Ballots Too Crowded?

When I was a kid – way back when people actually told jokes about Communists – there was the one that went like this: “did you hear that the Soviets are holding a two-party election? The Communist Party and the victory party.”

Well, here in New York state we not only we have two major parties (and then some), but each candidate can just institute his/her very own multi-party system – or at least represent multiple parties on the same ballot.

This seemed very weird to me at first (I grew up in another state). Something in my gut said that the corollary to the “one-person, one ballot” idea had to be “one candidate, one ballot slot.” That just seemed natural to me. But, honestly, I couldn’t tell you why. Is it just a culturally transmitted mental habit?

Really, what’s so bad about having your name on the ballot multiple times? Even if it gives you a probabilistic advantage (does it? Statisticians please weigh in – my math creds are not what they once were!), maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If you’re able to capture multiple ideological camps, (literally “reach across party lines” as politicians are fond of promising) chances are good that you – and hopefully your policy postures – appeal to voters who identify with those camps… so your statistical advantage may just reflect the will of the people.

Besides, it is New York, and we just have to do things a little differently from everyone else, just because we can.

If You Bill Them They Won’t Come… Or Will They?

Have you checked out the new congestion pricing ad? It asks: “what if congestion pricing prepared us for [the] future and started reducing overcrowding now? What if every penny went to improve public transportation and create new bus and subway lines for all New Yorkers? What if congestion pricing meant less traffic, cleaner air and a healthier environment?”

What if it didn’t?

Don’t get me wrong, I lean green, so I’m all for curbing emissions and spewing of all kinds. But a laudable goal isn’t a sufficient argument for any process that claims to further that goal. I worry about that second “what if.” Give me details on the transit improvements. Tell me how much money overhead and admin costs will eat up. And explain to me how a paltry new toll on vehicular traffic translates into all this extra spending money if it’s actually reducing traffic as suggested by the third “what if?” (Yes, I’ve read the proposed legislation and yes, I know how to parse these things).

Most importantly, will it reduce traffic? Some people involved in the London program we’re trying to emulate) say the pricing has to be much higher to have a real impact. The mayor himself has said that the costs aren’t that harsh, since people who drive in the city are usually the ones who can “afford it.”

Meanwhile, subway fares are going up on Sunday.

We Can’t Shut People Up to Keep Them From Lying

I voted for Obama. Mainly because I like the way he’s run his campaign better than the way Clinton has run hers. So, I was a bit disturbed to find the following email from the Obama campaign urging me to donate to it. It began this way:

“News broke yesterday that a few wealthy Clinton supporters are gearing up for a massive spending campaign to boost her chances in the big upcoming contests in Texas and Ohio on March 4th. The so-called “American Leadership Project” will take unlimited contributions from individuals and is organized the same way as the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.”

What does “organized the same way as the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” mean? Isn’t it a little misleading to imply an equivalence between the two groups based solely on organizational similarity?

The Swift Boat Veterans campaign was a smear campaign based on lies. That was its problem. Whether 527s should be free to engage in candidate advocacy is really a secondary issue. Frankly, I am not even sure that issue advocacy groups should be prohibited from candidate advocacy. We might not want them to do it with tax-exempt dollars, but we can prevent that without stifling their free speech. For example, every dollar spent on election-related programs could be made subject to taxes (even if the organization as a whole is an exempt entity). But keeping them from vocally supporting or opposing candidates for office raises serious First Amendment concerns for me.

I care as much as the next guy about the equality of access to the public megaphone. There are other ways to address that: like requiring the broadcast networks (licensees of our public airwaves) to give free and equal time to all candidates. I’m sure there are better approaches still. In any case, I think that access is becoming much less of a problem with so much proliferation of new media.

Whatever else we do though, a restraint on political advocacy can’t be the way we safeguard truth and fairness in politics. And government can’t be the arbiter of that. That’s exactly the point of the first Amendment.

Let’s Hope the Premium Caps Stay in Place

The idea of government mandated health insurance makes me uneasy.

