One of the joys of the last year is having read the “Little House on the Prairie” book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder with my youngest son. De Smet, South Dakota is the “little town on the prairie,” Laura’s home for the last five books. This summer we had a chance to visit De Smet while I traveled with my sons back to see family in South Dakota.
I admit, I love being in Maine. It is a beautiful state with wonderful people and everything from magnificent mountains to some of the most gorgeous ocean coastlines in the world. However, this summer when we headed West for vacation, I found myself feeling at home in the wide open prairie, the part of the country in which I grew up.
If you’ve never read the “Little House” series, you should – the books are as meaningful for adults as children, perhaps more so. By today’s standards Laura’s parents were reckless, putting the family in danger by penetrating into the West, away from the safety of civilization. Wolves, blizzards, crop failures, prairie fires and outlaws threatened their existence constantly.
Reading as a child the books were magical – one wanted to jump into the book and be with them, confronting a badger in Minnesota, or even weaving straw together as emergency fuel when the trains from Tracy MN couldn’t make it to DeSmet in the infamous winter of 1880-81. Reading as an adult one sees that they were very poor – often barely holding on – living a precarious existence. In a world where parents now can be jailed if they let a ten year old play alone in a near by park, Laura and her sisters were often on their own, watching the house and responsible.
Being here, breathing the prairie air, remembering what it was like growing up about an hour and a half away in Sioux Falls, I realize that these northern plains still carry that sense of pioneering, freedom and the desire not to be constrained. Laura’s Pa thought South Dakota was getting too full and wanted to continue to move West, seeking solitude and total freedom. Caroline, however, said De Smet was it, and they stayed until they died. Laura and Almanzo would ultimately end up in Missouri.
The books are still remarkable. They also inspired really good conversations with my son. For instance, when they confront Indians we closed the book and talked a bit about how basically our ancestors came in and stole the land. Why didn’t they think it was stealing, what was happening? Rather than painting history as black and white, it has shades of grey and different perspectives.
This year I got Directv’s baseball package to be able to watch every Twins game. My youngest has become an avid Twins fan watching the games with me, and we were able to enjoy seeing a Twins game as well. Target Field is magnificent, and my youngest got a shirt with the name of Arcia (#31) as a souvenir. To be sure, Oswaldo Arcia has been sent down to Rochester AAA, but Dana didn’t care – he’s still one of his favorite players!
Beyond that we got to go boating with my family down on the Missouri river near the Ft. Randall dam, and also caught some baseball in Sioux Falls – the Sioux Falls Canaries vs. the Saint Paul Saints. A great trip – but we’re back in New England now. Still, there’s something special about the northern prairie!
One of my favorite classes to teach is American Foreign Policy, since there are always current event issues present that provide examples of the concepts and ideas of the course. Last spring the US Congress voted itself the power to potentially disapprove the deal with Iran. I used that as a way to talk about institutional power within the US government and with global institutions. Everything played out pretty much as I predicted.
The class had a number of liberals, many of whom were angry at Republicans for trying to mess up Presidential diplomacy, especially after Senator Tom Cotton circulated a letter signed by 47 Republicans notifying Iran that since the deal isn’t a treaty but an executive agreement, the next President can simply choose not to follow it. Is that true?
Yes, it is. Executive agreements historically outnumber treaties by nearly 20 to 1 since the bar for passing a treaty is so high: 2/3 of the Senate. In fact, until 1973 the President didn’t even have to notify Congress of executive agreements! If President Obama signs this, then it is not binding on the next President. The next question: then how can Congress give themselves power to disapprove it?
Because part of the agreement involves removing sanctions which the Congress has the power to nix. That gives them the capacity to intervene and try to thwart the agreement. “So,” one of the more liberal students said, “that means that the Republicans can prevent a global agreement to limit Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons and thereby push us to war. Great.”
“Not so fast,” I responded. “Here’s the scenario: Senator Corker wanted Congress to have final say on the deal – that approval would require Congressional action. He could not get enough Democrats on board for that, so instead Congress only has the power to disapprove. If they do that, President Obama could veto that disapproval and opponents of the deal would need 67 Senators on their side to override the veto. That means a number of Democrats would have to oppose it.”
