Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NASA should stop making rockets

A colleague of mine at work sent me a link today about an astronaut losing a tool bag in space during a space walk to work on the international space station. That seems as good a lede

as any to introduce a thought I've had for a while: NASA needs to be gutted.

Now, I like scientific research as much as the next guy — probably more than the typical next guy, actually. And despite my general preference for a small federal government, I do think the federal government needs to play a major part in funding science. Some of the most interesting and useful things we enjoy in the modern world have their origins in pure scientific research, and that's the kind of research that individuals and private companies have the least to gain from in terms of ROI.

My problem with NASA isn't that the government is spending so much money on research, it's that we're getting virtually nothing in return. We're not even trying to do real research anymore; manned missions these days are just excuses to fix whatever piece of the shuttle broke on the way up, and maybe pop another module to a space station that seems to be its own raison d'ĂȘtre.

In fact, one of NASA's points of pride is that its rovers and probes now use cheap, off-the-shelf parts. NASA sees that as proof that it's learning to work on a budget; I see it as proof that its innovative days are over. I'd rather spend $500 million and have learned something new than spend $100 million for what is, essentially, an expensive toy.

And while I'm trying my best to bite my tongue and not delve into a rant about the agency's all-consuming obsession to find water on Mars, suffice it to say that my world would be not be rocked in the least if they found ice there, or even evidence of Martian bacteria.

Where does that leave space research? At the risk of shedding my usual pinko hue for a deeper red, it's time for government to just get out of the private sector's way. The X Prize produced more innovation in space travel in eight years than NASA has since inventing the shuttle in 1981. If we want to make space travel a part of daily life, NASA's space missions should be gutted and the money appropriated to incentives in the private sector.

To be fair, there is still a substantial amount of pure research the government does through NASA. In particular, space telescopes and probes are giving us fascinating new insights to the universe. We've all but confirmed that black holes exist, and much of that research has been in the past decade; we're seeing farther and farther out, and thus farther and farther back in time. NASA should keep these research projects; but it should start shifting away from the job of getting the satellites themselves into orbit.

And please, can we stop talking about manned missions to Mars until we have a reason to go there? "Because it is there" is a great reason to go where no man has gone before, but George Mallory didn't cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

McCain's and Obama's speeches

It's late (I'm starting it at 2:15 AM)., so please excuse me if this isn't well written or thought out. Tomorrow (ie, "later today") or Thursday I'll follow up with some more reflections, but for now, I'd like to scratch out a quick note on my take on McCain's concession speech and Obama's victory speech.
I thought Obama's speech was very, very good. It was definitely celebratory (especially near the beginning, where, as my mom pointed out, it was even somewhat self-aggrandizing), but especially towards the end, had some very good points. His call to arms, as it were, was not as succinct or powerful as Kennedy's "ask not," but it resonated strongly with me. And while I usually dislike personal anecdotes, I (begrudgingly) liked his story of Ann Nixon Cooper. It drove through the message that the world has changed over the last 100 years in literally unimaginable and unpredictable ways, and it's up to us to make sure that the world 100 years from now will be better, even if we know we cannot begin to predict how it'll look. The big challenge will be to get people to actually commit to that commitment.

I also thought McCain's speech was very good. It was disturbing, of course, to hear the boos and taunts, but I can't be sure Obama's supporters wouldn't have done the same had they lost. And although I was a bit torn at first about McCain's focus on Obama's ethnicity, I now think it was appropriate. Clearly, this is a huge leap forward for the black community, and it's important that we have an official voice (not just the media) declare it as such explicitly. Obama say that, though; it would make it look like he really had been running as a black candidate, not just a candidate, and would strongly undermine and alienate his broad-based support. McCain had the grace to say what nobody else could: everything else aside, the fact that America was able to elect a black president is a huge deal and represents phenominal progress from a dark past.

