Thoughts

Politics

Partisan Divide

February 10th, 2010

We all know that there are problems in Washington, DC. There's a fair amount of disagreement about what is wrong, though, and who is to blame, and what needs to be done to fix it. I think a lot of this confusion is due to the way that we get our information, through a stream of over-simplified sound bites that focus on people instead of issues, through passionate and melodramatic opinions that do little to explain the problems but much to inflame partisanship.

Intermingled in this is an effort by the media to appear unbiased, and effort by politicians to appear bipartisan, and to place all of the blame for a lack of progress on the other party. Despite these efforts, little is actually done to bridge the divides and overcome difficulties. The entrenched games mean that there is little to gain politically by cooperating with the ideas of the other side. Any kind of compromise is seen as risking a political future, any kind of common ground is forgotten by the margins.

Finally, if this were not hopeless enough, there are the hidden and not-so-hidden agendas of the media and politicians to help their own interests or the interests of a campaign donor, lobbyist, home state, district, etc. With this in play it becomes even more difficult to know which plays (if any) are actually meant to help people and which are intended merely slight of hand.

I think the most disingenuous outcome of all of this is the erosion of party values on both sides, and the pandering to baser problems in order to gain political base. Neither party can honestly claim anything resembling their core values motivate their actions, and neither party's proposals will ultimately help our country.

We have an unsustainable government. People bicker over a fraction of the budget when it is the most beneficial portion, while completely ignoring the other two-thirds of the budget that is where our problems truly lie. Our military spending is completely unfunded. Medicare does not collect enough money to pay for its inflating costs because health care costs are spiraling out of control. Our debt requires interest payments that are already terrible and going to get worse as long as the deficit continues.

Here's the thing: whether you agree with the government spending money to create jobs during a recession or not, the majority of our massive federal budget needs to be cut. We can fund huge infrastructure projects that will create jobs, improve the country, reduce dependence on foreign oil, even give corporations billions of dollars, and all of it would be hugely less than we are spending today.

Ultimately, we need a solution to our health care problem because it is so expensive. Medicare operates with low overhead, while private health insurance operates with twenty percent overhead. In spite of that, it is still unsustainable in the long term because the cost of health care is only partly insurance overhead. The rest of the cost is systemic, with every procedure, bandage, test, instrument, and drug costing more than it should. How do we address this? I'm not sure, but it isn't the health care bill in Congress right now. It won't be fixed by electronic records, though that would remove a lot of duplication and work if it were done right --which it likely won't.

Rather than focus on the things that separate us, politicians and the media need to focus on what most of us share in common. That's what representational government should do. Most of us want a balanced budget and effective governance. Right now we have neither, and arguing about whose fault it is or which administration started it, insisting that the agenda of one party is destroying America or leading us to some tyrannical state is worse than counter-productive, it's actively undermining our ability to function as a nation.

Even now I can hear the immediate reply of "well if so-and-so from the party I hate would just..." and it needs to stop. Rallying behind our guys will not help. What we need to do is hold our guy to the fire, insist that they play along, make compromises, and try to help us all. If there are no political points to be gained in obstructing or blaming, maybe they'll try a different tactic like getting to work.

Blagojevich-gate?

December 15th, 2008

Are you kidding me? Are we so lazy as a society that any political scandal must be a 'gate' even when the name is as retardulous as this? I really don't have a lot to contribute on the recent arrest of my state's governor other than to express my lack of surprise. I think that there must be a governor's ring of power or something, that when they take office they try to wield it for good only to be corrupted by its malevolent power and ultimately exposed. Remember: the ring wants to be found.

In case you're wondering what triggered this rant, I was browsing CNN and I saw the post What do you make of Blagojevich-gate?. What do I make of it? How about it's a really idiotic naming convention that has far out-lived its relevance?

