Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

The Science Parade

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:52 pm, April 25th, 2017

Last Saturday Audrey and I attended the Science Parade, since science rules and we both wanted to contribute to ensuring that the crowd was large enough to get the attention of the Powers-That-Be. The following are observations from a newcomer to these types of events:

  • While I was somewhat afraid that the crowd might resemble Woodstock more than MIT, the majority of those present seemed to have some actual connection to science. There was a blue-haired lady in a bathing suit holding a “this is what a scientist looks like” sign, a booth from Caltech staffed by people carrying “binders full of knowledge”, and a little girl whose sign read “forget princess, I want to be a marine biologist”. I was a fan of the omnipresent nerdy science puns, and Audrey liked that nearly everyone’s spelling was correct.
  • Among those not there specifically for science, there was a group of angry socialists with a megaphone, a guy dressed as an Indian who spent three straight hours banging on a drum, a small number of counter-protesters off to one side with signs noting that “supporting science means you oppose Sharia Law”, and a random handful of other people holding signs for causes unrelated to science. All-in-all it was a similar dynamic to an NFL game, where amidst thousands of people wearing team jerseys or other football-related apparel you can’t help but notice the small handful of folks who for some strange reason came to the game dressed as Santa Claus or the Fonz.
  • I saw something online saying that 50,000 people showed up in Los Angeles, with the comments on that piece asking how the number was calculated, whether the raw data used for the calculation was available, and if the estimate could be reproduced by other counters; the scientific method and those who use it it are all kinds of awesome.
  • One last observation is about a guy we saw walking around holding a giant deer head – after seeing him a second time we asked why he was carrying the head of a deer, and he said it was because we shouldn’t kill animals. We were apparently not the only ones feeling perplexed, since the LA Times chased him down for an interview in which they noted that he “carefully weaved between protesters making sure that an errant antler didn’t take out a stranger’s eye“.

My views and personality are such that I won’t be attending too many marches, but as someone who works in a technical field and graduated college with two engineering degrees, getting up early on a Saturday in order to be counted as a supporter of science was a worthwhile effort that I’d happily repeat in the future, even if doing so means risking an antler to the cornea.

Alternative Cat
Best sign of the day – the other side read “Save the Humans”. Photo by Audrey.

I Was Wrong

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:41 pm, November 29th, 2016

I was wrong – Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. In my 2016 predictions I said that he would win no more than four states in the primary, and in February I still thought that he would get “shellacked” if he made it to the general election. Three weeks ago he lost the popular vote by about two percent, but won throughout the Midwest, North Carolina, and Florida, thereby taking the electoral college by a decisive margin.

My thoughts on the election may not be worth reading, but it’s been a learning experience for me so here are some random bits to record for posterity:

  • Just before the election the mathematical analysis that I most trusted indicated that Trump had approximately a one-in-three chance of winning, but it still felt like a blindside when results started coming in and states that had previously been considered sure wins for Clinton turned out to not be so sure. Polls indicated Clinton had a clear, often huge, lead for months, and up until the final days before the election even the Republican National Committee was forecasting a Trump loss, so after an entire campaign in which the Democrat was leading, the final result was a significant shock.
  • The election showed me that, despite making an effort to seek out opinions different to my own, in this case I really had no idea that so much of the country would vote for someone like Trump. A big takeaway from this result is that I need to make more of an effort to listen to and understand others.
  • Prior to the election the pundits were all writing about how the Republican party was doomed, and post-election the same pundits seem to be writing that the Democratic party is doomed. While the results obviously have massive ramifications, before overreacting both sides might do well to recognize that even though Trump won, he received two million fewer votes, and if just one out of every hundred Trump voters had flipped to Hillary, America’s first woman President would have been elected by a large margin.

  • Following the election, protests erupted with people chanting “Not my President”, and petitions are circulating asking the electoral college to change the outcome. I understand the desire people have to do something to deal with what they foresee as a dangerous person moving into the Oval Office, but I worry about these specific tactics – while I believe that Trump will do damage to the country as its President, questioning his legitimacy and attempting to circumvent both the sixty million Americans who voted him into office and the process that put him there, is also damaging.
  • Much of what I saw from Trump on the campaign trail scares me – I think his environmental policies are dangerous, I believe that his tax and trade policies are likely to balloon the debt and cause a recession, and I think his foreign policy is likely to do lasting damage in the world. It’s frustrating that a narrow victory can have such extreme ramifications – looking back at the 2000 election, a difference of just a few hundred votes might have prevented the Iraq War, to cite just one dramatic example. That said, Trump’s sixty million voters clearly feel differently, and I need to work harder to listen to and understand the issues that motivated them.
  • While I truly hope that I’m wrong and that Trump is an excellent President, at the moment he threatens many things that matter to me, and thus it seems more important than ever to take action instead of passively relying on a President, governor, or other person to make things right in the world. As a small effort, the day after the election I increased my monthly donation to the Nature Conservancy, but much more is possible; hopefully this desire to take personal responsibility for the state of the world won’t fade and will actually lead to useful action.
  • Last of all, America is an amazing country, but it is only at its best when unified. When there is a disaster Americans of all creeds and colors rush to help. People came together here to put a man on the moon, to give birth to the National Parks, to create amazing companies like Apple, Tesla and Boeing, and to invent everything from the airplane to the internet, along with countless other businesses and ideas. “United we stand, divided we fall” is a phrase commonly associated with figures from American history ranging from Patrick Henry to Abraham Lincoln, and now more than ever it seems vital to put those words into action by trying to ignore divisive voices, to remember that the stories in the news and on social media represent extremes rather than the norm, and to try to stay level-headed and keep an open mind when it comes to discussions on today’s hot-button topics.

Trump

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 8:37 pm, August 30th, 2016

Donald Trump won the Republican primary with about 14 million votes, and during the general election he will almost certainly get between 50-70 million votes. Among my liberal friends, and also among some of the Republican ones, the question always arises: how could anyone vote for Trump given his divisive rhetoric and the fact that he seems to be obviously selling snake oil (make Mexico pay for a wall, eliminate the debt in ten years, etc, etc). Many who oppose him seem too willing to write off his supporters as racists, or as people who aren’t smart enough to see that they are being misled, but I think that in November the majority of Trump votes will come from people who actually object to him as a candidate, and what’s more I believe that if the situation were reversed, Democrats would do the exact same thing. Here’s my reasoning based on the three groups I believe constitute Trump’s major supporters:

The Believers

First, there are some Trump supporters who believe him when he says he will fix all of the country’s problems. They point to the fact that he’s rich, has appeared on a TV show that ostensibly celebrates his business acumen, and the fact that many prominent figures on the Right tout his abilities. I may view his claims of being able to eliminate the debt in a decade as (literally) mathematically impossible, or think that it’s just dangerous bluster when he repeatedly asserts that “toughness” is the solution to all security problems, but it’s not right to fault people who honestly think he’s capable of delivering on his boasts. I suspect that this group is fairly small, but that it is well-represented at his rallies and thus makes up his most visible and enthusiastic supporters.

The Bad People

Second, there are clearly some people supporting Trump because of some of the nastier elements of his campaign. I refuse to accept that there are a particularly large number of Americans who truly believe that most Mexican immigrants are rapists and thieves, or who think that a judge with Latino heritage can’t perform his duties without bias, but there is undoubtedly a constituency for that sort of rhetoric. I honestly think it’s a very tiny slice of the population, but it’s a group that is also clearly represented at Trump rallies.

