Sunday, August 26, 2012

Voter ID Laws.

From continental Europe, the hot topic of voter ID laws (i.a. laws that require a photo identification to vote)  in this presidential campaign seems like a very strange controversy.

Even though, this topic is not much covered in the European media, I bet most Europeans would be surprised, "You mean people can to the poll and vote without ID in the U.S.?". Simply, "yes!".

Of course, most European countries have long had some form of national identification, it be a formal ID Card or an alternative proof of identity, such as a driver's licence. This identification seems particularly useful when you need to prove you're the right person registered to vote.

So the United States is a bit of an oddity in this respect, along with, (surprise!), the United Kingdom -two countries where there is no true identify card issued by the government, other than a passport (and most Americans have never had one). (see the list of identity card policy by country here)

So how does it work exactly when you want to vote in the U.S.?

First you need to register  and you do so by filling a Voter Registration Application and then it varies state by state. In most cases, if you don't have a driver's license, you can use your social security number. In the United States, the one thing you don't to lose is your social security number, which has de facto become a national identification number.  On election day, depending which state you live in, you will be asked some proof of your identity but not necessarily with a photo. For instance in Ohio, you can also show
  • An original or copy of a current utility bill; or
  • An original or copy of a current bank statement; or
  • An original or copy of a current government check; or
  • An original or copy of a current paycheck; or
  • An original or copy of a current other government document. (source here).
In other states, like Minnesota, you can also register  at your polling place on Election Day. Here's what the North Star state requires :
  • A valid Minnesota driver’s license, learner’s permit, Minnesota ID card, or receipt for any of these
  • A valid student ID card including your photo, if your college has provided a student housing list to election officials
  • A Tribal ID card that contains your picture and signature 
  • A valid registration in the same precinct under a different name or address 
  • A notice of late registration sent to you by your county auditor or city clerk
  • A voter registered in the same precinct as you who can confirm your address with a signed oath
  • An employee of the residential facility where you live who can confirm your address with a signed oath
  • Both 1) a photo ID from the list below, and 2) a current bill from the list below with your current name and address in the precinct must provide. (Source here)
I find it interesting that you may have a "voter registered in the same precinct as you confirm your address with a signed oath" or "An employee of the residential facility where you live who can confirm your address with a signed oath." According to my Minnesotan friend, this is in part a relic from the past when, in rural areas and small towns, people all knew each other, and there was no better way to know someone's identity.

Now of course, these requirements could hardly prevent fraud. At at the same time, fraud would have to be on such a massive scale to impact an election that it would require a powerful organization. And despite wat some Republicans claim, and this is the core of the debate, there is no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections. Most cases have actually involved people making mistakes more than anything else. (NYTimes)

The current controversy is that ID laws to vote amount de facto to a poll tax, since access to the poll would then be pre-conditioned to having a photo ID that costs money. Interestingly, it is estimated that about 11% of registered voters lack government-issued ID (that's a good 21 million voters). Those do not even have a drivers licence and don't fly or go abroad are usually found among the elderly, the minorities and students... (like in this example)... pretty much the same ones you see take the bus... and tend to vote for Obama.
No wonder the Democrats feel like they may be cheated of their electorate, and in case you had doubt, Pa. House Republican Leader Mike Turzai made it very clear this is a deliberate strategy to win the elections:

Of course on possible solution would be to require states to provide free voter IDs for those without a driver's licence. It is the case in France and Germany for instance, and, other than the pictures, you can also get for free the underlying documentation, like a birth certificate. (Of course, then one could ask about absentee voters...).


Until recently, the idea of a national ID was seen as a "trademark of totalitarianism" in the United States, and ironically, the more conservatives Americans are, the more sensitive they tend to be to the power of government. This may seem a bit far fetched, when you're used to centralized governments, but on the other hand, if you look into the history of the identity card, say in France, you'll see that the carte d'identité was first introduced and made compulsory for adults by the Vichy government in 1940 - not exactly the paragon of a Democratic government. Then, when the Vichy Régime fell, it turned out to be so practical for law enforcement that it stayed, although it is now non-compulsory (but widely used).
Of course, in the age of social networks, wiretapping, and terrorism laws that infringe on personal freedom, it seems there would be better ways for a modern government to control its citizens anyway, and this concern may be slightly outdated.

Another irony - and frankly I'm surprised the Democrats have missed this in the debate - is the boom of fake IDs, thanks in part to technology, to age drinking in the U.S. which has made fake IDs more profitable but also to states "phasing out licences with magnetic strips in favour of cheaper ones with bar codes". (The Economist):
The business of forged identity cards is booming, particularly in the Anglosphere. A study in 2009 of American university students found that 17% of freshmen and 32% of seniors owned a false ID. Today the numbers are even higher, experts reckon. Bars near American campuses have started to ask for two kinds of identification.
It seems to me, but this would require further investigation, that the lack of national ID and the importance of non-photo IDs like the social security number makes Americans more vulnerable to identity theft.

