The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 25 Sep 2019

Benjamin Wade

Yesterday Katara asked me about impeachment, and in mentioning the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, I realized that I didn't know who would have assumed the presidency, had Johnson been convicted. Who was Johnson's vice president?

Well, I couldn't remember because he didn't have one. Until the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967, there was no provision for the replacement of a vice-president except through a normal election.

Under the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, next in line was the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This is a largely ceremonial position, filled by a senator, and elected by the Senate. The President Pro Tempore in 1868 was Benjamin Wade, senator from Ohio. Wade, as a senator, would be voting on Johnson's conviction and therefore had an enormous conflict of interest: if Johnson was removed, Wade would assume the presidency.

There were calls for Wade to abstain from voting. Which he did. Not! Ha ha, of course he didn't. He voted to convict.

The conviction, famously, fell short by one vote: it went 35–19 in favor of conviction, but they needed 36 votes to convict. Suppose it had gone 36-18, with Wade's vote being the 36th, and Wade taking over the presidency as a result? Wikipedia claims (with plausible citation) that at Wade told at least one other senator what cabinet position he could expect to receive in exchange for his vote to convict.

  1. How could those 1792 folks not have foreseen this? Sheesh.

  2. Government is hard. Really, really hard.

  3. Thinking about the Civil War era of U.S. history, I always have ambivalent feelings. First, hope and relief: “Our current situation could be much worse than it is”, followed by dread: “Our current situation might get much worse than it is”.

[ Maybe I should also mention that many sources suggest that Johnson would have been removed had his successor been someone less divisive than Wade. ]

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Tue, 17 Sep 2019

Southern Strategy

According to the New York Times of 10 March 1982:

In 1970, for example, President Nixon and Vice President Agnew did a piano duet built around their so-called ''Southern Strategy.'' No matter what song Mr. Nixon played, Mr. Agnew cut in with ''Dixie.'' The audience found it uproariously funny, as they did the spectacle of the Vice President clicking his heels, saluting and telling Mr. Nixon, ''Yes suh, Mr. President, ah agree with you completely on yoah Southern strategy.''

And yet the cruel earth refused to open and swallow everyone involved.


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Fri, 19 Jan 2018

Presidential tax return disclosure

The California state legislature passed a bill that would require presidential candidates to disclose their past five tax returns in order to qualify for California primary elections. The bill was vetoed by Governor Brown, but what if it had become law?

Suppose Donald Trump ran for re-election in 2020, as seems likely, barring his death or expulsion. And suppose he declined once again to disclose his tax returns, and was excluded from the California Republican primary election. I don't see how this could possibly hurt Trump, and it could benefit him.

It doesn't matter to Trump whether he enters the primary or wins the primary. Trump lost California by 30% in 2016. Either way he would be just as certain to get the same number of electors: zero. So he would have no incentive to comply with the law by releasing his tax returns.

Most candidates would do it anyway, because they try to maintain a pretense of representing the entire country they are campaigning to lead, but Trump is really different in this way. I can easily imagine he might simply refuse to campaign in California, instead dismissing the entire state with some vulgar comment. If there is a downside for Trump, I don't see what it could be.

Someone else (call them “Ronnie”) would then win the California Republican primary. Certainly Ronnie is better-qualified and more competent than Trump, and most likely Ronnie is much more attractive to the California electorate.

Ronnie might even be more attractive than the Democratic candidate, and might defeat them in the general election, depriving Trump's challenger of 55 electoral votes and swinging the election heavily in Trump's favor.

Did I miss anything?

[ Addendum 20180120: Yeah, I forgot that after the primary there is a convention that nominates a national party candidate. Whooops. Further discussion. ]

[ Addendum 20191123: The tax return disclosure law passed, but the California Supreme Court recently found it to be in conflict with the California state constitution. ]

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Mon, 27 Nov 2017

… Then you win.

National Coming Out Day began in the U.S. in 1988, and within couple of years I had started to observe it. A queer person, to observe the event, should make an effort, each October 11, to take the next step of coming out of the closet and being more visible, whatever that “next step” happens to be for them.

For some time I had been wearing a little pin that said BISEXUAL QUEER. It may be a bit hard for younger readers of my blog to understand that in 1990 this was unusual, eccentric, and outré, even in the extremely permissive and liberal environment of the University of Pennsylvania. People took notice of it and asked about it; many people said nothing but were visibly startled.

