Today in superficial statistics (peaceful transitions edition)

As always happens at some point on every Inauguration Day, some drunken DC fool blathers something about celebrating America and her “tradition of peaceful transfers of power” and I guess everyone in the country is traditionally supposed to try to kiss their own asses for being so special or whatever. This year I gather it was Lamar Alexander (R-YouSeriousWithThosePlaidShirts?) as the blatherer, but then suspiciously intellectual-looking Dylan Matthews had to go America-Hatin’ on the Craptial’s Newspaper of Ill Repute, and he produced this chart to say, nuh-uh, America isn’t so special, after all:


Now, I’d like to cite the original source of this wonderful chart, but Mr. Matthews didn’t offer it and for all I know he made it himself. What I do know is that it’s spectacularly useless as to making any kind of point. Why? Let’s examine a few of the reasons:

  • The chart evidently assumes that every change in US presidential administration counts as a “peaceful, democratic transition.” There have been 44 US presidents so, ipso facto, we’ve had 43 peaceful transitions. Except I bet if we could raise Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy from their resting places (where they were put by, you know, assassins), they might raise some objection to the idea that the ends of their terms came “peacefully.”
  • For that matter, as Kevin Drum suggests, are we really saying that Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration was a peaceful democratic transition? Sure, the part where half the country violently rebelled came shortly after his inauguration, but isn’t that really splitting hairs?
  • How much of a “transition” was, say, Washington’s replacement by his own vice-president? Jefferson’s replacement by his own Secretary of State, who was then replaced by his? Teddy Roosevelt’s replacement by his hand-picked successor? For that matter, when any new president comes from the same party as the previous one, does that really count as a “transition”? Should we really be giving ourselves gold stars over the fact that the streets didn’t run red with blood when George the Elder took over for St. Ronald after serving as his VP for 8 years?
  • What about some of these other countries? In the UK, it appears whoever made that chart is, as for the US, just counting up the number of past UK PMs and subtracting one. Except, this is misleading not only because sometimes one PM succeeds another PM from the same party, or because for a chunk of that time the UK was not all that “democratic” (unless you would agree that allowing only about 10% of the adult male population to vote [prior to 1832] qualifies as “democratic”) nor did it “transition” all that much (unless you want to ignore that a lot of executive power still belonged to the UK’s inherited and stable monarchy over much of the period in question), but also because the UK changes PMs far more frequently than we change presidents, since PMs have no set term in office (going back to the first PM, Robert Walpole, according to this chart the UK has had arguably 74 transitions of power compared to America’s 43, but only over a period of about 50 or 60 more years). I would argue that this chart makes the UK’s record look disproportionately better than America’s (if you ignore all the objections I just raised to America’s place on the chart) by focusing on transitions rather than over the period of time during which those transitions have occurred. On the other hand, maybe you think the fact that they’ve managed 30 more transitions in only ~60 more years is actually more impressive than the graph lets on. Either way the chart is comparing apples and oranges to some extent.
  • The same problem comes up in countries like Italy and Japan, where there have been periods during which both countries have gone through two or even three governments in a single year, which either makes their string of peaceful transitions more or less impressive depending on how you look at it. In any case, the chart doesn’t account for that fairly crucial bit of information, the length of time over which these records were accumulated.

I’m sure somebody with a better grasp on the internal politics of the other nations in this chart can pick it apart further, but at any rate just counting up the number of presidents and/or PMs a country has had and subtracting 1 is hardly the basis for a serious discussion about peaceful transfers of power. Circumstances matter. History matters.

ADDING (6:37 Central): I don’t want to come off as demeaning or diminishing what the US has achieved at the same time I’m arguing that 43 CONSECUTIVE PEACEFUL TRANSFERS OF POWER maybe isn’t a helpful or interesting figure. There have been a few true successes in our electoral history, in terms of fending off the potential for violent interference in the process: 1796, our first truly contested election; 1800, the first transition from one party to another; 1824, when Andrew Jackson could have made quite a mess had he fought the Clay-Adams bargain; 1864, successfully pulling off a democratic election in the middle of an ongoing rebellion; 1876, when Hayes made a deal to end reconstruction in exchange for southern Democrats throwing the election to the House on his behalf, could have been another flashpoint but wasn’t; and I would say that the election and re-election of the nation’s first black president probably qualifies for this list as well.

yeah, we know it’s not a “bill of needs,” but…

I’ll be real honest with you: by the time November 6 of last year had come and gone, I had long since lost all desire to tune in to the prime time funland on any of our fine 24-hour “news” networks. It gets tiresome constantly repeating the “What Simple Thing Are Crazy People in Washington Going to Fuck Up This Week?” game over and over again, with no real end in sight. After Sandy Hook, I really started trying to avoid the avalanche of gibbering that I knew was coming, none of which would have any impact on anything other than aggrandizing gun fetishists and narcissistic TV personalities.

