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

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.