Saturday, July 31, 2010

T.J. and the Burr

Did we almost fall under the clutches of a fascist dictatorship under the jackbooted heel of Kommandant Bush? Are we tumbling aimlessly towards a godless communist state under Comrade Obama? Most of us would take such statements as needless hyperbole, and they are. But--to be fair--this is nothing new. 

I just finished reading A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward Larson, which details the presidential election of 1800. The book itself is an interesting if a standard retelling of that election, which forged many of our post-Revolution personalities and exposed some of the flaws of the electoral system designed by the creators of the Constitution. It also deals a lot with the electoral college, which, if you follow my blog, you know works as a natural aphrodisiac.

The one thing this book did was reinforce my opinion that, well, from a political civility standpoint, things aren't so bad at the moment.

We have this idealized notion that back in the day elections were carried out by enlightened philosophers debating political points like lawyers and statesmen. Which in some cases is true, but (believe it or not) is also true today. But the name-calling style-over-substance portents of doom electioneering tactics existed throughout our history, and I would argue it was even worse back then.

A few points:
  • Washington's funeral was, in some states, a highly politicized event, so much so that sitting congressmen didn't attend their state's memorial service to the man who founded the country.
  • The equivalent of the Religious Right was loud, vocal, and routinely used pulpits as election rallies.
  • The partisan press was in full force, mostly because there was no other option.
  • John Adams was more or less called a monarchist (read: jackbooted fascist) for the tiniest meaningless gestures
  • Thomas Jefferson was routinely portrayed as an atheist libertine who would make America a servant state of anarchist France and drive around in a carriage shuttering churches.
 I am not going to let America be a vassal state of France, I'm not running around ripping Bibles out of the hands of widows, heck, I'm not even diddling the maid! Maids get paid.

The press, in particular, was quite hostile. The notion of having an independent press is reasonably new--up until about seventy years ago, newspapers were shamelessly partisan in their editorial as well as their standard reporting. Today's charges of media bias are tame compared to what was the norm back then.

Historians have also instilled this notion that presidential candidates refused to actually hit the campaign trail, since this was seen as self-serving and beneath the respect of the office. And yet here is Adams, taking a tour through the swing states and giving speeches.(True, this notion of being above the fray was the rule, not the exception, but it's not that it was a scandal.)

Of course, the role of Burr in this entire mess demonstrates that Politics As Usual existed back then when the country was nary two decades old. Burr more or less got the vice presidential slot because he delivered New York for the Republicans. And he more or less did this by scaring immigrants against Adams and strongarming the locals. In return, he got the vice presidency when he was only in his late 30's. He was the hard-nosed, scruffy, votes-at-all-costs politico we look at today and sneer. (Granted, it's not like Burr's reputation is suffering as this consequence--shooting ex-Treasury Secretaries tends to put a damper on your place in history.)

Vote for me or I will cut you open, bitch.

Even normalizing for the civil war--historians generally agree that many were the victim of name-calling during that terrible conflict--plenty of, shall we say, lapses in decorum occurred on a fairly regular basis.

 I hereby declare in my capacity in the presidency of the Confederate States of America that Abraham Lincoln is a big fat douchcake who eats his own poop.

Let's not forget--we have a president who was assassinated not for the cause of liberty or to save the soul of a nation, but because of civil service reform.

So while it is fine to lament the biases of Fox News or the intemperate statements made by Rahm Emanuel, just keep in mind that there was never any golden age of political civility. We've pretty much been a nation of assholes from day one. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beverage Review: Sarsaparilla

Most people view sarsaparilla as an American historical artifact: something that only exists in 60's westerns and occasionally at malt shops. But sarsaparilla is real, and it's here, and it is the awesome.

I drank my first drop of sarsaparilla quite a few years ago when I was in college. I had offhandedly made a remark that I had never had any, which made me fit in with 100% of the people in the world. The next weekend, a friend had happened across a six pack of the stuff when he was home in eastern PA and picked it up for me.

Fast forward ten years, and I'm sitting in my home, and I realize that there is nothing more in this world that I would like except a tall, cool bottle of sarsaparilla. I somehow got it in my head that my first fling with sarsaparilla didn't count--I drank it out of a can, and no reasonable human being could ever drink sarsaparilla out of anything except a bottle, presumably since half of the point in drinking it is, when finished, you can smash the bottle on the bar and start a fight at the saloon. And so I made it my personal vendetta against the carbonated beverage conglomerates that I would imbibe such a liquid treat as soon as possible.

