Monthly Archives: February 2004

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Democracy rules 

I played my part in democracy yesterday, attending the UK Democratic caucus in London.

Apparently the largest number ever to attend a caucus in the past was around 80. Anticipating greater interest this year, Democrats Abroad had booked a room that could hold 200. Two weeks ago they upped that to 350. Last night, 625 people showed up to vote.

“Don’t thank me,” said one of the organisers, responding to a caucuser’s congratulations for the organisation. “Thank the man who brought us all here — George W Bush.”

The excitement of participants at the Bush-out energy was only exceeded by the news that the London turnout had topped the total in Paris over the weekend. Some rivalries supersede all other considerations.

The UK caucus was to determine the UK delegates to the Democrats Abroad international caucus, which will be held in Edinburgh at the end of March. As one of the biggest chapters of Democrats Abroad, the UK sends 30 delegates with one-third vote each to the international caucus. The 40 countries at the international caucus will then choose 19 people to go to the Democratic National Convention in Boston (the 19 people have a grand total of 7 votes).

I’ve never caucused before. I think Philip Gourevitch, writing in The New Yorker about the Iowa caucus, had it right. If election observers watched a caucus in a so-called emerging democracy, they would decry its failure to observe basic democratic norms. Forget the right to a secret ballot. Forget the right to your unimpeded choice.

Here’s how a caucus works. The convener, in our case Rachelle Jailer Valladares, the chair of Democrats Abroad, first determines how many voters there are. That in turn produces a “viability number”, which is 15% of the total. Since we had 625 voters (you had to show your passport and sign a form declaring you supported the aims of the Democratic party), the viability number was 93.75.

Each of the candidates then made a brief statement. We obviously didn’t have any real candidates, and the overflow capacity meant that Rachelle decided the video messages from Dean and Clark would not be shown, since quite a few people wouldn’t be able to see them. The Clark supporters were particularly upset by this decision, and it seemed to take the wind completely out of their sails.

In place of video messages, official letters from the candidates were read out in alphabetical order of the candidates. Clark’s was extraordinarily misjudged, it seemed to me. The entire message was about how he understood the concerns of overseas Americans, having spent much of his career overseas. So it droned on about voting rights and taxation. Not one word about why he’d be an effective candidate or president.

Dean’s letter was a minor variation on his stump speech. He stressed his qualifications as a leader and his role as a Washington outsider. I thought the tone was about right.

In support of Edwards we had a personal statement from the official worldwide representative of the Edwards campaign. She made a strong speech about his qualities. It seems as though she could speak personally because of her official designation (the whole evening was cloaked in rules and bureaucracy). No other kosher worldwide representatives were in London last night (to laughter, it was announced that the Clark representative was in Antarctica).

When it came to Kerry’s turn, a young woman started to make her personal plea. Rachelle stopped her. The Kerryite huffed, “Okay, so I won’t read the speech I’ve just spent an hour on. And I won’t be able to tell you why my cousin John Kerry will make such a great candidate.” I almost gagged. The official Kerry letter, in contrast, was quite good.

Kucinich and Sharpton had not sent proper statements. Instead, for bureaucratic reasons, their filing letter with Democrats Abroad was read in full. Sharpton’s was brief and to the point. Kucinich’s was a strange declaration of his support for affirmative action in selection of delegates. It contained six paragraphs all reiterating his support for women, African Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, transgendered persons and people with disabilities. Repeated over and over and over.

Finally, finally, we were able to split into our candidate preferences. Rachelle warned us, “If you talk to the media during the preference, you are disqualified.” Oy! As a person who saw me taking notes said, “Does that mean I have to stop talking to you?” I replied, “Every person here could be the media now.” What extraordinary old thinking, not least in the year when the Internet has so dramatically affected the Democrats’ campaigns.

Kerry was assigned the main room, Dean supporters were invited to go to the room next door, Edwards out in the hall, Clark in another room, and so on. After a period of friendly jostling, we found our places. The Dean room looked crowded, but not packed. With a Clark supporter monitoring the count (a Dean supporter had gone to monitor the Clark count) each of us was tallied. We hit 97, just a few beyond the viability number of 93.75. Phew!

