Nov 112012

Ah, those weeks following an American presidential election. Tempers calm, fanaticism wanes, and wishful thinking becomes wistful thinking. The news is all about deconstruction of the results, and peace reigns until next year (when everything ramps up again before the mid-terms).

So what is the deconstruction?

Both sides are postulating the existence of a permanent Democratic majority in the American populace, a turning point reached wherein there are no longer enough people in the country who benefit from Republican policies to be able to elect them. Talk on blogs is of the 47% plus the 1% in permanent coalition (though that still only makes 48%).

Looking at the results on the map, though, I’m not sure I get that. Obama won in the states the Democrats usually win in, and Romney won in the states Republicans usually win in.

Why, then, is there all this talk of Republicans never taking the presidency again? Why is Janet Daley writing in the Telegraph about the Europeanisation of the American electorate when all that happened was that a Democratic incumbent won again? They sometimes do, you know. Clinton did. The pendulum swings back.

Maybe it’s something to do with why people voted the way they did. Election analysis, pre- and post-, loves to delve into “what the election is all about.” I remember in 2004, people were saying the election was being fought on values: patriotism, Jesus, and the American Way. Bush won because Americans were still proud of themselves and thought America was the greatest place on Earth. Kerry lost because he was “too European” and considered a dweeb who had never done an honest day’s work.

That certainly wasn’t what the election in 2008 was about. You don’t vote for hope and change unless you feel hopeless and stuck, so there was something wrong with the brand already.

What happened to the brand? Did people stop believing in the American dream? Is the United States still the land of the free, where an honest day’s work gets you an honest day’s pay?

I’m not sure what people thought in 2008, but I’m pretty sure I know what they think now: the American Way is a clapped-out clunker. If you’re an Average Joe, working in an average job, paying down a modest mortgage, bringing up a modest family, and modest town somewhere, you don’t expect your country to fail you. After all, you’re doing your bit. When, for no reason you can divine, your company goes bust, you lose your job, your house is repossessed, and you have to go on food stamps, you kinda lose that patriotism, don’t you? You definitely lose your pride.

And here comes this Romney guy, talking about how he stands for hard-working Americans and the virtue of honest toil, and you probably hate him just a little bit for it. If his American Way is so great, how come your life sucks so much?

Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame for the economic situation in the US and around the world. What mattered in this election was the number of Americans who knew it wasn’t their fault, and who couldn’t understand this dude effectively telling them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. If that worked, they might have thought to themselves, they’d have done it already. But just as they clearly had no power to prevent the collapse, neither did they feel like they had the power to recover from it through their own efforts.

And I think that’s basically why Obama won. He acknowledged that these average people were both blameless and powerless, and suggested that as it was the government that got them into this mess, thus it was the government’s duty to get them out of it again.

So all of the chatter in the aftermath that this election was fought on how Americans feel about the role of their government is right; I just think the commentators have it backwards. American voters haven’t embraced big government as the way to a fairer society (although maybe some of them have). They’ve looked big government in the eye and said “You sons of bitches broke it. Now you fucking fix it. We’ll just sit over here and wait until you’re done.”

There’s a degree to which I sympathise with this point of view, but I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed. There’s a reason people say “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always wins.” The solution to the problem isn’t more of the problem, and if you feel like the much-abused little guy getting stomped all over by the powers that be, you’re crazy if you think a nice guy like Obama is going to be able to put a stop to the stomping.

Obama probably is a nice guy, and probably wants to help, but fundamentally he is one guy amongst hundreds of thousands of government apparatchiks, special interest groups, think tanks, and corporate donors. And he is certainly one guy who said he was going to put a stop to the stomping in 2008, and totally failed. But I agree that he probably had more credibility in claiming this than Romney.

There is one outcome from this election that nobody seems to have made much of yet, and that is the announcement of Ron Paul Kenobi’s retirement. Americans, he says, would rather have the Empire than freedom, and least he can retire and not, like Cato Uticensis, feel compelled to put a sword through himself.

This article is not so much Lucas or Plutarch, though, as it is Seuss:

The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance
just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance
as he lifted himself by the seat of his pants.
And I’ll never forget the grim look on his face
when he hoisted himself and took leave of this place
through a hole in the smog, without leaving a trace.
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks with one word…UNLESS.

Nov 072012

Last time we spoke, I had some predictions for ye olde election, and they all came true. Just call me Cassandra. Allow me to refresh your memory.

