Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I'm the Decider

Having discussed the Bush presidency over the years, I know we've all wondered how much Bush had to do with making decisions etc. Whether or not we should say "Bush invaded Iraq" or use "Bush Administration" or whether we should listen to guys like Sam Harris seeking to convince us that American foreign policy resulted from Bush's unique faith. Well, you knew not to listen to Sam Harris though, didn't you?

Anyway, a top Aide to Colin Powell has recently discussed this matter with some serious candor, and the results are basically what you would expect: Bush was never expected to be a serious "decider." He was, of course, chosen like you'd choose a logo for a product.

Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell:
We had this confluence of characters--and I use that term very carefully--that included people like Powell, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and so forth, which allowed one perception to be "the dream team." It allowed everybody to believe that this Sarah Palin-like president--because, let's face it, that's what he was--was going to be protected by this national- security elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire. What in effect happened was that a very astute, probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I've ever run into in my life became the vice president of the United States.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Extra Extra!

If you're anything like me, you've spent much of the past 10 days (or 4 years) dreaming of how Obama's Presidency might change the world.  This "Special Edition" NY Times from the future doesn't hesitate to dream big.  Be sure to check out the advertisments and full length articles as well.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Are you out of touch with America?

This is the post I've been trying to write for a long, long time. Republicans are currently reassuring themselves that the American public holds "center-right" opinions, and Democrats are reassuring us that we need worry no further we elected the best guy (out of the top 2) and so we can just kinda sit back and enjoy ourselves. Despite all the unity and "no red states/no blue states" rhetoric that you're feeling and hearing, you probably feel out of step in some way. We see a popular vote that's basically 52-47 and it feels like our disagreements run deep. So here's the first part of a multi-part quiz... See how out of touch you are compared to the rest of the country.

Read the quiz question and decide on your answer (and perhaps guess how many people you think agree with you in the US, and what politicians might think) Then highlight the blank space under the question and you'll see the actual polling data. To prevent me from cherry picking polls, I've chosen to rely on the most comprehensive and well-respected public opinion poll: the Program on International Policy Attitudes whenever possible (which for this is most of the questions.) All poll data will be the most recent available (within a few years.)

Quiz 1, Human Rights:

1. News and government reports indicate that the US has been using private contractors to conduct interrogations in Iraq. Do you Approve or think that only Military personnel should conduct the interrogations?

68% of Americans think that only the military should be involved in interrogating prisoners (and only 26% think private contractors are ok to do it.) Obama will "not rule out" the use of these contractors in Iraq.

2. Should "enemy combatants" (non-military who are "suspected of terror") who are captured in a foreign country be tortured if need be? Threatened with Torture?

75% of Americans say they should not be tortured (78% of republicans!) and a majority of Americans say that there shouldn't even be a threat of terror. Obama opposes torture too so he's good on this one. McCain actually waffles on this issue despite being tortured himself and voted against curtailing torture.

3. Should the US eliminate the prisons in Guantanamo bay in order to comply with the UN Commission on Human Rights?

63% say the US should eliminate the prison because of the UN commission. Obama opposes the Prison at gitmo

4. Should equal opportunities regardless of whether your are gay or lesbian be considered a human right?

79% of Americans think it should be a human right regardless of sexual orientation. Obama arguably disagrees with this as he does not support Gay Marriage.

5. Should fair pay for workers to meet the basic needs for food and housing be considered a human right or not??

A whopping 87% of Americans think it should be a basic human right (with a slightly smaller percentage also arguing that freedom from extreme poverty should be a human right.)

6. A permanent International Criminal Court has been established by the UN (United Nations) to try individuals suspected of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Do you think the U.S. should or should not support the permanent international criminal court, even if charges could be brought against US troops?

68% agree that the US should support the ICC even though it could prosecute us.
Obama doesn't support it unless the US is exempt (McCain's position is the same.)

7. Finally, do you prefer a universal health care system to our current system?

A 2-1 majority (according to ABCnews/washington post) prefer a universal healthcare system. And yet, who's the last politician who advocated one? No the answer's not Hillary (take a closer look at what she actually proposed)- it was Truman. Obama does not support this (though his rhetoric makes it sound like he does.) He does want to provide the opportunity for health care to every American though, which is a better plan than his competitor.

8. "When a minority is being deprived of its human rights by a government that is supported by the US, this may lead that minority to use terrorism against Americans."

53% of Americans say yes, despite the fact this is considered outlandish-- unutterable even-- by the media.

9. Some say the US should restrict imports of shrimp from India because the shrimp are caught using methods that kill many sea turtles. Do you think the US should or should not limit its trade with India for this reason?

63% of Americans would limit trade in order to protect (endangered) sea turtles! I bet that's even more liberal that some of you!

10. Do you think it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage, or is that not the responsibility of the federal government?

70% of Americans agree that is the US government should make sure that Americans HAVE health care coverage.

11. Is the Supreme Court too liberal or too conservative?

Americans think that the court is too conservative by a 3/2 margin

12. What do you think is more important (a more pressing issue in the US)?
A. Abortion
B. 36 other things including inflation, poverty, welfare, environment, "unifying the country," "lack of respect for each other," foreign aid, the judicial system, and gay rights issues

I think you've already seen the point here, Americans ranked Abortion extremely low on a list of priorities, though you wouldn't know it from listening to the media and politicians.

