Can you fix the budget?

Can you fix the budget? Sure, the Tea Party is full of batshit crazy and staggeringly stupid people. But the idea at its core — that the federal budget is a mess and we’ve been deficit spending like it’s crack — is pretty sound. So, ok smart guy, what would YOU cut to make it work? Don’t tell me, because your local New York Times digital department has put together a nifty little app that lets YOU play with the budget. You get all the different suggestions floating around, and you get to see the effects on the budget shortfall in 2015, and 2030. (It’d be even cooler if you could generate a unique URL to your solution for twitter, etc.)

Obama rocking it since health care reform passed

YOUR president has been rocking it since health care reform passed this weekend: jobs package, financial reform, and now an arms deal with Russia. Also, going out of his way to publicly support Biden’s dropping the f-bomb in the oval office. Next up, getting tough on Cuba and help for underwater homeowners. Bonus link: healthcare speech with edits showing on the White House flickr stream.

You can add health care reform to all the other cornerstones of American society that Conservatives fought against: womens’ suffrage, civil rights, social security, Medicare

You can add health care reform to all the other cornerstones of American society that Conservatives fought against: womens’ suffrage, civil rights, social security, Medicare.

I posted this to facebook, but I hate having stuff live only there, so here you go.

Update: Gloat-tastic: Obama stopped after every letter when signing his name to the bill to switch pens, creating 20 historical souvenirs.

Update #2: Here is the video, and here is the signature. Fast stuff, these interwebs!

A morsel of Haitian history

Haitian revolution

First, the bits that you already probably more or less know: in the 1700s and 1800s, European powers gradually colonized huge swaths of the world, including the Americas, Africa, and the Middle East. (For an explanation of how this happened, Guns, Germs, and Steel is highly recommended, although I can not be held responsible for any blown minds.) The big players here were Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal. The island of Hispanola was fought over by Spain and France, partially because this was fun and partially because it was just the perfect place for the production of coffee, sugar, and indigo (yes, indigo). They settled things in 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick, which basically carved the island down the middle, giving the French the western half and the Spanish the eastern half. And for the next hundred years or so, the western half thrived. Came a huge influx of French, and with them African slaves, into what became one of the more brutal slavery regimes of the time — a third of the Africans died within a few years of arriving.

In 1789 came the French Revolution, and word spread to the colony and caught fire among the slaves, who started a revolution of their own. Napoleon sent in a few tens of thousands of soldiers, but vast numbers of them were killed by yellow fever the devil, and by 1804 the nation of Haiti was established. (Bonus fact: about ten thousand refugees left the island during this time, and ended up settling in New Orleans, in effect doubling its population and forever changing its culture.)

Now here’s the bit you didn’t know. In 1825, the King of France, Charles X, sent over an armada of ships and soldiers, and under threat of invasion, war, and re-enslavement, then-president Jean-Pierre Boyer signed an “indemnity” under which the French recognized Haiti’s independence in return of a payment of 90 million Francs (actually, it was originally 150 million, reduced to 90 in 1838). And where did Haiti get the money to make this deal? They borrowed it, of course, and from French banks. And what sort of terms did they get? Well, I believe the term is “merde.” (In case you are wondering, the internet’s best guess is that this would be $21 billion in today’s money.)

But whatever, right? These sort of deals are made all the time, and they’re usually dropped when the leadership changes or comes to its mind. But no. For the next hundred years, Haiti made payments on this debt while its people mostly practiced subsistence farming. Instability from it resulted in a crippling series of coups (38 in Haiti’s 200-year history) and left an obviously problematic political and economic heritage.

Does this explain everything that’s happened in Haiti since? Of course not. But it sure does explain some of it.

Image source.

What’s up with the Senate?

Along with the Electoral College, the US Senate is one of those anti-democratic vestiges of the state-centric zeitgeist that existed at the dawn of the US. But nevermind! I bet you didn’t realize that “the rules of the Senate” (so nonchalantly referred to in recent news) are not only mind-buggingly strange, but actually completely mutable? OK, check out this big, from the 5th Section of Article 1 of a little something called the Constitution:

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.

So, like, right now we have the 111th United States Congress, right? Well, when the session began, Senators sort of casually voted in the rules from the previous Congress without much fanfare. But the truth is that they could just as easily voted in any other rules. Say, Robert’s Rules of Order. Or nomic (can’t possibly put enough parenthetic exclamation marks(!) after this, so I won’t try). Just as easily, they can change the rules any time they want. As in, it takes a majority — not a super-majority — of Senators to change the rules. Which is not what you usually hear, right? You hear that it takes a super-majority, 67 votes, to change the rules of the senate, which is part of Rule 22, yadda yadda, which is why you need 60 votes to override a filibuster, which of late has become a virtual-filibuster where Senators just say, “yeah, we’ll filibuster that,” which has become increasingly used over the last couple of years (curses, Republicans!), which means that you need 60 votes to get anything done in our friggin government, which means no healthcare for YOU because of Martha Coakley’s “blah, whatever, finally I get my Senate seat”-attitude lost her the Massachusetts special election and that was the Democrats’ (capital-D, keep up here) 60th seat. Right, that. That Rule 22 can be overturned with just a simple majority, which is to say 51 votes.

Harry Reid could (for-realz could, not theoretical-could) make a motion to throw out the filibuster rule, the 59 remaining Democrats could vote it in, and they could pass your healthcare reform this afternoon.

