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What Is Government Actually For?

I'm finally climbing out of the worst headcold I've had in three years, and although I'm still not at my ever-best, it's time to continue the series here on politics without a) naming individual candidates, and b) anger. Point a) is a requirement I've placed on myself; you needn't feel thus constrained. Point b) is in force for both of us, and so far (reading the comments on LiveJournal) I think it's working extraordinarily well.

Today, I'd like to go back to fundamental principles and ask, What is government actually for? We don't teach anything about the ideas behind government in this country anymore, because any time one tries, his or her tribal opponents yell, indoctrination! This is largely due to the sad fact that there are two theories of wealth locked in eternal warfare: The position that wealth happens by luck or corruption and must be redistributed; and the position that wealth happens by work and must be retained by the worker as his or her property.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Minor wealth is usually obtained by work. Great wealth is almost always more luck than anything else, at least in developed nations where corruption does not completely dominate government. (I use “wealth” in the technical sense here, as owned assets of any kind, without any implication of scale. A man with a quarter has some wealth, even if he's starving to death.) It seems pretty clear from my reading of history that wealth tends to concentrate over time until wealth concentration makes societies unstable. This is one point (among many others) that Will and Ariel Durant make in their superb little book, The Lessons of History. The redistributionists have history on their side. But…you can't redistribute what you ain't got. (Marxism tried to do this, and killed 100,000,000 people in the process.) So the fundamental purpose of government is this: To establish and maintain the conditions necessary to keep the rate of wealth creation ahead of population growth. Put another way: Government needs to create a framework within which people can work to support themselves. By “framework” I do not mean government jobs, which exist only by siphoning wealth out of the private sector. I mean things like maintaining civil order and a stable currency, respect for private property, allowing trade with other nations, and defense from attack. I could put a number of other things on the list, but those are the biggies.

It's a complicated and subtle business. Total freedom does not maximize the rate of wealth creation; I've read that in many places. There's a sweet spot where a certain amount of regulation, read here as limits on economic freedom, yields the highest rate of wealth creation. Alas, there's no tag on the graph to mark the spot—and the location of the spot changes unpredictably. There is, however, a huge hint: Maximizing economic opportunity for individuals (as opposed to public or private corporate bodies) probably leads more directly toward the sweet spot than anything else we could do. This includes access to markets, choice of education, career, and workplace, and freedom to create new businesses (and thus jobs) with minimal interference.

What troubles me about modern politics is that the forces controlling both sides are opposed to expanding the economic freedom of individuals. Both sides look to government to expand their power, and power is really what politics is about. On the left, the tendency is for the aggregation of power of governmental and semigovernmental bodies at the expense of individuals. On the right, the tendency is toward aggregation of power of large corporations against individuals and especially against entrepreneurs. The right/left mapping to political parties breaks down here: The most rabid Republicans I know are small business owners, who are willing to work for little or nothing when starting out or when conditions get bad. The big corporate people I know are much more nuanced in their politics, and many admit to being Democrats. This seems obvious in retrospect, but it took a fair bit of time for me to figure out: Big corporations fear startups far more than they fear government. (Like recognizes and begets like: The bigger a corporation is, the more it actually begins to look like a government.) Governments and corporations both strive toward monopolies; governments of force, and corporations of markets. Without limits, those monopolies work against the well-being of individuals, and they grow unless explicitly checked.

The depressing thing about this election cycle is that neither party seems especially interested in economic opportunity for individuals, and especially in job creation. The Democrats are basically owned by Big Labor and the tort bar. The Republicans (what's left of the party, at least) are beholden to certain large corporations who want protected markets, and a relative handful of conservative social organizations that are mostly religious in underpinnings. There's not a whiff of populist sentiment on either side. Many people who would otherwise lean Republican are disgusted and will vote Democratic just to kill the cancer of the last eight years.

There's opportunity there; the Republicans could win (long-term) by losing. It's interesting to look back and see that when the Democrats have taken control of all three elected branches of government, they don't hold it very long. If the Republican party is ever reborn with a genuinely populist message, they could well put the Democrats back into the broom closet for another twenty years. Much collateral damage happens as the pendulum swings, but I don't think anybody knows how to keep political parties from abandoning the center, which these days means respect for the primacy of the individual against moneyed interests at either extreme of the left/right axis. The party that takes the center and keeps it will rule until they forget why they came to rule.