Only two candidates were announced as viable: Dean and Kerry, who totalled 262. I guess not everyone reacted to the cousin like me. People I know who had been involved with the Dean campaign since the autumn were surprised at Clark’s poor showing, since they were reckoned to have the best organisation in London.

We then went through a 10 minute period of confused jockeying for the now-uncommitted supporters. In Iowa, where I guess many people know the other people in the caucus room, this might be an intense, meaningful moment. But in London, where hardly any of us knew anybody else, it was a bit of a farce. Two Kucinich supporters came over to Dean, telling me, “We wanted to make the smallest possible move to the right.” They only had one regret, however, “Kerry has better air conditioning,” they confessed. And it was true. Having granted the Kerry crowd the main hall, the rest of us were condemned to low-ceilinged, sweaty, overcrowded spaces. Clearly rigged.

But then more confusion. The Edwards supporters claimed that the viability number was wrong, since some people had left after the initial count, but before the preference. Slightly dodgily, I thought, a new viability number was agreed and after several counts, Edwards was declared viable as well.

Rachelle declared that the 30 UK delegates would be split 17 for Kerry, seven for Dean, six for Edwards.

We retired back to the Dean supporters room to choose our seven. Ten people were interested in going to Edinburgh. Each of them made a few remarks to explain why they should be chosen. We were then asked to pick our seven.

But bureaucratic rules intervened. It seems the rules of the international caucus requires gender balance in all delegations. So even at our micro level, the delegates had to be gender balanced. Only three of the ten were male — so they were in effect guaranteed selection. Only four of the seven women could be picked. My own personal choice was for five women and two men. “It’s almost bad enough to make me a Republican,” I said to another Dean supporter bewildered by the gender rule. Just joking, of course.

This UK diversion aside, I reckon the nomination is very likely to go to Kerry, with Edwards perhaps still having an outside chance. So why did I continue to support Dean last night?

I saw my preference last night as a tribute to the campaign that — as much as anger at Bush — brought over 600 people to the caucus. I think the Democratic campaign we are seeing has largely been scripted by Dean, even though his moment has now passed. Of the candidates with a chance, Dean alone tore into president Bush throughout last year. He enabled the Democratic party to rediscover its voice (USA Today has a good piece on this theme). He convinced people that Bush can be defeated in November. And that’s what everyone who turned up last night wants.

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Three quarks for Muster Mark 

Make sure you are very alert before reading The Poor Man’s exposition of The Standard Model of Political Reporting (it’s analogous, apparently, to the three-quark model of baryons).

A brief excerpt: “Astute observers will note that each candidate shares exactly one candidaton with every other candidate, and that each shared candidaton is unique to a pair of candidates. For example: John Edwards shares only S with only Wes Clark, shares only nV with only Dean, and shares only nO with only Kerry. This symmetry may seem suprising; but, in fact, it is a requirement of the stable 4-candidate system, one of only two configurations allowed by the laws of political discourse.”

The disappeared 

The Médecins Sans Frontières list of the most under-reported humanitarian events of 2003 makes for very sobering reading.

  1. Tens of thousands seek refuge in Chad from wars in Sudan and Central African Republic
  2. Ongoing oppression of civilians, war and dislocation in Chechnya
  3. Tenth year of civil war in Burundi lowers life expectancy to 40, causes massive dislocation
  4. Three million displaced in Columbia, infrastructure destroyed, violence & disease rampant, ‘drug war’ ruins economy
  5. Daily terror and disease in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo pushes 20-year death toll past three million
  6. Annual death toll from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa reaches two million because $1 treatment is too expensive
  7. Twelve years of violence, displacement, flooding and drought make Somalia the world’s most destitute country
  8. Millions of refugees fleeing starvation and terror in North Korea struggle in fear and deprivation in hostile China
  9. ‘Free’ trade agreements deprive millions of AIDS victims in Southern Africa and elsewhere of affordable treatment
  10. War, displacement and lack of medical care produces massive malnutrition in Ivory Coast and Liberia

How to Save the World comments: “Why aren’t the media covering these stories? None of them is physically close to the West. None of them involves countries with resources of strategic importance to the West. Almost all of them are ongoing, so there is nothing ‘new’ to report each day. None of the people in these countries has resorted to terrorist attacks against the West to bring attention to our indifference to their plight. And all of them are intractible problems, and therefore issues that those of us in the West would rather not know about.”

What’s equally troubling is that there are good stories to tell about the developing world that are never reported, either. Unless you really dig through conventional media, most of the world’s population never appears.

Periodic tables 

Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel are preparing a book on the scientific, visual and cultural history of periodic tables. I want to be first in the queue when it comes out.

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Not again 

Ralph Nader is making noises again about running for president. Although I’m usually quick to decry the lack of ideological choice in American politics, I thought his candidacy in 2000 was a mistake that was major factor in electing George Bush. A Nader run in 2004 would be a mistake again.

For those who believe Nader was not at fault in 2000, read Larry Lessig’s professorial analysis.

It’s a start 

The Jimmy Carter blog (sort of).

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Hard work for an economist 

Via Marginal Revolution I came across Chris Foote’s account of his work on the Iraqi economy last year:

“The macroeconomic model I take with me to Iraq is simple: In the long run, markets and prices allocate resources efficiently, so it’s best to keep government interventions in the market to a minimum. But in the short run, prices don’t adjust to changing circumstances right away, leading to temporary problems like recessions. Because the U.S. economy is set up well, the problems at the CEA were usually of the short-run variety. Iraq is different. Under Saddam, Iraq’s economy was riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and waste. The looting and sabotage to the country’s infrastructure immediately after the war made things worse. The job of the economists I work with is to stabilize the economy from the immediate effects of the war, then help to put the country on a solid long-run foundation.”

Top 10 

Francis Wheen’s top 10 delusions. A useful tonic:

  1. “God is on our side”
  2. The market is rational
  3. There is no such thing as reality
  4. We mustn’t be “judgmental”
  5. Laissez-faire capitalism is the prerequisite for trade and prosperity
  6. Astrology and similar delusions are “harmless fun”
  7. Thin air is solid
  8. Sentimental hysteria is a sign of emotional maturity
  9. America’s economic success is entirely due to private enterprise
  10. “It could be you. . .”

Finding voices 

Bonobo Land picks up on Joi Ito’s challenge about making people care about developing nations.

“How can we make ordinary voices from developing nations, often seemingly irrelevant to the daily realities we see in whichever richer part of the world we reside, more interesting to the world? Put it another way, how do we make a local perspective relevant and interesting on a global level?”

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Sounds reasonable 

Design Observer, after learning why the latest new elements are named ununtrium and ununpentium: “Maybe we can learn something from this rational process. There are clearly too many names in the world, especially for products with unsubstantiated claims and unproven track records. (Not to mention twentieth-century quackery: Enron and Parmalat? Enough said.) Imagine if all new products were simply designated by number (Latin would be fine) until they proved their worth? Every start-up would simply be a number until it turned a profit. Names would then be granted upon certification by the International Union of Pure Honesty and Applied Human Needs. We could limit names to places, people, planets, mythological concepts, unusual font families.”

View from over here 

The excellent British Politics stayed up through the night to watch CNN’s coverage of yesterday’s seven primaries. “I’ve seen a lot of the resentment about US political coverage around left wing blogs, but for the first time I felt it too. I’m not sure if it was an ideological problem with Dean, or something more primal. For some reason these commentators wanted to stomp on Dean hard. This might have been purely ideological but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like Heathers.”

Another snowclone 

Freedom to Tinker: “Googlocracy is the worst form of page ranking, except for all of the others that have been tried.”

Language Log (see below) has a regular series of postings on constructions like Ed Felten’s, which are dubbed snowclones. Some popular ones are: “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z” (BTW, they don’t), “In space, no one can hear you X” and “W is the new Y”. More snowclones here and here.

More reliable 

Language Log: “There’s certainly a lot of garbage out there on the web. But a surprising amount of it is in the digital pages of reputable publications. And the low barriers to informal publication and re-publication, combined with (up to now) trustworthy information about authorship of such material, and the still-emerging mechanisms for establishing and navigating cross-links, combine to produce (the beginnings of) a dynamic, distributed information source that can be more reliable than the major outlets of science journalism are.”