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Sunday, November 21

Something 27

When I was an undergraduate, I was in a band with two people at the same university. I played bass and didn't normally sing (for which audiences had reason to be grateful), but there was one song for which I tunelessly shouted the lead vocal. It was about how people become boring bastards when they turn 27. Back then, the day I would actually be 27 seemed an unfathomably long time in the future. Now I must prove my former self wrong.
posted @ 1:35 PM -

Monday, November 15

what if it doesn't make me stronger?

Of course everyone's heard some variant on the saying: that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I also used to believe the sentiment. I mean, it's obviously not true of all physical ailments—I don't think polio made many people stronger—but I felt like it had to be true about challenges in life. When I think about difficult things I went through in the past, it held. The last month or so of my Master's was very stressful, but in the end I had a piece of work I was pleased with, and I learned enough from the experience that I can look back on it as something that was good for me. Being single for so many years hurt, but in the end it also meant that I could enter a relationship with a much better idea of who I am and what I want. Things like this were difficult, but not ultimately harmful.

I'm not sure I can say the same about Case. So far the experience has been one of intense ongoing frustration, and endless pressure that has sucked the joy out of being an academic. I don't want to dwell on that, but the question in my mind is what am I getting out of it?

The answer is definitely not nothing. I just received an invitation to review a journal paper, which was a good reminder on an otherwise bad day that I am getting somewhere as a researcher. I have learned useful technical skills, even if I could have learned more in a system that was less exam focussed (do I remember the stuff I crammed for an exam last month? Hell no! Do I remember things I used in class projects in 2001? Why yes...) and the experience could have been a lot less painful. It's a cliché, but I've learned a lot from people here, especially my advisor and the people (students and the other TAs) involved in the course I've been teaching this term.

So far so good, but the problem is that I feel emotionally much less resilient than I was before. The first two terms ground me down so badly that when things started to get difficult this term it took me far too little time to retreat into stress-mode, in spite of this term objectively being less bad than the previous two. I haven't become stronger by figuring out how to cope with this place and everything that's wrong with it, rather I've become more impatient, quicker to anger, easier to hurt, and my disgruntlement has turned into outright resentment. I've forgotten how to relax, and I've forgotten how to plan any work that doesn't have a looming deadline.

It's not that I want out of my PhD, it's just that I can't wait to get this part over and done with, dispense with taught courses and just focus on research. I want to do this the British way, and once I have enough course credits (which will be soon if I get my act together) I can start doing that. I want to be my own master.

It will be interesting looking at back at this post in a year's time, or 5 years' time. I wonder if with hindsight I'll see things differently, but at the moment I feel like this particular struggle has made me weaker, and what I need is a chance to recover from it.
posted @ 11:49 AM -

Saturday, November 6

caveats

Some things I mouthed off about on Thursday to which there is contradictory evidence:

Fraud, no fraud, or insignificant fraud?
Some congressmen are pushing to open an inquiry into electoral irregularities, revolving around machines that are suspected of systematically miscounting. If you read the evidence selectively enough, it sounds pretty terrible. Here's a concrete example of a machine spuriously giving Bush 4,000 extra votes.

However, I have as yet to see any persuasive evidence that this was systematic. If it's just noise, then it's still relevant in the sense that there should be an inquiry and machines and procedures should be changed if necessary, but it won't be what handed Bush the election. For the past month or so I've regarded the Mystery Pollster as the closest thing I can find to an authoritative source about the process of polling. He made an interesting point in a post-election exit polls in answer to a question about whether the systematic difference between exit polls and the real results might indicate fraud in the real results:
...since 2000, the exit pollsters have tracked the type of voting equipment used at their sampled precincts. If the discrepancies could be explained, as some suggest, by precincts using the newer Diebold touch-screen voting machines, the exit pollsters could prove it. With their own reputations on the line, the NEP officials report no such evidence.

So I think systematic fraud is probably out of the question, but it looks very likely that there was some noise from poorly-designed vote counting machines. Also, I had never really understood why the USA can't have a standard voting system across the country, but this suggests at least one advantage of diversity: it would make systematic polling-booth fraud much easier to detect.

