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

What If…

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:19 pm, April 2nd, 2018

I know politics are a turn-off for a lot of folks, but it seems like an interesting thought exercise to imagine what it would be like if a few states had voted slightly differently, making Hillary Clinton the 45th president. Please feel free to use the comments to add any additions or corrections to this alternative timeline…

November 2016: If Democrats had turned out in numbers that were just large enough to give Clinton the victory in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, that turnout likely would have also provided narrow Democratic victories in the Wisconsin & Pennsylvania Senate races, resulting in a Senate that was split 50-50, with Vice President Tim Kaine the deciding vote in case of ties.

January 2017: With Clinton in the White House and a Democratic Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would have invoked the “nuclear option” in order to overcome Republican obstruction against Hillary Clinton’s nominees (just as Republicans did with Trump’s nominees), enraging conservatives and leading to an uproar in conservative media. The end result would be a bitterly divided Senate, a re-energized Tea Party, and a Supreme Court with a liberal majority.

June 2017: In this alternate timeline, the US would not have dropped out of the Paris Climate accords, nor would DACA have been rescinded. Similarly, there would have been no discussion of a border wall, a Muslim ban, or withdrawing from NAFTA.

September 2017: With the House still in Republican control, and conservatives enraged by the actions of President Clinton, the odds of a budget agreement would have been zero, almost certainly resulting in a shutdown of the government. Conservatives likely would have demanded documents and testimony for their many ongoing investigations over Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, and Clinton’s email servers as a minimum precondition for any re-opening of the government.

October 2017: While Trump rescinded Obamacare’s cost sharing subsidies, resulting in health insurance premiums that were about ten percent higher than they otherwise would have been, President Clinton would have spent her time looking for ways to strengthen the health care law. Without Republican support it is unlikely there would have been much she could do, but in this alternate timeline Obamacare would not have been weakened, premium increases would have been lower, and Congress would not have spent months debating how to repeal the law.

November 2017: With Clinton as President and Trump likely viewed as an outcast in Republican circles, the one thing that the parties would probably have agreed on was addressing Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In this timeline, FBI director James Comey’s investigation into Russian meddling would have reached its conclusion, and with the support of the Senate and European allies the US would have imposed strict sanctions that isolated Russia internationally. In addition, bipartisan action to improve voting security and combat future meddling would be one of the year’s very rare examples of the parties actually working together.

December 2017: After a temporary agreement to end the previous shutdown, the divided government would again be unlikely to find a budget agreement, resulting in yet another shutdown. With huge deficits projected, Republicans would probably be rallying around the debt and deficit and demanding steps to address those issues as preconditions for any budget agreement. Note that in this timeline, the Republican tax cuts of 2017, with their corresponding reduction in federal revenue, would never have become law.

January 2018: With the North Koreans conducting nuclear and missile tests throughout 2017, President Clinton would have most likely pushed for an international response that was led by China and based on the framework used in the Iran nuclear agreement. While any deal would have been condemned by the Right (like they have done with the Iran nuclear deal), faced with real pressure from its one main ally (China), North Korea would have been boxed into a corner, forced to choose between sanctions that could finally threaten King Jong Un’s power or pausing its nuclear ambitions.

April 2018: After almost no legislative progress, two government shutdowns, ongoing investigations, and a huge block of Bernie Sanders voters still fomenting dissent on the Left, Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings would likely be dismal. The Republican establishment would be railing non-stop against Clinton corruption and deficits, and Tea Party rallies would be even larger than they were under Obama. In this environment, political scientists would be predicting a massive Republican wave in the midterms that would not only increase the Republican House majority, but would also flip 6-10 Senate seats to Republicans. Pundits would be questioning how the Democrats could possibly regain any path to a viable governing majority, and openly wondering if Clinton should consider stepping aside after just one term.

Fixing the System

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:08 pm, December 28th, 2017

Audrey and I were sitting in the back yard a few weeks ago talking about some political issue in the day’s news, and in the course of the conversation she asked what I would do to fix things. One of my suggestions wasn’t a popular one, but after explaining it a bit she said “you should write a journal entry about that”. I’ve presented thoughts for improving our government in journal entries in the past with varying amounts of seriousness, but here’s another entry that may or may not be worth the pixels that it’s printed on:

There is a lot of chatter these days about empowering the average citizen over party “elites” – getting rid of super delegates, doing away with caucuses, and otherwise increasing the power of the average Joe to choose the leaders of the country. My unpopular opinion is that this solution is exactly the opposite of what is needed, since the increase in direct democracy over the past several decades has correlated with an increase in government dysfunction. Hear me out…

People today lament that our government is incapable of getting things done or of making hard decisions, but the electoral process punishes candidates who address the country’s problems honestly. If Candidate A says that we need to address the deficit by raising taxes and/or cutting popular spending, while Candidate B repeats the well-worn fallacy that if only we trimmed “waste” from the budget then all of our problems would disappear, Candidate B will be elected. If Candidate A says she will make unpopular compromises in order to work with the other party, while Candidate B says that he will never compromise his principles, Candidate B will be elected. And for decades voters have reliably chosen Candidate B, only to discover that the debt continues to rise, and parties have no incentive to make the compromises that would lead to win-win solutions.

