Archive for December, 2009

An Attempted Defense of Bicameralism
December 31, 2009

A couple days ago, I argued that reforming the Senate requires first understanding what we want to the Senate to be. And in order to do that, we need to articulate the reasons why it should exist at all.

You’ve probably heard this story before:

A famous (though perhaps fictional) simile often quoted to point out the differences between the House and Senate involves an argument between George Washington, who favored having two chambers of Congress and Thomas Jefferson, who believed a second chamber to be unnecessary. The story goes that the two Founders were arguing the issue while drinking coffee. Suddenly, Washington asked Jefferson, “Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?” “To cool it,” replied Jefferson. “Even so,” said Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

A convenient tale, but one that skims over some of the more complicated reasoning behind a bicameral legislation (remember that Senators were democratically elected until 1911, and also that the way the chamber is organized allocates power to smaller states disproportionate to their populations). The question is where legislation needs “cooling,” and what exactly that means.

The way “cooling” legislation works right now is pretty awful. Look at the health care debate: the House produces a bill with a public option, and the Senate kills it. The House proposes bill X with policy Y, and the Blue Dogs in the Senate demand Y be stripped as a blood sacrifice to the centrist gods. Typically it has far less to do with the merits of Y than it does simple dick-swinging.

That’s the kind of cooling we don’t need. But if the House is supposed to be far more directly responsive to the voters, then it does make sense to have a separate chamber which is less responsive (yet still subject to some public oversight, both electoral and otherwise), and in which legislators are far more committed to wonky, technical, and (of course) philosophical high-minded debate over X and Y.

That’s not where we are now. But down the road I’m going to finally get to examining what institutional adjustments might get us closer.


Decentralizing Congress
December 30, 2009

I haven’t dropped the whole bicameralism thing–that will be a longer post for a non-travel day and a non-sleep-deprived blogger–but in the meantime, and on a related note, I wanted to highlight an interesting idea from Conor Friedersdorf (via a post of his at TAS).

The idea is this: Instead of having all the members of Congress split time between living in their home districts and in the Beltway, the United States government should have all of them connected by a computer network, so that they can debate legislation and vote without ever leaving their districts. This is supposed to make them more responsive to their constituents and limit the corrosive influence of Beltway culture and the close proximity of industry lobbyists.

One thing I like about this idea: Friedersdorf wisely stays away from discussing the technical aspects of a system like this, but it could conceivably result in a lot more House and Senate business being conducted via the written word instead of through actual public speaking. And if floor debates were to look more like an exchange of blog posts than of prepared statements read aloud, that limits the opportunities for grandstanding, creative use of props, and other theatrics. If the ideas of our elected officials were required to stand on their own, without the help of visual aids, then maybe they would start to look more like actual, um, ideas.

The Last Space Samurai of Fern Gully
December 29, 2009

Just saw it in 3D. Everything you’ve heard is right: it’s competent and thoroughly entertaining, if also thoroughly derivative. But Christ is it pretty! The technology may be new, but the movie magic is as old as King Kong. James Cameron managed to show me something I’d never seen before (except for on the covers of prog rock concept albums), and if it wasn’t artistically satisfying, it was at least fairly dazzling. The CGI was so well-rendered that computer generated Sam Worthington ended up being significantly more life-like and expressive than real Sam Worthington.

As for the politics of it: well-meaning but bone-headed and condescending, both to the invaders and the invaded. But although much ink has been spilled on the topic, that’s not what you’re thinking about for most of the movie. Mostly, you’re just in a diabetic coma.

Reassessing the Structure of American Government
December 29, 2009

I think it’s fair to say that we’re long overdue for another constitutional convention. Of course, the odds of one actually occurring are extremely slim, and even if we got one I can’t confidently say we wouldn’t be worse off for it. Not that everyone at the last one was a great statesman or anything, but they did have their Franklins, Hamiltons and Madisons, and those are in pretty short supply these days.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have our own hypothetical convention. And I think there’s value to the exercise, particularly since structural issues like the filibuster are gaining greater prominence. At this point, everyone knows that something’s not working–the question is what would work. And in order to figure that out, we need to envision the ideal American political system.

End the Filibuster, Part 4,627
December 28, 2009

Following up on my last post, the upcoming climate change fight is yet another really good reason why we simply can’t afford to have a 60-vote requirement to pass anything in the Senate. If a simple 51-vote majority was all that was needed to pass cap and trade, then Nelson, Bayh, Landrieu, and as many as 6 other members of the Democratic caucus would be welcome to take their brave stands for denialism, preen a little in front of the cameras, and take their intransigence back to their districts for the midterms. Meanwhile, everyone else could work on, you know, governing. It’s win-win!

