Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hanging Chads 2008

During the 2000 Florida recount, voters were appalled to discover how many punched card ballots were regularly discarded. There was a groundswell movement to replace them with something better. The first reaction was to switch to voting machines. They offer several advantages. There are not overvotes (voting for two candidates) and they can warn about undervotes (not voting for all candidates). Counting is swift and accurate.

But as the 2004 election neared, some Democrats noticed that the voting machine manufacturers were Republicans and the head of one of them promised to "do whatever it takes to re-elect President Bush". They ignored the fact that he said this at a fund-raiser and assumed that he meant that his voting machines could be manipulated to steal the election. After Bush won the 2004 vote we saw several stories where someone found suspicious voting pattern that might indicate fraud. None of these stood up to scrutiny but the controversy still caused a change in voting machine requirements. They would have to print a log at the same time that the vote was recorded. The voter could check this to be sure that his vote had been recorded properly. If there was a question about the machine's accuracy, the log could be compared with the tabulated count.

This should have ended it but Democrats were still convinced that voting machines could not be trusted. They settled on optical mark ballots as being the best way to vote. Ohio Secretary of State Brunner even commissioned a study that proved that, given unlimited access to voting machines, it was possible to alter the results. The study did not evaluate optical mark ballots but Brunner still maintained that it proved that the paper ballots were better.

As envisioned by Brunner, the voter would fill out a ballot by filling in the circle next to the candidate's name. The voter would then feed the ballot into a scanner which would verify that there were not overcounts or undercounts. The ballots would then be collected and transferred to a central location where they would be counted.

So how did that work out? A judicial recount in Florida came up with conflicting results. After hand-counting the ballots the officials found that the optical mark readers were inconsistent. Some ballots would be approved even though the circle wasn't completely filled out. Others were rejected for no discernible reason.

Things are even worse in Minnesota. Look at the challenged ballots here and say that voter intent in always clear with optical mark ballots. Control of the Senate may hing on whether a ballot should be disqualified because the voter wrote "Lizard Man" as a write-in but actually voted for a regular candidate.

Optical mark is just as bad as punched card. While voting machines have their own problems, they are still the most reliable method of counting votes that we have available. That said, the voting machine companies should open their code to independent analysis.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Neo-Puritans

Bruce Wilson at the Huffington Post points out that for centuries the war of Christmas came from the protestant right. He is correct. First the dour Scots and then the humorless English puritans outlawed Christmas outright. As the name "Christ Mass" suggests, they found the holiday to be too Catholic with some pagan traditions thrown in.

The ban was not particularly successful in England and was repealed in the 1660. Still, the holiday became less and less important until Dickens revived it with a series of Christmas-themed books (A Christmas Carol was the first and most popular). In America the holiday was looked down on by sober authorities since it was mainly celebrated in the 18th century by wassailing. This consisted of going door to door asking for wassail (spiced beer) - sort of an adult trick or treat. The holiday was reinvented by Washington Irving and others as the event we think of.

While there are people on the far religious right who still object to Christmas, these are not the people who refer to "Winter Holiday Trees". In fact the Puritans had a lot in common with today's left. Where the typical Church of England member had a general live and let live attitude, the Puritans were all for making everyone live like Puritans. Some examples:

The Puritans outlawed foods such as mince meat (associated with Christmas). They were against gluttony and drunkenness.
The neo-Puritans are against foods such as trans-fat and fast food. They worry about an obesity crisis.

The Puritans outlawed plays (all plays) as being immoral.
The neo-Puritans want to outlaw talk radio.

The Puritans were strong believers in censorship.
The neo-Puritans have passed speech codes and hate-speech legislation.

The Puritans were against outward displays of wealth as being too worldly. They outlawed the fashionable slashes in clothing.
The neo-Puritans are against large houses (McMansions), large cars, and other signs of wealth.

The Puritans burnt people for blasphemy.
The neo-Puritans have proposed prosecuting global warming deniers for crimes against humanity.