Finally, a thought on cheers. I've never been one for the 1-2-3 cheers. But as I was listening to the speech in my car, it occurred to me that if you have to have one, "yes we can" isn't bad at all. It carries no jingoist message (c.f. "U S A!"), nor does it mindlessly focus on any one issue (I'm looking at you, "drill baby drill"). But most importantly, it's a very versatile message. The "we" can be practically any subset of the group that cheered it at the various Obama rallies -- youth, blacks, optimists, liberals, the elderly, whites, etc -- and the things "we" can do are just as mutable. The scariest part of unified cheers, to me, is that they dehuminize the cheerers and unify them into a mob; but "yes we can" inherently counteracts that tendency.

And now, enough ramblings. It's bed time.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

McCain's health insurance plan

One of the central tenets of McCain's health insurance plan is to let Americans buy insurance from any state, regardless of the state they live in. This might be a good idea if health insurance were a fully free-market commodity, but it guts the power of any state to set its own regulations or subsidize policies. Any state that tries to set minimum coverage or cap prices will be undermined by policies in states that don't, and any state that subsidizes health insurance policies will suddenly find itself paying for the whole country with the tax revenue of only its own residents.

Here in Massachusetts, we're embarking on an interesting plan to provide nearly universal coverage. It's by no means a fool-proof plan, and it looks to me like it'll probably fail. Not just that, but I knew even back when it was still being proposed that it would probably end up failing; the bar was incredibly high, and the state had no precedent from other states that it could learn from. Still, I always supported the plan, because I'm confident that even if it fails, what we'll learn from it will be invaluable as we set up its successor. My hope is that, in a couple decades, Massachusetts will hit on an iteration that really works.

Given America's current health insurance system, there's no way any state — or the federal government, for that matter — will get it right the first time. What the country needs is 50 independent laboratories, each trying its own way to provide the best coverage to the most people. Some states will go the free market route, and I can only hope that at least one or two try to nationalize (state-ize?) health care, taking as their model some of the very successful Western European countries.

Here's the crux: McCain's plan would eradicate those 50 laboratories. We'd have just one place to try policies, and it would be at a level so high — the federal government — that any experiment would be politically and economically impossible. Health insurance policy would fester under McCain's plan.

Of course, Obama's plan also works at the federal level; that's what a president's plan does. But he wouldn't strip power from local governments. His plan would largely keep regulation in the states' hands, except for the mandate to insure all minors — a reasonable floor to set, I think. At the core of it, Obama is proposing to set up a parallel health insurance system: if the regulations set by your state don't provide you a good option, you can go for the health insurance that federal employees get, which by all accounts is a very good one.

In other words, McCain's plan would strip states of their ability to control health insurance; Obama's would set a minimum bar for them, and in doing so would create an upwards pressure for them to create an environment that begets even better policies.

I would actually like Obama's plan more if it gave states more control. If a state provides a health insurance policy that's roughly equivalent to the federal government's, it should be able to petition the federal government to have it (the federal government) withdraw its coverage from that state's citizens. This would increase the state's pool of insured, allowing it to provide cheaper plans with better coverage, without undermining the minimum coverage that the federal plan was meant to provide.

States' rights? What states?

In some optimistic corner of my mind, I still cling to the idealized notion that the GOP is a small government, states' rights party; I like to think that its current policies represent a temporary if horrible corruption of their real position.

Of course, I know I'm deluding myself. Republicans today aren't about small government, and they're certainly not about states' rights. What's mildly interesting is that the party actually still pretends to be in favor of states' rights when it suits it: specifically, with the abortion issue. But McCain's insurance plan is a great example of the GOP's complete comfort with trampling over states in nearly every other matter.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Palin, the small-town mayor

Despite what they claim, the GOP have presented Sarah Palin almost purely as a nice storyline. There's little talk about the fact that as mayor of Wasilla she tried to fire the town's librarian after asking her to ban books, that she asked the town's top officials to resign as a loyalty test, or that she wants to teach creationism in public schools. People should give her credit for reining in big oil in Alaska and cutting down on government spending, but those efforts came at the expense of nearly everything else, according to Gregg Erickson, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News.

