Voter Fraud: The Death of An Issue

Republicans have made an issue of voter fraud in the past few years.  They’re afraid that voters are going to engage in fraudulent voting practices, and that could result in very close elections being decided by illegally cast ballots.  On the face of it, the idea is at least somewhat plausible, though any cursory examination of their legislative attempts to rectify the problem demonstrate that their intent is not to preserve the integrity of elections, but to make it harder for students, blacks and senior citizens, all traditionally core Democratic constituencies, to vote in elections.

The GOP has encouraged such shenanigans through many state legislatures.  Unfortunately, many such states have approved the measures, with the federal government stepping in to prevent what is accurately perceived as electioneering in its most basic form.  And earlier this year, I wrote a bit about how fraud by incumbent politicians in Michigan probably were clear violations of elections law.  The parties in question, which included the Republican Speaker of the Michigan state House, Jase Bolger, haven’t been charged with any crimes yet, but there’s still the possibility that he could face charges of perjury at some point in connection with the investigation into the matter.

This week, the Florida state Division of Elections received complaints from elections officials in at least ten counties in the state alleging that a consulting firm, Strategic Allied Consulting, had submitted fraudulent voter registration documents.  The Republican National Committee planned the firm $3.1 million through state parties in Florida, Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia to manage a get-out-the vote drive, and planned initiatives in Ohio and Wisconsin as well.

The GOP has severed its relations with the consulting firm this past Thursday after it seemed likely that about a quarter of the voter registration forms in Florida were either falsified or outright forgeries.  Taken in conjunction with the antics of Michigan state lawmakers previously mentioned, and the downfall of Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R – Livonia) this year, involving precisely the same kind of falsified names and addresses on canvassing forms to qualify for the election earlier this year, and you come up with one thing: a clear,consistent pattern of electoral fraud perpetrated on behalf of those very Republicans who profess to care about the sanctity of elections.

America has been treated to episode after episode of amoral behavior by Republicans when it comes to voting rights in this country.  That Republicans claim to care as much as they do about the integrity of the elections is laughable, as they, more than any other group in this country, are doing more to undermine their credibility  in order to manipulate the outcome in their own favor.  This latest story should serve as the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes this issue.  If anything, we ought to prosecute those Republicans who have clearly, consistently and egregiously broke existing laws, and not worry about passing new laws to make it harder for ordinary Americans to vote.

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Michigan Kids: Too Fat, Stupid Or Criminal to Join

It’s been getting harder and harder for the military to find qualified recruits in recent years.  That’s partly due to the fact that we have ongoing military conflicts in which combatants are killed on a regular basis.  And it’s partly due to the fact that the pool from which they recruit is steadily declining in quality.  To highlight the issue, state Senator Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw Township) and Major Generals Thomas Cutler and William Henderson met in Saginaw yesterday to make a few points.

Henderson spoke about how obesity and a lack of general, basic knowledge, in conjunction with criminal records, render three quarters of American youth unfit for military service: ‘Because Michigan’s problems with weight are similar to the national average and the state’s problems with education are worse than the national average, it is likely that at least three out of four young adults in Michigan cannot join the military.’

Now, I’m not certain, but if you had to ask me if an air force general was a Democrat or a Republican, I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that they’re all Republicans.  They went on to say that the solution was $140 million more in state funding for early childhood education.  Needless to say, I’m shocked, and, probably more shocking, I’m not sure that more funding is the solution.  Americans have long conflated solving problems with spending money.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work, and education is just one such area.

We already spend more on education than any other major economy in the world, and, much like healthcare, the results we have to show for it are pretty piss poor.  I’m not opposed to the idea of shelling out another $140 million dollars on early childhood education, but it has to be something that does two things: 1) produce long term, cost effective results and 2) act as a template for further reforms so that the results can be replicated across the entire state.

Spending money on education is like looking for a job on the internet: it’s quick and it gives the illusion of having actually done something when in fact you haven’t done anything.  In both the US and in Michigan, we need a fundamental overhaul of how we staff and finance our schools, the expectations that we have, not only of our schools, but more importantly, of our students, and the underlying culture upon which all of this sits.

