Tag Archives: government

2017 State of the Union

trumpThe state of the union is … great! It’s the greatest in fact. It is the greatest state of any union ever. The main reason our union is so great is because I am honestly the greatest president ever, no contest, and everyone agrees on this. Am I right?

Our rebranding of America is going really, really well – it’s amazing. The golden Trump sign we installed on the White House is spectacular, so classy. I’ve gotten so many tweets about it you wouldn’t believe. The flashing can be seen all the way from the new Trump Tower. I mean who was this Washington guy anyway? What did he do that was so great? Wear wooden teeth? Give me a break! And we are still looking for an artist to replace the statue in that Lincoln Memorial with one that people care about. Everyone wants it to be me; what can I say? Once I’m sitting there all huge you’ll be so proud to be an American. Also, I’ve got even more exciting news. We’re working on a new flag with the stars forming a constellation in my image. It’ll be classy, trust me, it’ll be so classy you won’t believe it.

And when it comes to the economy, let me tell you, last year we’ve made absolutely the best deals ever. Our deal to sell Atlantic City to The Trump Organization is the greatest deal for this country. It’s a big deal, the biggest. The new Trump City is gonna be fabulous, you’ll be so proud. And let me tell you, once our corporate takeover of Las Vegas is complete, the new Trump City West will be incredible. It’s going to make us the envy of the world that I can tell you. Tourists will flock there by the millions, trust me, millions.

The transition of my cabinet and staff is complete, and all those old losers are out. What morons and scum bags, jeesh. Today I’m pleased to announce that David Duke will be my new FBI Director. He’s going to make sure that the Congress and Supreme Court get in line, believe me. And I’m also happy to announce David Koch as Director of the newly combined Departments of Energy and EPA. I was just gonna disband them but frankly David paid so much money for the job I’d be an idiot to say no, and I’m not an idiot. And here’s the best news. Lovely Melania has agreed to be our new Secretary of State. She asked me, what do they do? I said, don’t worry your pretty head, you just have to look fantastic and keep your mouth shut. She’s so good at that I can’t tell you, she’s the best.

I gotta be honest; there have been some problems, that can I tell you. But now with old lady Ginsburg and hysterical Sotomexicano put away in Guantanamo, my lawsuits should all disappear. OK folks? Look, women and Hispanics and old people all love me by the way. And now that Pelosi is back in her place and Palsy Ryan has slithered back to whatever hick town in Wisconsin he crawled out of – sorry but it’s the truth – everyone else is falling in line with my plan to privatize the Senate and Congress. Excuse me, it’s just a fact… private companies can govern so much better than the “government,” am I right? And don’t worry, I’ll hire only the very best people to run my government, believe me, THE best. I’m personally interviewing the guys who made a killing in Michigan. They know how to get things done let me tell you. After a crash course at Trump National University, they will be ready to take over and make America great again, totally great again.

America will be so great you won’t even recognize it!

Maybe Trump is Good for US

trumpHow could Donald Trump conceivably be good for us and for the USA? I’m glad you asked!

Most of us appreciate that the normally low norm of juvenile political dysfunction in our country has degenerated over the last few decades down into an unsustainable and unacceptable low of incivility and internecine warfare. We have not quite reached a Mad Max level of dysfunction, but we’re getting uncomfortably and embarrassingly close.

We have always been proud of a certain level of dysfunction baked into our system of government. By design, we see great value in our system of check-and-balances in which each official and unofficial branch of government challenges the others to ensure that none of them run amok. A certain level of conflict is desired and expected.

However, if carried too far, healthy checks-and-balances can easily degrade into automatic knee-jerk obstruction and mindless attacks. Imagine a football team in which healthy competition between players degrades into “I don’t care if we win this game. I only care if my teammates score less than me. If my teammates get injured, all the better for me!

That is the very level of self-destructive behavior that our government has degraded into. As much as our system of government benefits from a measure of good-natured competition, it simply cannot function when the prevailing attitude is “destroy the other guy at all costs.” If the various groups refuse to cooperate and instead focus exclusively on winning and beating the other side, then healthy competition breaks down and becomes counter-productive and self-destructive.