The Unhappy Majority

Finally, that leaves millions and millions of people who aren’t racists and who believe Trump is full of crap, but will vote for him anyhow. And this is where I think Democrats would make the same choice, and thus need to consider the very difficult decision most Republicans are facing. For a Republican in this election, opposing Trump means handing the White House to a Democrat, and in the process ensuring that the Supreme Court flips from conservative to liberal and will thus issue hundreds upon hundreds of rulings in the coming decade that conservatives vehemently disagree with. Meanwhile, voting against Trump means Republicans would be giving up the chance to pass their legislative agenda – with control of the Presidency and Congress there would be no obstacle to passing into law all manner of legislation that never had a chance against Obama’s veto pen. If the situation was reversed, and it was (for example) Marco Rubio vs. Kanye West, plenty of Democrats would be willing to accept a divisive, temperamentally unsound, unqualified President rather than empower a court that would rule against their views on climate change, gay rights, gun control, abortion, etc, along with a Congress that would weaken Obamacare, cease action on climate change, eliminate social programs, etc.

About a year ago I published my rules of etiquette for this election, which included a reminder to try to understand those with whom I disagree. Many Democrats are asking how anyone could vote for Trump; I suspect a better way to think about Trump support is to recognize that if the situation were reversed, the decision would not be a simple one. It’s easy to oppose Trump from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum when there is nothing to lose, but much, much harder when taking a stand against a dangerously flawed nominee also means sacrificing tangible and meaningful legislative and judicial achievements. As a result, I think it’s important to bestow a great deal of respect upon people like Senator Jeff Flake, Senator Susan Collins, and all others who have decided to take a stand knowing full well what it will cost them; hopefully in inevitable future disagreements their opponents across the aisle will remember their demonstration of integrity and treat them with the respect that they have earned by making an extra effort to deal in good faith and to meet them part way.

In addition to trying to understand the support for Trump, there is another question about why our politics is so broken that conservatives would vote for a President whom they believe to be potentially disastrous rather than enable a liberal Supreme Court, or why liberals viscerally dread the possibility of conservatives gaining the ability to pass their legislative agenda, but that’s a subject to ponder in a future journal entry. In the mean time, the comments link is there as always for those who have their own thoughts on the current Presidential race, or those who might feel the need to lambast me for daring to assert that The Donald won’t really be able to get Mexico to pony up the estimated $10-25 billion it would take to build a 2000 mile long wall.

The World is Actually Awesome

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:27 pm, July 24th, 2016

Without delving too much into politics, a candidate recently gave an important speech that painted a pretty grim picture of today’s world (*cough* Trump did it *cough*). Particularly during political campaigns, the focus seems always to turn to what is wrong with the world, causing everyone to get depressed and thus forget about the miracles all around us. So for anyone feeling pessimistic, here are just three reminders of why the present is actually the best time in the history of mankind:

  • Safety Despite the headlines you see in the news, you should feel safer than in the past. During World War I 17 million people were killed. During World War II that number was 50-80 million deaths. After those wars, the Cold War saw America and the USSR pointing massive nuclear arsenals at one another, with the potential to obliterate cities and send the rest of the planet into a deadly nuclear winter. Today terrorists kill or maim far too many people, and while the impact of that violence is horrible, the reality is that these tragedies are on a scale of thousands in a world populated by billions, with nearly all of that carnage taking place far away from the day-to-day realities most of us inhabit.
  • Quality of Life We’re healthier than we’ve been. In the USA in 1900, average life expectancy was 47. By 1960 that number was 70. Today it’s 79. What’s more, medical technology means we’re living more productive lives. To cite just three examples, 1) I tore my meniscus and rather than limping for the rest of my life I went to the hospital where a doctor put tiny cameras into my knee and proceeded to fix the tear. 2) My dad’s hip deteriorated due to years of wear and tear, and now he has a magical new titanium hip. 3) No one gets polio, the measles, or smallpox anymore. Furthermore, medical technology is continuing to improve at phenomenal rates – in the next few decades we may live in a world where Alzheimer’s has been cured, stem cells can repair nervous system damage, and cancer is nearly always survivable.
  • Standard of Living Our lives are less difficult than they’ve ever been. In addition to advances in medical technology mentioned above, today anyone can have a cell phone that gives them access to all of the world’s knowledge – in Africa I saw a Masai warrior wearing shoes made from tires, holding a homemade spear, and talking on his cell phone as he herded cattle across the plains of Africa. Everyone in America has access to safe drinking water, electricity, public schools and hospitals. Airplanes can take you to any corner of the world in a matter of hours while cars are getting safer and in some cases can now even drive themselves. Power generation is becoming much cleaner, replacing dirty smokestacks with renewable sources. Farms now produce vastly more food on less land while using fewer resources. Wherever you look, technology is making life more efficient and safer, and the trend seems to only be accelerating.

There are obviously plenty of issues that need to be addressed better in today’s world – the economy, race, guns, immigration, etc, etc – but there are surprisingly few problems that are worse today than in the past, and anyone describing the present in terms of bleak despair is most definitely selling a fallacy. For those feeling pessimistic, remember that we live in a healthier, safer, more amazing world than any that has ever existed, and there is every reason to believe that things will be even better in the years to come than they are today.

Louis CK makes the case that everything is amazing far better than I can.

The Holliday Economic Platform

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:05 pm, June 28th, 2016

The 2016 election season has been going on for what feels like decades, and somehow still has four long months remaining. I’m not running, and would face a merciless beating that would make me cry if I did run, but if I were in the race then here are four straightforward proposals to improve the economic outlook of this country that I would campaign on:

  1. America’s infrastructure grade is a D+ with an estimated $3.6 trillion backlog of investments needed. Since the middle class would disproportionately benefit from infrastructure jobs, and solid infrastructure provides huge benefits to the economy as a whole, fixing and improving existing infrastructure seems the most obvious way to benefit the largest number of people. Spending on infrastructure supports jobs, improves efficiency for everyone who uses the infrastructure, and saves money in the long run – as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Also, to this engineer, infrastructure is super cool – I like bridges and water mains and the electrical grid. The current federal budget allots around $100 billion annually for infrastructure, so I’d propose doubling that for the foreseeable future, which still wouldn’t even come close to dealing with the current maintenance backlog. Since the US currently gets far less bang for its buck than other countries due to red tape and other issues, I’d also require that spending be allocated to reward the best-managed projects, encouraging fixed-cost contracts, fast-tracking projects where appropriate, and giving preference to projects that have local dollars behind them already.
  2. To pay for this infrastructure spending, and in the process ensure that no one would vote for me, I would propose increasing the gas tax (which hasn’t been raised since 1993). Raising the tax by five cents per year over the next two years would move it from the current level of 18.4 cents per gallon to 28.4 cents per gallon, after which it should be automatically increased each year based on the inflation rate. Currently the gas tax brings in about $34 billion per year, so this move would increase that amount to $52 billion. I’d augment that with a one percent levy on new vehicles, since as vehicles become more fuel efficient the gas tax is a less accurate way of ensuring that those using the road pay their fair share. Given that there were $570 billion in new car sales in 2015, plus a similar amount for commercial vehicles, this levy would raise about $11 billion annually. That gets about $30 billion of the $100 billion needed, and when you factor in the stimulus effect of increased infrastructure spending (project workers pay taxes on their earnings, etc), and the fact that fixing things now saves money down the road, you could probably add another $5-10 billion, but additional revenue would still be needed, so…
  3. Raise the capital gains tax rate from 20% to 25%, which should produce about $40 billion in additional annual revenue. Currently it seems fundamentally unfair that someone working forty hours a week is paying a significantly higher tax rate compared to someone who primarily makes their money from investments. That still leaves a gap in the revenue needed to pay for the increased infrastructure spending, so to close it and also ensure that opposition to my election would be as energized as possible I would propose phasing out the mortgage interest deduction, but doing so over the next 20 years to avoid causing financial distress to current homeowners. The current cost of that deduction is $70 billion per year, with most of the money going to people who don’t really need it. Furthermore, it’s a deduction that doesn’t make a lot of sense – why should the government provide a deduction to homeowners but not renters? And before anyone screams that these proposals are just soaking the rich, I currently benefit from both the capital gains rate and the mortgage interest deduction and nevertheless think they are bad policy.
  4. The above proposals actually generate about $35-45 billion more than is needed to cover the increased spending on infrastructure, so if I’m extrapolating the tax revenues correctly, some of the pain from the loss of the mortgage interest deduction and the increased gas tax could be offset by using the leftover revenue to phase-in middle class tax cuts of 1-3% for single filers making less than $91,150 or joint filers making less than $151,900, thus reducing the current 10-25% tax brackets down to 7-22%; no reductions would be made to higher tax brackets.