Of course, completely ignoring all “news” coverage is, for me, unavoidable, because I have a sickness. In what I’ve seen of the gun “debate,” there’s one particular exchange that bugs me, and it always goes something like this:

Second Amendment Advocate: The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms! Hunting! Self-defense! Freedom fighters! WOLVERINES!

Host: But what do you need to have an assault rifle for?


Host: Yes, but what do you NEED it for?

Me (at television and, thus, nobody): BOTH OF YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP!

There’s a mountain of fail in this one exchange, which has been repeated so often even in my limited viewing that I’m starting to think the whole bit is a rehearsed routine. While I sympathize with the sentiment, “what do you need it for?” really is a stupid question in the context in which its being asked, because it invites the tired response it always gets. And the gun folks are right; it’s not a bill of needs! When you get into the realm of “needs” you’re in the realm of opinion, and while it might be my opinion that I need not to have troops being quartered in my house, what happens if the government decides that I don’t have that particular need? I’ve got marines sleeping in my family room, is what. No, it really is a bill of rights, and need doesn’t enter into it.

What bothers me is that “what do you need it for?” doesn’t have to be a stupid question, and in fact can be a very important question if not for the fact that idiot TV personalities keep ruining it. America is gun-obsessed. We have a full 30 guns more per 100 residents than any other country (as of 2007). UN stats show rates of gun homicide per 100,000 population multiple times higher in the US than in any other industrialized nation. As of 2 days ago, 919 people had been killed nationwide by gun violence in the single month since Sandy Hook. We are on an unsustainable path in terms of gun violence in this country, when parents begin to feel justified questioning how safe their children are in school.

There is an important line of inquiry that should be has as to why we have decided that ownership of assault rifles is sacrosanct, and “what do you need it for?” is part of that equation. Are they for home defense? Who is coming to raid your home in the middle of the night that can’t be stopped with a shotgun (nobody is talking about banning these), a revolver (ditto), a hunting rifle (again, ditto) or a semi-automatic pistol (unfortunately, in my opinion, also ditto)? For personal carry protection? Again, are you worried about being combat assaulted by a North Korean platoon on your lunch hour? And if so many people are that afraid of home invasion or personal safety, shouldn’t we as a society be concerned about that? People shouldn’t live in that kind of fear in a modern society, should they?

Do you need it for hunting? Does anybody actually hunt anything with AR-15s? It is because they’re fun to target shoot? Great; can’t we license gun clubs to carry them for recreational shooting, and people can go to the range, check one out, shoot the hell out of some targets, then check it back in?

Or is it because you’re preparing to do battle against a tyrannical American government? I am sympathetic to this argument even though I’m not swayed by it; it was clearly part of the ratification debate around the Second Amendment (although slave owners had their reasons for making it part of that debate) and thus in my view cannot simply be waved away. But here’s the problem for many (not all, but many) of the “Second Amendment to fight government tyranny” types: why aren’t you already fighting to legalize the possession of fully automatic weapons, explosives, artillery, and so on? If the idea is that an American leader is going to turn tyrannical and use the power of the American military against our own citizenry, how on Earth do you expect to prevent that with a couple of AR-15s? “Arms” at the time of ratification clearly meant state-of-the-art weaponry; why shouldn’t it mean that now? If you claim to be worried about government tyranny but still want to draw arbitrary lines around what categories of weapons can or can’t be legally purchased by the public, isn’t that fairly inconsistent, even hypocritical?

(And if you ARE one of the few folks with enough internal consistency to say that anybody should be allowed to own any weapon, here’s a question: were the Weathermen traitorous terrorists, or were they freedom fighters exercising their Second Amendment rights against a tyrannical government?)

