Archive for February, 2016

Campaign finance: government hands off!

February 29, 2016

imagesHillary loves pointing out that the notorious Citizens United case was about her: an anti-Hillary film that ran afoul of federal regulation. But the Supreme Court ruled that, under the First Amendment, the government can’t stop anyone from producing and distributing a political film. I think that was right.

Critics complain this opened the door to unrestrained campaign spending, allowing elections to be bought. UnknownYet repeatedly big spenders lose elections. If they could be bought, Jeb Bush, who raised the most money, would be the GOP nominee.

Were the spending all one sided, that would be a problem. But it can never happen in this big diverse country. By and large the two parties are fairly matched in fund-raising ability; and a candidate with substantial public support can always raise the sums needed to be competitive (as Bernie Sanders has done).

But our political spending regime is an opaque mess, dominated by unaccountable “Super PACs” (“political action committees’). The problem is not Citizens United but, rather, the whole Federal Elections schema set up by Congress (in the 2002 McCain-Feingold law) to regulate campaign spending. Jeb Bush himself called it “ridiculous.”

images-1Specifically, while one can spend unlimited amounts on one’s own campaign, others are limited to contributing $2700. That causes larger sums to route instead through PACs, which theoretically are not allowed to coordinate with candidates.

This is the system Bush criticized. Instead, he said, there should be no restrictions on spending for political advocacy – and it should be allowed to go directly to candidates, who’d be accountable for it – with full disclosure required (which is not true for PACs).

Now, can you imagine if Congress furthermore made it illegal for an advocacy organization to run ads criticizing a legislator within 60 days of an election? In America? Maybe in Russia. Yet Congress did exactly that, as part of the aforementioned federal election regime. It’s a blatant incumbent protection scheme that strikes the First Amendment in its gut.

Unknown-1Corruption is a real concern – public officials beholden to special interests that finance their costly campaigns. It’s bribery in all but name. However, I don’t think the answer is to restrict political participation but, rather, to broaden it. I have long advocated a tax credit for political contributions (up to a limit). A credit (not deduction) would mean the money effectively comes from the Treasury rather than the donor’s pocket. Thus it would be a form of public campaign finance, but far preferable to existing systems, because individual citizens would determine which candidates get what. And it would inspire such an outpouring of citizen-directed donations that politicians would no longer be reliant on special interest money.

In a free, democratic country, I think government has no business regulating, at all, the landscape of political advocacy. Government itself is not disinterested, and certainly the elected officials who run it are not. This is a power inviting abuse. Remember the Alien and Sedition laws, that made it a crime to criticize the government?

In a democracy, all interests, that have a legitimate concern with what government does, should have an unrestricted right to advocate for their viewpoints in the forum of public opinion. That includes TV ads. And it includes corporations. They too are legitimate parts of our society and should have the right to make their voices heard in public debate. Unknown-2You may not like them – but surely you don’t believe in silencing those you dislike or disagree with?*

Democracy is threatened far less by free campaign spending than by government measures to suppress it.

 

* Well – left wingers tend to believe exactly that.

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Make America great again? Or degraded?

February 25, 2016

UnknownJohn Zogby, who’s very smart, suggests Rubio make Kasich his running mate now. It’s an intriguing gambit that could give Rubio a desperately needed boost. Or could be seen as a desperation move. But something needs to be done, and fast.

Meantime, Kasich has actually been running negative ads against Rubio. And nobody has run ads against Trump.

Unknown-1I’d been supposing that 33% primary pluralities would not give Trump a delegate majority, especially since the super-delegates (party officials and office-holders, 7% of the total) wouldn’t support him. But then I saw his South Carolina 33% gave him all that state’s delegates. So I researched the delegate apportionment rules.

Among Democrats it is largely proportional to primary votes; that’s why the 2008 Obama-Clinton battle was so prolonged. But the GOP powers-that-be wanted to avoid that, so they rigged the game to favor an early front-runner, requiring largely winner-take-all primaries. Never imagining the beneficiary would be a candidate like Trump.

What a disastrous blunder. A bunch more 33% wins in next week’s “Super Tuesday” will make Trump’s nomination virtually unstoppable.