“But even that won’t stop the deal. If there is a deal, nothing Congress does can prevent it from becoming reality due to the nature of the separation of powers.”
That brought puzzled looks from students, so I continued, “Note that this is a UN Security Council negotiation, not a bilateral US-Iranian deal. That means the US would be just one party to the agreement. If a deal is signed, it will quickly become a Security Council resolution, meaning that the international sanctions regime the US helped put in place will end. Russia, China, the EU and the rest of the world will start to do business with Iran. If the US Congress disapproves the agreement, that only keeps US sanctions in place – and that probably would hurt the US more than Iran! Moreover, the US would lose clout in how to enforce and maintain the agreement, if we are not party to it.”
In other words, since the UN Ambassador is part of the executive branch of government, Congress has no influence over how the US votes in the Security Council. That’s Obama’s trump card – if a deal is reached, there really is nothing Congress can do, the sanctions regime will end regardless of how the Congress votes. And that’s exactly how things are playing themselves out!
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party won in January, he vowed to keep Greece in the Eurozone, but end the austerity programs the Greeks had been suffering through for nearly five years. There was skepticism, but early on signs pointed to the possibility of a new deal. Greece still had to maintain austerity and reform its system, but the EU would work out a way to make it less painful.
Despite some brinksmanship and harsh give and takes, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker seemed optimistic, sympathetic to Tsipras and the Greek predicament.
Then the tone changed. Last week Juncker was visibly angry, claiming Tsipras was lying to his people. Headlines asked “Is Tsipras crazy?” Insiders say he made promises he later did not keep, said Greece would do things and then backed down. You don’t do that in the EU – the heads of government form a close knit group and while they may disagree heavily at times, the one rule is to be up front and keep your word. Tsipras seems to have broken that rule.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was his sudden call for a referendum, to be held Sunday July 5, on whether or not Greece should accept the conditions imposed by the EU. That violated the shared understanding of what the process would be, and seemed to come from nowhere. EU leaders felt betrayed.
So what gives? Are we on the verge of a “Grexit?” What would that mean? It’s a complicated situation so I’ll simply offer seven points.
1. Tsipras is in over his head. It appears that while he may have been willing to reach a deal, his party balked. They are a left wing anti-establishment movement with no qualms about leaving the capitalist EU. He realized he couldn’t get the parliament to agree to any deal without relying on votes from the opposition, which would likely force him to call new elections. Under pressure, he improvised, called for the referendum and hoped European leaders would panic and accept Greek positions. They didn’t.
In 1914 German Kaiser Wilhelm II realized that the decision to invade France via Belgium was wrong and ordered the trains to turn around and come back. But it was too late – he had already gone too far. Tsipras is in a similar situation.
2. Angela Merkel is facing the toughest dilemma of her ten year Chancellorship. Tsipras believed that a deal would be reached because he knows Merkel desperately wants one. Ironically, the Greeks were relying on the Germans to make a deal happen.
Merkel’s commitment to the Euro and the EU is absolute. She sees the EU as not primarily about trade or economics, but European peace and security. Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, has real gravitas in the CDU, Merkel’s party. He was in Helmut Kohl’s cabinet as early as 1984, when Merkel was still a scientist in East Germany. He also believes fervently in the Euro, but disagrees with Merkel’s desire to keep Greece in the Eurozone at any cost. He thinks the Eurozone without Greece will be stronger. She wants a deal but Schauble’s wing of the party will only support it if it makes economic sense – in other words, if it’s not too generous to Greece. With Tsipras acting up, she has no choice but to say no deal.
3. Sunday’s vote is big. Polls show the “yes” vote (accept the bailout conditions from the EU) to be leading, but only slightly. If it passes, then Tsipras’ government will likely fall and new elections will be held. The chances of a Greek-EU deal will greatly improve. If the vote is “no,” Tsipras will try to restart negotiations, but it’ll be difficult. He’s lost the trust and respect of his fellow leaders and they’re hinting that any post-referendum conditions might be harsher. Still, most want Greece not to leave the Eurozone, so a late deal is possible.
4. One reason Tsipras has such a weak position is that no one is fearing contagion. In fact, if Italy, Spain and Portugal see Eurozone leaders willing to kiss Greece goodbye, they’re more likely to continue their reform programs, recognizing that it is their only real option. If this had happened in 2012 it would be a very different story.
