Thursday, September 25, 2008

To Battle Yet Again

It was much longer coming than last time, but I see I am going to have to start gearing up again to fight my battle in favor the Electoral College, since the attacks are starting to come. This time it's a Washington Times article. The scenario in this case is one where the election gets thrown to Congress, the House picks Obama and the Senate picks Palin (which is possible in the very unlikely event that it does get thrown to Congress).From the article:

"If this scenario ever happened, it would be like a scene from the movie 'Scream' for Democrats," said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "The only thing worse for the Democrats than losing the White House, again, when it had the best chance to win in a generation, but to do so at the hands of Cheney and Lieberman. That would be cruel."

Except that it wouldn't be losing the White House "at the hands of Cheney and Lieberman." Both would only affect the Vice President, since their vote would only count in the Senate (and Cheney's only if Lieberman votes Palin and is the only Democrat who doesn't vote for Obama and Congress, and there are no changes in favor of the Democrats to the makeup of the Senate in its new session). But if Obama becomes President with Palin as his Vice President, this is not 'cruel' for Democrats: the Vice President, beyond some basic constitutional duties, is only as involved in White House policy as the President decides the Vice President will be. There have been Vice Presidents in our history who were never invited to a single Cabinet meeting. If Obama becomes President but Biden fails to become Vice President, the only Democrat who loses out will be Senator Biden.

I'm a little puzzled by this:

there is not complete agreement among constitutional experts on whether a newly elected Congress or the currently sitting House and Senate would make the decision.

But the Constitution is explicit in the case of the House:

if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President.

So the House [in the Congress] that counts the Electoral College votes chooses the President. It's the new Congress that counts the votes. The Constitution is not so explicit on the Senate, but it can't choose a Vice President before the Electoral College votes are counted. So am I missing something, or is the Washington Times consulting really horrible constitutional experts?

And this sort of thing always irritates me:

The archaic system in the Constitution was set up in the days of oil lamps and horse-drawn carriages.

Well, yes, so were Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court.

Three Poem Drafts

I am still losing my battle with the books in my struggle to unpack. I have to buy shelves this afternoon in an attempt to reduce the unsightly pile of boxes of books that have staged a sit-in in my living room and refuse to move until I find shelf space for them. In the meantime, here are some very rough things, of the sort that have come to mind while walking.

Leaves of Trees

The leaves of trees are so bright green
and covered with a rainy sheen
that falls on them from silver cloud;
the branches rise so high, so proud
of all they are and all that is,
an emblem of this very bliss
that joins us here and binds us now
beneath this tree, beneath this bough.


A lady by the salted sea
now sleeps forevermore;
forever on the sands I walk,
her beauty to adore.
Her hair is sun turned into strand,
her skin is light like cream;
by the endless ocean's wave
she endlessly shall dream.
I loved her deeply in my youth,
but she my brother wed;
I wove enchantment in the air
and struck my brother dead.
I spoke a word of ancient might
that turned her soul to sleep
and cast a spell on time itself
my love always to keep.
Now I walk upon the sand
for ages none can tell
and keep my heart upon her form,
and sigh, and love in hell.

Lord My God, How Can I Dare

Lord my God, how can I dare
to bear this cross I cannot bear,
the cross you bore upon the hill,
when I lack the strength and will?

Lord my God, how can I fight
the fiercest tumults of the night
or hold to right when lines are drawn
between the darkness and the dawn?

One Certainty

One Certainty
by Christina Rossetti

Vanity of vanities, the Preacher saith,
All things are vanity. The eye and ear
Cannot be filled with what they see and hear:
Like early dew, or like the sudden breath
Of wind, or like the grass that withereth,
Is man, tossed to and for by hope and fear:
So little joy hath he, so little cheer,
Till all things end int he long dust of death.
Today is the sill the same as yesterday,
Tomorrow also even as one of them;
And there is nothing new under the sun:
Until the ancient race of Time be run,
The old thorns shall grow out of the old stem,
And morning shall be cold and twilight grey.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Politicians Say the Cutest Things....

"Part of what being a leader does is to instill confidence is to demonstrate what he or she knows what they are talking about and to communicating to people ... this is how we can fix this," Biden said. "When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the princes of greed. He said, 'look, here's what happened.'"

From here. It doesn't deserve quite as much snark as it has been given, since Biden might mean 1937 rather than 1929 (and one hopes he does!), but that's still way too early to be seeing Roosevelt on the small screen (since his first television appearance was, I think, in 1939 at the World's Fair), and it really wouldn't have done much good, anyway, since at most a handful of people could have seen it. It was apparently off the cuff, so he can be given a break for misspeaking, but it is extraordinarily funny; it's the sort of thing you would expect to find in a comic movie about politics: "Part of being a leader is instilling confidence that you know what you are talking about. A good example of this is [something false, stated as if it were true]." It's as funny as when Howard Dean said his favorite book of the New Testament was Job, and how in some books of the New Testament Job has an alternative ending; he later came back and corrected himself, but it was funny nonetheless. Or when Humphrey said, "No sane person in the country likes the war in Vietnam, and neither does President Johnson." Or the one I've seen attributed to Eisenhower, "Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."