All of this sounds a bit silly until you remember that today's New England liberals are the decedents of the Puritans. That old urge to repress is still there, it just morphed around a bit.

Sarah Palin and Gotcha Reporting

There has been a buzz the last couple of days because Sarah Palin did an interview at a turkey farm. During the interview, someone in the background slaughtered a couple of turkeys. This is being reported as yet another example of Palin's cluelessness. It is not. It is an example of "gotcha" reporting.

If you are interested, there is a link to the video here. This was no accident. The cameraman deliberately filmed this. You can tell this because of an important detail in the video - the framing. The camera is off to Palin's side. This could be because there are other cameras but Palin is off-center. If the camera had centered on her then the guy killing the turkey would have been cut off. What is more, during interviews the camera often drifts around a bit as the speaker moves. You would expect the turkeys to move in and out of frame. This doesn't happen.

So a cameraman realized that he was shooting compromising footage of Palin. He didn't try to minimize it or warn the governor that this was happening. Instead he shot it then notified the networks. MSNBC showed it as "breaking news". Would they have even covered Palin's interview otherwise? Of course not.

Equally noticeable is how this is presented. "She didn't notice what was happening behind her." What an idiot! Everyone else has eyes in the back of their head.

Palin first got a reputation as an airhead when Katie Couric asked her to name some Supreme Court cases that she disagreed with. This sounds reasonable until you think about it. Unless you are a constitutional scholar you think of the result of Supreme Court opinions, not the names. The names are seldom even reported. I'm sure that Couric knew this. Asking that question meant that Palin responses were likely to either be, "The one about property rights," and sound like an idiot or to simply draw a blank and sound like an idiot.

Notice that no one asked Barack Obama this question, even though he taught constitutional law. Instead he got an infinitely easier question about the justices themselves.

A reporter did the same thing to George Bush in 2000 - he was asked to name the presidents of several governments. When he could not it was reported that he was unprepared for international affairs. I saw one columnist who specialized in international affairs who admitted that he couldn't answer the questions, either.

This is one way that bias affects reporters. They will ask candidates that they want defeated questions that seem reasonable but are not. If the candidate fails to answer the question then other reporters quickly tell the world.

On the other hand, if their favored candidate says something like that there are 57 states then they make allowances and the story never escapes the blogosphere.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bailout and the Alternatives

The UAW has been making a PR blitz warning the consequences of not providing a multi-billion dollar bailout for the big three car makers. Among their points:

  • There will be a cascade effect as auto parts suppliers and dealers go out of business with up to three million unemployed.
  • Labor costs only make up 5%-8% of the cost of a car so the unions are not to blame. The real culprit is demand which has dropped by half.
  • The union has already made concessions that, when fully implemented, will make union labor competitive.
  • It is vital to preserve the country's manufacturing base.
These points are not as honest and straightforward as the UAW makes them seem. There are several flaws in their reasoning.

First, there are two types of bankruptcy: Chapter 11 and Chapter 13. Chapter 11 shelters a company from its creditors while it reorganizes. Often it renegotiates its debts and contracts at a discount. Chapter 11 is for companies that have a good chance of becoming successful given this shelter. Chapter 13 is for companies that have no chance at staying in business. A company in Chapter 13 is closed and its assets sold off. Chapter 13 mainly defines the order that its creditors will receive the funds gained by selling its assets.

The big three are currently talking Chapter 11, not Chapter 13. That means that some factories, suppliers, and dealers will be closed but not all. This also lets them renegotiate their union contracts. The UAW and the big three have argued that no one will buy a car from a company in Chapter 11 so it will eventually lead to Chapter 13. This is not a given.

What is more, people are still buying cars. If they stop buying from the big three then they will buy from Honda, Toyota, and other foreign competitors. This will give new markets to the parts suppliers and dealers.

The same thing is true for the American manufacturing base. Cars will still be made in America.