Moral Philosophy

August 19th, 2008

We live in a world with a wide variety of differing moral perspectives combined with base human emotions that each in turn shape our priorities and our worldview. It is interesting to consider that the overwhelming majority of our political opinion is not actually based on facts but on simple learned moral priorities. Because our moral priorities are ingrained in our psyche, they become imutable constants upon which we can build arguments and base our opinions, supporting them with facts that we give the same weight as the moral assumptions we start with.

What many fail to consider is that the moral foundation of our reasoning is not based in fact, but is actually our learned opinions, absorbed throughout our lives by our our families, friends, authorities, and our culture. We all share many of the same moral underpinnings, without which we could not have a functioning society. The differences come with the priorities we place on them. For example, consider how important it is to you that people be held accountable for their actions. Now, how important is forgiveness, charity, and leniency? Compare personal freedom to personal security. How much freedom should people have to do as they please when that very freedom could put you at risk?

Government is the embodied will of the people. That will takes the form of policy or law. The things that the government is made to do results in three things: the application of policy, the corruption of policy, and the incompetence of policy. The application of the policy is the actual thing the government set out to do being done. The corruption of policy is the result of people mis-using government to accomplish things not intended by the policy, and the incompetence of policy is the failure of the system to function as it was designed and intended due to mismanagement or poor planning. When you set aside the corruption and the incompetence (large swaths of government activity though they may be) you are left with those things that the government does that it was set to do.

What a government is set to do is entirely dependent on the moral priorities of the people in power. For democratic government to work as expected, policies should be the average of the moral priorities of the people, but that is seldom the case. Those in power each have different priorities, and they treat those priorities as self-evident facts upon which they base their decisions, where they will compromise with others, and ultimately what laws are enacted.

If those in power value personal responsibility, more people go to prison, more people go bankrupt, more people lose healthcare. They are held personally responsible. If those in power value security, more people are denied entry at the border, more people are surveilled, more people are arrested on suspicions, more is spent on military and police, and more bags are searched at the airport. Conversely, if they value leniency, more criminals go free, more deadbeats game the system, and healthcare costs rise. Personal freedom means more illegals enter the country, more criminals go undetected, more people have knives on airplanes, etc. Of course I've only highlighted negatives, but government is often just the judicious application of negative consequences. Any of these philosophies could as easily result in new social programs, departments, or programs.

Ultimately what I hope to highlight in all of this is that your own moral priorities are just that: yours. They are not universal constants, they are not facts, and they should not be treated as such. There is no moral certainty and those that believe in it are dangerous to a free society. Don't assume that people that don't share your political view are ignorant or somehow immoral. They just don't share your moral priorities.

Libertarian Thinking and the Global Economy

November 20th, 2007

There is a supposed Internet phenomenon of ground support for Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate that promises Libertarian ideals can guide us out or Iraq, into a smaller federal government with lower taxes, away from wiretapping and privacy invasion, solve racism, pollution, health care costs, improve the economy through deregulation and more.

I admit to a fair share of Libertarianism in my own political view. I don't think it should be illegal to drive without a seatbelt, take any number of recreational drugs or prescription medications, raise your children as you see fit, observe whatever religious or sexual practices suit you, and basically live how you want to live. I will do the same.

Like many approaches, though, Libertarianism doesn't work for everything. Perhaps when people homesteaded they could expect a fair amount of autonomy, freedom from taxes and regulation, and absentee government. We are all, down to the most Kaczynski-living hermit, dependent and connected to the entire world. We can't depend on personal property lawsuits to protect us from pollution, especially when that pollution so often happens to our water, to our air, and the effects can be difficult to trace and understand once they leave the exhaust, the smokestack, and the pipe.

We can't rely on unregulated companies to always do the right thing when the choice is between profit and sustainability, profit and health, profit and local economies, profit and competition, profit and fair use, profit and anything. Companies exist for one purpose and to get them to consider any other factor often requires regulation.