Red State, Blue State
Barry commented on my article about the geographical division to point out that I do know at least one Greater Cleveland Bush voter (I should have specified Greater Cleveland to begin with - I can only think of three people I know who live in the City of Cleveland, strictly defined). I think this is a good reminder that I hadn't really taken the county map in shades of purple to heart. What it clearly shows is that the geographical divide is not as radical as it at first appears. There is still a divide, and it's still problematic in that it reduces the chances for dialogue between people who don't already agree with each other, but it falls on subtler lines than mere geography. I shouldn't forget that my circle is not even representative of the county I live in, where Kerry did win substantially, but only by 2:1, which is a far slimmer margin than among the people I socialise with.

Bigotry as a motivator to vote
I find this last point quite heartening. The thing that upset me most about the election was the thought that a lot of people turned out to vote because ballot initiatives had given them the chance to write discrimination against a segment of the population into their State Constitutions. There is some evidence that I was wrong.

Instapundit provides various links on the matter. The one I found most interesting was a set of figures sent to Andrew Sullivan by a reader, arguing that in the states that had anti gay marriage amendments on their ballots Bush didn't pick up more votes than in the states that didn't. It's not exactly scientific, but I think it does a reasonable job of comparing like with like. Then there's The Values-Vote Myth from the New York Times. I wish it were less of a lecture, but it does make some interesting points about turnout among Evangelicals, and the distortion that results from ill-considered questions in exit polls.
posted @ 8:45 AM -

Thursday, November 4

But there must be some good news, right?

There was some good news on Tuesday, the importance of which must not be underestimated:

All of these are important, because they show a democracy that is functioning better than the 2000 election did. When America is trying to export democracy to other parts of the world, it's particularly important that it can lead by example, and although I don't support that grand foreign policy venture, a failure would be infinitely worse than success. Actually half the reason I don't support the idea of exporting democracy by force is that I think it's doomed to fail, so anything that helps prove me wrong is inherently good.

Update: maybe it's only because the margin was larger this time that we aren't seeing litigation. voting irregularities are being reported.

There's also been something else that I really admire going on. I don't know if this is a new trend, or a difference between Britain and America, but here I know a bunch of people who are engaged enough with the political process to get directly involved. To unfairly pick just two examples, Vinay and Jim volunteered with Election Protection and helped make sure people could vote. They are representative of a larger group: for the first time in my life I know a lot of people who did do something actively, whether it was canvassing door-to-door, volunteering at a campaign office, or being out there in the rain getting out the vote. Without wishing to sink too far into clichés, this is a reflection of the thing I like best about America. People don't just sit there and grumble, they actually get up and do something. If there is anything that gives me faith that the things I've been complaining about today can and will be resolved, this is it.

Since the result was announced, I think I have seen the beginnings of something else positive. It's hard to say whether this will become widespread or last, but certainly among my friends there is much talk about how to effect change for the better, and I've seen a few articles to the same effect. At least until the next primary season, which is a few years away yet, I think there will be an intense refocussing. Refocussing on what exactly people believe in, as opposed to what they want to stand against. Refocussing on local issues, interpersonal issues, building that dialogue which might lead a few people in Red America to better understand Blue America and vice versa.
posted @ 8:48 PM -

So what was the choice between again?

I'm rather sick of being told that Kerry doesn't stand for anything, and don't talk to me about fucking flip-flops. In the debates, he put forward a set of policy ideas, much of which I liked, some of which was from cloud-cuckoo-land (I have already mention the numbers not adding up, right?), and some of which I disagree with morally. On balance, the debates changed my mind from thinking that Kerry was a nobody who was worth voting in just because it would get Bush out, to actually thinking that Kerry had a platform with which I mostly agreed. But all of that is beside the point. He didn't win, he won't be President, and we'll never know if my assessment was right or not.

However, months before the debates I had realised a much more fundamental difference between the candidates; one that lies at the heart of why I thought it so important to change. Regardless of specific policies, the choice was between a candidate who thinks an issue through and one who bases decisions on gut feeling. A candidate who sees the world as black and white and one who appreciates a nuanced picture (think about the purple county map and how much more it tells you about a place than red/blue ones). A candidate who believes that science is important and one who pays it lip service while attacking it in many and varied ways, and disregarding data that don't fit his preconceptions. A candidate whose black-and-white, I am right and everyone else therefore can't be worldview leads him to wish to impose his morals on everyone else, versus one who actually distinguishes between right for me and worthy of legislating. A candidate who represents everything I dislike about America versus a candidate who represents many of the great things that have come from here.

