Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Der Weisselefant

Shows went wonderfully. Worn out, but very happy.

White Elephant profiled in Rochester local paper.

I told Genevieve when she married me that in addition to being unable to pronounce her first name, now nobody'd be able to spell her last name, either. ;)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rights and Obligations

Everybody's talking about the implications of the Second Amendment on the idea that a right to a commodity means other people have to buy it for you (free M1A!), and the idea that you can be forced to purchase the thing you have a right to (M1As for antis!).

Me, I'm just pissed off I'm gonna have to buy a house so I can kick a soldier out of it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

As a beloved television star, Rochester touched millions of adoring fans...

Tonight, among other projects, I'm helping figure out how to tie an attractive harness on a woman's head, and making some small equestrian jump gates out of PVC pipes.

That's because this weekend the White Elephant Burlesque Society is performing at the Rochester Erotic Arts Festival in upstate New York*. We've worked with the organizers before, both in last year's REAF and at a private event, and it's always a blast. We'll get to see bondage rigger Murphy Blue again, we'll finally do a bona fide collaboration with Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, and generally hang with the pervs. Always good times. And we have some new numbers lined up that I'm really looking forward to. Danielle's doing a kinky secretary number that looks fantastic and the aforehinted pony number, while Genevieve's polishing up a gypsyish dance so enthusiastic she's already getting tiny bruises from smacking herself with the tambourine. And though we have a small cast for this trip, they're all outstanding performers, doing a bunch of new material. These are gonna be good shows.

But for all that, the best part is REAF's headliners: The Wet Spots.

I love these guys. And White Elephant's performed a couple of their songs before. And we're seeing them in concert on Friday night and doing breakfast with them on Saturday morning.

It's gonna be a busy weekend; we're driving for most of Friday, doing four shows between Saturday and Sunday morning, and driving back most of Sunday. But damn, it's gonna be worth it.

[* - It's actually in west New York, but in New Jersey "upstate" means everything except NYC.]

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From that first day, we were three...

Because one study equals universal truth, I give you the Latest from New Scientist:

Want to live a little longer? Get a second wife. New research suggests that men from polygamous cultures outlive those from monogamous ones.

After accounting for socioeconomic differences, men aged over 60 from 140 countries that practice polygamy to varying degrees lived on average 12% longer than men from 49 mostly monogamous nations, says Virpi Lummaa, an ecologist at the University of Sheffield, UK.

If our Fearless Leader really wants to improve my health, he should evidently be twisting arms to legalize plural marriages.

[Also, take a skim of the comments. Even of those defending plural marriage, nearly all of them are assuming "polygamy" has to be one man with multiple wives.]

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Looming Dread: A Love Story

As House Democrats try to pass health-care reform, filmmaker Michael Moore calls their proposal a joke that is more about Wall Street profits than helping people.

Within days, the House of Representatives will vote to pass the Senate health-care "reform" bill. This bill is a joke. It has NOTHING to do with "health-care reform." It has EVERYTHING to do with lining the pockets of the health insurance industry. It forces, by law, every American who isn't old or destitute to buy health insurance if their boss doesn't provide it. What company wouldn't love the government forcing the public to buy that company's product?! Imagine a bill that ordered every citizen to buy the extended warranty on all their appliances? Imagine a law that made it illegal not to own an iPhone? Or how 'bout I get a law passed that makes it compulsory for every American to go see my next movie? Woo-hoo! Who wouldn't love a sweet set-up like this windfall?
Now, you would think these [insurance company] thieves would love this bill—but they are actually fighting it. Why? Because it doesn't give them ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of what they want. It only gives them... 90%! YOU SEE, pure greed demands all or nothing.
And how big will the fines be if the insurance companies do deny someone coverage for having a pre-existing condition? Are you sitting down? A hundred dollars a day! That's it! So if you're the insurance company, and Judy is a customer of yours, and Judy needs an operation that will cost $100,000, what do you do? You take the fine! Let's say Judy lives another year after you've sentenced her to death, your $100-a-day fine will only cost you $36,500! That's a savings of $63,500! And trust me, my friends, that's EXACTLY what's going to happen.

