Archive for the ‘Government/Politics’ category

Three Articles: Freedom, Iran, Libertarianism

January 16, 2012

Three important articles worth reading:

 

10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free – Op-Ed by Jonathan Turley in the Washington Post, 1/13/12

This op-ed is a list of the questionable ways our government can currently deprive people of their rights.

It is easy to be afraid of terrorist attacks and subsequently pass laws that give the security bureaucracies more power. It will be slow, tedious, and difficult to reign these powers back in. I would suggest that a Ron Paul candidacy would be good in the sense that it would get more people talking about these issues, but I had the same thought in 2006 – that an Obama candidacy would be good because he spoke to the aspirations of the levelheaded middle. Presidents and presidential candidates do not solve problems. A lengthy application of political pressure on lots of representatives and the president does. We’ll see if that happens…

 

How Obama should talk to Iran – Op-Ed by Trita Parsi in the Washington Post, 1/13/12

Parsi outlines a more comprehensive, sensible, and courteous approach the U.S. could take to its decades-long standoff with Iran which has been particularly rankled for the last half-decade on the issue of nukes.

It exasperates me TO NO END that the leaders of countries act like ten-year-olds. I even wrote one of the short essays in my college application five years ago about how stupid the U.S.-Iran escalation was. The fact that this problem has continued and then heated up to threats over the Strait of Hormuz is irritating beyond words. There is no good reason why the U.S. should dislike Iran. Sure, Iran and Israel might have disagreements, but the India-Pakistan (they both have nukes!!) disagreements are clearly just as worrisome. The U.S. and Iran don’t get along purely because they don’t get along. It is THAT stupid. This article is the adult in the room (along with, apparently, Turkey and Brazil).

 

Libertarian Illusions – by Jeffrey Sachs in the Huffington Post, 1/15/12

In this post, Sachs argues that libertarians (and Ron Paul) ignore other vital societal values, like civic responsibility and compassion.

It was tempting to insert quotes from this post, but the whole thing practically needed quotes – so go read it. I have my own private theory about some of the large strains in philosophical thought which I will outline briefly here but elaborate on more another time. It goes like this… Liberty, equality, and utility are all important ideals worth striving for. But any one of them taken to the extreme at the complete expense of the others creates a society that nobody wants. So beware extremists, like pure libertarians. For instance, imagine an equalitarian party (everyone gets the same salary!) or a utilitarian party (well these rich people are SUPER rich and happy, but hey, it’s a net plus for society, right?). Preposterous. Get over yourselves, libertarians.

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A Review of Parting The Waters by Taylor Branch

January 14, 2012

This. Book. Is. SO. Good. Wow.

It spans the decade of 1954-1963 and tells the epic tale of Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights struggles. It is not your snapshot version: clocking in at over 900 pages, you get the real meat of the story. You live through that decade as you read.

This means you get all the nitty gritty details of each 1950’s-era news cycle. An altercation occurs! King comments on it… People disparage him! He feels stuck… But just weeks later, the comments are forgotten and the next battle is at hand. It gives you great a perspective on all of today’s political controversies, and it exposes their silliness.

Amazingly, you don’t get lost in the details. The book is truly an American Epic – the struggle of a people for their rights and freedom with some fascinating larger-than-life leaders grappling with each other publicly and privately. Lord of the Rings is good and all, but this is an astounding tale of the grandest scale, and real at that.

The story starts when Republicans were still the most favorable party to blacks, a vestige of Lincoln’s emancipation. But both parties include civil rights elements in the presidential election of 1960 – blacks are a demographic worth courting. Then Kennedy’s win is aided partly because he and RFK made two phone calls about King being in jail (it wasn’t just Daley in Chicago delivering votes!), which the black community responds to with a drastic shift in support. But! Kennedy heads a party full of viscously ardent segregationists in the south. That tension permeates the interactions between the racist southern governors and RFK at the Justice Department as the movement’s confrontations with segregated institutions ignite in conflict.

J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t make anything easier, since he is always hunting for some (nonexistent and absurd) communist threat and influence. His dirt on JFK’s affairs secures his power at the FBI, and he insists that a couple of King’s friends are such a threat that he gets RFK to approve wiretaps. (For historians, I imagine those wiretaps are a treasure.) Exasperatingly, Hoover does not enthusiastically commit his FBI resources to investigating crimes in the south, more because of his own bureaucratic motives than segregationist ones. It certainly does not help King, the movement, or the poor people who were persecuted to have an unhelpful FBI.

