Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday miscellaneous (10/25)

As usual, we'll start off with some political articles before getting to the really important stuff.

The Tea Party revolution may be fostering an establishment counterrevolution.

The Obamacare rollout is resulting in mass cancellations of existing health insurance policies.

And this one was excellent on the failure of the Republican message to connect with white middle-class voters:
Today’s conservative movement increasingly emphasizes “getting ahead,” “owning your own business,” and economic dynamism as essential to the American dream. That’s what “you built that” was all about. For whites without any college education, however, these are largely alien concepts. 
On the cultural landscape, Harvard students are turning to ancient Chinese philosophy.

And Neil Gaiman talks about the vital importance of children reading and libraries.

Now, for the really important stuff

Legoland may be coming to Virginia.

Jewel covered skeletons may sound like something out of a Pirates movie, but you can actually find them in small churches all over Europe.

And for school administrators: you may want to put some boundaries on bring your pet to school day.

And finally, the most important part of this post. How long does it take a blu-ray laser to pop 100 black balloons?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Senate Battle That Wasn't

One of my favorite examples of Presidential leadership, which I have used as an anecdote in many conversations but never written about here, is the story of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's navigation of the United Nations Charter through the United States Senate.

Now you may have never heard this story. After all, the Charter, which under the Constitution needed a 2/3 vote in the Senate to be ratified as a treaty, was approved by the Senate on a landslide vote of 89 to 2. What's incredible about that vote is not it's count but its context--just twenty-five years earlier the Senate had rejected President Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations after a long drawn-out legislative battle between the President and the Senate. In contrast, by the time the United Nations Charter came to a vote, it was a mere formality. While cultural and attitude changes can be partly attributed to the change, a lot of the credit belongs to the leadership of President Roosevelt.

But first, we need to examine the Senate's consideration of the League of Nations. The popular story is that the isolationists in the Senate blocked the treaty. And while this is not false, it is not entirely true either. Yes, there was a group of isolationist Senators (known as the "Irreconcilables") who were dead set against joining the League of Nations. However, they only could count between fourteen and sixteen Senators in their group, which was far below the thirty-two "no" votes needed to block the treaty. Even more startling is the fact that the remaining Senators all supported the League of Nations in some form--more than enough to ratify the Treaty. However, this support was also split into two groups, those who supported Wilson's version of the treaty as submitted to the Senate (which I shall call the Advocates) and a more cautions group, known as the Reservationists, who supported the Treaty in principle but wanted to ensure that the United States' sovereignty would be protected.

So what happened? President Wilson negotiated the Treaty without Senate involvement and then submitted it to the Senate for ratification. The Reservationists and Irreconcilables combined their votes in the Senate and attached a list of reservations to the Treaty. When the Treaty with the reservations was voted on, it failed by 39-55. Then a motion to consider the Treaty without reservations was voted on, which also failed by a vote of 38-53.

Although at first glance the two votes look almost identical, they could hardly be more different. On the vote of the Treaty with reservations, the Reservationists voted in support while the Irreconcilables and Advocates voted against (the Advocates were instructed by Wilson to oppose the Treaty with reservations). Then, on the Treaty without reservations, the Advocates voted in support while the Reservationists and Irreconcilables voted against. The result was that while the necessary two-thirds of Senators did support the general concept of the Treaty, at no time did more than one-third support a specific version. As the former Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Nations describes, “The thirty-five whose vote kept the Untied States out of the League included twenty-three of its most convinced supporters, acting in loyal obedience to the bidding of their President.” Wilson took an all-or-nothing approach to Senate ratification, and received nothing.

That backdrop is significant to the story of the United Nations Charter. President Roosevelt took specific steps to avoid Wilson's mistakes, and as a result, the Charter was ratified on a 89 to 2 Senate vote. Here is what Roosevelt did differently.

Instead of handing a pre-written treaty to the Senate, Roosevelt included Senators in the Charter drafting and negotiation process. But even more striking was how Roosevelt did this. At the time, the leading Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee was Senator Arthur Vandenberg. As a newspaper editor, Vandenberg had written against the League of Nations, and he was a strong isolationist when he joined the Senate. However, he had been wavering somewhat in that stance during World War II. All the same, Roosevelt knew that Vandenberg could make Senate ratification very difficult.