I see from my notes that I could go on for another several thousand words, but that's all I want to deal with tonight. And tomorrow, mon dieu. I wish I could just jump directly to Wednesday.

An Outrageous Proposition

I just got home to Colorado Springs from a week's trip to Chicago, and whereas a week sounds like a long time, well, it may be when you're 12. I am not 12. Poof! The week was there and gone.

But I had an idea yesterday that I'm going to pursue in this space. It's a challenge, to myself and to all of you, to engage in an outrageous experiment here in Contra. This will require the comments feature here on LiveJournal (alas, I'm not quite ready to move Contra over to WordPress yet) but that isn't the tough part. The aim of the experiment is to see if the larger “we” (again, myself and all of you) can engage in online political discussion completely devoid of anger.

I do not mean that you can't be angry; that's unreasonable and may be impossible. What I want you to do is write without anger. That takes some effort but it can be done, and it's a useful skill to have. I've found that forcing myself to write without expressing anger allows me to think more clearly. In some weird way, it decouples my anger from my rational mind and leaves it on a side track for awhile where it won't get in the way of the points I'm trying to put across.

Note that this is a challenge, but (for a limited time only! As not seen on TV!) it is also the rules. I have a rule for Contra that I don't invoke very often: You can be either angry or anonymous on my blog but you cannot be both. I delete ten or twelve comments a year from anonymous flamers who come out of nowhere and flame either me or someone in the comments. I sometimes give them a chance to identify themselves, but this rarely happens. Mostly I get another flame, and then the thread goes where all flames eventually go: Out. But until I finish up this series on politics, a new rule applies: No anger. It applies from today's entry until I call the whole thing done, which will almost certainly be when I go get my mouth worked on next week. Until then, angry comments will be deleted.

However, there's one final wrinkle: If and when I discern anger in a comment, I'm going to point it out in a nonjudgmental fashion and ask my readers if they agree that the message contains anger. I reserve the right to override the vote, but I promise to consider it seriously. A thumbs-up or -down is sufficient, but explaining why you agree or disagree with me regarding the presence of anger in the comment (not with the comment's factual content, which should be done separately) could be interesting.

I will be watching for the very human tendency to see anger more clearly in people you disagree with. I may or may not say anything, but I will be watching.

Let's see what happens.

_ . . . _

Some of the most reliable political theater (though generally not the best) proceeds from promised tax cuts. If I were to flip the Magic 8-Ball this second, it would predict that neither party will even attempt a tax cut in the next two years, irrespective of which wins. All the promises we've heard will be quietly forgotten, and probably explained by the obvious truth: We cannot afford to cut taxes at this time. The Bush tax cuts will quietly expire, and among the ill and elderly wealthy there will be more assisted suicides (both willing and unwilling) in 2010 than a civilized nation should tolerate. The Magic 8-Ball says no more than that, other than its standard mantra when answering political questions: “You are all behind me now.”

What I want to talk about tonight is another oft-heard mantra: “The rich aren't paying their fair share!” What never seems to come up in discussion is what the “fair share” would actually be. I want some hard numbers here. I remember reading of a psych experiment years ago in which people were asked a question something like this: “One man makes $10,000 a year. Another man makes ten times that amount. In a truly fair income tax system, how much more should the second man pay in income taxes than the first man?” The several choices ran from “The same” through an ascending scale of multipliers, like 2X, 5X, 10X, 50X, 100X, and 1000X. Overwhelmingly, people answered “10X” and seemed to think (as gleaned from subsequent discussions with the experimenters) that this was a progressive tax. It's not. It's a flat tax. The experiment was (if I recall) about leading questions, and this was only one question among many. But it suggests to me that we as a nation don't even remotely understand the tax system that we have, which is unsurprising, given that most Americans probably couldn't even lift the tax code. This makes the discussion difficult and complex.