I’m amazed at the education that my boyfriend received in China, particularly in terms of math and science.  Granted, he was part of an academic elite in a nation that places a high premium on scholarship, but the quality of his knowledge in math and applied sciences, even by the time he got to college, was probably far beyond anything that I’ll ever be able to feebly grasp at.

This isn’t a partisan issue.  I agree with Sen. Kahn and the Generals.  That three quarters of our kids are either too fat, too stupid and too criminal to serve in the military is an abomination.  And while increasing spending on specifically targeted programs to combat the program may work, it’s not a substitute for the much harder and much more time consuming job of fundamentally overhauling the cultural priorities that we have.  Put simply, you can’t buy standards.

Are Muslims Really That Angry?

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Americans had no bogeyman.  From Christmas day, 1991, to September 11th, 2001, we enjoyed a bit more than a decade of peace and prosperity.  The only thing we really had to fear was that our bonuses might decline at some point and that our philandering President might not make it through the end of his second term.  Tough times indeed.  In the space of a few short months in 2001, the American worldview changed in many ways, and it did so for the worse.

We were attacked, and that whipped up a frenzy that was used to start two wars, one justified and one not, one finished and one ongoing.  Both were poorly managed by Rumsfeld & Co. from their inception.  A ‘win’ in either of them will probably consist of us being able to leave without having accomplished any of our objectives, and not having a genocidal civil wars erupt immediately upon our exit.

In the twentieth century, we had the spectre of global communism to scare the bejesus out of us, and now we have political Islam.  It’s part of a cultural narrative that’s been ongoing for the last decade, and with the advent of the Arab Spring, it will, if anything, intensify now that the dictatorial gerontocracies throughout North Africa and the Middle East have collapsed.  They may have been devils, but Mubarak, Qaddafi and the like were the devils that we knew, and they were interested in holding onto power, which, usually is best achieved by attempting to stay out from underfoot the US.  The newly elected regimes in Libya and Egypt feel no such deference for the superpower that tacitly and sometimes explicitly propped up their former oppressors, and with good reason.

American think Muslims are violent.  Some are, most aren’t.  It’s much like Americans.  How many mass shootings have we had in the US this year?  Were outsiders to judge us solely on the basis of news coverage of mass killings such as those that happen at least a few times a year, they would think that we’re a bunch of gun-toting psychopaths.  And it’s pretty much on that basis, but in reverse, that we judge Muslims in the news.  Muslims are warlike, really?  Let’s take a look at the wars in the Middle East and North Africa.  There haven’t been any since the end of the Cold War.  Except for the ones that America started.

Yes, there’s anger in the Muslim world directed at the US.  But it’s not as all-encompassing as I would have otherwise expected it to be, and I have a sneaking suspicion that whenever it happens, because it’s something that Americans are comfortable to the narrative to which we’ve become accustomed.  Yes, there are some Muslims that want to kill us.  Just as there’s some Americans that want to start burning Korans at the entrances of mosques in Dearborn.  Let’s be frank: there’s rage, and it’s not just on one side of the equation, it’s amongst all of us.

Dragon at the Crossroads

This fall, as we prepare to elect the President, there’s another country, just as big, and just as important as the US, that’s undergoing a leadership transition: China.  The difference between the transitions is that we’ve known for some time who their leaders are going to be, and we still don’t know for sure who our leaders are going to be in the next few months.

China and the US both, face similar challenges, with softer than usual economic growth being foremost among them.  The US is a mature economy, so we don’t have quite the same scope for growth that the Chinese have, but when your entire regime is predicated on a deal with the people that, in exchange for their political acquiescence, you provide stratospheric growth rates, when those rates slow, you have a problem.

Beginning in 1978, China pursued a step-by-step policy of economic reforms that embraced capitalist economic models.  The results have been the longest, largest uninterrupted economic boom in the history of the world, bar none.  And if China plays its cards right, it can still enjoy if not the dizzying growth rates that they’ve experienced in the past few years, then something that’s a close second.  Most of the economic reforms were achieved pragmatically, that is, the Chinese leadership did what they could to liberalize the economy, knowing that they weren’t going to be able to open the whole kit and kaboodle up to competition, be it Chinese or foreign.