Easier said than done.

Needless to say, sarsaparilla is not exactly something you'll find on the shelf at the corner 7-11.  In fact, it's doubtful most people have heard of it, or at the very least assume it was something that only existed locally in western markets. So when I started stopping at the trendy grocery stores (or at least the trendy sections of normal grocery stores), I got a lot of blank stares and empty turned-up palms.

Finally I called a local chain (McGinnis Sisters, for those keeping score at home), and even though I pressed 8 for Groceries I got 2 for Meat Products. Still, the nice young man who I assumed was holding a cleaver and a bloody white smock was ever so helpful ("Sarsaparilla? You mean like, to drink?") and, after a reasonable wait, was nice enough to confirm that yes, in fact, they carried sarsaparilla.

So I picked up a four pack of bottles (at, I might add, a buck twenty-five a bottle. Damn the man!) on my way home and went right to it.

The brand was called Sioux City Sarsaparilla. The packaging was...interesting. A very odd choice of old-west scenery and modern sideways typeface, trying to capture (I guess) the trendy nostalgic demographic.

By the end of this review, I will have referred to this as Sioux Falls Sarsaparilla.

On a side note, the bottles were covered in a layer of dust. I am nothing if not cutting edge.

After the bottles got nice and cold in the fridge for a bit, I finally popped one open and took a nice, long drink. For those who don't know, sarsaparilla tastes like root beer.

OK, sarsaparilla is root beer.

Well, not quite. Sarsaparilla is a little smoother and, conversely, has a little bit of a bite in the aftertaste. Which--c'mon--saying that sarsaparilla is root beer with a stronger taste to it is like saying James Taylor rocked the roof off the dump because he did a Gordon Lightfoot cover.

I'm my own grandpa.

Of course, it's impossible to drink sarsaparilla without invoking the old west, since they're the only ones in the history of the world that ever drank the stuff. It's very difficult to not drink this and put yourself in that time and place, like mint julips do for southern racetracks and steroid cocktails do for the Tour de France. 

 I have a sudden urge to attack some Indians and board all my enemies in a church and set it on fire. Eh, Blondie?

Don't get me wrong--the stuff is good, and I love drinking it. But the degree of separation between this stuff and a two liter of Hines is, well, about seventy-five cents. If you're drinking sarsaparilla, it's not because of the taste. It's because of a story, an atmosphere, a way of life--something that 7UP can't do.

Hey there, cowboy. The rootin' was fine, but the tootin' could use a little work.

The verdict? It's root beer.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad Men

Mad Men premiered yesterday, and it's just killing me.

I knew I wanted to watch Mad Men back when it first came on, but my schedule didn't really permit it. It seemed interesting, it was critically acclaimed, and one of the actors is a board game geek like myself.  Then I decided I would watch all of the previous seasons before I started watching it on television real-time. (Remember the days when people watched television back when the shows were scheduled to be on? Those were the days.) Then I put it in my Netflix queue so I would be ready to watch it. Then I decided to sit on two of my movies for what seemed like about six months and not watch it.

And now, I'm trying to catch up on all of the seasons up to the current one. It's going to be a while, but all I know is that there are tons of newspaper and magazine articles about the AWESOME NEW SEASON OF MAD MEN and I can't read any of them.

It's killing me, I tell you.

Also: True Blood, Season Three. But it's sheer cheapness why I'm not watching that right now.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pod People

So my wife went to the local farmers' market a few days ago to pick up fresh blueberries and sweet bodacious corn, and usually ends up with a few other items. This past week she picked up a sackful of pea pods.

Now, peas are one of the few vegetables that I'll readily eat without feeling the level of obligation normally reserved for signing up for the Selective Service and child support payments. So when she started shelling them, I didn't mind helping out. Normally I view the kitchen as some sort of magic room where my wife goes in and awesome food comes out, so to be part of the process was a journey akin to a hajr.

Of course, not a minute into the food preparation I began to complain. "This isn't easy on the fingers. Mine hurt."