What has not been addressed is that the big three have been losing money on everything but the most profitable pick-ups and SUVs for years. The union has made some concessions on new employees but none on the current employees and retirees whose costs are killing the car companies.

There are other problems like an excess of dealers that can only be solved by Chapter 11. A bailout will just let the problems continue.

One irony in this is that Chrysler is included in the list of American car makers. Just a few months ago they were a German-owned company. Currently they are owned by an investment group which has international investors.

The real reason that Chrysler is included and that the bailout is being discussed at all is the UAW. The big three are one of the few bastions of unionization. The unions have been funding Democrats for years. Now they want a return on their investment.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Secretary of State Hillary?

Last Winter and Spring Hillary Clinton emphasized her international experience. In return, the Obama campaign pointed out that heavily scripted publicity events do not really equate to foreign policy experience. It also turned out that Hillary exaggerated her experience. She claimed to have been under threats from snipers at one airport but a rock star who accompanied her at the time denied this. She claimed to have been part of the Irish peace process but an examination of her schedule showed that her presence at the talks was a fifteen minute meet and greet meeting. Her foreign policy experience became fodder for late night stand-up routines.

So why is she now qualified for Secretary of State? I'd like to hear someone from the Obama transition team to at least admit the paradox.

One of the big failings of the Clinton presidency was his secretaries of state. Warren Christopher was generally ineffective and Madeline Albright was easily manipulated by Arafat and others. The Bush administration spent its first term at odds with its own state department (including the Plame leak). Obama needs someone who is better prepared for this position.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mandates vs a Chance

The Democrats are convinced that winning the last couple of elections means that they have a mandate to implement their agenda. That's not quite how elections work. As this post at Powerline points out:
Consider this year's election. The liberal Democrats did not return to power because of this or that domestic policy idea or because, more generally, they had conducted a sober reassessment of liberal dogma following prior setbacks. They returned to power, without having revised much of anything, because the electorate was sick of the Republican administration. This scenario is the rule in presidential politics, not the exception.
This is a generalization and I'm sure that many voters voted for some specific proposal that Obama made, especially the dollar amounts he promised. Never the less a lot of people who voted for Bush switched to Obama. It is silly to say that these swing voters suddenly went from center-right to hard left. They voted for the other side because the felt that the Republicans screwed things up.

That doesn't mean that the Democrats can't try changing things. That is their real mandate - change. Specifically, change that you can believe in.

The Democrats' mandate is to make the country run better. How they do it is left to them but the voters are watching. If they succeed and Obama is reelected then they have a mandate to continue. Reagan won in 1980 because things got worse under Carter. By 1984 things were noticeably better and Reagan won vindication in that election (plus his vice-president was elected by about the same margin the Obama got). The voters judged Reagan and voted in his favor.

All of this makes it east for Obama and the Democrats to overreach. They want to reshape society but their mandate is really a lot more specific - make things better. If they manage to bring peace and prosperity then they will be forgiven for anything else they do along the way.

They do have a shot at this. The economic news is scary enough to let them push through some drastic measures. Opportunities like this don't happen often. Economic disasters allowed FDR and Reagan chances to make major changes. LBJ used the shock of JFK's assassination to push through a radical agenda as a memorial to JFK.

At the same time, the measures that Obama and the Democrats are planning are likely to hurt the economy. If the economy fails to improve then the Republicans will have a mandate - to reverse Obamanomics.

Unfortunately, this means that Republicans are not in control of their own future. They need to have something to offer but they will not have the chance until the Democrats stumble.

Friday, November 14, 2008


I didn't blog about the bank bailouts because I didn't know what to make of it. As presented it didn't sound too bad. The government would buy up bad debtors (mainly mortgages) and hold the loan for a while. Eventually the property would sell and the government would recoup some or all of the investment. Now it turns out that this wasn't fast enough. Instead the government is buying equity stakes in banks. Instead of becoming a mortgage holder, we are becoming partners with the large banks. The banks insist that this let them release credit faster and that the money cannot be used for dividends or golden parachutes. I'm not so sure about this nor do I like that fact that they had to add "sweeteners" (big earmarks) into the original legislation. I have reservations but I accept that this affects the entire country's financial system.