Then there is the baptist church! One fascinating angle I had not heard before is how King wished to have the national baptist church organization help lead his civil rights efforts. But doing so meant the church’s national leadership needed to change. The stories of the National Baptist Conventions are as full of conflict as any events that decade, with a large swatch of preachers trying to unseat the president of the organization, J.H. Jackson, who tyrannically outmaneuvers them and holds onto power. He even dramatically rebukes King, demoting him within the organization and accusing him of something close to murder. Don’t forget, these are preachers doing a bunch of fighting!

Plus you have the global conflict of the US vs the USSR. Some of the civil rights stories make it into the international press, casting a bad light on the US, which pressures Kennedy from another side.

For flavor, peppered throughout are little mentions of celebrities like Frank Sinatra, who had gangster friends which caused issues for Kennedy at one point, plus Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr.

And the whole struggle (the point of it all, really) is this radically nonviolent movement against a very deeply rooted and violent racism in the south, with all kinds of enablers, intimidation, habits, and fears. It is not a war where the other side surrenders and it is over. It is a whole swath of institutions that King and the movement must continuously chip away, from segregation laws and business practices to intimidations against blacks registering to vote, all across several states.

Most perplexing is that the book ends before many policies really change. Brown v. Board of Ed and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 are ruled and passed in the book, true, but their implementation was not easy nor immediate: two big stories of the movement are when James Meredith tries to register at the University of Mississippi and all of Robert Moses’s efforts with voting registration in Mississippi. The results of Civil Rights Act of 1964 are not in the scope of the book. Plus, even if policies had changed immediately, it would not drive racism out of peoples’ hearts.

Because essentially, that is the long-tail ending of the story, and it has not even ended yet. Sure we have elected a black president and ended blatant lawful segregation, but there is definitely still a distinct community of black americans who are not respected or understood by much of white america. Political struggles have concrete endpoints. But social struggles exist in hearts and minds, and cannot be changed quickly by policy. But that’s a discussion left to several more essays…

Anyway, my summaries do little justice to the book. It is truly an experience to immerse yourself in the story. Thankfully, the terrors are mostly history so the reader can excitedly see how the events play out and be spared the emotional damage. The violence at times is utterly terrifying and Branch, an excellent storyteller, turns some of the famous photographs into real life on the page. After reading it, you very much appreciate the struggles our nation has gone through to overcome its original sin.

I highly highly recommend this book. It is incredibly well written and the story is a supremely important part of our nation’s history.

—–

On a much more personal note, the book intrigued me also because I was interested in learning about this era that my dad’s side of the family was a part of, albeit in the periphery:

My dad and my pacifist grandfather had lunch with King in (I think) 1959 at some church event somewhere. My dad remembers King appearing very tired (and when Branch spoke at my church a few years ago, my dad mentioned this memory to him, to which Branch said it was probably because King was traveling all the time, giving speeches). My grandfather was a Democratic congressman from Colorado for one term, 1959-1961, and he attended the 1960 DNC in Los Angeles. And my grandmother was somehow friends with Harry Belafonte, who she had a crush on (we still have his records – also, he’s still alive?!). Plus, they were living in DC during the march on washington, and attended it. And, my parents have a poster of Bayard Rustin hanging in their office.

So as I read, all of these family stories gained another dimension of clarity.

My enthusiasm about the book also brought something out of my dad that I did not expect. He started college in 1960 when he was seventeen and soon wound up in radical student politics, joining an early version of SDS. So he came of age during the whole national upheaval chronicled so eloquently by Branch.

Anyways, there I am, sitting in my parents’ study, gushing to my dad about how good the book is, having just read the fascinating account of the Montgomery bus boycott. “There were other people who had gotten into altercations on the buses! But some organizers knew they wouldn’t be good examples to use if they wanted to make a statement out of it! But then Rosa Parks got arrested! And SHE was this really sweet, upstanding citizen, so they instantly rallied around her and then-”

As I’m raving on about Rosa Parks, to my prodigious surprise, my dad starts tearing up a little bit.

He remarks huskily, while he blinks at his computer screen, “to think, that she would then lie in state at the US capitol… simply amazing…”

Now, I’ve sat in that study and talked to my father about all sorts of things – politics, economics, policy, family, the neighbor’s dog, whatever.