I don't really believe that John Kerry would have been a Platonic philosopher king, but put up against the alternative he certainly looked like one. And once again, I am less upset by Kerry being denied the chance to rule than by the signal America sent out on Tuesday. The signal as I read it was that considered, fact-based decision making is less attractive than being 'one of the boys'.

We need to make thinking cool.
posted @ 7:32 PM -

Two Americas

On the stump, John Edwards often spoke about the two Americas: essentially the haves and have-nots. It does ring true—the rich/poor divide is much wider and much more obvious here than in Western Europe—but there are also two Americas in another sense: there's a real physical divide between the parts of America that voted for Bush and the parts that voted for Kerry.

The red state/blue state division doesn't really do this division justice. A map that shows the actual margin in each state shows this to be a much more fuzzy distinction than it at first appears. A county-by-county map gives a better idea of what's going on in each purple state, and the general trend is urban and/or industrialised vs rural, suburban and exurban. Simply put, people who live in close proximity with their neighbours tend to vote Democratic, whereas people who have larger allocations of land to themselves, be they ranches or suburban subdivisions, tend to vote Republican. The difference is often quite stark.

Differences like this will always happen, and are not necessarily a bad thing. People living in different environments do have different needs, and they can be expected to be self-selecting groups along many lines. The polarisation also isn't as terrible as it looks: I've seen voting numbers for almost all counties, and the distribution of voting percentages is normal (it would be binomial if the polarisation were really as bad as it sounds). What worries me here is the trend. I only have detailed information about Ohio (it helps that my local paper is particularly good as far as local papers go), but for this state I can point you to a different sort of red/blue map. What this one shows is not how each county voted, but how their vote changed relative to 2000. Only this isn't obvious by looking at the map, because the red-blue breakdown is almost indistinguishable. Out of Ohio's 88 counties, there are only 2 in which the trend wasn't further towards the party they voted for last time. 97¾% of counties are more polarised now than the were in 2000.

We have a situation where the two Americas simply do not understand each other, and opportunities to build that understanding are limited not only by the poisonous political atmosphere, but also simple geographical separation. Anecdotally, I do not know a single Cleveland-resident Bush voter. This makes it really hard to see how America can become less divided, but a way needs to be found.
posted @ 7:11 PM -

What will be the long term effect?

I am less concerned about the impact of one more term under a particular individual than I am about the longer-term repercussions. There are three in particular:

The Supreme Court
Several Supreme Court justices are due to retire some time soon, and at least one (Thomas Renquist) is all but guaranteed to retire before the next election. At the moment, the Court is split almost evenly between social conservatives and social liberals, and the result is that while it often issues 5-4 decisions, it is balanced enough that I do feel like an issue gets treated on its own merits. If the administration turns out to be as determined to legislate its view of morality as I fear, and it gets to appoint more than one judge this term, this could change. In the worst case, we could see a deeply partisan Supreme Court that would oppose abortion rights, fail to oppose federal legislation to discriminate against homosexuals, weaken the separation between Church and State, and generally fail to act as a check on a right-wing President's power, while being able to severely handicap any future liberal President.

And the worst of it? Supreme Court justices tend to sit for decades, so this would be a very long-term legacy.

One caveat is that Arlen Spector, who is expected to take a major role in determining these appointments, has warned Bush against putting overly divisive candidates forward. I've already heard some doubts voiced about how much influence he'll really be able to wield, but it's a glimmer of hope.

The Republican Party
There are elements in the Republican Party who are closer to my own beliefs on many issues than the majority of Democrats. Specifically, there is a wing of the Republican Party that believes in getting government out of peoples' private lives, and would move America towards actually living up to the rhetoric about the land of the free.

The biggest benefit I had been hoping for from a Republican defeat on Tuesday would have been the fillip it would have given to the agreeable wing of the Republican Party. I was hoping that if appealling to bigotry had been seen to fail at the polls, the next Republican Presidential candidate would have been one of these people. Unfortunately now that it has been seen to work, I expect the next candidate to be more of the same.