He’ll be crushed by Hillary in November. But the nomination will disgrace not only my Republican party but the country I love. This is a quantum downward cultural shift. imagesOur population has always had a percentage of uncouth lowbrow loser assholes. That’s natural, and they have a right to exist and maybe even sympathy. Yet despite their existence our civic life has always been conducted on a somewhat higher plane of seriousness. Now it’s diving down to the lowest common denominator.

Let me be specific, once and for all.

“Political correctness” disallows saying certain things, out of intolerance toward differing views. It’s not political correctness Trump is offending against but, rather, common decency. Denigrating John McCain’s war heroism, and various women for their looks, etc., Mexicans as rapists, and mocking the disabled, is not “politically incorrect,” but simply offensive, stupid, and vile. images-1And of course he has a difficult relationship with truth, as in saying Muslim Americans celebrated 9/11 – not merely false, but incendiary.

His policy stances – if one can so dignify them – are an incoherent farrago. Can a billionaire businessman really be so ignorant about fundamental economic realities? With no understanding of global trade? He proposes huge tax cuts in the face of rising future deficits that already threaten fiscal ruin; his promises of unspecified but likewise massive spending cuts are empty nonsense.

But none of that is intended seriously anyway, he’s not appealing to policy wonks. Central to his campaign are the plans for a border wall, deporting millions of undocumented residents, banning Muslims from America, and forcing Muslim citizens to register. Crazy, sickeningly ugly, and divisive.

Unknown-2My GOP used to be a principled party of sensible policies aimed at a better world for everyone, including limited government, fiscal responsibility, a free competitive economy, and free trade. A Trump-led Republican party would instead be a nasty racialist vehicle of xenophobia, resentment, and bile. A party of people voting with their middle fingers.

images-2Yet few Republicans say they won’t support Trump if nominated, instead being ready to fall into line (and over the cliff). I am heartsick at this national degradation.

Make America great again? It’s dragging America into the gutter.

Our Gal in Kabul

February 24, 2016

elizabOur daughter Elizabeth is going to Kabul, to sort out the mess there.

With a degree in international relations and economics, she’s been in Jordan since last summer, working at Questscope, a humanitarian non-governmental organization. Now she’s accepted a job (program development officer) with a different one, called ACTED, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

We’ve often been asked if we were worried by Elizabeth’s being in the Middle East. We visited her in Jordan, and it’s a perfectly normal country. But Afghanistan – not so much. (ACTED’s website memorializes a staffer who was assassinated). Nevertheless my wife and I gave Elizabeth our blessing. (She’ll be living and working in a compound, reasonably secure we’re told.)

Edith Hamilton wrote of the ancient Greek: “Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life.” images-1And I said to Elizabeth what I’ve often said on my blog – there’s really no such thing as being safe. One can get hit by a car crossing the street, or by lightning, or a thousand other dangers. If we took them all to heart, we’d never get out of bed (and 600 Americans die annually falling out of bed). And of course, in the end, nobody gets out alive (so far).

All achievement entails risk. We are pleased to have brought into the world a woman with the grit, courage, and vision to undertake this mission. Of course she won’t sort out all Afghanistan’s problems. But I’m confident she will do good there.

Bye bye Bush; thank you, Nikki Haley

February 21, 2016

imagesSo, last we spoke, I said I’d watched Rubio blow the presidency in that pre-New Hampshire debate. Well, that was a bit hasty; he seems to have recovered from that disaster (showing his mettle), to finish second in South Carolina.

Nikki Haley helped a lot. She’s the state’s Indian-American governor, and strongly backed Rubio. Such endorsements ordinarily mean little. But Haley had already established herself as an Olympian personage – increasingly rare on today’s political stage – with her powerful response to the Charleston shootings, and leading her state to finally retire the Confederate flag.

Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley

Then, in her speech answering the State-of-the-Union, she really showed her chops by calling out her own party’s unfortunate nativist fetish.

Haley’s pulling Rubio up in South Carolina may turn out to be decisive in ultimately unhorsing Trump. With Bush out and Kasich in single digits, it’s now down to one plausible candidate and two disastrous ones. Kasich is a good guy (I liked him for president 20 years ago as a young congressman), but he really should quit to help Rubio save the party from Trump.