I realize that, while everyone gets to enjoy better infrastructure, the above proposals would mostly benefit the middle class at the expense of the rich. I don’t in any way think that’s a bad thing – I would personally pay more taxes under these proposals and would be OK with doing so since a strong middle class improves the economy for everyone. More importantly, from the standpoint of fairness, economic benefits have disproportionately benefited the wealthy over the past thirty years, so a correction is overdue in a country where many households are currently forced to choose between fixing the family car or sending their kid to summer camp.

I won’t be running for office anytime in the foreseeable future, and if I made proposals like those above they would be guaranteed losers, but for a journal entry it’s a fun subject to think about and put forward for discussion.

What if this time is different?

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:09 pm, February 26th, 2016

For at least the past forty years, while everyone else was fretting about Michelle Bachmann or Al Sharpton potentially becoming President, political science has calmly and rationally analyzed the electoral landscape and done an excellent job of predicting how the nomination contest would play out using a theory that is described as “the party decides”. This theory basically states that political parties guide voters to one of their preferred candidates through winnowing and signals from influential party actors. Thus, while a primary season might start out as a giant and chaotic clown show, candidates who lack support drop out after early contests, and the most influential elements within the party then unite behind one or two of the remaining candidates, showering them with media attention, money and endorsements. Voters, whose views are largely shaped by the media and the opinions of people/groups that they trust, end up backing the favored candidates. In the end, candidates who are unacceptable are dispatched, and the party always gets someone that its establishment supports.

This year on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton has the backing of the establishment, and while Bernie Sanders has passionate supporters and incredible homages from Larry David it doesn’t seem at all likely that he’ll be more than a speedbump in Clinton’s path to the nomination. The Republican side, however, is far more uncertain.

In my yearly predictions I said that Donald Trump wouldn’t win more than four primaries, and that Marco Rubio, who holds a huge lead in endorsements, would go on to win the party’s nomination. With Trump already boasting three wins, and the polls pointing towards a big day for him on Super Tuesday, it looks like my long tradition of incorrect predictions is likely to continue, and I (along with many political scientists) have gone from being absolutely certain that Trump would simply be a sideshow to wondering if he might in fact have a chance.

If Trump did actually win the nomination it would mark the first time in four decades that someone the party actively opposed was the nominee. While I would still bet on Marco Rubio based on past history and the likelihood that the party will do everything possible to get a candidate it wants, it’s interesting to assess what fundamental changes might have led to a possible failure in the “party decides” theory of the nomination process:

  • Skewed voter expectations: While there is a large faction in the Republican party that is very interested in passing laws and achieving results, there now exists a significant faction that seems focused on ideology over results. An effective lawmaker needs to be able to get people to work together to pass bills that can become law, but an ideological candidate needs only to promise to fight and never compromise. As an example of the latter, repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare while the law’s namesake holds a veto pen is an act of protest, and not an act of governance. After seeing party leaders promoting candidates for office who lacked traditional qualifications (see: Palin, Sarah), it’s a confusing message to now try to convince the electorate that a candidate who is all sound and fury like Trump is unsuited for the job of President.
  • Lack of authenticity: In recent times the term “conservative” has become ever more rigidly defined, forcing candidates to disclaim positions they recently held. Thus Marco Rubio sponsors an immigration bill and four years later swears he didn’t actually want it to pass, and any candidate who might have ever suggested anything even resembling a limit on guns now airs commercials in which he fires assault weapons and suggests that even Jesus would push for more open carry laws. Despite the fact that these candidates are clearly full of crap everyone pretends that voters are convinced by the smoke and mirrors. After years of voters feeling like they’ve been played for fools by candidates who are just saying whatever they think the electorate wants to hear, Trump is espousing views so shocking, and so obviously different from anything any other politician would say, that voters believe he’s the only one not lying to them (note that the fact Trump professed very different views just a few years ago seems for some reason not to matter).
  • Truthiness: It’s a maxim to say that all politicians lie, but in the past politicians confronted with the truth have backtracked on their falsehoods. Today politicians confronted with the truth will simply double down on the lie, thus making it impossible to argue using facts. When you say that a climate scientist cannot be trusted on matters of climate change, or that economists who present analysis at odds with your preferred narrative are merely partisan shills, you create an electorate that won’t respect expert opinions. Clearly Mexico won’t pay for a border wall, it is impractical (not to mention inhumane) to simply round-up and deport eleven million people, and everyone isn’t going to get a free pony simply because a guy who built a few casinos sits in the White House, but after years of preaching that experts need not be trusted there is no easy way to plausibly discredit these claims.

While these same problems exist on the Democratic side – Hillary Clinton is shameless in her pandering to whatever audience she is addressing, and liberals will only believe scientists who remember not to point out that there is no evidence that GMOs are unsafe – political scientists seem to be in agreement that the problem is vastly more pronounced on the Republican side. Trump’s success serves as evidence of just how abnormal things have become, where a candidate who should have been dispatched easily by the Republican establishment is instead headed towards a delegate lead that might be hard for the party’s preferred candidate to overcome. Should he actually gain the nomination I feel certain that Trump would get absolutely shellacked in the general election, but I was equally certain that he wouldn’t come close to being nominated in the first place, so it’s a frightening possibility to wonder whether past history can still be considered a reliable guide in this election environment.

Compromise is Not a Four-Letter Word

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:20 pm, October 29th, 2015
Compromise
an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.

As I write this, GOP Presidential hopefuls are railing against the latest budget agreement, stating that “Republicans have made with this president… a rotten to the core deal“. By a margin of 62-37, Republicans say that they want someone who will stick to their principles rather than compromise with Obama (the numbers are reversed for Democrats, with 60 percent favoring compromise). The recent search for a new Speaker of the House briefly descended into chaos due to the fact that there was no suitable candidate for a job that requires finding solutions that the President won’t veto when a significant portion of the Republican caucus views working with that President as betrayal.

The United States is a large and diverse country with a population that seldom agrees, so the job of legislator requires someone who is good at finding mutually agreeable solutions with those who hold different ideological views in order to get things done. Note that this does not mean surrendering one’s principles, but instead means making acceptable concessions in order to make progress. From the very beginning, the process of governing has been notable as a process of compromise – the Constitution is perhaps the finest example of compromise in the nation’s history. Any politician thinking that he can simply plant his feet in the ground and eventually get anything done in the US system of government is either unfit for the job or willfully refusing to govern.