Over the last few decades this is exactly what has happened in politics. Others could point to a different progression, but in my lifetime I have to point to the Clinton hearings as when it turned truly nasty. The Republicans pledged to “bring down” Bill Clinton even before he was sworn into office, and they put 100% of their energy into that. They virtually brought all responsible governance to complete halt while they prosecuted their incessant and relentless attacks on Clinton.

Unfortunately for all of us, this infighting has only continued to get worse from there. And frankly this war has been largely waged by Conservatives who have continued to escalate each year. They have lost all interest in moving our country forward and instead are doggedly fixated on simply destroying anything and anyone that does not identify with them. And they don’t even actually have an agenda. Their agenda is largely whatever hurts or at least does not help the other side and they are happy to burn down the nation if it diminishes their opponents.

So, is it any surprise that out of this climate of rabid, raving, insensate political ideologues, someone like Donald Trump should emerge as their leader? As clearly crazy and incompetent as he is, he is still a welcome breath of fresh air by comparison to the status quo that has emerged. He actually offers some hope amidst the angry, incompetent, government-loathing, self-interested dogmatic extremists that have completely taken over the Republican Party for far too long.

Here’s how this may be a good thing. Trump is a slap in the face of our self-image. He could be just the drenching of cold-frigid water that we need to wake up and snap out of our routine of mindless attacks and rigidly partisan childishness. Perhaps he will force pundits, political fight-promoters in the media, voters, and even Conservative leaders to step back a moment and ask, is this us? Is this the US? Is this as good as we can be?

I think for every American with a shred of sanity remaining, the answer has to be no. We can do much better. We must do much better. We can dial back our senseless Hatfield and McCoy feuding and work together to accomplish great and good things.

If Donald Trump succeeds in showing us just how far we have sunk, if he incites us only to step back and self-assess our behavior, he may have offered our nation the greatest service possible just when it is most desperately needed.



The Original Artists

I still remember with no special fondness the very moment I lost my innocence. I cannot actually possibly forget the singular incident that dashed my faith in my fellow human beings on the cruel rocks of betrayal. My psyche still bears of scars of that dark day when I became painfully conscious of the depth of depravity of my fellow man.

Some say it is only an urban myth, but it happened just this way…

It was the early 70’s and I was a young teen, intently watching I Dream of Jeannie on my 9-inch black and white portable television, occasionally adjusting the single antenna to minimize the ghosting and rolling of the screen, when I heard it. Like a Siren’s Call all, of my favorite pop songs, one after the other, were coming out of my television rather than from my little 9v transistor radio.

Order now, do it quick while supplies last, the announcer was urging me. Get all of your favorite hits in one fantastic album set by The Original Artists! For only $9.99! You’d pay over $50 to get all these incredible hit singles on 45’s! And they are guaranteed authentic hits by The Original Artists!

I frantically adjusted the antenna to better scrutinize the unbelievable offer on the screen. All hits are certified by The Original Artists, it affirmed proudly. It scrolled all the titles along with their artists – Kind of a Drag by The Buckinghams. Check! Incredible as it seemed to get all these amazing hits in one LP set, there it was in black and white. And did we mention that they are all by The Original Artists!?! The announcer even warned me be be careful, not to be fooled by cheap substitutes and demand only The Original Artists.

RecordPlayerNeedless to say, I gathered up much of my precious savings and rushed off to the local drug store to buy a money order for $9.99 plus Shipping and Handling, found a stamp, and sent it off. Several weeks later, there it was. My new collection of songs by The Original Artists. I tore it open like it was Christmas morning and dragged my little portable record player out from the closet, flipped open the lid, started the platter spinning, carefully put the record on, set the needle, and sat back to immerse myself in rapturous music.