I’m willing to be taxed to support public health insurance (like public schools) or insurance assistance (like food stamps). But I don’t want to be forced to buy a service.

Hillary Clinton is the only candidate still really in the race whose plan includes a universal mandate. But it does have one saving grace, which I don’t think was in the first publicly available draft: premium caps (at least relative caps proportional to income).

Phew! Otherwise, it would really feel like we were being made to subsidize a cartel.

But one bit of caution: I know a thing or two about legislation… “minor” details are easy to change. A few years ago, I worked with a piece of legislation authorizing a New York State public authority to extend the life of its debt. When it was first enacted, this entity was to expire within a certain period (I will spare you the complicated conditions for determining the date). But all of that notwithstanding, there was a final date, a drop-deadline (“date certain” as politicians like to say) by which the entity absolutely had to pay off its debt and dissolve itself.

The language was “in any case no later than the earlier of” the drop deadline date OR the period determined by complicated calculations.

The legislature quietly changed the word “earlier” to “later.” Keep in mind, thirty years earlier, when the statute was first enacted, there was more than a little controversy about whether it was a worthwhile project AND about whether it was sufficiently sunset-ed (new verb alert). But the “revision” caused little public outcry. Very few even heard about it. As I recall, the new formulation ultimately didn’t work out because of unrelated political reasons (but the debt still got refinanced a different way).

When the dust finally settles on the health care debate, if we go the mandate route, let’s remember to watch carefully so that insurance companies’ quasi-mandate to keep rates down don’t quietly disappear from the books one fine session in Congress.

Tread Lightly, Hillary and Barack

With Mitt Romney out of the way, there are some interesting and frightening possibilities for Democrats.

McCain, who I think we all knew was going to win anyway, has time now to start looking presidential and appealing to those segments of his party that doubt his credentials as a Reagan-channeler (you are all thinking it, I’m just sayin’). He is strong with Independents and moderates already, and is widely perceived (wrongly, I believe) to be a person of enormous character. He could be very compelling for those who want to see Republicans hold on to the White House, even if that means making some allowances on certain strains of conservatism.

This will be no cake walk for Democrats. If anything — anything at all — happens to energize an anti-liberal sentiment, it will bring voters out in droves to vote AGAINST the progressive Democrat (and they’re both pretty progressive). As strong as these candidates look to us Democrats, their credibility with the general electorate is a lot more tenuous.

1. There is unfortunate lingering suspicion about race and gender.

2. Fiscal conservatives may not love McCain’s waffling on tax cuts, but they HATE socialized medicine.

3. Two kinds of Republican sentiments on globalization will work against the Dems. On the one hand, Republicans with protectionist and anti-immigration (an issue that is unfortunately conflated in the minds of many voters with outsourcing) tendencies will attack a democrat who seems to favor globalization, such as Obama. On the other hand, any misgivings about free trade agreements (like the ones Clinton has sometimes expressed) will be roundly condemned by pro-business, pro-Wall Street fiscal conservatives. Not that free trade AGREEMENTS are necessarily good for free trade… but that’s a different discussion.

McCain is vulnerable on some of these points too, but he seems to have mastered the ability to get away with that. Pro choice people support him, even though he is staunchly anti choice. Anti-war people support him. Though he wants to “Bomb Iran.” He’s been running as an “outsider” alternative to all the corruption in Washington, yet, he is a veteran Washington insider who was one of the “Keating Five” during the Savings and Loan scandal in 1989.

4. A Clinton-headed ticket might mobilize masses of otherwise disaffected right wingers who seem to harbor a deep and frequently irrational personal animosity toward her.

For all the dramatic rhetoric coming out of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, McCain is hugely popular among Republicans (check the election results) and, more importantly, he is palatable enough to a broad and seemingly unlikely cross section of the general electorate (for an old man he enjoys enormous support from young people, for instance) that the Democrats need to walk a VERY fine line and TREAD LIGHTLY ON EACH OTHER so as not to make DEMOCRATS (women, African Americans, Latinos, blue collar workers, liberal intellectuals, young idealists….) decide to stay home on November 4.