Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More SCOTUS: always more interesting than the articles

Here is a link to the more recommended comments on The New York Times article concerning the decision by the Supreme Court on voter registration.

Just keep in mind that these are readers of The New York Times.

Misoverestimating SCOTUS

The Supreme Court of the United States is highly overestimated. This was made especially clear to me with last week's 60 minutes broadcast on CBS, an interview with Justice Scalia, by Lesley Stahl and, as well, with an article yesterday on the front page of The New York Times, by Linda Greenhouse, concerning the six-three decision upholding Indiana's voter registration requirement.

There are fundamentally two schools of thought concerning just how SCOTUS is meant to operate: one school, we'll call it the original school (Scalia's in this one), maintains that rulings ought to be based on the original intent of the constitution's writers; the other school, we'll call it the living school (Ginsburg is in this one), says that since the constitution was written over 200 years ago no one should expect interpretations to stay the same over a period of time when the country progressed from planting potatoes with horse-drawn plows to putting a man on the moon; it should instead be considered a living document and be interpreted in the light of today's more modern considerations.

I once worked in a large engineering company and I learned something there that isn't obvious, even to some of those sitting on the court. The company was organized into departments. I was in the civil engineering department. And there was a mechanical engineering department, and a project management department, and others.

Each department had a written set of standards that applied to their particular work, and the company as a whole had a set of standards that applied to more general things such as the company's mission statement, the rights and responsibilities of employees, who had to approve changes in the standards, and how much independence each department had to write their own standards.

The standards did two things: they could be seen as operating instructions, elaborating how things were generally supposed to work and they also assigned responsibility for various operations. With this setup, if some structure designed by the civil engineers fell down, cost the company a lot of money and maybe even killed someone because of a mistake, that responsibility could be clearly assigned and probably the head of the department would be fired.

As a consequence the mechanical engineers were not permitted to mess around with the civil engineers' standards, nor vice versa; reputations were on the line. There is a closer analogy between company standards like these and the United States Constitution than one might think.

There are essentially three departments in our government: the executive, the lawmakers, and the judiciary. Each is supposed to do certain things and, by inference, not do other things. The executive runs things, generally speaking; Congress modifies the standards—that's their job; SCOTUS interprets the standards. It's crystal clear.

Our founders, pretty smart guys, thought things would work better this way. They also didn't want one department messing around in another department's business because then nobody would know who screwed up when things went wrong.

But of these three departments, only two of them have what could be called responsibility. The Executive and the Congress can be voted out; that's political responsibility. SCOTUS can't; these guys are in there for life.

So, contrary to popular opinion, the originals on SCOTUS are not saying that the constitution shouldn't change; they're saying it's
not their job. The constitution has quite clear procedures for getting itself changed to keep it up to date; it's the job of the Congress, with the approval of a certain number of states. SCOTUS is only supposed to judge what the constitution actually says now.

If you think that's too hard, there's also a way to make it easier. But of course that's hard too. That's because it was intended to be hard—though we managed to make it work when we wanted a drink. God, look at the French and the Italians after the Second World War if you want to see what happens when it's easy!

What's been happening over the last 50 years or so is that Congress, that scumbag department (that you elect), is whining that it's too hard, and, as in that old cereal commercial, they're saying, "Let's let Mikey do it." Mikey in this case being the Supreme Court. Ain't s'pose' to work this way.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Guys in bars: the Pennsylvania vote

There was a perceptive article a week or two ago in the Washington Post by Krissah Williams who visited two different veterans clubs in Harrisburg Pennsylvania in the middle of the state: one primarily a black club, the other white, both of the millworker persuasion. For the upcoming Pennsylvania primary the paper apparently wanted to get a grassroots feel for the working class vote.

Members of both clubs told her that feelings about race were changing or have changed, but the white guys didn't think they would vote for Obama and the black guys didn't think the white guys would either.

Being something of a habituĂ© of clubs and other bars like these myself—including a few black bars—I think I know how the vote will go. And while Williams got quite a bit of the story right I think she misses (and black people generally, too) a crucial point. So, in the new, open spirit of getting it all out on the table, or on the bar, here goes:

On a one to one basis the outlook of white guys to black guys is grudgingly accepting but, depending on the individuals involved, occasionally cordial. Most of these whites have worked with black guys and have gotten to know them in a way they wouldn't have 30 years ago, and at bottom they know they have pretty much the same problems and aspirations that they do, even if this is rarely expressed.