While the previously-mentioned poll makes clear that the demonization of compromise is much, much more pronounced among conservatives, Democrats also fall into this trap. The response to the increase in mass shootings is a useful case study – liberals almost universally called for gun restrictions, but almost nowhere in the media, my social network feeds, or elsewhere did anyone propose anything to reassure existing gun owners that their rights would not be infringed. While gun control is an issue where getting anything done is nearly impossible, demanding action without simultaneously working to gain the support of those who might not fully share your position is a sure way to guarantee that nothing will get accomplished.

One of the things I love about America is that this country’s potential seems limitless – if we could actually agree on things, I have no doubts that we could eliminate the national debt, cure cancer, or do just about anything we set our minds to. Sadly, while we have the potential for greatness, we seem to fall short the majority of the time. In the coming election season, keep an eye out for candidates who speak to the country as a whole rather than just factions within it, and who avoid casting aspersions on those with whom they hold differences. When we can agree without being disagreeable, and work together to find mutually beneficial solutions, the future is far brighter. Today’s climate of “my way or the highway” will only end when voters reward those who seek out win-win solutions, and legislators again begin treating the other party as colleagues with differing opinions instead of combatants to be vanquished.

Ryan’s Rules of Etiquette

Posted from 30,000 feet over Texas at 6:15 pm, September 23rd, 2015

With the 2016 Presidential election season already in full swing it seems like everyone has opinions they want to shout at everyone else, be it on cable news, on Facebook, or elsewhere. That got me thinking about guidelines for keeping things civil during the thirteen-plus months until the elections, and I came up with the following, most of which aren’t specific to political discourse. Please call me out if I fail to follow any of these on this journal or elsewhere, and please suggest others that might be useful:

  1. Recognize the difference between a debate and an argument, and avoid the latter.
  2. Never ignore or dismiss facts that conflict with your preferred position.
  3. Don’t complain about what’s wrong without also suggesting a way to fix it.
  4. Make an effort to understand those you disagree with. Make an effort to be critical of those you agree with.
  5. A solution where both sides win is infinitely better than a solution where one side loses.
  6. Always consider the possibility that you might be wrong and that those you disagree with might be right.
  7. Remember that politics is not the same thing as government.

Flags

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:51 pm, July 22nd, 2015

Against better judgement, here’s one more political post about a current event that’s been on my mind. Journal entry topics should return to postings about the heat in San Antonio and pictures of birds very soon.

The Confederate flag has been in the news, and companies have been scrambling to disassociate themselves from it, even to the point where TV Land pulled re-runs of Dukes of Hazzard from its schedule. I’ve got three thoughts.

First, I think many of those opposed to the Confederate flag have failed to recognize its legitimate use as a symbol of Southern identity. Just as Black culture or Irish culture or Japanese culture is a thing, so is White southern culture – hunting, fishing, country music, saying “ma’am”, driving a pickup truck, drinking sweet tea, etc. Insofar as people identify with that culture, having a shared symbol of that identification is a way of celebrating a lifestyle, and many of those flying the Confederate flag view efforts to remove it as an attack on their identity as a group. Despite that obvious fact, I’ve not heard anyone who opposes the flag tempering their opposition with a recognition that people should have every right to celebrate their identity. The General Lee didn’t have the Confederate flag on it because Bo & Luke were racists, it was there because they were Southern and proud of being country boys.

Second, it’s inarguable that to many people the Confederate flag represents racism. The KKK doesn’t carry the flag at marches to show that they like fishing, and if you’re a Black person you most definitely don’t see the flag and think of country music. Insofar as the Confederate flag was the symbol of a society that embraced slavery and oppression of minorities, it has no place in public squares or on government buildings. Furthermore, those that display it as a way of celebrating Southern identity should recognize that what to them is a celebration of culture is something that represents the worst of humanity to many others. Southerners have every right to celebrate their identity, but it’s long overdue for there to be a serious discussion about finding another symbol of Southern identity that isn’t simultaneously a symbol of racial hatred.

Finally, the focus on the flag came about after a horrific series of murders by a white supremacist. While this horrible act had the positive effect of focusing attention on issues of race, it seems to me that those who captured the moment focused almost all of the attention on a symbol of racial injustice at the expense of addressing the actual issues. One thing about the political correctness movement that irks many people (myself included) is that it seems to generate unending outrage, but little in the way of meaningful results. Raising awareness about why the Confederate flag is seen as a horrific symbol is good, but it’s a minor issue when compared with the actual problems related to race in America. Wouldn’t we be better off if the same amount of effort and attention that was put into repudiating the Confederate flag was instead put into encouraging people to attend events that promote positive interactions between different ethnic and social groups, or to attend a service at an inner city church, or to begin a serious national effort to address the continuing under-representation of minorities at colleges and businesses? Gay marriage was legalized because the majority realized that gay people were their friends and neighbors, not because we censored the word “faggot” from everyday language; similarly, racism will only disappear when we stop seeing people as different, and not because a flag is lowered. In this case, I can’t help but feel that media attention, protests, and speeches by politicians was a lot of effort devoted to winning a “victory” that will have little or no permanent effect on the real problems that truly matter.

As with most things, both sides in this debate paint it as black-and-white, when the truth is that the issue is hugely complex. Those opposed to the Confederate flag have a responsibility to recognize that Southern culture is real and worth celebrating, while those flying the flag have a responsibility to recognize that the symbol they have chosen to represent their culture comes with a massive amount of racist baggage. That said, the fact that the country chose to focus the debate on a flag, going so far as to celebrate a “victory” when a single copy of that flag was lowered at a state Capitol, while doing almost nothing that might actually address the very real racial divide that still exists in America, is a dismaying commentary on both the desire and ability of the USA to address this issue meaningfully.

Gay Marriage

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:07 pm, June 28th, 2015

WARNING: political post ahead, and a potentially controversial one. Skip this entry if you mainly read this journal for the pretty pictures.

On Friday the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal nationwide. From my standpoint, that decision is indisputably the right move – sexuality is not a choice for the vast majority of people, and the government thus should not be telling a homosexual couple that they cannot have the same rights as a heterosexual couple. I think it is also indisputable that a not-insignificant percentage of the opposition to gay marriage is homophobia justified as religious objection; if the concern was solely religious there would be equal objection to the government allowing divorced people to re-marry. Similarly, if the Old Testament’s prohibitions against homosexuality are inviolate, the same should be said about prohibitions against eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10), getting a tattoo (Leviticus 19:28), or wearing blended fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), yet those concerns are somehow ignored when the prohibitions against homosexuality in Leviticus are cited.

With the above said, some people do object to gay marriage based on a legitimate religious conviction. For many, religion means faith without room for doubt, so when the church states that homosexuality is a choice, rather than an innate human characteristic, and that expressing support for homosexuality is sinning, that becomes something that members of that church must accept without question. When the proponents of gay marriage dismiss the concerns of those who have been taught that supporting homosexuality is a sin, it reinforces the viewpoint of those individuals that this is a battle against religion, rather than a fight for civil rights, and history shows that people will double-down on a belief and go to tremendous lengths to defend their religion.