The same case cannot be made for the big three automotive manufacturers.

Around 30 years ago, Chrysler for into trouble. They had a large inventory of big, low-mileage cars. They asked for and received loan guarantees from the government. They used these to redesign their fleet, first with the K-car and later inventing the minivan.

That's not what is happening now. All three companies want direct loans and/or grants. There is little talk about where the money will go. What talk I have heard is from activists who want it to be targeted at green technology. None of this helps the American auto industry.

First, this crisis has been coming for a long time. Detroit has long admitted that it cannot compete in the automotive market. Their profits have rested completely on high-margin SUVs. The main reason that they continued to sell smaller cars was to increase their average fleet mileage. Their costs per car were too high. They pay around 50% more per hour for labor than other car companies. And by "other" car companies, I mean non-unionized auto makers.

Giving the auto makers a handout without gaining major concessions from the unions is a waste of time. We are just supporting them for a while in the hope that the SUV market picks up again.

Giving them money with the stipulation that they only be allowed to build green cars is worse. It leaves the current problems in place and forces them to make cars that may not sell.

Take the just-announced Volt as an example. This is a great piece of technology. It has an all-electric drive-train. You can plug it in to charge. It also has a gas-driven generator on-board which will charge the batteries on the fly. This is what hybrid cars should be. But it will cost $40,000. I can't afford one, not even with gas $5 a gallon. If this is the only thing they sell then they are out of business.

Two special-interest groups are pushing the bailout. The pro-labor group wants bailouts with no strings attached. The greens want to force them to build green cars that may not sell. Both groups are pushing ideology above long-term viability.

Here is the Republicans' first chance at rehabilitation. They should oppose this bail-out unless it includes huge union concessions and allows the car companies enough flexibility to adapt to the market (i.e. build cars that people want to drive).

There are no votes for the Republicans in supporting the bailout. The Democrats will get all of the credit and the groups most affected - mainly unions - are the core support of the Democrats.

The big lesson of Bush's compassionate conservatism is that Republicans cannot compete with Democrats on handing out money. The Democrats will not give them any credit for it and it makes them indistinguishable from the opposition. In 2006 the Democrats ran as the party of fiscal restraint. It is time for the Republicans to reclaim that title (especially since the Democrats have abandoned it so that they will not handicap Obama). A lot of conservative and moderate voters are disenchanted with big-government Republicans and voted Democratic in the last couple of elections.

Early in his administration, Bush and Karl Rove decided that there are no votes in small-government. They would jettison the Libertarian wing and count on evangelicals to win elections. This is a chance for the Republicans in Congress to distance themselves from a lame-dusk president and invite the Libertarians back to the table.

Even if the table is set in the wilderness.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Looking Forward to the Midterm Elections

It's pretty much an iron rule of politics - the longer a new president's coattails the worse his losses will be in his first mid-term election. This is even more true when economic conditions are bad.

Let's look at the last three two-term presidents. Reagan was elected after years of high inflation and unemployment. The country was just slipping into a recession in 1980 and the economy was still in bad shape in 1982. Republicans took a beating in the election.

In 1992 Clinton was elected during a recession. His margin or victory and his majority in Congress were nearly identical to Obama's. In the 1994 election he lost both houses of Congress.

George W. Bush is the exception. He actually made a slight gain in 2002. There were a few mitigating factors here. He was elected without coattails in 2000 and the country was at war in 2002. Bush's post 9/11 approval rating was still high.

This history is important for Republicans trying to chart a new path. They are being told that Reaganism has run its course and they need to find new ideals or risk a long time in the wilderness. History says that this is not so. The same thing was said about Reaganism in 1992 but limited government Republicans were able to take Congress back in 1994.

