The Closet Moderate: June 2009

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Michael Jackson is dead, so by order of our mainstream media headmasters, we've all forgotten about the rebellion in Iran for a few days. While we wait for the return of actual news, I thought I'd write about something else for us to argue about: professional sports.

Specifically, I've been thinking about the system of promotion and relegation used in leagues in other countries. In, for example, English soccer, the three worst teams in the top-level league are sent down to the second-level league, being replaced by the three best teams of the second-level league. It's sort of a free market of sports, and it surprises me that we've never adopted it in the United States.

The system would work best, I believe, in sports where the difference in win percentage between the best and worst teams is largest. In such a league, the last half of the season holds little excitement for the fans of the worst teams, because they've already been effectively eliminated from contention. Look (at right) at the year-end standings for the National Basketball Association's 2008-09 season. If you lived in, say, Washington, would you have any reason to pay for tickets to a Wizards-Clippers game? Hell no. There's nothing on the line. But, if one or both of those teams had to win to stay in the NBA, there might be some incentive to root for them even when they're terrible.

There are all sorts of incentives at work in a promotion/relegation system. Owners would have to spend money on talented players, or risk falling into a lower league with less revenue and television coverage. No more could cheap bastards like Donald Sterling be confident of playing in the premier basketball league. Conversely, there would be great incentives for lower-tier teams to compete, and for fans of those teams to turn out and for local television stations to cover them.

Further, consider the benefits to a lower barrier to entry in owning a sports team. If a new entry in some low-level league had the chance of moving up, owners wouldn't have to put down hundreds of millions for an expansion franchise. And that new franchise would spring up in a city where people wanted it (or else it would quickly go out of business,) not where the NBA owners thought it should go. Fans' attendance would determine the teams' location, not the owners' self-interest.

I imagine a system where the worst team in the Eastern Conference and the worst in the Western would be relegated. Two teams from minor leagues would take their places, one in a western city, one in an eastern city. There would have to be better organization of basketball's other leagues for to work (current minor league basketball has many teams fold, move, or change leagues each year) and a disaffiliation of minor-league teams from NBA teams, to prevent anyone from owning two teams in the same league, but for the sake of argument, let's imagine that the somewhat misnamed Premier Basketball League would be the second-level eastern league, and the NBA Development League would be the western second-level. At the end of the 2008-2009 season, the Washington Wizards and the Sacramento Kings would be relegated, and the Rochester Razorsharks and Colorado 14ers (scheduled to relocate to Texas before next season) would be promoted.

Does that make sense? Are there more basketball fans in Rochester, New York than in Washington, D.C.? If not, the Razorsharks will not be able to keep up, and will be relegated, and the Wizard will dominate the PBA and be promoted. But the system provides the best way of gauging whether a city truly contains the number of fans needed to keep its franchise afloat. And small cities don't necessarily lose out: it's a lot easier to get a San Fransisco 49ers ticket than it it to get a Green Bay Packers ticket. So, let's have markets in everything, and go Razorsharks!


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

News Feed

I'm not sure our reader(s) have noticed it, but for a little while now, the Closet Moderate has featured a news feed, consisting of the last three blog posts on other blogs that each of us has chosen to highlight for your further edification. So far, only three of us bloggards are actually doing this, but we hope to expand particiaption in the future. Meanwhile, enjoy the Closet Moderate Censored News.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Re: Two Questions on Iran

As concerns the first question on my earlier post, it seems pretty clear that the answer is yes.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Ayatollah Ali "All In" Khamenei Speaks

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave an ominous sermon as part of Friday prayers, which marks an escalation of tensions between the Supreme Leader and the protesters. In the speech, Khamenei makes a case for the integrity of the electoral process, arguing that there are mechanisms in place to assure the validity of results. The problem? It's about, oh, five days too late for that argument to persuade anyone. Given that, the ending phrase, "who would be responsible if something happened?" feels like a promise of future brutality, complete with an insinuation that it would somehow be the protester's fault if they happened to get beaten, arrested or killed.

I think it's still premature to assume that Khamenei has the political support to engage in mass repression of the Iranian people. The protests have been nonviolent, and so far they seem to be primarily a threat to the President. However, by doubling down on the election results today, Khamenei seems to tying his own fate to that of Ahmadinejad. That strikes me as puzzling. On the one hand, it means that any attack on the election is implicitly striking at the heart of the Revolution, which may give Khamenei a freer hand when dealing with the protesters. However, it also seems to increase the risk that the Council of Experts will decide that Khamenei is part of the problem, and that by dismissing the two people at the center of this scandal they can return order to the country.