And let's be clear, she's no centrist. Palin is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest, supported a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage in Alaska and is no friend to the environment.

I would love the discussion to focus around these issues, but instead, Palin and others in the party have focused on her being a "hockey mom" we can all relate to, an average Jill who's just a hard-working mayor from a small town. This is somehow being spun as a plus.

I know plenty of nice people. I know plenty of people who are hard-working. But I don't know anyone who I'd consider ready to be president of the United States of America. And I'm sorry, but hunting moose is no qualification for conducting international politics — it's a completely orthogonal skill.

Have people forgotten that we're picking a leader here, not a pal? Imagine if GM were looking for a new CEO and picked one of their shift managers because she "understood blue-collar issues" and was "a down-to-earth candidate." Given that McCain is 72 years old, this is not just a rhetorical point; his VP must be qualified to be a good president.

Granted, Obama doesn't have a lot of political experience. But his now-derided "community organizer" role was in a city with a population literally more than four times greater than all of Alaska — and that's not counting the metro region outside Chicago proper. He's demonstrated his approach to foreign affairs. He's also run a large and extremely successful campaign for more than a year now, so his experience has been somewhat tested and highly scrutinized, as Republican Joe Scarborough pointed out (at 2:00 into the clip). Palin is coming out of left field.

Besides, Obama isn't pretending that his lack of experience is somehow a good thing, as Palin is.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Obama's failing, and why it shouldn't matter

It’s funny how a flip-flop can look like a betrayal if you’re on the wrong side of it.

Since he secured the Democratic party’s nomination, Obama has made a well-documented dash to the center. He’s tempered his 16-month pullout from Iraq by saying he’d adjust the timetable as needed, putting him fairly close to McCain’s (also new) position that timetables are irrelevant but that we should be out by 2013. With regard to oil, Obama now supports tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a reversal of his earlier position. He also did a 180 on FISA; ditto public campaign financing, and he’s not even relying on small donations as much anymore.

Now, each of those shifts is arguably the sensible thing, and one could be tempted to just shrug it off and say, “that’s politics for ya.” The problem is that Obama started out with — and still maintains — the notion that he’s somehow a new class of politician, and that’s turned out to be a lie. If we wanted a standard centrist, we had Hillary.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d still pick Obama over McCain. Obama has stayed firm on his tax brackets, which redistribute wealth more to the have-nots. I’d also prefer to see Obama picking the next one or two Supreme Court justices, and Obama’s certainly a more charismatic leader. Electing Obama would be a show of good faith to the rest of the world, although my guess is that it would be a fairly short-lived honeymoon. When it comes down to it, Obama is left-of-center, and McCain is right-of-right-of-center. I guess beggars can’t be choosers.

Obama's rush to the center reminds me of why I’m in favor of states’ rights. America will never elect a truly innovative class of politician as president, because it’s just too big and diverse. If you average out a rainbow, you get a muddy, unexciting color.

America should strive to work a bit more like the European Union: a tight union of separate, independent states. Each state should be responsible for its own moral compass, governmental initiatives and much of its own administration; the federal government should primarily be a coordinating body, distributor of wealth and guardian of a few basic human rights.

The argument might come back that the EU suffers from a disconnect from its citizenry, slow political movement caused by various countries’ hesitations at one point or another, and a general confusion as to the path it should take. I would respond: exactly.

In other words, I would like to see more of an “agree to disagree” attitude within America. Texas and Massachusetts are going to differ on a lot of things, and there’s no reason to let Ohio and Florida decide, every four years, whose opinion gets to rule supreme.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wall-E Surprise

I know I usually post only once a week, but I wanted to get a short entry in today, before July's Month o' Music starts.

I just saw Wall-E and was pleasantly surprised. I came in thinking it would be a cute, fun movie, but it turned out to have a good message as well. I'm not talking about the environmentalism, which turned out to be a relatively minor element.