It is absurd to think that big government will fundamentally perform more poorly than a private company. For a great many human endeavors, profit cannot be the primary motive. Personally I believe that health care is among these. I don't propose a top to bottom state-run health care system, but I do suggest that our current privatized system is not broken because of the Federal government, but because of the motives of companies that make it up.

The idea that racism would disappear if government didn't require fairness in business is ridiculous, the concept that the immigration problem can be solved by better enforcing the borders, eliminating the citizenship birthright, and deporting everyone without a valid visa is untenable. Finally, Ron Paul completely ignores his supposed Libertarian ideals by saying that we need to fix Social Security, knowing that politically it is suicide to say that we should eliminate it. Of course, it's only political suicide because it is a large, government run social program that works very well, or would were it not for the constant fund raiding by Congress.

Dick Cheney in 1994

August 17th, 2007

This has been around the Internet for a while, but I'm a bit behind the curve. In any case, I thought it was interesting to see what a difference a decade makes. In the first Gulf War (first by U.S. reckoning anyway) Dick Cheney was the Secretary of Defense. In this C-Span interview he explains why they did not invade Iraq and take down Saddam Hussein.

Suuurrrggge!

August 6th, 2007

Sorry, I couldn't resist the title. Here's the thing: I believe in the surge. This may seem absurd, especially since the surge of troops in Iraq is nothing new, and results to date are mixed at best, so let me spend some time stepping back from that blanket statement.

I'll start by saying that I don't necessarily believe in the surge in reality, more in the surge as a concept. We have spent the last four years in Iraq wasting ammunition, wasting money, and most importantly, wasting lives. I thought invading Iraq was, in a word, retarded from the beginning. I thought the justification was hasty, ill-conceived, and clearly spoke to ulterior motives. However, we are there now and we have to extricate ourselves.

Option one is that we pack up and leave, and that isn't as bad as some would have us believe. In fact, I think it may yet be the best option. The government there is squabbling over the most basic ideas, ineffectual against the now financially self-sustaining insurgency, woefully corrupt, and beholden to at least some of the militant factions currently beheading civilians, kidnapping, planting roadside bombs, and committing sectarian murder daily. In the face of this, the lack of any prospect of us getting something much better in place, and an interminable wait on our hands until things can stabilize, getting the hell out is something to seriously consider. A military solution cannot solve the problerms there alone.

The second option was to continue what General Casey would have seemingly done indefinitely. Troops would go out on regular patrols that found roadside bombs when they drove over them. The approach did nothing to protect the civilian population because while they would assault an insurgent held area, they would then leave the area to be reclaimed.

The idea of the surge was that a troop increase would allow the troops to hold onto territory they cleared of insurgents, protect the people, build relationships in the community to drive support, and further develop the infrastructure rebuilding and political work that needed to be done. In terms of applying actual, tested counter-insurgency tactics, this is what needed to happen in 2004 or 2005, before things got to the state they are now. I have respect for General David Petraeus for having actually done his homework and applied it. He used the same strategy effectively before he was promoted. In areas that this strategy has been used since the surge started, progress has been seen.

The problem with the surge is three-fold. First, it didn't bring enough troops to actually work. Second, any increase in troops strains the capability of the Army, since we were already stretched with what we were doing before. Third, the last thing anyone wants to hear after trying to get us out of a worsening Iraq for three years is 'more troops'. Echoes of Vietnam come to mind, where drastically more troops were called in. It's important to note that those increased troops were not brought in to practice effective counter-insurgency. At the time the Army had very little skill at fighting asymmetric warfare, despite having invented it during the American revolution.

So the answer may be a pull-out after all. The surge as it has been implemented may well not work. If it had been done right, and had been done a couple of years ago, I think it may have stood a good chance of stemming the bloodshed, though it is still anyone's guess if that will ever result in a stable government there.

