We Will Require You to Vote Because It’s for Your Own Good (and ours)

[Cross-posted at Hit Coffee]

President Obama has suggested that mandatory voting could offset the influence of big money in campaigns. There’s much that is incoherent in this idea.

First, Democrats are doing as well as Republicans in bringing in big money, but their own electoral failure demonstrates big money itself does turn elections.

Second, the non-voters are generally the least engaged,* who presumably are the most likely to be easily swayed by the advertising of big money, or else might vote essentially randomly.

Third, mandatory voting is illiberal. Forced political participation is another form of social control, rather than a form of liberty. Thorouean types are forbidden. The quiet person who harms no one, pays her taxes without complaint, volunteers in the community, but prefers to not vote is made into a criminal.

Fourth, I object to the instinct to motivate people through punitive action. If as a public policy we want people to vote, then let’s look for positive ways to do so. Traditionally this is done via the parties. Voter mobilization is, in fact, one of the primary purposes of parties, and perhaps the primary purpose.

Fifth, Obama is suggesting that these people should vote for their own good. Mandating that people act in their own interest is perverse, and in my view an improper task for government.

Sixth, it’s not at all certain that big money actually deters turnout, rather than stimulating it.

Overall, it appears to me that the President is concerned about Democratic voter turnout specifically, under the guise of being concerned about overall electoral turnout. He specifically mentioned low turnout among young, lower income, immigrant and minority groups, and criticized efforts to deter their turnout. While it’s fair to argue that efforts to deter turnout are a legitimate public policy problem, the fact remains that Obama is particularly focused on low turnout among populations that he expects to be more supportive of his party, so his solution is not to strengthen his own party’s GOTV efforts, or to find ways to effectively combat voter suppression efforts, but to mandate voting by his party’s likely supporters. Even if successful, though, the lack of close races suggests mandatory voting would have little effect on outcomes.

Under the guise of public policy, this appears to be a means of using law to rig the vote in the Democrats’ favor, no less than voter ID laws are (unsuccessful, I think) efforts to rig the vote in Republicans’ favor, and again under the guise of public policy.

Politicians will normally obscure self-interest behind appealing public interest slogans. They do so because it works, which means appeals like my post here to ignore the slogans will only be effective at the margins.

*Not solely. I have not voted when I have disliked the options, and I have had a political scientist far more reputable than me assert he gives money rather than voting because it gives his effort more influence.

Posted in Politics in General | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

No, Oklahoma Is Not Banning Atheist Marriage

There’s a lot of foofaraw going around the internet and Facebook these days reposting articles that claim the Oklahoma legislature is passing a bill that would ban atheists from getting married. See, for example, here, here and here. A slight variation on the theme is that the bill gives clergy sole power over marriage licenses, as claimed here.

All these articles have two features in common: 1) The writers are idiots; 2) none of them actually cite even one line from the bill. Don’t take my word for it, check their posts.

So what does the bill actually say? Here’s the actual text.. See, what none of these geniuses seem to understand is that you can actually look up the bill’s text, thanks to the same internet that allows them to write inane and misleading commentary.

Now to be slightly more fair than these writers deserve, a bit of the confusion stems from a previous version of the bill that deleted the authority of judges to perform ceremonies. That was a foolish bit that seems to have been a part of the author’s stated purpose of trying to protect state officials from having to participate in same-sex marriages. But as I’ll show you, judges are back in. It’s not sure just when that occurred, but some of the articles criticizing the bill are from January, which likely was before judges were put back in the bill, so I’ll give those folks a pass. Those writing more recently, though, are just passing on rumors without checking them.

Here’s what the bill really does: it ends the practice, in Oklahoma, of the state giving out marriage licenses, and changes that to the state just recording the existence of a marriage. So how does a marriage come into existence? In either of two ways, via a ceremony which then gets reported or via an affidavit of common law marriage.

Let’s look at the bill’s text, that any of the above lazy fool writers could have looked at but didn’t. First, the explanation of the bill’s purpose (redacted to focus on the relevant elements).