...don't insult me and 300 million Americans by calling this "health-care reform."

Michael Moore is an asshole. Michael Moore is a hypocritical, profiteering asshole who sells an image of socialist absolutism, snottily propagating the meme of the "Age of Greed during which a system known as capitalism is slowly, but surely, killing us" in editorials with multiple inline ads for credit cards. He's exactly what Bill O'Reilly is. They just sell to different demographics.

So Moore isn't the kind of person I look to for cogent analysis of controversial bills, nor do I trust his assessment of what the "healthcare reform" debacle will do, or even what's in it.

But seriously, when the panderers to the extreme social-conservative and the extreme socialist ends of the political spectrum both think "this bill will do more harm than good" is a marketable message, you've gotta get at least a little ominous feeling in your belly.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mea midichlorians, mea midichlorians, mea maxima midichlorians...

I'm not going to get into the constitutionality of all the personal questions asked by the US census. Nor will I complain about the chutzpah it takes for an American government to actually think it has a legitimate authority to lay legal penalties on those who don't answer all of their intrusive questions completely and accurately.

And I certainly would never advocate returning misleading answers on a project so important to the vital business of gerrymandering political boundaries to protect incumbent politicians.

But y'know, a true Jedi believes that the government has no business asking about your religion.

And my race is "human", thanks. If I don't believe in the aether, I sure as hell don't believe in any other Victorian pseudoscience just because it still drives politics today.

Buckskinner shooting writ large

Knirirr points to a BBC story about a very strange Soviet missile system being used to deliver sattelites.

The Dnepr rocket is a repurposed R-36 missile, which uses a bizarre first stage:

The R-36M is placed into its 39 m deep silo in a tubular storage/launch container. Upon launch the missile is shot out of the tube, mortar-fashion, by a piston, driven by the expansion of gases from a slow-burning black powder charge inside the piston. The missile's main engine is ignited tens of metres above the ground, preventing any damage to the internal equipment of the silo itself from the rocket engine's fiery efflux.

I don't know much about ICBM technology (don't ballistic missile subs use a "gentle" first stage to get the missiles clear of the sub?) but I'd never heard of an intercontinental missile being launched out of a gigantic black powder musket. The Beeb article links to a great Youtube video:

While most of the rocket's lost in the massive plume of smoke from the "muzzle", you can see the head slow almost to a stop before the next stage kicks in.


Discussion over at Sebastian's got me doing some research on something that's been on my mind for a while. The present ban on civilian purchases of new machine guns is very likely illegal, and I think there's actually a decent chance of overturning it in the courts.

It's commonly known that in the US, fully automatic firearms and short barreled rifles and shotguns are strictly regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposes some heavy-duty licensing restrictions. Since back then people still respected the separation of powers, Congress knew it didn't have the authority to restrict gun ownership because that authority is left to the states under the Tenth Amendment. So the feds stretched tax laws until they got what they wanted: the extremely burdensome regulatory requirements were merely part of a system to collect a $200-per-gun "tax" on the weapons in question (a sum that, at the time, nearly doubled the cost of even the extremely expensive Thompson). This is precisely the same strategy used to outlaw marijuana (which is why alcohol prohibition, quite properly, required a constitutional amendment, while pot prohibition came down by mere legislative fiat).

Obviously, this is a serious misuse of tax codes. What good is a constitution that forbids the feds from banning a thing if they can just put a trillion dollar tax on it? Particularly when the restricted activity is specifically protected by the Bill of Rights--imagine a federal law that placed a $200 "tax" on blog posts critical of the government. It's disturbing and unacceptable, no matter what you may think of machine guns in particular (and in real life, they're much less dangerous to public safety than most people reasonably assume) So naturally, the NFA ended up being challenged in the Supreme Court. More than once, in fact. But the last word came down in United States v. Miller in 1939. Miller, who had been arrested for crossing state lines with an unregistered short-barreled shotgun, argued the obvious points.

