Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sad Day in Pakistani Politics

Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the ISI, has unilaterally decided to withdraw from domestic politics. As the BBC reports, the agency was widely believed to have been heavily involved in the political process over the last several decades in order to "safeguard national security." These benevolent manipulations included funding rival political factions and vetoing potential ministerial and gubernatorial appointments. Without these essential acts of watchfulness, the people might well have elected treasonous leftists who would have gutted the military and capitulated to the country's enemies through "peace agreements."

However, in a commendable display of self-control, the ISI has now decided to retool and focus on its core competencies instead:
A senior security official, requesting anonymity, told the BBC Urdu service on Monday: "The ISI is changing, it wants to keep out of politics and concentrate on counter-intelligence."
...ISI insiders believe the agency's over-indulgence in politics has cost the service the trust of the public.
Public trust being the thing that politicians safeguard most jealously, the agency is once again modeling selfless devotion to the greater good above narrow, parochial interests. Most remarkably, the ISI's withdrawal from domestic politics emphatically disproves the conventional wisdom that those in power do not let go of it voluntarily. Those that despair of the country's future now that the spy agency has recused itself from politicking, should take hope in the fact that the ISI did not actually fire its political wing, merely inactivated the wing's staff. These fine public servants are presumably undergoing major job skills training because they have not yet "been given any new assignments."

The news report did not mention whether the ISI plans to also withdraw from its international politics efforts such as ensuring the Taliban have sufficient support to survive in Afghanistan's young democracy.

Friday, November 21, 2008


In an uncharacteristically far-reaching assessment, the National Intelligence Council warned yesterday that, "...If nuclear weapons are used destructively in the next 15-20 years, the international system will be shocked as it experiences immediate humanitarian, economic, and political-military repercussions." This gloomy prediction came in the context of discussing a potential nuclear arms race in the broader Middle East if Iran were to acquire nukes. The Council aimed its extraordinary remarks at conventional wisdom that believes nuclear weapons could be used so long as they are judiciously aimed at achievable objectives, such as taking out terrorists or excavating large quantities of earth for building swimming pools. The Intelligents warned that nuke use would actually exacerbate the current financial crisis by, for example, reducing tourism to the affected areas, a major economic driver in Middle Earth. Detractors, however, pointed out that the report failed to take into account the numerous benefits associated with nuclear weapons, including a reduction in global warming effects due to the ensuing fallout cloud, and a much-needed elimination of those pesky butterflies that plague much of the earth. Nuclear hawks were tearful on reading the report, bemoaning the Intelligents' "extreme liberal activist tendencies," and warning that this would destroy the immensely profitable global nuclear arms market. "If that happens," they muttered ominously, "we will have no choice but to ask Congress for a bailout." They were also concerned that the report would cause the Iranians to hastily cancel their nuclear plans, but took comfort in the fact that the Iranian censors were unlikely to let their leadership read the study.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where Conservatism Needs to Go

'Tis the season to think aloud about the future of the conservative moment, and most seem to agree that some change is needed, even if what is needed still eludes consensus. But, that hip young conservative thinker, Douthat, puts it well:
This problem is not, repeat not, a matter of conservatives needing to abandon their core convictions in order to win elections, as right-of-center reformers are often accused of doing. Rather, it's a matter of conservatives needing to apply their core convictions to questions like "how do we mitigate the worst effects of climate change?" and "how do we modernize our infrastructure?" and "how do we encourage excellence and competition within our public school bureaucracy?" instead of just letting liberals completely monopolize these debates, while the Right talks about porkbusting and not much else.
Conservatism, to me, is about being prudent, weighing evidence, and worrying about unforeseen consequences before embarking on a course of action. These principles derive from a recognition that human reason is fallible, that "majority think" is not the same as being right, and that rash actions are usually far more dangerous than carefully considered ones. What passes for conservatism now, however, is fossilized sloganeering that simply ignores mounting evidence contrary to long-held beliefs.

