President Barack Obama won re-election yesterday night. I think both him and Mitt Romney gave good speeches after the fact, especially Mitt, who showed a humble love of his country and a genuine grace in defeat.
Both men spoke of compromise, bi-partisan action, and coming together on all levels. This is a common lip-service that politicians give after an election, but still it’s nice to hear to someone like me who hasn’t yet grown too cynical with the political process. I still believe red and blue can work together to get something done, even if it’s a small fraction of what they promised in the campaign.
In the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together. Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil.
He then continued with a call to action that had a funny effect of promptly silencing the applause:
We’ve got more work to do. The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.
These are empty words if they fall on closed ears. It’s a reminder once again that the president is powerless except in the degree to which he can inspire the American people to action. Whatever your views are on the tax code or other issues, you need to ground those views in concrete ideals, and live your life in every way according to those ideals. That’s what I think he means by self-government. Your voice will reverberate only if it’s backed by an exemplary productive life.
The “economy” has been widely hailed as the main concern on the minds of the American people. Unfortunately, the simple truth of the presidency (according to the constitution and according to modern reality) is that the president has very little power to affect the economy. His power in this domain almost exclusively rests with the bully pulpit: the persuasive power of the loudest megaphone in Washington DC.
The following are the powers and roles of the president as I see it, and how that effects who I’ll vote for tomorrow (Tuesday, November 6, 2012):
Nominate Supreme Court justices. To me, this is the biggest reason not to mess around with your vote and choose the party that best represents your views on policy, domestic and foreign. In the next four years, it’s possible that we will see 4 justices retire. Ginsburg is 79, Scalia is 76, Kennedy is 75, and Breyer is 74. Gibsburg and Breyer are left-leaning on most issues, Scalia is famously right-leaning, and Kennedy is often the swing vote.
Start wars without declaring them. On at least 125 occasions the president (throughout U.S. history) has deployed troops without authorization from Congress. In my book, this is where Obama’s cool and collected approach is very important. I hope, that if Romney wins, he has a similar approach. Even if I disagree with the decision, I hope the decision is made through a careful deliberation process that’s influenced by balanced reason and not blind ideology.
Bully pulpit: Really, most of the president’s power lies in the fact that we all pretend that he is important (because the media pretends he is important) and thus give him “power” by listening to him. He can use his giant megaphone to influence Congress, public opinion, and international relations. What’s very important to remember, however, is that this power of persuasion grows exponentially in a time of real crisis (such as a terrorist attack or a natural disaster). At those times, we tend to take off our partisan hats and follow the words of the commander and chief with loyalty and unwavering determination. Hence, we want to pick a president who is best in a time of crisis.
I have many friends who are voting for Obama and many who are voting for Romney (though I’m not speaking to them this week for fear of mutual destruction). I even have one friend who is voting for Gary Johnson, who despite being the goofiest politician I’ve ever heard, is quite brilliant. I’m personally voting for Obama, despite many of my objections to what I saw in the last four years, because:
I want to maintain a balance of left and right on the Supreme court.
I want less undeclared wars not more, even though both candidates I believe will be far more hawkish than I would like.
I want a president that the rest of the world likes, respects, and wants to work with. In poll after poll, Obama beats Romney about 80% to 20% in the rest of the World. The gap is biggest in countries that our close allies, except Israel which is one of the only countries where Romney leads (with a whopping 57% to 22%).
As a scientist, I am depressed at the blatant disrespect towards science in the Republican party. I’m not talking about global warming or stem cell research or evolution. I’m talking about fundamental scientific research. I wish this wasn’t so, but it certainly makes me lean heavily to the left on this issue, where science is rightful seen as the main force of progress and economic growth that made this country what it has come to be throughout the 20th century.
I try not to grow cynical about politics, but it’s damn hard… Please make sure you vote tomorrow, not for any reason, but because it may help spark a conversation with a friend about a political issue you both care about. Who knows, that spark might start a fire.