So Roosevelt selected Vandenberg to be on the delegation to San Francisco to draft and negotiate the Charter. That would be similar to President Obama asking Rep. Paul Ryan to be his budget czar or (even more aptly) selecting Sen. Rand Paul as a delegate to a United Nations meeting.

Senator Vandenberg was naturally suspicious of the offer. He told Roosevelt that he could accept only if it were understood that he was not committed to supporting the finished product in the Senate--a condition Roosevelt agreed to.

At the Conference, Vandenberg threw himself entirely into the writing of the Charter. However, he maintained his independence and at least once even used the threat of his Senate veto to influence the negotiation and drafting. The result was a Charter that he could and did support, an endorsement that neutralized the Senate opposition and made ratification a formality. And in a particularly ironic twist, the approved United Nations Charter looked an awful lot like the League of Nations Treaty with the proposed reservations.

This contrast between Wilson and Roosevelt illustrates effective leadership traits. Wilson thought he could simply hand the Senate a finished product and railroad it through ignoring sympathetic criticism. His inability to either consider his opponents motivation or compromise drove away those who supported the fundamental concept, resulting in defeat.

In contrast, Roosevelt neutralized his potential chief opponent, not by pushing him aside but by including him in the finished product. Roosevelt was able to take those on the fence, include and consider their concerns, and ultimately turn them into supporters. That this tactic worked is demonstrated by the lack of Senate resistance to the Charter's ratification. President Roosevelt's ability to concede small issues and incorporate his opposition meant that no fight was necessary.


Dana Fleming, The Role of the Senate in Treaty-Making: A Survey of Four Decades, The American Political Science Review 28, no. 4: 583-598 (1934).

James Gazell, Arthur H. Vandenberg, Internationalism, and the United Nations, Political Science Quarterly 88, no. 3: 375-394 (1973).

Leo Goss, The Charter of the United Nations and the Lodge Reservations, The American Journal of International Law 41, no. 3: 531-554 (1947).

W. Stull Holt, Treaties Defeated by the Senate: A Study of the Struggle between President and Senate over the Conduct of Foreign Relations (1933).

Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N. (1997).

F.P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (1952).

Monday, October 21, 2013

Undemocratic Opposition (Blair’s Lessons, part IX)

So the Federal Government has reopened, and, less than a year after being defeated in an election, the Republicans are now going through yet another self-assessment, with some (in my judgement correctly) calling the shutdown a suicide mission and others looking desperately for a silver lining. But however you look at it, the Republicans raised expectations for an impossible outcome and then failed to deliver. This will naturally leave many of the faithful disillusioned. And that disillusionment opens a temptation to blame the system.

Tony Blair explains:
Part of the problem when the Opposition is useless is that the public feel strangely disenfranchised. This was how many Labour people felt during the Thatcher years. It’s why after 1992 Labour started to consider electoral reform. We had lost four elections in a row. The system must be faulty, mustn’t it? Whereas, of course, we were at fault. So this sense of alienation is not, in fact, reasonable. Actually, it’s worse than that; it is profoundly undemocratic. It’s the losing side feeling it shouldn’t have lost and trying to manufacture a rerun, or a change of the rules.
I've seen this repeatedly over the past few years. The effort to declare an election fraudulent, or the President ineligible, or the complaints that I'm not represented by the system, or the citations to the Declaration of Independence urging open rebellion, or seeking to amend the constitution to freeze liberals out, all feed off of this sentiment that the system is broken and, therefore, the result is illegitimate. It starts with the premise that "my party should be in power" -- a sentiment which, as Blair notes, is profoundly undemocratic. (The Democratic obsession with the "stolen" 2000 election demonstrates that both sides do this.)

When a party loses an election, or a political standoff, often they are at fault but can't admit it. The loss reflects a failure to connect to the people, or a failure to be reasonable, or a failure to truly lead.

So as much as the Republican party may want to blame the system, or blame the Democrats, or blame someone or anyone in an attempt to feel more self-righteous, that temptation must be resisted. The failure is entirely internal. It's a failure of messaging, of policy, and of strategy. And scapegoating merely blinds us to the real cause of the problem, which will prevent correction and result in another defeat next time.