As a result, elections today are a contest of who can do the best job of telling the electorate what they want to hear, with candidates who say one thing in a primary and then “pivot” to a different position for the general election, and who voters expect will then “betray” them once in office. More direct democracy will only exacerbate that situation – if a candidate who honestly says that hard choices need to be made is generally going to lose to someone who says no hard choices are necessary, the only people who can win elections are going to be liars and/or incompetent. While I don’t think there is any foolproof solution to that issue, I would make the unpopular proposal that less direct democracy in nominating candidates for national elections (President, Senate, House) would at least keep out the worst charlatans, and thus the primary system should give more power to super delegates and other gatekeepers. The average voter would continue to choose among candidates in the general election, and could still have a say in primaries, but we need to find ways to reduce pandering and restore serious policy discussion to the electoral process. I’m not sure what form such a system might take – have the super delegate vote count for 50% of what is required to be nominated, or force candidates to have the backing of several super delegates before they are allowed to enter the race – but I think there would be significant value in providing more vetting than we have today.

Here are a small number of additional points in defense of why I think that this proposal is worth considering seriously:

  • We should give more weight to the most informed people when choosing leaders. Today a voter who knows the candidates personally and spends their life as a part of the government has a vote that counts equally to someone who flips a coin, someone who is influenced by a smear campaign, or someone who simply votes for any name that they recognize; I want to know that the leaders of my government have been vetted by more than just a popularity contest.
  • Money and fame would be less important as deciding factors in elections. Today politicians have to spend countless hours fundraising in order to afford TV commercials and other ways of achieving visibility in the electorate, with famous people such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Trump gaining an undeserved advantage. Giving more power to political insiders would help to level the playing field, making political ability more of a deciding factor than mere name recognition.
  • Empowering super delegates or similar actors would provide a check against populists or other unqualified individuals gaining power. It is in the interest of the party to put forward the best possible candidates, and giving the most knowledgeable party members an effective veto would provide a layer of protection against bad candidates.

Obviously this solution is imperfect – Bernie Sanders supporters who thought that the DNC “rigged” the primaries in favor of Clinton would be faced with an even steeper hill to climb. The 37% of citizens who currently give Donald Trump a favorable rating would almost certainly never have been given the opportunity to vote for him. Those who want to see more non-politicians on the ballot would be disappointed by a party system likely to support those within its own ranks. And those who fear a takeover of political parties by outside interests would have some reason to worry, since political parties are only as strong as those who choose to be active within that party. Finally, taking power away from individuals and giving it to “elites” sounds evil – it “feels” obviously correct that everyone in a democracy should have an equal voice in choosing candidates, even if those choosing are doing so with incomplete information and thus making bad choices.

Given the likely opposition to any proposal that would make the primary process less democratic it is unlikely that any such change could ever be made. However, since increased direct democracy over the recent decades has led to a system where elections often become popularity contests, and given the fact that it has left us with a government that seems more incapable of governing than ever before, I honestly believe that restoring the power of the parties as gatekeepers to the electoral process would be an effective way to ensure that we have stronger candidates on the ballot, thus leading to a more functional government.

Why this Bill?

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:49 pm, November 27th, 2017

“A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures.” — Daniel Webster

After a legislative session that so far has no major accomplishments, Republicans in Congress are now preparing a tax bill that they have stated could lead to electoral disaster if it doesn’t pass. As someone trying hard to understand the logic behind this particular legislation, it’s a mystery to me why this bill is what they chose for their “must pass” moment.

Republicans have preached fiscal responsibility for as long as I can remember, but they are now firmly behind a bill that adds at least $1.5 trillion to the national debt and whose major goal is to reduce the corporate tax rate. There is an argument to be had about whether lowering the corporate tax rate is a good idea or not, but where I’m puzzled is the fact that I don’t think anyone is arguing that lowering the corporate tax rate is the best possible use of $1.5 trillion. Thus, why make the corporate tax rate the centerpiece of what the party is now calling its do-or-die moment???

If Republicans feel that they must pass something, rather than choosing an unpopular tax bill with murky prospects, it would have made vastly more sense to choose something like an infrastructure package that would be broadly popular, easy to defend, and a clear benefit to both businesses and the working class – “look, we’re fixing highways, railroads, dams, bridges and other very useful and visible things that will make everyone’s lives better, and we’re putting hundreds of thousands of people to work and pumping tons of money into American companies in order to do it!” Instead they have a bill that no one is enthusiastic about, that appears to be fiscally reckless, and one that could easily become a budgetary lodestone if it passes, or a legislative Waterloo if it fails.

The quote at the top of this post is my best guess as to what’s actually happening – for some reason they picked the corporate tax rate as the item to focus on, and now they are stuck in a position where they “must pass” something that no one really likes. As to the larger question of how they picked the corporate tax rate as their area of focus, maybe it’s a result of having too many bankers in government, since the financial industry is probably most likely to make business decisions based on a favorable tax environment (as opposed to other industries that weigh things like labor costs, geographic location, infrastructure, worker availability, or some other criteria far more heavily). Like anything that happens in Washington, I’m sure that there is a lot that I don’t understand, and I may be missing something obvious about this particular bill, but it sure seems like a very, very strange piece of legislation on which to stake the party’s reputation.

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.