UnknownHere’s the rock-scissors-paper schema: Rubio beats Hillary, Hillary beats Trump, Trump beats Sanders. Assuming a Sanders nomination, Trump supporters might have imagined him winning the presidency (yelling “socialist, socialist, socialist”). Had Hillary lost Nevada, she’d have been in real trouble; but her winning there now makes a Sanders nomination pretty improbable. And between Hillary and Trump, the electorate, for all its disaffection, would surely choose the “safe pair of hands.”

On that rational calculation, Republicans should now turn away from Trump. But of course rational calculation doesn’t enter the picture. And two-thirds of Republicans have rejected Trump from the outset. The problem has been to unite them behind a single candidate, to stop Trump’s carrying the day with a string of 33% wins.

Unknown-1I hope Rubio can do it. He’s shown an unfortunate impulse to flatter the same voters Trump and Cruz are getting. Instead Rubio should let them batter each other competing for the Duck Dynasty vote, while differentiating himself from them, stressing what is really his strength: his positive, genuinely progressive and inclusive vision, contrasted against their negativity and divisiveness.*

He should also talk a little slower. And pick Nikki Haley for V.P.

* I get campaign e-mails from Rubio, and after writing the above, was glad to see one with exactly that message.

Political ad

February 19, 2016

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Can money buy happiness?

February 14, 2016

UnknownMoney does buy a lot of things that enhance well-being; and many of life’s problems can be solved if you have enough money. But past that point, scientific evidence suggests, more money may not make you happier. (Though still the quality of life is better, and I’d rather be rich and miserable than poor and miserable.)

Some profess bafflement why people who have enough still want more. As if that were not fundamental to human nature. Yet wanting more is labeled “greed;” and wanting more, globally, in the form of economic growth, likewise gets tarred as a kind of greed. There are even those (like climate activist Bill McKibben) who deem economic growth a bad thing. But that’s supercilious in a world still far from the point where everyone has enough to live decently.* (And, no, redistributing all the wealth of the rich wouldn’t do it.)

It’s also argued that wealth inequality actually reduces everyone’s well-being. At least some wish that were so, to bolster their anti-wealth political agenda. But I doubt the rich are much perturbed by inequality. Indeed, there’s evidence that on average they’re stingier, less charitable, and just less nice. It’s not clear whether wealth makes one mean, or being mean helps make one richer. But either way, many (though not all) rich people feel superior and disdainful.

UnknownHowever, if lefties then arguably have a point that wealth tends to go to the “wrong” people, that seems to be a basic fact of human society that cannot be undone without destroying the sources of economic growth and progress – that is, people striving to better their personal situations – that have meantime made the world as a whole so much richer, especially in the last century, eliminating so much squalor and misery.

Getting back to happiness, what the word actually means is a big and difficult question. But people generally seem born with (or to develop) a set-point along the happiness/unhappiness spectrum, to which they tend to revert eventually after the impact of any vicissitude. One element of a happier personality is a sense of gratitude – not taking one’s blessings for granted.

images-1A related key reason why, beyond a certain point, added wealth doesn’t increase happiness is what social scientists call the “adaptation effect.” One adapts psychologically to a new higher living standard; the surprise wears off and the “new normal” becomes what you now expect and take for granted.

Also relevant here is a set of Kenyan socioeconomic experiments reported by The Economist. In small villages, sizable cash grants were given at random (echoing the typically unequal distribution of economic growth). Recipients’ feelings of well-being measurably rose. But for neighbors, they fell, by even more. (Though all these deviations wore off after a while; the adaptation effect.)

But notably, as The Economist explained, “it was not inequality in general that bothered the unlucky, so much as a decline in their own wealth relative to the mean.” That is, their sense of well-being was governed not by their absolute wealth levels but, rather, by the comparison against their peers. The cash grants raised a village’s average wealth, making the non-recipients poorer compared not just to the recipients but to the average.

images-2“Keeping up with the Joneses” is a very real psycho-social force. As The Economist further says, in evaluating one’s relative position one tends to look at those above rather than below; so, “when our own lot improves, we shift our reference group to those who are still better off. In other words, we are never satisfied, since we quickly become accustomed to our own achievements.” The adaptation effect again. “Perhaps that is what spurs people to earn more, and economies to grow.” (My emphasis.)

imagesConclusion: to keep people from getting rich would not be good for the poor, but bad.

