Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday Reading

Gerrymandered — How the Republicans won the House with fewer votes than the Democrats.

Media narratives of the fiscal-cliff negotiations and the upcoming debt-ceiling brinksmanship often seem premised on the idea that the American people have voted for a divided government and are demanding that President Obama and the Republican House split their differences in a responsible bipartisan bargain, grand or otherwise. But what if the voters, properly understood, haven’t actually sent such a message?

Obama won the popular vote by a comfortable margin and secured a second term in the White House. That same day, more Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates than Republicans; this led to the inauguration, last week, of a Senate led by Democrats. And a million more Americans voted for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives than voted for Republican candidates. Yet the new House has a thirty-three-seat Republican majority.

There is one main reason for the electoral anomaly in the House: gerrymandering. Every ten years, following the decennial census mandated by the United States Constitution, state governments redraw legislative and congressional districts. Republicans have done well at capturing statehouses in recent years, even in states that have gone Democratic in Senate and Presidential votes, such as Virginia. In some of these states, Republicans have redrawn district lines with ruthless self-interest to ensure that voters elect the maximum conceivable number of Republicans to the House.

Organizational theory and common sense would suggest that both major political parties engage in such shenanigans equally, when given the opportunity. That may be so over long periods of time; there is no especially convincing reason to ascribe to the Democratic Party any self-effacing idealism about getting its people elected. And yet, in a series of compelling posts recently, the statistical election-modeller Samuel Wang, of the Princeton Election Consortium, has argued that we are in an “asymmetric” period of Republican manipulation of electoral maps.

According to Wang’s math, twenty-six seats out of the thirty-three-seat Republican advantage in the House can be attributed to gerrymandering in states with legislatures controlled by Republicans. He estimates that, in 2012, the number of American voters disenfranchised by this mapmaking—that is, the number of voters whose ballots were effectively rendered meaningless by various forms of stuffing Republican majorities into safe districts—was in the neighborhood of four million.

Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem — Cory Doctrow mourns the death of internet genius Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide Friday night.  Mr. Swartz was facing prosecution for hacking, but also had another problem: depression.

But Aaron was also a person who’d had problems with depression for many years. He’d written about the subject publicly, and talked about it with his friends.

I don’t know if it’s productive to speculate about that, but here’s a thing that I do wonder about this morning, and that I hope you’ll think about, too. I don’t know for sure whether Aaron understood that any of us, any of his friends, would have taken a call from him at any hour of the day or night. I don’t know if he understood that wherever he was, there were people who cared about him, who admired him, who would get on a plane or a bus or on a video-call and talk to him.

Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.

Depression strikes so many of us. I’ve struggled with it, been so low I couldn’t see the sky, and found my way back again, though I never thought I would. Talking to people, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, seeking out a counsellor or a Samaritan — all of these have a chance of bringing you back from those depths. Where there’s life, there’s hope. Living people can change things, dead people cannot.

Safety in Numbers — Carl Hiaasen counts the folks in the NRA.

A conservative pollster reported that more than 70 percent of NRA members surveyed support certain reforms that are rabidly opposed by the leadership — requiring criminal background checks on all gun buyers, for example, and banning firearm ownership by anyone on the FBI’s terrorist watch list.

Another fact that the NRA doesn’t brag about: Its funding increasingly depends on gun manufacturers, not gun owners. According to the Violence Policy Center, 22 firearms manufacturers, including Beretta USA and Smith & Wesson, gave almost $39 million to the NRA between 2005 and 2011.

So it’s basically a corporate shill promoting itself as a grass-roots defender of the Constitution.

In many states the NRA has used campaign contributions and threats of retribution to secure political puppets such as Baxley. The successful tactic has given the lobby a clout that far outweighs the true size of its constituency.

The NRA claims 4.3 million members. If you charitably assume it’s not padding the numbers, the total still represents just a tiny fraction of American gun owners, of whom there are at least 146 million.

In other words, more than 97 percent of legal gun owners in this country — hunters, target shooters, people who keep or carry a firearm for protection — don’t belong to the NRA.

Many gun owners have multiple weapons (I own two, a shotgun and a rifle), but the vast majority don’t keep assault rifles or military-style semi-automatics of the type used on the moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., the children in Newtown or, more recently, four firefighters and an off-duty policeman in Webster, New York.

Doonesbury — Job fair.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. The gun lobby wants to make sure the gun makers keep their profits up so they advance this “They are coming for your guns!” stuff. It is all about scaring people so they buy even more guns so gun manufacturers continue to get rich. They value money more than innocent people in movie theaters and children in classrooms. It is such a shame and a pity.

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