13. How influential do you think the will of the majority is on US policy?
A. Above average (closer to "very influential", i.e. a democracy)
B. Below Average (closer to "not at all influential" i.e. totalitarianism)

Probably not too surprising if you've made it this far, but on average the assessment was about a 4.4/10, or closer to totalitarianism. When asked what percentage of the time congress makes decision that are "the same as the majority would make" the average answer was 39%- "less than chance." Needless to say, that means that congress isn't just "out of touch" (you'd expect something closer to 50/50 in that case) but that it's (perceived as) acting contrary to the interests of the citizenry!

Finally, 81% of Americans also say that the government should be more responsive to the US population and pay more attention to polls when deciding on major issues. I, for one, second that.

Procedural note: These poll questions (accounting for small phrasing differences) preserve the same content as the original poll- I'm happy to cite sources if anyone wants but they'd be easy to find. I mention Obama several times not to knock the guy (he was the same or better than McCain on every issue I mention here) but just to show that this "most Liberal member of the senate" is in fact well to the right of the American public on most issues. Just wait until I get to foreign policy!

Obama Wins!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Undecided Voters

We hold undecided voters in far too-high esteem in this country. What we often call "waffling" "fence-riding" and "playing it safe" suddenly become "prudence" and "rational consideration" during even-numbered years. If you think I'm getting ready to make some point about how if you're not for Obama you're obviously insane, don't worry I'm not. How many more of those blog posts do you really need?

For some odd reason I subjected myself to the post-debate analysis on NBC tonight, and on the program was a panel of undecided voters all discussing their thoughts about the two candidates. The set-up was basic: undecided voters explain their opinion of the candidates and how it's changed following the debate they just watched. If one of the voters "decides" and commits to a candidate they are removed from the panel. That obviously creates massive selection bias (since if candidate A -call him "Obama"- won the first two debates and people committed, the panel would consist largely of candidate B-leaners) but that's neither here nor there. It drove me crazy listening to these people repeat drivel like "Well Obama really showed me something tonight when he discussed his health care plan in more detail" or "McCain sounded very confident on Iraq." ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Here's a radical idea for you: political candidates are little bundles of policies. You think the CEO of Pfizer is saying "Who cares about the tax breaks, I just want to know which candidate looks more "presidential"? I assure you he is not. He is voting (and "donating") based on cold hard issues, and if you don't? If you vote based on who you can have a beer with or who has a vagina or who speaks well... well then you're going to get Pfizer's wet dream plus ovaries, a pick-up truck and a toastmasters membership. If you want to vote on issues, go take the candidate compatibility quiz or head to and click "voting records." If you want rhetoric, imagery, and delusion though, go watch a politician speak or debate.

Here's how the undecided voter panel must prepare to buy a car: "Gee well I'm really undecided about the truck I should buy; I guess I should watch two competing commercials."

Undecided Truck Buyer A: "Well I really thought Chevy showed me something tonight by having its truck navigate a thin rail between a series of swinging steel I-beams"

Undecided B: "Well after tonight I've got to say I'm leaning toward Toyota, what with the way it managed to stop that entire jet airliner using only its standard disc brakes.

Katie Couric: "Fascinating pros and cons on both sides and a major change in strategy from Chevy, who seems to have completely abandoned the "scaling 60-degree-angled mountains" approach of last time."

Don't, you know, do any research on the features or prices.

This is a deep problem, and one that affects me and many of my closest, most intelligent friends. The idea that "character" matters so much is the implicit message of so much news coverage we can't help but be swayed a little bit. The polls bear this out- during the last presidential election in 2004 10% of the population voted on "agendas/ideas/platforms/goals"; 6% for Bush voters, 13% for Kerry voters according to a Gallup poll. That's a disaster for democracy.

Further, I have to imagine that the deep cynicism that most of us feel regarding politics, and perhaps the same cynicism that makes people politically inert, must be partially a result of this image-focused voting. The young idealist who loves Bill Clinton's sparkling eyes and inspiring rhetoric in 1992 is the same confused partisan trying to excuse the bombing of Sudan in 1998 is the same hardened non-voter in 2000. The small-government conservative who couldn't get enough of Bush's Reagan-esque speeches about government being the problem is the same meek apologist for wire-tapping and massive new government spending in 2004 is the same guy who "forgets" to mail-in his absentee ballot this year. If you've got a red white and blue t-shirt with a candidates name on it right now, you might just see yourself in one of those examples in a few years. Voting is important though so, this year, try something different: Vote for someone without illusions about what they'll do.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The End of the World... Almost

Perhaps you've read my earlier link to Vasilly Archipov, the Russian hero who disobeyed orders and refused to launch a nuclear weapon at the US while in under US bombardment. Apparently, there's a second world hero from Russia named Stanislav Petrov who was forced into retirement after refusing to launch a Nuclear Assault per protocol. Read the story here; it's harrowing.

Then watch this video and feel all better:

Sunday, September 14, 2008