We do have some hard numbers on the state of things as they now exist: 26% of Federal tax receipts come from the wealthiest 1%, which comprise 1.1 million individuals. The wealthiest 6% of taxpayers (5.6 million individuals) contribute 42% of all Federal receipts. The poorest 40% of Americans pay no Federal taxes at all beyond the Social Security payroll tax. And that's looking at Federal taxes generally; if you look at income taxes alone the picture is even more striking: For tax year 2005, IRS numbers tell us that the wealthiest 1% paid 39% of all income tax revenues. The top 10% paid 70%. This is a pretty progressive system. The question we need to ask ourselves as a nation is whether it's progressive enough, and we need to be brave enough to talk about real numbers.

There are two complications that need to be part of that discussion. First of all, the very rich have a great deal of control over how much their income is and when they get it. This is why tax receipts often go down when tax rates are raised: The rich simply cut back on generating new income and draw on their cash reserves until they call their tax guys and figure out which loopholes they can switch to in order to reduce their tax liability. This is in large part why the very rich have not been champions of the flat tax or other radical tax simplification schemes: Any such scheme would increase their liability hugely because such systems offer little flexibility and few loopholes.

The second complication is related to the first: It's not a good idea for the Federal government to depend on so few taxpayers for so much of its tax revenue, because the fewer people are paying, the “wigglier” and less predictable the numbers get. Even short-term planning becomes fluky, because a change in tax laws, or even an innovative new investment mechanism, can sweep across the finance business in less than a year, making previous tax revenue projections obsolete. The very rich share a common culture, and their money is “shaped” by a relatively few large banks and financial services firms. Small changes in the way money is handled are thus hugely leveraged.

I haven't even touched on the argument that everybody should pay something in income taxes simply to have a stake in the economy and the government. I only want to point out that Federal revenues would be a lot more stable and predictable if hundreds of millions of people are each paying a little (and those at the top paying a lot) than if only the people at the top are paying at all.

And on that note, I've got dogs to walk. More tomorrow. Remember: Keep your cool! (We may all learn something if you do!)

Suspending the Suspension

By conscious choice I generally don't talk about politics, having realized by degrees over a couple of decades that politics makes you stupid. Yes, it does. I'm amazed at the number of highly educated people I see in the blogosphere screaming anathemas at one another over a candidate's campaign promises, or some perceived slight of a partisan icon, etc. etc. The sheer quantity of raw hatred makes me want to pull the covers up over my head, even when I'm out in traffic and hear it on the radio, miles away from my comfy Sleep Number bed. I don't know most of these people, but I do know a few, and I need to remind one and all that anger is how the Emperor enslaves you. (You'd think that watching the full Star Wars saga 23 times would have taught people that much, at least.)

But I'm now annoyed enough to suspend my suspension, and for the next seven days I will indeed talk about politics, but with a wrinkle: I will not mention any candidate by name. (Could you do that too? Dare ya!) Politics is not about specific people or parties, but rather the ideas surrounding governance, and much could be discussed today that is not being discussed, because far too many of us have taken up our spears, smeared on plenty of colorful gonzoberry juice, tossed our intellects up on the rack over the mantle, and bumbled out the door to scream tribal insults at anyone who dares disagree with us. (Tribalism itself is an interesting psychological issue that I will return to after my self-imposed political embargo resumes.)

Why seven days? Because seven days from today I go back in for more oral surgery, and at that point it will all be over and I will pull the covers up over my head.

_ . . . _

So. Have I read the latest candidate platforms? Have I evaluated the various promised tax cuts and health plans and other goodies? Of course I have. Have they persuaded me to vote one way or another? Get real, people: Such things are rubbish. Nothing a candidate says or does after they declare candidacy is the least bit useful in making voting decisions. Here's why:

  • It's legal to lie. And politicians never lie, right?
  • It's legal to change your mind after taking office, even if you didn't consciously lie during the campaign.
  • There is no penalty for failure.

All this being true, candidates can be expected to say whatever they think will get them elected. The worst we can do is vote them out of office at some future date, after which they can safely sell their memoirs to Random House and get rich on the lecture circuit, irrespective of the number of deaths and lost jobs directly attributable to their time in office.

All this seems pretty obvious to me. But there's a fourth item that one would think a semester of high school civics would have made clear:

  • Presidents are not kings. We are not ruled by presidents. We are ruled by political parties.

