Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Exit Polls Are Great. This Opinion Valid in the Eastern Hemisphere Only.

Here’s this past Sunday’s column, which due to the publishing deadlines brought on by the Thanksgiving holiday, had to be written Tuesday night and submitted by Wednesday, November 24. So I feared it might be a bit dated, but the crisis in Ukraine has continued unabated. The column is a summary of how the Nov. 21 runoff election was conducted, or more accurately mishandled and stolen, by the ruling party. The Supreme Court heard arguments about election fraud allegations on Monday, Nov. 29, but it’s not clear if and when the court will issue a decision. Also on Monday, current president Kuchma said that a new vote -- which would be held on Dec. 12 -- might be the only way to resolve the dispute, which (if he meant it) might be a signal that both sides might begin to see a do-over as the only possible resolution.

You can view the current situation in Independence Square in Kyiv through a television station’s webcam (Channel 1 + 1) here. The square was basically empty last night in Phoenix, which was 5 am in Kyiv, but last time I checked 2 hours ago it was filled with people again. Also, the newspaper version of my column is available at the newspaper’s website.

But enough international politics; I know what you really want to know is, how did Louis’s bar mitzvah go? If you want to know, email me at sam at cgson dot com for the full report.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 28, 2004

       Ukraine held a bad election -- but the so-far peaceful protests, reminiscent of the “Rose Revolution” which followed a similarly-flawed election in the Republic of Georgia, could lead Ukraine to a better democracy in the end.  The world must hope that the demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of outraged Ukrainians lead the various factions to recognize their mutual interest in to a more democratic and transparent political process.

        The election didn’t have to go so badly.  Many observers thought that despite myriad problems, the election still might meet recognized international standards.  International monitors even noted some improvements before the Nov. 21 runoff.  Media coverage improved and appeared more balanced -- but as the campaign rhetoric got more heated and less issue-oriented, the noise drowned out any improvement.

        But the runoff saw more election irregularities.  The number of absentee ballots and “mobile votes” increased, creating both greater opportunities for ruling party hanky-panky and greater doubt in the officially-announced results.  In some voting districts in eastern Ukraine, the home region of ruling party candidate Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, turnout supposedly increased by 21 percent to an absurd 98.5 percent.  An international observer, with a taste for understatement, called that jump “unrealistic and highly suspicious.”

        International observers saw an election less transparent and orderly than not just the 2002 parliamentary elections, but also the initial Oct. 31 balloting.  Reports abounded of intimidation, some isolated violence, and unauthorized persons interfering with voting.  The counting process itself appeared less well-organized and less secure.  And the problems appeared worse in the central and eastern regions, Yanukovych’s base -- and where the ruling party would be more likely to use fraud and force to tip the national results in its favor.

        The official Central Election Commission gave Yanukovych a narrow lead over challenger Viktor Yushchenko, leading to mass demonstrations in Kyiv and other major cities.  Some Ukrainians were surprised by the lack of military and security personnel in the capital, especially after major military parades prior to the Oct. 31 first-round voting.  But the size of the demonstrations seemed to catch the government by surprise, and may force some kind of negotiations or coalition that would have greater public legitimacy than the officially-announced results.

        After our recent elections, some Americans might be hesitant to condemn official election results because they didn’t conform to initial exit polls (which, while favoring Yushchenko, disagreed significantly on his margin).  Also, in U.S. terms, the larger cities and more European-oriented western areas, where Yushchenko’s support was greater, are Ukraine’s “blue states” often lectured by more rural and conservative areas as not representative of the “real” Ukraine.

        And don’t forget the George Soros factor, who put resources into trying to defeat Bush here and support Yushchenko there, which the Bush administration opposed here but supports there.  It’s amazing how somebody who gets it exactly wrong here somehow gets it exactly right overseas.  And vice versa.

        Moreover, Americans should criticize foreign elections with more humility these days.  We might not be the very best model of media coverage, use of state assets in campaigns, and voting procedures.  On Nov. 2, the last Arizona voter cast a ballot at 11:55 p.m. -- after five hours in line.

        Our elections don’t meet recognized international standards largely because of the Electoral College and because we let partisan elected officials count the ballots.  We wouldn’t let one of the kids running for office count the ballots for high school class president, but we allow the Secretary of State and county recorders to oversee counting of ballots for elections in which they themselves (or their political allies and patrons) are candidates.

        But despite the institutional problems, our elections reflect public sentiment within the terms of our legal structure.  In Ukraine, both domestic and international observers -- and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians -- saw a flawed election process that did not.