(1) Obama will win.*

He did.

(2) It won’t matter that Obama has won…Republicans don’t have to vote for Romney to piss in Obama’s cornflakes, they only have to vote for Republican congressional candidates, which they will do.

They did. The Republicans have kept the House. I HOPE Obama is looking FORWARD to the total absence of CHANGE in the House’s attitude toward his policies. It’s going to be a hard four years for the guy, and I hope all of those people who said he would use this second term to really fix his slice on the golf course are right, otherwise we might see the first presidential suicide in history.

If Obama thinks he’s had a hard time up to now, it’s nothing compared to what he’ll suffer when his apologists melt away because they don’t have to care about getting him re-elected any more. They’ll be looking for their 2016 candidate at 8am on 7th November.

Turns out I was late to the party on this one. This New York Times article from 6 September states:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Whether President Obama wins or loses in November, one thing is certain for Democrats on the morning after Election Day: the 2016 auditions begin.

A buncha people I’ve never heard of are in the running, plus Joe Biden (not fucking likely), Hillary Clinton (okay, maybe) and Andrew Cuomo (he’ll be lucky if he’s even still governor of New York by that point).

Then, the prediction I was most certain would happen:

(3) Paul Ryan’s career in the big-time is over.

He didn’t even carry his home state.

Ryan is toast.

*Looking on the bright side: at least I don’t have to retire my “oops! Obama” tag.

Sep 302012

(1) Obama will win.

Not even Romney’s own party likes Romney all that much, so any vote for Romney is essentially a vote against Obama. And while there are a lot of people out there who would enjoy sticking it to Obama, all of the presidential elections I’ve been alive for suggest that “voting against” is vastly inferior to “voting for” as a source of motivation.

Just ask Mondale, George HW Bush, Dole, and Kerry. Especially Kerry.

(2) It won’t matter that Obama has won.

If Obama thinks he’s had a hard time up to now, it’s nothing compared to what he’ll suffer when his apologists melt away because they don’t have to care about getting him re-elected any more. They’ll be looking for their 2016 candidate at 8am on 7th November. Republicans don’t have to vote for Romney to piss in Obama’s cornflakes, they only have to vote for Republican congressional candidates, which they will do.

I think the Republican party knows this, and therefore haven’t really exerted themselves to put up a compelling candidate. As Andy Parsons put it on “Mock the Week” the other night, they’ve decided to run a guy who lost the nomination to the guy who lost the nomination to George W Bush. Many critics from within the Republican camp attribute this to an “it’s his turn” mentality, but I think it’s probably just that the party bigwigs don’t give a crap this time around.

Any Republican who won this year would probably be a one-term president, because the economy is in the shitter and you can bet that the media—who are ignoring this point at the moment to help out Obama—wouldn’t be ignoring it in 2016 if the incumbent were a Republican.

Much better to give Romney his way, shrug sadly when he loses, and proceed to torment the ever-loving shit out of a now-friendless Obama for four years, thus paving the way for a charismatic Republican to win in 2016 and 2020.

(3) Paul Ryan’s career in the big-time is over.

There is nothing more damaging in American politics than being the VP candidate to a guy who loses. I mean, apart from their VP run, do these names mean anything to you?

  • Geraldine Ferraro
  • Lloyd Bentsen
  • Jack Kemp
  • John Edwards

Okay, that last one might mean something to you because he’s now known as the guy who was indicted for using campaign funds to cover up the affair and love child he had while his wife was dying of cancer. But if that hadn’t happened, John Edwards would be a total nobody.

I won’t be voting in this election because I don’t believe in this faux-democratic bullshit and I don’t support either party. But I’m going to give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ve used this presidential election, which it wouldn’t benefit them to win, to purge the lunatics, also-rans, and has-beens from the nomination slate, and are gearing up to stick it to their weakened, herdless prey.

I mean, it’s what they did to Clinton, and that turned out pretty well, no?

Dec 282011

Somewhat strangely this year, I find myself in possession of a vote of higher value than normal. Allow me to elaborate:

  • In 2008, the presidential popular vote in North Carolina was extremely close. Obama won the state’s electoral college votes by a margin of 0.32%, the equivalent of about 19,000 votes.
  • The current US Senate has 51 Democrats and 47 Republicans. Of these, North Carolina supplies 1 Democrat and 1 Republican.
  • The current US House of Representatives has 193 Democrats and 242 Republicans. Of these, North Carolina supplies 7 Democrats and 6 Republicans.

