Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Way I Live Now...

Every once in a while I watch something like this cool video on urban design...

And I get insufferably smug. Because, yes - this is how I live. In a small row house in a cozy part of East London, with shops, restaurants, schools, libraries, postal services and fitness facilities all an easy walk away. Plus, when I do feel like getting out of the area I've got the Underground, frequent buses, and overground trains all in easy reach. I haven't owned a car since High School and, although it's not for everyone, I really don't feel like this lifestyle in any way a hardship that I endure as some sort of self-sacrificing environmental penance. I like it. It's pretty low stress (I love that I never have to worry about parking), safe (motor vehicle accidents are the 3rd most likely cause of death for folks my age), and healthier (I do a lot of walking).

I grew up on a cul-de-sac. It was nice there, but I'd never go back to it.

A New US Ambassador to Britain?

Today a number of British papers are reporting the expected announcement of Louis Susman as US Ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Susman is a long-time Democratic party fundraiser and early supporter of Obama's

The British media - a strange beast at the best of times - has responded extremely oddly to this (not yet confirmed) posting. For instance, here's the Telegraph writing back in March when the idea was first being mentioned:

The appointment of a crony of the President rather than a diplomatic high-flyer will be a disappointment for Gordon Brown who has already had to come to terms with the fact Britain now only has a "special partnership" with America rather than a "special relationship".
Really? The appointment of a successful businessman and good friend to the President is a sign that poor old Britain gets demoted to a mere "partner" rather than having a "relationship"? And in some way that's to be considered a demotion? (Partnership < Relationship?)

The Guardian, after much Kvetching and hand wringing that Susman does not come from the diplomatic corps, finally reports in its bizarre article that:
The president's choice of Susman could be viewed as a snub to the UK.
I suppose it COULD - but you'd have to be trying really, really hard.

Wherefore this profound insecurity in Britain that wants to believe with every reading of the entrails that there is a secret snub to be found. It reminds me of something John F. Kennedy once said when the government of West Germany kept asking for assurances of US support:
"It was, the President once said, like a wife who asks her husband every night, 'Do you love me?' and when he keeps repeating that he does, nevertheless asks again, 'But do you really love me?' - and then puts detectives on his tail."
Gordon Brown was the first foreign leader that President Obama met with in Washington. He was the first foreign leader that President Obama visited overseas. Britain, you really are our closest ally. Honest. We REALLY DO love you.

Louis Susman is, I have no doubt, a supremely competent leader (and I've heard good things about him from those who worked with him during the campaign) and I'm sure he'll be a fine Ambassador in line with the tradition of fine politically appointed ambassadors here. But it doesn't seem to me that there is a desperate need for an ambassador with strong State Department experience here PRECISELY BECAUSE our relationship is so close.

A lot of the work that would normally be conducted by the Ambassador will be done through direct Presidential level discussions. Plus, although I have no doubt that there will be areas of disagreement, I don't think the Obama administration is worried about managing contentious trade agreements, or military engagements here in Britain. We're allies - there's a level of mutual trust and respect.

And finally, Britain, please remember in the midst of all the lunatic hand wringing over whether our relationship is REALLY special, whether it's special ENOUGH, whether it will ALWAYS be special... We're not with you because you nag or trick us into it.

It's very much in America's best interest to be closely allied with Britain. Even if the President and the Prime Minister didn't like each other personally (although there's every evidence that they DO), even if the Mayor of London arrests the US Ambassador for non-payment of fines (which he might), even if we never succeed in giving you a properly functioning DVDs - the US will always love you. Promise.

Those other countries meant nothing to us.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Obama Secures Impressive Agreement on Emissions Limits

"'This is a very big deal,' said Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, who has pushed for tougher mileage and emissions standards for two decades with the goal of curbing the gases that have been linked to global warming. 'This is the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.'"

This agreement, in truth, has been long overdue. The car industry realised some time ago that higher emissions standards were inevitable - although they still tried to block them where they could. Once they'd accepted that basic fact, the biggest concern was then the possibility of widely varied state standards. In short - if you design a car that complies beautifully with the California standard, but then release it in the same month that New York announces a new, higher standard that's not good for business. Fair enough.