An Act relating to marriage licenses; …providing fee for recording marriage certificate or affidavit of common law marriage; deleting marriage license fee collection procedure;…deleting reference to marriage license;… allowing affidavit of common law marriage; providing for filing of affidavit with court clerk; … requiring execution of marriage certificate; … directing filing of certificate with court clerk; instructing court clerk to record certificate or affidavit;

Let’s break that down. The bill would add a fee for recording a marriage certificate or affidavit of common law marriage, because these are new things that don’t currently exist. It would delete the marriage license fee because the bill would get rid of the traditional marriage license. That is, instead of getting a license prior to getting married, if this bill passes, in Oklahoma you will just record a certificate of marriage or an affidavit of common law marriage after the fact. The following text from the bill makes even clearer that licenses would no longer be required.

No person herein authorized to perform or solemnize a
marriage ceremony shall do so unless the license issued therefor be first delivered into his or her possession nor unless he or she has good reason to believe the persons presenting themselves before him or her for marriage are the identical persons named in the license, and for whose marriage the same was issued, and that if there is no a legal objection or impediment to such marriage.

Note here that all the language referencing a license is stricken, and all that remains is language specifying that there is no other legal reason why the couple cannot be married.

More importantly, the bill would instruct the clerk to record the certificate or affidavit. There would be no discretion on the part of the clerk–if someone brings in the certificate or the affidavit, the clerk must record the marriage. That is, if this bill passes, if you say you are married in Oklahoma, they’ll record you as being married.

Let’s dig in a little deeper. The initial criticisms of the bill came from the section specifying who can solemnize a wedding and transmit a marriage certificate to a clerk. And apparently–extrapolating from what I’ve read–the original version of the bill struck out judges and included only religious officials. I get the impression this was just bad drafting on the part of the sponsor, who wanted to protect judges from having a duty to perform same-sex marriages, on the expectation of the Supreme Court striking down bans, including Oklahoma’s constitutional ban on SSM (the law’s author is, it appears, an opponent of SSM, yet as I’ll show the bill would allow for SSM, once Oklahoma’s constitutional ban is either struck down or repealed). But the language now explicitly allows judges again [note: stricken out words are proposed deletions of current statutory language, while underlines are proposed additions]:

Section 7. A. All Except as provided in subsection E of this section marriages must be contracted by a formal ceremony performed or solemnized in the presence of at least two adult, competent persons as witnesses, by a judge or retired judge of any court in this state, or an ordained or authorized preacher or minister of the Gospel, priest or other ecclesiastical dignitary of any denomination who has been duly ordained or authorized by the church to which he or she belongs to preach the Gospel, or a rabbi and who is at least eighteen (18) years of age.

Now I don’t care for this emphasis on religious dignitaries being specially mentioned as authorized to solemnize marriages, but note two things, please. First, that language is not underlined, meaning it is now new–that’s extant language in the law. Second, note that judges and retired judges are explicitly mentioned. You don’t need a religious person to perform your ceremony; if you’re virulently atheist and you can find a judge who’s happy to cash your check, you, too, can get married in Oklahoma.

But, wait, there’s more. Despite that irritating emphasis on religious persons, anyone can become ordained, and thanks to the First Amendment, the state of Oklahoma doesn’t get to pick and choose which religions really count. See here, for example. And believe me, the theology of on-line ordination is quite simple–all you have to believe is that the ordaining organization will happily cash your check and send you a certificate in return.

But wait, what about that “Except as provided in subsection E” bit? That’s a bit that’s even more friendly to the unchurched.

E. Marriages not contracted by a formal ceremony pursuant to subsection A of this section may be acknowledged by filing an affidavit of common law marriage with the court clerk. The affidavit of common law marriage shall be signed by both parties, notarized with official seal affixed and include:[Edit: appropriate identifying information, and] 4. That the parties are not disqualified from or incapable of entering into a common law marriage.

Don’t want a ceremony of any kind? Just hit the notary public then take your form to the clerk and the state will recognize your marriage. Or if you prefer a ceremony without even a pseudo-clergyman, have the ceremony, enjoy the reception, then hit the notary public, etc. This would be actually quite a simplification over the current status of common law marriage in Oklahoma.

And these common law marriages would be identical for all legal purposes to the ceremonially solemnized marriages.