Unfortunately, the Court upheld the NFA on two bases: first, that the Second Amendment specifically protects only the ownership of military weapons, and that there was an "absence of any evidence" that short-barreled shotguns were used by the military (in fact, they've been used in every US conflict since the Revolution, but as Miller was dead by the time the case was heard, no defense evidence was presented to the Court).

Second, the Court upheld a previous precedent that, in general, it wouldn't try to assess whether Congressional powers of taxation were being misused:

A duly interposed demurrer alleged: The National Firearms Act is not a revenue measure but an attempt to usurp police power reserved to the States, and is therefore unconstitutional.
Considering Sonzinsky v. United States, 1937…the objection that the Act usurps police power reserved to the States is plainly untenable.

Sonzinsky was an Illinois gun dealer convicted of failing to pay the "taxes" mandated under the NFA. From the ruling in that case (edited for brevity; the original is brimming with citations):

In the exercise of its constitutional power to lay taxes, Congress may select the subjects of taxation, choosing some and omitting others...Its power extends to the imposition of exercise taxes upon the doing of business...Petitioner does not deny that Congress may tax his business as a dealer in firearms. He insists that the present levy is not a true tax, but a penalty imposed for the purpose of suppressing traffic in a certain noxious type of firearms, the local regulation of which is reserved to the states because not granted to the national government...The cumulative effect on the distribution of a limited class of firearms, of relatively small value, by the successive imposition of different said to be prohibitive in effect and to disclose unmistakably the legislative purpose to regulate rather than to tax.
Every tax is in some measure regulatory. To some extent it interposes an economic impediment to the activity taxed as compared with others not taxed. But a tax is not any the less a tax because it has a regulatory effect...and it has long been established that an Act of Congress which on its face purports to be an exercise of the taxing power is not any the less so because the tax is burdensome or tends to restrict or suppress the thing taxed.
Inquiry into the hidden motives which may move Congress to exercise a power constitutionally conferred upon…it is beyond the competency of courts...They will not undertake, by collateral inquiry as to the measure of the regulatory effect of a tax, to ascribe to Congress an attempt, under the guise of taxation, to exercise another power denied by the Federal Constitution.
Here the annual tax of $200 is productive of some revenue. We are not free to speculate as to the motives which moved Congress to impose it, or as to the extent to which it may operate to restrict the activities taxed. As it is not attended by an offensive regulation, and since it operates as a tax, it is within the national taxing power.

In short: if it could generate revenue, we don't wanna hear about it; Congress has the benefit of the doubt, period. A pretty disturbing stance for the Supreme Court to take, but they took it nonetheless.

Half a century later in 1986, in a bald-faced attempt to score points with the anti-gun lobby, representative William Hughes, a Democrat from New Jersey (go figure), used a middle-of-the-night unrecorded voice vote by a partial Congress to insert an amendment into the Firearms Owners Protection Act. The Hughes Amendment closed the NFA registry to new machine guns, freezing the supply of "transferable" fully automatic firearms to those already registered by 1986. The result of this has been to artificially drive prices well beyond the means of ordinary Americans. It isn't unusual for a firearm that should cost around $1,000 to sell for nearly $20,000.

Set before the Court again, we could demonstrate factually that neither of the principles on which Miller was decided remains valid. With the registry closed, the NFA restrictions on machine guns cannot be defended as a revenue-generating mechanism. And at least in the case of short-barreled arms and machine guns, we can very easily demonstrate that they're military weapons. Silencers (also "taxed" under the NFA) are probably still screwed.

This isn't all speculation. What I’m saying has already been argued, and won in federal court. It just hasn't been taken all the way to the Supremes yet. And that was in 1991, long before Heller, and in a legal and social environment much less friendly to gun rights than we have today.

Lots of smart folks out there think that we have to fix the NFA through Congress, not the judiciary, citing Heller's approval of restrictions on "dangerous and unusual weapons". But the combination of NFA and Hughes can be attacked without relying on Heller. Getting rid of the NFA is probably out for the forseeable future, but opening the registry seems fairly solid. If they can save the NFA by repealing Hughes, I'd expect Congress to repeal Hughes.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I admit to being a bit intrigued

NY chef and his wife make human cheese.