"You're such a puss," was my wife's sympathetic response.

"Now I know what a migrant worker feels like."

"Shut up," said my wife. "Try one raw."

I did. It tasted like grass. I made pains to let my wife know that I knew what grass tasted like. She was not impressed.

Finally, we were all done, and my wife held up the bowl. It tipped over and almost spilled on her lap, but she caught it in time.

"Looks like you almost pead yourself," I said.

"I'm done with you," she said.

The moral of this story is: We're having peas some time later this week.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Here's A Story

An ad caught my eye the other day, and well...tell you what, let's play Highlights. Can you spot the things wrong with this picture?

Answer Key:

1) Maple Story? Really? That's their hook? That's not a title that...jumps out at you. Well, maybe in that "Who the hell wants to play a game about, uh, maple trees or leafs or syrup?" way and not in the "Hot damn I want to play that game!" way.
3) Is that guy really using a maple tree branch as a weapon and has bear head earmuffs? That...doesn't help.
4) "Press poo." That's all. "Press poo."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Congressional Election Predictions

There's been quite a bit of talk about what party will take over congress this year. Everyone is getting asked and giving answers, from the press secretary to the Veep himself. And they've been giving some brutally honest answers--though, as politicians, they are simply playing the game of "setting expectations." Normal political analysts are trying to get predictions on record, but a few non-standard factors--such as the Tea Party and the seemingly unusual number of high-profile deaths and party switches--is making things a bit difficult.

First, the House--it's entirely possible that the GOP could take over the House, but it's a tall order. Historically, the president's party is bound to lose seats, so losing some of their 70-ish seat majority is more or less a forgone conclusion. The House, in my opinion, is going to be the true barometer of support for Obama. In 2006 and 2008, a lot of marginal seats flipped from the Republican to the Democrat. When the opposite happened in 1994, it more or less coincided with a true shift in America's political ideology; the country as a whole had drifted rightward, and the Democrats didn't have a game plan to adapt to the new political environment. Now, we shall see if the opposite has happened--is there a true shift back towards the center-left, or is this still a gut reaction to the last years of the Bush administration and the economy? It's been two election cycles and the GOP has lost ground.

So far that I've been able to tell, about 10 seats may flip from GOP to Dem, and 40 look likely to flip from Dem to GOP; this is a net 30 gain for the Republicans, who need 39 to gain control. There are (give or take) about 50 additional seats where the GOP has an outside chance of picking up. So unless there is a major shift between now and November, the GOP looks to gain 35-55 seats. Yeah, that's a wide estimate, but I would peg it 50/50 whether they gain control. (I say the Dems retain control--a lot of people are mad, but they're mad at everyone, and it's likely many will sit on their hands. All the Tea Party angst that is soaking up the news is from people who were going to vote anyway, and they are exhibiting exactly the sort of behavior that turns fickle and moderate voters off--which in this environment would most likely going to vote Republican. Their loss.)

The Senate is more fun, mostly because there's fewer to examine and so can be looked at in greater detail. It is unlikely that the GOP can gain control of the Senate--they have to convert 10 seats, which is a third of those up for election--and only 16 of them are Democrats. That means that every Republican seat has to be retained, and they have to pick up all but six of the remaining 16 contests. That simply isn't going to happen. However, it's entirely possible they can get the Democrats down to about 52 or 53, which is low enough to change things.

As for the Republicans--well, they're probably safe, but the seats they could possibly lose are David Vitter in Louisiana, John McCain in Arizona, a new Senator in Florida, Rob Portman in Ohio, the New Hampshire seat, and Rand Paul of Kentucky. The latter three I think are holdable; Paul's mouth may cost him some votes, but Kentucky doesn't seem ready to vote Democrat just yet and the Tea Party is quite strong there. Ohio seems solid--while the state went for Obama, that popularity hasn't stayed particularly strong--but Portman was a Bush administration official, and that's still a potent stink in the Buckeye state, so we'll see. And the New Hampshire seat is still up for grabs; the only reason it's up in the air is that it's New England, which has been hostile territory for Republicans for a few cycles now.Vitter's is an odd case--he survived a scandal so far, but that doesn't mean it won't come back to haunt him. On the other hand, getting caught with a prostitute might actually help in Louisiana.