This upcoming Tuesday (Nov 6th, 2012) Americans get to vote on who will be the president of the United States for the next 4 years. I think many people all over the political spectrum see problems with the election process in this country. So let me throw my hat in the ring and provide some of the problems (and possible solutions) that I see. These have to do with the election of a president and not with the issues based on which we make that section…
Low Voter Turnout
Problem: In 2008, and stretching back through all of the 20th century, only about 50% of Americans who are eligible to vote actually vote. That puts us in 114th place in the world, right next to Mexico. Reasons for the low turnout include negative campaigning, distrust of government, low interest in politics, lack of belief in the efficacy of voting.
Solution: Making voting compulsory (required by law). Many countries do this, including Mexico who is next to us in 115th place, but what determines success is the degree to which this law is enforced. I believe that requiring that everyone votes will force the subject of politics into the minds of the apathetic to a degree where it will start popping up in bar conversations and “at the dinner table” much as it does in many European nations. I think that the problem is not so much that the turnout is low, but that the number of informed voters is low. If we don’t have a sense of civic duty, then perhaps we need to be forced to develop it. PS: Of course, being required to vote doesn’t mean you have to choose a candidate. It’s important that “none of the above” is an option for the people who are opposed to everyone running, and “not informed enough” is an option for the eternally undecided voter.
The Electoral College
Problem: First, a quick video on how the damn thing works:
48 of 50 states are winner-take-all, meaning that a candidate gets 100% of the votes from that state if they get the plurality (more than any other candidate). The result is that no candidate goes to California, New York, Texas or any other state that is solidly in the Democratic or Republican corners. In fact, there are only 9 swing states, or really just one: Ohio. That means the election process is not about fighting for the vote of every American but more focused on the vote of someone who lives in Ohio or Florida. The main problem is not that the majority of states are left out from the attention of the candidates, but that the absurdity of this fact causes many people to grow cynical and give up on politics all-together.
Solution: Abolish the electoral college. Of course, this solution is very difficult to make a reality, because the smaller states will never vote “yes” on it. The only hope is that Obama wins the election via the electoral college and loses the popular vote, much like George W Bush did in 2000. I think we can count on the Republicans to be far more outraged at such a result than the Democrats were (for better or for worse) in 2000. Perhaps that outrage can lead to actual reform, over the opposition of the smaller states.
Financing of Campaigns
Problem: I think can present the problem most clearly by giving a simple example. In 2012, two men (the Koch brothers) are projected to spend $300 million on Super PAC organizations running ads in support of Romney or in opposition of Obama. That’s more than the WHOLE budget ($260 million) of the McCain campaign in 2008. We are talking about the 1% of the 1% of the population having the majority of the financial power behind defining the issues that drive the campaign. Obama got the short end of the stick this cycle, being outspent in Super PACS ($330 million to $110 million so far), but it could go the other way next time around.
Solution: While this is an absurdly unjust element of the 2012 electoral process, I’m comforted by the fact that everyone hates this reality, including Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, and yes, both Clint Eastwood and Big Bird. So, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will eventually overturn the Citizens United ruling that allowed this kind of unlimited spending in the first place. The broader problem of campaign financing in general has to be addressed as well. Lawrence Lessig, for example, proposes a public financing system where every tax-paying citizen gets a $50 refund that has to be spent in support of a candidate of the person’s choosing. If there is one thing worth paying for, it’s democracy.
In the past several weeks, the level of partisan vile has escalated beyond the point where I could filter it out and stay connected to the central policy ideas that each candidate stands for. I tuned out for the most part, and retreated back into my usual cave of preferring historical nonfiction over current event shallow opinion flinging. But of all people, the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, has brought me back to modern life with a non-partisan praise for the president in his efforts to help New Jersey recover from hurricane Sandy:
When I heard this today, I was reminded that the people of this country can come together in a time of need, even if just the day before they were bickering in dramatic fashion over relatively minor policy differences.