They're currently contemplating gelato.

Old Glory

A great many electrons are being spilled about out President's decision decision not to fly the US flag over our compound in Haiti.

Now, I don't care to comment on the larger issue of the Big O's opinions of America or our place in the world, but this one thing, in a vacuum? I'm pretty cool with it. I like the philosophical statement that we Americans won't engage in this custom because it smells too much like imperial occupation.

Let France, the UK, and Croatia fly their flags if they want to. But us? No need to take our coats; we aren't staying.

Moar like this please

via Say Uncle:

Florida's "Repealer Project" aims to eliminate unnecessary laws.

The mission: to have fewer state laws when legislators leave Tallahassee than when they arrived, a counterintuitive goal for a body that usually labors all spring to turn a new crop of bills into law.

It's a weird thing about government: when the people start looking to their government as the solution to their problems, that government is expected to be constantly _doing_ things. Where Thoreau said "That government is best which governs least", too many people judge governments harshly that aren't constantly passing new laws and building more bureaus (see: complaints about "legislative gridlock"). So we end up with the accumulated legal detritus of generations of well-intentioneed laws and all their billions of unintended consequences, plus the laws and exceptions meant to address those unintended consequences, and _their_ unintended consequences, to the point that even attorneys need to specialize; even people who spend a lifetime studying the law can't reasonably be expected to know all the laws they can be punished for violating.

What we really need is a ten-year expiration date on all laws, combined with prohibitions on mass-renewals. Or Heinlein's House of Repeal, whose only function is to remove old laws from the books. But I'll take what I can get; It's refreshing to see _any_ efforts to scale it all back.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ministry of Silly Phobias

A BBC columnist files a refreshingly unhysterical report on Americans who open-carry firearms in Wisconsin*.

One day passes.

The article gets over 800 comments.

[* - I'm ambivalent about open carry for political reasons, but two things: A - Wisconsin is one of the few psychotically anti-gun enclaves in the US that bars concealed carry, so these folks are using the only carry option they have. B - Being opposed to open carry in a nation that overwhelmingly allows concealed carry is really, really stupid. It's saying "protect me from knowing that people around me are armed".]

Laah lah la-la la laah, laah la-la la laah...

MA. P: "Neil Patrick Harris! Baby! Long time no talk! Tell me--have you ever heard of... The Smurfs?"

N.P.H: "Uhh... The TV show, or the sex act?"

MA.P: "The brand new, multimillion dollar summer blockbuster! And you're starring... as the human."

N.P.H: "It's the part I was born to play, baby!"

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I could burn the building down...

Charles Stross announces the Laundry Series RPG:

From General interwebs

For those unfamiliar with the series, it's essentially Lovecraft meets James Bond meets Office Space. British intelligence battles the forces of the Old Ones while scrupulously avoiding anaccounted expenses and the intrigues of middle management. Agents weild hands of glory while executing metamathematical spells with electrically conductive pentagrams and arcane PDA programs.

It's freakin' brilliant.

And now it's a dorky RPG.

I know what _we'll_ be doing from July until forever.

Apropos of that last post

My buddy Dan sent me a video almost a month ago, and I just rediscovered it buried in the inbox:

I smell burlesque number!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Neither shall he multiply wives to himself...

Polyamory in the News points to a charming editorial by Delita Johnson in the Jackson Sun:

Polyamory: Evil dressed as love
The Newsweek article introduced its readers to a new vocabulary, "polyfidelitous." Polyfidelitous means that the multiple partners keep sexual activity within their own self-identified cluster.

Surprisingly - or not so surprisingly - some people think this is actually normal behavior. I guess once you practice immorality for so long, it begins to feel moral.
Albert Mohler, author, speaker and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it best: The ultimate sign of our moral confusion becomes evident when virtually no one appears ready to condemn polyamory as immoral. The only arguments mustered against this new movement focus on matters of practicality.
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

Now, it's no shock that an editorialist from "Focus on Christ Ministries" might be a tad narrowminded, but her complete blindness to irony would be shocking if it wasn't so typical.