The standard of political debate
One of the things that appealed to me about Kerry was that he made arguments for positions rather than just speaking in easy soundbites. That's something I've been wanting to see in a political leader for as long as I've been old enough to notice such things. Had he won the election, it might have been reasonable to expect this to be seen as a vindication for raising the level of debate, but sadly his loss is just another vote for soundbite-friendly, content-free politics.

Update: re-education
Apparently the State of Texas has declared that textbooks must be rewritten to unambiguously refer to marriage as always and only between a man and a woman. What kind of free, diverse country re-writes textbooks?
posted @ 3:18 PM -

What will four more years mean for America?

It's not clear what's going to happen now. Bush and some journalists have made encouraging noises about the importance of uniting the country, but we've heard it all before. After all, for me personally the biggest problem with this administration is that they have blown their credibility so sky-high that it's no longer rational to take anything they say at face value.

What I am really afraid of is that the election results will be taken as a mandate to rule from further to the authoritarian right. More fearmongering and xenophobia, more portraying of any dissent as anti-American, more demonising of minorities, more involvement of religious fundamentalism in government (I don't care if it's christian or islamic, fundamentalism is dangerous either way), more throwing around of American military muscle to try to force the rest of the world to be like here, more disregard for international institutions, more double-standards in trade policy, more blatant disregard for facts, more government dictates about the private lives of individuals, more arbitrary unchecked powers to law enforcement authorities, more governing as though every problem can be cast neatly in black-and-white elementary school terms.

Now I can take a deep breath. That sentence was what I needed to get off my chest more than anything else.

Coming up to the election, I heard a mantra repeated over and over again that elections in which the current head of state is standing are above all referenda on the incumbent. This was supposed to work in the Democrats' favour, seeing as the President's approval rating was consistently below 50%. Yet instead the country voted yes on George W Bush. I have heard many comments to the effect that 51% and a starkly geographically divided country don't add up to a mandate, and I see their point, but I don't agree. The simple fact is that the President was elected with a larger share of votes than he had in 2000, in an election with a far larger turnout and which was much less marred by procedural arguments. All this in spite of an economy that the majority of the country agrees is creaking dangerously, and the administration's biggest single project being a war that the majority of Americans believe was at least one of inherently wrongheaded or catastrophically badly conducted.

If even against these handicaps, the most widely reviled President of my lifetime managed to get a bare majority, and managed to increase his share of the vote, that must imply that the other things he is doing are popular. Sadly, I think the National Review was spot on in response to this one: George W Bush has been re-elected to continue imposing the Christian Right's view of correct behaviour on the rest of us.
posted @ 1:45 PM -

What Tuesday was never going to change

I'm not going to pretend I'm not disappointed that George W. Bush won a second term. I despise him and most of what I perceive him to stand for, not to mention that once Kerry managed to get his message across I found myself liking the alternative. However, it would have taken an almost impossible landslide to wrest control of Congress from the Republican Party, so a President Kerry would have been limited in his power, and on two of the most important issues I think realpolitik dictates that it barely makes a difference who is in charge, as long as they are sane:

Iraq
I strongly opposed the Iraq war at the time, and I still do, making me much more anti-war than Kerry was. Yet even if I were to somehow become President, I wouldn't pull the troops out, because it's clear to me that doing so would be far worse, now that the reality is that Iraq is depending on foreign troops for even the slightest semblance of stability, than staying put. Meanwhile America doesn't have enough troops in its army to send many more over there, and a draft would be such clear political suicide that I can't see it really happening.

The one thing that Kerry might have changed is that it's just conceivable he would have got a few more foreign governments on side. But it's doubtful whether this would have made much difference on the ground at this late stage. A larger coalition back in 2003 would have given the whole thing more legitimacy, but now it's hard to imagine that any country would want to actually send troops into a country where it can expect casualties and no credit. A European head of state can issue any number of conciliatory statements, but unless they were to actually commit troops none of it would make any difference in Iraq.

The Deficit
The single biggest domestic problem for America is the unbelievably huge hole in the public finances. Bush hasn't just mortgaged the country; he's donated it, piece by piece, to one lobbyist/voting bloc after another. He's also passed some very expensive reforms to entitlement programmes (health care in particular), and he's determined not to raise taxes. The numbers simply don't add up, unless he's discovered the fabled money tree.