The rest of this post has mild spoilers, so I'm hiding it. Click here to show it.
If you're looking at this through an RSS reader, you'll have to actually click through to the article. Or you could just run the rest of this post through a rot13 decoder, I guess

Friday, June 27, 2008

An environmentalist's manifesto

July is special, so I'm going to devote it entirely to a fun subject. No environmental stuff, no political junk, just my thoughts on music and why all these young whippersnappers with their "hip hop" and "rock 'n' roll" should get off my lawn.

To compensate, I'll leave you, my faithful reader(s), with my militant and proselytizing manifesto.
There's a lot of focus within the environmental movement on conservation: we take for granted that it's our right as humans to consume and consume, and if we've committed any sin, it's that we've consumed inefficiently. We should rethink that mindset.

I would submit that we never had a carte blanche in the first place; we've been taking luxuries as fundamental necessities without thinking, like some character out of The Great Gatsby who's slowly starting to realize that his money isn't coming from a deep trust fund but from a line of credit.

Let's take driving, because it's always fun to beat a dead horse. According to one site I found that lists carbon emissions by mode of transportation, a 180 lb man creates about 200 lbs of CO2 every mile he drives alone in a car. It won't go away for thousands of years.

Okay, cars pollute — nothing new. But the crux is that driving isn't a basic right, it's a huge convenience. Humans survived tens of thousands of years without more than feet, horses and wheels, but we've forgotten all that in the last century. Suddenly, it's not driving that's fast and easy; it's walking or biking that are slow and hard.

It would behoove us all to remember that when we drive, use a computer, turn on the A/C or do any number of other activities that consume power, we're going above and beyond what nature was designed to let us do. We're spending what we were never given to spend.

I'm guilty too; I drive several times a week, use a computer for hours a day and enjoy the A/C at work. But I feel guilty about it, which makes me think every time I do something that pollutes, which makes me do it a lot less. It may be melodramatic and smack of self-flagellation, but I think it's one case where a bit of guilt is deserved and well placed. To put it bluntly: every animal has to pollute a bit, but we might ask ourselves what gives us the right to so grossly exceed our allowance.

And when you stop and think about it, taking an extra half-hour to use public transportation instead of driving isn't really that inconvenient. You're still saving a lot of time compared to having to walk those 6 miles. And if you bring a book or a magazine or manage to grab a seat and doze off for a few, it can honestly be a nice experience.

Hmm, that last graf
wasn't too manifesto-esq, was it? Don't tell Marx.

On an unrelated note for anyone who's holding their breath for the answer to the math question I posed a while back: I haven't crunched the numbers yet, but I will at some point. The suspense will keep you coming back!

Friday, June 20, 2008

The international price of nuclear power

With oil prices and CO2 on everyone's minds, America is looking for other sources of power. Nuclear energy is one option that comes up a lot: it doesn't pollute the air, and we know how to make a lot of it economically and ubiquitously; the latter can't yet be said of wind, hydro or solar power. There are of course concerns about safety — accidents are rare, but they're devastating when they happen — and nuclear waste, but there's another issue I haven't heard much about.

America is the world's superpower, and where it goes, others may follow. But nuclear technology can be used for bombs as well as power plants, and the line separating them is neither wide nor necessarily visible. Every time America has accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons, Iran has countered that it's only after power plants. The technologies are close enough that proving either side right has been difficult. Nuclear bombs and power plants use the same ingredients, enriched uranium and plutonium, and plutonium is in fact synthesized in nuclear reactors. Even without enriching nuclear fuel to weapons-usable quality, a country could easily use radioactive fuel or waste to make dirty bombs.

If America touts nuclear energy as its energy solution, it will be in a tough place telling other countries they can't do the same. Iran and other countries will have much greater political leverage for pursuing a strong nuclear energy program, and that would put them within dangerous reach of developing a nuclear weapons program.