It makes me wonder if there’s a backroom deal to be cut over the filibuster, using climate change legislation as the cudgel. Perhaps a coalition of Democrats eager to tackle both Senate reform and climate change could go to the Blue Dogs and moderate Republicans like Snowe and tell them that the Senate would be doing both over the next year, in that order. If the centrists from both parties support the elimination of the filibuster, then they can oppose cap-and-trade legislation all the want, and maybe even extract a pound of flesh or two in committee; but when push comes to shove, the bill will still pass, and they can still go home crowing that they voted against it.

Of course, this would only work if Harry Reid–whose own reelection prospects look kind of grim–has the stomach to tell a swath of the caucus that the filibuster and climate change are the next two things on the agenda no matter what happens and mean it.

The Benefit of Talking About Consequences
December 28, 2009

One day, when our descendants look back on this point in history, the attitude of the Senate towards climate change is going to make for some fascinating reading. Here, for example, is some choice fiddling as the temperature in Rome rises (via Benen):

“I’d just as soon see that set aside until we work through the economy,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “What we don’t want to do is have anything get in the way of working to resolve the problems with the economy.”

“Climate change in an election year has very poor prospects,” added Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). “I’ve told that to the leadership.”


On Ideal Theories of Justice
December 26, 2009

So I was paging through The New Republic‘s archives late last night and I came across this review for The Idea of Justice, a book I had previously heard much praise for without a lot of context (like, say, what it was about). And to be sure, Moshe Halbertal’s review convinced me it’s worth checking out. But being a scholar of note himself, he threw out some interesting ideas of his own I want to address, specifically in the following passage:

The best way of making comparative judgments is by considering multiple points of view as they are refined by different theories, and weighing the diverse claims that they make. By rejecting an ultimate theory of justice, we do not paralyze ourselves, or surrender our intention to improve the world. Quite the contrary. We liberate ourselves for the full complexity of the challenge before us, and equip ourselves with all the elements of comparative reasoning that the evaluation of an injustice requires. Only when philosophy is deployed in this patient and pluralistic way can we apply it usefully to real people and real conditions.


Merry Christmas
December 25, 2009

Leave it to Fucked Up to get this curmudgeonly Jew in the Christmas spirit.

(Via Attackerman)

Worst Movie Recommendation Ever
December 24, 2009

From the checkout lady at Hollywood Video:

DUNE is awesome! So much better than David Lynch’s later stuff, when he entered that sexy-creepy phase. It’s even better than the book. I tried reading it, but it’s like this thick and has way too much information.

Merry Christmas, guys. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift for the discerning weird tales consumer, do the exact opposite of what’s suggested above. Get Blue Velvet, or Mullholland Drive, or Dune (the book). But, for the love of god, don’t get the film that both Lynch and Sting disowned. I mean, the guy won’t even disown the song S.O.S., but he’ll disown this. That’s how bad it is.

Incidentally, the reason why I bring this up is because last night my good friend Peter and I had a theme movie night where the theme was “Films that Ruin Our Favorite Childhood Sci-Fi Authors.” The other movie we watched was this:

Which is worth watching just for the third act, which includes a heart-rending soliloquy by Keanu Reeves about the joys of room service and an unexpected cameo by Dolph Lundgren as some kind of crazy Moses impersonator/luddite Tea Partier.

Why Philosophy Matters (Special Human Perfectibility Edition)
December 23, 2009

Speaking of Mike Potemra (subject of my last post), Matthew Yglesias has a great rejoinder:

But of course this is the trouble with basing your political value system on things like authority and tradition. It’s always changing! William F Buckley’s determination to stand athwart history yelling stop led him to a robust defense of apartheid as a system of government for the American South. At times in different countries, authority and tradition has meant backing absolute monarchy or vicious dictatorships. Or maybe conservatism means women can’t vote. Eventually, you wind up defending the United Federation of Planets just like Captain Picard.

This is the problem with basing a political movement around a disposition, instead of a guiding philosophy. If conservatives don’t much care for “peace, tolerance, due process, [and] progress,” what do they stand for? “Skepticism about human perfectibility” doesn’t cut it–skepticism is all well and good, but it’s no foundation for anything more.

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