Except the first song didn’t sound like I remembered it. Then the second sounded an awful lot like the first. Another sing-songy, washed-out, indistinguishably generic regurgitation of the first song. And on they went. Every song a muzak version of the original. Even on my crappy little portable record player it was obvious something was wrong.

Realization came slowly, it tap-tap-tapped at my brain patiently waiting to be let in. Eventually I entertained a small suspicion. Is this really the original artists? But the cover here says clearly that all songs are by The Original Artists…. oh wait…

Yes, shocked and horrified reader, that was the moment that changed me forever. Never again would I accept anything at face value. For evermore thereafter if it sounded too good to be true I assumed it probably was not true.

That formative event forever doomed me to take a second, third, and even a fourth look at laws and legislative actions that sound too good to be true. The Employee Free Choice Act? Hmm. The Internet Freedom Act?? Wait a second. Citizen’s United??? Now come on! When I hear these kind of names The Original Artists counsel me.

Perhaps The Original Artists did me a favor. Maybe in fact they were on a thankless humanitarian mission to teach all kids to be somewhat skeptical, to be a bit dubious about claims, to check their assumptions, confirm their facts, and question the lying truths told by legislators. Maybe it is only thanks to The Original Artists that I became an atheist and an scientist and try my best not to mislead others with spin and clever words that are technically true but intentionally false.

So thanks The Original Artists. Everything that happens to us, welcome or not, makes us who we are. And I for one would not want to be anyone else. $9.99 plus Shipping and Handling was in reality a true bargain.


The Polling Crisis

poll-box“Election polling is in near crisis, and we pollsters know. Two trends are driving the increasing unreliability of election and other polling in the United States: the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys. Coupled, they have made high-quality research much more expensive to do, so there is less of it.”

 “In short, polls and pollsters are going to be less reliable. We may not even know when we’re off base. What this means for 2016 is anybody’s guess.”

This is a quote from a recent NYT opinion article by Cliff Zukin entitled “What’s the Matter With Polling?” If you pay for access to the NYT website, the link is here (NYT Article).  In short, the author points out that the polling industry is in crisis. It has become hugely more expensive, if not essentially infeasible, to do reliable polling anymore. Trends including the disappearance of land-lines and growth of the Internet have converged to undermine what little reliability polls used to have. The main takeaway is that polling “science” is really bad and is only getting worse and pollsters have no idea how to make it better.

The author focuses primarily on the growing financial and logistical challenges for the polling companies. Since pollsters must make a huge number of calls to obtain even a remotely valid sampling of reliable data, the cost of doing accurate polling has become extremely high – even prohibitively high.

However I prefer to focus on the problems that this situation creates for rational governance. Even good polls have undesirable consequences. Their mere existence creates an almost irresistible compulsion for politicians to pander to poll results, saying whatever the numbers tell them that likely voters want to hear. Even if the polls are accurate, this may not be the best way to govern – or even to campaign. But if polls have become woefully inaccurate to boot, and yet we continue to pander to them, then we have taken what was already a problematic approach to governance and made it far, far worse.

One specific problem I’d like to focus upon more deeply is the self-fulfilling prophesies that these polls create. If the polls tell us that, for example, Bernie Sanders cannot possibly win, then those polls influence huge numbers of people to respond by not voting for Bernie Sanders – creating a self-fulfilling feedback loop. And what if those admittedly unreliable polls were simply wrong? What if perhaps they were even disingenuously promoted as a stealth strategy by a big money Clinton campaign (theoretically) for exactly that purpose?

Maybe we’re better off without any polls. Good riddance, I say. Maybe we’re better off if politicians campaign and govern according to actual scientific data and humanistic ethical principles, not according to polling. Maybe we voters are far better off if we remain uninfluenced by polls as well.

Whoa there, you say. If you have read my book “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief” (found here) you know that a fundamental principle I champion is that decisions based on facts are inherently better than decisions based on beliefs. If that is the case, aren’t polling facts important information to consider in campaigns and in governance?

Yes but I’m also suggesting that polls aren’t the best facts to use and that they push all the air out of the space for actual, more important and more reliable facts to sufficiently drive political campaigns and decision-making.

