Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book Review: The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselves
Isaac Asimov
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ – –

Asimov is always good for a fun story. This one is about a portal from our world to another world where creatures in another dimension have discovered a way to change one of our elements into one that gives us an unending energy supply, which originally people think is great but then turns out to be bad because it is slowly making our sun hotter so that it will soon explode. The creatures in the other dimension are actually each made up of a triad of partner creatures, which each carry different aspects of the single creature's personality (parenting, logic, and emotion).

I really liked Asimov's introduction in which he explains that this book came about because he was having a conversation about physics and he referred to an element that couldn't possibly exist, and he was called on it, so then he swore he was going to write a story in which that element did exist and was the center of the plot.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Demise of the Southern Veto

As a region, the South is more politically isolated right now than at any time since the Civil War. For most of our nation's history, the South has been so disproportionately powerful that the section has wielded a "Southern Veto" over U.S. politics and policy. A brief and admittedly oversimplified history of the Southern Veto over the years would include the following:

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson was forced by delegates from Georgia and South Carolina to remove a clause from the Declaration of Independence condemning the African slave trade.

During the drafting of the Constitution, the Southern states insisted on being allowed to include their slave populations to determine representation in Congress and the Electoral College. The Northern states objected of course, since they had few slaves. To break the impasse, delegates from North and South agreed to count three-fifths of a given state's slave population in determining that state's representation. This shifted the balance of power in the Electoral College to the South in such a way that it routinely swung antebellum presidential elections in favor of candidates that were acceptable to the South.

When the modern Democratic Party organized itself the 1820s, it decided to require a two-thirds majority in order to nominate a presidential candidate. This gave the South an effective veto over any Democratic presidential nominee. For over a century afterwards, the Democratic Party existed as a coalition between Southern slaveholders and segregationists and the big-city machines of the North. Thanks to the two-thirds rule, every Democratic presidential nominee and his platform had to be acceptable to the South.

As a northerner, FDR found his New Deal initiatives severely constrained by the Southern Democrats who controlled key Senate committees. For instance, to get Social Security passed, FDR agreed to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from the program, leaving huge numbers of Southern Blacks out of Social Security entirely.

Other than Obama, the only non-Southern Democrat to be elected President since FDR was JFK. His domestic social agenda, which included civil rights and Medicare, went nowhere until after he was assassinated. His Southern successor LBJ pushed through both initiatives, turning the "Solid South" over to the Republican Party in the process.

Today, with Obama in the White House, the G.O.P. boasts electoral strongholds only in the South and in the sparsely populated Plains states. The Southern Veto, and especially its power over the Democratic Party, appears to have been finally overridden, at least for the time being. For example, there was only one Southerner among the "Gang of Six" centrist Senators in this summer's health care debate: Mary Landrieu from Louisiana. It is instructive that this lone Southern moderate hails from a state with a polyglot, cosmopolitan culture and history that sets it apart from the rest of the South.

Barack Obama is the gravest threat to the political power of the South since Lincoln. Viewed against this backdrop, the current town-hall-birther-deather-teabagger freak-out makes a bit more sense to me.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Obama's Health Care Speech

A classic of rhetorical technique:

1. Start with Ethos: Establish your credibility as someone to listen to. "When I took office, the economy was on the brink. Things are still bad, but we've pulled back from the edge. I am a competent manager."

2. Logos: Give a logical argument for why your approach is best. Obama offers a series of wonky arguments for why his reform is the best route.

3. Pathos: Appeal to the heart, and ask people to take some action. Obama invokes Ted Kennedy, and reminds us that wanting to help your fellow man is not a partisan issue.

Rhetorically, a very strong speech. Unknown is how many persuadable people actually watched it.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Unfulfilled Promise of Dome Homes

I lament the unfulfilled promise of dome homes as a suburban housing option. Also yurts.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Comparing Obama and FDR

This New York Times op-ed, Roosevelt: The Great Divider, argues that FDR rammed through his New Deal program with nary a care for the opposition. The implication is that Obama can and should do the same with health care reform.

However, there are some key differences between the situations faced by Obama and FDR:

1. The economy was much, much, much worse during the Great Depression than it is now. Much worse. Unemployment was 25%. There was no government safety net to speak of. The severity of three and a half years of Depression prompted the electorate to demand a radical response.

2. The economy was so bad, in fact, that the middle class identified politically with the poor, which is rarely the case. It certainly is not the case today.

3. The Congress is much more evenly split today. In 1937, the GOP was down to 17 seats out of 96 in the Senate and 88 seats out of 435 in the House.

4. The populist energy during FDR's administration was on the left and it demanded change. Today, the populist energy is on the right and it opposes change.
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