McCain and Rubio are special cases. McCain will hold on to the seat easily--if he can hold on to the nomination. Last I checked it looked like he would, but the primary is still months away. If Republican challenger J.D. Hayworth wins, it instantly changes to a tossup. Florida is an odd case because as of right now it's a three way battle between the conservative Marco Rubio, the now-independent governor Charles Christ, and relative unknown Kendrick Meek. Normally I would think that Rubio and Crist would split the vote and Meek would win, but Meek so far has been a mild and lackluster candidate. And--again--Florida went for Obama, but his popularity hasn't been sustained for very long there.

So that's it for the Republicans. I'd say the only seat truly in danger is Florida. Obviously it matters how strong the wave of discontent is, but I'd say at most one loss. How about the Democrats? What seats might the GOP pick up?

One thing to remember is that it's all about the margin--some elections are going to be lost outright, but if voter discontent creates, say, a smallish 2% shift in support for the GOP from the Democrats across the nation, even nominally "safe" districts may still flip. So if there are five or six reasonably close but otherwise considered safe seats open, the rising tide of GOP support will chip away at the bottom few seats.

Connecticut: Unlikely. Chris Dodd is retiring. While the candidate, Richard Blumenthal, has made some embarrassing gaffes (mostly misrepresenting his military service), Connecticut is still a very deep blue state. About the only thing that might help is that if the new financial regulation bill is too tough for them to swallow--this state has more than its share of finance HQs. Unlikely to matter in the long run, though.

Illinois: Unlikely. This would be a huge embarrasement for the Democrats, but Illinois is a strong party-run state, and I can't imagine it flipping. However, they've elected Republicans fairly recently, and with the debacle that was Rod Blagojevich and some issues with the current candidate, there's an outside chance this might me a marginal seat.

Indiana: Possible. Popular Senator Evan Bayh is retiring, which leaves an opening; while Indiana did go for Obama, I maintain that's one of the more surprising outliers of the campaign. Indiana's still quite red, though; the state isn't too happy with the administration, and without Bayh's family name propping up a candidacy, it's possible the GOP could pick it up.

North Dakota: Likely. Another retirement, only this one is in a red state with a popular governor running for the GOP. Aside from a major meltdown I can't imagine the GOP not picking this up.

Arkansas: Possible. Blanche Lincoln has made a lot of headlines and positioned herself appropriately in this race, but Arkansas is just the exact sort of state to vent their frustrations out on the Democrats. While the Republican candidate is lackluster, this could be an easy pickup for the GOP.

Pennsylvania: Unlikely. Another strange case. Arlen Specter was defeated in the primary by Joe Sestak, a not unknown quantity but hardly a 40-year veteran of the political arena. Former representative and Club for Growth president Pat Toomey is the GOP candidate. While I would normally consider this a tossup, Toomey has run before (in a primary battle) and lost, and there is a lot of baggage from the Club for Growth that can be used against him. If Philadelphia sits on their hands, Toomey has a chance. Otherwise, this increasingly blue state looks unlikely to flip.

Nevada: Unlikely. A few months ago, Harry Reid looked like a dead man walking. Then the Tea Party got one of their own nominated, and now Reid seems safe. Sharron Angle may be a decent candidate but she has huge PR problems, and I can't possibly imagine Reid losing unless he really screws something up in the Senate that outrages Nevada voters. Not impossible, but unlikely.

Colorado: Possible. Colorado is become more and more Democratic, but I'm not convinced the transformation is near completion: it was too reliably conservative for too long. They have a well-organized progressive population that I think amplifies their usefulness. That said, there's nothing particularly outstanding about either candidate, but Colorado is exactly the sort of place where disillusioned liberals sit home and gun nuts flock to the polls, so I say possible.

The rest of the seats are, for the most part, forgone conclusions. It's possible that, as primaries get settled and events transpire, more seats may become in play. If discontent for Obama becomes palpable--something I doubt but is not outside of the realm of possibility--other states, such as Washington, Oregon, and Wisconsin, suddenly become more important. Even California may be in play--while it's still reliably Democratic, a state that big always has lots of money and effort put into it.

