23 February 2008

Universal health care

One of Senator Clinton's last ditch attempts during the Texas debate to separate herself from Senator Obama, policy-wise, was to draw distinctions between their plans for overhauling the health insurance industry. The New York Times has an excellent article describing how the argument is mostly pointless because the candidates don't describe their plans in enough detail to actually establish what differences they would have in outcome.

Even given fully detailed plans would only go as far as to allow economists and actuaries to model what might happen in each case. This isn't a debate about the ultimate aim of health care reform: both candidates have repeatedly said they favour universal coverage. It's a debate amongst their respective technocrats about how to achieve that goal, and I don't think there's enough data to declare whose plan is better.

Finally there's the issue that neither plan is worth the paper it's written on unless it can be passed by Congress. Where's the debate, therefore, about how to get these laws enacted?

Lie-rockets in flight

Jon Stewart had some amusing commentary on the Rocket's testimony before Congress last week, and I have a question of my own. What kind of weak-ass defense is it to claim that Andy Pettite "misremembered" their conversation about HGH, and that it was Clemens' wife who was juicing? WTF? Sure, that sounds plausible; I comment to my friend that my wife is using HGH and he misunderstands me to be confessing to blatantly cheating? How did he not get hammered more about this? Pettite is the smoking gun for me, because he has no reason to make up a story about Clemens, but has every reason in the world to protect his friend.

22 February 2008

Debate thoughts

I stayed up last night to watch the Clinton-Obama debate online. Overall, I'd say it was close to a draw, perhaps tipping slightly toward Senator Clinton. She seemed more on the ball in the first half, including her opening statement, whereas Senator Obama felt a little flat. She was surprisingly courteous (with the obvious exception of the "change you can Xerox" gaffe), defying the conventional wisdom among the pundits that she was going to come into this thing with guns blazing.

Obama picked it up in the second half, including his mature handling of the plagiarism swipe. One thing I wonder about is why he doesn't cite his impressive legislative record when Clinton tries to label him as inexperienced, or full of hot air. By some relatively even-handed accounts his record in the US Senate is actually more impressive than Clinton's.

Also interesting is the media speculation that this was Hillary's valedictory appearance, or an attempt to go out with class instead of in a blaze of glory. Too soon to tell, but I agree that she was surprisingly mild in her criticism of Obama.

Best comment I saw on the debate, though, came from Slate's politics blog:

Obama looks like a Roman senator. Hillary looks
like a guest star in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

17 February 2008

Progress, and ice cream

Spent a lot of the weekend thesis-writing, and while I haven't been as productive as I hoped, it hasn't been a complete wash either. Just now I took advantage of the proximity of the new G&D's to my house to get a little ice cream pick-me-up. G&D's is the Oxford equivalent of Tosci's: locally owned, creative homemade flavours, hip youngsters behind the counter, and income tax evasion (OK, so the last part isn't true).

Some of you may be crying out that I don't really like ice cream, which is only sort of true: everybody likes ice cream sometimes. Or maybe I'll just do anything to avoid writing my thesis. Plus G&D's gets bonus points for being the rare British business open until midnight every day (including Sunday, bloody Sunday).

15 February 2008


I'm addicted to coverage of the primaries. I can't help myself. Anyway, an observation on some of Senator Clinton's rhetoric. In an attempt to put a the brakes on Obama's momentum, she said in Ohio:

“Speeches don’t put food on the table. Speeches don’t fill
up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that
stack of bills that keeps you up at night. My opponent offers speeches. I offer solutions”

And on winning the New Mexico primary:

"I will hit the ground running on day one to bring about real change."

These are both common themes from Senator Clinton lately, but they're bogus. Obama is a much better public speaker than Clinton, so she tries to turn that advantage into a weakness by implying it means he is a head-in-the-clouds idealist who won't be able to undertake the tedious task of actually governing. But I think this criticism misses the point of the Presidency. Federal government policy matters, but it is (a) not set exclusively by the President and (b) rarely directly solves people's day-to-day problems.