But it does raise the question of what Roosevelt's public response to the Roosevelt recession was; and you can read it in a transcript of the relevant Fireside Chat (radio, not TV!).

A Mess! A Mess! A Terrible Mess!

Larry Sabato has a bizarre article at the BBC. He considers the (unlikely) scenario of a failure of any of the candidates to gain a majority in the Electoral College.

What would really happen if the Electoral College deadlocked in this way is that parties would start challenging close races; if anything has been shown by recent elections it's that the parties will challenge a close race anyway in order to have the ability to beat their opponents over the head with the charge of trying to steal the election. But if this didn't happen, and we worked along constitutional guidelines, there would, contrary to Sabato's claim, be no mess at all.

The election for President would be thrown to the representatives of the people, the House of Representatives; the election for Vice President would be thrown to the Senate, since the VP is the Senate's presiding officer. Sabato tries to make a big deal out of the 'unit rule', i.e., the requirement that the House vote for President not according to representative but according to state delegation. This is hardly a problem. Nobody would be 'disenfranchised' because precisely what we are doing in throwing the election to the House is selecting a President (which is a must) when the votes, already counted, are insufficient to elect anyone President. Everyone has already had their chance to vote; all the votes were already counted; no votes were sufficient to put someone in office; now we need a way to select someone to administer the executive authority of government. This is done by sending the question to the branch of government whose function is to represent the people; namely, the House of Representatives. This ensures that the selection, despite the failure of the general election, still has some connection to the will of the people. But however we may view the President ourselves, the Constitution sets the President up to be Presiding magistrate over the Union of States, so they have the House vote by State. Contrary to Sabato's unsupported claim, there is nothing about the situation that involves "elite control and a lack of popular sovereignty". The whole point is to have a back-up system that minimizes "elite control" and maximizes "popular sovereignty" to the extent possible under an election emergency. There is also nothing in this arrangement itself that will cause a mess; it's about minimizing the mess of an election in which none of the candidates establish legitimacy for the Office of President.

Sabato asks how a President elected in this way can govern effectively; but we can ask this about any excessively tight race. Suppose the President were elected simply by popular vote, and that the race was tight enough that the winner was still within the margin of uncertainty for the election -- i.e., it could not be established definitively that the winner's win was not due to accidents, illegal activities, miscounts, and the like, which in a population of more than 300 million will pile up quite a bit even in a well-run election year. The same question could be asked then; and the same answer given: he or she could govern effectively in the same way any President who came to power under unusual circumstances could govern effectively, namely, by fulfilling his or her constitutional obligations, and proceeding very carefully in matters of policy. And if people don't like the result, there will likely be a constitutional amendment. One might as well freak out about Gerald Ford becoming President despite never having been elected at all. A mess! It was a mess! Well, yes, in the limited sense that it was far from ideal, but we still had a President, and a few years later we had another election. Nobody wants the House to choose the President, but that's why it's the back-up system rather than the main event. The U.S. Constitution is not designed to work only in ideal situations.

You could think up equally 'messy' scenarios. Suppose, for instance, that the President, Vice President, and everyone in the line of succession die all at once. We have no constitutional provision for that! Oh no! It would be a mess! Suppose that the President and Vice President both die, then the Speaker of the House becomes President, and she appoints me as Vice President, then dies. Oh no! A mess! How could I govern effectively?!

Monday, September 22, 2008


John Wilkins has a salutary post on fallacies. I wouldn't put everything exactly the same way, in part because I think Whately et al. are slightly misleading themselves (as I've suggested in various attempts on this blog to give a better account of fallacies), but it makes a key point that I've made before. The way I've put it is that we should distinguish between rhetorical tactic and rational error. Appealing to authority is an argumentative tactic, a way of giving your reasons for a conclusion; it may or may not involve an error of argument. The same may be said with ad hominem. When we talk about ad hominem fallacies, we are really talking about instances of a rhetorical tactic, reasoning ad hominem, that commit and conceal a fallacy like ignoratio elenchi (in which the premises are not actually relevant to the conclusion put forward, or not sufficiently relevant to establish it as a reasonable conclusion). So we can never determine, simply by looking at the rhetoric (e.g., whether it is insulting), whether an argument is fallacious.

Of course, a rhetorical tactic doesn't have to be fallacious to be wrong. For instance, Newman, in his famous dispute with Kingsley in the nineteenth century, suggested that Kingsley was using a rhetorical tactic, which Newman dubbed "poisoning the wells", that was wrong, because it was something to which no honest Englishman would resort. This, however, was an ethical criticism. And one finds that often people conflate this two ways of criticizing an argument, so that a criticism of the ethics or etiquette of a way of expressing an argument is treated as if it were a criticism of the logic of the argument itself. I suspect, in fact, that this is one of the key reasons why people make so many mistakes with fallacies.