B. Any entity requiring proof of identity or marital status shall accept a certified copy of the marriage certificate or affidavit of common law marriage that has been filed with the court clerk. Any reference in the Oklahoma Statutes requiring a marriage license as proof of identity or marital status shall be interpreted to include a marriage certificate or affidavit of common law marriage executed on or after November 1, 2015.

So there you have it. If anything, this bill would make it even easier for atheists to get married in Oklahoma simply by submitting a notarized affidavit, if they object to even having to nod toward religion to the extent of having an officiant from a totally make-believe church that doesn’t really ask its pseudo-ministers to believe in anything at all.

So, can we all just take a deep breath and quit panicking, please?

Posted in Politics in General, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Politics Remains Stupid

Senator Jeff Sessions won the 2006 “Guardian of Small Business” award from the National federation of Independent Businesses, so he should be pro-business, right? But here he is now denying the right of business owners to hire whom they want.

Well, what if your child wants a job? What if you want a job? What if your spouse wants a job and is looking at a job and now we’ve got another, what, 250,000 job applicants, contrary to law?

The first thing we should do is be focusing on getting jobs for Americans that are unemployed. Are we going to keep Americans on welfare and benefits while we bring in more and more foreigners to take jobs when we’ve got Americans ready and willing to take those jobs?

Obviously the reason to hire an immigrant over a citizen is because you think the immigrant will provide greater value for the price of their labor. So Sessions is demanding that businesses be forced to operate with less efficiency.

Of course Sessions is also implying that Americans can’t compete. If he’s right, then that’s their damn problem, and exactly the kind of thing conservatives don’t generally care about. If he’s wrong, where are the conservatives who should be shouting at him for his disdain for hard-working Americans?

So it seems to me that Sessions is both anti-business and disdainful of blue collar Americans. I doubt conservatives will think deeply enough about these issues to recognize that, though. They’ll just applaud his anti-immigrant stance, because for all their talk about liberty, they don’t really believe in liberty for those who take great risks and sacrifices to come to America to get some of it.

Posted in Politics in General | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

The Zendaya Comments Weren’t Racist

Today’s meme is that the comments by (the heretofore unknown to me) Giuliana Rancic about (the heretofore unknown to me) Zendaya’s dreadlocks were racist (see here and here, for example. I call bullshit.

Rancic apparently said ““I feel like she smells like pachouli oil. Or weed.” Having spent close to a decade of my life in San Francisco, California, and Eugene, Oregon, I can say truthfully that if someone says the words “dreadlocks, patchouli, and weed,” my mental image is of a white hippie-wannabe adolescent or young adult unable to leave adolescence behind mooching off passersby.

Rancic’s comments may have been dumb–Zendaya looked anything but dirty-hippyish, but then again isn’t the point of Kelly Osbourne’s show to talk snarky about how people look?–but they weren’t racist.

Posted in Politics in General | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Warren Michigan Mayor James Fouts Doesn’t Respect the Constitution

The Warren, Michigan, city hall has a prayer station, so resident Douglas Marshall decided to seek permission to create a reason station to complement it. Permission denied, lawsuits ensue, and now a federal judge has required the city to allow it.

The script and its denouement is so damned predictable by now that I’m at a loss to understand why cities keep wasting their taxpayer’s money trying to change the ending. Don’t they have city attorneys who knows how to read case law? Or do they ignore their counsel’s sage advice?

In this particular case, not only did the city’s mayor, James Fouts, deny the request for a reason station, he stupidly put his unconstitutional reasons in writing.

“To my way of thinking, your group is strictly an anti-religion group intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion. The City of Warren cannot allow this,” Fouts wrote, underlining the last sentence.

“Also, I believe it is group’s intention to disrupt those who participate in the prayer station, which would also be a violation of the freedom of religion amendment. For these reasons, I cannot approve of your request,” Fouts wrote.

I have little enough patience with people who are dumb enough to think that in the U.S. government is allowed to protect religion by discriminating against the irreligious, but I have particular scorn for politicians who are so unstrategic as to put that idea on record as the official reason for their actions.

The mayor also said, that “Irregardless, I didn’t feel at the time that it was necessary to have a reason station.” Your feelings don’t matter, your honor, the law does.