Democrats tend to get too obsessed with minutiae. Some issues (like healthcare) can be transformed on a personal level by new federal legislation, but most (the housing crunch and shifts in the job market due to globalisation, to name two) can't be meaningfully affected by the Whitehouse. The ideal candidate has both speeches and solutions, whereas Senator Clinton portrays herself as a sort of national auto-mechanic.

14 February 2008

Fear, and hope.

The 2008 presidential election might be the perfect storm. There are hints (so far only hints) that the election might be the turning point for the nature of the public discourse in the United States. A large part of this election will likely be a referendum on the Iraq war, but that already happened to a lesser degree in the 2006 mid-terms, and it's an easy position for Democrats to hold right now: the country is overwhelmingly fed up with the war. Opposing the war takes little political courage right now, and indeed I hope that this easy stance will pay off for whoever the Democratic candidate is when people hear John McCain talk about his 100 year war in the Middle East.

There's another issue, however, which is related, but distinct, and
that's the climate of fear that Karl Rove and colleagues have
cultivated in America in order to advance their political agenda. The
opportunity for this perversion of the American political process came
in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This video
of a heartbroken Jon Stewart introducing his first show after the
attacks captures the amazing sentiment of unity at that moment. Toward
the end he is describing the aftermath and he says, "It's light, it's
democracy. We've already won. You can't shut that down." President Bush
and his minions took advantage of that national unity and combined it with fear-mongering to lead the country to war in Iraq.

Over the past six and a half years, now, they've continued to push their agenda on the American people by conjuring the bugbear of terrorism to continue the war, to excuse lamentable foreign policy around the world, and worst of all, to trample upon the very freedoms which the President is sworn to protect. There is actually a debate at the highest levels of our government about whether we should torture prisoners. How have we fallen from being a beacon of hope to the world to being lumped in with medieval dictators? The democratic principles which we cherish so much, and which differentiate us from those who seek to harm us have been sacrificed for foreign and domestic policies which make us less, not more, safe.

Bruce Schneier is an internationally renowned security technologist and author. He often points out that we're presented a choice between security and privacy. But it isn't an either/or proposition: we can defend ourselves from terrorism without spying on American telephone conversations; we can keep our airports and borders safe without banning liquids or harassing visitors to the country. We need to escape this cycle of bad policy motivated by imaginary fears.

The Republican party has so ingrained the sense of fear in the American people that it is very difficult for anyone running for national office to proclaim that these dangers have been exaggerated. Saying that we can protect civil liberties and treat prisoners humanely, and give them fair trials makes a candidate seem "soft". After sweeping the "crabcake" primary, John McCain said:

They will paint a picture of the world in which America's mistakes are
a greater threat to our security than the malevolent intentions of an
enemy that despises us and our ideals...In a time of war, and the terrible sacrifices it entails, the promise of a better future is not always clear.

He, as President Bush did before him, appeals not to the better angels of our nature, but to a fear that we are being assailed from all sides. Another President, in a much darker time, said:

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning,
unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat
into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of
frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the
people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that
you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

And maybe, just maybe, there is hope for that same leadership of frankness and vigor. One candidate dared to say:

It’s a game where the only way for Democrats to look tough on
national security is by talking, and acting and voting like Bush-McCain
Republicans, while our troops are sent to fight tour after tour of duty
in a war that should’ve never been authorized and should’ve never been
waged. That’s what happens when we use 9/11 to scare up votes, and
that’s why we need to do more than end a war – we need to end the
mindset that got us into war.

It's a small step, but an important one towards a President(ial candidate, for now) who is not afraid to tell us that the threat is not as great as some would have us believe, and that we can return to setting the example for how an open, peaceful democracy acts.

Uh oh

Move over will.i.am, nothing says POTUS like a Jackson 5 mash-up:

(Also: who the hell thought "Hmm, cyan on brown, that's a winning colour combination!")

13 February 2008

Campaign finance

Demonstrating that I try to be even-handed:

Hillary Clinton has been criticised several times (including by the eloquent Lessig) of cozying up to special interest groups for money (via PACs and similar). The evidence, however, suggests that none of the candidates get very much of their money from PACs. In Senator Clinton's case it comes to about one percent of her 2007 Presidential campaign funding. Instead, she (and essentially every other candidate) get all of their money from individual donors (with the exception of the Mittster, who blew $35 million of his own dough; should've just put it all on black).