All of which means that, for the first time I can ever actually remember, North Carolina is an important swing state, where candidates are suddenly bothering to campaign—the Democrats have even chosen North Carolina’s biggest city to host their national convention this year. North Carolina might therefore just become a deciding factor in this year’s federal elections, and my vote, historically puny and pointless, this year carries some weight.

(Although not in the primaries, thanks to the NC General Assembly’s long-standing and well-attested tradition of constant gerrymandering.)

I thought I might bring this up for the purpose of drawing attention to a basic and amusing irony: I, suddenly possessed of an important vote, nevertheless don’t care; while many foreigners, possessed of no votes in the American elections at all, would give their eye-teeth to have it. What the United States political class does, so the argument goes, affects the world, so the world should have a vote. And yet it doesn’t, but I do.

And this is likely to be a dirty-fought and close-won election, in both legislative and executive branches.

I have therefore decided to offer my federal vote to one non-American person who gives a shit that is statistically significant from zero. I will vote the way you want in the presidential and congressional elections, whether it be for specific candidates or a straight-ticket party or not at all, or even spoil my ballot with amusing sayings. I stress that this is a gift, not a trade; I am conversant with North Carolina general statute 163-275 making it a class I felony to accept any thing of value whatsoever in return for my vote.

Therefore, any person who would like to take up this offer of mine must be scrupulously conspicuous in offering me no value for it at all; in fact, it might even be better if such persons were to cause me a loss of value somehow, for example by kicking me in the shins or making me buy them pints.

Takers in the comments, please.

Feb 202011

Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer today has written a fairly ridiculous article in which he complains that FPTP supporters spend too much of their time being negative about AV, and uses the second half of the article to be negative about supporters of FPTP.

But let’s pass over this lack of self-awareness and give him a bit of credit; he does lay out succinctly what are supposed to be the advantages of AV:

I do think it would be a fairer and more appropriate electoral system for contemporary Britain. It will be a worthwhile improvement if MPs have to gather some form of support from at least half of the voters. The parties will be impelled to engage with more parts of the country than just a minority of marginals and it will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies.

I’d like to address these points a bit more seriously than I did yesterday.

First: the claim that AV is more appropriate for contemporary Britain. By Rawnsley’s lights this may well be the case, but what is so different about contemporary Britain? If AV is appropriate now for the reasons he gives, it has always been appropriate, and FPTP is a bastard system that has always been unfair and unrepresentative. And if this is true of FPTP in Britain, it is true of FPTP everywhere and at all times. Rawnsley does not address why, then, most democratic countries use FPTP.

Second: that MPs will have to gather support from at least half the voters. This is probably right, for certain values of ‘support’ and ‘half.’ For one thing, nothing in AV necessitates that an MP will have the support of half the constituency electorate; only that s/he will have the support of half of those who actually voted. If we examine, for instance, the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election in January, we see that less than half of the electorate turned out. Already we are not going to have the majority of voters represented.

Furthermore, if we redistribute the votes from all but the top four parties (Lab, Lib, Con, UKIP) to Labour, for the sake of simplicity, their share of the votes cast goes from 42.1% to 49.3%—not enough to win under AV.

Now we have to play a little game. Which party would UKIP voters place as their second preference? Probably Conservative. If we distribute the UKIP votes to the Conservatives, our top three totals are as follows:

Labour: 49.3%
Lib Dem: 31.9%
Conservative: 18.6%

Still no majority. So we have to redistribute the Conservative votes to their second preferences, and the UKIP votes to their third preferences. I have a difficult time believing that either of these groups of voters would choose Labour as anything but their last wish, although some might have chosen parties already eliminated in earlier rounds. However, let us say that most of these votes would go to the Lib Dems next, so we’ll add another 15% to the Lib Dem share, giving us:

Labour: 49.3%
Lib Dem: 46.9%

Um, crap. We’re on our last two candidates. We’re certainly not going to start fiddling around with the second preferences of the Lib Dem voters, as that would be utterly absurd. But if we don’t, then we don’t have a candidate with at least 50.1% of the votes cast. So AV does not necessarily deliver MPs support from at least half the voters who voted.