Posted in Politics in General | 9 Comments



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Michael Cain Maps States’ Tax-donor Status

Guest Post by Michael Cain

Back in this post the subject of states that are net federal tax donors and tax recipients came up in the comments. D. C. Sessions pointed at the Wikipedia article [1] on the topic and James Hanley made a remark about how it would be nice if I turned the data into a map. I do crank out cartograms from time to time, but the tax donor thing has always been hard. Nevertheless, I decided to take another crack at it. I think the results are mixed, at best, but you can make your own decision about that.

For those not familiar with the concept, cartograms are maps where the usual divisions have been resized to reflect something other than physical area. It’s almost always a good idea to include a “flat” map [2] with the same divisions when presenting cartograms – even when it’s a well-known map, people often have a poor recollection of the detailed proportions. Hanley’s post included a non-contiguous cartogram illustrating the portion of each state owned by the federal government that incorporates a flat map directly. I’ve included a flat reference map here.

MCainsCartograms_resizeI prefer to use contiguous cartograms when I can. There are tools for generating cartograms like the open-source ScapeToad and assorted plug-ins for commercial map packages like ArcGIS. I was never happy with those; instead, over the last few years I’ve accumulated some useful open-source components and written a bunch of Perl code to paste them together so that I can generate cartograms fairly easily. I think my own version of the federal land-holding statistic done as a contiguous cartogram where the size of each state reflects the absolute size of the federal land holdings is a more impressive illustration of the point [3].

On to the tax donor cartogram, then. The cartogram uses both area and color to represent the relevant data (2013 revenues and expenditures from the Wikipedia page). The size of each state represents its population and the color represents the per capita “tax donor” status. Shades of green indicate states that generate more federal tax revenue than they receive in expenditures; shades of red the opposite. Darker shades indicate higher values. Maryland’s expenditures are larger than its taxes, but not by a lot per capita. Michigan pays more taxes than the federal expenditures in the state, but again not by much. Delaware and North Dakota are the two extremes. The color scales are non-linear in order to make distinctions clearer.

Let me make a few “regional” observations. The Southeast portion of the country is a net tax recipient, and is the only region that is clearly a recipient. The states west of the Mississippi are overwhelmingly net tax donors, much to the surprise (I expect) of easterners. Conventional wisdom is probably that the three Pacific Coast states are tax donors; more surprising is that the states west of the Mississippi form a tax donor region even when the Pacific Coast is excluded. The western states with large federal land holdings (the yellow states in the first cartogram) are net tax donors as a group; this is true even when California is excluded. (If it’s not obvious, I’m a westerner and biased.)

Tax donor status is a complicated thing. The Wikipedia article notes that the numbers do not include interest on the national debt or Department of Defense spending, since those are deemed to be spending related to the country as a whole rather than individual states or residents thereof. One of the things that should jump out at the reader is that overall the green seems to dominate the red. Aren’t we running deficits? Yes, but once DoD and interest are subtracted out, the remaining expenditures are smaller than the tax revenue. Even where expenditures can be accurately attributed to a specific state, there can be problems. New Mexico is the site for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where nuclear wastes associated with weapons production – a DoE function, not DoD – are stored. New Mexico is in the process of trying to collect a $54M fine from the DoE for violating operational safeguards at WIPP. Should that fine count as expenditures “for” New Mexico? Or perhaps, should it count as expenditures “for” all of the states that don’t have to host WIPP?

People who are interested in more examples of continuous cartograms should visit the WorldMapper project’s site. They maintain a large collection of cartograms based on the countries of the world. They have an actual budget, and minionsgraduate students to do much of the data collection and organization. I have hopes that someday I’ll have a Web site where people can submit US state and/or county data and get cartograms back.

[1] The Web site referenced by the Wikipedia article responds, but as of this writing none of the links on the page for actually accessing data seem to work.

[2] There’s a whole lot of details involved in calculating the projection of a portion of the surface of a sphere onto a plane such that the relative sizes of different areas are preserved. Fortunately, cartographers have spent centuries worrying about that problem and there’s a bunch of open-source software that deals with it nicely. Technically, my maps use Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area projections.