Hey, Delita, that Jewish history reader you're so devoted to? It has a few examples of those immoral, godless families that dare to think they can involve more than two partners, some of them much more ambitious than modern poly folks. It also includes a few rules for practicing that kind of relationship that don't seem too condemnatory to the institution itself.

I've said it before, and I'm sure to say it again: my partners and I practice a traditional marriage according to the Biblical example. It's not my fault all these blasphemous Biblical illiterates have redefined marriage to support their deviant one-spouse relationships. I guess once you practice immorality for so long, it begins to feel moral.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Also, thirst can be cured with water.

I love Lifehacker. And I know not everything I consider common sense is within everybody else's experience.

But c'mon.

Restore a Scratched-Up iPhone with Sandpaper

Amazing tip! Objects can be polished with mild abrasives!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

It's the little things

Sebastian points out Josh Sugarmann trying once again to conflate pistol-gripped carbines with machine guns. It's an old story, we've already won that battle, blah-blah-blah.

But here's something I never noticed before:

Bill Clinton, the Brady Bill, the federal assault weapons "ban," Y2K, September 11th, and now, of course, Barack Obama.

Whenever I mention the AWB, I put the scorn quotes around "assault weapons", because it's a meaningless, constructed scare-phrase. Sugarmann puts 'em around "ban", presumably because of the anti-gun assumption that their ban on bayonet lugs didn't lower the murder rate because manufacturers "dodged" it by removing the bayonet lugs from their guns.

Friday, March 5, 2010

"And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened..."

A friend forwared me an article from the Tulsa World, hoping (I expect) for some fireworks:

Oklahoma Senate Approves Bible-Classes Bill

Indoctrination in schools! Separation of church and state! Creationism RAAARGH!

But honestly... I'm kind of cool with it. First off, it's an elective course. Not that that's a free pass; a public school can't _endorse_ a religion, either, so just declining to force students to take the class doesn't make it oay. But it's also "required to maintain religious neutrality and accommodate diverse religious views, traditions and perspectives of students". This isn't a religion class; it's a class on the Bible.

And an understanding of the Bible is about as important to an English speaker as an understanding of Shakespeare. Entirely apart from being one of the philosophical underpinings of western civilization, the language alone is the basis of a good chunk of the figures of speech and idioms in English.

It's a bit of a minefield--the Oklahoma school board had better work damned hard to make sure those classes don't turn into prayer meetings. But done right, it's a useful service to the students. This atheist approves.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Holly Pervocracy is moving across the country, and blogging the trip.

Today's update:

South Dakota is like Hoth: flattish, windswept, covered in snow, the people are friendly and not fond of the government, you know you wouldn't make it through one night outside, and everyone rides around on giant kangaroo-goat things.

[Sigh] Looks like I gotta add SD to the list of places to see before I die.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

"Just put your coils together and squeeeeze..."

Remember in The Mote in God's Eye when the Motie miniatures start breeding in secret on the MacArthur, altering the ship for their own needs?

I first read that book when I was about twelve, and (as usual) one small detail really lodged in my brain. The little watchmakers, bred to fix and improve things, weren't entirely undetected, but the Mac's crew didn't say anything about them because they were so useful. In particular, one security officer woke up to find that a miniature had measured his hand and used a secreted polymer to reshape the handle of his sidearm for ergonomic perfection.

Again, lodged in my brain. I dunno exactly why, but the image of getting the same effect by putting some goop on a handle and squeezing it into the shape of my grip just stuck with me for years.

Which brings me to my point:


A silicone compound that molds like clay and cures overnight at room temperature. The inventor notes its usefulness for repair, for protecting wear-prone surfaces, and for adding non-skid grip to parts and tools, but she doesn't sell it for any particular application; it's for _all_ applications. The first run sold out in sixteen hours.