So the negotiation position for all sides was actually pretty obvious - the industry accepts the California standard as a national standard. That way they know for sure what they're going to have to work towards. Meanwhile, California gets the higher standard it was looking for and brings the rest of the country along with it. Win win - and without disparaging the incredibly hard work and delicate negotiations that I'm sure went into this - also a pretty easy win.

You just need a politician who is prepared to take it.

Now, it's worth saying - this only gets us about halfway there. In addition to people driving better cars, ideally it would be great if they drove them less often. So I would love to see more done to encourage other forms of transport (hurray Supertrains! Yes I have a bit of a thing about this...) and to discourage driving.

But for now, this is a really good day's work. Well done all!

Good News Keeps Coming: Ted Kennedy is in Remission

After a very rough spell, Ted Kennedy appears to be in remission and will be rejoining the senate after Memorial Day.

This is excellent news for the Kennedy family, obviously, and also great news for all Democrats (and Americans) as we gear up for a major piece of legislation on Health Care this summer. Ted's been a leading light on this issue for decades, and it is only fitting that he be in the Senate to help push through this major reform.

Empathy and the Court

In reflecting upon his forthcoming choice of a Supreme Court justice to replace the retiring Justice David Souter, President Obama recently described how he would approach what he called the "among my most serious responsibilities as President."

"I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind, and a record of excellence and integrity," he said. "I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book, it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives, whether they can make a living, and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes, and welcome in their own nation. I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with peoples hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."
Reflecting several centuries worth of considered legal philosophy, Republican National Committee Chair responded to this with a considered restatement of that Party's core judicial argument:

"I don't need some justice up there feeling bad for my opponent and short changing me and my opportunity to get fair treatment under the law. Crazy nonsense empathetic. I'll give you empathy. Empathise right on your behind. Crazy!"
Now, I realise that Steele's position may contain more legal jargon and philosophical concepts than are easily understood by the lay reader, so let me make and effort to clarify his meaning for you.

Steele's argument essentially boils down to this: The law exists in a clear and knowable form, and the job of a justice is merely to apply this law to the individual case that comes before her (or him). It would not be desirable for a justice to experience empathy or understanding of the litigants appearing before him, as this would prevent them from applying the law in an impartial manner.

This is not a ridiculous argument. It's just incorrect.

In fact, what Steele is talking about here is a pretty good description of the work of judges in the lower courts - in most cases that come before a lower court judge, or even an appeals court judge, all that's required is to look at the facts, look at the law (including precendent) and determine how the one is applied to the other.

However, in some appeals court cases and in most cases before the Supreme Court, this simply isn't the job description. The function of the Supreme Court is to handle cases of interpretation - instances where it is not clear how the law can best be applied. More often than not, at the Supreme Court level you have to make choices about RELATIVE applications of the law - deciding priorities. For instance, does that State's right to ensure a safe and orderly environment supersede the individual's right to protest to such an extent that it is reasonable to impose limits on speech?

Does a property owner's right to freedom in their own possesions take precedence over the state's interest in regulating construction on that property?

When one parent wants a terminally ill child to be put on a do not recusitate order, and the other parent strongly opposes this - how to you break that deadlock?

When a small business owner wants to do drug testing on his or her staff, does that owner's concern for the health and safety of his customers and employees take precedence over the employees right to avoid unwarranted search and seizure?

What's the fair thing to do when the law is ambiguous, contradictory or simply silent on an important issue?

What Michael Steele appears to miss in his diatribe above, interestingly, is that empathy works BOTH WAYS. It's not just a question of a justice pitying your adversary and punishing you for it. Ideally constructed, the justice should be able to think through the motivations of both parties before making her judgement. It would be easy, for instance, in the case of the small busines owner conducting drug testing, to apply a strict interpretation of the constitution that declares unwarranted searches without probable cause to be banned - but before she does that, I would hope she would think through the concerns of the business owner worrying that an employee on drugs could harm his customers or make damaging mistakes. I hope she'll consider that the employee has a choice to work there or not, and that this action may be a reasonable and proportionate way for the owner to protect himself and the public. I hope she'll give that fair consideration, understanding both people's point of view.

That's empathy.

What Steele was talking about - seeing only one person's side to the detriment of the other side - isn't empathy at all. It's prejudice.