[3] “But wait,” you say, “what about Alaska and Hawaii?” Contiguous cartograms present a number of difficulties in practice. Hanley’s cartogram included Alaska and Hawaii, neither one shown on the same scale as the rest of the map and neither of them shown in the proper position relative to the other states. That pretty much defeats the purpose of contiguous cartograms. Fortunately for me, in most of the situations where I want to apply cartograms I can say, “Alaska and Hawaii are such outlier cases that they are excluded.”

Posted in Politics in General | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Three Thoughts on Obama’s Interview

In an attempt to look like a legitimate newssource, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief finagled an interview with POTUS himself. Herewith, three thoughts in response to what the President said.


[T]here is no reason for an employer who is not currently providing health care to their workers to discourage them from either getting health insurance on the job or being able to avail themselves of the Affordable Care Act.

Presidents should learn Hanley’s second rule of public policy: Don’t focus on the goal you want to achieve; focus on the incentives you’re actually creating.


[A]n issue like nondiscrimination for the LGBT community is a little bit easier than the issues of inner-city poverty, right?

Right. Presidential candidates who think they’re seeking the White House to make big domestic policy changes should keep this in mind.


We have tried to begin a process of reforming how we deal with nonviolent drug offenses, starting with Eric Holder, our attorney general, providing different criteria for evaluation for U.S. attorneys, suggesting to them they don’t always just have to charge the maximum in order for them to do a good job.

One can either see this as a total copout–after 6 years, still “trying to begin,” and making mere “suggestions” to U.S. Attorneys who are subordinates to the Attorney General, who answers to the President–or one can see it as an example of how the long-term staff of a bureaucracy can stymie policy change efforts by comparatively (and predictably) short-term political appointees. Or a combination of the two.

Posted in U.S. Presidency | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Stakes on a Plane

I’m heading to Belize in 18 days with my students, and we’re taking two tents. I’m also hoping to avoid checking a bag, so I’d like to put the tents in our carry-on luggage. But while I’m sure the tents themselves are ok as carry-on, I’m not so sure about the poles and stakes. So I did what any citizen of a well-run country that properly promulgates its laws and rules would do, I checked the TSA website. Conveniently, they have a page titled “Camping Gear.” Inconveniently, the page has no mention of tents. Now I’ve slept under the stars without a tent on a number of occasions, but I’m still pretty sure that tents are considered fairly essential camping equipment.

When you enter “tent” into their search function, you get this page, which includes, down at the bottom of the list, several Excel files containing the results of the TSA’s customer satisfaction survey for its webpage, which in turn contain such responses as these:

  • “tents was not mentioned under camping gear”
  • “The Camping Equipment section doesn’t mention tents. I still don’t know whether or not I can take it on the plane! It’s a pop up tent, so it has no stakes.
  • “The site didn’t have info on whether I can bring tent poles onboard or not!”
  • “Your site does not address tent equipment under the camping/outdoor section. are tent poles allowed?”
  • “Information on camping items does not cover tent poles (collapsible and light-weight, much like fising poles). Nor does it include guidance about tent stakes. Some tent stakes are much shorter than knitting needles and of comparable sharpness.”
  • “Trying to establish if I can pack a tent with poles and stakes in my carryon baggage.”
  • “Could not find if tent poles in a tent are allowed to carry on”
  • “The site worked fine – it just didn’t have the answer to my question regarding tent stakes in carry-on.”

Which is all to say, either they’re not paying attention to the customer satisfaction survey, or they are and have chosen to not provide the information anyway.*

So I began to look elsewhere on the internet–Trip Advisor, traveler forums, etc.–and to absolutely nobody’s surprise, I’m sure, I received conflicting information, with some folks saying yes, you can, and others saying, no, you can’t. But of course none of them are authoritative, and it’s unclear what their real level of knowledge is.

My experience was echoed by a commenter at flyertalk.com

When I was looking around for an answer to this for a friend last fall, I found three answers.

  • Yes you can do it
  • No, the poles and stakes will not be allowed
  • I pack it so I can check it, sometimes they let it through and sometimes they do not

There seems to be as many answers as there are people answering. There was very little actual experience from people doing it, just mostly people guessing.

Another commenter there notes that there appears to be no answer.

The short answer is…there is no answer.

The TSA website has a “camping section”, and they leave out one of the most important pieces of camping equipment.