5. Even in default, a Grexit is not inevitable. The chaos last week when Greek banks closed show show that the Greeks are playing with a dangerous fire. A return to the drachma doesn’t just mean that the Greeks could use monetary policy to stimulate the economy, it also means that politicians could go back to the kind of corrupt shenanigans that caused this problem in the first place. Greece would fall behind many former Soviet bloc countries in economic well being. The consequences of default for the European and global banking system as well as for Greece means that no one is going to rush to the Euro exit.
6. A Greek Tragedy? The frustrating thing is that a Grexit is irrational, against the interests of both the Greeks and the EU leaders. This is the kind of situation where a compromise must be possible, both sides want it desperately. Yet the way it’s playing itself out, with Tsipras’ ineptitude, anger in both camps, chaos in Greece, a snap referendum, and the inability of Tsipras to lead his own party, it’s possible everything will come undone. People will look back and say “how could they have let that happen?”
7. To end on a point of optimism: Greece won’t likely leave the EU even if it were to leave the Eurozone, and the EU and the Eurozone aren’t themselves in danger. Under the adage “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” handling a Grexit would demonstrate the capacity to survive a crisis. Moreover, blame is on the Greeks – no one could say the EU didn’t try hard to reach a deal.
My prediction: a narrow “yes” victory on Sunday, followed by a deal and new elections in Greece. But don’t take that to the bank (they’re closed in Greece anyway). Anything can happen!
The Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage caused great celebration, symbolized by the Rainbow White House. However, if you venture into the right side of the blogsophere there is a sense of anger and dismay. Erick Erickson at Red State paints a picture of a society that has “lost its mind” with a wildfire burning and “normal” people being trounced by the insanity.
To many of us who support gay marriage and welcome the cultural shift of the last few decades, such a view might seem bizarre. No one is hurt by allowing gays to marry, this simply expands freedom and one has to be a bigot to oppose that, right? That is a view I hear among young people who are just as perplexed and angry about such opposition as the red staters are about gay marriage being made the law of the land.
A bit of perspective. In the 1700s, centered in France, the enlightenment began. After the explosive advance of science in the 1600s, beginning with Galileo and ending with Newton’s discovery of classical physics, people turned their rational minds towards understanding society and humanity. They encountered a world built on tradition, religion and superstition, and started to tear apart that edifice.
It started with the Deists. Believers in God (usually due to the need for a “first mover” in order to get a “world in motion”), they tore apart the Christian Bible, finding contradictions and pointing out that the God of the Old Testament is more like a petulant child than someone worthy of praise and love. Some like Rousseau saw God’s word in nature, but after the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 Voltaire decided that while God made the world, there was no sign God really cared about it. God doesn’t need our love, our fellow humans do, Voltaire declared, beginning an approach that today is called “secular humanism.”
The attack on tradition began in earnest. In Great Britain this attack was pragmatic and gradual – the divine right to rule gave way to a parliament, and the power of the nobility and the Anglican church slowly waned as reforms dominated the 1700s and 1800s. In France the assault on tradition took the form of a radical revolution that wanted to change everything right away! That failed – and it showed a weakness of the enlightenment: reason is a tool, it does not provide the kind of values and core world view that a religion might. Once they pushed aside tradition, they couldn’t agree on how to move forward. Tradition and culture hold a society together; you mess with that at your peril.
Yet that is the enlightenment project – messing with tradition and culture. Edmund Burke, a conservative who hated the French revolution, didn’t oppose that project, he only insisted it move carefully and gradually, with progress showing respect for tradition, even as those traditions lose power.
Every step of the way, there were those convinced society was collapsing. Women getting to vote! That is not what God intended. In the South the assault on slavery led to a civil war. Women getting equal rights, entering the work force, not being subservient to their man – that to many seemed a direct rejection of Christian teaching. Every step of the way, society was seen as going deeper into the darkness.
In way, the critics were right. Unmoored from some kind of rule book, free to choose what we construct, we dabbled with Communism, Nazism, other forms of fascism and fought great wars. For awhile the West embraced radical racism, justifying conquest of virtually the entire planet, destroying cultures and looting natural resources. Many would say, with justification, we still do that, albeit in a less overt manner.