“What do you need it for?” matters, not in the context of demanding justification for committing a legal act, but as a window into the culture of owning these high-capacity semi-automatic rifles that are best used for rapidly killing large groups of people. There’s a lot to be gained from understanding why people want to own these kinds of weapons, but we’ll never get there if we keep asking the question in the wrong way.

an apology (unsponsored content)

We all make mistakes from time to time; that’s unavoidable. All we can do is try to own up to them once they’ve been made. Earlier today I made such a mistake when I turned over this blog’s award-eligible space to an advertainitorial from the people behind “TIME CUBE.” In an effort to capitalize on digital advertising, I allowed a piece to be printed here that, although it was marked “Sponsored Content,” otherwise appeared to be no different from the rest of the content I publish here, although to the discerning reader its clarity of thought and organization, and the almost poetic quality of its prose, might have given away that it was not my writing. This was misleading and inappropriate, and also the TIME CUBE guy still hasn’t paid me which, what the hell, dude? But anyway, I’m profoundly sorry and won’t let it happen again; next time I’m demanding payment up front, you know what I mean? To the reader, I abused your good faith in the integrity of this blog and I regret that. However, let’s not lose sight of the true victims here: me, because, again, still haven’t gotten paid; and, to a lesser extent, the actual Time Cube, which really needs a better spokesperson than the dude who does its blog. But mostly me, let’s be clear. So, to the reader, oops, and to myself, I promise never to let this happen to us again.

I have not taken the piece in question down, because posterity must record our errors blah blah blah, but mostly because I’m still hoping to get paid so up it stays.

Your friend,


time cube is time is four, belly button proves lies of one truth of cube in 2013!

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Cube. Time is Cube 4 Days. TIMECUBE or DEATH IGNORANCE!

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UPDATE: An Apology to My Readers

shock the monkey

Bill Maher goes on Leno, puts up $5 million to charity to challenge Donald Trump to produce his birth certificate to prove that he’s not the offspring of his mom and an orangutan. Trump, hilariously, has his lawyer treat this seriously:

January 8, 2013

Mr. Bill Maher

Real Time with Bill Maher
CBS Studios
7800 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036

Dear Mr. Maher:

I represent Mr. Donald J. Trump.  I write on his behalf to accept your offer (made during the Jay Leno Show on January 7, 2013) that Mr. Trump prove he is not the “spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan.”

Attached hereto is a copy of Mr. Trump’s birth certificate, demonstrating that he is the son of Fred Trump, not an orangutan. Please remit the $5 million to Mr. Trump immediately and he will ensure that the money be donated to the following five charities in equal amounts: Hurricane Sandy Victims, The Police Athletic League, The American Cancer Society, The March of Dimes, and The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.


Scott S. Balber

Here’s my problem. Note the document Trump’s lawyer attached and referred to as his client’s “birth certificate”:


This, my friends, is a short-form “certification of birth.” As we all know from the tireless work of Mr. Trump and his friends and colleagues in the institutionalized fringe media, such a document is virtually worthless in terms of validating someone’s birth and parentage. Until we have Mr. Trump’s original handwritten long-form birth certificate in hand, there can be no conclusions drawn from a short and easily forged document such as what Mr. Trump’s attorney has provided.

So now we’re left with one overriding question: what is Mr. Trump, through his attorney, trying to hide by releasing this wholly inadequate substitute for the truth? I am dispatching a team of professional investigators from the fasteddie’s wonderments home office to New York State to learn what they can regarding the serious, serious questions that now exist about Mr. Trump’s birth and parentage. To be clear, I do not personally believe that Mr. Trump was conceived during a sexual encounter between his mother and a Bornean orangutan at the Seneca Park Zoo in late 1945. But there are clearly some very troubling concerns that must be examined.

is jeff zucker watching his product?

Erin Burnett, yesterday:

The United Nations came out with a stunning number today, estimating that the death toll in Syria has passed 60,000 people since the uprising began just over 18 months ago. Now, just to put this in perspective, 60,000 is a lot of people. Every one of them a human life and it is 15,000 more lives lost than CNN previously estimated, a huge increase in the estimated loss of life.

I’m really glad she put it into perspective. And that she clarified that each one had been a “human life.” That’s some fine work.