But white guys in these bars abhor black culture. Not black people individually: black culture. This is a crucial, and poorly understood distinction. There are a number of reasons for this: The first is that most of these white guys don't know very much about middle class black culture; they don't socialize family to family, only worker to worker, probably in a bar. And the white guys are fundamental, not in a religious sense, but in a moral sense. Most of them take responsibility to family seriously. They're from the old country. Maybe not literally, but culturally. The black guys are generally far more liberal or relaxed in the matter of family.

I've known several older white guys, like one that was mentioned in the article, whose daughter married (or, more likely, just lived with) a black man, and had a child with him. Grandpa doesn't like that much. But they all love their black grandchildren as much as they would if they were white (I'm adopting the one-drop rule for clarity here) and occasionally they bring them into the bar if they are babysitting and want a drink; they're not ashamed of them: they're family now and that's that, what's done is done. But almost always the father of the child isn't around anymore or, even worse, he's still sometimes half around and mooching off the mother.

Besides all that, their concept of male black culture generally—even if they know some standup black guys personally—is one of drugs, guns, stupid looking pants, no-work, a bad attitude and, to top it off, bad music. These white guys are not all angels either, but that's way over the top for them.

As forthright as his speeches appear to be to liberals, these white guys at the bar will not vote for Obama who, probably afraid to alienate one of his major bases, has understandably been less explicit than Bill Cosby about what blacks could do for themselves. Obama instead seems to be more tuned into black angst, just like Jesse and Al. These guys are not idealistic millennial kids or academics. They have seen it all from the bottom up—"show me the money". They're also very patriotic and that whiff they got of Obama's pastor on TV didn't surprise them… at all. Same old, same old.

The white guys I know, almost to a man, are Democrats, but they don't like Hillary any better than they like Obama. They picture being married to her and… unh-unh; ain't workin'.

My guess is they'll sit out the primary and then vote for McCain in the general. He has a lot of attraction for this crowd. Or they could sit out that election out too, except they'll probably want a Democratic congress in there just in case.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Angels dance on pins

A recent spate of articles energized me to google this query: "angels 'heads of pins' ", and I was immediately rewarded—in the prime slot position—with this answer which asks and answers whether the straight dope on complete pointlessness is epitomized by the question: "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"

There were several articles that drew me to this question and later, after reading the articles, to the conclusion that the world can't be in all that bad a shape if this, today, constitutes our journalism:

Firstly, we have a question asked yesterday—but not really answered—by John Tierney in a blog in the New York Times: Is a pedicab really more virtuous environmentally than a taxi? He wasn't so sure, but his readers largely were: they seem to think that of course a pedicab is better. The reasons expressed, arcane, esoteric and unknowable, those for and those against, make one wonder, What in the world can be going on here?

Secondly, we have a similar article today in the Washington Post's online Slate magazine which asks the question: Should I cancel my newspaper subscription? The author asks whether it is more environmentally friendly to cut down trees and print a newspaper or to read it online using a computer. The assumptions enumerated probe the limit of approximation sufficiently to make a scientist blanch.

Thirdly, the same magazine on the same day we have Michael Kinsley, an ordinarily perspicacious writer, probing an article that ran recently in the New York Times concerning an affair, or a possible affair, or a suspicion of a possible affair by John McCain, with certainly the longest sentence he has ever written:

More troubling, however, is the issue of whether McCain's letter may have led some people to worry that other people might conclude that McCain's letter created the appearance of a conflict of interest, as well as the issue of whether the New York Times, in digging up this eight-year-old letter, was creating the possibility that some people might think there was a possibility of an appearance that the Times was suggesting the possibility of an appearance of a potential conflict of interest in McCain's behavior, along with the most distressing possibility of all: that in this very article I may be creating the possibility that some people might worry that other people might think that I have created the appearance of suggesting that the New York Times has created the possibility that some people might worry that other people might think that McCain has created the appearance that some people might worry that other people might think that there could be an appearance that McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist.

And finally, for sheer inanity, I lead you to this article in The Wall Street Journal darkly parsing the advent once again of Ralph Nader on the presidential front.

Well folks, the sun is shining, the world is in its orbit, the terrorists seem to be more or less subdued, and I would like to see a big smile