        Ukraine now must decide on the soundtrack for its future.  Is it “Back to the USSR,” or instead “Georgia on My Mind”?  In this case, let’s pray it’s Ray and not the Beatles.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Which Is Scarier: The Government, or Your Mom?

This week's column is (yawn!) Social Security privatization. The newspaper version is available here.

But first, this past Saturday was the El Tour de Tucson 111-mile bicycle race and, avoiding the "wardrobe malfunction" (the cleat coming out of my shoe) that afflicted me in 2000, I finished in the "gold" category at 5:48:16, which is a bit more than 1.5 hours better than my previous time. (That's 934 out of 3692 unofficial finishers.) A special shout-out to my cousin Andrew Fredman, who flew in from Westchester County and finished somehow in the "silver" category, in his second century ride this year. Finishing times are available here; use your browser's edit/find feature if you don't feel like scrolling through nearly a thousand names before you get to your happy correspondent. So that means this year I've done 2 century-plus rides (each about 110 miles--and who decided that the additional 10 miles was a good thing?) and a marathon. Telling you? As the joke says, heck, I'm telling everybody!

UPDATE: Revised (but still unofficial) results have me finishing 898 out of 3567 instead of the numbers in the previous paragraph. Also, here's a photo of me at the Sabino Creek crossing about 45 miles into the ride.

Finally, the inside joke in this column is that the Andrew Tobias column was printed in the January, 1986 edition of Playboy. Yes, I must have read it for the articles.

You may be a whiz at picking investments, but what about your market-unsavvy kin?
East Valley Tribune, Nov. 21, 2004

Maybe you can handle Social Security privatization. But can your relatives?

Ignore the trillion-dollar costs of transitioning from pay-as-you-go system, or how transferring funds to private accounts only accelerates when the system can’t pay boomer retirements. Forget about the transaction costs of managing millions of small accounts.

Before you start salivating at Social Security privatization, remember that you’ll need more than the investment expertise necessary for your own retirement. You’ll also need to generate returns large enough also to cover your relatives’ losses on their private accounts.

If you think you’re up to that challenge, then congratulations -- but if so, why not quit your current job and start running a hedge fund?

Every single American believes that he or she is (1) an above-average driver and (2) an above-average investor. It almost goes without saying that you must certainly be both. However, your mother and father (or, for older readers, your son, daughter, and son-in-law) also firmly believe that they are above-average drivers and investors. You may know better. But they’d still get their own private account and be responsible for investment results.

Maybe your mother really is an above-average driver. And maybe she’s the Queen of England. But if mom isn’t really a stock market expert, then her Social Security payments after privatization won’t be as much as she’d expected. And at that point, she’ll be looking at you kids to help her out.

It’s one thing to be a savvy enough investor to sock away enough for your own retirement. If you think you’re savvy enough to cover both your retirement, and also make up for your son-in-law’s pigheadedness, then remember that the Greeks had a word for that attitude: Hubris. Maybe there’s a free lunch for you. But for your parents and kids as well? That’s a lot of free lunches.

Don’t assume that the government will step in to protect people from their investment errors. If there’s a guarantee that no matter how badly mom does with her investment choices she’d still get at least as much as she would have gotten under traditional Social Security benefits, it will cost a bundle to make up for millions of mistakes -- increasing the already trillion-dollar transition costs.

More importantly, it means that privatized accounts would come with a “heads you win, tails we lose” government guarantee, encouraging millions of investors to take lots of risks. If your bet pays off, you win. If the bet fails, the government comes to the rescue.

Unless (for some unfathomable reason) we want people to invest their privatized accounts in companies which buy lottery tickets, knowing that there’s a small chance of a huge windfall but little downside, because basic benefits are guaranteed anyway. We tried that once; it was called the S&L bailout. There’s little need to try it again with 150 million little S&Ls.

Back in 1986, Andrew Tobias wrote a tongue-in-cheek column describing how he had invested $2,000 in his IRA during the previous year. He bought one obscure company that went from 50 cents to 1 5/8 a share, then some more stocks that went from 17 to 24, and sold puts on stocks that declined from 14 to 10 and 23 to 14 ½. (Of course, if you can decide what you should have bought and sold after the fact, it’s amazing how well you can do.)

Still, the vast majority of his “gains” came from a stock tip he got from some CIA guys, who had decided to quadruple quietly the stock of an obscure electronics company as a way to pay off certain persons whom it might be embarrassing to pay directly; they’d just be told what stock to buy. It took months, but shares bolted from 2 1/8 to 10. Bingo! On December 31, Tobias supposedly could retire on his IRA.