And China’s done well by that model.  But the fact of the matter is that if China wants to maintain growth rates that will exceed 6% for the next decade, it will have to further reform its economy in a few key areas.  The first is corruption, which in China is endemic, and a real drag on the economy.  If the country is to continue its economic (and therefore political consolidation) it must face the issue of corruption that permeates government and industry.

The second is opening up protected industries, such as finance and some manufacturing sectors, to foreign competition.  At the beginning of any round of economic reforms, there’s going to be some industries that receive state protection for them to grow enough so that they can ultimately stand on their own.  This form of ‘industrial policy’ has been a cornerstone of large developing countries for the past century, and it’s a successful one, but there comes a time when those state-backed protections have to come down.

And the third issue that China needs to ensure is stability, both internally and externally.  If you look at China, it doesn’t really get along well with any of its neighbors.  When there are territorial disputes, there’s a tendency for a bit of Chinese nationalism to go on display, and any form of nationalism, be it Chinese or of any other variety, rarely achieves anything constructive .  From the Philippines to Japan to Vietnam, China would do well to settle its territorial disputes and to do so pragmatically and expeditiously, because they’re not going to get any easier to solve in the future.  And the second aspect of stability is within China itself.  The country is an economic dynamo, but it needs to do a lot of work on its political institutions.  Were ever the Communist Party to fail in China, the country itself would fail, such is the power concentrated in its hands.  As the Chinese middle class expands, it finds ever more distasteful some of the aspects of one party rule.  And while the CCP is facing some of the challenges to its authority head on, such as environmental concerns, class inequality and land redistributions, put simply, if economic growth fails, all other bets are off.

China fascinates me.  I try not to get emotional about it, as the country neither overly terrifies nor awes me, nor do I think China is just another country that the US can push around.  Being able to look accurately at what China is and where it’s going is the best way to circumvent misunderstanding, and we have a lot to gain from one another in the coming decades.  That is, if we do things properly.  If we don’t it’s all just downside from there.

Further Getting Ahead of Myself: 2016

Making predictions about politics is tricky.  It’s tricky because doing so usually involves making certain assumptions about events that have not yet happened and then predicating said predictions on even more assumptions about the future.  To make predictions about an upcoming presidential election is a feat in and of itself, but to do so for an election cycle that’s more than four years out is fraught with even more complications.  Despite having illuminated all of the potential pitfalls, I’m going to go ahead and do just that, and then we’ll see where the chips fall.

I’m going to make a few assumptions about the coming election cycle, and then set up a scenario for how Democrats could potentially structure their next four presidential campaigns.  As of now, I do believe that the President will be elected roughly along the same lines as he was in 2008, albeit on slightly smaller margins.  I think that Democrats will retain control of the Senate, and they may even pick up a few seats in the House.  In conjunction with a moderately improving economy, voter approval of the President will remain steady throughout the duration of his second term, and he’ll be able to cajole, threaten or force an obstinate array of Republicans in Congress to pass a series of relatively major legislative packages, likely after the midterm elections in 2014 on such issues as the tax code, the budget, and possible immigration, energy, healthcare and education.

It’s not going to be the lofty rhetoric to which we’ve become accustomed from him, but the President is going to have to double down on Congressional opposition in order to justify voter approval of him.  Bare knuckled, transactional politics will have to be the lynchpin that girds the duration of his second term.  So then, what?

Well, we then have the prospect of an open Democratic field.  Vice President Joe Biden has said that he’s not going to rule out another run, but then again, neither has he explicitly embraced the prospect.  There’s a whole slew of other candidates that could offer a credible run for the White House, such as Govs. Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Andrew Cuomo of New York.  But the elephant in the room is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Long story short: if Hill runs, there’s not going to be a contested primary contest for the Democrats.  Bill is still the de facto elder statesman of the Democratic party, and his speech at the convention did a lot to underpin just that position.

As Republicans are wont to nominate the guy who is next in line, I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing Congressman Ryan again.  He’s young, he has seniority in the party, and, apparently, he’s their ‘ideas’ guy.  My preference would be a Hillary Clinton/Andrew Cuomo ticket, which, assuming that Hillary did well in office, would make Cuomo the most sensible candidate in 2024, which would give us a shot at occupying the White House for the foreseeable future, a period of one party dominance that may be inevitable because of demographics and extremism within the GOP.