Legalizing gay marriage was the right thing to do, and in another generation I suspect that nearly everyone will recognize it as a civil rights issue instead of a religious issue, just as interracial marriage was initially opposed on religious grounds but is now seen solely through the lens of civil rights. However, it takes time for opinions to change, and I wish that more politicians, media outlets and individuals were making it clear that this court decision solely affects how the government interprets the meaning of marriage, and still leaves churches the religious freedom to interpret marriage as they see fit. I’m personally glad to see UCC churches and Episcopal churches celebrating gay couples, and hope that other churches will eventually move in a more inclusive direction, but I’m concerned by the fact that opponents of gay marriage are now immediately dismissed as bigots when many of those people have for their entire lifetime only heard their church addressing this issue by telling them that homosexuality is a sin that could not be questioned. To many, that view now seems obviously wrong, but for others it will take time to come to grips with the change that is happening around them. Yes, gay marriage is and should be the law of the land, but separation of church and state is also the law of the land, and I think some allowance needs to be made so that, while gay marriage is legal in the eyes of the government, it is clear that view will not be forced upon churches that aren’t yet ready to accept it.

More Reasons for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:29 pm, March 29th, 2015

In a continuing campaign to highlight good news in the world, here are a few more reasons to be optimistic:

  • The largest rat eradication program in history – eight times larger than the previous record – finished this month after a five year effort. The hope is that with the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia rat-free for the first time since the 1800s that it will again become the most important seabird breeding site in the world, a home for an estimated 100 million seabirds.
  • In a hopelessly divided Congress, a complex issue that legislators have been unable to permanently solve and that has annually threatened to cause major disruptions to the healthcare system since 1997 somehow finally found a solution and passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 392-37. Democrats got some things they wanted, Republicans got some things they wanted, a long-term problem finally found a solution, and for once Congress worked like it was supposed to.
  • Just a few months after the US created the world’s largest marine reserve at 490,000 square miles, Britain has created the largest contiguous marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands. At 322,000 square miles it is three-and-half times the size of the entire UK and protects some of the most pristine ocean in the world.
  • Closer to home, the largest dam removal in California history is underway. The antiquated San Clemente dam is too full of silt to serve its original purpose as a reservoir, at 94 years old is a hazard in an earthquake prone area, and most importantly has blocked steelhead migrations on the Carmel River for generations. After years of planning it is coming down in 2015, restoring 25 miles of rivers for the fish. Reservoirs are important, and hydroelectric power is a great source of clean energy, but in places where dams have outlived their usefulness, removing them is a tremendous way to revitalize rivers (see also: Elwha River resotation in Washington, Penobscot River restoration in Maine).
  • On a more obscure note, no new antibiotic has been discovered in nearly three decades, and bacteria have been developing immunity to many of the known antibiotics. That changed recently with the discovery of a new type of antibiotic, and the hope that the process used to discover it may yield many more.

The More You Know…

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:40 pm, February 28th, 2015

Confirmation bias is a well-studied aspect of human behavior that shows that people will interpret or cherry pick information in a way that confirms their own beliefs. In practice this means that in some cases, people who are more educated about a subject tend to be more adamant that an incorrect position is correct than those who are less educated on the same subject. This fact helps explain why no amount of additional info will convince someone who believes that vaccinations are harmful that their opinion is deeply flawed, or convince a global warming skeptic that 97% of climate scientists really do know what they are talking about, or convince someone who thinks that GMOs are inherently dangerous that 88% of scientists really do know what they are talking about.

A recent Facebook posting from National Geographic that referenced global warming as a likely cause of craters in Siberia provides an example of this bias. Assuming that National Geographic attracts a fairly educated audience, most of the comments still deny that current climate change is a problem created by man:

  • “The global warming or climate change theory is getting out of hand. The scare tactics don’t work on anyone with the ability to think and see for themselves. The planet goes through changes on its own and regardless of what anyone says it’ll continue long after man.” — Sean Stuart
    Cherry picking the fact that climate changes naturally reinforces his belief, despite the fact that no scientist denies natural climate fluctuations. The current concern is mostly with the rate of climate change – in past cycles ecosystems have been stressed even with centuries to adjust, while the current cycle is on a scale that will be measured in decades.
  • “Oh good grief. Really. The push the agenda through guilt routine is getting a little old.” – Judith Pannozo
    The mistaken belief that climate change is a hoax used to “push an agenda” can be reinforced by the fact that a search will reveal plenty of examples of groups mis-using science as a way to get what they wanted. However, the idea that the entire worldwide climate science community has somehow coordinated to coalesce around a fake explanation for current warming trends in order to achieve some undetermined goal (more environmentalism? more grant money?) both ignores how scientific peer review works, and requires a conspiracy that could only be successful if practically every scientist in the world was involved and none of those hundreds of thousands of scientists purposefully or accidentally revealed the conspiracy.
  • “The last two years michigan has had big time global warming. -42 below one of the many below zero temperatures that has lasted for months. I run around in flip flops cause its so warm and its getting hotter.” – Elaine Berry
    An individual’s view that the local winter weather is representative of global climate stands as evidence that the global theory is wrong. The misconception that “global warming” means that no place will ever see record cold misses the fact that climate change refers to average worldwide temperatures, and that while some places may actually get cooler, the average temperatures across Earth as a whole will increase. An analogy might be a prediction that if the NFL made touchdowns worth ten points instead of seven that average points per game would increase, and then claiming that because the Browns lost a single game by a score of 13-0 that the prediction had been proven wrong.
  • …and many more like those.

Given the reality that people cannot be convinced by providing them with more information, a lot of the world’s problems might seem hopeless – how do you solve a problem that a significant percentage of the population is dangerously misinformed about when more information will only reinforce their existing belief? What gives me hope is that while the population at large often despairs over such issues, anytime I sit down with a group of engineers the conversation is inevitably about understanding the problem and figuring out what solutions are viable. If society can’t be convinced to take action on an issue through the government, engineers search for other options. We already have the examples of Tesla Motors changing the paradigm on electric cars from “greenest vehicle” to “most desirable automobile”, and Solar City changing the paradigm on solar panels from “greenest solution” to “most economical solution”, and I’m optimistic that this trend will continue. It is probably too late to undo much of the inevitable environmental disruption that will ensue from climate change – sea levels will rise, animal populations will be displaced or disappear, and weather will become more severe – but in the end I honestly believe that the problem will be solved in spite of the fact that denial of the issue, reinforced by confirmation bias, makes the eventual solution far more difficult to reach.

Giving Immunity Necklaces to Legislators

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:30 pm, August 31st, 2013

I enjoy following politics, and enjoy looking back at old journal entries about political issues, but I also try to avoid writing too much about politics in this journal since it’s a subject that tends to evoke a visceral reaction in a lot of people. People have strong opinions on a lot of subjects, but politics and religion seem to be the two subjects where differences of opinion too often lead to arguments rather than discussions.

That caveat aside, this journal entry is a hopefully non-controversial, and very random, brainstorm of one possible way to address the fact that Congress seems to be making a mess of things. It’s not really a viable solution, but is a fun thought experiment that might generate further (civil) discussion on how to improve the current system.

Some background

The upcoming deadlines for passing a budget (important!) and raising the debt limit (much, much, MUCH more important!) are two highly visible instances where Congress seems to be unable to do even its most basic job. After reading this Josh Barro article I’m not as worried that Congress will fail to raise the debt limit and thus plunge us back into economic chaos similar to 2008, but the fact that one has to worry whether the US government will endanger the US economy is a sign of significant problems with the current system. Our Congress should be an example of the best and brightest minds coming together to do great things, rather than a collection of angry people fighting with one another while barely managing to keep the system functional.