Even if no country uses the nuclear bombs it develops, we run the risk of coups, corruption, under-the-table support or even just bureaucratic negligence putting bombs in the hands of those who will. And nuclear waste will be around when every government now in existence is long gone; it's irresponsible to leave it for the terrorists and governments of the 60th century to find. Soviet Russia wasn't all that careful in cleaning up its nuclear waste, and who are we to say that no new nuclear power would be as bad?

We need to develop alternatives to energy other than fossil fuels, yes. But we need to examine each option carefully if we're to avoid jumping out of the frying pan and into the incinerator. It may be worth spending a bit more time and money developing the truly clean and safe technologies instead of investing heavily in a technology that could bite us hard later.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Math puzzle: which station? (part 1)

Whoops, looks like I missed this week's regularly scheduled posting. It's late now and I don't feel like typing anything too involved, so here's a neat little math question I've been wondering about.

Environmentalist that I am (or "greentard," as my girlfriend likes to call me1), I like to take the T to work as often as I can. My 90-minute trek starts with a walk to the red line, which I take in to Park Street.2 There are two T stops, Porter and Davis, roughly equidistant from my house; the train going my direction hits Davis first, then Porter. The question is: does it matter which I take?

Here's my thinking. On the one hand, trains run through each station at the same pace, so it shouldn't matter where I wait. If I have to wait an average of X minutes at Porter, I should have to wait the same X minutes, on average, at Davis.

On the other hand, let's imagine that I walk to Davis and get there just in time to see the train pulling out; I missed it by 30 seconds. It takes a minute or two for the train to get to Porter, so if I'd instead gone to that station, I'd get there just before the train; perfect timing!

My hypothesis is that if my schedule and the trains' schedules were completely random, everything would even out and it wouldn't matter which station I went to. But neither one of them is totally random; the trains are relatively regular (every 7 or 8 minutes), and so am I (I try to leave around 7:45 am). If I assume that my time is somewhat synchronized with the trains' — with some randomization, since neither of us are flawless — I bet Porter is the better station. My time cost for being a bit ahead of the train isn't high (30 seconds or a minute), but if I'm a bit behind, I'll catch a train at Porter that I'd miss at Davis.

I'll run some simulations; stay tuned for the results next week.

Apologies if this post is badly written; the timestamp is my excuse.

[1] She stole this term shamelessly from Fake Steve Jobs.
[2] Sic. Remind me to write about my conundrum regarding "in to" and "into" soon.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Casinos in Massachusetts

Back in the old days, before I had a blog, there was some talk about bringing casinos to Massachusetts. The idea was squashed by house Democrats in March, but state Senate Republicans are now trying to bring it back up.

I'll admit, the idea of a casino that close to my hometown puts me ill at ease. I have a bit of an issue with the fact that gambling is an industry predicated on profiting off of people's false hopes, but the main issue is NIMBY

. I don't like the idea of people putting Boston and Atlantic City in the same breath.

On the other hand, I've always had a bit of a libertarian streak in me; I think people should generally be trusted to make their own decisions, and I'm very wary of the government legislating morality. Gambling can cause problems for some people, but for many others it's a harmless and occasional distraction. The government should help those who develop gambling problems — and probably force the industry to pay for it, as they do with cigarettes — but those problems do not justify outlawing the industry altogether.

So I'm putting my money where my mouth is: I'm in favor of allowing casinos in Massachusetts, not because I see a valid reason for legalizing them, but because I don't see a valid reason for banning them.

What frustrates me is that the ideas of freedom and self-determination are hardly ever brought up in the debate. The pro-casino side focuses almost exclusively on the jobs Massachusetts casinos would bring and the tax revenue they'd generate. The revenue issue, at least, seems dubious at best; I've heard of several studies that report that after you factor in extra police, medical and other municipal services, states break about even on casinos. The jobs are more significant, but they still shouldn't be the only issue.