Yet there is no going back. If we opened Pandora’s box, it can’t be closed. Once we examine the world rationally and recognize that religious traditions are mythological and really can’t be true, we can’t say “oh well, it’s better just to believe in them.” Once women can work and succeed, we can’t tell them to just find a mate to serve. Once we make marriage about love, we can’t say that divorce shouldn’t exist and we should bring back “traditional marriage.” Once gays are accepted and can marry, we cannot tell them to scuttle back into the closet. And for all the difficulty our enlightenment freedom creates, it’s worth it.
The enlightenment is a process of human liberation. It is about freedom, it is about constructing a social world rather than adhering to past teachings and customs. It is a dangerous endeavor, as the holocaust, communist dictatorships, the French revolution, colonialism and capitalist sweatshops demonstrate. It is what has led to consumerism and global warming just as it has led to liberty.
That’s how we should understand opposition to gay marriage. They read this into the enlightenment’s dark side, a divorce from tradition, an anything goes mentality that can lead to chaos, lack of moral grounding, and collapse. Psychologically, they yearn for a “right answer,” stability, and a sense of security in the social world. Religion, tradition, and the values those represent are comforting and powerful to them. Symbolically, gay marriage represents a threat to all that.
But every step forward in the last 300 years has meant that. The rock band Rush sums up the enlightenment’s impact on the West well: “It’s the motor of the western world, spinning off to every extreme, pure as a lover’s desire, evil as a murderer’s dream.” Our freedom and rational thinking have led to advances in human dignity, as well as crimes against humanity. It’s a journey worth taking, even if landmines are scattered about.
In this case, gay marriage is to me up there with giving women the vote and the right to work, ending slavery, and eliminating the aristocracy and the divine right to rule. It expands human dignity and value, making it compatible with what Martin Luther King Jr. calls natural law in his “Letter to a Birmingham Jail.”
It is, however, just a step along the path we in the West have been traveling for centuries. And while I see it as a very positive step, I appreciate those who fear losing tradition. To keep us along a sustainable path of progress, we do have to respect the dangers of moving too fast, as Burke might say. The enlightenment is need of a kind of spiritual core to help us avoid the negative extremes. Even if traditional religious stories cannot provide that, they point to the need to take values seriously – something I plan to write about soon.
On this issue I think we haven’t moved too fast. Support for gay marriage is now a majority position, and among young people it’s at near 80%. We’re changing along with the culture, not moving out in front of it. The enlightenment project of expanding human liberation, a difficult and dangerous journey, moves forward!
No time to blog as I’m with three other faculty and 36 students in Italia – we’ve been to Florence and Rome and now are in Sorrento. I’m in the back row, on the far right. Feel free to check out the Facebook group “UMF Italia 2015″ for more pictures and updates! UMF Italia 2015
There is a sense of surprise at the re-election of David Cameron’s conservative party, which won 331 of the 650 mandates in the 2015 United Kingdom General Election. That is the smallest number of mandates a majority party has won in a British election since after the second 1974 election.
The result wasn’t as big a surprise as one might think.
To be sure, polls had shown a tight race. Most showed the Conservatives and Labour tied, or with a slight conservative lead at something like 36-35. Consider the following graphic:
Blue represents the Tories, red Labour, purple UKIP, yellow the LibDems, and green the Greens. Although the two major parties are nearly tied at the end at around 35%, Labour had been steadily losing support while the conservatives had been slightly climbing. If there was momentum, it was for the Tories.
Here are the actual results: Conservatives – 36.9%, Labour 30.4%, UKIP 12.6%, the Lib Dems 7.9% Scotish National Party 4.6%, Greens 3.6%
From this result here are the mandates: Conservatives 331, Labour 232, SNP 56, Lib Dems 8, Unionists 8, UKIP 1, Greens 1 Other 15.
One thing a single member district plurality (SMD-P) electoral system provides is that there can be a large swing in mandates won from a relatively small swing in total percentage of the vote. SMD-P is a system where people vote in districts for one candidate. Whichever candidate gets the most votes (known as a plurality) wins the seat. That’s how we run most of our Congressional elections in the US.
