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GOP presidential candidates clueless about ISIS

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Scott Walker famously states that if he can defeat 100,000 union protesters, he will have no trouble with ISIS. (Note: the union protesters lacked artillery support nor were they armed. It’s unclear from Walker’s statement whether he actually knows what ISIS is, but he apparently believes that if you strip them of their bargaining rights, that will do the trick.)

Marc Rubio is neck-and-neck with Walker in the cluelessness sweepstakes. As Kevin Drum points out:

Steve Benen points me to Marco Rubio today. Here is Rubio explaining how his ISIS strategy would be different from President Obama’s:

“ISIS is a radical Sunni Islamic group. They need to be defeated on the ground by a Sunni military force with air support from the United States,” Rubio said. “Put together a coalition of armed regional governments to confront [ISIS] on the ground with U.S. special forces support, logistical support, intelligence support and the most devastating air support possible,” he added, “and you will wipe ISIS out.”

Hmmm. As Benen points out, this sounds awfully similar to what Obama is already doing. Local forces? Check. Coalition of regional governments? Check. Logistical support? Check. Air support? Check.

But there is one difference. Rubio thinks we need a Sunni military force on the ground to defeat ISIS. The Iraqi army, of course, is mostly Shiite. So apparently Rubio thinks we should ditch the Iraqi military and put together a coalition of ground forces from neighboring countries. But this would be….who? Yemen is out. Syria is out. That leaves Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey. Does Rubio think these countries are willing to put together a ground force to invade Iraq? Does he think the Iraqi government would allow it?

It is a mystery. What exactly does Marco Rubio think?

Written by LeisureGuy

27 February 2015 at 10:46 am

Why do politicians believe they understand technical issues?

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I suppose politicians have to make decisions, but they do seem not to be able to listen well or learn quickly. They have the typical chief executive’s belief that what s/he strongly desires must be possible, even if those with knowledge explain repeatedly that it’s not. CEOs simply cannot comprehend that something they want so very much might not be possible because, after all, they are powerful and wealthy, so surely that must mean that they can get anything they want. Right? (The Dunning-Kruger effect also plays a role: politicians are so ignorant of the relevant science and technology that they don’t even have enough information to know how uninformed they are.)

In the Washington Post Andrea Peterson has an excellent article on a specific instance. By all means read the whole thing. Here is the conclusion:

“I think what we’re missing is that people are kind of in their corners arguing about liberty versus security instead of saying, ‘Look, we all want to have privacy for the end users’ — that’s what the companies are responding to. They’re trying to be able to tell their customers, ‘We’re going to protect your data,'” she [Hillary Clinton] said. “But we also don’t want to find ourselves in a position where it’s a legitimate security threat we’re facing and we can’t figure out how to address it because we have no way into whatever is holding the information.”

Clinton said people have a “legitimate right to privacy,” but she argued that the encryption debate was about finding “the right balance” — a balance Clinton said she hasn’t figured out yet.

Clinton said her position was “not a dodge,” but some within the tech industry were not convinced, including Nu Wexler, a member of Twitter’s policy communications team.

Asked by Re/code’s Kara Swisher how she might resolve the issue, Clinton said she would start with having a “real conversation” with tech executives. “I think the conversation, rather than ‘you don’t understand privacy and you don’t understand security,’ ought to be ‘OK, let’s figure out how to do this,'” she said.

But there is already a dialogue going on between the Obama administration and leaders of the technology industry — and much of it is coming down to the technicalities of how encryption works more than an ideological debate over privacy and national security.

Technology companies have moved to expand their deployment of encryption in the wake of revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Apple and Google, for instance, have made it impossible to unlock many mobile devices using their operating systems even if served with a legitimate warrant. This has created tension with U.S. law enforcement officials, who warn that this could allow cybercriminals or terrorists to “go dark.” The officials have urged technology companies to build into their products ways for the government to intercept encrypted communications.

But cybersecurity experts have criticized this approach, saying that such “lawful intercept” technology can’t be implemented without fundamentally undermining how encryption works — adding complexity into the code that multiplies risks and gives hackers yet another target to attack.