I always believed that a successful argument, no matter how heated it gets, must be built on a foundation of friendship and respect. What I have been noticing more and more is that Congress has been drifting away from being this nation’s battlefield of ideas towards a red vs blue food fight of talking points and personal attacks.
There are a lot of people that dislike Chris Christie’s policy decisions in New Jersey, and I understand that. But I do wish that there were more men like him in politics who calculate less and speak from the heart more because their heart is grounded fundamentally in respect for their colleagues in politics.
Anyway, I’m sure that after the news of the storm and its flood waters subside, the country will return to the more cynical view of our political leaders. But that won’t stop me from enjoying this rare moment of mutual respect.
I think too many people know nothing about Obamacare except that the name Obama is in the title, and that’s enough for them to like it or dislike this very complex healthcare legislation.
No matter how you feel about it, I think the law is an attempt at reform that at the very least is inspiring an important public discourse on one of the most important subjects that we face as a democracy.
So, I’ve been slowly chipping away at learning more about this huge 2010 law. One of the interesting provisions is that chain restaurants must list the calories of menu items in the menu. They must also provide detailed nutritional content info (fat, sodum, carbs, sugars, protein, etc) upon request.
I knew that this has been a growing trend in restaurants, but I thought that it was due to laws passed in major cities and not due to a federal law. In some cases, restaurants have until 2014 to start disclosing this info, so there still might be a few hold outs.
I am a huge fan of government forcing information down our throats. That’s where big government does the most good in my opinion: help inform the public, and let the public make their own individual choices.
Where a lot of people start feeling uneasy is when laws start popping up that limit what people can eat or drink. For example, the following video discusses a recent New York City law that bans jumbo-sized sugary drinks in restaurants, theaters, and street carts. I like this specific law, but it makes me nervous.
Like I said, I’m all for government informing the public, even forcing that information down our throats. But consumer freedom is essential to the economic vibrancy of our nation. We should limit this freedom very carefully, if at all.
Obama publicly declared his personal belief that gay marriage should be legal. It was truly refreshing to hear the president speak out for gay rights on an issue where he is potentially far enough ahead of public opinion to lose votes over it.
There are a lot of opinions about the political impact of this. While I will engage in such discussion given a few beers, I certainly don’t see value or validity in any opinion on the matter. I have only one general sense, and that is: when people will look back 50 years from now at the fact that gay people could not marry, they will see it the same way as we now see the fact that women could not vote in the United States in a relatively recent past.
In other words, we are making some kind of progress. None of it is trivial (though it might appear to be in retrospect) but it’s comforting to know that I live in a time when we as a society are actively struggling with big moral questions. And all of it adds up to real implications for ourselves and our neighbors.
Of course, I’m confident that in 50 years, there will be newly “identified” groups of people whom the majority will discriminate against, either through the law or just through the way we talk, think, and live. I believe that one such group is robots. It may seem like a joke now, but I do believe that the growth of the personal robotics industry (or perhaps cloning) will bring some damn tough moral questions to the forefront.
Game Change is almost but not quite a history book about the 2008 election. For folks that follow the week-to-week (or even day-to-day) of political commentary, should stop, and just wait to read about the simple truth of it all a year after the election. I feel like I learned more from Game Change than I did from the countless hours of reading the NY Times and other sources in the year leading up to the election. I suspect the same might be true for the current election season.
The book gets at who Obama, Clinton, McCain, Palin, Edwards, and Giuliani really are better than the media did during the campaign. Why? Because most of the book was written from interviews done right after the election. Everyone’s memory was fresh, and there was much less need to lie (or less immediate benefit for doing so). Some of it is a bit gossipy, even if the sources are solid.
The following, off the top of my head, are some of the more interesting things I remember from the book:
Obama is a Political Science Nerd
Obama is a policy wonk. He is known for making flowery speeches and being a good politician, but in fact his interests lie in long private debates over details of policy. Yes, he is a political science nerd, and this alone made me gain a ton of respect for him. He is luckily more than an empty suit with pretty words that I was worried he might be. One problem he kept complaining about (as many other politicians do) is all the time he is supposed to spend fundraising takes away from the valuable policy discussions. I can relate to that problem, as that seems to plague the world of academia as well. Many professors find that a large portion of their time is spent searching for funding of their research as opposed to doing the actual research.