Once a single party holds all three elected branches of national government (and for the Senate, “holding” means a filibuster-proof majority) that party pretty much governs alone. Lacking such blanket control, we are ruled by “the politics of the possible,” which is a glorious way of saying, “whatever both parties can compromise on.” There is a strong argument for divided government as a way of minimizing the damage that single-party rule can easily cause, and that argument is one of the things that informs my voting decisions.

Another and more important thing I do is look at what a candidate did and said (in government or outside of government) before he or she declared candidacy. Voting records matter greatly. The political culture in which a candidate grew up is also pertinent. One can learn a fair amount about a candidate by looking at who their friends are, what their religion is, where they went to college, where and in what industry they worked prior to working in government, and so on. The key here is what the person was like before election to office was in the picture. With long-time career politicians this is tricky, but it can still be done.

The final factor, of course, may be the most important of all: Look at where their money is coming from. The first thing that any candidate does after election is pay back big campaign donors with political favors that make the world safer for them. The little guys don't matter at all. The big-money donors basically own both parties and candidates. I hear a lot of tribalists deny this, but it's true. It's how the system works. We're about to see it happen again. Just watch.

Nothing is Sewn Up Yet

By the grace of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, tonight we may know who will face off against John McCain this fall. Many were saying that by tonight we may know who our next President will be, but even though Big Media long ago declared Obama the King of the Universe, our Great Pretender has been caught saying the same stupid condescending things about rural whites that the educated white elite used to say about urban blacks. Hilary's gotten herself caught in a few gaffes herself, but she's not the naïf that Obama is and has kept herself closer to the center. It's still a tossup between them. Tonight may nail it, but it may not.

I don't do politics here very often, so I'll offer a few notes on the race so far and be done for another month or two:

  • There are clearly no such things as “private remarks” or “this is off the record” anymore. We've taught our young people for years that politics has no rules, that outright hatred of whole groups for political reasons is completely acceptable under the banner of the First Amendment and “political speech,” and that it doesn't matter how you do it as long as you win. Those striving for elected office these days have to be very careful what they say and where they say it, because the blogosphere is full of people who will gleefully publish it and by doing so make it eternal. The Internet never forgets. Better to just shut up and quietly stand on your record, if you have one.
  • Something I've noticed in talking with political independents for many years is that independents don't believe campaign promises. They understand completely that lying is legal, and that the only way to judge a candidate is to look at his or her record in detail (including—or especially—where their money is coming from) and then extrapolate linearly into the future. When you give stirring campaign speeches full of promises, you are reassuring your base, not persuading the center to move in your direction. Independents call BS on anything candidates say since they first declared themselves.
  • There is a difference between what people say to friends (and to pollsters) and what they do in the privacy of the voting booth. It's something like caucusing in the months leading up to the election: People will say the things that they think they are expected to say (like “I'm voting for Obama!”) to avoid unpleasantness and conflict within their inner circles. This is a survival tactic if you live among political tribalists from either side of the spectrum. On election day, the magic of the secret ballot makes it possible for “survival centrists” to vote their true hearts, knowing that no one will catch them out in any lies made earlier to keep their scalps intact.
  • The American electorate is still very closely divided, and it doesn't take a lot of votes to tip an election. Nobody has anything sewn up.

Some final speculation pertinent to this last point: Many across the political spectrum have already written off John McCain, but that's a mistake. McCain is not seen as a “real” Republican in some quarters on the right, but Republicans are better nose-holders than Democrats, and come November McCain will get their votes irrespective of the Democratic nominee. McCain has cleverly kept his VP spot open (and generally kept a low profile) and probably will until he is absolutely sure what he's up against. Having played the race and gender cards intensely for a couple of years now, the Democrats have legitimized this kind of tokenism in the public eye. McCain could easily win against Obama by partnering with either a black or a Hispanic. He could win against Hilary by partnering with a woman of any color. In either case, it doesn't matter who. It's sad that it's come to this, but that's how American politics is now played, and both political parties had better be ready to reap the whirlwind in unexpected ways.