So I don't get it: where's all this evil special interest money that people are talking about? The more interesting data is the sizes of donations to each candidate. Instead of working on my thesis this afternoon, I downloaded the data for 2007 from the FEC and found the following distributions of donation size (money coming from private individuals only):


This shows a substantial difference in the ways in which the two candidates have raised roughly $100M each. A third of Obama's money has come from donors contributing less than $200 each, which means that he has an incredibly broad fundraising base compared to Clinton, who raised nearly two-thirds of her funding from individuals who donated the maximum allowable by law ($2300 per campaign, per year). This is perhaps especially interesting given that she is generally reckoned to appeal to lower- and middle-class voters. The data suggests this not to be the case when it comes to opening pocketbooks, since the sub-$200 are presumably mostly from these groups.

Also of interest is the tendency for people to donate an "even" $500 or $1000 regardless of whom they support.

Anyway, I should probably do some actual work now, although the FEC files are fascinating, and include full records of every donation of more than $200 to every candidate for public office. A man named George Clooney, from LA, for instance, donated the legal maximum of $2300 to "Obama for America" last April.

12 February 2008


I will try to post something other than political activism. Although, at least my newfound Obama passion is generating content.


The Senate voted today, 67-31, against an amendment to the amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. This vote effectively granted immunity to telephone companies (like AT&T) who were complicit in the warrantless wiretapping of US citizens.

Senator Barack Obama aligned with the forces of light, resisting the Bush administration's overwrought fear-mongering and stood for the rights of individual citizens.

Senator John McCain bowed to popular pressure despite previously expressing unwillingness to grant immunity.

Senator Hillary Clinton was one of two members of the Senate who could not be bothered to turn up.


Wow, this is a truly bizarre article about cleaning up the Florida prison system, where apparently:

"People were promoted on the spot after a softball game at the drunken
party to high positions in the department because they were able to hit
a softball out of the park a couple times."

Why I won't vote for Hillary in the general election

I've been wishy-washy about this in recent posts and comments. People get aggravated about the "Hillary haters" and eagerly point out the similarity in the policy platforms between Hillary and Obama. I have decided today, however, that if Hillary is the nominee of the Democratic Party I won't for her in the general election (don't worry, I won't vote for 'Bomb Iran', either).

The thing that bothers me most about the American political during my adult life has been the lack of integrity amongst politicians, exemplified by Karl Rove's destructive attacks on John McCain in 2000 and his swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004. I want my candidate to raise the level of discourse and set a standard for integrity for all of us. Hillary Clinton has consistently shown that she prefers political expediency to integrity, by making misleading statements about Barack Obama's comments on Ronald Reagan, and trying to impugn his strongest policy stance: his unwavering opposition to the war in Iraq (hat tip to Larry Lessig for these examples).

The bridge too far for me, though, is the issue of the Michigan and Florida delegates. On a New Hampshire Public Radio interview in October of last year, Hillary said the following:

"Well, you know, It's clear, this election they [Michiganders] are having is not going to count for anything"

She said this in the context of explaining that she had not taken her name off the Michigan ballot (as Senators Obama and Edwards did) at the behest of the DNC because she was worried that ignoring it would aggravate voters in the general election. In retrospect it is clear that in October she expected to sweep into the nomination, banishing the issue of the MI and FL delegates to the back page of the newspapers, and to gain a bump in those states in the general election because she did not ignore them in the primary. She went against the wishes of her own party (unlike her opponents) as part of a calculation regarding the general election. This by itself is slimy, but not unforgivable; I can appreciate her keeping one eye on the primary and the other on the general election.

Now, of course, she is locked in a delegate battle with Obama, and has quickly changed her tune:

"I think that the people of Michigan and Florida spoke in a very convincing way, that they want their voices and their votes to be heard."

This demonstrates unambiguously to me that political expediency is what matters most to Senator Clinton and her campaign. She won't even be honest about it and just point out that she wants to win; it has to be about having "voices heard", which is downright obscene, given that hers was the only top-tier name on the ballot in Michigan! It reminds me exactly of the anti-democratic, bloodthirsty way in which the 2000 campaign was decided, and it disgusts me.