If you served in the Agency -- or get the chance to buy a piece of the Texas Rangers franchise on the cheap -- then sure, privatization makes sense. You’ll make enough to cover your “above-average” mom, dad, and kids. For the rest of us: Are you kidding?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

More Former Congressional Commentary on Ukrainian Elections

A letter from a number of observers of the Ukraine elections appears in the Nov. 14 edition of The Washington Times. Jim Slattery and Richard Balfe also participated in the October delegation with me. I would have signed on to the letter but didn't respond soon enough.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Genetically Speaking, Values Is a Recessive Trait and Politics Is the Dominant Trait

I am a column behind--my anger-at-the-results column ran on 11/7, and my paper that morning got soaked in some unseasonable rain that day, and I haven't gotten around to pulling another copy off the Internet, so I'll post it someday, now that everybody is getting over the anger and is moving on, as former Scottsdale resident Dr. Kubler-Ross would posit, to acceptance. Hey, at least I got out of bed on Nov. 3.

This week's message is that if you want politics to have more discussion of values, it'll sound more like politics than a discussion of values. Careful what you wish for.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 14, 2004

I read the emails. But people who spent eight years hating Bill Clinton (how “tolerant” are Arkansas jokes, anyway?) really shouldn’t lecture about being reasonable and respectful. After months of “anti-Kerry hatred,” it’s pretty obvious it’s not about “values”; it’s the “politics of resentment.”

Sure, Democrats will have an earnest discussion of values, making it clear that we do too believe in religion and stuff. But the election wasn’t a philosophical discussion, it was a knife fight.

Kerry won among independents. Instead, Republicans motivated their base, despite controlling the whole federal government, with wedge issues to convince them to resent Massachusetts gay matrimony and liberal media bogeymen more.

But it’s called popular culture because it’s popular. It’s not elite liberal snobs buying Britney Spears records. Why were Democrats responsible for Janet Jackson’s breast? She was hired by the NFL, a pretty pro-Republican group.

If Democrats bear responsibility for all media, aren’t Republicans responsible for sports? If we’re stuck with Michael Moore, then Republicans better do something about the Diamondbacks.

Notice how Republicans, having beaten Tom Daschle, have switched to all Michael Moore, all the time. Moore isn’t a Democratic official; he’s a popular (among some people) entertainer, and just as accurate as the Republican’s Rush Limbaugh, but without the drug addiction and divorces. But no Republican need apologize for Limbaugh’s excesses, while every Democrat somehow bears responsibility for everything Moore does.

So far, the “values” discussion is being conducted on the humor-impaired level of “You Democrats are all alike, always making generalizations about Republicans.” But so-called “values voters” weren’t reacting to calm discussion of policy or faith-based social programs’ efficacy, but to visceral arguments like the official GOP mailer with a picture of the Bible labeled “BANNED” and two guys holding hands. That was this year’s discussion of “values.”

Was Dr. James Dobson making a respectable “values” argument when, according to The Daily Oklahoman, he said Sen. Patrick Leahy “is a G-d’s people hater. I don’t know if he hates G-d, but he hates G-d’s people.” This isn’t a polite debate among people of different faiths but common beliefs; it’s war between believers and infidels.

Watch the framing. First, 48 percent of Americans no longer matter. Bush got 51 percent, so the beliefs of everybody who voted against him became irrelevant. It’s a mandate!

Second, it’s supposedly Democrats who aren’t tolerant enough, when it’s Republicans empowering people with strictly limited tolerance of those who don’t believe exactly as they do. Mark Scarp complains that most Americans want abortion to be rare but legal, but the debate is between zealots who want to ban abortion and those who want to -- well, keep abortion rare but legal.

The anti-choice side wants to impose its morality, by law, on everybody. Only the pro-choice side accommodates the desire to keep abortion safe, legal, and rare. So who’s really intolerant?

Third, take a page from the Republicans, who discuss values in terms of “the other” -- gays, atheists, Bostonians -- and certainly not in terms of results. How often did you hear that abortions have increased under Bush? It’s rhetoric, not results, that matters! Being positive won’t work. Talking values means going negative, just like Dr. Dobson.

Some Democrats say we should use Clinton as a model for talking values. Yes and no. If the Clinton model means Kerry should have supported the Defense of Marriage Act, then include me out. You don’t fight anti-gay prejudice by showing kinder and gentler bigotry than your opponents.

When Clinton succeeded, he used values as a sword, not a shield, attacking GOP proposals as incompatible with American beliefs. Real Americans don’t ask if people with different beliefs hate G-d. Real Americans don’t think it’s right to make only wages taxable so coupon-clippers and rich kids avoid paying their share. Real Americans don’t want James Dobson deciding how (and with whom) we can live.