This hurts smaller parties. The anti-EU party could turn 12.6% of the vote into only one seat. Yet geographically based parties like the SNP could turn 4.6% of the vote into 56 seats as they swept Scotland. It also means that a 6.5% differential between the two top parties can turn into a difference of almost 100 seats, or 15% of the seats available.
Think of it this way. If the vote was perfectly even in every district, a party could win 51% to 49% in every district; a close election would yield all seats going to the party with 51%! Obviously some districts are safe for a particular party and others are contested at various levels. But the result almost always is that the party that “wins” has a much larger majority in parliament than the vote total would indicate.
(Aside: If you follow American politics you might counter that even though in 2012 the Democrats earned more votes than the Republicans, the GOP got a majority. That happens in part due to gerrymandering — designing districts to get the optimum outcome for a party– but also because Democrats rack up huge vote totals in urban districts, while Republicans win closer suburban and rural districts. In Great Britain the divisions aren’t so stark, so elections behave more like one would expect).
In 2010 Great Britain had its first hung parliament (no party gaining a majority) since 1974. That’s because the Liberal Democrats got 23% and 57 seats. The Conservatives only got 36.1% and 306 seats, while Labour got 29% and 258 seats.
The change from 2010 to 2015 for the top two parties was Conservative +0.8%, Labour +1.4%. Both parties gained, but Labour gained a bit more than the Conservatives. So why did the Tories gain 25 seats and Labour lose 26? The answer is due to the smaller parties. The LibDems went from 57 seats to only 8, while the SNP went from 6 to 56. In Scotland alone Labour lost nearly 40 seats to the SNP – that means they gained seats in the rest of the country.
The LibDem loss should have been expected. Small parties are always at risk when they form a coalition with larger parties, unless they can provide something unique that the voters want. Nick Clegg couldn’t do that. That loss of support translated to more mandates for the Conservatives.
That brings us to the polls. The pollsters were pretty accurate for the small parties, and pretty close for the conservatives too. The only real problem, then, was that Labour totals were inflated by about 3% consistently. That’s not a huge amount, but still a significant gap given how much agreement existed in the polls. The most likely reason is that conservative-leaning voters upset with the Cameron government told pollsters they were leaning Labour, but came home to the Conservatives on election day. Not that they were lying to the pollsters, but there’s something about actually voting that can cause people to stick with a party they thought they might abandon.
Before the elections some conservatives voiced optimism that by moving Labour more to the left, Miliband might inspire higher Tory turnout than expected. That sounded like the usual wishful thinking but may have actually happened.
Polls can be off, and as noted, just a few ticks in one direction can make a major difference in the result. I am not surprised that the conservatives gained a majority. The 2010 election was the first since 1974 with no majority, and it was obvious that the Lib Dems were not going to gain many seats this go around. So it appeared that either the Tories would gain a small majority (which they did), or that Labour would have to work with the SNP.
A change in power to Labour was unlikely for another reason. Labour leader Ed Miliband had not generated a sense that his leadership would provide a positive change. Labour had been declining in the polls and people weren’t warming to Miliband. Late deciders may have been swayed by Cameron’s positive economic results (compared to the rest of Europe).
Cameron has five years now to govern as a majority party, unless he calls an early election. He has promised a referendum on EU membership by 2017. The Cameron era continues.
In 1970 at the age of ten I became a serious Twins fan. I kept a scrapbook, including a story from the Minneapolis Tribune about a 19 year old rookie named Bert Blyleven who looked “too young to shave yet.” By the time I was 13 I was keeping score and kept a notebook with info from all the games, including who hit homeruns, the pitcher of record, and if there was a save. I’d listen to Herb Carneal call the game, glued to the radio.
My first live game was a double header against the Oakland A’s in 1973. That was the A’s heyday with Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Catfish Hunter, etc. The A’s would win their second world series in a row that year, but the Twins had their number, winning 14 of the 18 games they played. That included the two I saw, with the second being exciting. After starter Jim Kaat was knocked out of the game early, a rookie named Bill Campbell came in and pitched brilliantly as the Twins caught up. In the 10th Tony Olivia would double and George Mitterwald hit his second home run of the game to win 7-5!