On global warming, for example, a healthy skepticism was a reasonable reaction back when scientific evidence in favor of this phenomenon wasn't quite as robust as it is now. Today, many conservatives spend their energies denying that climate change even is, as it were. Therefore, there is no conservative input into the real issue, which is, what, if anything, should we and the government do about it. The left mostly begins from the assumption that, of course, the government ought to step in and fix it, like require lower emissions, create green technologies, etc. If, as Douthat says, conservatives discussed ways of applying their core principles to this issue, they might offer a range of conservative solutions, including market-oriented ideas, that do not automatically assume that government will take charge and fix this thing. So long as conservatives stay in denial-land, all they accomplish is to appear anti-evidence and anti-intellectual. Without conservative participation, we all lose when the only solutions we talk about are what government is going to do about this or that problem.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sure, That Makes Sense

Federal prosecutors in Nebraska attempting to convict a felon for possessing a gun (it's not allowed), had just one problem: the man did not have a firearm.
What attorneys had on their hands was an American double-action revolver that was manufactured between 1880 and 1941.The problem is that federal code states that the weapon is not a firearm unless it was manufactured after 1896. Without a definitive production date, the gun was inadmissible as evidence.
Undeterred by this minor obstacle, they put on their creative thinking hats, doodled ideas on their conference room dry-erase board, voted on their favorite suggestions, and selected the winner: prosecute him for possessing live ammunition. Which worked, natch.

The morose criminal's defense had rested on the entirely plausible claim that some angry pedestrians he narrowly missed running over threw the gun into the back of his car, which was obviously easier for them to do than to shoot him with said not-a-firearm. There being no legal requirement that ammunition be of a certain vintage, the dude now faces 15 years in prison.

ZORG complains that this case demonstrates the problem of criminal laws that are excessively specific. And he raises the point that a functioning revolutionary war-era musket can just as easily kill someone as a modern revolver. (Thought experiment: would the musket's ball and powder be considered ammunition? Also, how exactly would prosecutors convict a dude who kills someone with such a weapon? By proving he "threw" a bunch of tiny pellets, because he couldn't have "shot" them with the not-a-firearm?) My question: does this case not in fact show the larger problem with having multiple laws that can be separately used to prosecute the same crime?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Expanding Cabinets

The current political buzz is all about the horse race, for Obama's cabinet, that is. The biggest question in this age of ever expanding government is who he will appoint as Secretary of Bailouts: Larry "I already did this" Summers? Or, Tim "oh yeah? I'm cuter" Geithner? Or, perhaps, Paul "I was the Oracle before that Greenspan guy" Volcker.

The other biggest question is who will be his Secretary of Two Wars.

Not to forget the biggerer cabinet post of Secretary of That Diplomacy Thing. After all, that person would merely be fourth in line for the presidency.

Then, just as important, you have the most biggest departments of Color Coded Scare Alerts; Lawyer Central; Drill, Baby, Drill; Trains & Planes; and so on ad infinitum.

Which got me thinking...how complicated was this process for earlier presidents, and how many cabinets did their houses have? A little too much free time (and infoplease) and--presto! This nifty little chart (click for full image):Number of Cabinet Members by President

Monday, November 10, 2008

Infinite Power: Active and Well

Lost in the election hullabaloo is the fact that our worthy, wigless wonders have been going about their quiet business of protecting (or, circumscribing, depending on your point of view) our freedoms, unaffected by the rabble's screams in favor of this most-incredibly-wonderful candidate or the other. The most supreme arbiters are considering such matters as whether a failure to report to prison counts as a violent crime, or whether a prohibition against granting asylum to individuals that themselves were engaged in persecution applies to those who were forced to do so. No less important is one question, currently in Circuit Court, but inexorably moving up the food chain: simply put, should our government be able to hold someone indefinitely?

The case centers around 17 Chinese Muslims being held at Guantanamo despite the fact that they are no longer considered enemies. Our compassionate government, concerned for their well-being, has refused to deport them to China because of the persecution their community has faced there. At the same time, showing a nimbleness that belies its girth, the government refuses to release them into the U.S. mainland because, wearing its anti-illegal immigration hat, it claims the plenary authority to "exclude" aliens who reach our shores. Under the wide brim of this second hat, the powers-that-be elegantly claim, "even if the detention is indefinite, it is still lawful."

Rejecting the involuntary guests' claim that the gracious host has given up on trying to find a country that will accept them, the owner of the five-star Guantanamo hotel says it '"is actively continuing its efforts to resettle" them, and that negotiations "are ongoing."'

Given that beautiful piece of bureaucratese, it is worth recalling Private Secretary Bernard Woolley's explanation of the difference between "under consideration" and "under active consideration" to the Right Hon. Jim Hacker in Yes Minister: "Well, under consideration means we've lost the file, under active consideration means we're trying to find it."

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Picks Rambo For Chief-of-Staff

In a stunning departure from his campaign message of hope and unity, President-elect Barack Obama tapped macho movie star, Sylvester Stallone to be his right-hand man in his new administration. Stallone, who starred in the hugely popular Rambo movies, is known for his bare-knuckled, take-no-prisoners, testosterone-fueled approach to solving conflicts, preferring to use dynamite and knives as his primary tools of persuasion. He is expected to bring his unique style to implementing the new President's agenda on Capitol Hill.