It makes me personally queasy, but if both sides get to fight using the same rules, “values” will become just another political fad. We’ll see if swing voters can be taught to resent GOP bogeymen as much as Democratic bogeymen. It worked for you; with practice, it could work for us.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

More on Ukraine

Here is a summary transcription of an interview I gave to Radio Liberty on October 25, which was translated into Ukrainian and back into English, regarding the pre-election environment. The double-translation makes me sound more definite about how the vote will go; there was still some doubt in my mind that the ruling party wouldn't find it "necessary" to cheat extensively. But the OSCE report puts that doubt to rest.


Former U.S. congressman witnessed the search of a Ukrainian non-governmental organization.

by Serhiy Kudelia

Washington, DC, October 27, 2004. The creation of additional polling stations in Russia and pressure by the law enforcement agencies on non-government organizations only prove that the current Ukrainian government has no intention to ensure the clean and transparent count of votes at the election. This was said in an interview with Radio Liberty by Sam Coppersmith, former U.S. congressman from Arizona.

Last week, the former congressman was in Ukraine as part of a delegation of former Members of the U.S. Congress who observed the course of the presidential campaign in Ukraine. Their visit to the Chernihiv and Kyiv oblasts was organized by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. On October 22, the last day of his trip in Kyiv, Congressman Coppersmith witnessed the search of the office of “Znayu!” (“I Know!”), an educational non-profit organization.

Former congressman Sam Coppersmith said that he became convinced of the possibility to hold fair elections in Ukraine during his contact with many Ukrainian citizens. He said that everyone was certain that they can ensure an honest vote count. At the same time, according to Coppersmith, he was amazed at the ability of the Ukrainian people to resist manipulations of the pro-government mass media.

“Ukrainians, whom we met, seemed quite savvy when it came to processing information they hear on television. They do not trust everything they hear and see on television. They realize that in Ukraine there is no tradition of a free mass media. A number of TV programs report under a certain angle and represent a certain point of view”.

After meetings with Ukrainian voters, former U.S. congressman Coppersmith felt optimistic about the future presidential elections in Ukraine. However, in his last day of visit he witnessed how the Security Forces of Ukraine (SBU) searched “Znayu!,” whose main goal is to inform voters about their rights. Former U.S. congressman Coppersmith is convinced that there is political connection to the search and does not believe the law enforcement’s official explanation that it is a fight against terrorism:

“Police did not evacuate the building and did not use any special equipment during the search and no one looked for explosives. They only checked the computers and copied files on to CDs. As far as I know, searches at other non-government organizations took place at the same time, and as in the case with ”Znayu!,” the grounds for searches were not clear. Therefore, it looks like the government is trying to limit or obstruct participation in elections of those citizens whom it can not control.”

Coppersmith considers such behavior on the part of law enforcement as pure intimidation of the voters and independent observers. According to him, during the search, law enforcement agents refused to show their IDs, did not allow him to freely move around the room, and he was basically detained for one and a half hours. After this incident, the former congressman returned from Ukraine with a more pessimistic take on elections: “My personal observations: there are grounds to assume that the elections will not be honest, transparent or fair. There are questions regarding the elections at foreign polling stations. Ukraine did not organize a good election campaign. The mass media carries out information on only one presidential candidate. Government uses its power to intimidate the opposition or interfere with its campaign.”

As former U.S. congressman Sam Coppersmith concluded, because of the aforementioned problems, elections in Ukraine most likely will not meet international standards.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Into the Gulf

The Newsweek International story on the run-up to the Ukraine election (with my quote) was reprinted in the Bahrain Tribune of October 27, 2004.

Also, the full OSCE/ODHIR preliminary statement on the October 31 election is available here (in English, which is the official version; the Ukrainian translation is not official).

Monday, November 01, 2004

Ukraine's Election Doesn't Fail to Disappoint

Here's the Ukraine column I promised. Most newspapers, including the Tribune, have a "blackout period" immediately preceding the election so that columnists (like me) can't raise a charge right before an election where the target won't get the usual opportunity to reply before Election Day. I figured that there wasn't any way this column could be translated into Ukrainian before the polls closed (at 10 am Phoenix time), so it ran during the election anyway.

For those of you following this story, the latest results indicate that Yanukovych got about 40% and Yushchenko about 39%, meaning that there will be a runoff between those two on Nov. 21. The good news is that the vote for Yanukovych wasn't close enough to 50% that the ruling party stole the election in the first round. However, that will be scant comfort if the government treats the runoff campaign as poorly as it did the initial election campaign.