In 1987 I was in grad school at the University of Minnesota, following the team as Gary Gaetti, Kirby Puckett, Dan Gladden, Frank Viola, Bert Blyleven, Tom Brunansky and Kent Hrbek led an unexpected drive to the Twins first world championship. In 1986 they had been last in their division. Nothing can replicate that experience for Twins fans – the first championship (unless you count when they were the Washington Senators in 1924), unexpected, with a core group that had come up through the farm system and endured some rough years.
Then four years later, in Berlin Germany to do research, I listened to every game of the 1991 series as Vin Scully and Johnny Bench called the play by play carried over Armed Forces radio. In the wee hours of the morning as Jack Morris pitched ten scoreless innings and Gene Larkin hit a game winner I was jumping around the apartment I was in, thrilled!
This all ended in 1995. I got a job in Maine, loaded a Ryder truck and took off. I spent the summer in Europe, and as I threw myself into my new job and home, baseball seemed distant. Moreover the 1994 strike and cancelled world series left a sour taste in my mouth. Baseball seemed tarnished. I was surrounded by Red Sox fans, and soon I lost track of the Twins. Oh, the years they made the playoffs I would watch. But I didn’t know the players or feel connected. But now, 20 years later, I’m finally a Twins fan again.
This year I got Directv’s “extra innings” major league baseball package. And so far I have managed to watch every one of the Twins first 25 games, albeit a few via DVR. Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven are the announcers – the same Blyleven who was a rookie when I first started following the Twins .
It didn’t take long to get to know the team. Watching daily after following them somewhat close in spring training I am learning about each player. It’s my team again. The only bummer is a black hole in my Twins memory. I can recall Steve Braun, Bobby Darwin, Larry Hisle, Ray Corbin, Danny Ford and a host of others former players, some good some utterly forgettable. But there are twenty years of names – some very important – that are meaningless to me. Still, I’m even learning those, bit by bit.
The game has changed some. They’re really strict on the check swing rule now, pitchers are yanked earlier, even when pitching well, and I can’t believe how the fielders are shifting some hitters. I like how they show the speed of every pitch as well as keeping the pitch count (which I used to do myself). Still, it’s like coming home, reuniting with an old friend after 20 years, and realizing that you feel as close and connected as ever.
My nine year old son is watching with me quite often. I explain the game to him and he’s a quick study. He impressed me after a runner was held at second by a ground out to short. “Dad,” he said, ” you know, if you have a guy on second you should hit it on the other side, then he’d be able to get to third.” So cool that my son, on his own, re-discovered one of the fundamentals of baseball. “Yes,” I said, “that’s right – they say you should hit behind the runner.” He thought about that and smiled, “I get it!”
It’s not just about baseball, or the Twins, it’s about my youth. How often did I hear on the radio, “The Minnesota Twins are on the air!” Followed by the jingle, “We’re going to win Twins, we’re going to score…” Following Rod Carew’s quest to hit .400, every year thinking “this will be the year!” Even now when short stop Danny Santana makes eight errors early in the season I think, “wow, he’s fielding like Danny Thompson back in the 70s.”
Seeing the fans in the stands at Target Field – a place I have not yet visited, but will with two sons on July 8th – has me remembering many games at the Dome and the old Met. Back in grad school I’d often on rainy days get a $3 outfield bleacher ticket just to watch the game.
One of the more surreal experiences I had was at the Metrodome. It was 1986 and the Twins led the Angels. Ron Davis, their “ace reliever” (who that year blew almost all his save opportunities) was pitching and a storm outside caused the roof to tear and the dome to start to collapse. People went running for the exits, one lady screamed and pushed me aside as she dragged her kids down – I stayed on the second deck to watch. Soon the dome re-inflated, and then the Angels defeated the Twins. I miss the dome, but am glad they’re playing outdoors again!
Sunday after my son and I batted and played catch for about an hour we went in. We were watching the Twins together when they loaded the bases. I had told Dana about what a grand slam is, but he never saw one. “Maybe you’ll see your first,” I said. We then watched together as Trevor Plouffe launched a home run to left to give the Twins the lead. Dana jumped up and down with excitement and I realized that he’s where I was all those years ago, starting to become a fan. I’m glad I’m back and who knows – maybe this will be the year!