 

Presidential politics: Republicans heading toward the abyss

February 10, 2016

UnknownWhat was supposed to happen was that Marco Rubio, surging with momentum out of Iowa, would do very well in New Hampshire, conceivably even winning; Bush, Christie and Kasich fall away so Rubio consolidates the backing of the sensible wing; while Trump and Cruz divide the wing-nut vote; Rubio gets the nomination; and defeats Hillary with all her baggage; making my November 12 prediction prescient.

Well, as Aristotle said, there’s many a slip between cup and lip. And on Saturday night I watched Marco Rubio blow the presidency in ten minutes. I sat there dumbfounded at maybe the worst debate performance I’d ever witnessed. I was frankly bitterly disappointed because I had a high opinion of Rubio, and really hoped after Iowa things would play out nicely as I described above.

imagesSo what we have now is Donald and the Seven Dwarves, more or less. We’ve already had the ridiculous spectacle of the gaggle of lower-polling candidates attacking and even running negative ads against each other, all struggling for the right to be the non-Trump, while Trump himself gets a free pass on the vilest candidacy in memory. It’s now altogether possible that Trump walks off with the nomination without winning more than about 35% of the vote in any primary.

Despite her predictable loss in New Hampshire, at the end of the day it still seems likely that Hillary will wind up as Democratic nominee. And so we could have a race between Hillary and Trump – incredibly, the two figures on the political scene with the highest negative poll ratings. Oy oy oy.

Unknown-1How could this happen? Well, democracy is messy. And there are no inevitabilities in history; contingency reigns supreme. It didn’t have to be this way. What people do matters and changes events. As Marco Rubio unfortunately demonstrated Saturday night.

Albany’s high school boondoggle

February 6, 2016

Last fall, a referendum in Albany on building literally the costliest high school on Earth, at $196 million, narrowly failed. Now, a revote is scheduled for Tuesday – low turnout guaranteed — on a new proposal scaled down to “only” $180 million.

Proposed

Proposed

We’re told the bulk of the money will come from the state, so it won’t cost local taxpayers all that much. But already the city’s budget has a big hole, sure to grow much larger because our landfill is almost full, presaging both loss of revenue and higher costs. Can this city afford a Taj Mahal high school?

Existing

Existing

We’re also told the existing school is in bad shape. OK, there are some problems, but I’ve been there, it’s not falling down. Is a building only forty years old really so wrecked that it’s a total loss, and can’t just be fixed up?

And where do they propose building the new one? Same site. Don’t worry, they say, the old one can be demolished while the new one is erected with minimal disruption for students. Yeah, right. Remember Boston’s “big dig?”

We’re told, too, that surely our kids deserve the best facilities we can provide. Yet given the parlous state of education, especially for minority and lower income students, to spend $180 million on a spiffy new building seems a colossal misallocation of resources. Is a dilapidated building the real problem? I don’t think so. I’ve been reading Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids, on the growing class divide between better educated and less educated Americans. He highlights myriad reasons why poor and minority kids finish high school (if they do finish) ill equipped for a hopeful future. But run-down school buildings are never mentioned.

imagesThe $180 million works out to something over $80,000 per existing high school student. Just imagine if that kind of money were spent instead on some sort of intensive program to actually help kids benefit from their education – like hiring a corps of life coaches/mentors/tutors/big brothers?

I know – if the new high school is voted down again, the money won’t instead be spent on things like that. More’s the pity. images-1Just shows the stagnant thinking that pervades the education establishment, that so poorly serves minority and disadvantaged people.

It’s not the building. It’s what happens inside.

The creation story: religion vs. science

February 2, 2016

Unknown-1The Judaeo-Christian creation story is pretty straightforward – God did it (don’t ask where he came from). Science says it was a Big Bang. Superficially the two may seem equivalent. However, science today has a great deal more to tell us about the Big Bang than simply that it banged.* And importantly, this isn’t just story telling like the Bible’s, but confirmed by empirical evidence. Science is not just another “faith.”