The irony is that the state says gambling is immoral enough to warrant banning casinos, but at the same time runs its own lottery. There's no reason for the government to be in the business of running lotteries in the first place, but to bar the private sector from running its own gambling services on moral grounds is plain hypocrisy.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Education won't solve poverty

When people talk about making the world a better place, they frequently start with bringing education to those who can't afford it. We take it as a given that people's lives will be better if they graduate high school or, better yet, college. But education alone is a short-term fix.

The problem is in the very reason we think of education as the panacea to poverty: it's a way of getting out of low-paying jobs. We try to get it through people's heads that if only they get a degree, they won't have to work as janitors, factory workers, rice patty farmers or other undesirable positions.

But the world will always need janitors, factory workers, rice patty farmers and the rest. If everyone had a high school degree, you'd need a college degree to move up the socioeconomic ladder. If everyone had a college degree, you'd need a master's. This has already started to happen in America; even unskilled white collar positions often require an undergraduate degree.

The crux is that educating someone doesn't stop the exploitation of the world's poor; it just lets that person do a bit of the exploiting.

Instead of pretending that we can rid the world of unskilled jobs, we should work to ensure that the people who work those jobs can still lead good lives. Education is a piece of that puzzle because it effects social mobility for those who have the desire and natural abilities. It can also expand minds and give us new ways of thinking about the world, which is good in itself.

But at the end of the day, someone has to clean the floors and work factory machines. Those people should be happy even if they never make it to shift manager.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Music is our soma

I make no secret of the fact that I don't like the direction music's been taking the last couple decades. Modern music is repetitive and shallow, and even the simplest sonata would eclipse it in complexity. But what really scares me is that music isn't just meaningless, it's mind-numbing — and purposely so.

Not to sound like a fanboy, but just try and compare a rock song to a symphony. Tchaikovsky's 5th is just over 45 minutes long, and any given 30 seconds have more development than, say, Smells Like Teen Spirit has in its 5-minute entirety. That's not an exaggeration.

Don't get me wrong. I love rock. It's fun to listen to, and it often moves me emotionally. But in terms of musical sophistication, it doesn't hold a candle to jazz or classical music. It's not meant to; it's is an intellectual escape, and the same is true of pop, hip-hop, country and most other modern genres.

The problem is that people listen to this music all the time. Next time you're walking in the park, taking the subway or just sitting in a cafe, take a look around at all the people drowning out the world with the same 8 bars of "THUNK chss THUNK THUNK chss" blasting over, and over, and over, and over, and over.

For those who don't remember or never read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, one of the more jarring elements of his dystopia is the legal, socially acceptable drug soma. Soma helps people go on "holiday" for a few minutes whenever they want, and it's one of the strongest symbols of Huxley's fear for our world: that society would brainwash itself. In contrast to Orwell's 1984, Huxley saw that the greatest danger we face isn't that a privileged few would subjugate the masses, but that the masses would subjugate themselves. If there's no inner party, there's nobody to overthrow.

We're there yet, and I'm certainly not saying that iPods have destroyed civilization. But the path to the Brave New World is traversed with baby steps. We should take a look to see how far we've gone in just the last century.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


That's what I am, a big fat cheater. Any post below this was backdated; I copied them from my facebook account.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Shavitian subprime numbers

In honor of the fact that I'm a bit of a nerd, here's interesting class of numbers I discovered: Shavitian subprime numbers. A number is a Shavitian subprime if it's prime, and every number within it is prime. For instance, for the number 1,234 to be a Shavitian subprime, the following numbers would all have to be prime: 1, 2, 3, 4, 12, 23, 34, 123, 234, 1234.

If you're still reading, you probably have too much time on your hands. As a reward, I'll let you in on a little secret: there's only nine such numbers in all of existence: 2, 3, 5, 7, 23, 37, 53, 73 and 373.

Intrigued? You can read more (including as close to a formal proof as I could come up with) on my GooglePages page on Shavitian subprime numbers. That's not meant as linkbait -- I just don't want to bore you with a big ol' copy-paste.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Oh, Romney

I put on some NPR during my drive down to hockey, and they were airing the Republican debate. I managed to catch about half an hour of it, and while I can't say I agreed with all of their stances, it was a good debate. One thing really got my goat, though.