Venezuelan Socialism

January 21st, 2007

Hugo Chavez, the anti-American, pro-Marxist president of Venezuela, has been trying to convince the world that George W. Bush is the devil, that American Imperialism is a force for evil in the world, and that nationalization of natural resources like oil and natural gas will improve the lives of the common man. As someone that doesn't like Bush, doesn't agree with U.S. foreign policy, and thinks government-run corporations can be used to offset taxation while providing regulation over key industries, this all sounds fine. I've been listening to what Hugo Chavez has been saying and for the most part I've been saying 'Eh, he's probably right'.

Then he goes to the National Assembly (their legislature) and asks for the power to rule by decree for 18 months. Ostensibly this is so that he can move forward with his social agenda and plans for nationalization of utilities. However, by asking for it (let alone receiving it), he loses all of my respect. I also lose respect for the National Assembly of Venezeula, which honestly I didn't have an opinion on previously. Who willingly gives up power to a single person? Who, that claims not be a dictator, asks for such power? What is his first act by decree? Why, cancelling the license of a television station critical of him, of course!

As with so many dictatorships before, the people willfully give up their freedoms and the checks and balances on their government and cheer. Now we begin to wonder if the wolf is showing his true colors. Will he ask for an extension when his 18 months is up? Is this the beginning of a Cuban-style government for Venezuela? If this were merely the goings on of some banana republic, we might not even care, but remember that we get a large fraction of our oil from Venezuela in the form of Citgo. Chavez is intent of spreading his ideals and policies beyond his borders. As he scorns American Imperialism he works for his own brand. Is this the beginning of a resurgence of Soviet-style communism, just as China embraces capitalism and the economic wonders it brings (and environmental calamities, but I digress).

Will Chavez become the new Castro? Is he already? After all, Castro, in a twist of irony, is dying from his own shoddy nationalized health care. In all of this, the worst part about Chavez turning out to be a Stalin-in-waiting is that George Bush was right about him. Hopefully that won't go to his head, since he's been a smidge more humble recently.

Idiocy in high places

October 17th, 2006

We live in a dangerous world. To take the government view, America is a shining beacon of freedom. So bright is this beacon that evil-doers seek to frighten us and kill us. In this extremely simple world, our existence as a nation of people that enjoy prosperity, democracy, freedom of speech, religion, and privacy, and all the wonders of media-driven consumerism, represents a threat and a menace to those that wish to oppress.

In order to defeat these killers, we need to take the fight to them. Where are they? Well, though the 9/11 hijackers mostly came from Saudi Arabia, and their bases were in Afghanistan, their real home is Iraq. By fighting the Iraqi's (the murderous, evil ones that were just biding their time while Saddam was in power), we are keeping America safe. We'll make a new beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and that will distract the terrorists from attacking us.

Let's take a step back here. We already know the government view is absurd. Pointing that out is like laughing at a six year-old for not properly tying a shoe. What I want to talk about is that it isn't just the current administrations view that's absurd, it's the whole concept of a War on Terror. Nevermind the obvious and clumsy attempts at word association the government uses to link its policies to 9/11, and garner support from the gullible and the righteous. The War on Terror has at its heart a concept so ridiculous that it truly boggles the mind: if we kill enough terrorists, we'll end terrorism. Oh really?

Maybe that isn't the real goal, huh? It couldn't be, because no one could possibly believe that, right? Well, sadly, many do. Let's look at a situation that has little to do with terrorism. Many believe that the reason we're not succeeding in Iraq is because we don't have enough troops there. If we just had some more troops, we could crush that insurgency. To say that is to say that the reason we haven't beaten the insurgencies is because there are more of them left that we just can't get to, or that we can't kill them as fast as they are signing up. If we could just kill them faster than they are signing up, we'd win, right?

I think we know that isn't the case. But if it isn't, what do we do? Pull out? Won't that create a power vaccuum and a hotbed of terrorists? Won't that embolden them, show us as weak, and give them a victory? Everywhere we pull out, the insurgents take over and the local police are afraid to go. Everywhere we push in, we create more hatred and spawn more insurgents. This is a case where there isn't an easy solution. There's no magic wand that can undo the three years of war and the pointless invasion that started it.