The protests planned for tomorrow will clarify a few things:


First, are the Iranian power elite thinking about outcomes or processes? The protests have achieved a national scale, and any effective repression would have to be similarly broad. While that might produce a favorable outcome in the short term, I tend to think it will do a lot more to accelerate the process of destabilization. It will be a defining moment for millions of Iranians and will further divide the state from society.

Khamenei has one potential way out of this trap without surrendering either his position or (much of) his legitimacy: using the Basij as a provocation. If he can use the paramilitaries to incite violence and chaos in the street, the Revolutionary Guard can be called in to restore order. Although the Basij are known to be loyal to the government, the reports of locals hunting them at night could easily be used to justify paramilitary attacks on demonstrators. Khamenei can achieve his goals while posing as a law-and-order figure rather than a brutal, self-interested cleric.

The second question is whether or not it's possible to stem this tide. From what I've read, a simple procedural trick has created a new environment in Iran. It will take time and determination to roll that back, assuming it can be done. Token repression could be counter productive. As Juan Cole and others have pointed out, every death provides another opportunity to march and indeed, such marches have already happened at Mousavi's request.

I tend to disagree with Clemons about the outcomes in Iran. I think that a true revolution is off the table. That would require the ulama to essentially commit political suicide, which doesn't happen all that often. However, a recognition that it is the will of the people that Mousavi serve as President would go a long way towards resolving the situation. Khamenei will probably have to be replaced with another conservative cleric who will act as a check on reformist ambitions. By doubling down on the election results today, he's talked himself out of a compromise. Any backpedaling will look too much like capitulation, and it's hard to be the Supreme Leader after you've been so visibly rebuffed by the people. Of course, the other option is blood in the streets.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Two questions on Iran

My fellow bloggards have already written on the Iran situation, so I'll try not to duplicate their work. Instead, I have two questions to think about: (1) was the election result falsified, and (2) how should that question affect America's response to the protesters.

First: Was it rigged? Did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually win, as the Iranian government claims, or did one of his opponents defeat him? According to the twittering classes, the answer is yes. Bloggards have certainly picked up on this interpretation of the data, and Iran's behavior in releasing the results tends to reinforce the suspicion of fraud. Certainly, it would not surprise me that an undemocratic state did not live up to the Western style of elections.

But what facts do we have? Sadly, Iran is not the most forthcoming of governments -- they don't appear to have enacted a Freedom of Information Fatwa -- but based on that information that was released people were claiming fraud from the first day after the election. Still, that "evidence" of fraud was fairly easily debunked by Nate Silver of Even so, the more obvious problems of voter fraud and voter intimidation seem pretty clearly to have swelled Ahmadinejad's totals and reduced Mousavi's, respectively. Ultimately, I'd have to answer this first question "I don't know," since the evidence is not available for examination by enlightened bloggards like us.

Second: Does it matter? This is the real question: how should the truth or untruth of the fraud allegations change the response of the United States? Let us, for the moment, take the Iranian government at its word and assume that every vote was counted accurately and the landslide Ahmadinejad victory really happened. Should this fact allay President Obama's "deep concerns" about the result? The fact is, even if the election followed every rule in the Iranian statute book, it was still a fraud. The mullahs rejected the bids of half the candidates who wanted to run. Even if a free vote were allowed on all candidates, the President's power in Iran is illusory. Real power rests in the hands of a man who does not even pretend to be elected, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. This is the true illegitimacy of Iran's elections.

So, should the United States support the protests? Should they enourage a democratic revolution? Whether this election was "stolen" or not, the answer is yes. This election is a fraud, any way you look at it, and the young people of Iran, having lived their whole lives under Islamic theocracy, are sick of it. All the free peoples of the world should endorse their quest for democracy. Even if it requires us to use Twitter.


Ahmadinejad as an actor

Following up on my blogmate's posts on Iran, I'd like to throw in that we shouldn't be automatically assuming that Ahmadinejad's destiny is stuck to Khamenei's. Not only is there an outcome where Khamenei retains power but Ahmadinejad doesn't, I think there's also a plausible outcome where Ahmadinejad retains power but Khamenei doesn't. As Statler pointed out, the military holds a lot of power in this situation, and Ahmadinejad is apparently quite close with the military. As long as we're baselessly speculating on the situation, we might as well baselessly speculate about the possibility that Ahmadinejad will seize or attempt to seize actual control of the country from Khamenei; even if that doesn't happen, the idea that it could might change Khamenei's actions. This gives an additional reading to Ahmadinejad's upcoming trip to Russia; it could be a way for Ahmadinejad to credibly commit to not staging a coup against Khamenei and thus giving Khamenei more room to maneuver.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

“Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.”