Kerry was far from an examplary contrast in this area. The spending plans he outlined in the campaign far outweighed the amount of money his modest proposed tax increases would have raised. So he would have had to break campaign promises in one way or another. At least showing willingness to raise taxes if reality demands it has to count for something, but it would be hard to raise taxes much in a country where a significant proportion of my left-of-centre friends consider the 'high tax burden' of the UK to be a major problem, and complain bitterly when the price of petrol hits $2/gallon.

I started writing this intending to conclude with the thought that reality would intrude upon Bush's financial management sooner or later. I do still think it must, and if he's not willing to raise taxes, he would have to at least start acting like a real conservative and balance the books by cutting spending. However, I've just seen an article reporting that yesterday the administration requested an increase in the debt ceiling. Hopefully it's just a short-term measure that will scare them into being more realistic, but I'm already wondering....
posted @ 12:38 PM -

election reaction

I know I said I'd do this yesterday, but by the time I got everything else done I was just too tired to be coherent. So here is the moment you've all been waiting for (well all 2 of you anyway): my commentary on Tuesday's election.

I'm going to write a set of relatively small posts, because I don't really have a framework to hang this all together with. It's such an inherently navel-gazing thing to do that I feel like I have to spell out why I'm doing this first.

Why do I care about the future of the USA when I could so easily leave?
There are personal reasons and there are political reasons. The political is simple: This country's importance in the world and power are such that what happens here is of enormous consequence for everywhere else on this planet. The personal is down to a whole set of issues. I have many dear friends here, as well as some relatives, so the future of this country affects a lot of people I care about. I'm also definitely stuck here for as long as it takes me to finish my PhD, so a an absolute minimum I'll be around for half of the next Presidential term. Most of my concerns are longer-term than that though, so the selfish reason for me to care is also longer-term: there's a good chance I will end up settling here. That's far from decided yet, but a combination of economic forces, personal attachment, and the simple realisation that for all America's faults I do rather like it here makes it a fairly likely outcome.

Why should anyone else care what I have to say?
I'm mainly writing this for my own benefit. To get my thoughts a little better organised, for the catharsis, and in the hope that you will comment on something, whether to agree or to suggest a reason why I'm wrong. Hopefully it will also be of some interest to other people.
posted @ 12:05 PM -

Wednesday, November 3

Kerry has conceded

I was confused about what this means, so I'll explain what I've been told for the benefit of anyone else who is also confused. Kerry is conceding because it looks impropable that he will win Ohio, and Bush has won enough other states that he'll win nationally if he gets Ohio. The concession is a graceful way of saying I can see that my opponent has won this, and I won't be brining legal challenges against the result, but it does not stop the counting in areas where counting still has to be done. Ohio's result won't be known for certain for another 10-14 days, and it is still just possible that Kerry will win it, in which case he will be the next President.

So to summarise: Bush has almost certainly won the election, but the only thing we know for sure is that if Kerry loses he won't try to change that result via the courts.
posted @ 8:32 AM -

Concession speech

At times, I defend America from critics abroad, especially those who conflate something the American government has done with something all of America wanted them to do. Lately I've been doing this often, and angrily. My argument is always along the lines of yes, America contains some decidely sick elements, but they are only a part of the country, and there is much to admire as well. I don't know if I can do this any more.

I'll save commenting on the presidential election for later, because I have a lot to get done today, but there's actually another thing that is bothering me more. 11 states had an issue on their ballot about gay marriage. These were generally described as gay marriage bans, but none of these states have ever had gay marriages. These issues sought to amend state constitutions to make it even harder to ever contemplate recognising gay marriages. With various degrees of viciousness and vague wording, they also have extra-evil elements in them that would ban any kind of legal union between people of the same sex, ban [at least state-run] employers from giving any partnership benefits to people who aren't legally married, and ban the state from recognising marriages conducted in other states that conflict with these rules (which I understand to be unconstitional, but that's another story). So I've taken to referring to these things as institutionalised homophobia amendments, because that's the long and short of it, with a serious hit against unmarried heterosexual couples as collateral damage (full disclosure: I know at least one person who is at risk of losing thousands of dollars of tuition benefits as a result).

11 out of 11 states passed institutionalised homophobia amendments yesterday, mostly with dramatic margins. America has disappointed me, and I don't know if I can continue defending this country without an intolerable level of cognitive dissonance.

Today, for the first time, I feel like this country really does belong to the bigots.
posted @ 6:59 AM -
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