Odd Lots

  • While chasing an interesting “out of the blue” idea that came to me while exercising the other day, I happened upon an RV surplus shop. Not surprisingly, it's in Elkhart, Indiana (Ground Zero for the American RV industry) and it sells leftovers and overstocks of RV parts and interior furniture. If I were to want to built a custom RV dinette table with a built-in keyboard, well, this might be the place to start.
  • Good grief: Has Big Media run out of Republicans to torment? ABC News posted this story about the pastor of Obama's Chicago church, who repeatedly condemns the US in his sermons and tells his people that they should be singing “God Damn America” instead of “God Bless America.” Expect those sermons (which are offered for sale by the church) to become very popular in coming months.
  • Illinois is famous for a lot of things, but being the historical capital of manufacturing of fraternal organization initiation and hazing equipment is not one of them. However, the De Moulin Company of Greenville, Illinois, now known for making band uniforms, used to do a big and almost unimaginably bizarre business manufacturing expensive gag items used to make new Masons and Elks feel like one of the gang. The precise psychology here is obscure to me (the last remotely fraternal organization I joined was the Boy Scouts) but the devices are just insane. Browse and boggle.
  • Here's another source for home-made telescope optics and truss telescope kits up to 32″ in clear aperature. Even though I'm not a big Dobsonian fan, the scopes look good, and if you want light-gathering power above all else something like this is as good as you're going to do short of a full-concrete observatory. The optics are not cheap, but they're good. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Also from Pete comes a link to a site selling Swiss Army Ohmmeters. Should the Swiss Army encounter resistance, well, they'll be ready.
  • Mike Burton (who worked in the industry for some time) wrote to say that “double shot” keyboards are no longer produced due to their expense. A double-shot keyboard is one in which the keycaps are molded in two steps: One step to mold the body of the cap, with a void in the shape of the letter, and a second to fill the void with black plastic. Such keycaps never lose their legends, like my decal-equipped Avant Stellar is now doing at great speed. I guess I had better stock up on period Northgates.
  • We have evidently found the gene that triggers the onset of puberty. One wonders what suppressing this gene would do long-term. What would be the psychology of a 75-year-old boy who had never gone through puberty? Larry Niven toyed with the idea in World Out of Time, speculating that stopping puberty would stop aging, but I intuit that much more could be done with it. Would I give up sex for a shot at becoming immortal? (Answer from this side of the fence: No. Ask me in 1962 and you might have gotten a different answer.) Much depends on whether emotional maturity is a process inherent in or only affected by puberty. Sooner or later some renegade will try this, and we'll know.

Treasure Chest and Obama as Pettigrew

Even diehard comics fans have generally never heard of Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact—unless, of course, they went to Catholic grade school between 1946 and 1972. It was a comic book produced in Ohio for national distribution to parochial schools, and maps well to the era of Postwar Triumphal Catholicism. I was a grade schooler between 1958 and 1966, so Treasure Chest was always kicking around somewhere, along with Our Little Messenger, Young Catholic Messenger, and numerous other things that the George A. Pflaum Company of Dayton was always pumping out. I read Treasure Chest when it was handy, though I did so absent-mindedly and was never a big fan. The comic ran the gamut from preachy (always) to silly (often) and the quality was very uneven. The larger and long-running series were often beautifully done from a writing and art standpoint, though much of it glorified sports, which was a Catholic fetish at that time, in the hopes that young boys exhausted by sports will not go off by themselves somewhere and, well, you know.

I was chasing memories around the Web the other night when I discovered the Treasure Chest archive at the Washington Research Library Consortium. This is a wonderful thing, but for copyright reasons it only has the magazines from 1946 through the end of 1963, which is unfortunate for reasons I'll relate shortly. I remembered only three of the continuing series; the rest of it had fled my brain cells until I started skimming the archive. There were textual letters from some priest (probably advising young boys not to go off by themselves somewhere and, well, you know), illustrated lives of the Saints, and insufferable lectures by Patsy Manners on etiquette and how to throw good parties. (Mixed parties! No, don't read that! We don't do such things in Chicago!) It was a real and sometimes classic comic; if you read nothing else, check out Kidnaped by a Spaceship from 1959. If they ran more like that I might have been an enthusiastic fan, but no; most of what we got was like Chuck White and His Friends, which was about an older guy who took young boys off on wholesome adventures, I'm sure so that they would not go off by themselves somewhere and, well, you know. Funny animals were big, and for a bit of prescient comic surrealism (I flashed on Cerebus) skim The Bear and the Wicked Wainwright. (At one point the Wainwright calls the Bear a “base poltroon,” which became faddish on the playground for a few weeks, though I may have been the only one of us sixth graders who bothered to look up “poltroon.”)