Now obviously this is a rough and dirty calculation, that doesn’t take into account tactical voting. There may have been Conservatives who voted Lib Dem in the hope of keeping Labour out, as the Lib Dem candidate very nearly won in the general election. But that still doesn’t solve the problem that the Labour candidate, even if you very generously allow all of the smaller-party votes to them, would most likely not have achieved a 50.1% majority under AV. What happens in that case? A run-off, which would be less fair even than FPTP, since it would deny a good 50% of the voters to select a candidate they truly agreed with and thereby restrict voter choice even further? Who knows.

Third: the claim that AV would impel parties to engage with more of the country than just marginal constituencies. This, I fear, is a silly belief. Seats are ‘safe’ because a majority of the voters in those constituencies firmly and regularly support one party. Let us examine what is generally considered to be the safest seat in Britain: Bootle in Merseyside, which has been held by the Labour party since 1945. In that time, the Labour candidate has never won with less than 50% of the votes. The closest was in 1955, when the Labour candidate won with 52% of the vote. Since then, the Labour share has been well over 60%, once even as high as 83%. Other parties in Bootle simply do not have a chance, nor would they even under AV. This seat is not ‘safe’ because FPTP delivers a skewed result in which some people’s votes don’t count. This seat is ‘safe’ because the vast majority of voters there like Labour. And the fact that it’s ‘safe’ doesn’t appear to affect voter turnout; turnout in Bootle is no worse than anywhere else on average.

I’m not going to spend my whole afternoon trying to discover whether these facts are similar for all ‘safe’ seats, but I imagine they probably are. In which case, even under AV, I have a hard time believing Labour would bother directing its campaign effort at Bootle. Labour is in no danger whatsoever of being ousted from Bootle.

Parties will always campaign the hardest where they have to work the hardest to get elected, and I see no reason to think this would not also be the case under AV. It seems that the real complaint here is that parties don’t engage on a broad national level during election time, which is a pretty bizarre complaint if you ask me. A particular candidate need only bother engaging with the voters in his own constituency anyway; they’re the only ones who can vote for him. If his party as a whole focuses its campaign efforts elsewhere, that’s between him and his party, not between him and his voters. AV won’t solve this.

Fourth: AV will pay MPs to connect with more parts of their constituencies. If this is true, then MPs are damned stupid and there is simply no saving them. What candidate does not try to get the largest share of the vote possible? What candidate does not, already, try to increase his existing majority? In short, what candidate is not trying his damnedest to win? Show me this person. No, really: show me.

AV, therefore, is not a solution to minority majorities, safe seats, or MPs who don’t give a damn about the voters. It does not even make every vote ‘count,’ as there is still only one winner. At best, it is an opportunity for those who feel unrepresented by any major party to give their support to the candidate they dislike the least, and a chance to indicate that a vote for a party doesn’t necessarily equate with wholehearted support for that party.

But FPTP already permits people to send these signals. And send them the voters do. What, then, is the advantage of AV? That we would have a better way of quantifying these signals?

I mean, imagine how this would pan out. My MP is Chuka Umunna. Here is how he won:

Labour: 42.8%
Lib Dem: 35.8%
Conservative: 18.3%
All others: 3%

Let’s assume the Conservatives all give Lib Dem as their second preference (I have a hard time believing any real Conservative voter would choose Labour anything but last.) Under AV, it’s therefore possible that Chuka Umunna would have lost. But could anyone then claim that Chris Nicholson was supported by more than half the voters? No. A true statement would be that Umunna was supported by less than half the voters. Since the FPTP vote already delivers this message, there is no need for AV to send the signal. Another true statement would be that more than half the voters preferred someone other than Umunna. Again, we can see this from the FPTP vote. But why should this mean Nicholson deserves to win, when clearly more voters actively want Umunna than passively reject him? Those 42.8% of people who really want Labour are effectively disenfranchised by the fact that the Conservatives get to vote twice. How is this ‘fair’?

Or let’s examine it another way. Lots of people vote Lib Dem for tactical reasons—in the case of Streatham, probably as a vote against Labour. Under AV, the theory goes, people wouldn’t need to do this. Suppose a third of those Lib Dem votes were actually Conservatives in sheep’s clothing. Under AV, our first-preference result might look like this:

Labour: 42.8%
Conservatives: 30.1%
Lib Dem: 24%
All others: 3%

Let’s be generous and say that of those 24% of voters whose first preference is the Lib Dems, a third choose Labour second and two thirds choose the Conservatives. In which case Chuka Umunna wins, and AV delivers a result absolutely no different from FPTP: Chuka Umunna becomes MP for Streatham. Everything else an AV vote might tell us is academic.