The moderator at one point asked the candidates what they thought of Sandra Day O'Connor, and whether Reagan erred in appointing her. Now, I'll admit a bias here on my part: I think O'Connor was great. Still, I can see that she doesn't exactly embody the current Republican movement, so they can't get completely behind her. McCain answered that while he doesn't want to second-guess Reagan, he'd rather have someone more like Roberts or Alito. Okay, that I can buy; I don't love their views and I'm not totally crazy about their judicial philosophy, but they are certainly competent and I can't really complain about them being on the bench.

Romney echoed McCain's answered, but added that he'd also rather have another Scalia or Thomas. I'm not even sure how to convey my views on that without sounding like an extremist; I think both of them, and Thomas in particular, have no business being on the court. Thomas is so far out that even Scalia called him "a nut." Here's the problem: it's one thing to have conservatives on the bench, and I even think that's healthy — I don't want a one-sided bench (is that just a chair?). I don't agree with "textualism" or "originalism" or whatever you want to call it, but on the other hand it's probably not a bad thing to have one or two guys looking out to say, "hm, do we really have this jurisdiction?" But when there are only nine people in a group, you lose a lot by having two of them be so far from the rest that they're practically outcasts — and proud of it! Thomas once went an entire term without saying a single word during oral arguments.

Wanting to appoint a judge who has a similar political bent as you is fine. But the last thing we need is another Scalia or Thomas; and I'd say the same of a left-leaning pariah as well.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Electability is important

Although the New Hampshire primary had different results in the bottom line, some of the underlying trends were the same. Young voters increased their share of the vote, and — which is more significant — Obama won the independent vote. It just happened that in this case, Clinton’s win among Democrats was enough to put her on top.

According to CNN, 43% of independents voted for Obama, compared to 31% for Clinton. But a little over half of those who voted in the Democratic primary identified as Democrats, and Clinton won more of those votes than Obama did.1 Simply put, New Hampshire ended up being Democratic enough that Obama’s lead among independents wasn’t enough to win him the primary. But although two states out of 50 is hardly the last word, the results so far indicate that Obama is the better candidate.

Independence from independents is wrong

Voters who weigh the good of choosing a strong candidate against the evil of sacrificing some of their ideals are assuming an evil that simply doesn’t exist. Picking a candidate without regard to others’ opinions is the right thing to do in a parliamentary system with proportional representation, but in an winner-take-all government like America’s, it is exactly the wrong approach.

It all comes down to where compromise factors into the process. In systems with proportional representation, it happens within the government. Each voter steadfastly selects the candidate or party that most closely fits his own ideals, and the elected officials work out compromises as they establish ruling coalitions. Constituents determine how much weight each opinion should have by determining how many of its supporters are elected.

America’s presidency, for the most part, doesn’t work that way. Only one party can be elected (and only one candidate at that, really, since most people don’t weigh the vice president or potential cabinet members much in their decisions) so any compromise has to happen during the primaries. A party does the nation a disservice by nominating a candidate that matches the extremes of its constituency while alienating the rest of the nation. In fact, one could argue that this is what the general election is really all about; with the Democratic and Republican parties roughly equal in strength,2 the election goes to the party whose candidate represents the best compromise.

In practice, this system has a few complications. Strategic loyalties to core party bases restrict either party from moving too close to the middle, and voters can hedge a president somewhat by voting for Congressmen of the opposing party. But those who categorically dismiss a candidate’s electability as a factor, claiming that doing so tarnishes the processes by infusing it with Machiavellian pragmatism, are missing the point: a democracy works best when all of its citizens are involved, and picking a candidate who can’t effect that is a worse compromise of ideology than is picking someone who differs a bit from your own views but more closely matches the majority’s.