As an engineer, any time there is a problem I wonder how it could be fixed. Following standard engineering practices, the first thing to do is to identify the primary source of the problem. After not-nearly-enough thought, I would posit that the US Constitution did a great job of building in checks and balances to our system of government, but it failed to account for political parties, much less a two-party system that incentivizes “supporting the team” over focusing on the merits of specific issues. There are other issues (money in politics, difficulties in scaling representative democracy for a nation that has grown hundreds of times larger, etc), but a very strong argument can be made that it is the tribalism of the two-party system that is most often the impediment to a smooth-running legislative process.

The Ryan Plan

To solve this issue, some reward would need to be introduced to ensure that the most effective, respected lawmakers are focused first and foremost on making the government run well, and that they are rewarded more for being good legislators than they are for being good party members. Note that while elections are supposed to fulfill that purpose, unfortunately our system is heavily impacted by voter apathy, the influence of money, name recognition, and other factors that have little to do with a legislator’s competency. Since the premise of this journal entry is that any option is open for discussion, and reminding anyone still reading that I haven’t had a ton of time to think this through, I offer a plan that allows the best legislators to face re-election less often. This plan is very loosely inspired by another dysfunctional tribal system: that of the TV show Survivor.

Proceeding from the premise that the incentives for lawmakers are too far skewed towards promoting their party interests, any solution must provide an even greater incentive for putting aside party interests in cases where they conflict with the national interests. Since politicians are most interested in their own re-election, why not take a page out of Survivor and its “immunity” challenges and reward the most effective lawmakers with another term without having to face re-election? In both Congress and Survivor, what individuals fear most is being voted off the island, and thus immunity from ejection is the biggest incentive one can possibly offer.

How it would work:

First, some broad principles. This proposal should be created in a way that ensures legislators still have to go before voters, but it would allow the most effective legislators to do so less often. Second, it needs to be structured in such a way that “most effective” really does mean legislators who do the best job of legislating, rather than simply rewarding those with the longest tenure or highest party rank; in the same way that rankings are developed for schools, doctors, and myriad other things, we should be able to identify and reward the best lawmakers. With those disclaimers out of the way, here are some rough thoughts on how this proposal could work:

  • Each election cycle a non-partisan office (similar to the CBO) would be responsible for creating a nomination list of the most effective legislators, with the list to include 30% of the legislators up for re-election, divided in proportion to party. As an example, for the 2014 election that would mean:
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats to be nominated Republicans up for re-election Republicans to be nominated
    House 201 201 * 0.3 = 60 234 234 * 0.3 = 70
    Senate 21 21 * 0.3 = 6 14 14 * 0.3 = 4

    Factors to consider when developing this list might include things like the legislator’s effectiveness in passing legislation, the legislator’s approval ratings in their district, their ability to find innovative solutions to legislative problems, etc.

  • From those candidates identified by the non-partisan office, each house of Congress would then be responsible for narrowing down the list by a further one-third (representing 20% of the legislators up for re-election), again in proportion to party.
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats exempt from re-election Republicans up for re-election Republicans exempt from re-election
    House 201 201 * 0.2 = 40 234 234 * 0.2 = 46
    Senate 21 21 * 0.2 = 4 14 14 * 0.2 = 3

    The final list would need to be a compromise arrived at by both parties, and would need to pass with a two-thirds majority to ensure there was broad support from both parties. This process would ensure that the parties still had some say in approving or rejecting individuals that were of particular interest.

  • A Senator could not be exempt from re-election for two election cycles in a row, so even the best Senator would still have to face re-election each twelve years. A House member could not be exempt from re-election for three election cycles in a row, so a stellar House member would still face re-election every six years.
  • A recall process could be set up for cases where voters in a district were unhappy with this process, although the need for a recall should be very, very rare if the non-partisan office did its job correctly.

There are clear holes in this proposal, and the logistical challenges of trying to implement it make it almost impossible – a Constitutional amendment would be needed, and undoubtedly groups would complain about reducing the “voice of the people” – but if it was implemented it would lessen the reward for legislators who merely complain the loudest, and give legislators a chance to actually earn re-election by building coalitions to get solutions implemented. As a side benefit, the best legislators would need to spend less time fundraising and campaigning, and could instead focus on doing their jobs as lawmakers. With less need to focus on fundraising, this approach might also help to address some of the issues related to money in politics, although any such impact would likely be limited and would probably be better addressed via legislation.

This proposal is just a random idea that occurred to me while trying to come up with a third journal entry topic, and was a fun way to engage in political discussion while (hopefully) not offending anyone’s sensibilities. I’d be interested in other crazy ideas that people might have, and will offer two bonus points for anyone who can link their idea with a popular TV show or movie, or three bonus points if the movie is Forrest Gump. Meanwhile, unless October comes and the debt ceiling isn’t raised, this should be my last political post for a while and I’ll return to writing journal entries about bobcats and Steve Martin.

I Don’t Get It

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:39 pm, May 27th, 2013

This journal entry is a rant. Posts about mastodons and tar pits will return in the future, but those expecting stories of spaceships parked at donut shops might want to skip this entry.

For those still reading, Elon Musk recently tweeted the following:

It is unfortunate that climate change was brought to public attention by Al Gore, as it then became a “left wing” issue.

That tweet gets to the heart of something that is both saddening and frustrating about today’s discourse: a number of issues, many of which are very important, are now approached with the mentality of sports fans: “My team is right, your team sucks!” Just as with sports, individuals support “their side” and ignore the merits of the argument.

Consider Musk’s example of global warming: admitting (or denying) that climate change is a serious issue is a litmus test for the far left and far right; commentators on the right are constantly screaming that it is either a hoax or not caused by human activity, while on the far left you might think that anything less than the elimination of all fossil fuel usage is akin to Armageddon. However, looking at it from the standpoint of the scientific community, there is similar certainty that human produced greenhouse gases are heating up the planet at a dangerous rate as there is for theories such as the big bang or evolution. Meanwhile, saying that climate change is a problem that should be addressed will get a politician voted out of office on the right, while far left activists are chaining themselves to the White House gates over the construction of a single oil pipeline, and in the mean time not even a minimal amount of action is taken to mitigate something that will have serious negative future consequences.

Similarly, I’m convinced that ten years from now no one will buy a new car without debating whether or not that car should be electric. From an engineering standpoint (mechanical engineering grad here!) electric cars are undeniably better technology. Consider:

  • Battery technology today allows a range of 300 miles, and that technology is improving at about eight percent each year.
  • Maintenance on electric cars is minimal – no oil changes, no belts or hoses, no transmission, no emission system.
  • Electric engines are approximately three times more efficient than gas engines.
  • The driving experience in electric cars is vastly better – you have full torque immediately, offering a ridiculously fast acceleration.
  • Electric cars have no emissions – the smog and related pollution issues of cities like LA will diminish significantly with a move to electric vehicles.

However, with Romney and much of the right wing having labeled Tesla Motors as a “loser” and an example of an Obama “failure” during the campaign, any mention of Tesla is now followed by comments about how the company is a beneficiary of “crony capitalism”, is merely building a toy for the rich, and will be bankrupt any day now. This, despite the fact that Tesla repaid its government loan (issued under a Bush administration program) nine years early, was funded solely with private money for its first seven years, is one of the few new manufacturing ventures in the US, is the first successful new American car company in several generations, has always planned for a mass-market ($30,000) vehicle as part of their roadmap, and has built a car that literally has people cheering after test drives and has won awards from every automotive group that has reviewed it, including the highest score in Consumer Reports history, and Motor Trend Car of the Year. If we can’t support this example of American ingenuity, what has gone wrong in our discourse?