If I studied the results from every constituency in the 2010 general election, I could probably show this again and again: AV would deliver an obviously unfair result, or one exactly the same as FPTP, or one where nobody manages to secure more than half of the votes. The more marginal the seat, the more likely an unfair or inconclusive result; the safer the seat, the less difference AV would make.

FPTP means that a candidate can win with less than half of the votes. Admittedly this is not great. But at least it means he was wanted by more voters than any other candidate was. At least it means every voter had exactly one vote of equal weight. Why should we reject this system for one in which some people’s half-hearted second preferences are held equal to others’ whole-hearted first, and may not even then deliver a conclusive result? That is not ‘fair’. That is the bastard system.

Feb 192011

I’ve decided that ‘electoral reform’ is an issue so utterly pointless in the modern British polity that it deserves me taking the piss.

For your pleasure and mine, I’m going to provide alternative answers to Yes2AV’s FAQs.

Q: How does AV work?
A: It destroys even the fig leaf political parties have to wear of possessing a consistent, unified ideology about how governing should take place, and instead replaces it with a system in which contradictory, populist vote-chasing sets of laughable ‘policies’ are constitutionally enshrined and pursued by all political parties at one and the same time.

Q: So what’s the point?
A: There is no point. You’ll still only get to vote every four years, and the Government will still do whatever the fuck it wants, manifestoes be damned.

Q: Isn’t that too confusing?
A: Only if you possess insufficient intelligence to observe that even under AV, your ‘fairer’ vote won’t necessarily deliver a candidate or Government of your choice.

Q: Isn’t it fair that the candidate with the most votes wins?
A: Nothing is fair when ‘fair’ is defined as ‘not losing, ever.’

Q: Doesn’t that mean that some people get two votes?
A: Yes. In fact, more than two; some people might get as many votes as n-1, where n is the number of candidates on the ballot paper. And even then, the candidate in second place still loses.

Q: Don’t you end up with the Least-Worst candidate?
A: You end up with a Labour or Lib Dem candidate. Whether you consider that ‘Least-Worst’ is up to you.

Q: Do I have to give a 2nd preference if I don’t have one?
A: Not yet. But it’s only a matter of time before all of this shit becomes compulsory in the name of ‘fairness.’

Q: Will my ballot change?
A: Yes. Right now the ballot is designed so that even the illiterate and innumerate can vote. Do you really think that a voting system that requires people to be able to count and write in actual numbers won’t result in a total re-design of the ballot to make it more accessible? Get real.

Q: Who uses AV?
A: Almost no other democratic country in the bloody world. The one that does—Australia—has had a hung Senate for 25 years. In its House of Representatives, the same two factions exchange control every couple of elections. But I guess this regularly alternating result, identical to what happens in the UK, is okay with the voters, since at least their votes were ‘fair.’ (UPDATE: Their votes were also compulsory.)

Q: Who benefits?
A: Whichever two of three main political parties are the most similar to each other.

Q: Who loses out?
A: Everybody else.

Q: Wouldn’t AV mean more hung Parliaments?
A: Probably. But surely that’s the idea? No winners = no losers = ‘fair.’

Q: Wouldn’t AV mean more tactical voting?
A: All voting is tactical. Get over it.

Q: What about the constituency link?
A: MPs who actually care about their constituents will do so whatever the electoral process. MPs who don’t, won’t. This is true even in marginal seats.

Q: Wouldn’t reform help minority parties like the BNP?
A: Of course not. Extremists don’t deserve ‘fair’ votes.

Q: Doesn’t the current system let us ‘kick the rascals out’?
A: Not really. But then, if Australia is any indication, neither will AV.

Q: Won’t election night take longer?
A: Yes. It will also be more susceptible to unintentionally spoilt ballots (“Hey, this one has two 1s! DOES NOT COMPUTE.’), mistakes (‘Are we on second preferences now, or third? I’ve been counting for 15 hours straight and I’m bleeding to death from paper cuts.’), and fraud (‘That 2 totally looks like a 1. Yay, another vote for Labour!’).

Q: Will AV boost turnout?
A: No. AV won’t make busy people less busy, apathetic people less apathetic, or disenfranchised foreigners, prisoners, and homeless people less disenfranchised.