The obvious comments about hacking, ah, intimate tools have been made, and I can't say I didn't go there too. But man, does this ever have my inner geekling wanting to save up for a Glock and make my own Motie-blaster.

Simplify, simplify.

Commenting on my last post, my friend Llamarines shows me that I wasn't sufficiently clear on my focus, something that's crucial in a debate as multifaceted as this one.

Government involvement in providing medical insurance is something I have reservations about, but in the right circumstances, it might work almost as well as, say, government involvement in firefighting.

This bill is a bloated piece of crap that will accomplish very little constructive. This bill can only be passed by ignoring the Constitutional limits on federal power, which further erodes the legal framework that protects all our liberties. As such, this bill is wholly unacceptable, whatever you may think of government medical insurance in general.

I have big, fundamental problems with this approach to government medicine. I have only a few fairly minor concerns and reservations about an "ideal" approach to government medicine.

All of it happened so we could open the hatch.

Orrin Hatch's editorial in the Washington Post is typically confused, degenerating pretty quickly into stock phrases, misleading language, and giving only cherrypicked details of the state of the "healthcare" debacle. Hell, at times he even tries to claim two incompatible moral high grounds in the same paragraph (In 2003, we refused to use reconciliation on principle. Our bill had enough bipartisan support that we didn't need to use reconciliation.)

But a stopped clock is right twice a day. And before descending into madness, Hatch nails the state of the union in general in his intro:

"America's Founders gave us a system of governance designed to limit government power and maximize liberty. The legislative branch is different from the executive, and the Senate is different from the House. No single branch has all the power. That can be frustrating for those with ambitious agendas, but everyone benefits by respecting those checks and balances even as we fight over policies." *

Our system is built specifically to break the inertia of ambitious politicians by slowing the rate of change. Fundamental changes to the way our system works require very strong consensus, not simply a President and a majority in Congress. Of course, this is frustrating to the kinds of people who think instant government action is the appropriate remedy for social issues.

It should be no surprise that Obama's last grasp at passing this abomination (which, even if you like the idea of government medicine, is now so badly mangled as to be a useless and costly symbol) is an unconstitutional dirty trick. That's the only way things like this can be pushed past the protections built into our system. Bush did the same thing, misusing "executive privilege" and "national security" policies to essentially ignore the Constitutional protections that could have frustrated his War On A Concept.

But this tradition dramatically predates the O and the W, of course. All the way back in 1937, when Franklin Roosevelt wanted to completely remake the federal government into a massive regulatory machine, he had a simple problem: the Constitution doesn't allow it. And the Supreme Court of the time was actually prepared, by a narrow margin, to do its job and enforce the Constitution. Pissed off that anybody would dare to strike down parts of his agenda, Roosevelt made an observation: the Constitution doesn't set the size of the Supreme Court. He introduced a Judiciary Reorganization Bill that would have let him choose and add six new justices to the Court, overwhelming his opposition and allowing him to pass any laws he wanted without fear of judicial review.

Now, some people think this is just great because they like the particular illegal policies FDR shoved through. But there are reasons we have to stand on principle. In a similar confluence of circumstances, Bush could've packed the Court and fundamentally remade the US by enshrining his "imperial Presidency" model into law. Are you pissed off about the "war on drugs"? The Constitution actually protects us from that kind of intrusive governance, but the same tools used to justify the government excesses of the "New Deal" were also used to justify our patently unconstitutional drug prohibition (which is why we have a 1919 amendment for alcohol prohibition and a 1933 amendment that repealed the prohibition, but we have marijuana prohibition based on a creative application of tax law from 1937).

It's tempting to ignore principle when the crisis du jour seems so pressing. After all, who can get all tangled up in technicalities when people can't afford health care? And who can worry about where the authority comes from when terrorists are blowing up our skyscrapers? And who can insist on properly amending the Constitution when lives are being ruined by the demon weed? And who can get upset about separation of powers and checks and balances when people are suffering in a great depression?