Other issues evoke similar reactions: nuclear power is supported on the right and opposed on the left despite studies that seem to indicate that use of nuclear power has saved lives. Environmental issues are now immediately dismissed as left-wing, although the vast majority of people support clean air, clean water, and a place for wildlife. The list of issues goes on and on: guns, GMOs, healthcare, taxes, immigration; all of these devolve into “my team versus your team”, despite the fact that there is clearly a huge amount of middle ground on which agreement (and action) is possible.

In spite of the seemingly grim atmosphere, things do tend to work out in the end, although given the state of rhetoric today it seems that we’re making it much, much harder to get to that end state than it needs to be.

Election 2012

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:38 pm, November 11th, 2012

While politics is a bit of a dangerous subject to bring up in a public forum these days, it would be a shame not to record a journal entry for posterity about the election, so here are some (hopefully) non-partisan thoughts on the recent election. The comments link is available for anyone who would like to berate me, berate the parties, or add their own thoughtful and nuanced musings.

  • Obama won the electoral college 332-206 and the popular vote 51-48. While this is a big win relative to recent Presidential elections, pundits who are predicting a permanent Republican minority due to demographic changes might want to tone it down – if merely two voters out of every hundred had a change of heart the storyline would instead be about the failings of the Democratic party, and as the once-solidly Democratic Southern states demonstrate, demographic groups can completely flip their party alignment over time.
  • In a story that isn’t getting much press, the Democrats shocking gained two Senate seats in a year in which they had 23 seats up for re-election (vs 10 for Republicans), increasing their Senate majority from 53-47 to 55-45 and winning in places like South Dakota, Missouri, Montana and Indiana. As a result, it seems much more likely that the Democrats will now be more confident about their odds of keeping the Senate in 2014 (when they have six seats up in states that will be very difficult to retain), and thus will change Senate rules to limit use of the filibuster, thereby making it much easier to confirm Presidential nominees and bring bills to the floor for discussion. While the ability to filibuster a vote (ala Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is unlikely to be changed, filibustering every motion to move a bill forward will likely soon be a thing of the past.
  • The following issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis are now almost certain to happen as a result of this election: Obamacare is going to be fully implemented, EPA fuel efficiency rules (fleet averages of 54.5 mpg by 2025) and efforts to limit CO2 emissions will continue, tax rates on income over $250,000 are going up, and the Supreme Court will not become more conservative.
  • On a less-certain note, Republicans have split over immigration in the past – George W. Bush pushed for immigration reform in order to attract Hispanic voters, while Mitt Romney was in favor of self-deportation as a play for Republican base voters. Based on recent statements, Republicans seem to have taken the election results to mean that the pro-immigration voices in the party were right, so it would be a good bet that comprehensive immigration reform becomes law by 2014.
  • Andrew Sullivan made the argument that those who categorized this election as a choice between freedom and tyranny would be well-served by re-evaluating their assumptions (this argument applies to both sides). To be very clear: neither Obama, nor George W. Bush before him, want to destroy America. The two sides simply differ on policy and the role of government, and those who choose to demonize either side as evil or anti-American make it much more difficult for the parties to work together since there is no way to justify compromising or finding common ground with someone who actually wants to destroy the country.
  • Finally, despite wild speculations from various pundits, for the second Presidential election in a row Nate Silver and his poll aggregation model was the one who most accurately predicted the election results. To this engineering grad, no matter which side wins, vindication of a math and statistics approach over hand-waving and demagoguery is a good thing.

The Holliday Plan

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:11 pm, October 25th, 2011

Everyone agrees that the country is currently a mess, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus about how to fix things. So here’s the first-draft of the Holliday Plan, which is an if-somehow-tomorrow-I-was-given-the-ability-to-do-whatever-I-wanted thought exercise. Most of the ideas below originated elsewhere, but this brain dump encapsulates those that seem to make sense and that I would want to see implemented. This write-up came about mainly because it’s a subject that interests me, and I’d be interested people’s criticisms, alternatives, and mockery – the comments link is there for exactly that purpose.

The Economy

Getting the economy going would do many things – tax receipts are down $400 billion since 2007 [1] while spending on assistance programs such as unemployment insurance have sky-rocketed. As a result, in addition to the obvious benefit of simply having a better economy, improvement in the outlook would also make a huge dent in the budget deficit.

  1. Over 577,000 public sector jobs have been cut during the downturn [2]. While some trimming is a good thing, many of these jobs are teachers, police, and other important services. To combat this I’d send $500 billion to the states to use over the next three years however they saw fit, with a hope of reducing layoffs of essential personnel. While deficit spending isn’t a good thing, in a recession it seems like short-term debt is preferable to a longer term recession.
  2. Borrowing rates are at 1.5%, and with massive unemployment labor is the cheapest it’s been in years. I’d make $1 trillion available for infrastructure over the next three years, with 80% of that sent to the states to use on whatever infrastructure projects they wanted – roads, bridges, public transit, airports, etc. Infrastructure needs to be addressed eventually, so it makes sense to do it now when labor and borrowing are cheap and the economy is in need of jobs.
  3. Additional tax cuts, business incentives, mortgage restructuring, or other efforts would likely not be worth the costs. Individuals and businesses are saving money right now, so tax breaks will just go into savings rather than back into the economy. Similarly, mortgage restructuring and hiring incentives have thus far proven to have little actual effect.

The Debt

While in the short term the most important thing is improving the economy, over the long term, the US debt and budget deficits are the largest concern. Getting the annual budget into the black and reducing the national debt is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.

  1. Expire the Bush tax cuts for those making over $100,000 starting in 2012. For much of the 1980s the top tax rate was around 50% [3], but today it’s 35% – I’d change that back to 39.6%, matching the rate in 2000. Taxes obviously suck, but this would raise approximately $2.7 trillion over ten years [4], and given that income for high earners has vastly outpaced that of the middle class for the past decade, tax rates appear to be unbalanced in favor of the rich.
  2. The defense department budget for 2010 is $663.8 billion – I would reduce that by 5% a year over the next ten years (adjusting for inflation), which would lead to a budget of $418 billion in 2022 (again, adjust for inflation). That’s still four times as much as the next biggest spender (China) budgets for its military [5], and at just five percent per year the reduction should be gradual enough to allow the military time to adapt. Assuming spending would otherwise have simply matched inflation, this saves $1.3 trillion over ten years ($6.6 trillion vs $5.3 trillion) and $250 billion every year thereafter. Defense is important, but the US doesn’t need to spend six times as much as its nearest competitor.
  3. The US spends 16% of GDP on health care, while most advanced countries are closer to 10% – Canada and the UK, which have government provided healthcare, spend 10.1% and 8.4%, respectively [6]. There seem to be a few specific things that cause the problem:
    • Lack of competition. Insurance is managed at the state level, creating fifty different bureaucracies. At the national level, the federal government does not negotiate drug prices for Medicare and does not allow individuals to buy drugs from other countries such as Canada.
    • Lack of price transparency. Since people with insurance simply get their health care covered or get a bill after payment, there is no incentive for them to choose more cost-effective treatments.
    • Ineffective use of resources. Prevention is cheaper than treatment, end-of-life care often exceeds what the patient would want due to lack of pre-planning, and there is no incentive for healthy living.
    • Lack of experimentation. People like Dr. Atul Gawande have demonstrated interesting ways of reducing costs while improving care, but the system is not set up to encourage these types of programs.