11 February 2008

Do yourself a favour

And watch this video, courtesy of copyleft attorney and freedom advocate Larry Lessig, about why he is "4Barack":

Enough already

Enough already with the handwringing about Democrats and "identity politics". See, for instance, this New York Times article about how Democratic primary voters have been split demographically between Senators Clinton and Obama. Women vote for Clinton, blacks for Obama. White collar for Obama, blue collar for Clinton. Education vs working class. The list goes on. But the coverage of this phenomenon is overwrought for several reasons:

  1. The only large associations are Clinton-women and Obama-blacks. Obviously these two groups are fired up about the potentially landmark candidate from their respective groups, and well they should be. Both are highly qualified, and there's nothing wrong with supporting your own demographic group.

  2. The other trends are much more subtle. Just compare the popular vote totals to see how incredibly close the results are. Pundits act as if a 55/45 split amongst some particular group signifies a heinously divided party.

  3. Once someone is nominated, everything changes! Does anyone really believe that blacks are going to vote for John McCain over Hillary, or that soccer moms will vote for him over Obama?

10 February 2008


The last interesting event on my calendar before my thesis submission deadline of 28 Feb was a quick hop to Torino, Italy to speak at a workshop and take in some mountain air. I didn't know much about the city going in, but it is a really lovely place. You can totally tell that it was substantially spruced up in preparation for the 2006 Olympics, which makes it feel less run-down than some places I've been to in Italy without losing its Old World charm.

The workshop was on a hill outside the city, and I took this photograph while walking up there after arriving on Thursday morning. The view of the city and the Alps beyond was spectacular that day. That evening our hosts took us out to a dinner with many dishes typical of the Piedmont region, which was, as expected, delicious. I wish I could eat every meal in Italy.

Friday was taken up with the workshop, but I did manage to go back into town with some of other speakers that night, and see a bit of local nightlife. Saturday morning I was up early to head back to England, and my thesis, but it was a nice break.

06 February 2008

Still hoping

I've been getting more and more excited about Barack Obama recently — far more excited than I have ever been about a political candidate before. But in reading coverage of the elections online, there's a lot of anti-Obama sentiment. The most frequent accusation made about him (especially with Senator Clinton incorporating it into nearly everything she says) is that he lacks sufficient "experience". I have two problems with this criticism:

  1. Hillary has only been in the U.S. Senate for one term longer than Barack, and has served less total time in elected office. She's presumably claiming credit for experience as First Lady, which is neither elected, nor granted any particular duties or responsibilities by the Constitution. Her harping on this point actually makes me queasy, as it seems dangerously close to violating the 22nd amendment. Was she co-President? Makes you feel bad for poor Al Gore.

  2. The President of the United States is not just the chief executive, but also the head of state. This is unusual in Western democracies, in that most have a Prime Minister and a separate President (or monarch). For the USA, however, it is crucial that the President not only pushes sensible policy, but also acts as a symbol of the country as a whole. This is a point I've learned the hard way as an expatriate, when people associate all Americans with President Bush. This is also where Obama just blows Hillary out of the water.

    More than any one thing since moving to the UK, supporting Obama makes me proud to be an American. This is a sentiment I've seen on blogs and Op-Eds over and over again, and just thinking it gives me the chills. Surely this trumps nearly any other thing in choosing a President? Policy is important (and I think Obama has sound policy choices). But inspiration isn't just hot air; it's the reason 65 year-olds still remember JFK so fondly.

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be that you read something very similar at Chez MRhé. We even used some of the same phraseology, but I drafted this post before I'd even read his. Take from that what you will.

Finally, Barack's candidacy gives me faith that sometimes the American system does work right. Instead of getting a dunderhead son of a former President we get someone who is the first ever black president of the Harvard Law Review. I got rejected from Harvard Law, so I'm damn glad to be able to support someone who is smarter than I am for President. The downside to feeling this excited is that I'll be absolutely crushed if friggin' Hillary gets the nomination.

05 February 2008