Obama himself is proof that you don't need new ideas. He ran on the New Deal. If he can repackage FDR 76 years later then Republicans can resurrect Reagan. It's not like Bush was a Reagan believer. He was a believer in big government solutions to everything. He called it compassionate conservatism. This was a problem for him when government inevitably failed (Katrina).

Republicans can spend the next two years distancing themselves from Bush's domestic policies.

In the meantime, it is unlikely that Obama will magically fix the economy. Economic recovery takes time even under a mild recession. If Obama listens to his supporters, especially unions, then he will make the recession much worse, guaranteeing a Republican sweep in two years.

Of course, history also has Reagan and Clinton recovering from their mid-term losses and being reelected during an economic boom. On the other hand, Carter had back to back recessions and lost. George H. W. Bush also lost in a recession.

History's final lesson - even talented charismatic presidents get low approval ratings during an extended recession. This happened to both Reagan and Clinton. If Obama manages to screw the economy up badly enough then the country will throw him out.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why McCain Lost

Barrack Obama won the election, John McCain lost. That was always expected. The surprise is that McCain did as well as he did. Examining this is important for figuring out how to win future elections.

First, Obama had lost of advantages. He has a golden tongue. He also had the golden touch for fund raising. He raised several times as much as the federal funds that McCain used. In addition, the public is sick of President Bush. Finally, Obama's race helped him. I'm tired of hearing that Obama won in spite of his race. He gained a lot of votes from blacks and hispanics who voted on the basis of his race. He also gave whites the chance to feel virtuous by voting for someone with dark skin.

McCain never came up with a convincing narative. He had a great rapid-response team but little long-term message.

Despite all of this, the election was not a blow-out. Obama led in the polls for most of the Summer but his lead was within the margin of error. McCain pulled ahead after the conventions only to fall behind in mid-September. Had things gone differently he might very well have kept his lead and won the election.

So what happened?

One thing that didn't happen was Sarah Palin. It is true that the left piled so much muck on her that some stuck. Regardless, the people who think that she was a mistake overlook the alternative. Palin added a lot of excitement to the election. If McCain had gone with a conventional approach like Mit Romney the electorate would have gone to sleep.

Really, three things happened that cost McCain a shot at the White House.

The first was the war in Iraq. It went from unwinnable to victory. This happened too soon for McCain to take advantage of. Yes, he was right about the surge and Obama was wrong but the war had fallen out of the news cycle by mid-August. By the election it was low of voters' priorities.

The same thing happened with gas prices. McCain was for increasing domestic oil production. This might not produce results for years but Obama's renewable energy proposals will not produce for decades. As long as gas was above $4/gallon McCain had a winning issue. With gas back to $2/gallon, no one cared.

These were McCain's strong points. If they were still relevant at the election he stood a good chance of winning. Instead, we had the third event, the economy.

Obama never announced a plan to fix the economy beyond some more government stimulous checks and bail-outs. He didn't need to. All he had to do was to run ads linking Bush, McCain, and the economy. McCain had lots of plans - too many - and as a Congressman he couldn't distance himself from failing institutions.

So what can we learn from this? The economy gave Obama the presidency, not his progressive agenda. Voters want change but Obama was vague enough during the campaign that his idea of change is probably radically different from the voters'. His main promise was for tax cuts for nearly everyone (paid for by the remainder). He also promised to fix the economy. He didn't talk about the rest of his platform much.

This gives Obama a very clear and specific mandate - fix the economy and hand out money. Fixing the economy is beyond a president's powers and he is already backtracking on the tax cuts.

The rest of Obama's adenda is outside his mandate. He might get some form of health care passed. This will be tricky since it affects so many people. If he get it wrong he will lose the electorate.

A lot of Obama's primary promises will hurt the economy in general even if they help targeted portions (unions). Unless the economy is booming in 2010 Republicans will be hitting him hard on anything that hurts the economy.