A re-evaluation a few weeks before the election may be in order. If the anti-Obama fever dies down, I can't imagine the GOP winning more than 3 or 4 seats at best. (I can't imagine them (on net) losing seats in this environment.) If it's a groundswell of opposition, I could easily see a 7- or 8-seat gain. I can't imagine any of the big game (read: NY or CA) being bagged, but you never know.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

True Story. Every Word.

So I went to go pick up some dog food at our local tractor supply store (don't ask). The fact that there is a tractor supply store at the mall should do a pretty good job of setting up the remainder of the story. Let's just say my dog would certainly feel at home.

Surprisingly, I had never been there before, though my wife had, and they have a rather specific type of dog food we wanted to purchase. So I walk in and it doesn't seem to be much different than a hardware/pet store, with the possible exception that they had Goat Feed there.

Upon entering, I saw one of the two sales clerks hold one of those barrels up above her head. The kind that normally holds about a ton of cheese balls or pretzel rods. My first thought was, mmmm. I need to get me some cheese balls.

The clerk then shouted to the other checkout girl--and I quote: "If anyone--I mean anyone wants to check out with one of these, please let them know that they are dog treats."

I don't want to be the manager that had to take that inquiry.


Well, it's soon to be the big game: the final in the hot World Cup action.

You have to admit, it's been a little bit of a bigger deal here in American than I thought it would be. Not that it's going to convert the United States into a Manchester Union-watching nation of futbol fans. But I've actually heard people I normally wouldn't think would care discuss the games, even at a low level of interest.

Anyway, since I know next to nothing about soccer, I'm going to base my prediction of the winner by reviewing broad national stereotypes.

They did have that kick-ass armada.
There is no way that bullfighting could ever have evolved naturally. 
I never cared much for the Moors, you know? Just sayin'.
Spanish guitar music is the awesome, especially when standing in lobbies and elevators. It makes me sleepy.

That armada is at the bottom of the ocean.
Coincidentally, so is that paella for last night. Hey-yo!
That whole Inquisition thing didn't make too many friends.
Neither did reading For Whom the Bell Tolls in high school.
Your dances are weird. It's like people standing around like mannequins then suddenly jerking like they're inmates at Abu Ghraib.

The Netherlands
Weed. So much weed.
Prostitutes. So many prostitutes.
Wealth. So much wealth.
Euthanasia. So much--wait, hold that thought.
You gave up New Amsterdam. Smart move. Trust me.

You're the only nation to be called THE Netherlands. What, like there's another Netherland we're supposed to be worried about? And where does Holland work into this? And then when we go to call you by an adjective, it's...Dutch? WTF?
Those awful orange uniforms. It looks like PennDOT is working in the soccer fields of South Africa
They are responsible for those monstrous lawn ornaments of two children kissing each other. Get a windmill, you lusty little freaks. 
Where were your dike-plugging fingers during Katrina? WHERE?
Joran van der Sloot.

Of course, there's more than just soccer at stake. For the record, the Dutch colonized South Africa, and the Spanish conquered the Netherlands. There is going to be some major payback on somebody's mind, although that payback will probably result in a barnburner score of one to zip. Let me know how it turns out.

Friday, July 9, 2010

1945-1998 by Isao Hashimoto

This is a remarkably hypnotic video.

Note: Some may find it slow and boring at first, but stick with it if you can. 

It's also a touch scary, though why it would be when there's just as many, deadlier things out there. But I couldn't stop watching it, and the long pauses of inactivity just made the results that much more tense.

Of course, one or two nations didn't show up in that video. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Israel.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Static and Noise

Sorry for the intermittent posts. I'm trying to keep the politics/economics to nonsense ratio down, and the only things I can think of to write about involve explaining basic economic concepts and griping about the federal role of disaster response. In this case, I fear, less is more.

Anyway, some random items:

Zombieland is an OK movie. The reviews were good, and I like Woody Harrelson, but there just seemed to be about the movie. The "rules" seemed contrived, the plot threadbare, and I didn't think it was remarkably funny. But it was funny enough, and--speaking as someone who grew up with and roomed with a zombie freak--I know that zombie movies tend towards the bleak and plotless. So, given that, it actually wasn't a bad movie, and it was short and fast-paced enough that I didn't mind watching it. I maybe could have done without the romantic subplot (who cares?) and just added more zombie huntin' and twinkie lootin'.I recommend it but it's not for everyone.