The debate sparked a heated exchange between NSA Director Mike Rogers and Yahoo’s information security chief officer, Alex Stamos, at a cybersecurity conference Monday. “It’s like drilling a hole in the windshield,” Stamos said.

Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, oversaw an earlier round of the encryption debate, during the 1990s — commonly known as the “cryptowars.” As part of the cryptowars, the government promoted the use of NSA technology called the “clipper chip” to provide intercept capabilities for encrypted phone calls. But researchers discovered vulnerabilities in the design that could be exploited, leaving those calls insecure against others hoping to eavesdrop.

“We had this fight almost 20 years ago, and we thought we’d answered the question — that the benefits of strong encryption outweigh the needs for tap-ability,” Alan Davidson, vice president and director of New America’s Open Technology Institute, said in an interview Monday after the exchange between Rogers and Stamos.

But political leaders appear to be re-hashing the same debate in search of a compromise solution that technical experts say does not exist.

“Everybody in Washington loves the notion of a middle ground, but the solution people are looking for just doesn’t exist,” Davidson said. “You can’t build a strong encryption system with guaranteed tap-ability.”

Clinton seems completely incapable of grasping that a compromise is not possible: encryption either does not allow third parties to decrypt the message, or (if it does) then the message is not really encrypted. What Clinton wants is some sort of encryption scheme that can detect whether those trying to break the encryption are “good” (in which case the encryption releases the information) or “bad” (in which case the encryption remains strong). But encryption cannot make those decisions.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 February 2015 at 12:43 pm

Scott Walker as presidential candidate

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John Cassidy has some interesting points about Mr. Walker’s candidacy:

Let’s stipulate up front that Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is an odious politician whose ascension to the Presidency would be a disaster.

Set aside, for a moment, his repeated refusal, in the past few days, to say whether he believes that President Obama loves America, or whether he believes that the President is a Christian, and look instead at Walker’s record running what used to be one of America’s more progressive states. Having cut taxes for the wealthy and stripped many of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions of their collective-bargaining rights, he is now preparing to sign a legislative bill that would cripple unions in the private sector. Many wealthy conservatives, such as the Koch brothers, who have funneled a lot of money to groups supporting Walker, regard him as someone who’s turning his state into a showcase for what they want the rest of America to look like.

But just how threatening is he? If you’ve been following the political news during the past week, you may well have the impression that he’s stumbling in his campaign for the 2016 G.O.P. nomination. Among the political commentariat, the consensus of opinion is that Walker’s repeated refusal to distance himself from Rudy Giuliani’s incendiary comments about Obama, and his subsequent encounter with the Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Robert Costa, during which he appeared to question Obama’s religious faith and took some shots at the media for asking him silly questions, weren’t merely reprehensible: they were serious gaffes that raised questions about Walker’s political abilities.

It wasn’t just liberal columnists who piled on. In a column at the Daily Beast, Matt Lewis, who also writes for the Daily Caller, said that Walker’s comments raised the question of whether he “might not be ready for prime time on the national stage.” Lewis went on: “Conservatives should be worried that Walker hasn’t proven capable of navigating these land mines.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, who is a former G.O.P. congressman, wrote at Politico: “Good candidates know how to make dumb questions look, well, dumb.”

Rather than deflecting the reporters’ queries about Obama’s beliefs, as other Republicans had done, Walker used them to send a none-too-subtle message to Republican voters. His refusal to say whether Obama was a Christian wasn’t merely a shot at a hostile media. As Dana Milbank, of the Washington Post noted, it allowed Walker to “wink and nod at the far-right fringe where people really believe that Obama is a Muslim from Kenya who hates America.” Milbank also wrote that Walker was “refusing to grant his opponent legitimacy as an American and a Christian.”

In a more just world, Walker’s indecent and craven antics would disqualify him from playing any further role in the Presidential race. But in the current political environment, his tactics, far from hurting him, may well bolster a candidacy that is already thriving.

Having cemented his reputation as an economic conservative, Walker is busy making a concerted effort to win over social conservatives and evangelical Christians, some of whom apparently believe that Obama is the Antichrist (or perhaps the Seventh King). Earlier this month, during a trip to London, he refused to say whether he believed in evolution, commenting: “That’s a question a politician shouldn’t be involved in, one way or the other.” In addition to making that hat tip to the Book of Genesis brigade, Walker has been reiterating his opposition to gay marriage and taking a notably harder line on abortion than he did during his gubernatorial reëlection campaign, last year. In a recent meeting with Iowa Republicans, the Times reported earlier this week, he stressed his support for a “personhood amendment” that would define life as beginning at conception and effectively outlaw the termination of pregnancies. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 February 2015 at 10:31 am

Confessions of a congressman

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Congress has stopped working. I don’t see it starting up again. I imagine politically aware people in the Roman republic were also witnesses to their government’s decline.

This Vox article by an anonymous member of Congress spells out why it doesn’t work and is unlikely to be fixed:

I am a member of Congress. I’m not going to tell you from where, or from which party. But I serve, and I am honored to serve. I serve with good people (and some less good ones), and we try to do our best.

It’s a frustrating, even disillusioning job. The public pretty much hates us. Congress polls lower than Richard Nixon during Watergate, traffic jams, or the Canadian alt-rock band Nickelback. So the public knows something is wrong. But they often don’t know exactly what is wrong. And sometimes, the things they think will fix Congress — like making us come home every weekend — actually break it further.

So here are some things I wish the voters knew about the people elected to represent them.

1) Congress is not out of touch with folks back home

Congress is only a part-time job in Washington, DC. An hour after the last vote, almost everyone is on the airplane home. Congress votes fewer than 100 days a year, spending the rest of the time back home where we pander to their constituents’ short-term interests, not the long-term good of the nation. Anyone who is closer to your district than you are will replace you. Incumbents stick to their districts like Velcro.

2) Congress listens best to money

It is more lucrative to pander to big donors than to regular citizens. Campaigns are so expensive that the average member needs a million-dollar war chestevery two years and spends 50 percent to 75 percent of their term in office raising money. Think about that. You’re paying us to do a job, and we’re spending that time you’re paying us asking rich people and corporations to give us money so we can run ads convincing you to keep paying us to do this job. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech and corporations are people, the mega-rich have been handed free loudspeakers. Their voices, even out-of-state voices, are drowning out the desperate whispers of ordinary Americans.

3) Almost everyone in Congress loves gerrymandering

Without crooked districts, most members of Congress probably would not have been elected. According to the Cook Political Report, only about 90 of the 435 seats in Congress are “swing” seats that can be won by either political party. In other words, 345 seats are safe Republican or Democratic seats. Both parties like it that way. So that’s what elections are like today: rather than the voters choosing us, we choose the voters. The only threat a lot of us incumbents face is in the primaries, where someone even more extreme than we are can turn out the vote among an even smaller, more self-selected group of partisans.

4) You have no secret ballot anymore

The only way political parties can successfully gerrymander is by knowing how you vote. Both parties have destroyed your privacy at the polling booth. Thanks to election rolls, we don’t know exactly whom you voted for, but we get pretty damn close. We know exactly which primaries and general elections you have voted in, and since there are so few realistic candidates in most elections, down or up ballot, we might as well know exactly who you voted for. Marry that data with magazine subscriptions, the kind of car you drive, and all sorts of other easily available consumer information that we’ve figured out how to use to map your political preferences, and we can gerrymander and target subdivisions, houses — even double beds. Republicans want the male vote; Democrats the female vote.

5) We don’t have a Congress but a parliament

Continue reading.

Solutions are obvious and relatively easy to implement, but they will not happen because Congress and those in power do not want solutions. The current situation is a solution from their point of view: a way to control the levers of power to get what they want. It’s not good for the people, but they care only about what’s good for themselves.

Some easy steps:

Public financing of elections, with campaign contributions illegal (because campaign contributions are bribery, pure and simple: money is not speech).

Algorithmic drawing of Congressional districts.

A $100 fine levied against those who fail to vote.

That would help a lot.

It would also be good to reform the Senate, which is grossly disproportional, but let’s do the easy stuff first.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 February 2015 at 5:18 pm

The Supreme Court’s Billion-Dollar Mistake

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David Cole has a good article in the NY Review of Books:

Five years ago this week, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decided to allow unlimited amounts of corporate spending in political campaigns. How important was that decision? At the time, some said criticism of the decision was overblown, and that fears that it would give outsize influence to powerful interests were unfounded. Now, the evidence is in, and the results are devastating.

To coincide with the decision’s fifth anniversary, eight public interest organizations—the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Public Citizen, Demos, U.S. PIRG, Public Campaign, Justice at Stake, and the Center for Media and Democracy—havesimultaneously issued reports that demonstrate the steadily growing influence of money on elections since the Court’s decision. Their findings show that the case opened the spigot to well more than a billion dollars in unrestricted outside spending on political campaigns, by corporations and individuals alike. It has done so at a time when wealth and income disparities in the United States are at their highest levels since 1928. Increasingly, it’s not clear that your vote matters unless you’re also willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to support your preferences.

Some of this money has come directly from the kind of corporate money at issue inCitizens United. But much more of it has come from other kinds of funding made possible by the Court’s decision, whose rationale undermined expenditure limits across the board, not just for corporations. Take the 2014 midterm elections. Just eleven closely contested Senate races tipped the balance and allowed the Republicans to regain control of the Senate for the first time since 2006. In eight of the ten states for which data is available, outside groups outspent the candidates themselves, by many millions of dollars. In North Carolina, for example, outside groups spent $26 million more than the candidates did. With these kinds of numbers, elected politicians may feel as beholden to such groups as to the people who actually voted for them.

Much of the newly unrestricted funding came from so-called “super PACs,” political action committees that raise money exclusively for “independent expenditures,” usually television and radio advertisements. Citizens United did not itself involve super PACs, but the decision had the effect of freeing super PACs from any meaningful constraints. The Court ruled that the government has no legitimate interest in restricting “independent expenditures”—as opposed to contributions to candidates—because in its view, only contributions have the potential to corrupt candidates. Two months later, in March 2010, a federal court of appeals relied on that rationale to strike down all limits on how much individuals may give to super PACs, since they are organized exclusively for the purpose of “independent expenditures.”

According to the Brennan Center report, over the five years since these decisions, super PACs have spent more than one billion dollars on federal election campaigns. And because these organizations are free of any limits, they have proved to be magnets for those who have the resources to spend lavishly to further their interests. About 60 percent of that billion dollars has come from just 195 people. Those 195 individuals have only one vote each, but does anyone believe that their combined expenditure of over $600 million does not give them disproportionate influence on the politicians they have supported? The average contributions of those who give more than $200 to such super PACs are in the five- and six-figure range. The average donation over $200 to the ironically-named Ending Spending, a conservative PAC, was $502,188. This is a game played by, and for, the wealthy.

It is also a natural consequence of the Supreme Court’s faulty logic in Citizens Unitedand related cases. The Court has found that contributions to candidates can be restricted because they pose the risk of quid pro quo corruption—when a representative essentially sells his vote to the highest donor. But according to the Court, expenditures made independently, even if they advocate a particular candidate’s election, don’t pose that risk, and therefore can’t be limited. This makes little sense. If I give $500,000 to Harry Reid for his reelection, most of which he will probably spend on television ads, there’s indeed a danger that he may feel indebted to me in a way that undermines democracy. So I can’t do that. The most I can donate is $2,600 per election. But under the Court’s logic, I am free to spend $500,000 on my own television ads advocating Reid’s reelection.

The Court’s doubtful rationale rests on the notion that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2015 at 10:48 am

For political junkies: Elizabeth Warren’s role similar to Jim DeMint’s, not Ted Cruz’s

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Interesting column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 December 2014 at 11:51 am

Posted in Democrats, Election, GOP

This Study Could End Partisan Gerrymandering

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Ian Millhiser has an interesting post at ThinkProgress with the above title, which seems highly optimistic to me, mainly because he fails to recognize that the conservative justices on the Supreme Court are quite nakedly partisan and make partisan decisions, in some cases ignoring overwhelming evidence: Citizens United, for example, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

Still, one should hope. Millhiser writes:

For the last decade, the Supreme Court of the United States has openly refused to police partisan gerrymandering even in egregious cases where the state legislature or its congressional delegation bears little resemblance to the will of the people. A new study out of Duke University, however, casts serious doubts on the reasoning of the justices who have thus-far refused to strike down unconstitutional gerrymanders.