So where to go from here? Well, for one, the Republicans need to admit that they are, in fact, a minority party. Sure, they control one chamber of Congress. But that one chamber cannot set the agenda of the other two. To regain a majority status requires hard work, not just political stunts. Lessons can be drawn from other historic minorities. But instead of merely galvanizing the base by demonizing moderates, Republicans need to learn how to capitalize on the doubts ordinary people have in the Democrats.

So by all means, Republicans, keep the heat on the (large D) Democrats. Attack their policies. Outline differences. Explain problems. But don't forget to do it (small d) democratically.

Also in this series:
Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Friday miscellaneous (10/18)

This week the quasi-shutdown finally ended and government got back to normal. What did the Republicans gain from it? Oh right, nothing. In fact, less than nothing, since (echoing what I wrote here) "the partial shutdown reinforces public doubt that Republicans can be trusted to govern." The lack of strategy was a major problem. And when even Grover Norquist says the Republicans went too far, well, that's a problem. It also doesn't help that the Republicans declined to negotiate 19 times prior to the shutdown, and then tried to pin the lack of bipartisan talks on the Democrats.

Not that the Democrats look much better in this giant game of chicken played by giant egos. The result: the nation was harmed and nobody won (except for maybe a singing sloth somewhere).

In the meantime, the shutdown failed to stop the Obamacare rollout (which I thought was the entire point--see comment about lack of strategy above). And the rollout has had problems of its own. So much so that President Obama's own former press secretary is wondering if someone should be fired over the debacle. And then one can't help but be amused that this Obamacare supporter became rather upset when informed that it would double his insurance premiums.

Because when it comes to customer service, the government could take a cue from Netflix. Or T-Mobile. That's what millennials appreciate.

And socially, income distribution in the United States is becoming a problem even by capitalist standards. It's no surprise that there's a Marxist renaissance taking place.

But enough about domestic politics.

Russia is building a rail system to bypass the Suez canal. Unfortunately, other parts of its transportation infrastructure are falling apart.

And here's the little known story of Iran Flight 655, which helps explain some of the current tensions between Iran and the United States.

On a completely different note, here's a fascinating scientific development that appears to cheat Newton's third law.

And finally, an explanation for some of the awkwardness in romance.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday miscellaneous (10/11)

Let's see, oh, where to start. With the politics, of course.

Apparently all the American flags on the moon are now white. Have we surrendered, or is this just another effect of the shutdown?

And speaking of the congressional problems, some truckers are taking matters into their own hands. So are Millennials (but with more productive consequences).

But for researchers who can no longer access government databases, Oxford Academic is offering free access to its contents.

Did you know that the Founding Fathers engaged with American Muslims? Me neither.

This is an inspiring story of a young mayor transforming the City of Compton, California.

Answers in Genesis has a new ad campaign running on billboards across the country. It reads, "To all of our atheist friends: Thank God you’re wrong." Some aren't very happy about this. And when it comes to missions, this might be a better approach anyway.

I've long enjoyed Focus on the Family's Radio Theatre series. Their next installment, on the life of C.S. Lewis, looks excellent.

And now for the really important things.

A giant dragon skull has washed ashore a British beach.

The head of the US Joint Special Ops has confirmed: "I think ninjas are probably quieter than SEALs, but we are better swimmers, and also better with guns and blowing things up." That settles that.

What is an out of work Disney villain to do (it's a tough economy these days)? Put together a resume, of course. And avoid trying to start an urban farm in Muskegon, Michigan.

No matter how bad your day was, this guy's was worse. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he is still legally dead.

And finally, in honor of the shutdown, here's some political spending logic for you.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Losing A Popular Issue (Blair’s Lessons, part VIII)

Reading about the current government shutdown, ostensibly over Obamacare, reminded me of a story in Tony Blair's autobiography. He wrote about the campaign in 2001, when his government was ultimately voted back into power for another term.