If Treasure Chest is currently famous for one thing, it was for the 1961-62 series This Godless Communism, which still gets the lefties het up. I rolled my eyes a little then and still do; the problem with Communism is not its godlessness but the fact that it murdered a hundred million people in the 20th century alone. Treasure Chest understood its working-class Catholic audience and was completely comfortable with praising organized labor in one of its illustrated civics lessons. No contradictions here; being a liberal has not always meant being a Marxist.

And Treasure Chest was fundamentally liberal, as the term was understood in its time. If it has been famous primarily for This Godless Communism, it may soon become even more famous for something else: a 1964 series called 1976: Pettigrew for President! inked by the well-known comics artist Joe Sinnott. Again, it was a multipart civics lesson: A very slightly futuristic tale of how a candidate runs for President during the election of 1976—12 years in our future—with a little political huggermugger thrown in to keep it from being completely boring. (There were a few scenes with the SST, but in truth not a lot of other futuremongering. I was disappointed. What? 1976? No flying cars?) What none of us noticed at the time is that we never actually saw Mr. Pettigrew full-on. We saw his back, his hands, and so on, but never got a good look at him. I guess we all figured that it was about the process and not the man himself, and in truth we were all taken in and completely poleaxed when on the final page it was revealed that Timothy Pettigrew was Black! He got the nomination, but beyond that the story was open-ended. Here's what the final panel said, courtesy NPR:

“And so this man Pettigrew became the first Negro candidate for the President of the United States. He then went out across the land, this black man, to campaign for the highest office. Would he win? Well, the year was 1976. It was the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Could he win? Well, it would depend in part on how the boys and girls reading this comic grew up and voted … it would depend on whether they believed and, indeed, lived those words in the declaration — All Men are Created Equal.”

Alas, I have yet to see the comic scanned and posted anywhere, since content published in 1964 and after is automatically still in copyright. (The earlier issues had not been renewed and thus passed into the public domain.) The best we can do is a YouTube video, of all things.

It's a measure of our progress that what was seen as an inspiring piece of comic book science fiction in 1964 smacks of tokenism today: So we should vote for him just because he's black? Or dare we ask whether he has a chance of running the country? (The country may end up doing a lot of growing up next year, heh.) And if you ever wanted to invest in comic books, now's the time to hunt down and grab Treasure Chest Volume 19, issues 11-20. They're going to be worth something soon, no matter which way things go this fall.

Iowa Caucuses Footnote

Now that the New Hampshire primary is history, we have another data point and might be able to get a little perspective on how bizarre Iowa's dominance of the primary phenomenon is. (See my entry for January 3, 2008.) This is due to the way the Iowa caucuses are conducted, at least on the Democratic side. (The Republicans caucus a whole different way.)

The Democratic caucuses in Iowa are a little like the platypus, in that people hearing how they work for the first time don't always believe it. Let me give you the short summary: At 7 PM on caucus night, Iowa's 1,784 precincts open their doors and the most motivated citizens stream in. There are no ballot boxes as we understand them. Instead, people literally go to the corner of the room under a sign with the name of the candidate they support. If you support Obama, you go stand in the Obama corner. If you support Hilary, you go to Hilary's corner. You can switch corners at any time, keeping in mind that after about 45 minutes, candidates without sufficient numbers of people under their signs are declared nonviable and tossed out, releasing their corner-standers to go stand somewhere else. (How this “viability factor” is calculated is complex and I'm not entirely sure I understand it myself, but it runs from 15% to 25%.)

Electioneering is allowed in the room, meaning that people can cajole others to move into their corner. Eventually, the party bosses declare that the caucus is over, and count heads in each of the viable corners. That isn't quite the end of it: What the numbers in each corner actually select are delegates to a state (not the national) Democratic nominating convention, but it's possible to know with some certainty on caucus night which candidates get how many delegates at the national convention.