On October 11 of 1991, in one of the few overtly political acts of my life, I posted a carefully-composed manifesto to the department-wide electronic bulletin board, explaining that I was queer, what that meant for me, and why I thought Coming Out Day was important. Some people told me they thought this was brave and admirable, and others told me they thought it was inappropriate.

As I explained in my essay:

It seemed to me that if lots of queer people came out, that would show everyone that there is no reason to fear queers, and that it is not hard at all to live in a world full of queer people — you have been doing it all your life, and it was so easy you didn't even notice! As more and more queers come out of the closet, queerness will become more and more ordinary and commonplace, and people do not have irrational fear of the ordinary and commonplace.

I'm not sure what I would have said if you has asked me in 1991 whether I thought this extravagant fantasy would actually happen. I was much younger and more naïve than I am now and it's possible that I believed that it was certain to happen. Or perhaps I would have been less optimistic and replied with some variant on “maybe, I hope so”, or “probably not but there are other reasons to do it”. But I am sure that if you had asked me when I thought it would happen I would have guessed it would be a very long time, and that I might not live to see it.

Here we are twenty-five years later and to my amazement, this worked.

Holy cow, it worked just like we hoped! Whether I believed it or not at the time, it happened just as I said! This wild fantasy, this cotton-candy dream, had the result we intended. We did it! And it did not take fifty or one hundred years, I did live to see it. I have kids and that is the world they are growing up in. Many things have gotten worse, but not this thing.

It has not yet worked everywhere. But it will. We will keep chipping away at the resistance, one person at a time. It worked before and it will continue to work. There will be setbacks, but we are an unstoppable tide.

In 1991, posting a public essay was considered peculiar or inappropriate. In 2017, it would be eccentric because it would be unnecessary. It would be like posting a long manifesto about how you were going to stop wearing white shirts and start wearing blue ones. Why would anyone make a big deal of something so ordinary?

In 1991 I had queer co-workers whose queerness was an open secret, not generally known. Those people did not talk about their partners in front of strangers, and I was careful to keep them anonymous when I mentioned them. I had written:

This note is also to try to make other queers more comfortable here: Hi! You are not alone! I am here with you!

This had the effect I hoped, at least in some cases; some of those people came to me privately to thank me for my announcement.

At a different job in 1995 my boss had a same-sex partner that he did not mention. I had guessed that this was the case because all the people with opposite-sex partners did mention them. You could figure out who was queer by keeping a checklist in your mind of who had mentioned their opposite-sex partners, dates, or attractions, and then anyone you had not checked off after six months was very likely queer. (Yes, as a bisexual I am keenly aware that this does not always work.) This man and I both lived in Philadelphia, and one time we happened to get off the train together and his spouse was there to meet him. For a moment I saw a terrible apprehension in the face of this confident and self-possessed man, as he realized he would have to introduce me to his husband: How would I respond? What would I say?

In 2017, these people keep pictures on their desks and bring their partners to company picnics. If I met my boss’ husband he would introduce me without apprehension because if I had a problem with it, it would be my problem. In 2017, my doctor has pictures of her wedding and her wife posted on the Internet for anyone in the world to see, not just her friends or co-workers. Around here, at least, Coming Out Day has turned into an obsolete relic because being queer has turned into a big fat nothing.

And it will happen elsewhere also, it will continue to spread. Because if there was reason for optimism in 1991, how much more so now that visible queer people are not a rare minority but a ubiquitous plurality, now that every person encounters some of us every day, we know that this unlikely and even childish plan not only works, but can succeed faster and better than we even hoped?


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Thu, 12 Dec 2013

Conspiracy theories about Cory Doctorow
Recently I received (via William Gibson) a tweet from Cory Doctorow suggesting that I sign this petition: Reform ECPA: Tell the Government to Get a Warrant. The claim the petition makes is that under the Electronic Communications Privay Act of 1986,

the IRS and hundreds of other agencies can read our communications without a warrant.
I don't know if this is actually true, but it is certainly plausible; government agencies will interpret the law in whatever way is most convenient for them. In any case let's stipulate that this is correct.

