackBack

November 05, 2004

Arafat Dies

I'm sure you all know by now that Arafat has died. I won't pretend to mourn because I think that the Palestinians would have been much better off both materially and spiritually if he had not been their leader for my entire lifetime. But with his passing, I think there may finally be some chance to make progress in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Andrew Sullivan comes in with what may be the conventional wisdom on the topic:

If a less noxious Palestinian leader emerges, will Bush use the shift to become more engaged in the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a means to encourage the U.N. or other European leaders to play a more conciliatory role in Iraq? Will he tilt against Sharon? Again I doubt it very much. The great mystery now is whether this president will use a second term to moderate somewhat or to forge ahead to the right. My bet is on the latter.

I'll assume that a less noxious Palestinian leader emerges, though that isn't a given by any means. It would certainly be wise for the US to use leverage on the conflict to convince Europe to play along in the rest of the Middle East. As for tilting against Sharon, that might have been necessary for the Sharon who was elected immediately after Arafat started up the second intifada. But I'm not sure a huge tilt is needed now. Sharon has unilaterally acted to begin removing the settlements which are claimed to be the worst irritant. He has created a wall which many Palestinians hate, but which has had the effect of dramatically reducing the number of Israeli's killed by suicide bombers. This is giving Israel the breathing room to think about settlement again. That wouldn't be possible if Sharon hadn't been able to dramatically reduce the killing of his people.

The Palestinians may have their best opportunity in a generation sometime in the next year or two. Let us hope that they don't live up to the description of Palestinians as a people who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 12:53 AM | Comments (672) | TrackBack

November 04, 2004

Responsibility

Now that Bush has won reelection, Republicans have secured general legislative control for an additional two years, and knowing Congressional turnover probably four unless they screw up horribly.

Republicans, you need to learn a lesson that every ruling party must keep in mind if they want to avoid becoming an ossified wreck. You did not come to power for its own sake, nor ought your main job be to continue that power. You came to power to do things, and now that Republicans have been the majority party in the federal government for some time, you have a responsibility for how governmental processes turn out. I'm not going to tackle each of these areas comprehensively, but they are areas which need to see significant progress if Republican voters are going to bother keeping you in power.

1. Military Spending. We do need advanced weapons, but most importantly we need advanced soldiers. Despite scare tactics from the left, we could easily build up to Cold War levels without even considering the draft. We probably don't need to go more than half way there. But that requires authorization, which is to say money. Defence of the country is one of the federal government's prime responsibilities. Treat it that way.

2. Social Security. We need to take substantive steps to get that spending under control. The sooner we do it, the better. I favor means-testing, because I think having the large majority of the payments going to the rich and middle class is stupid for a system which is defended as a safety-net. But that terminology has become poisoned, so you will probably have to call it something else.

3. Free Trade. It has excellent pay-offs, but you can't make lots of little exceptions because they tend to swallow the rule. Stick to it.

4. Education. Its good for the country and in a somewhat surprising alignment, one of the issues that makes it look like you care.

5. Abortion. Most of the US is not NARAL. If you pass fair late-term laws which allow for verifiable medical exceptions, the electorate is not going to punish for it. If you go crazy, well they probably will punish you. But most people really aren't comfortable with late term abortions. Roe theoretically says that they can be banned in certain ways. You can act in that zone.

6. Tax simplification.

7. The deficit. We can grow our way out of some of it, but not all of it. Programs are going to have to be cut, or taxes raised. You make the call, you are responsible for it. I suggest you find ways to trim the budget. I also suggest that farm subsidies are the first to go. Best do it soon though, I don't want to hear whining about the 2006 elections yet.

You can dodge responsibility and maybe even fool people about it. But it isn't good for the country. So do your jobs.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 07:41 AM | Comments (395) | TrackBack

November 03, 2004

Arghh!

Well it appears that my hope for a clean victory by one party or the other may be dashed in Ohio. It is now midnight Pacific Time and in my opinion Ohio is too close to call. Which leads directly to my next topic. FoxNews and NBC should not have called Ohio--it is just too close there and it is clearly the last decisive state. It has put both networks in the ridiculous position of being afraid to call Nevada or New Mexico for Bush even though it far clearer that Bush won in those two states than it is in Ohio. At least some of the networks seem to have learned their lesson from Florida.

I also want to cast scorn on those who were peddling the early exit polls--yes that is you Slate and Drudge. Not noticing that the early exit polls dramatically oversampled women is an unforgiveable and unusually simple mistake which ought not have led to breathless and unfounded speculation of a Kerry landslide.

I also note that the Nader blaming has begun.

So, I'm still hoping to wake up to a clear winner, but I think that is unlikely. Can we talk about an efficient method of casting, verifying and counting ballots soon?

UPDATE: According to CSPAN, 101% of the precincts in New Mexico are reporting, but they still can't call the state for anyone. WTF? I'll presume that has something to do with Indian reservations? (And my paranoid side suggests that it has to do with vote manufacturing, but I'm telling it to shut up and go to sleep.)

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 12:16 AM | Comments (424) | TrackBack

November 02, 2004

Election Day

It is election day, and I've already voted. My main hope for election day is that we have a clear winner by the end of the day. I think we have a robust system, but it doesn't need the shock of two problem elections in a row. We need to have some level of trust in the system or it can't work.

In mildly related news, why in the world can't we have a good system for making sure that only eligible people vote, and that they only vote once? In this era of instant debit cards and such--I'm certain we could come up with something. My suspicion is that both parties somehow believe that they are the ones getting more out of voter fraud, since neither seems to want to make a secure system. It would be nice to be proven wrong on that point.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at 12:22 PM | Comments (387) | TrackBack