If you're still interested in the unfolding Iranian situation, I wanted to recommend this Noah Millman article. Noah points out the relevant question, which is, essentially, "whither the Iranian military?"

So far, we've seen some violence perpetrated against civilians by the Basij, a pro-government militia. Depending on the level of coordination between the Basij and the government, that brutality could be read in one of two ways: either it's a signal from the government that they're not going to tolerate much more of this shit, or it's just some pro-government nuts shooting at protesters because, seriously, who the fuck are they to protest a sham election?

We still don't know where the Iranian military will come down, and that will probably determine the outcome of this struggle. My feeling is that there will be a moderate lull as both camps aggressively court military leaders (in Iran, the military is nominally controlled by the Supreme Leader) and assess more generally whether they have the political support to take action against their enemies.

There are strong cases to be made on either side, mostly rooted in the demographics of the Iranian population. More after the jump.


70% of the Iranian population is under 30. That means that they're too young to have lived through the events of 1979. That simple demographic fact may give Khamenei pause. If he chooses to use the most extreme measures at his disposal, he'll alienate a significant portion of the Iranian population for a very, very long time. To forestall an unfavorable election result, he'll essentially write the Revolution's death warrant. It's also very hard to point to an internal or external enemy to justify that sort of brutality. After all, these people are supporting a political process approved by the regime, not trying to overthrow the government. So I think the best option for Khamenei and Ahmedinejad is to ignore the protests and hope things settle down, then settle scores with the reformers behind closed doors.

Mousavi has a similar but opposite problem. The people he needs to sway in order to unseat Khamenei are the old guard, survivors of the Revolution and the Iran/Iraq war. They're almost certainly reluctant to countenance even the appearance of being dictated to by a young, uppity public. Mousavi probably can't afford to quell the protests, as they're his only defense against the will of the Supreme Leader.

As always, the military is the wild card in this confrontation. If they come down on the side of the Supreme Leader it will be immediately obvious. You can read Ahmedinejad's trip to Russia as either a "business as usual" signal, or an attempt to distance him from a brutal campaign of repression. I tend to think that state power, remorselessly applied, will always carry the day against popular demonstrations. Whether that happens is dependent on the level of institutional autonomy the military possesses, the sort of personal relationships that exist between military and political elites, and whether the military is willing to commit itself to indefinitely repressing a seething populace.

In any case, this is a potentially defining moment in Iran's history.

Apparently, the Basij are fiercely loyal to Khamenei.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Dateline Iran: Shit => Fan

So, this weekend some serious shenanigans went down in Iran. Before I get into the "literature" review, I'll try to lay out the timeline as I understand it:

June 12th

Mousavi is informed by the interior ministry that he is the winner of the election and that he needs to prepare a victory speech. He is urged to refrain from bragging or otherwise alienating conservative elements within the Iranian political elite. Supreme Leader Khamenei may or may not have flipped the fuck out when informed of the results, and may or may not have told the interior ministry to call it for Ahmedinejad. IRNA (state news) calls it for Ahmedinejad. The interior ministry is surrounded by concrete blockades and soldiers.

June 13th

Supreme Leader Khamenei bypasses the traditional 3-day certification period and congratulates Ahmedinejad on his victory the day after the polls close, calling for everyone to unite behind the winner. Facebook goes dark and text messaging service is blocked. Foreign correspondents are harassed or expelled. Twitter, Iranian bloggers and leaks from within the Iranian government become the main sources of information about what's going on. Mousavi is rumored to be under house arrest.

In other words, shit got real. Real fast. There's so much going on that covering it all in one blog entry is kind of impossible, so I'll outsource this to my sources and you can draw your own conclusions after the jump.


So, for more on what's going on in Iran, including mass resignations at the university, storming of a student dormitory with tear gas, demonstrations in the street, gunfire at said demonstrations, and other signs of chaos, I recommend reading the following blogs:

Attackerman (Spencer Ackerman), The Daily Dish (Andrew Sullivan), Nico Pitney @ HuffPo, Gary Sick (Columbia Professor), Informed Comment (Juan Cole), and Daniel Drezner. I also highly recommend 538's article on why the election results are almost certainly fraudulent.