Elizabeth Edwards is Not a Saint
I don’t want to touch this subject too much because Elizabeth Edwards was deceived by her husband and suffered a public death while inspiring many people with her saintly image. What the book reveals is that she was a very difficult person in private life. She was controlling, irrational, and just not good to John. Clearly he didn’t deserve better, but the description of Elizabeth’s real-life character helped me understand that dysfunctional relationship a little better.
Politically, McCain was In Over His Head
I gained a lot of respect for McCain after reading this book, because honestly, his instinct and intentions are genuine in a way that’s rare in politics. As he started losing, however, he let other people define who he is. He started trying to “play” politics and lost. It’s clear that the brilliant politicians in this whole group are the Clintons. McCain and Obama are much more human and real. Luckily for Obama, he can also make a hell of a good speech, and McCain can’t.
Main point: Either we have to be willing to watch a poor man die or we have to force that man to pay for insurance throughout his life.
Suppose a man is lying in the street, bleeding to death. He has no money, no insurance, but a simple procedure would save his life. The libertarian argument is that this is the cold moment when a man must take responsibility for the decisions he has made in the past and the cruel turn of luck that has led to his current circumstance.
It seems to me that we don’t live in a society that is willing to let such a man die. The alternative is to force the healthy and the fortunate to pay for the sick and the unfortunate. So until we are willing to turn a bleeding man away, I see no other option but to let government step in and force us to be responsible. I purposely phrase it in a way that seems like a contradiction, but one that’s no worse than the contradiction of our moral system.
By the way, the Supreme Court is scheduled (next year) to hear the case of whether Obama’s healthcare overhaul is constitutional:
This case is not as philosophically interesting as at first may seem, but unfortunately it will likely be politicized to a point where it may influence the decision of the judges.
I was listening to CSPAN which luckily does not feel the need to “entertain” and thus provides some of the most objective coverage of how the sausage is made in our government.
Two guests were on, discussing tax reform. One was from a “conservative think tank” and the other from a “progressive organization”. They were making their points clearly and intelligently but going right down the line in terms of the standard boilerplate fiscal arguments associated with their respective party.
It struck me at some point that competition of ideas is exceptionally important to the checks and balances of our government. Moreover, the quality, logic, and reasonableness of the ideas is not what’s important. The most important part is that there is a significant group of people who genuinely stand (almost dogmatically) behind that idea.
In defending and idea, this group of people will search out every little problem about the opposition, and thus keep the opposition as honest as possible.
Sure, creationism might seem like an absurd infringement on the very foundation of science, but in the long-run it will keep evolutionary research honest by limiting the scope of their claims, and sharpening their arguments. That’s an extreme example. Most example are more subtle, like the moral and economic arguments over tax policy.
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you could flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch or do nothing?
The majority of the country and Congress is saying we have to “flip the switch”. The debate is over the specifics, which are so insignificant it’s ridiculous. Then there is a group of tea party members that don’t want to flip the switch. They want to stop the train, and if that’s not possible, let it run over the five people and learn a valuable lesson from that. This is an admirable position is some very distant abstract universe, but is just not in touch with reality and the consequences of real people’s lives in the short and long term.
To reiterate, the current plans proposed by Republicans and Democrats are virtually the same. The Republicans propose slightly harsher cuts, and make the avoidance of cutting harder, but really, there are two reasons no agreement has been reached:
The Republicans (and to some degree, the Democrats) still think they can come out the political winner in this, while the other side comes out the political loser.
Tea Party members are ideologically immovable (I’m trying to put it as nicely as possible here).
Meanwhile, the train is flying down the tracks…
* Illustration above is by Frank O’Connell (NY Times)