So national IDs may be a good idea (not pun intended), but not right now, and not this way. The move of the Republicans is bad politics with a cynical twist uncommon in the United States. What may prevent some of those laws from taking effect though may be the cost which ranges from $720,000 to more than $10m in providing voter IDs. This leaves Republican governors arguing for a new, costly government programme of questionable utility in straitened fiscal times.

In any case, making it more complicated to vote in a country that already has one of the lowest turnout in Western democracies and virtually no fraud does not seem very democratic.

In the mean time, this whole controversy has at least the merit of offering us another opportunity to further our cross-cultural analysis of France and the United States.

Monday, August 13, 2012

(Conservative) Americans from Mars and European from Venus? Ask Romney!

In the ongoing symbolic "battle" between Europe and the United States (some might call it healthy competition, depending on who you ask), here's a funny article from this week's Economist:

CONSERVATIVE Americans like to contrast the vigour and virility of their own country with the decadence and decline of Europe. Demography is exhibit A in their argument.
Mitt Romney, for example, talked about Europe’s demographic disaster” as he ended his presidential bid in 2008, calling it “the inevitable product of weakened faith in the creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life and eroded morality”.

So it comes as something of a shock to discover that in 2011 America’s fertility rate was below replacement level and below that of some large European countries. The American rate is now 1.9 and falling. France’s is 2.0 and stable. The rate in England is 2.0 and rising slightly.
France’s fertility is now higher than America’s; and the demographic reaction to the great recession does not suggest any profound transatlantic difference between virile Americans and flaccid Europeans.

I wonder if this is also going to be used against Obama in the campaign. In any case, when it comes to international relations, Romney has quite a bit of work to do.. After offending the British, his words could very well offend the rest of Europe if they ever come out in the mainstream European media.
If one is looking for explanation as to why Romney has to put others down, maybe newsweek has a valid suggestion:

(article to read here)
The only possible redeeming factor may be that he speaks French, although I have a feeling he's not going to capitalize on it with his consertative electorate, who may then suspect him of being a socialist spy. ;) 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Internet Connection in France and the U.S. and the Need for Regulated Competition.

As a European traveling regularly to the United States, my experience with the internet in north America has been mixed: easy free access with decent speed in some institutions like libraries (the NY or Chicago public libraries for instance) or campuses (UMD, or UW Madison, but not so much UCLA), easy and free in cafés in most big cities (Starbucks has now made it free), and expensive and bad in most hotels (even downtown New York).
Now more tellingly, my experience with the internet connection at most of my friends' homes has been rather disappointing. Their connection is usually rather slow, the wi-fi is not very strong, and then they seem to pay a whole lot more than we do in France. This is surprising for someone like me who grew up looking to America for the cutting edge stuff in everyday life. 
Of course I live in Paris so my experience is slightly biased and does not necessarily reflect what it may like in French rural areas. Besides, I'm always suspicious of personal impressions. They may reflect something but they are clearly not scientific and can be highly subjective.

Then, I started reading articles that seemed to confirm my initial impressions. This latest article in Slate last week summarized the finding of a recent report that "suggests that the U.S. is lagging behind many of its international counterparts, most of whom have higher levels of competition and, in turn, offer lower prices and faster, with the exception of a few places like San Francisco,( and more surprisingly Chattanooga;  Tenn.; Lafayette, La.; and Bristol, Va.
The Slate article makes a parell between electrification and modern broadband policy which makes sense since, today the internet is as important for economic development as the electricity was at the end of the 19th century. But the crux of the article is in its somewhat political conclusion:
But unlike electrification, our present inside-the-Beltway policymakers have mostly ignored nonprofit approaches as a solution to expand affordable, reliable, and fast access to the Internet. And since community networks don't have lobbying arms working the corridors of power in Washington, key decision-makers have silently watched as cable and DSL lobbyists have created substantial new barriers to community networks in 19 states—limiting both competition and local authority and leading to worse, more expensive service than in a growing list of other countries that don't create these regulatory barriers. (Slate)
In other words, this is yet another good example as to why government is needed to regulate the market. Interestingly, a complentary conclusion can be drawn from the French example.

What has made internet connection cheaper and more efficient is a policy that forced the former state-owned monopoly, France Telecom (which sells mobile and Internet services as Orange), to open its network to rival operators such as Free.

