Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Comfort Behind the Curtain

The better half will be very excited by this post, because I will concede a small, little bit of my discomfort with Obama. Things may get a little less heated at Chez Progress.

I got a link today from a similarly wonkish friend pointing me to an article in the New Republic about the policy advisors in the Obama camp. (Can I point out, however, that strangely this article comes from some time in the future?)

The piece deals mainly with Obama's economic advisors who come from the behavioralist school. As you might notice from earlier posts, I am not a fan of economic purism. Sadly, I am not at the vanguard of these arguments and have have been beaten to the punch by a lag time of about 30 years.

The idea is simple, rooted in reality, and, yes, practical: We are not a society of economic maximizers that can be plugged into academic equations of behavior, we are mercurial, selfish, selfless, illogical beings who's economic choices are less routed in what is best in an economically ideological sense, and more routed in the day to day drudgery of life.

So how does this translate? Well, Obama's camp has recognized that increasing employer 401(k) options don't necessarily help retirement savings (and I will assume, therefore, the looming Social Security disaster) because there is a percentage of workers who, for one reason or another, will not take advantage. Is that their moral failing? Maybe. Does it solve our economic problems? Not at all. The solution? Automatically enroll workers in 401(k) programs. That simple act, and the inertia of status quo, will accomplish the task.

Sadly why this idea is not a part of Obama's health care plan (but a part of Clinton's), I don't know. Obama would like to think that it's simply access and affordability keeping Americans (who can otherwise afford it) off health insurance. I can't imagine that this idealistic vision comports with behavioralism.

It's also nice to note that Obama eschews idealism-based foreign policy for a more dynamic practical approach. As the article points out, if we had embraced the reformer President Khatami and eased our economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran, we might not now be stuck with Ahmadinejad.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A point, inside a tempest, at the bottom of a teacup

Chez Progress has been a-buzz with the recent NY Times article about John McCain's "romantic relationship" with an FCC lobbyist. The better half is pretty incensed that the Times is dipping to a distasteful level of tabloid journalism with this latest article. Needless to say, I didn't read the article and tried to stay out of it.

Until today.

What I'm angry at the Times about (well, more disappointed) is that they've gone and sullied an otherwise valid investigative article with unsubstantiated campaign conjecture. If you read around the controversial statements, you see a politician who is blinded by his own self-sanctimony acting like the televangelist who sins - "It's ok, because in my mind I'm holy."

The challenge then is to read this article again, cross your eyes whenever you see the word "romantic" and see that McCain is as susceptible to Washington's "special personal relationships" as any politician. Whether he thinks the person on the other end of this relationship is attractive is irrelevant (now if he was sleeping with her and peddling favors, that would be a different story, but this seems to be, at most, an inappropriate friendship).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Red State/Blue State

Just a quick thought:

Does a Democrat winning a "red" state, or taking a "blue" state in the primary mean anything? I mean, doesn't a Democrat HAVE to win the primary in every state?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Law and Religion

I have been assisting a professor of mine with a book on the relation between moral philosophy (specifically Western moral philosophy) and constitutional government. So the recent furor over Rev. Rowan Williams' (Archbishop of Canterbury) speech on the recognition of Sharia law in England (and Europe) caught my eye.

His thesis seems to be this: The Western secularized system of law that developed after the Enlightenment, while striving to be a universal moral code, is more strongly rooted in European Christian morality than we would like to recognize. This becomes most obvious in the tension between Western law and religious legal systems such as Sharia (and Orthodox Jewish law). If Britain really espouses multi-culturalism, there should be some sort of official recognition of Sharia courts (and Bet Dins) in Europe. He suggests a supplemental jurisdiction where the courts, in matters that comport with the fundamentals of British society, recognize the judgments of a religious court if a citizen so chooses.

I have to say, there is an idea in this. As much as we secular progressives hate to admit, many people choose to, and even gain strength from, living within a strict religious code. If America recognized (or was Constitutionally able to recognize) Sharia courts in any quasi-official way, we would be putting our money where our mouth is. We would be saying that we accept Islam and Islamic society and want to live in peace with it.

This, of course, sounds like an amazingly awful idea given our popular understanding of Sharia law. But as Rev. Williams points out in his speech, Sharia does not necessarily mean repression of women (not to mention an increase in solely right-handed people). There are many aspects of Sharia law that govern social relations from a religious point-of-view. Would it be so bad that, if two litigants agreed, their contract dispute be governed by Islamic jurisprudence and not Anglo-American common law?

Plus there is a such thing as moderate Sharia law. A nationally recognized court would, I believe, almost certainly become moderate, drawing from the great middle of society. And as Rev. William suggested, we need not recognize facets of law that do not comport with our own basic notions of human rights.

This is all in theory though. At least on this side of the pond. I cannot imagine a situation in which separation of church and state would allow any sort of official recognition of a religious court. But if it happened in England, which the recent furor tells me it never will, I would be interested in seeing if it mends the rift between the religious east and the secular west.


Update from the BBC

Friday, February 1, 2008

Correlation is not Causation

The NY Times recently reported on Bill Clinton's involvement in a Kazakhstani uranium mining deal. The long and the short of it is that Frank Giustra, a Canadian financier involved in gold mining, accompanying Clinton on a philanthropic trip to Kazakhstan (along with China and India), walked away with a lucrative uranium mining contract that stunned the industry and turned around to give more than $30m to the Clinton Foundation.

Shady. Very shady.

Or, maybe not at all. The most that I can pull away from this article is that Bill Clinton may, may, want to be more discerning on who comes with him on these trips and that he might want to be weary of his friends dropping his name to get ahead.

The article seems to want us to read the situation this way: Giustra is a sly businessman who has gotten involved with the Clinton Foundation to curry favor with the big man. He somehow pushes Clinton to plan a last minute trip to Kazakhstan to announce an AIDS initiative (plus give some other, truthfully, less well thought out opinions) and hops along for the ride. Or perhaps Clinton knows his game and is a co-conspirator. Once in Kazakhstan, Giustra has Clinton introduce him to the Kazakhstani's president (nee, dictator) and, using the Clinton sparkle, scores a mining coup in pushing through his company's involvement in the uranium mining trade.

Oh, and did I mention he had a shell corporation.

I could easily come up with another narrative. Giustra is a multi-millionaire. He likes Bill Clinton and wanted to get involved with the Clinton Foundation. Clinton, seeing a good source of capital for his works, takes Giustra along on a last-minute trip to Kazakhstan to announce a recently completed deal. Giustra uses this opportunity to be in Kazakhstan, and his newfound access, to sidle up to the Kazakhstani president. The president, seeing that Giustra is with Clinton says to himself, "self, this is probably diplomatically advantageous to me." Clinton, in the meantime, has no idea that this is going on.

When the deal goes through, the newly multi-multi millinaire Giustra has the capital to donate to the Clinton foundation. Is this blood money? Hardly. Giustra is, after all, in the mining business. Yes he has never mined uranium before, but he's a keen business man, and we will assume that he has the experts hired to pull it off.

Oh, and the shell corporation. A shell corporation is simply a corporation that has no activities. One would assume that a businessman, trying to get his door into a business, would incorporate in order to raise capital before his activities get under way. Nothing nefarious. Just the beginning of a business.

Finally, the article makes a lot of stink about how Bill's comments don't fall in line with Hillary's politics. Can we simply not handle spouses disagreeing with each other.?Does Bill have to fall in line with Hillary's political opinions? Play the dutiful political wife?

Yes, it's bad judgment to be seen as going against your presidential candidate spouse's policies, but anything past that is just pure opinion on what it means to be a political spouse.