There are multiple flaws in a system like this, including the fact that people who are not free at 7 PM on caucus night get no vote, nor do people like military personnel who are required by law to be elsewhere and cannot attend. (There is no absentee participation.) However, the worst of it is that everybody in your precinct gets to see whom you support—and that, in my view, is pure evil. I have tangled with party tribalists on occasion, and they are nasty, vituperative Right Men and Right Women who nourish grudges and hold them basically forever. If your neighborhood tribalists support one candidate and you support another, you'd better hope that they have nothing on you. (Zoning board members? Homeowners' association weasels? Such people are everywhere, and they have the power to make your life very difficult if they choose.) Even if there are no such tribalists in your precinct (and there are almost always a couple) people may feel pressured to vote with the rest of their families, or at least pressured against supporting an oddball dark horse candidate who appeals to them. Whatever cloud may hang over your personal decision as an Iowa Democrat, it is not a free election.

I'm amazed that this gets as little attention as it does. My readings and conversations indicate that the most committed Democrats supported Obama, and Big Media has all but handed him the nomination already. I can well imagine Obama's tribalists giving the “just you wait!” eyeball to people they know standing under Hilary's sign last Thursday night. (Yes, I'm sure there are Hilary tribalists as well, but Democratic tribalists tend to lean left.) It's impossible to know how different the results would have been had Iowa's Democrats allowed their people a true secret ballot. But would it have been different? Count on it.

Why Is Iowa Special?

And so the whole wretched business begins again, as the anointed tribal elite in Iowa gather tonight to caucus (which comes from an obscure Kickapoo Indian word meaning “to put tribal defectives in a dark room and order them to run around in circles acting like idiots”) six months early or possibly four years late, depending on your perspective.

It's well known that I hate politics, and so don't talk much about it. I don't talk much about dark green leafy vegetables either, but that doesn't keep some knuckleheads from holding that they are the keys to eternal life. But I bring up questions now and then that no one else seems to be asking, like this one: Why does Iowa get to be first, and winnow the slate of candidates before anybody else gets a shot at them?

Here and there you may possibly see the question posed, just before the anointed elite and Big Media tut-tut and say that that's the way it's always been. (Which, by the way, was a major argument in favor of retaining racial segregation.) They then change the subject. More rarely, someone with more guts than sense dares to answer the question, generally by declaring that Iowa is somehow special in a demographic sense. Special? Hey, we're all special today, right? (Ask any third-grade teacher.) You hear the term “microcosm” a lot, generally from people who don't know what it means. As the Wall Street Journal reminded us this morning, the only Iowa caucus winner in recent memory who went all the way to the White House was Jimmy Carter.

In truth, there's nothing special about Iowa that isn't special about Nebraska, Wyoming, or South Carolina. The current primary system gives people in early states power over the choices of people in later states, and that is not a good thing. This leaves us two other alternatives: 1) Have a single national primary in all states on the same day to select November's candidates, or 2) try something else.

Alternative #1 would be better than what we have now (which is simply idiotic) but there's a strong argument against it: Without that early “momentum” obtainable in small states like New Hampshire and Iowa, the big states would select the candidates. This is a reasonable objection, and basically the same one that sustains the Electoral College, which is neither as good nor as bad a mechanism as many people think. (It could use improvement, but let's forego that discussion until November.)

What else can we try? Well, one mechanism seems obvious to me: Assign each of the 50 states a random number from 1 to 50, and then run primaries on 25 consecutive weeks, in which the states that pulled 1 and 2 hold primaries the first week, those that pulled 3 and 4 the second week, and so on, with the states that pulled 49 and 50 primarying (is that a verb? Hey, everything else is!) last. If by some fluke larger states pull small numbers in 2008, it's likely that smaller states will get the same fluke in 2012. But for the most part, it'll be a good mix, and most important of all, not a predictable one. No candidate would be able to snatch momentum by spending months studying the idiosyncratic specialness of Iowans or New Hampshirians and then pandering to that specialness. They'd have to be able to pander to the specialness of any state at all, or (better yet) give up pandering completely and stand on their records.

Such a Randomly Ordered Sequential Primary (ROSP) could make the Giant Pander an endangered species. Now that would be special!