A horse tried to kill me. Again. Those of you who know me know that horses and I just don't get along. Long story short, a horse tried to kill me at the Fort Armstrong Folk Festival when I was in high school. It gave me the crazy eye, and had it not been for my keen reflexes and catlike flexibility, I may not have moved four feet out of the way to prevent the certain trampling that was about to befall me. It's been downhill ever since. Anyway, during a trip to the Butler Fair, a gander at the duck and goats and sheep alas eventually took us to a stable full of equines. Everything was fine since there was a fairly solid chunk of timber between myself and these hairy sweaty beastmobiles, but at one point one of them got a whiff of my bad mojo and started to freak out on me. He gave me the crazy eye, so help me. Thankfully, my wife saved my life by telling me to nut up and quit being such a pussy.

I don't get certain things I think I should. I've never liked Back to the Future, for example, and I'm not a Star Wars fan, even though all timing and demographic evidence should say I just can't get enough of it. Yeah, yeah, there's varying tastes and to each there own, but I still feel like there's some awkward cultural gap that's missing, and every time I try to fill myself in on these "must-see" cultural icons, I just find them dull and a waste of time. Ah, well.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day!

Marking the creation of our nation by putting off fireworks and eating hamburgers is pretty much the exact personification of the holiday as one would expect. If Americans are good at one thing, it's eating junk and blowing things up. (As an extra bonus, we're pretty much only blowing up Chinese stuff, something most current policymakers would classify as "practice.")

It sometimes may seem odd to other nations exactly what the fourth of July is all about. Most countries can't point to a day on the calendar and say "Yep. That did it." Most nations were cooked up in the myriad of roaming hoards of slowly evolving barbarians masked with overlapping religious cultures. There may be some dusty document to display in government museums declaring the founding of a nation, but the history reaches far back beyond the written word.

And other nations mostly look upon our system of government with...well, perhaps I'll just say "mystification." With a few exceptions, most countries are parliaments or dictatorships. This whole hybrid executive/legislative/judicial system we take for granted here in the US is (understandably) foreign to must, uh, foreigners.

And that, perhaps, is not a bad thing. Our Founding Fathers did a pretty good job of making sure that the government was constructed in such a way that 1) it could effectively deal with the most likely problems that could arise from a democracy; and 2) it wasn't too effective that the government grew to hold more power than the people. They did this by creating a host of checks and balances, so that each branch could become reasonably efficient in its role, but each branch would then crash into each other so no one got to run the show forever.

Before this starts sounding like a civics class, I'll just point it out--this system may at times seem like it's foolish and inefficient and unequal, but it was done that way on purpose. (Just imagine--the president can send 100,000 troops to a nation halfway across the world, but if the President tries to enact a moratorium on offshore oil drilling--well, see how far that gets you.) If you are a business or a civic organization, you want things to run smooth, maximize value, and grow to become bigger and better. Our Founding Fathers wanted none of that for our government--they wanted it to be clunky and cranky and all sorts of a hot mess--and for that I am thankful on this day.

Ronald Reagan called America a "shining city on a hill," a rather purple prose-ish thing to say. But old Ron couldn't help himself, and to be fair there's a bit of truth to it. Despite what the world thinks about America the nation--good or bad--America the idea is something all nations strive towards. The phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" may sound trite and overused, but it's certainly true, and a vast majority of the people in this world do not have such luxuries. For all of its history--from its early days to today--America has been a nation of destination for the world. Individuals choose to leave their nation and their homeland to come here. This is something remarkably unique in history.

Abraham Lincoln called America the world's "last, best hope." Liberty, the free market, and civil rights--these are the terminal conditions of mankind. America is exceptional in that it's been striving for these ideals as the pure foundation of its existence, and there is no nobler goal than that. If American cannot succeed at this, there is little hope for the human condition.

Remember this on this holiday weekend. Rather than the abstract concepts of revolutionary philosopher-statesmen, independence from tyranny was real, true, and an endlessly perpetual task. Our nation was founded on something bigger than our population, then or now. We must maintain the ideals of liberty for those who wish to take it away; this requires strength, determination, and a recognition of our failures as well as our successes. Defending liberty is not easy, but it is something that only America can accomplish as an example to the world. It is this burden that is also our reward.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Where My Dog Forges An Identifying Demographic

So I took my dog out this morning. Usually my morning ritual is not entirely clear, since I am taking him out in the first few minutes of my consciousness of the day and I am not entirely certain what is, in fact, going on. I shudder to think what the neighbors think.

But normally Dexter is pretty efficient when it comes to his morning constitutional, so I don't mind so much. This morning, however, he was in an exceptionally active mood, something that was not going to be tolerated by my lethargic ways. So I basically let him run around in our yard while I thought about sleeping some more.

All of a sudden, I see him chomping down on something. This is not too terribly unusual; he's eaten grass in our yard before. However, he kept chewing and chewing and chewing on it, like some fourth grader who was just given six chunks of Bubblicious and is going to make the most out of it while he can. I got spooked, because my dog has the tendency to search out and find the smallest morsel of anything he isn't supposed to ingest and devour it in a manner of nanoseconds. And he was chewing away like the Guinness Book of World Records was standing nearby with a stopwatch taking notes.

So I do what any good pet owner does and crammed my dirty not-quite-awake finger down in his mouth to fish around for whatever it was he was trying to eat. I saw nothing, and I assumed he swallowed it, meaning I didn't really need to worry about it for another four hours or so. But when I took my finger out, he started chewing again. Now I'm truly spooked, because I know there's nothing in his mouth, which leaves only a select few circumstances that could still be viable, most involving regurgitation, and none of which appealed to me at the moment. So in the finger went again. Nothing.

Finally, with the threat of sick dog twice in one week, I gently pry his mouth open to do a full-on federal inspection. I then discover that he only has a clump of grass in his mouth, but he has it strategically wedged between his teeth and his cheek.

That's right, my dog had a plug of chaw.

Apparently, there are things about my dog I was previously unaware.

I humbly request a ham and cheese Hot Pocket for dinner tonight. Also, Sarah Palin would make a fine president.

I'm sure, like a good kraut, this was merely an "experimental" phase. We shall see.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Electoral College

For some reason I have always been fascinated by the electoral college. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with my political science background, or my fascination with historical trivia, or my latent undiagnosed childhood syndrome that makes me want to look at big colorful maps and do simple arithmetic in my head.

It seems an arbitrary and obscure thing to be interested in, but I think there's a lot more than base politics to read from it. In 1960, for instance, Pennsylvania and California had the same number of votes; today, California has twice as many as PA. The trend of population away from big, clumsy industrial states to the south and southwest is important for a variety of reasons--Florida only had ten electoral votes, for crying out loud, which is less than Indiana has today.

Every four years, I like to sit down and just start crunching numbers. Who is likely to win what state? What does one candidate have to pull off to win? What party trends have changed from year to year?

Much has been made of the Red State versus Blue State rivalry, which I don't quite believe. Such things are fairly fluid in the grand scheme of things; it was barely two decades ago that California was solidly Republican and Texas Democrat, notions that are absolutely unthinkable today. The New England states, for centuries, used to be the rockbed Republican stronghold; today, you could throw rocks all day and not hit a single GOP congressman. Likewise, the "Solid South" is still solid, but just for a different party.

You could see a little bit of this in the 2008 election. McCain was going to lose for certain, but I was a bit surprised at which states switched sides. Places like Ohio and Florida were reasonable; they had been swing states and had valid demographic and political reasons for switching sides. But one would expect that it would be the weakest states that would flip. When Indiana--one of the safest Republican strongholds--was announced as one of the first few states to go for Obama, I knew it was over. Likewise, Virginia and North Carolina (and, to a lesser extent, Nevada and Colorado) were both surprises. Is this a new trend--are the Democrats finally going to crack the South and Mountain states? It's hard to tell this early, of course; 2008 was certainly an anomaly, just as you can't ascribe Reagan's winning of Massachusetts in 1984 as flipping that state more than it being the intense drubbing Mondale got.