Q: Will AV change things on the campaign trail?
A: Yes. Candidates will promise even more of the bland sameness than they do now. Good luck with your Hobson’s Choice.

Q: Why a referendum?
A: Because even though we elect representatives to make every other decision about our lives, our country, and our money, and this is considered right and proper in the case of (for instance) letting the people determine Britain’s role in the United States of Eurasia, whether we put Xs or numbers on a ballot paper every four years is way too important to be left up to those jokers. After all, this is the one instance in which the public choice problem is admitted to exist.

Q: Isn’t First-Past-the-Post a British tradition?
A: Yes. Which is why it MUST GO. You fucking racist.

Q: Do the public even care about voting reform?
A: No, which is why this referendum doesn’t require over 50% of the electorate to vote in it for it to count, and why it’s being held at the same time as notoriously low-turnout local elections. If the public really cared, as represented by their representatives, we’d get a special Referendum Holiday with voting booths on every street corner.

Q: Isn’t electoral reform just for Lib Dems?
A: No. It’s for Labour too.

Today’s episode has been brought to you by the colour There’sStillOnlyOneWinner and the letter GTFOverIt.

Jul 212010

[I wanted to leave this as a comment over at John Demetriou’s original post, but his implementation of Blogger rejects comments of more than 4,096 characters.]

JD, unlike your usual rants, this post is dire. I don’t mean that to be harsh, but you’re coming at this from an angle of misunderstanding that makes your ‘I don’t understand’ claims all too believable.

For one thing, you refer to ‘Americans’ and ‘the American people’ as if there is one collective American mind, and you find its schizophrenia puzzling. Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, it might be better to think of Americans as two collective minds: those who voted for Obama, and those who didn’t. For all sorts of reasons, he is and has been a polarising figure. And so you have two poles, rather than the single mad hive-mind you say is so bizarre. It is one pole that exhibits ‘curious rage’ against Obama, not ‘the American people.’

For another thing, you massively overstate Obama’s popularity during the election and at the beginning of his term. You assert that he ‘won by a landslide’ and was the subject of ‘hero worship,’ ‘hagiography,’ and high approval ratings. In fact, he did not win by anything like a landslide. He won with 53% and 28 states.

By comparison, in 2004, George W Bush won with 51% and 31 states. In 1988, George H W Bush won with 53% and 40 states. And in 1984, Ronald Reagan won with 59% and 49 states. And that wasn’t even as impressive as the 1972 election, when Richard Nixon (Nixon, of all people!) won 49 states and 61% of the vote.

Obama has had nothing like the electoral success other presidents have managed. Your perception of hero-worship and hagiography, just like your perception of rage and hatred, comes from one pole of the American populace.

Furthermore, your understanding of the role of US president is woefully incomplete. You say that ‘Bush inherited an excellent, albeit imperfect, set of books from Clinton and very quickly wrecked it.’ As if either Clinton or Bush had anything whatsoever to do with the books or quality thereof. Congress controls the cash, and the Congress that delivered Clinton a budget surplus was, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress that fucked it all up for Bush. And the Congress Obama has been working with is, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress Bush was working with during his last two years in office. The state of the books in the US is entirely unrelated to the views and actual quality of the president.

You also say that Obama is hated ‘for having the temerity to actually carry out what he proposed to do.’ Again, the president does not ‘do’ things. He does not draft legislation, propose it, debate it, or vote on it. He merely signs it once it’s made its way through Congress. (Or not, as the case may be, but I don’t think Obama’s actually used his veto yet.)

So any carrying out during Obama’s term has been done by Congress. And what they have carried out bears little actual resemblance to the platform on which he campaigned. Sure, the health care bill, but what about everything else? What about the war, the ‘middle-class tax cuts,’ the great repeal of the Bush administration’s incursions on civil liberties? Neither he nor Congress have done any of those things, which were major selling points among Obama’s supportive node. Surely you don’t think the whole election revolved around the question of a healthcare bill?

A healthcare bill which you describe thus: ‘The timing…was perhaps ill-judged, even from a social democrat perspective, but this was one of those once-in-a-thousand-years opportunities, politically, to achieve this ambition.’ For a once-in-a-thousand-years opportunity, Obama and his Congress sure did fuck it up, didn’t they? Instead of doing thorough research, either before the election or after it, and determining the best possible way to ensure universal, affordable healthcare, they cobbled together a travesty of a bill, full of unrelated pork to get various hold-out politicians onside, that when all is said and done, could serve as an exemplar of what every rent-seeker (in this case, the insurance industry) hardly dares even to dream. That’s not even to mention the costs this bill imposes, both to individuals and to the body politic, which have been revised upward continually since the passage of the bill. And the bill fails to achieve even its basic objective, which is to ensure that the poor and low-paid have access to affordable, customised insurance and care.