But I’ve never before in my life, in that study or elsewhere, seen my father come close to crying.

A Two Party System

September 28, 2011

I have seen some rumblings in op-eds that we should try to organize “the center” and come up with some kind of third party for the middle. The Republicans and Democrats are too partisan and are not representing the interests of the center. Or something like that.

These people do not seem to have taken a class on elections when they were in college, because if they had they would understand that any efforts at creating third party would probably hurt their true interests.

This is because we have a largest-vote-getter, winner-take-all system. It pressures people to divide into two camps. Think of a political spectrum as a line.

like soylent green, the line is people

(more…)

Civic Confirmation

September 17, 2011

This op-ed in the New York Times talks about how mandatory patriotism goes against the democratic tradition of choosing one’s own way in civic society.

Which got me to thinking about how people are brought up into their country’s and community’s civic traditions and systems.

School is mandatory and, at least for me, that meant we learned “how a bill becomes a law” in fifth grade and that ninth grade social studies was all about the US government. And there was some US history scattered throughout the years. So we learn how it works, presuming we, you know, paid attention, and that every school has some amount of the same curriculum as mine did.

But there is little to no regular way that has us learn to participate. Except for the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, which we recite every day in school or sing before every sports game.

This seems to not be enough. Sure, some people grow up in more civic-minded families where finally registering to vote feels like one of those adult rites of passage. But for a lot of people, 18 is just another year, while 21 is the real milestone, since you can finally buy alcohol legally.

Churches get it. At my presbyterian church, we went through a confirmation class once we were in ninth grade, where we learned the purpose of a lot of church traditions and then at the end chose whether or not we would join the church. There was a ceremony one sunday where the community welcomed us as adults. Jews, as we all know, do it with a lot more pomp (and studying, and gifts).

But wouldn’t it be much cooler if there were a comparable “welcome to being a part of society” kind of process and celebration once you become old enough to vote? If done well and done thoroughly in all communities across the country, we would have a much more engaged citizenry. Sure, we would still have a winner-take-all system that would discourage having more than two dominant parties, but civil society would generally be more robust.

In some ways, the induction ceremony for new citizens is enviable. They also have to pass a test, which none of us born-within-the-boundries have to do. Should we all have to pass a test to vote? I think that would probably discourage more people from voting, and it’s not like people could be stopped from using public goods and free riding while not participatin.

But it would be better to have something. Therefore, I resolve, here and now, when my children turn 18, I will make it a big fucking deal. I will invite all sorts of friends and family and we will make it their biggest birthday party, and the high point will be them signing their registration form and putting it in the mailbox. I ask that you do the same or come up with another way to bring the people you know into the process of paying attention, probing for answers, thinking critically, and weighing in. Of course, it won’t just be a celebration of being old enough to vote, but the end of several years of whatever initial lessons I, school, etc could teach him to that point and to the beginning of the exploration on their own.

And if a lot of people start doing that and it catches on? Awesome. Spread de word.

Norway is Awesome

August 8, 2011

First of all – a weird story. I woke up the morning of the attack in Norway at about 11:30 eastern time, and for no particular reason, my mind literally thought these words: “The capitol of Norway is … Oslo.” I was puzzled by the fact that I thought this – it’s not normal for me to wake up and spout a bit of trivia or geography. Read into it as you will.

Secondly, the best response I read about the tragedy was this one, by Eirik Bergesen, a “Norwegian diplomat currently on leave.”

Some amazing bits from it:

“there hasn’t even been a public outcry for more security for the politicians to address. No opposition politicians, not even social media voices, have demanded more public security or pointed to the lack thereof as potential discouragements to the attacks. There has been no visible debate on gun laws or even on the sale of fertilizer, used by the attacker. Neither has there been calls for stricter legal punishment, Norway has 21 years as its maximum prison sentence.”

“Surprising for many, even the media have kept their cool. While foreign media erupted in Islamic terror speculation (The Sun had “Al Qaida attack” on their front page, even News York Times elaborated lengthy on these suspicions). Norwegian media, in most part, waited patiently for all the pieces to emerge. In social media, people are taking responsibility, calling for everyone to pause and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

And my favorite, because I had somewhat agreed with Clinton originally but now I agree 100% with Norway:

“In his speech at 15 year commemoration of the Oklahoma bombing, former president Bill Clinton addressed how politicians’ and political commentators’ words enter into “an echo chamber that travels through space and falls on the connected and unhinged alike”. He was subsequently criticized by some Republicans of tampering with their freedom of speech, and although Clinton’s warning may be a fair one, it is not likely to gain support in Norway these days. As a young Labour politician said on Twitter: “Bring the attacker’s political ideas to the table, and we will debate them to death”.”