We know more about the Universe’s beginnings than the average person probably realizes. This includes a quite detailed nanosecond-by-nanosecond account of its event-filled first moments. One key issue is how it got so large if it started from a Big Bang – that is, from virtually zero size. There doesn’t seem to have been enough time.

imagesThe answer is inflation – a quick early burst of expansion at faster than light speed. Of course Einsteinian relativity says light speed can’t be exceeded. But that only applies to motion within space. Inflation expanded space itself.

This might sound like a “just so” story, invented (implausibly) to patch a hole in the Big Bang idea. Not so. Indeed, physicists have figured out why, given the conditions existing in that first nanosecond, inflation must have occurred.

The key is that gravity, normally a force of attraction, can also, in very special conditions, be the opposite: repulsive. And during that first nanosecond, conditions would have been chaotic. Specifically, the Higgs field would have undergone wildly fluctuating energy levels.

The Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider

(The Higgs field permeates everything; it’s the underlying substrate upon which matter and energy do their thing. Its reality was recently confirmed by the discovery of the Higgs particle, at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider.) It’s the Higgs field that can make gravity repulsive; and with all the fluctuations, at some sub-nanosecond it would have hit the sweet spot triggering repulsion. Then – whoosh! After blowing the Universe up to vast size, another Higgs fluctuation would have returned gravity to its normal functioning, slowing the expansion to a more stately pace.

The Universe’s expansion was discovered by astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 through careful observation that distant galaxies are all moving away from us. And it was realized that if that film is run backwards, the galaxies all crunch together – giving us the Big Bang. Until recently, it was assumed that gravity would cause the Universe’s expansion to continue slowing down. But then further careful observations revealed that expansion is now in fact accelerating.

Scientists hated this counter-intuitive finding, and tried hard to explain it away. But science is based on facts and evidence, not dogma, and acceleration was duly accepted.

images-1The acceleration began about midway in the Universe’s 13.7 billion year history. The cause is dark energy – so labeled because we don’t (yet) know exactly what it is. However, note that gravity’s strength is inversely proportional to the distance between objects; expansion increased that distance; until the push of dark energy became stronger than the diminishing pull of gravity, causing the slowing expansion to speed up.

Not only does all this jibe with the known laws of physics, and not only is it also confirmed by astronomical observations, but furthermore, the entire Big Bang/inflation schema is confirmed by data from the 1992 COBE satellite, which measured with incredible exactitude the temperature of the cosmic background radiation – literally, the radiation left over from the Big Bang. The overall reading, as well as the observed infinitesimal variations, agreed exactly – exactly – with Big Bang/inflationary cosmology. Bingo!

So, again, we know what happened all the way back to a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. But we can’t get to Time Zero itself because there you encounter what physics calls a singularity, where its (thus far known) laws don’t work. Nor can we peek into the time before that – the very idea may be considered meaningless since Time itself began with the Big Bang. So we are left with the ultimate question: why and how did it bang? Why does the cosmos exist at all? Or, how can you get something from nothing?

images-2I’ve written about this before. In considering physicist Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing, I noted disputation from religious quarters over what “nothing” really means. Whereas Krauss talked about the Higgs energy field that exists even in a vacuum, the retort was to postulate a deeper nothingness, without that. Well, one can postulate that the moon is made of green cheese. We know it’s not, and we also know a Higgs field pervades everything – even “nothingness.”

This is crucial because it’s a good bet the Big Bang resulted from that field’s energy fluctuations. Quantum mechanics (a branch of physics) tells us that even if a field’s energy level at a given moment is zero (as “nothing” as you can get), it’s still subject to fluctuations around that value, so in the next moment may be other than zero.

This too has in fact been proven, in the laboratory. Physicist Hendrik Casimir figured out how to actually measure the effect, now called the Casimir Force. This confirms that even seeming nothingness hosts an energy field which may be zero but undergoes jittery quantum fluctuations around that value – and just such a fluctuation could quite plausibly have produced the Big Bang.

Untitled-1You may still prefer to believe the whole thing was the work of an imaginary quasi-anthropomorphic being. I prefer the adult version: reality, elucidated by science.

*I’ve been learning more about this from Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos.