Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Bit of Political Wisdom

If you are a politician who gets caught lying about your military service then it is a good idea to get caught on a day when a Congressman has to resign because he gets caught having an affair with an aide he made a pro-abstinence video with.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review

Reading Bob Woodward's Maestro: Greenspan's Fed and The American Boom is an exercise of reading about the pride that goes before the fall. The book only covers up until Greenspan's reappointment in 2000 and doe not cover the events leading up to the economic collapse.

This is not Woodward's most engaging book and it is good thing it is one of his shortest. Unless you are just enamred with in depth reporting on the Fed meetings and the debates over 1/4 percentage points in the interest rates.

The past couple of years have not been kind to Greenspan's record and if Woodward had been willing to engage more deeply we might have a book that could serve as a record of penetrating foresight. Woodward explains Greensapn's upbringing as an acolyte of Ayn Rand and often talks about his belief in an almost unregulated market as the answer to almost any problem Woodward's weekness comes in exploring those ideas; he treats his intellectual roots as a fact of his life.

Woodward also fails to examine the American boon he mentions in his book's subtitle. What was the American boom like? Woodward never explains except in terms of the stock market. During this period the gap between wealthy and poor increased and much of the boom was financed by debt. Woodward also goes to great lengths to explain that one of the great conundrums of Greenspan's time dealth with an increse in productivity. By eventually figuring that workers were producing more but not getting paid more, Greenspan effectivly managed the changes in the encomy and helped Wall Street and U.S. Treasury but Woodward never explains how boom that fails to increase worker's wages is really a boom. Woodward's title builds the expectation that there will be a telling of the story of the boom but their is no indication how average Americans experienced the boom.

I am not really impressed with Greenspan even though Woodward really wants me to be as enamored with Greenspan as he is. Woodward makes it clear that Greenspan is not the all knowing oracle that myth makes him out to be. He often does not understand what is going and sometimes appears to have gotten lucky at times with the economy. This, of course, is Woodward's biggest failing. He mistakes luck for expertise and minuta for in depth understanding.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Backbencher of the Week

The Backbencher is a fan of the rumpled socialism(ahem, Liturgygeek) of Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-VT) and for the third time he is the Backbencher of the Week. Ever since TARP and the bank bailouts, members of Congress from across the spectrum have wanted to take a closer look at the actions of the Federal Reserve. Even though the Fed is an independent agency it is still a political actor whose actions impact everyone from the very rich to the poor.

Sen. Sanders initially proposed an amendment to completely audit the Fed but the White House, the Fed, and the Wall Street all strongly opposed the measure. Sen. Sanders then negotiated a compromise that allowed for an audit of all of the Fed's actions during the economic crisis. Among the provisions is one that will make public the name of who received emergency assistance from the Fed and in what amount. On Tuesday, the Sanders Amendment passed 96-0. Rep. Alan Grayson(D-Fl-8)who, along with Rep. Ron Paul(R-TX-14), authored a House bill to completely audit the Fed called the Sander Amendment "a significant step."

Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan once said in a speech(ironically the one in which he coined the phrase "irrational exuberance") "The Fed must be as transparent as any agency of government. It cannot be acceptable in a democratic society that a group of unelected individuals are vested with important responsibilities, without being open to full public scrutiny and accountability."

For taking a step towards making Greenspan's words a reality, we award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Bernie Sanders.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thinking About Elena

I have been thinking about President Obama's nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be on the Supreme Court and why I feel skeptical about the nomination. My thinking has been shaped by some comments made by Matt Yglesias and by Kevin Drum.

I don't think that Kagan is a stealth candidate and I think that she will undoubtedly be a consistent liberal voice on the coourt. In the same way I believe that President Obama is a mainstream Democrat and will constantly move the country in a more progressive direction.

However, I also know what kind of Democrat Obama is turning out to be. He is the type who makes labor unions accept an excise tax to get healthcare passed but refuses to do much to push for labor's most important agenda items like the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama is the type of Democrat who is pushing for the closing of Guantanamo Bay but who also believes in issuing an executive order to assassinate a U.S. citizen. He is the type of Democrat who consistently gives away liberal positions in hopes of courting conservatives who have no intention of supporting him. Obama is the type of Democrat who signed some of the most progressive legislation in a generation into law but still seems enthralled by the consensus, elite economic opinion that got us into the mess and seems to think that the way out is to inflict pain on the middle and lower income classes.

My uncomfortableness with Kagan ultimately has less to do with her then with the President who nominated her. While I am broadly supportive of President Obama and his agenda, I am fully aware of what objectionable positions and actions he is able to take. I have the same worry that Kagan will be a mirror image of the President in that regard.

The Conundrum of the Stupak

I found this story while reading John Cole at Balloon Juice. I want to focus on this little fact:

"In a devastating review of the blowout preventer, which BP said was supposed to be "fail-safe," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight, said Wednesday that documents and interviews show that the device was anything but."

I found Bart Stupak’s anti-choice efforts on the healthcare bill to be damaging and reprehensible. However, he has done some good work investigating corporate malfeasance. It was his sub-committee that did much of the work of bringing the practice of health insurance rescission to light and now he is investigating the criminally negligent behavior of the off-shore oil companies. He is a perfect example of why I am a Democrat and why I find being a Democrat so frustrating

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Backbencher of the Week

This week we recognize a Senator who actually failed to get his amendment passed. Sen. Ted Kaufman(D-DE) served as a longtime and trusted aide of Vice President Joe Biden. He was appointed to fill Biden's seat and hold until Beau Biden could win election. However, the younger Biden decided not to run and Republian Congressman Mike Castle looks likely to win the seat in November.

During his time in the Senate, Sen. Kaufman has focused much of his efforts on financial reform. Kaufman, unlike the administration and much of Congress, supports a more comprehensive type of reform that restructures Wall Street firms. Partnering with Sen. Sherrod Brown(D-OH). Sen. Kaufman proposed an amendment to the financial reform bill that would have limited the size of lage banks. This week the Kaufman-Brown amendment failed by a vote of 33-61.

Even though his amendment failed, we recognize Sen. Kaufman for not just filing a seat in the Senate but using his time towards productive ends and for willingness think big in response to the financial crisis. Congratulations to Sen. Ted Kaufman for being Backbencher of the Week.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Clear as the Thames

Yesterday's election obscured as much as it cleared up. David Cameron and the Conservatives won 306 seats but that is still 20 seats short of what is needed for a majority. After a day of jockeying, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are working on some type of deal; either a coalition or some type of informal power sharing arrangement. Gordon Brown and Labour lost 91 seats and are currently on the sidelines. If the Tories and Lib Dems can't form a government then Brown as offered to work with Nick Clegg and for a Lib Lab government.

In a strange election, nobody can claim they did great. The Tories fell short of a majority, labour lost 91 seats, the Liberal Democrats momentum faded and they actually lost seats. Labour, as the current party of government, has the right to be the first to try to form a government. However Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said that the Conservatives deserve to get the first crack because they won the highest portion of the popular votes and the most seats. Cameron earlier today offered the deal to the Liberal Democrats that is currently under discussion.

That is the big news but there were several smaller stories about the election that we should note. Both former Home Secretaries, Jacqui Smith and Charles Clarke along with several other ministers lost their seats. In Northern Ireland, both of the unionist leaders lost their seats in Westminster. The Speaker was able to hold his seat and Rory Stewart won in Penrith and the Border. History was made when Caroline Lucas won the Green Party's first ever seat in Parliament when she won Brighton Pavilion.

The other big story was the confusion that reigned in some polling places. Some polling places were not prepared for the hight turnout and some voters were turned away and not allowed to vote. One of the constituencies involved was Sheffield Hallam, which is represented by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Clegg, and his party, are the biggest supporters of electoral reform and some type of referendum on electoral reform might be their asking price.

Whatever happens, the election is sure to stretch into the weekend and possibly until the new Parliament convenes later this month.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

UK Election Viewing Guide

Tomorrow voters all across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will go to the polls and vote. Voters will vote for their local MP and the party that means a majority of seats forms the next government. To help follow the election, here are some of the seats that whose results I will be watching for. Some of these are bellwether and threshold constituencies that will give hints about the trend in the election and some of these are constituencies that I am just interested in. Much of my understanding comes from the good people at ukpollingreport.

The first seat to watch is Houghton and Sunderland South. This constituency, when it was known as Sunderland South, was the first to declare the winner and did so every election since 1992. Chris Mullin, the outgoing MP, used to joke about forming his own government during the brief minutes when he was the only elected member of Parliament.

Based on uniform nation swing, Labour will lose its majority if they lose Stourbridge. If the Conservatives win in Dudley South then they will be in the largest party in the Commons and if the Tories are victorious in Derby North then they are assured a majority.

If you are looking for some Bellwether seats then look to see who wins Dartford and Chorley. The winning party has won both of the these seats since 1964. Luton South, and its predecessor seats, are the most reliable bellwether seats. The victorious party has won this seat in every election since 1951.

Since all 3 major parties are significant players in this election there are 3 seats in which all 3 parties poll within 10% of each other. Ealing Central and Acton, Watford, and Filton and Bradley Stoke are the seats to watch get an idea of which of the three parties can expect to have a good night.

Since ministers are member of Parliament, most general elections see a minister or two lose their seats. The Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy in East Renfrewshire and Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling in Edinburgh Southwest are both considered somewhat vulnerable. However, the most likely to lose their seat is the Minster of Culture, Sports, and Media Ben Bradshaw in Exeter and Children, Families, and Schools minister Ed Balls(who is a close ally of Gordon Brown) in Morley and Outwood. Two former Home Secretaries could also lose their seats. Jacqui Smith in Redditch will almost certainly lose her seat and Charles Clarke in Norwich South could be vulnerable.

It's always good to watch the leaders and how they do. Gordon Brown is in the Scottish constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, David Cameron represents Witney, and Nick Clegg represents Sheffield Hallam.

I am also interested in seeing if the Green Party can win in Brighton Pavilion and win their first ever seat in Parliament. As Speaker, John Bercow is a non-partisan figure and the major parties don't run candidates against a sitting speaker. However the UK Independence Party is running against Speaker Bercow in the traditional Tory seat of Buckingham. I am also watching to see if the Tories can win back Margaret Thatchers old seat of Finchley and Golders Green.

Finally, I am interested in Penrith and the Border because former army officer, diplomat, best selling writer, Harvard don, and critic of U.S. and UK efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq Rory Stewart is the Conservative candidate and the heavy favorite to win.

Enjoy election day and I hope to join you some tomorrow night to share some of my immediate observations.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Book Review

My reading has focused on the recent history of the Supreme Court. Reading Bob Woodward's The Brethren followed by Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine gives a reader a pretty complete history of the Supreme Court over the past forty years. If there is a theme of both books it is how the center held throughout the past forty years of jurisprudence. For Woodward this means a focus on the work of Justices Potter Stewart(Woodward's main source), Byron White, and Lewis Powell. For Toobin this means celebrating Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. This two books combined tell the story of how a liberal court became a moderate one and a moderate one became a court with conservative leanings.

An underrated figure in this book is Richard Nixon. Soon after his inauguration, Nixon had the opportunity to replace Chief Justice Earl Warren with Warren Burger and Justice Abe Fortas with Henry Blackmun. Later in his administration, Nixon was able to appointment two more justices, including future Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The Court went in a very short time from a liberal one to a more moderate one.

The next big change came when Samuel Alito replaced Justice O'Connor. A court that had stayed pretty moderate became a court with strong conservative leanings. Some of this is O'Connor's responsibility and the fact that she was a very political creature while on the court and she continued to hold to her Goldwater type Republican leanings. Through Toobin tries to obscure her role, and engages in some unwarranted pox on both houses interpretation, it is clear that O'Connor along with Justice Kennedy played a decisive role in placing George W. Bush in the White House. This allowed Bush to eventually replace O'Connor with the hardcore conservative Justice Alito.

Since Toobin wrote his book, both Justice Souter and Justice Stevens retired from the court. Obama replaced Souter with Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Obama is currently working on nominating Steven's replacement.

To change the direction of the Court, the key is to replace Republican appointees with Democratic ones. Nixon and Ford replaced 3 Democratic appointees with Republican ones and George H.W. Bush replaced one Democratic appointee. Only President's Clinton's replacement of Justice Blackmun with Justice Breyer allowed a Democrat to replace a Republican appointee.

Unless there is an unexpected change, for example Justice Kennedy leaving during the Obama administration, there is little chance for President Obama to drastically change the Court's direction. However, Sotomayer and the next justice will both replace Republican appointees. Though Stevens and Souter were both considered liberals, that was more because of the change of the composition of the Court. Obama will at least be able to place younger and more comprehensively liberal justices on the Court.

Forty two years have passed since the first term chronicled by Woodward. It took that long to change a liberal Court to a Conservative Court and it will probably take just as long to fully change direction. President Obama's has the chance to begin the long march back towards a jurisprudence that pays more heed to the voiceless and those on the margins. Jeffrey Toobin describe Chief Justice Roberts, and consequently the Roberts Court, this way:

"In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff. Even more than Scalia, who has embodied judicial conservatism during a generation of service on the Supreme Court, Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party."

President Obama has the chance to be figure as important to the Court's history as Nixon. If Obama is willing, he can seize the opportunity to moderate a conservative march and start the process of starting a liberal one.

To understand how the stakes became so important and how Obama and the Supreme Court reached this moment of history then read both Toobin and Woodward.

Backbencher of the Week

The big story this week is Arizona's new law that requires police to ask people they suspect to illegal immigrants for identification of citizenship and arrest those they suspect of being in the country illegally. This law badly written, terribly vague, open to abuse, and unconstitutional. There is no criteria for how a police officer should base his or her suspicions and that will lead to profiling and harassment of latinos.

Felling like they are caught between a rock and a hold place, most Republicans have stayed quiet. The first GOP congressman to speak out was Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart(R-FL-21). Rep. Diaz-Balart, who is of Cuban descent, came out quickly and denounced the new law.

For being the first Republican in Washington to lodge criticism of the Arizona bill, we award Re. Lincoln Diaz-Balart this week's Backbencher of the Week.