So what's the takeaway? Honestly, not much at this point. This game is being played on two levels, that are interconnected in a way that's impossible for a non-expert (me) to unravel. However, there are a couple of things I'd like to say. Ahmedinejad's quip that Mousavi "ran a traffic light and got a ticket" indicates pretty clearly that the election results were unacceptable to powerful members of the clergy, and so they changed the outcome. In other words, this is coup carried out by the conservative faction within Iran against the reform wing. At the same time, the popular will was thwarted in a particularly bald and shameless way, provoking a response from the populace. So that leaves two questions as yet unanswered:

1. Can Mousavi use the popular resistance to the attempted coup to push through an outcome that's favorable to him and to reform politicians, and how does he define that outcome? Can his movement be bought off with offices, delaying the final confrontation for an additional cycle, or will he double down and try to win the office he was elected to? Are those even things he's in a position to do, or is he in so much danger that he has to essentially suck it up?

2. When it comes to Khamenei, what are his acceptable outcomes and how far is he willing to go to preserve them? If Mousavi proves intractable, will Khamenei fully unleash the machinery of state power against him and his supporters, or is that a bridge too far for the interests he represents?

As I said, I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I suspect they're at the heart of what will transpire in Iran over the next few days. The courage of those Iranians who have taken to the streets is beyond reproach, but ultimately this will be resolved by compromises (or lack thereof) among the Iranian political elite. Given the chaos, the opaque nature of the Iranian political process, and the attempted news blackout, it seems likely that we'll discover these things after they occur.

And, of course, we have the usual suspects tripping all over themselves to make the case that Ahmedinejad won fair and square. What happens to the neoconservative agenda if the face of the Iranian regime is something other than a bombastic, holocaust-denying caricature of the middle eastern autocrat? Nothing good, I'll wager.

One final note: the Obama administration has wisely kept the focus on US interests, and refrained from commenting on the internal politics of Iran. The fact that we have essentially zero leverage in a situation that impacts almost every major US foreign policy goal in the region is a testament to two things: the usefulness of bilateral relationships and the abject failure of decades of US policy with regard to Iran. If we had some pre-existing relationship with the Iranian leadership, we might be able to do something. As it is, we have to sit back and watch as THE country that shares a border with both Afghanistan and Iraq descends into chaos. Also, Iran is a major oil producer, and this will almost certainly produce a spike in oil prices, which is a very bad thing in the middle of a global recession.


"Ahmedinejad called us dust, we showed him a sandstorm." - Twitter, 6/15/09


Friday, June 12, 2009

Tsar of all the Bureaucrats

When I was in law school, I worked one summer for Peter Swire, a former official in the Clinton administration. Apparently, Clinton offered Swire the job of "privacy czar," but Swire declined to use that informal title, using instead the full title of Chief Counselor for Privacy. Until recently, I thought he and I were the only people with an aversion to the term "czar" for an American government official. Today, however, this blog on Concurring Opinions came to my attention. As that bloggard, Lawrence Cunningham, notes:
The label matters. In American usage, czar is the word for “overseer” or “person in complete charge.” Its root is from Caesar, the Latin word, taken as Kaiser in German, thence into Russian and then English. First US use appears in 1832 when used to describe Nicholas Biddle, director of the United States Bank, dubbed Czar Nicholas for the autocratic power he wielded. The mainstream media’s influence in word choice appears in how, when The New York Times officially adopted czar as a shorter word than autocrat, in the late 1800s, it stuck as the pejorative label to describe House Speaker Thomas Reed.
Yes, the term was originally an insult, in the same way Whigs called Andrew Jackson "King Andrew" because they believed he acted like a monarch. This is politically incorrect, in the original sense of the word. Having a "czar" in our government, whether real or metaphorical, violates our republican principles (also in the original sense of those words).

Today, however, our moral degeneracy and medieval craving for authority has led us to use this term in a positive way. Rather than loving our democratic system, we crave the autocracy that a czar represents. Have we drifted so far from our revolutionary moorings that we now cheer for a putative emperor?

Now, I'm not crazy. I know that calling a man a czar doesn't make him Autocrat of all the Bureaucrats in anything but name. What's more, these fake monarchs don't actually behave anything like czars. They don't issue unchallengeable edicts, they don't call for pogroms, and they don't exile their enemies to Siberia. They're just trumped up bureaucrats issuing mundane regulations. But to someone who already thinks the administrative state is an unelected Lilliputian tyranny, tying America down with thousands of tiny bindings, each new use of this atrocious appellation sends a new chill down the spine. And anyone who loves liberty and democracy must believe that the title of czar deserves to stay dead and buried.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Scurvy greens

The scene: the frosty waters of the North Pacific.
The players: Two sailors

FIRST SAILOR: By Neptune's beard, I truly hate those environmentalist land-lubbers.