Senior Obama advisors could barely contain their shock when they heard the sudden news. "Why Stallone?" wondered one high-ranking aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He has zero legislative experience, beyond testifying on the Hill about his steroid use. What could Obama have possibly seen in him?"

Another operative was equally bitter: "It's clear that Obama just wanted some prominent biceps in the White House. But, why not go for someone with a lot more political experience, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger? Obviously, we didn't know Obama as well as we thought we did."

But, some in the new administration enthusiastically praised the pick. Vice President-elect Joe Biden: "Let me tell you something. Sly Stallone is going to totally revolutionize the way we do things around here. There will be no more excuses for not getting things done. Let me say that again: No. More. Excuses. If Sly hears any whining, pffttt. Off with their heads."

On the Republican side, fear was palpable. "I can't believe the new President is going to be so mean," said one prominent lawmaker tearfully. "We were prepared to give him our utmost cooperation during the initial 1 month honeymoon, but now he is clearly going to break our arms any time we don't go along with what he wants." Several others planned on resigning immediately, rather than risk their lives in dealing with what promises to be a highly confrontational presidency.

Stallone, or, Rambo, as he prefers to be called, spoke at a press conference following the announcement, but was mostly unintelligible.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

November 5th - The Morning After

My take on some reactions out there regarding last night's events (there was an election...):
Yes! We won! Finally! (overwhelming majority, er, 52% of Americans)

Oh crap! What did we get ourselves into? (47% of pop.)

Hmmm...the world is still in one piece...in a manner of speaking...You mean to say that the four horsemen didn't come after all? (paranoid righties)

Oh crap! What did we get ourselves into? (smart lefties)

No fair...how do we keep hating America if you do things like this? (Euro kill-joys)

It doesn't matter who you put up there, we'll still hate you. (Most of the mid-east)

This is the end of history. No more progress is possible. (elite liberals)

Oh crap! What did we get ourselves into? (out-of-work bloggers)

I don't care! Gimme back my TV shows! (Joe the Consumer)

This sucks. I'm moving to real America. (elite east coast conservatives)

I'm glad I don't have to move to Canada after all. (Jane the Latte Sipper)

We won't tell him about the leaks in the White House master bathroom. (GWB)

What's going on? How can they "project" the winner before counting any votes? (my wife)

Today we are all Obamas. (Kenyans)

Back to obscurity. (Saturday Night Live)

Back to obscurity. (CNN)

At least we can play the part of the "constructive" opposition. (Rupert Murdoch - Fox News)

But...but...but...capitalism is a fundamental right! (Rupert Murdoch - Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Great American Voting Project

is underway and I participated in it. Got to my polling place in N. Virginia by 5:30 this morning, sleep lines and all, only to see 75 people already waiting in line, gabbing excitedly as if this election were important. Ran into a few friends and neighbors, did the obligatory small talk with some strangers, calculated the profit potential of a coffee & bagel cart (if only I had had the foresight to exploit this historic moment...alas), and thanked my stars (meaning, of course, my wife) for having the wisdom to show up early. By the time the doors opened at 6, the line had occupied a city block.

Inside, a helpful lady explained how to work the electronic voting machine (no paper trail, natch), and brightly encouraged us to simply trust that the technology would work just fine. Fortified by this knowledge, I waited in yet another line for the privilege of announcing to the poll worker that I (full name), of (full address), born in (city, state, and birth weight), late of (previous address), and being of sound mind (evidenced by having woken up this early) and body (proven by having stood in line), unencumbered by knowledge of the candidates' views was ready to exercise my constitutional obligation and cast the tie-breaking and crucial vote that would decide the election.

And so, after fiddling with the necessary dials, I did. And I have the "I Voted" sticker to prove it.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

What Voting Means to Me

Just two blessed days until America votes, bringing a merciful end to the two-year-long competition for the right to inherit all these problems. Or so we hope, fervently wishing that we have a final result on Tuesday and not have it dragged out through multiple overtimes. Our anxiety over the outcome of this election unfortunately overshadows the best part of all: the actual ritual of voting. On this day, millions will walk into their nearest polling place, stand in a miserably long line, chat with friends and strangers nearby, cast their vote, and retreat to their individual routines. And, I never cease to marvel at the spectacle.