 Almost immediately, independent ISPs and carriers from other countries began to lease access to France Telecom’s infrastructure and compete to offer broadband services. New companies like Iliad (offering services since 2002 as Free) emerged as fierce competitors, benefitting from the fact that they did not have to pay the initial costs of laying wires. And now, those companies are beginning to build their own infrastructure in order to meet a growing demand for faster speeds at low prices.
Free, for example, has always charged the same monthly rate, but continued to add new features to its service. Today, Free offers competitive DSL prices in Paris, and has begun to lay its own fiber in the city to provide even faster speeds. Eligible customers can get a connection with download speeds of up to 100 mbps (50 mbps upload) for the monthly fee of €29.99 ($34.47 adjusted for PPP), the same cost as Free’s standard DSL package. To get comparable speeds in most major US cities would cost over $100 per month.
(As a result), Paris has emerged as a model in providing fast speeds at competitive prices—a shift which can be traced back to government policies instituted a dozen years ago. (New America Foundation)
So one can conclude from the experience in both France and the United States that the solution is half way between unregulated free market, and  state-owned monopoly since in both cases competition is limited, either by large corporations or by the state.
What is needed then is a regulated market, but in order to do that one needs to go beyond the blind ideological faith in laissez-faire economy as it is often the case in the United States or the blind ideological fear of competition as it is often the case in France. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ideology in the U.S. Presidential Campaign.

What makes gaffes interesting in politics is that that they usually happen in those too rare moments of unscripted and uncontrolled communication by a politician. As such, they are refreshing but they also reveal plenty, not only about the teller of the gaffe but also about his opponent, and more importantly about what they perceive their voters want to hear.

Let's take President Obama's "you didn't build that" gaffe. Obama wanted to make the point that no one succeeds in modern society without the help of other people, or infrastructures, but he put it very poorly:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Here of course, the problem is first and foremost grammatical: "THAT" instead of "THOSE" which stand for "roads and bridges" but it can have dire consequences in a presidential campaign, and sure enough, the other side took advantage of it.

Jon Stewart had a good take on it:

Clearly, deep down, Romney agrees with what Obama meant to say. As Jon Stewart pointed out: he pretty much said the same thing about athletes at the Olympic Games.

Beyond the hypocrisy of using a sentence out of context, the whole controversy reveals plenty about American values, and American politics.

As Michael Foley has shown in his excellent book American Credo: The Place of Ideas in American Politics, Americans tend to see failure or success in highly personalized terms. Just like American heroes, (the self-reliant pioneer, the lonesome cowboy, the outlaw, the super-hero, the crusading lawyer, etc), American entrepreneurs are seen as heroic individuals engaged in individualized projects. As a result, in the United States succes or failure is  assigned to the person rather than to the structure or conditions, contrary to Europe. Hence the importance of personal virtue for political leaders, especially for the commander-in-chief.
This is also why there is greater tolerance for extreme poverty and extrem wealth, and for economic 'inequality' in the U.S. than in Europe. In France in particular, the word "individualism" tends to carry negative connotations akin to selfishness.

That being said, the pendulum swings even more towards individualism for conservatives than for liberals. In this respect, president Obama has a typical liberal view that stresses the importance of the community, (and this is not surprising, after all Obama used to be a community organizer) whereas Republicans give primacy to the individual and the protection of personal liberties.

Associated with individualism is of core the core notion of 'freedom' which lies at the heart of American identity, but here too, the meaning attributed to the concept in policies and politics varies in Democratic or Republican circles.

Generally speaking the word 'government' and 'Washington' are viewed negatively.

But it gets even more complicated when you realize that the same voters respond differently to the ideological appeal of 'freedom' and to the policy consequences of less government. The same people may want smaller government but better government services, less taxation but better infrastructures (roads, bridges, water pipes, power grid, etc...), or they may be set against healthcare may but praise Medicare and Medicaid.
This is akin to a schizoid split between abstract ideology and concrete operational use.

And sometimes when a presidential candidate is trying so hard to embody ideology that he changes reality to fit his ideology.
The irony of Mitt Romney praising free enterprise for the economic success of Poland Vs. the "false promise of a government-dominated economy" has not escaped the Europeans who know - apparently better than he does - how E.U. subsidies have helped the Polish economy grow substantially:
In the EU’s 2007-2013 budget, the subsidies for Poland amounted to nearly EUR 68 bln, the highest sum among the EU funding beneficiaries. (source here)
And we're not even talking about the fact that total government expenditure as a percentage of GDP was about 44 percent last year — compared to 41 percent in the United States. (CBS)

Then, when during his stop in Israel, Romney also praised the Israeli economy while people there set themselves on fire in a desperate action of protest against their harsh economic situation. (CNN, ENews).
And it gets teven better when, he lauded the Israeli health care system, which is managed care, universal coverage, and has even more government control than the Obama health law Romney so strenuously faults. (Boston Globe). In effect, he's endorsed President Obama.

Well, Mitt Romney is probably smart enough to know all that, and this all tactical politics.
After all, what do most (conservative) Americans know about Poland, Israel or the Olympic Games for that matter. This message is for them and nobody cares as long as the message reinforces pre-conceived ideas about values and principles. And who cares if the conservative ideology has no applicability, the only thing that matters is to get to the highest office, then you'll deal with issues when they get there. 
This may be why Romney has be so evasive about his program and concrete ideas.