And in my view, when a court is capable of ruling that a woman can't sue for discrimination even though she's been paid less than male colleagues for years, because the company was successful at hiding that information from her until it was too late - in my view, that's prejudice too.

What Steele objects too isn't that Obama wants to encourage empathy, it's that he wants to end the prejudice on the court that for years now has always favoured the wealthy and the comfortable in its decisions. That kind of consistent record of ruling doesn't betray a strict application of the law, it betrays a skewed interpretation.

FYI: I Heart Barney Frank

A politician spouting actual information on television? Weird.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

SCANDAL: The Expenses Crisis and UK Politics

Having been largely absent from the blog for a little while, I sort of feel guilty about neglecting my hoards of readers (well... stream. Trickle.l... Well... Christine, mainly. Sorry Christine...) so thought I'd try to make it up to you with thoughts on a few different issues.

First, obviously, I couldn't possibly ignore the current tidal wave sweeping British politics - the scandal over MP's expenses. For my American readers, basically what has happened here is that widespread abuse has been discovered in which a large number of MPs from all three major parties have been claiming taxpayer money for a range of absurd items (yes, as you may have heard, one Conservative MP claimed money for the cleaning of his moat), some have been caught claiming money for mortages long since repaid, and others have been caught out doing up one property at the taxpayer expense and switching to claim the other as their scond residence and refurbishing that on our dime as well.

Today the Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, was forced to resign after weeks of controversy stemming from his apparent failure to in any way control the expenses management before the scandal broke (it falls under his purview) or to competently cope with it once it did.

But the Speaker is, frankly, the least of our problems here. The sentiment in the country is volatile - there has already been a lot of discontent here with a Labour government that generally feels past its sell-by date. This was already massively compounded with anger over the economic situation (and Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer for near two decades under Tony Blair, so he can't escape responsibility). Now all this has been compounded by a strain of understandable populist outrage.

What bothers me most here is how sorely I have personally been made to look a fool. After all, I have been standing up for the integrity of politicians with cab drivers and coffee-house servers for years. Whenever (as happens frequently) there is grumbling about politicians who are supposedly only doing it for the money or for their egos, I have pointed out tirelessly that:

1) Most politicians could easily make more money in business.
2) The reason they don't do that is because most politicians I know are genuinely invested with a sense of desire to do some good for their communities/ constituents/ country.
3) Yes, politicians do have massive egos, but so do most successful people. And anyway...
4) Political life can be the most ego crushing thing in the world - because part of your job is to get attacked by the public every time you speak, and quite often you fail in the most spectacular fashion (losing and election, a ministerial post, etc.) in front of everyone you have ever met.

A lot of this is still true - and although a lot of MPs appear to be guilty of nasty shenanigans, many are not - but it's not an argument that suits the public mood right now.

Nor is it especially one I feel like making. Sometimes anger is appropriate. Voters have every right to feel it.

This is a bizarre scandal in that it affects all the political parties, so although it is likely to hurt the government most deeply, it tarnishes the whole system at a exactly the moment when people were already feeling like their politics was unresponsive and unrepresentative.

The fear is that this will lead not just to a loss for Labour, but to a general downturn in voter participation and/or an uptick in the number of people supporting offensive non-mainstream parties like the BNP.

Or perhaps the moment has finally arrived for the Monster Raving Looney Party? Our political system could hardly look much more foolish than it does today.

No, I'll hold out for more and better mainstream political leadership. Might try holding my breath until I turn blue.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Obama at Notre Dame

Apparently a small group of Catholic Bishops felt that inviting President Obama to speak at the Notre Dame commencement was, like, capitulating with evil-doers or something.

Curiously those same folks appeared un-bothered when pro-death penalty George W. Bush came to speak. In both cases that small minority of bishops were being nimrods. The President's never going to embrace all the teachings of any church as a policy blueprint. Nor should he.

And anyway, if they'd been successful, those bright young Notre Dame graduates would have missed out on this:

For the record - I'm as pro-choice as they come but in my perfect world there'd be no abortion because every child conceived would be a wanted child. And by the way, every child born would be cared for. With health care, good education, parental leave for the mother and father, and widely available and affordable child care for working parents. So I'm all for a culture of life if those bishops (the non-nimrody ones) would like to work with me on it.