To whatever degree all of this is true, it is pretty awesome. Can we keep hacking away at building in these kinds of behaviors in American culture? Or thinking bigger – global culture?

Concentrated Solar Power

April 14, 2011

Energy! This was on digg recently because Google was funding it. But it was also supported by a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy, so it’s funded in part by your friendly neighborhood American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009! In watching the video, you notice that big names are in attendance, such as Ahnold and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Suffice to say that most DOE Recovery Act awards don’t get that kind of attendance and attention – this is a big deal.

It’s a puffy video, with cheesy music, and a lot of patting themselves on the back. But CSP has a lot of promise – cheap, simple, clean. Now that some BIG plants are going up, we’ll start seeing more and more of them. Unfortunately, they won’t appear as quickly as they need to, partly because energy politics in DC are so terrible these days such that the government won’t be investing as much. Alas.

Anyways, it’s a fun, optimistic watch. And it has some cool visuals (those are HUUGE mirrors!).

Talk is “Cheap”

April 5, 2011

A billion dollar presidential campaign?

The country has just over 300 million people. Some of those are below voting age. That makes it between 3 and 4 dollars per person. Though under 60% of eligible voters actually participate in presidential elections. That ups it to between 4 and 5 dollars per person. But the magnificently bizarre electoral college alongside a voting population most of whom vote incredibly predictably, and the dollar amount per person jumps up by maybe an order of magnitude.

A billion dollars. In campaign magnitudes, it’s a shitton. In terms of the whole country, not too much. In terms of what it’s used for (targeting swing voters in swing states), a reasonable amount.  If it costs $50 to communicate with about the nuances of national policy, executive branch leadership, and being commander in chief, not to mention building the trust required, I think that seems adequate. That’s cheaper than the cost of a plane flight that would put the candidate in your living room to have the conversation in person.

Obama’s projected billion dollars surprised me because it’s a huge number that we haven’t seen before in a campaign. But if you think proportionately, then it’s not thaaat much. Especially when our GDP is ~$14 trillion. Plus, the money goes into the economy (albeit, specific, media-oriented sectors much more than others). Though it’s important to note, this $billion is only for the democratic presidential nominee – it doesn’t take into account the republican(s) fundraising, nor all the other races at the national, state, and local levels. Plus all the volunteer hours and the economic activity related to the campaign that they didn’t spend (it costs you money to drive to that rally, or that newsroom devotes all sorts of resources to its coverage).

Boy do we like deciding on our government. And turnout is still low!

Anyways, to shift the focus a bit…

Electoral reforms that would make me incredibly happy:

-popular vote for president

-readjusting representation in the senate so a state with a population less than Washington DC isn’t allowed to have the same number of votes as a state with a population bigger than most countries (in the name of ‘states rights’ we don’t have to make it proportional, like the house, though maybe we should, but it’s god damn ridiculous right now and it will only get LESS representative)

-every state uses a redistricting commission like California’s new one rather than the party in power after the census buying itself blowjobs- sorry, I mean drawing themselves electoral advantages for a few years

These would all make the system more fair, which I personally think is the most important criteria when it comes to elections. At any point in time, any rule system will favor certain interests over others. But demographics change and the same system will later favor other interests. So in many ways, once the fairness of the system has reached a certain threshold (i.e. people vote and they’re reliably counted and government performs adequately on most things) increasing the fairness really doesn’t matter that much in terms of policy results. BUT, we can make it fairer. And that would, in itself, be a better state. Therefore, we should.

I strike a more impatient and crass tone because seriously, the only people RESISTING these things are those who benefit from the unfair system. Most people just don’t think about it (some call that action silent enabling, I call it being busy with your life). And they don’t have to think about it most of the time. Until you get the quirky phenomenon of a candidate winning the popular vote but not the presidency. Or you pull out a map and see a district like Maryland-3. Or you look at state populations and the US Senate. The government still works, in that it like, ya know, does stuff and decides things, and people get by well enough most of the time. The financial meltdown was probably not caused by a few unfair features of our electoral systems.

But those examples ARE ALL 100% RIDICULOUS.