Of course, every election cycle there are calls for reforming or abolishing the electoral college. This, I think, would be a bad idea. I'm not going to drag out all of the reasons for or against--any poli sci prof will gladly do that for a few hours if you ask him at a cocktail party--except to point out a few highlights:
  • You can't recreate history. Lots of people state that Gore would have won had we had a popular vote instead of the electoral college. Well, maybe. The problem is, had the election been decided by popular vote instead of the electoral college, both candidates would have acted differently--Bush would have gone to upstate New York and northern California, while Gore would have shook hands in Austin and ran ads in the deep South. The vote totals would have been different because the rules would have been different. It's not useful to compare the results of one method when everyone involved was using a different method.
  • The most compelling argument for the electoral college is that it requires a broad base of support. I used to think this was bunk, but not so much anymore. In the electoral college, of course, any votes above 50.1% in each specific state are effectively wasted--they can't spill over to another state. This would prevent someone from scoring huge victories in one region, demographic, or ideology, and freeze out the rest. (Of course, the opposite can happen--and did, in 2000--but I think the effect in this opposing case is much more neutral.*)
  • Everything for the most part balances itself out. Sure, there are a lot of wasted votes in Utah, Texas, and Alaska. But there's roughly the equivalent number of wasted votes in Vermont, New York, and Oregon. The exact same thing would happen if the popular vote counted--more Texans may be inclined to vote since they wouldn't be wasted, but so would more Californians. (The same logic applies to the criticism that smaller states get a bonus because of the allocation rules. Last I checked, New England was Democrat and all are pretty small states, same as the Midwestern states that vote solidly Republican.)
  • And--the most practical and realistic reason--is that of fraud. What would have happened if a popular vote total was within a few thousand votes? Every single state in the nation would be doing what Florida had to do in 2000. Does anyone really want that? Is the trade-off of the (I think phantom) inequities of the voting system worth the absolute nightmare that would ensue?
As a general rule, I believe that as long as everyone knows the rules ahead of time there isn't a problem. (Some day I'll write about the 2000 election concerning this very point, but not today.) The iniquities and civil rights violations in the electoral college liberals and populists see in the system today will suddenly disappear once the Mountain and Midwestern states start voting Democrat. Same for the Republicans.

[For the record I think the biggest change in store is some of the Mountain states--Montana is surprisingly close for some reason, and Nevada and Colorado are both easily "new" swing states. It is possible that the non-deep South is a Democratic pickup as well, such as Virginia or North Carolina. As for GOP pickups, it will be hard to tell, but I think New Jersey is doable--surprisingly, given its demographics, it has been tantalizingly close--and possibly some of the less high protestant New England states. But the GOP will have a much harder time doing that; the easier method is to have more population grow in their base states, as has happened the last two census allocations.]

I'm not necessarily opposed to the different proposed reforms, such as everyone adopting the Maine/Nebraska rules, though I would prefer that not happen--see point #2 above. I'm also not a huge fan of the drastic measures both sides take to resolve the gray areas--and also the complete lackadaisical attitude that most states have towards the process. The inauguration date can certainly be pushed back two or three weeks if that means we'll have a legitimate certification of a president rather than some rushed court ruling based on "We don't have enough time." It may not be ideal, but if the Supreme Court says it's OK then, dammit, it's OK. On the other hand, letting electors handwrite their votes to screw up (like one Minnesota elector did, voting for John Edwards twice for both President and Vice President in 2004) due to some quaint notion of state control (at least in this area that is supposed to be more or less ceremonial but has the potential to be disastrous) is absolutely ludicrous. 

This is one of those times where I think the Founding Fathers may not have known exactly how things were going to work out, but still got this one mostly right.

*For those keeping score at home, it would work like this:

With the popular vote, it is conceivable that someone could rack up huge vote totals in the South--not exactly unheard of given that region's history--and win with only 10 to 20% of the vote in the other states. This wouldn't be possible with the electoral college.

With the electoral college, you could win with 50.1% of the vote in a select number of states and come out the winner while only garnering (realistically) about 45% of the overall popular vote.

From a practical standpoint, neither is particularly likely--the states you would have to win are a mix of Red, Blue, and swing states. It's theoretically possible but not a valid scenario given the current political climate. However--since we're all about theory here--I still think the latter is preferable, since it requires the candidate to be broadly popular over several states, rather than catering to a specific region or demographic. At this point, it comes down to political philosophy--should a candidate who truly only represents one region of our nation still win because they legitimately won the most votes, or should an electoral mechanism be in place to prevent such a thing from happening, even if it means someone with the fewest total votes wins?