Is it any wonder that a significant number of Americans are horrified and disgusted by it?

All of this is a far cry from, ‘Hey, you all voted for him, he did what he said he’d do, so what’s the big problem?’

Finally, you assert that les Americains sont fous because ‘their media and overall educational standards are so lacking in substance.’ This is, basically, not true. Unless by ‘their media’ you mean Fox News, and by ‘their overall educational standards’ you mean ‘those five schools in Kansas where they teach intelligent design.’

Or perhaps you just mean the rednecks, Tea Partiers, and Christians are poorly educated. Maybe you can confirm or deny.

What I don’t understand is why you are displaying so much contempt for a bunch of people who, for the most part, share your opinions. These are people who didn’t vote for Obama (as presumably you wouldn’t have, did you have the opportunity) and who loathe what he stands for and what he’s supported as president. Sure, some of them have authoritarian tendencies, but they’re with you on at least 50% of stuff. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you be angry? They didn’t want him, they didn’t vote for him, and his presidency is riding roughshod over their cherished conception of what the United States is.

I never expected you to take this position, I must say. That you would present Americans who disagree with their president and his Congress, and who display that disagreement with words, ideas, and peaceful legitimate protests, as ‘wild, irrational…mad and retarded’ comes as a great surprise to me.

And a serious disappointment.

UPDATE: JD rebuts here.

May 162010

For some reason I have this corny idea that for a political party in Britain to stand a parliamentary candidate in a parliamentary constituency, that party has to pay £500 to… somebody. And he must win 5% of the vote if he wants that money back.

Therefore to have even the hope of securing a parliamentary majority, a political party has to stump up a minimum of £163,000. And until recently there has been very little point in aiming for less than a majority. (Pace the Lib Dems, the true winners of the recent election despite coming, er, third.)

Assuming this corny idea is at all accurate (and trust me, I hope to be corrected on this point of fact), the only possible justification for it is that somebody, somewhere wishes to discourage what we might call ‘frivolous’ candidacies. That is to say, nobody shall stand for parliament for giggles, else he or his party shall lose £500.

The average size of a parliamentary constituency in the UK is 70,000 voters, at least according to Wikipedia, of which 5% is 3,500.

If we apply average voter turnout for the nation to the constituencies themselves (a rough and dirty approximation to be sure), then of the potential 70,000 voters in each, only 45,500 of them actually voted in this most recent election – meaning that to secure his £500 deposit, a candidate actually need only about 2,275 votes.

It is very difficult to know ahead of time whether acquiring this number of votes is possible for a small-party candidates, and indeed many majorities (Ed Balls’s, for instance) are smaller than this amount.

But what I’m getting at vis a vis my corny idea is that somebody, somewhere in the British government has decreed that if you can’t get 2,275 people to vote for your ass, you must pay up, sucka.

And if we carry the arithmetic just a little bit further, we see that the British government has essentially assigned a monetary value to every vote, and that value for the recent election was approximately £0.22.*

I’d say that’s about right, wouldn’t you?

P.S. Does anybody know what party expenditure was during this past campaign? I’m interested to know because, at that value per vote, one would expect a Tory party spend of some £2.3m, a Labour party spend of about £2m, and a Lib Dem spend of about £1.5m. Does those numbers sound close to reality?

*Merci, Dan.

May 082010

Whenever constitutional reform is mooted here in the UK, the drive seems to be something along the lines of: the executive has too much power, MPs have too little, and oh yeah, unelected Lords have no place in a democratic nation. (Let’s pretend in this discussion, for the sake of simplicity, that the Lisbon Treaty hasn’t made Parliament redundant.)

What kind of reforms would be required, then, to address these perceived problems?

The House of Lords is easy: sweep out all of the old peers and bishops and allow people to stand for election. Presumably the old peers and bishops would be permitted to stand if they wanted to; certainly they would have to have the franchise returned to them.

It’s not as easy as that, though, is it? First of all, how many members of an elected Lords should there be? Will it be fixed, or determined by population the way Commons constituencies are? Should it even be called the ‘Lords’ any more? What will be the length of term – same as the Commons, or staggered, or fixed terms? What will its constitutional functions be?