But this shit sticks around long after the crisis or moral panic has passed (whether or not the power grab in question actually addressed the problem). And every step down that road is one more small or big erosion of the system that keeps us free.

My family absolutely relies on continued access to prescription drugs to stay healthy. And if I lost my job, we'd have a lot of trouble paying for them out of pocket. But freedom is simply more important that my economic and health concerns. The Constitution amust stand, and our President's attempt to circumvent it must fail. Whether or not government medical care is a good thing simply isn't the issue.

[* - Not that Hatch has any moral high ground here, either. We always hear lofty rhetoric about checks and balances from the minority party, but today both parties turn back into despicable statists when thet regain majorities. Remember how many Democrats were incensed by Bush's trampling of the Constitution? How many of them give a damn about limitations on government power now that their party's abusing its authority to get things _they_ want? There was a time when the Republicans were better about this, but Dubya's despicable statism lost them any lingering credibility they had left.]

Monday, March 1, 2010

On Gridlock

There's an interesting political history article up on CNN's front page, Blame yesterday's reforms for today's gridlocked Congress.

The writer, David Frum, gives some historical references to back up his thesis:

"Congress [from 1590 to 1980] was controlled by a handful of committee chairmen, who owed their positions to seniority. The committees did their work in secret. Bills written in committee typically could not be amended on the floor of Congress. The institution was authoritarian, hierarchical, opaque. And stuff passed.

"In the mid-1970s, Congress underwent a revolution. The power of the committee chairmen was broken. The number of subcommittees proliferated. The committees met in public. Amendments multiplied. Congress become more open, more egalitarian, more responsive. And stuff ceased to pass."

The reforms Frum talks about are the decentralization of power in government, the weakening of the Democratic and Republican parties that made politicians dependent on the people for their campaign funding, and changes that made filibusters both easier to break and easier to initiate. In short, Frum thinks that "today, everything happens in the bright glare of sunshine, policed by hundreds of ideological interest groups".

This is great, right?

Well, Frum doesn't think so:

"We have an ideology that more publicity, more transparency, more openness must improve Congress. And when each successive wave of openness makes things worse, we tell ourselves that the answer is even more publicity, transparency and openness still.

"No contrary evidence makes any impression. Seems like everything's open -- except our minds."

Where "worse" means that government doesn't regularly come riding to the rescue with a massive package of laws, bureaus, agencies, and social programs.

Look, government is basically a zero-sum game. There may be small ways to squeeze additional benefit out of it with careful policy balancing, but at the end of the day there's essentially a continuum between government power at one end, and government responsiveness at the other. If you want an open government that rules with the consent of the people, that government needs to be checked and balanced, and won't be able to force sweeping, fundamental changes on a population of people who may not be so keen on those changes. If you want a government with the power to look at a problem, decide on a radical response, and just make it happen in the face of serious disagreement, that government will necessarily be insular, concentrated, and far less responsive to individuals and small groups.

This issue is a is a fundamental one. On issues for which we have a strong social consensus (like "murder is bad"), a decentralized checked-and-balanced government beholden to diverse groups of citizens will still be able to reach a consensus and pass some laws. For issues on which we have a divided opinion (like "the solution to my high medical bills is a massive government-run charity that all people will be forced to donate to", or "the way to stop terrorism is a massive government surveillance program and an institutional disregard for the 4th Amendment"), "getting shit done" quickly and cleanly requires a government that's willing and able to simply ignore the strong objections of nearly half its people.

There are two ways you can go on this: if you want the solutions to social problems to come from government fiat, you have to essentially trust your government to keep your best interests at heart even in an opaque system with centralized power and insulation from public opinion. If you want an open government that you can keep an eye on and hold accountable for its decisions, you have to accept that others can hold it accountable too, and this will dramatically limit its power, requiring you to look outside government for solutions for whatever social ill most concerns you.

The United States was built on the second model, with "gridlock" deliberately engineered into the system. The first model is an electoral monarchy. Each system could have things to recommend it, based on your priorities, but don't fool yourself into thinking you can just take the benefits of both without the costs of either.