If you ask the MyTSA application, you get a generic “check it in to avoid the chance” answer.

You won’t find it on their prohibited items list, and you won’t find it on their definitely allowed list either. It all depends on the whims of TSA, if they find it. … The safe answer would be to swing by the checkpoint first thing and ask the supervisor if he has a problem with it.

Putting on my egghead academic hat for a moment, one of the fundamental purposes and benefits of bureaucracy is to reduce the discretion of government agents in dealing with the public. So this tells us something about the quality of the TSA as a bureaucracy.

However at this backpackers’ forum two people who claim to be speaking from personal experience say they’ve had no trouble getting tent stakes through.

You can carry a tent, tent poles, and tent stakes without problems. TSA does not prohibit them, and I carry them all the time.


[Warning – Begin Rant] If you read all the above posts that say you can’t carry on tent poles or stakes — not a single one speaks from actual experience or can point to an authoritative source. It’s a real shame that folks have to chime in like this — adding nothing but more noise and confusion. It’s no wonder that infrequent travelers are forever confused! [End Rant]

As an UL hiker, I lug one carry on all the time … I have had TSA search through everything inside my pack (the guy said it was a “random” choice and I got picked) — and as expected, my tent poles and stakes and my cansister stove all passed actual TSA examination — no questions asked.

For me, at least, the beginning rant adds some authenticity to the claim (although the idea of an ultralight hiker who carries a tent and hiking poles is a bit dubious to me).

So I guess I’ll pack them in carry-on, and take the advice to talk to a TSA person straight off. We’ll be at the airport by 4 a.m., so I don’t think I’ll be distracting any of them from their crucial task of treating 5 year olds with panda backpacks as probable suicide terrorists.

*(Of course a search within Excel for “tent” also brings up some other words that incorporate the word tent, like the response “Typical, incompetent, unaccountable Government Bureaucracy.”)

Posted in TSA Fascists | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Should Adjuncts Should Be Paid $15,000 per Course?

[Co-published at Hit Coffee]

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has proposed that adjuncts should get paid $15,000 per course.

[O]rganizers argue that if you’re teaching a full load of three courses per semester, that comes out to $90,000 in total compensation per year — just the kind of upper-middle-class salary they think people with advanced degrees should be able to expect.

I also teach 3 classes per term, but after 12 years in the business I still don’t get paid $90,000 year. And I have advising, committeework, recruitment, and research expectations on top of the teaching load.

These are folks who think that an advanced degree creates an entitlement, an obligation on others. It doesn’t. And it misunderstands the issue of value.

“It’s not a path to competitiveness to pay knowledge workers bottom-level wages,” says Gary Rhoades, head of the Department of Educational and Policy Studies at the University of Arizona, who has assisted in various adjunct organizing efforts, including the SEIU’s.

This is word salad. Over 20 years ago Paul Krugman pointed out that “Most people who use the term “competitiveness” do so without a second thought.” In Rhoades’ claim, who is in competition with whom, and how does paying adjuncts more than necessary to get qualified ones enhance that competitiveness?

Here’s the ugly truth about adjuncts: there are far too many people willing to be adjuncts for far too many years–their problem is not stingy colleges and universities but the number of other would-be adjuncts competing for the same positions.

What will happen to that number if the pay were to go from around $2500 per class to $15,000 per class? The pool of adjuncts would increase again. People get burned out and quit on adjuncting in part because of the low pay, making room for others to get adjuncting gigs. But if someone can make $60,000/year for teaching 4 classes, instead of $15,000/year for 6 classes (which is not uncommon), they’re not going to clear the field so quickly, and there’s going to be more competition for jobs.

Employing institutions are also going to increase their standards for whom they hire. That guy with the MA and no publications who’s been teaching American Government for us for years? Sorry, we want a PhD with a publication as our adjunct.

And then there’s the question of who pays for this; ultimately it’s going to be the students and/or taxpayers, and they’re not going to get more value for their money. The SEIU doesn’t care about that, though. It’s not their job to care where the money comes from. It’s only their job to gain more dues payers by feeding frustrated academics’ sense of entitlement.

Posted in Economical Musings, Teaching | Tagged , , | 2 Comments