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) issued their statement earlier today in Kyiv (2 pm local time) that the election did not meet OSCE and Council of Europe standards, which is significant. Here's the BBC report on the election and the OSCE statement. You can read the full OSCE statement on their website. Most of the OSCE complaints have to do with the conduct of the campaign, not the election; we'll just have to see if the ruling party plays things more fairly with media treatment of the two campaigns and with governmental hindrances of opposition campaigning. The more international scrutiny, the better. As an election itself, however, you'd figure that Yanukovych is more akin to the incumbent, and that in the run off, far more of the votes for other candidates would go to Yushchenko--which gives the ruling party even more incentive to cheat during the runoff.

I'm told that you can view the Channel 5 newscast of the security police search of ZNAYO! (and my detention) here, but I couldn't get the link to work. And if I did, it would be in Ukrainian. I've got links to some other media coverage, in English and French, of my little adventure, along with some commentary on the Ukrainian election, below.

The newspaper version is available here.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 31, 2004

Right now, votes are being counted in a vitally-important presidential election -- in Ukraine. Most outside observers (including yours truly, after spending last week in Kyiv with the US-Ukraine Foundation) gravely doubt that the election will be fair, transparent, and democratic. If not, the consequences for Ukraine, and the world, could be dramatic and dismal.

The election (initial balloting today, with a runoff on Nov. 21 if, as expected, no candidate receives 50 percent) still could meet international standards. But there’s plenty of basis for suspicion that the ruling Regions of Ukraine party could steal the election.

The election campaign hasn’t met international standards. The ruling party, through control of state media and alliances with media-owning business oligarchs, has dominated television, treating opposition parties like Democrats on Fox and Sinclair. The government spiked domestic spending, jeopardizing fiscal solvency to provide pensioners with several benefit increases, like the GOP’s Medicare “drug benefit.”

The government uses foreign policy to make their candidate, the bland Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, seem more dynamic and important, just as the Bush campaign claims ownership of the war on terror. The ruling party has run a divisive, negative campaign, ignoring its own sorry record to pound the supposed shortcomings of the leading challenger, Viktor Yushchenko of the Our Ukraine party, while stirring up nationalistic and cultural fears, just like -- well, you get the idea.

While the ruling party ran a savvy campaign that even Karl Rove could admire and the opposition made several tactical errors, the playing field hasn’t been level. Regions of Ukraine might have eroded Yushchenko’s leads in all independent polls without cheating, but didn’t. The government selectively enforced tax laws against the opposition, and unleashed both alarming and petty intimidation, including suddenly-mandatory Saturday university classes or perfectly-timed street or railway closures to hinder opposition rallies.

This spring, the ruling party clearly stole a municipal election in western Ukraine, and prior to today’s election, took several steps (easier overseas voting in Russia than elsewhere; “controlled votes” in state facilities, like prisons and schools; using government buildings for campaign offices; having managers at government-run enterprises pressure employees to vote for Yanukovych; and welcoming “international observers” from Russia and other former Soviet states favoring the ruling party) that could help it steal the election.

I personally experienced such tactics, getting detained in the offices of an independent voter education organization while state security officers languidly searched for supposed evidence of an erstwhile connection to another reported group with an alleged connection to explosives. Or something; the special police never really explained. The raid was part of a series of raids against voter groups, and it reeked of government intimidation of independent voices.

The ruling party, whether shrewdly or by chance, has done these bad things, but never so outrageously to prove in advance that the election will be stolen. People we met expressed surprising confidence in their local election officials and procedures, but worried that the election could be stolen elsewhere. Unfortunately, it could be.

The most interesting aspect of the election, at least for Americans, is the interplay between Ukrainian and American domestic and foreign policies. Yanukovych has wrapped himself around Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the most popular politician in Ukraine -- which troubles U.S. diplomats, who prefer Ukraine to choose a path more open to the West. The ruling party also tries to associate Yushchenko with President Bush, who is quite unpopular in Ukraine -- but who also got Putin’s quasi-endorsement for reelection, just like Yanukovych.

Many U.S. politicians (mainly Republicans) strongly support Yushchenko as the more pro-Western candidate, and appear ready to judge the fairness of the election solely on whether Yushchenko wins -- but it’s the ruling party that sent Ukrainian forces to Iraq, while Yushchenko announced that if elected, he immediately would order Ukrainian troops withdrawn. It’s all pretty confusing, even without jet lag.

The Ukrainian people have suffered mightily, and achieved greatly. They deserve a stable, honest democracy, not a corrupt government concerned only about retaining power. Today, 48 million Ukrainians decide their future -- if the election is fair.  American call elections crucial or historic all the time, but in Ukraine today, it’s the truth.