[1] Clinton wins back women, narrowly takes New Hampshire (accessed Jan. 9)
[2] Democrats Gain Edge in Party Identification (accessed Jan. 9) While the parties’ numbers are not actually equal — Democrats currently outnumber Republicans by a few percentage points, or at least they did in 2004 — it’s fair to assume that many people in both parties are close to center and may even switch their votes. In fact, that’s probably where those fluctuations in the parties’ share of voters comes from.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Eye o' ah

I'm feeling motivated, and why the heck not. Here's my thoughts on that raucous caucus. Well, half of it -- I don't especially like any of the leading Republicans, so I was pretty ambivalent about their half of the night.

Obama, Clinton, Edwards — in that order

Up until about a week ago, I was in favor of Clinton, with Obama a close second. I actually came into this process most excited about Edwards, but the more I heard of him, the less impressed I was. His domestic views are laudable (if a bit populist), but he has next to nothing as far as foreign policy. We aren't some small country that can focus exclusively on its intramural problems; we are the world's dominant superpower, and our leader should reflect that.1

Between Clinton and Obama, I favored Clinton mostly because I think she's the more experienced, and probably smarter, candidate. The two are fairly similar in many of their views, except that in the traditional stick-and-carrot balance, Clinton seemed less hesitant to use the stick — which I agree with. On pure, apolitical merit, I still think Clinton is better. Of course, apolitical merit only goes so far in politics.

About a week ago, I switched my allegiance for a purely pragmatic reason: I think Obama's more electable. Say what you will about voting on that strategy, but I think it's an important consideration. I'd much rather have a great shot with Obama than an okay shot with Hilary. The caucus vindicated that more than I expected it to, since Obama's fairly significant lead was almost entirely in the independent voters — among Democrats, the three leading candidates more or less tied.2

In short, I was happy with the results.

Taking the 'M' out of 'MVP'

A few weeks ago I had discussed with some friends the possibility of a Clinton-Obama ticket — which we liked — as well as an Obama-Clinton ticket — which we liked more but thought unlikely. As I think about it now, both of those would be the wrong way to go. Clinton and Obama are similar enough that they'd compliment each other more than they'd complement each other, and that would be a waste.

What I think I'd really like to see is Obama-Edwards. The two would make a great team, with Obama able to focus more on foreign policy and broad domestic agendas, and Edwards really battling it out domestically. The guy who wants to fight for the middle class, who wants to take on the big corporations with conviction and even enmity, but who won't necessarily have the time to look at foreign policy as much — that's the perfect guy to have in as vice president. Obama's charisma and calming words would mix with Edward's fiercer posturing, and the two would play good-cop-bad-cop fantastically against those corporations.

Get off my lawn!

One last thought: The media hints at it a bit, but I think there's really not enough emphasis put on the moral victory won last night by a politically repressed demographic: young people. We've grown up listening to our elders talk all the time about how the nation's youth is apathetic and uninformed, which I think many of us would disagree with. Well, the "under 30" voter turnout last night tripled compared with the last two presidential races. That's actually not as impressive as it sounds at first; the "over 30" turnout roughly doubled, so we younguns only slightly increased our showing measured as a percentage of total caucus-goers. 3 Still, the media is starting to notice that we're not the politically retarded people we've been painted as, and that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Questionable quotations

"None of this worries me — Sept. 11, there were times I was worried."

Rudy Giuliani, once again unintentionally living up to the joke

"To end the political strategy that's been all about division, and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states. Because that's how we'll win in November..."

Barack Obama, who forgot that the opposite of division is actually multiplication, and who talks about how bipartisanship is how he plans to beat the other party

[1] Those who know me hopefully realize that I don't say that to be jingoist. If anything, I say it with resignation, since I think little good ever comes from one country wielding so much power.
[2] Today on the Presidential Campaign Trail (accessed Jan 4, 2008; no longer available)
[3] Revised Estimates Show Higher Iowa Youth Turnout than Expected (accessed Jan 4, 2008)