The petition web site was put up by the Obama administration, with the promise that any petition that accumulated 100,000 signatures would receive a response. Not a decisive action, or even a substantive response, but a response. Even this very low bar has not always been met. But let's also stipulate that preparing and signing such a petition has some value, at least in making the Executive respond to a demand by a largish group of voters.

Here is the specific action called for by this petition:

We call on the Obama Administration to support ECPA reform and to reject any special rules that would force online service providers to disclose our email without a warrant.
This is an extraordinarily weak demand, even by the already weak standards in play here.

If the main concern is that the IRS is demanding and receiving stored email, under the outdated provisions of the ECPA, there is a quick solution. The IRS is part of the Department of the Treasury, which is under the direct control of the President and his appointee the Secretary of the Treasury. The internal regulations of the IRS are written by the Secretary, by treasury officials they appoint, or by civil service bureaucrats who answer to the Secretary and the President. As long as those regulations don't conflict with an act of Congress, they're the law.

Obama could order the Secretary of the Treasury to write new IRS regulations requiring the IRS to seek and obtain a warrant or other judicial declaration before demanding taxpayer emails from third parties. He could even order this directly: “Executive order 9991: The Internal Revenue Service shall not demand, from third parties, the disclosure of taxpayer emails, except without first obtaining, blah blah blah…” It could be done tomorrow—problem solved.

But the petition doesn't call on Obama or the Treasury department to do this. In fact it doesn't call on them to actually do anything, except to “support” some (unspecified!) “reform”. Does this make sense? If the IRS is doing something you don't like, and you're going to take time to petition the Executive about it, and the IRS is part of the Executive, shouldn't your petition at least include a request that the IRS stop doing the thing you don't like?

So what to think when one sees a petition like this that could so obviously call for an immediate and substantive improvement, and doesn't even do that?

The null hypothesis to explain this is that the guy who wrote up the petition is just some doofus who doesn't know what he's doing. There are a lot of those around. Suppose 17 people wrote up petitions to address this problem; two of them are actually any good; but the one that happened to get viral traction on the Internet is not one of those two.

An alternative hypothesis is the conspiracy theory: the IRS, or the Executive, promoted or even created this particular petition to draw off energy and attention from the two that might actually result in something happening. I'm not sure this is worth considering. As Pierre Simon Laplace said, when asked why he didn't consider such a possibility in a similar situation, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

A variation on this question asks why Cory Doctorow, who one might suppose would know better, is promoting this petition. Here, the null hypothesis is that Doctorow is also some doofus who doesn't know what he's doing. The conspiracy theory version is somewhat more interesting.

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Thu, 06 Nov 2008

Election results
Regardless of how you felt about the individual candidates in the recent American presidential election, and regardless of whether you live in the United States of America, I hope you can appreciate the deeply-felt sentiment that pervades this program:


        my $remain = 1232470800 - time();
        $remain > 0 or print("It's finally over.\n"), exit;

        my @dur;
        for (60, 60, 24, 100000) {
          unshift @dur, $remain % $_;
          $remain -= $dur[0];
          $remain /= $_;  

        my @time = qw(day days hour hours minute minutes second seconds);
        my @s;
        for (0 .. $#dur) {
          my $n = $dur[$_] or next;
          my $unit = $time[$_*2 + ($n != 1)];
          $s[$_] = "$n $unit"; 
        @s = grep defined, @s;

        $s[-1] = "and $s[-1]" if @s > 2;
        print join ", ", @s;
        print "\n";

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Mon, 05 Mar 2007

"Go ahead, throw your vote away!"
I noticed this back in November right afer the election, when I was reading the election returns in the newspaper. There were four candidates for the office of U.S. Senator in Nevada. One of these was Brendan Trainor, running for the Libertarian party.

Trainor received a total of 5,269 votes, or 0.90% of votes cast.

A fifth choice, "None of these candidates", was available. This choice received 8,232 votes, or 1.41%.

Another candidate, David Schumann, representing the Independent American Party, was also defeated by "None of these candidates".

(Complete official results.)

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw from this. I am normally sympathetic to the attempts of independent candidates and small parties to run for office, and I frequently vote for them. But when your candidate fails to beat out "None of the above", all I can think is that you must be doing something terribly wrong.

[ Addendum 20200723: [Wikipedia's article on Nevada's “None of These Candidates” option](WPREF/None_of_These_Candidates). ]

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