All of this gives Republicans a shot at retaking Congress in 2010 without doing anything on their own. They can build on this but they have to take the right path. Bush-style big government Republicans will not have a message to use against big government Democrats. They have to go back to being the party of limited government. In 2008 limited government sounded outdated. It will make a comeback after Obama expands (or tries to expand) the government.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Things to take consolation from

Now that the election is over and Obama and the democrats won, there are still some things that Republicans can take solace from. Some of them are pretty meager but you take what you can get.

First there is the big one - the Democrats didn't win as big as they could have. There are still enough Republicans in the Senate to filibuster. Likewise, Obama won convincingly but his margin of victory was typical - somewhere between Bush jr's win in 2004 and Bush sr's win in 1988 or Clinton in 1992 and 1996. It was way short of Reagan's win in 1984.

So, the country has not made a dramatic shift to the left. Republicans still have a shot at the White House and Congress, especially when they are not weighed down by an unpopular president.

That brings me to the second point - the Democrats are now in charge. They cannot blame the Republicans for anything. I know that they will try. They will insist that they inherited unsolvable problems brought on by Bush. The public will cut them some slack for a year or two but they were elected to solve problems. If they don't come up with results quickly then they get the blame.

Which brings me to the fun part. It can be frustrating to be on the outside of government looking in but it is also easier. Just ask Rush Limbaugh. When your side is in power then you end up carrying a lot of water for them. This works for the other side, as well. Back in the late 1990s the opening monologues of shows like Politically Incorrect and the Daily Show came straight from the Democratic Message of the Day. Did these comedians really enjoy saying that lying under oath is the same as telling stories in a locker room? Come January, they are going to be stuck making excuses for the Obama administration. No more cheap applause lines ("When Bush and Cheney get together they kill puppies."). Now the right gets to make cheap shots.

Let's face it, a McCain administration wasn't going to be good for the Republicans. By the end of the campaign he was promising more federal bailouts and budget deficits than Obama. It's hard to be the party of fiscal restraint when your top guy is in a bidding war with the Democrats. The economy has been getting worse but so far it hasn't affected everyday people much. This will change over the next year or two and no one can stop it. If McCain was in the White House then Republicans would get the blame in the 2010 election. With Obama as president then Democrats will probably lose some seats and the Republicans can start rebuilding.

This segues into my next point - it's time to rebuild a conservative coalition and that could not be done with Bush of McCain in the White House. Bush and Rove wrecked the Reagan coalition of social conservatives and fiscal conservative. They figured that there are no votes in cutting government so they expanded it. A lot. By every measure, government is bigger than it was when Clinton left office. It was so bad that the Democrats ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility in 2006 (this was quietly dropped for 2008). Since he didn't appeal to a wide coalition, Bush barely won his elections. McCain appealed to pretty much the same crowd but couldn't pull in the same numbers.

With tax and spend Democrats in charge, Republicans need to reassert themselves as the party that keeps government off your back. This means turning their back on No Child Left Behind and some other accomplishments of the Bush administration. These didn't help Bush's popularity so they should be little loss.

One final consolation. As of this writing, Al Frankin lost the most expensive senate race in history by a narrow vote.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Obama and the Media

You already knew it but a couple of articles appeared about Obama and the Media. Surprise - they favor him over McCain by an overwhelming percentage.

Here is an anonymous writer confessing on behalf of his profession.
Forbes readers may scoff at Barack Obama as the messiah, but we don't. Give him eight years in the Oval Office, and the man with the most liberal voting record in the Senate will move the whole country our way. The One will make us "mainstream" once again. He might even make us profitable once again.
Here are the results of the bias.

Comments made by sources, voters, reporters and anchors that aired on ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts over the past two months reflected positively on Obama in 65 percent of cases, compared to 31 percent of cases with regards to McCain, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
{...} "For whatever reason, the media are portraying Barack Obama as a better choice for president than John McCain," said Robert Lichter, a George Mason University professor and head of the center. "If you watch the evening news, you'd think you should vote for Obama."