The U.S. forces are lightning rods for violence, and in defending themselves against the embedded insurgency they cause more death and breed more resentment. Accepting that killing terrorists (or insurgents) won't end terrorism (or insurgency) is the first step to working on the real problems. The U.S.-backed government is fractured, corrupt, and because of that it is ineffective. The police are woefully unequipped to deal with the problems they face. They have no armor, no guns, and too few numbers. The infrastructure projects are underfunded and mis-managed. Unemployment is incredibly high, leaving many with ffew options.

Addressing the real problems in Iraq that lead people to accept, support, or join the insurgency is the only solution that will lead to a better Iraq. It will not end the violence quickly, but it will end in time.

The world on the trigger

October 9th, 2006

Recently there has been a lot of talk on the world political stage about the nuclear developments of Iran and North Korea. In 1968 or shortly thereafter, these nations (and many others) signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. This treaty states that they agree not to develop nuclear weapons, but gives them the right to develop peaceful nuclear power, including the enrichment of uranium. North Korea has withdrawn from this treaty, and Iran states their nuclear intentions are peaceful.

In 1968, for the majority of countries other than the five members that signed as having nuclear weapons already, developing nuclear weapons or even nuclear technology must have seemed like a pretty lofty ambition, so signing such a treaty wasn't a big deal. "Yes, we won't do something we don't think we could possibly do anyway." But there is only so long that now sixty-year-old technology can be kept secret, and what was out of reach almost forty years ago seems a bit more attainable these days.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I think nuclear weapons are an abhorrent and dangerous thing. But as long as nations have sovereign rights and don't threaten their neighbors, what right do we have (as a nation or as part of the international community) to tell these countries that they cannot have nuclear power, up to and including nuclear weapons?

We have to contend with the reality that the barrier to developing advanced technology that can potentially give these nations the ability to threaten us or anyone has fallen. We are returning to the state the world dealt with for centuries, when any country could threaten any other if it built the weapons necessary. Sure, we are more content if the only ones with the power is us, but that doesn't mean it's right.

Iran is a fundamentalist religious state with limited personal freedoms and a long list of past deeds that make us wary of them. However, as long as we try to strong-arm nations like Iran into capitulation, we're going to keep winding up with nuclear-armed enemies, instead of nuclear-armed friends. If we open diplomatic relations, accept that nuclear power is an eventuality, and move forward, we can be on much better terms with these countries. That will reduce our risk much more than the tactics that have been at play recently.

The same goes for North Korea. As a nation, they are acting like a child, crying for attention. We've been punishing North Korea for so long that we've decided anything less will be seen as acting weak. This posturing is only going to lead to more suffering for their people and more saber rattling by them against Japan and South Korea. Opening diplomatic ties is cheap and likely effective. A path towards easing sanctions that doesn't involve them giving up sovereignty but encourages them to act with more civility will probably defuse things faster than more security council resolutions.

Accepting that we can't command the state of the world is the simplest, best thing our nation can do to improve relations with the "Axis of Evil" and will lead to a far, far better world than all of the over-bearing shock and awe our military can muster. There is a time for military might and this isn't it. If nothing else, Iraq should have taught us that.

Armchair Diplomacy

March 31st, 2002

The news today is starting to get to me. The conflict between the Israeli army and the Palestinian citizens is a travesty. On the one hand, Palestinians desperate to defend their homeland are killing themselves and innocent Israelis. This accomplishes nothing save for further angering the Israeli government. On the other, Israel is taking over land that is not rightfully theirs, killing indiscriminately and accusing Arafat of not controlling something far beyond his control. It is awful that civility and compromise are so hopeless, and that so many must die to prove the resolve of posturing.