SECOND SAILOR: Aye, so do we all, but what's to be done about it?

FIRST: I've a plan to drive those scurvy hippies mad.

SECOND: Well, we already work on an oil tanker.

FIRST: Ar, 'tis true,but we can do better.

SECOND: Shall we sink one of Greenpeace's boats?

FIRST: No, I've a much better idea...


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Sotomayor, part dos

As the only lawyer-bloggard among us, I feel embarrassed that FSH was quicker to post on the new Supreme Court nominee than I was. The problem is, I don't much care. The President is from the left, so he appoints a leftist judge to the Court. She wouldn't have been my first pick, even from the left, but he's the President, and unless there's something obviously wrong with her, she'll likely be confirmed.

So, here's the biggest thing wrong with her:

Judge Sotomayor's most documented ruling to date has been in the matter of Ricci v. DeStefano, a race discrimination case from New Haven, Connecticut. The district court ruling is here, and is the best source of info on the subject, since the appellate panel, of which Judge Sotomayor was a part, declined to state its reasoning when affirming the lower court. If you find pdfs cumbersome, here's the gist of it, courtesy of SCOTUSblog:
The petitions for review were filed by 18 individuals — 17 whites and one Hispanic — who took civil service exams for the positions of lieutenant and captain in the Fire Department in New Haven, Conn., in late 2003.

The results of those tests showed white candidates scoring at much higher rates than minority candidates. As a result, Fire Department officials refused to implement the results in actual promotions, fearing that if they did they would violate federal civil rights law — Section VII. They chose to leave the positions vacant, thus leaving out some who would have been eligible for open positions. The appeal contends that the official refusal to carry out the results was a forbidden racially motive action.
New Haven was in a bit of a bind, really. They chose a method of promoting firemen that appeared to all involved to be racially neutral. The results were that a disproportionate number of white people passed. So, if they accept the test results, the black firemen sue under a disparate impact theory. If they don't accept the results, the white firemen sue under the theory of actual race discrimination. So, they choose the dog-in-the-manger approach, and promoted no one.

The problem, as I see it, is that New Haven chose the course of action that made them the agents of intentional discrimination, rather than the one that made the impact of the test completely unintentional. Actual discrimination is banned under the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution. Unintentional discrimination was banned by a theory invented by the Supreme Court in the seventies, but even in that ruling the Court allowed such tests if they are "reasonably related" to the job for which the test is required. In the case before the Court back in 1971, Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the company was pretty clearly trying to make the test a substitute for the discrimination it had once openly practiced. In the Elm City in 2009, no such motive is apparent. Indeed, the test was specifically selected to be race-neutral. Still, rather than commit accidental acts that result in fewer than expected minority promotions, New Haven chose instead to commit a purposeful act that deprived people of jobs on the basis of race. It is this decision that the district court, and Judge Sotomayor's panel of the 2nd Circuit, endorsed.

Now, not to disappoint, but I think this is a Constitutionally permissible act. The city can't discriminate in hiring or promotion, but who says they have to promote anyone? If they added to the test scores of racially favored candidates, that would be impermissible, but refusing to promote anyone? Why not? New Haven isn't even constitutionally required to have a fire department. They could fire every fireman in the department with out falling afoul of the 14th amendment, so why should they be required to promote anyone? While I promise that I thought of this idea myself, I have to give credit to Orin Kerr* at the Volokh Conspiracy for first publishing that this case
is somewhat similar to the 1971 case of Palmer v. Thompson, where a closely divided Supreme Court refused to invalidate a Mississippi city's decision to shut down several public swimming pools rather than allow them to be racially integrated (as a previous court order required). The Court reasoned that the city was not required to provide public swimming pools in the first place, and that the decision to shut down the pools did not affect blacks "differently from whites." In Ricci, New Haven likewise is not required to provide exam-based promotions to firefighters in the first place, and it could be argued that its action affects all racial groups equally in the sense that firefighters of all races are now ineligible to gain promotion on the basis of the exam in question.

Quite right. But would Judge Sotomayor have ruled the same way had the races been reversed, as in Palmer? Somehow I doubt it.

*In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I met Orin Kerr while I was in law school, though I doubt he'd remember me.


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

As a (sort of) proud (sort of) Rhodey, I feel compelled to share with you fair bloggees the story of Rhode Island's legalization of prostitution.

What surprises me about this situation is that, as far as I can tell, prostitution still remains pretty underground in RI. I have never seen an advertisement for a prostitute here, or a place that explicitly called itself a brothel. I am very tempted to try my hand at starting up my own service; I do know a lot of underpaid grad students ...

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution)