Archive for Politics

Afghanistan

I don’t have a well thought out view of Afghanistan. But General McChrystal’s counter-insurgency plan never made much sense to me. The plan by definition requires a government which the people can trust. But all reports are that Hamid Karzai is not trusted by the people in Afghanistan. The election last year was a total fiasco. That kind of seems like a big gaping hole in the middle of the counter-insurgency plan. You can’t build trust in a government whose leader stays in power by fraud. McChrystal was reportedly trying to build trust in Karzai by travelling with him and boosting his position, but since frankly I can’t see why the Afghan people would trust McChrystal or the U.S. either, that seems like a flawed plan.

So now McChrystal is out amid reports of bickering and infighting. But we’re still going to follow the same plan under General Petraeus. The basic dynamic of the situation is unchanged. How is this not going to be a disaster?

The U.S. made progress in Iraq, against my expectations, by showing that people had more to gain by participating in politics than they did by staying out. In particular, the Iraqis showed themselves what a civil war would look like, and many of them backed away. Iraq remains a long way from normal, and the former middle class remains largely outside the country, but it’s hugely better than it was four years ago.

Afghanistan is a much bigger country than Iraq with a much smaller population. The political dynamics are by necessity quite different. The political class is much smaller. I don’t see why one would expect the same process to work.

It’s also worth questioning what the U.S. has to gain from Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has relocated into Pakistan. No reasonable person would want to let the Taliban regain control, but there is no U.S. national interest in Afghanistan. There is no oil. The recently trumpeted minerals wealth has little national interest to the U.S., no slouch in mineral wealth itself. What is going to keep us there for the time it takes to turn Afghanistan into a modern society?

At this point I think the military approach is entirely wrong. I think an economic approach would be much more effective. Maybe we should try to make Kabul as secure as we can and as rich as we can, and open its gates to anybody who will enter without weapons. Hand out radios and food. Let the Taliban fight for the rest of the country, but show most of the people that a better way is available. I don’t know if this would work at all, but it would be cheaper in lives and money than the current approach.

Since we’re not going to do that, I just hope that I’m wrong again, and that something useful comes out of this, even if I can’t see what.

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Proposition 16

California’s proposition 16, which will be voted on next Tuesday, is an interesting use of California’s bizarre ballot initiative process. The proposition says that if a local government wants to start a municipal electrical utility, it must get a 2/3 majority of votes. The proposition was initiated and almost entirely funded by PG&E, a California electric company, which has reportedly spent over $35 million on advertising in support of the proposition. I rarely watch television, but I’ve received quite a few flyers in the mail about it. Some even list a long set of candidates and positions to endorse, along with proposition 16. However, since these flyers are required to list the groups which explicitly endorsed the flyer, it’s easy to see that the flyers are being put out for proposition 16, and they are trying to slide in support for it along with other candidates I might be inclined to vote for anyhow.

PG&E is the only company from which I can buy my electricity. Electricity distribution is a classic natural monopoly; why would two different companies put up wires to everybody’s house? Since modern life requires electricity, and since I can only get it from PG&E, I am a PG&E customer. Proposition 16 appears to be designed solely to preserve PG&E’s monopoly position, by making it much harder for communities to create their own municipal power companies. It would be hard enough to get a majority vote in favor of government run power; I think we can assume that a 2/3 majority would be effectively impossible. It’s pretty darn annoying that PG&E is spending $35 million, including money they collect from me, on this. Is that a good use of my money?

Municipal power is not impossible. For example, Palo Alto, California, uses a municipal power utility. It was notable during the rolling blackouts that affected most of California in the early 2000s that Palo Alto was immune. So it’s not as though PG&E deserves to be protected because they are doing a particularly good job. When a real crunch time came, they did a very poor job indeed.

It’s difficult for me to imagine why anybody would vote in favor of such a blatant power grab by a private company. But then, of course, there’s the $35 million. The opponents of proposition 16 have reportedly raised less than $100,000. I assume that if PG&E succeeds we will see more and more cases where private companies spend lots of money on ballot initiatives in their favor. I hope that it fails, and if I have any readers in California I encourage you to vote against proposition 16 this Tuesday.

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Oklahoma bombing

Today is the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, the second worst terrorist attack in U.S. history to date. 168 people died. I’ve tried to write something about what happened and the government response, but it keeps getting more political than I really want, so I’ve given up. Terrorists are the enemy of civilization.

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Change Congress

Lawrence Lessig is pushing for a constitutional amendment to change the campaign financing system. You can sign his petition over at http://action.change-congress.org/amendment.

I think Lessig is right that campaign financing is broken. Elections for national office are very expensive. Politicians spend a lot of their time fund-raising. Jesse Unruh was probably reasonably accurate when he said, about lobbyists, “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and still vote against them, you have no business being up here” (apologies for the sexism, I’m just quoting). And of course many politicians raise most of their money from small donations. But many do not, and of those who do not, they are far more likely to be elected in the first place if they hold views which are congenial to people who are willing to spend a lot of money on politicians. That increasingly means corporations rather than individuals. That leads to a increasing focus of government on the needs of the wealthy rather than on the needs of the general population. And that leads to an increasing distrust and dislike of government by the general population. And that doesn’t do anybody any good, regardless of one’s political position.

I also think that Lessig is right that the only way to fix campaign financing is a constitutional amendment. The Supreme Court was willing to overturn a hundred years of precedent in their recent decision permitting unlimited corporate speech. Clearly ordinary laws are insufficient. And while the amendment process is obviously very heavyweight, the constitution does after all provide a right of free speech, and campaign financing laws are indeed a limitation on speech; an amendment does not seem inappropriate.

Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment must be voted in by politicians. They would basically be voting away their present support and their future income (many politicians retire to become lobbyists themselves). Passing such an amendment would require overwhelming popular support, and I’m skeptical that that will happen.

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Ballot Initiatives

California is very fond of the ballot initiative. Coming from a different state with a different political culture, this baffles me.

This biggest, most obvious problem with democracy is that the majority will vote themselves benefits at the expense of the minority. The authors of the U.S. constitution were aware of this, and they created elitist systems on top of direct democracy in an attempt to minimize the issues. Senators were elected by state legislators, not by the people, and the president was elected by the state electors, not by popular vote. Over time we’ve move toward more direct democracy, but we still remain a representative democracy: our laws are not made by the people, they are made by the representatives that we elect.

When it works, this is a good system. We are all busy people, and we can’t keep track of all the important issues. Neither can our representatives, but they can hire staff to help them, and they can focus full time on deciding these issues wisely. Obviously in practice there are many difficulties, mostly in the area of money, but it mostly works well enough.

Except in California, where many important issues are decided by a direct vote by the people. I think this merely encourages demagoguery, not on behalf of a person, but on behalf of a specific issue. I don’t want to have to research these issues and figure out where I stand. I want to elect a person who has the time to consider them in detail, and who is intelligent enough to make a good decision.

I wonder how feasible it would be to pass a ballot initiative which made it much harder to create new ballot initiatives.

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