But, who’s to know?  I’m probably getting ahead of myself, and there’s lots that can happen in the coming two months, let alone the next twelve years.  But I do know that the Democrats have a shot at putting their guy (or gal) in the Oval for every contest that’s coming up, and that if I were a Republican, I’d either start thinking about how to moderate my own party, or switching parties.

The West Wing Reunion

They’re getting the band back together, and Josh Lyman got fat.  Members of the cast of the West Wing got back together to film an issue spot for Michigan Supreme Court Candidate Bridget McCormack.  Her sister is Mary McCormack, who played National Security Advisor Kate Harper in the final three seasons.  As someone who considers themselves a rabid West Wing fan, I nearly crapped my pants when I saw this, I was so elated.

The ad itself is getting a massive amount of attention on Youtube, due mostly to the fact that it’s, well, basically a hit off the pipe for those of us that were West Wing addicts, and we haven’t had our fix in years.  True to form, however, it wasn’t all just zany one-liners and people speaking at each other with a machine-gun like rhythm while they were veritably jogging around an office.  The spot, which was a campaign ad for McCormack, actually touched on an issue that is fairly important, and also unknown.

Many states have non-partisan judicial elections.  Most of the time I’ll just vote a straight Democratic ticket.  And, I have to admit, that there’s been more than one election wherein I ended up voting in the non-partisan election section for candidates that I had never heard of.  Were I to go back and review some of my decisions, I w0uld probably regret at least some of them, if not all.

But the spot, true to its West Wing roots, took an issue and broke it down in the most effective manner possible: it just asked people to be aware that in many instances, voting a straight party ticket would not mean that you voted in the judicial elections, and everyone needs to vote for their state and local judges.  It didn’t push an agenda, or hammer home a partisan point, it just asked people to look into their judicial elections and vote.

Chicago: Education Crisis Averted, Next On Way

Schools reopened in Chicago yesterday, following a walkout by teachers that derailed the beginning of the school year.  A compromise between the city government and the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) was floated earlier in the week and was ultimately approved.  At issue were wages, the duration of the school year, personnel issues, healthcare contributions, and the laundry list of issues that one expects with these negotiations.  Both sides could legitimately claim some victories in the struggle, with teachers taking home a nearly 17.6% raise over four years, and a longer school year, better performance metrics being put in place going to the city.

When I was reading through the terms of the deal, I felt odd, as if I were seeing something that I had since long forgotten.  The fact of the matter was that both sides knew they weren’t going to get everything that they wanted.  And Rahm Emanuel, pragmatic practitioner of politics that he is, cut a deal.  The reason it felt strange when I was reading it was I was reading about a compromise, something to which we’ve become accustomed to going long stretches of time without hearing about.

And while that was refreshing to read about, now that the strike was settled, the settlement set the stage for the next crisis to erupt, likely within the next five years or so: pensions.  The Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund has assets of $10 billion.  Annually, it pays out pension obligations to the tune of nearly $1 billion.  The system is underfunded, and its costs are rising.  Right now, the fund is having to dip into its principal in order to make its payments, the closest analogy would be to burn your furniture in order to heat your house.  Do that long enough, and you won’t have anything left to heat.

The citizens of Chicago are going to get a respite, albeit a brief one, from the turmoil of educational politics and public sector unions.  But it’s going to come back with a vengeance soon.  The fact of the matter is that the pension fund for teachers will at some point in the near future go broke.  Will the taxpayers then be on the hook for making good on the pension obligations for current retirees?  Because if they are, that would likely crowd out all other expenditures and investment in Chicago.  But, since most of these teachers opt out of Social Security, this is pretty much the bulk of their retirement income.

This is symptomatic of the underlying problem that the way we compensate government employees in this country is unsustainable.  Tax burdens are about as high as they can go.  While Chicago would be remiss to leave the current retirees high and dry entirely, paying out the pensions, particularly when these retirees paid little to nothing into the funds to begin with, isn’t going to work either.

So, let’s hope that the CTU and Mayor Emanuel are able to replicate their earlier feat of compromise.  Because without it, you’re either going to have a lot of very poor old teachers, or you’re going to have a city that has no cash left over to pay for anything else.  You’re going to need to chart a sensible middle course.