In 2012, Democratic U.S. House candidates in North Carolina received 81,190 more votes that Republicans. Republicans received just under half of the votes earned by the two parties. And yet, the GOP walked away with 9 of the state’s 13 congressional districts. So, despite the fact that they earned just over 49 percent of the two-party vote, Republicans won nearly 70 percent of the state’s congressional seats.

Common sense dictates that the legislative maps that could produce such a result must be deeply flawed — and that they must be biased towards Republicans, the same party that controlled both houses of the state legislature when these maps were drawn (although the state had a Democratic governor at the time of the redistricting, the governor has no veto power over congressional maps). A new study by Duke Mathematics Professor Jonathan Mattingly and undergraduate Christy Vaughn seems to confirm this insight. Their study confirms that it is highly unlikely that a fair redistricting process would have produced a map as skewed towards one political party as North Carolina’s congressional map is.

Mattingly and Vaughn’s study redrew numerous random congressional maps, all of which complied with three rules: the districts must be “connected,” they must “come as close as possible to having [an] equal number of people,” and “they should be as compact as possible.” They then ran eight different simulations, some of which gave greater preferences to compact districts over equal population, while others placed greater emphasis on maintaining exact population. Seven of the eight simulations did not produce a single map where Democrats won less than five congressional seats, assuming that every voter who cast a vote for a Democrat or a Republican in 2012 would have cast the same vote under the simulated maps. The one simulation that did produce a handful of outlier maps where Democrats won only four seats did so “in less than 5% of the samples.”

Thus, the actual result of the 2012 elections — four Democratic congressional seats in North Carolina — did not even show up in all but one of Mattingly and Vaughn’s simulations. In the simulation where it did arise, it did so only in a few unusual cases. It is exceedingly unlikely that North Carolina’s GOP-friendly maps could have arisen organically. Rather, as Mattingly and Vaughn demonstrate, they are almost certainly the product of a legislature that carefully designed the maps to produce a desired result. The study’s authors argue that this result cries out for an independent check on redistricting — “The fact that the election outcomes are so dependent on the choice of redistrictings demonstrates the need for checks and balances to ensure that democracy is served when redistrictings are drawn and the election outcome is representative of the votes casted.”

Which brings us back to the Supreme Court. In the 2004 case Vieth v. Jubelirer, a total of four conservative justices joined an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia arguing that federal courts should not get involved in partisan gerrymandering cases. The essence of Scalia’s argument in Vieth is that courts are simply unable to come up with a legally manageable standard for determining which gerrymanders cross the line when they become impermissible. According to Scalia, “no judicially discernible and manageable standards for adjudicating political gerrymandering claims have emerged.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion in which he also lamented the fact that such a standard has not yet emerged — although he seemed more open than Scalia to the possibility that it could emerge in the future. “When presented with a claim of injury from partisan gerrymandering,” Kennedy wrote, “courts confront two obstacles.” The first is a “lack of comprehensive and neutral principles for drawing electoral boundaries,” and the second is “the absence of rules to limit and confine judicial intervention.” While judges might have an intuition that a particular gerrymander crosses the line where it unconstitutionally favors the members of one party over another, Kennedy was not aware of any “comprehensive and neutral principles” that could be used to judge each congressional map to determine whether it crossed the line.

That is the genius of Mattingly and Vaughn’s study. It creates an objective methodology for assessing whether a map is impermissibly gerrymandered. Admittedly, judges would still have to apply some discretion to determine how skewed a map must be before it must be struck down. What if 10 percent of the maps produced using Mattingly and Vaughn’s methodology were in line with actual election results? What the number were 20 percent? But in truly egregious cases like North Carolina, any reasonable judge can recognize that the map could not have resulted from a fair and neutral process.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Court’s present majority — all five members of the Court’s current conservative bloc have expressed at least some reluctance to decide partisan gerrymandering cases — will allow judges to reach this question. Should the Court’s majority change in the coming years, however, Mattingly and Vaughn may have provided that new majority with the tools they need to eliminate North Carolina-style gerrymandering in the future.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 December 2014 at 7:40 am

Posted in Election, GOP, Government, Law

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