At the moment, its high-court responsibilities having been snaffled away, the Lords exists primarily to scrutinise Commons legislation. Because the lords themselves are supposed to be non-partisan, they are meant to be able to judge legislation on its merits, rather than according to who drafted it and who’s whipping them into place. In reality, however, the Lords rarely scuppers Commons legislation. A part of the reason for this is probably because they are unelected, and Commons legislation is supposed to represent the will of the people. Another part is probably because, though supposedly non-partisan, a great many of the lords themselves are ex-party higher-ups. Does anyone really think Kinnock, Mandelson, and Martin, for example, have been busily scrutinising Commons legislation on its merits?

So we end up with a conundrum. The lords are granted the power to scrutinise legislation, but only because they are meant to be non-partisan. But non-partisan also means unelected, so they can’t scrutinise too closely or they’ll be usurping the power of the people as represented by the Commons. But if we start electing them, they’ll no longer be non-partisan, and there will no longer by any point in their scrutiny because it won’t even have the current veneer of disinterest.

Okay, that’s a little too tough for a Saturday afternoon. Let’s look at MPs and the executive, because they go hand in hand. Absent the European aspect, the reason MPs have so little power is because the executive has so much. The executive controls the parliamentary calendar of bills, it introduces bills, it whips its party’s MPs to vote on those bills. Ministers have extraordinary powers in their departments to introduce measures that don’t have to go before the Commons at all. This is why the executive is called the Government, and the Commons is just a bunch of fat-chewers.

The current hung parliament really throws this into stark relief. Why is there such consternation? Because Britain, at this precise moment, has no government. Or rather, no Government. The people have had their say, and there is certainly a legislature. But the legislature can’t act, because no executive exists to, well, execute any action. The executive is, by constitutional tradition, the leaders of whichever party holds a majority of the seats in the Commons. No majority means no executive means no Government means that, even though MPs have been duly elected all over the country, they are sat on their asses with nothing to do at the moment. They are, in a word, powerless.

Now, that’s weird, isn’t it? Normally MPs have no power because the executive is over-bearing. But then we discover that they also have no power when there is no executive at all. So what is the point of MPs, exactly?

Quite clearly, then, we see that the only purpose of MPs is to provide a count by which it is determined which party’s leaders will rule the country. The electorate are not choosing a person to represent their interests in the legislature; they are choosing a counter for the party’s leaders to whom they wish to give power. After an election, the party leaders tally up their counters, and whoever has more than half gets to be dictator for 4-5 years, as long as he maintains his number of counters. He gets to choose the rest of the executive, and the executive rules the nation.

We can see now how pathetically laughable are all of the ‘reforms’ that have been mooted to give some of the executive’s power back to the Commons. Committees? HA. Relaxing the whips? Slightly more muted, but still ha.

The only thing that will transfer power from the executive to MPs is to change the way the executive is chosen. And the obvious solution is for the people to elect the executive separately. We can even be generous and just elect the Prime Minister separately. Then parliament can approve, by vote, his or her Cabinet choices.

Except – wait! Remember that newly-elected House of Lords with little to do because their partisanship has destroyed their previous role? Hey, why don’t we let them ratify the Cabinet? Let’s let them ratify the executive’s choices of important judges, too, just for funsies. Keep them busy with something, since we’ll be paying them to sit there. And maybe they can still have their scrutiny of legislation, because the balance of parties in the Lords may be quite different from that in the Commons.

We can also open up the Commons a little bit too, now. The parties can still have their whips, of course – otherwise what’s the point of parties? And the executive can even decide the calendar. But instead of introducing legislation, the executive will have to get its MPs to do that – because of course the Prime Minister et all won’t be members of the legislature any more. So now the legislature will actually be able to control legislation. As it should be.

And so at the end of all of this, we get a less dictatorial executive, a legislature that is actually in charge of legislation, and a democratically elected House of Lords (or House of Whatever) that can act as a legitimate check on the power of the Commons. We’ve spread all of the power around, you see, and because every elected representative will have a greater say in what the government does, so will the people who elected him (or her). The democratic deficit is reduced, the parties become less tyrannical –

– and there are no more hung parliaments.

What’s not to like? Come on, you constitutional reformers out there: propose something like this, and maybe we can stop nominating you for Biggest Bullshitters of the Millenium award.