Going into this election, there had been growing discontent with Blair's government. One issue that the Conservatives (Tories) decided to focus on was Blair's unpopular pro-European Union stance. Both the polls and the media revealed that this was a weak point in Blair's platform, so naturally, the Tories thought they could exploit it. Instead, it backfired. Blair explains:
What’s more, while Euroscepticism was just about tolerable, there were—as there always are with such issues—those who wanted to take a position that was already at the outer edge of respectability and push well beyond it. The leadership stance gave them permission to go even further and there’s where the public’s position on Europe couldn’t be entirely guessed by reference to the polls. True, if asked, they supported the Tories on it, but it was never going to determine the election. It wasn’t their priority, so the Tory focus on it gave the Tories a curious, lopsided look that swiftly turned into the thought among the public that, well, maybe they just weren’t ready to govern. Once such a thought takes hold, the election’s over.
In that case, the Tories selected an issue that had popular support, but addressed it in such a way as to appear irresponsible and unprepared to take power. They pushed the issue to hard, to extremely, and consequently severed the popular sentiment from their specific policy stance. The result was another Blair victory—not because the people agreed with Blair, but because they doubted the basic competence of the alternative party.

This demonstrates just how difficult it can be to take a popular issue and translate it to electoral victory. How you address an issue can be even more significant than what the issue is.

I believe that's the issue the Republicans are missing in their attempt to use the government shutdown as an attempt to negotiate delay/repeal of Obamacare. Let's presume for the sake of argument that it really is as unpopular as the Republicans say it is. Stunts like the non-filibuster filibuster that was never intended to block the bill, or the inability to pass a bill out of their own controlled chamber do not instill confidence in the Republican party's ability to govern (were they given power). Nor does the apparent lack of strategy overall.

In fact, I have yet to see a coherent objective to this current tactic. If it's merely about negotiation, than the Obamacare stance is merely a pretext (which is what the Democrats are saying). If it's about Obamacare, than it's not particularly relevant to the budget debate (since the shutdown didn't affect Obamacare anyway, and most of the objectionable stuff isn't a budget question). If it's merely a ploy to make the Democrats give up something, anything, than the Republicans are as petty as they're saying the Democrats are. The only way the Republicans can score even a few points off this is if they are soundly defeated, and then play the victim (a strategy that requires ensuring defeat and claiming it as victory). If it's some combination of the above, which I suspect is the case, well, maybe the Republicans just aren't ready to govern.

Having a popular support on an issue won't help. As Blair warns, "Once such a thought takes hold, the election's over." The people's attitude to the group in power simply becomes (as Blair says a few pages later) "You’ve done OK, the other lot aren’t ready, carry on."

Also in this series:
Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Friday miscellaneous (10/4)

Alright, first of all,  Homeschoolers Anonymous published an expanded version of my prior post here on the United Nations and parental rights. It was written in response to their prior post arguing that homeschooling is not a human right. Check it my response.

And this week's government shutdown has sure generated a lot of interesting links. For example, those suffering panda withdrawal (since the live feed of the panda at the National Zoo has been turned off) need look no further. And here are 21 other lesser known aspects of the shutdown. And it's even causing a bit of an international embarrassment since, well, the Greek ambassador might just want to visit the Smithsonian exhibit done in cooperation with his country.

But on the bright side, many DC restaurants are offering specials to out of work Government employees. (My favorites are the ones that charge double for members of Congress.)

Of course, politics being what it is, both parties are more concerned with blaming the other then with actually identifying or solving the problem. So far, Republicans seem to be getting the worse end of that game (and rightfully so). One of their problems may be that they don't know how to take hostages. But their complete lack of a strategy might also be a contributing factor. For a recent demonstration, look at the effort that the Republicans deliberately set up to fail the very chamber they control.

 Oh, and Australia had a shutdown ... once. Sigh, sometimes monarchy doesn't look too bad.

Ok, enough of that. On to important things. Like the lake that petrifies any animals that touch it. Or the new island formed after an earthquake. Or the abandoned castle in New York. Or the noise police clowns in Paris.

And here's an interesting article on why tough teachers get good results. And on the topic of education, have you heard about how Christian kids loose their faith in college? Apparently they're more likely to loose it if they don't attend college.

And finally, this is an amazing video about the octopus.

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