Much has been written around the world about the importance of voting, the meaning of suffrage, the duties of citizenship, and there is nothing I can add to that body of work. These are just some of my favorite nuggets and images about voting that stir my heart. The actual elections may not always work well, or fairly, leaders may disappoint, but I still believe the right to vote is a special thing. So, please, please, vote. If you don't care about any candidate, write someone else's name in. Just vote. It's a beautiful thing to do.

Daughter of Slave Votes For Obama:
Amanda Jones, 109, the daughter of a man born into slavery, has lived a life long enough to touch three centuries. And after voting consistently as a Democrat for 70 years, she has voted early for the country's first black presidential nominee.

Amanda Jones' father urged her to exercise her right to vote, despite discriminatory practices at the polls and poll taxes meant to keep black and poor people from voting. Those practices were outlawed for federal elections with the 24th Amendment in 1964, but not for state and local races in Texas until 1966.

She is too weak to go the polls, so two of her 10 children — Eloise Baker, 75, and Joyce Jones — helped her fill out a mail-in ballot for Barack Obama, Baker said.

Iraqis Defy Threats as Millions Vote (2005):
Lines that began small at polling stations grew during the 10 hours of voting, sometimes dramatically. After casting ballots, many Iraqis triumphantly pointed their index fingers, stained with the purple ink that indicated they had voted, and hardly flinched at gunfire and explosions that interrupted the day.

Across town, three Iraqi soldiers carried an elderly man in a wheelchair two blocks to a voting booth.

The Great Indian Poll Show (2004):

More than 350 million Indians have braved intense heat, pouring rain and snow to take part in the largest democratic exercise in the world.

Voting in the world's largest democracy has its own idiosyncrasies. Poll officials travelled by yak and elephants to reach remote polling stations high up in the mountains, some of which only had a few hundred registered voters. Others trekked for three days or were dropped off by helicopter.

"Faces Filled with Joy": The 1994 South African Election

When eight white policemen burst into the polling place at Eshowe Town Hall, the fears and suspicion that had plagued the buildup to the election were suddenly manifest again. I felt the general panic. What was wrong? What had we failed to observe? And then I laughed out loud as the officers disarmed and stood in line to cast their ballots.

The people came; the ballot boxes filled and were sealed with sealing wax. They switched to collecting ballots in mail bags. The people came, and the people in the great majority put Mandela in the box.

Liberia (2005)
On 11 October, voters began queuing as early as 2 a.m. to cast their ballots at polling stations set up in churches, schools, dilapidated public buildings and even tents and rural huts. Some carried benches to sit on and umbrellas to shield themselves from rain and sun. Queues spilled out of the voting precincts winding through streets. More than 3,500 national and 421 international observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter, who monitored Liberia’s first postwar elections, endorsed the exercise as free and fair.

Pennsylvania Reality Check

Horse race junkies are hyperventilating about the importance of Pennsylvania to the candidates' chances on Tuesday. In particular, some polls there have shown a 4 point lead for Obama compared to the double-digit lead that most other polls have shown. This has naturally led to cautious optimism among Republicans and anguished bed-wetting among some Democrats. There is broad consensus that McCain absolutely needs to turn Pennsylvania red for him to have any chance of winning the election; this is a state that has been one of the reliably blue states for a while (both Kerry and Gore won here).

Not to extinguish such entertaining anxiety on both sides, but, it may be worthwhile to compare current polls with those from 2004 when John Kerry carried the state by 2 points. First, the current polling trend from Real Clear Politics, where the spread of the averages for the week leading up to the election is 8.5 points:

Now, from 2004, my compilation of RCP data from September through November:

Not too difficult to spot the amateur graphic, right? However, I tried to use the same scale on the left, so the comparison should be clear: there is none. Kerry's highest lead during the period was never more than 4 or 5 points, and in some polls he was down by as many as 4 points to Bush (RCP average for the final week before the election was Kerry leading by 0.9 points!). Yet, the final result (the yellow tick mark above) of a 2 point victory was pretty much in line with the polls. Obama, by contrast, has averaged nearly a 10 point lead, and has not even trailed in a single poll since April!

Yes, anything is possible, there are worries about a Bradley Effect, etc. But, I would just like to say the obvious: if Obama loses Pennsylvania, he will have lost in a landslide to McCain, not in a squeaker. Also, I would expect much wailing and gnashing of the teeth among pollsters for years and decades afterward to figure out what the heck happened. This would be a cataclysmic event in the science of polling, falling into the "damn lies" category of how Benjamin Disraeli described statistics.

But, please, keep the anxiety going. It is very entertaining.