And they might! But probably not. This, by-the-way/you-see, is what the Republicans were talking about when they talked about the “Nuclear option” back in the 90s when they had a majority (but nearly as big a majority as the Democrats have right now). Reid went ballistic back then at the suggestion of them doing that, so he’d have to eat his words a little bit. But when the Republicans are — have been — in fact promised to use every procedural trick in the Rules to fight health-care reform, a little bit of procedural push-back might be in order. Especially when it allows 40% of the Senators (which, if you do the math, can equal the representation of as little as 12% of the voting public of the US) to block anything they don’t like.

But whatever, they’ll do whatever they want to do. What I’m suggesting is that a little fun reading for the next week or so might be the Rules of the Senate and maybe even the Constitution.

Sources: Going Nuclear, Slate. Explaining The American Filibuster, Fresh Air.

Portraits of world leaders

The New Yorker’s portraits of world leaders is a pretty good example of print and online media working together: small images and audio accounts of the photos by photographer Platon, beautiful full-page prints in the mag. The photos are striking, and they’re a profound examination of whether you can learn anything new about a person by gazing into their eyes in a simple still portrait. Conversely, almost all the short snippets of words reveal something startling, and they’re heightened by being spoken aloud.

Andrew Sullivan to GWB on torture

This is what Geneva’s Article 3 says: whatever the nature of the combatant, in or out of uniform, and whatever his own moral rules (or lack of them), he deserves basic respect as a human being with human rights. This principle is nonnegotiable. It is the core principle of Western civilization. Resistance to the physical force of government, especially as that force is applied to people in custody, is the core reason America exists as an independent nation.

I believe that if you review the facts of your two terms of office, you will be forced to realize that, whatever your intentions, you undermined this fundamental American principle. You may not have intended that to occur. But you were the commander in chief and president, and these were presidential-level decisions. The responsibility for all of this is yours—before the American people and before the court of history. And you need finally to own these decisions, to take full responsibility for them, to account for them, to explain them, and, yes, to apologize for their scope and brutality.

— Andrew Sullivan, from a long and comprehensive open letter to President Bush. A pretty good companion to this piece is the Fresh Air interview with Philippe Sands (which I’m linking now for like the 5th time) — Sands argues that unless there is some sort of coming to terms, Bush administration officials have the possibility of extradition and trial overseas to look forward to.

Dispute Finder

Dispute Finder While discussing the alleged death of polite disagreement at Rex’s blog last week, I expressed the idea that a lot of the disagreement stems from a disagreement about simple facts. It’s almost impossible to support healthcare reform bill if you think it includes “death panels,” and there are folks who consume media in such a way that they genuinely believe this. But even those with every right to call themselves reasonable are at prone to this effect — we tend to be more likely to believe the facts that jibe with our view of the world. Those facts then push our opinion farther along toward certainty, and make those who disagree with us seem ever less reasonable.

It follows that clarifying the facts is a potential way to begin restoring some of the civility that’s been lost from public discourse. By this I mean not only correcting incorrectly held beliefs, but also by exposing reasonable disagreements about what are often presented as established facts.

Interestingly, there is a tool intended to do exactly that: the Dispute Finder. It works like this: you install it as a Firefox extension, and it then alerts you when a fact you are seeing on the internet is in dispute, and cites a few disagreeing sources. It gets to know what sources you respect, and so if you’re a Republican, say, it’s more likely to point you to a story about how death panels are a hoax in the Wall Street Journal then in Harper’s magazine. (Demo here.) Try this at home!: do any of the statements below make you nod in agreement? Click through for contradictory evidence.

The point here isn’t that any of those claims are wrong — the point is that they are not nearly as clear cut as we might suppose, and that having our beliefs challenged makes us more likely to listen to those we disagree with, ergo more civil discourse. Two problems.

1) This is all well and good on the internet, but can we attach it to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck’s asses? And also better yet, what about my uncle who parrots Limbaugh, Beck, et al. at the Sunday cookout? Well, it turns out they’re working on that! Explains Dispute Finder developer Rob Ennals on a recent On the Media:

The bullshit detector is a thing that we’re planning to do next. It’s trying to apply the same kind of ideas we’re applying to the Web to information you hear in real life. So let’s say you’re in a conversation with somebody and they tell you something which is disputed. The device is going to buzz in your pocket and let you know that you just heard something disputed and perhaps you should question it. … [A]nother thing we’re planning [is] to apply this to closed caption TV text; that if some pundit on TV says something disputed, a thing will flash up at the bottom of your screen saying, this is a disputed claim. This source you trust disagreed with some of this.

Nice, right? Sign me up. And sign up my uncle. Better yet, sign up YOU and YOUR uncle, which brings us to

2) This is great, but how do I get the people who disagree with me to sign up for this? To wit, aren’t the very people who are disagreeably disagreeing the least likely to pay any attention to this type of technology? And at first I think this will be true. But I think it’ll have a snowball effect. As this type of technology spreads and improves, the desire for intellectual honesty will begin to drive its adoption. That is, even the most extreme conspiracy theorists want to claim to be open to opposing arguments, right? So unless this whole project manages to get painted as part of the liberal conspiracy (not inconceivable!), some portion of even the wackos at the fringes of the political parties will get on board, which will begin to soften — maybe — the craziness that’s therein harbored.