    The problem is too complex for anyone to know how best to address these issues, so given the chance to actually make a change as much informed advice as possible would be needed, but some possibilities should include:

    • Allow anyone to buy into Medicare (aka the public option). Anyone wanting private insurance could get it, but leverage the federal government’s buying power to lower costs for everyone else. Studies, as well as current costs, show that the private health insurance market isn’t operating with the efficiency and downward pricing pressures of most other private markets, so admit that and let the non-retired crowd take advantage of the government’s buying power.
    • Allow purchase of drugs from other countries, subject to existing laws on prescription medication and illegal substances. Similarly, allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare.
    • Establish national insurance standards and let any state choose to either use their own standard OR to adopt the national standard, with the goal of allowing insurance companies to compete across state borders and to reduce administrative costs.
    • Encourage prevention. Allow health insurers to provide discounts similar to what auto insurance companies provide, such as discounts for staying within a certain weight range, discounts for getting regular checkups, discounts for immunizations, etc.
    • Create a special court to handle malpractice. While high-end estimates of the cost of malpractice are that it accounts for only three percent of total healthcare costs [7] (and note that much of that may be justified), making it simpler to get rid of frivolous cases in order to reduce abuse of the system should be a goal. The system should protect patients against negligence, but must also recognize that doctors generally do their best under difficult circumstances.
    • Encourage experimentation. This goal would be the most difficult to implement, but if a health care system can find ways to reduce costs while improving service there should be fewer barriers that would prevent them from doing so.

    While it’s impossible to put an exact savings amount on the above proposals, since 2010 federal health care spending was $1.1 trillion, and GDP is $14.1 trillion, just a ten percent improvement would save $110 billion annually in the budget and free up over a trillion dollars each year in the broader economy for other uses.

  4. All of the budget cutting deals over the past two years have focused on non-defense discretionary spending, which is nineteen percent of the total budget [8]. This portion of the budget includes everything from air traffic controllers to national parks to foreign aid to roads, and while there may be some room for more cuts, overall any additional savings would be insignificant when compared with the three items already mentioned.

Other Changes

Infrastructure needs repair, the government needs to work more efficiently, and other changes need to happen to make the US a better country.

  1. Implement a commission to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Model it on the Base Realignment and Closure process which recommended military bases for closing. The goal would be to trim waste, eliminate duplication, and identify functions that are candidates for moving to the private sector, with the process repeated every three years.
  2. Implement a similar commission to recommend consolidation and simplification of existing federal laws. No one will deny that the system is too complex, but there doesn’t seem to be incentive for lawmakers to clean it up. If there are duplicative, outdated, or conflicting laws there should be a process to make things better. Hopefully as a side effect this process would also reduce the load on the judicial system while making things fairer for those without vast legal resources.
  3. Begin the process of simplifying the tax code. Gradually (over many years) eliminate all deductions, including charitable and mortgage, with corresponding decreases to tax rates to keep revenue levels the same. Similarly, gradually increase the capital gains rate until they are taxed like regular income. Complexity encourages cheating and fraud while making the system unfair to those without teams of accountants, but changing things too quickly would also cause economic harm to those who bought a home or invested based on existing tax law.
  4. Implement financial reforms with a goal of simplifying the current system. The financial industry should encourage investment rather than risk taking, so the Glass-Steagall Act should be reinstated so that banks are not also operating as investment brokerages (obviously, provide sufficient time to allow companies to divest). Commodity trading should be modified so that those actually taking ownership of goods are the focus of the market, rather than speculators who will never take physical possession of the commodity in question. Per-transaction fees should be implemented to increase the cost of high-volume, short-term trading while simultaneously funding regulators – day trading does no good for the country whereas long-term investment boosts economic growth.
  5. Increase the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon by five cents per year over the next four years (to 38.4 cents per gallon), and then increase it by the inflation rate each year after that. The tax would still be far lower than most European countries, and would increase revenue from the current $25 billion per year to about $55 billion per year. That money would then be used for infrastructure and energy investments – everyone is aware that infrastructure is crumbling, so there needs to be money available to improve it.
  6. Tie the minimum wage to inflation – if the minimum wage is supposed to provide a minimal standard of living then it should keep up with cost of living.
  7. Make narcotics policy a state issue rather than a federal issue. If California wants to legalize pot while Alabama wants smoking a joint to be a jailable offense, so be it. If Las Vegas decides that legalizing cocaine is the best way to manage a drug that is already widely used in that city, let them. Just as prohibition enabled organized crime without reducing alcoholism, the war on drugs has done almost nothing to reduce drug usage but done much to enrich gangs and other criminal elements; end it, reduce the associated crime and law enforcement costs, and allow the drug trade to be moved from the shadows to a place where it can be regulated.

The Political System

Currently just nine percent of people think Congress is doing a good job [9]. No one trusts politicians, good people don’t want to be involved in politics, and citizens think their elected officials have been bought by lobbyists. Obviously, something needs to change.

  1. Eliminate gerrymandering and have non-partisan commissions draw district borders. This isn’t something that can be done at the federal level, but if it was done it would be the single greatest step possible towards making the political system less polarized.
  2. Pass laws requiring that any individual or corporation that engages in political activity disclose their financial involvement, similar to the warnings about side effects that are required for prescription drug advertisements. If the Supreme Court says that a union or Karl Rove’s friends can spend millions for political advertising, let them, but make it very clear who the messenger is.
  3. Establish a precedent in Congress that changes to the House or Senate’s rules cannot go into effect for two years. This would reduce changes made for partisan gain, such as the “nuclear option“, but still encourage fixing particularly egregious abuses of rules, such as the current situation in the Senate where everything is filibustered.
  4. Allow internet voting. While there would obviously need to be safeguards put in place to make sure hackers couldn’t significantly affect voting and that votes were auditable, there should be no reason in the 21st century that someone should have to travel to a polling place, stand in line, and then physically mark a ballot in order to cast a vote. This change would give those with busy lives, particularly the non-retired crowd, no excuse for failing to vote, and would hopefully make the electorate more representative of the actual population.

Burbank, California

Posted at 11:20 am, October 10th, 2003

From CNN: “Vice President Dick Cheney today said terrorists are ‘doing everything they can’ to get weapons of mass destruction that could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans ‘in a single day of horror.'”

Setting the FUD factor of that comment aside, the one question no one is asking is “why?” You can kill mosquitoes until the end of time, or you can try draining the swamp.

Semi-political ramblings aside, I’m going to be backpacking for the next three days. I’m heading up to the same spot where I decided to quit my job last July, so who knows what will happen this time.

Glendale, California

Posted at 12:15 am, October 8th, 2003

Life was better when I didn’t give a damn about politics. “Governor Schwarzenegger” is gonna take some getting used to — apparently most of the folks in this state didn’t watch Twins, End of Days, or Last Action Hero. Obviously Gary Coleman’s campaign failed to pull off the big upset — hopefully he isn’t too disappointed tonight.

Palo Alto, California

Posted at 11:20 pm, November 5th, 2002

Six weeks ago I had pretty much made up my mind to continue traveling and living simply. Then I heard one of the candidates for governor of Alaska, Frank Murkowski, on NPR campaigning on a platform of restoring Alaska’s economy by vastly increasing the oil, timber, and fishing industries within the state, and I decided that it would be irresponsible of me not to do something, no matter how small, to try and fight such people. He was just elected governor, despite his obviously short-sighted plans. This fight is not one that I’m prepared for, nor am I sure exactly what I can do, but it’s a fight that needs to be fought.