Poll any group of alcoholics and the data will likely show that they want more alcohol. As antithetically “paternal” as this may sound to some, a government must provide what society needs, not necessarily what people want. Private corporations can be driven by market research to provide exactly what their customers want (when not unethical or illegal). But a government simply cannot make policy based primarily on polls if they are there to serve the common good.

Now if even accurate polling can create unhealthy pressures for governance, imagine the consequences if we continue to listen to polls that have now become even less reliable. Now we are making decisions that impact the lives of people and the life of the planet that are primarily based not merely on polling data but on really bad polling data.

I say again, good riddance to polls. My hope is that we turn this crisis into opportunity. This is our chance not to merely improve polling methodologies, but to start to weigh polling data far lower in our decisions and instead find ways to make policy decisions based more upon the best objective science and rational decision-making possible. I hope that our emphasis on “what people polled want” is permanently diminished and replaced by more indirect and sophisticated methods of data mining to understand what they actually need and what will best serve humanity and planet Earth in the long-term.

Government by Jury

We all know it.  Our democratic government isn’t all that democratic. It is inherently corruptible by the influence of big money – obscenely so since the Citizens United ruling. That big money necessarily compels our legislators to work for the short-term interests of wealthy individuals and big business, rather than for the long-term common good.

The most common response to this reality is resignation. Well yes, our system may not be perfect, but it’s the best we can do. How defeatist and unimaginative is that? We certainly could do a lot better if we only had the will to do so. We could enforce far stronger conflict of interest rules for our legislators – the same sort of rules we already enforce for judges. Oh we nip around the edges, passing token campaign and conflict of interest regulations, but nothing that would fundamentally reduce the river of big money flowing into government like a raging river. But we could.

And there are more fundamental things we conceivably do. Just brainstorming here, but I’ll offer one such idea. Feel free to use it if you ever start your own country or overthrow a government.

juryMy form of government would be a “Jurist Democracy.” In my Government by Jury, legislators would propose legislation but could not pass it. To enact their proposed legislation, lawmakers would function as advocates, arguing the cases for and against the proposed legislation based on their own ethics, or their constituents, or their financial backers just as they do now. A non-partisan judge would preside over a Legislative Hearing and ensure that all evidence is vetted and all rules are followed. Once both sides have presented their arguments and their expert witnesses, a jury of ordinary people would retire to discuss and rule upon the proposed legislation. Jury selection would be conducted just as it is for criminal cases. The citizen-jury would decide whether a strong enough case had been presented and would make the final decision on whether the proposed legislation should be passed into law. Teleconferencing could eliminate previous geographical limitations.

No claim of a panacea is made here. Certainly this system would be neither perfect nor foolproof. Games could still be played by the legislators; horses traded, bribes offered, and so on. We would have to be assiduously vigilant to prevent or punish malpractice and jury tampering. But we know how to do those things.

And these corruptions will happen in any system. The key difference here is that at least we have removed the final decision from those who are most directly corruptible. If the legislators cannot convince twelve reasonable citizens that their legislation is good for the country then it does not deserve to be made into law. I for one would be much more confident that twelve impartial citizen-jurors would on the whole make better decisions than career politicians.

And I don’t buy the argument that citizen jurors could not understand the issues involved sufficiently to render intelligent decisions on complex issues. That sounds a lot like medieval priests who maintained that they alone could interpret the word of god for the common man. In fact I have far stronger concerns about the impartiality and expertise of professional lawmakers (many of whom do not even believe in evolution), and trust that if a bill cannot be explained to reasonably smart people is it probably too convoluted to pass. This idea that a bill is too complex for ordinary folk is mostly just used as an excuse to make our government less transparent and more susceptible to the disastrous impact of small print obscured within intentionally complexicated legislation.

This Government by Jury would be far more democratic because it would directly involve large numbers of citizens directly in the process of governing. I for one at least, would be far more willing to put my faith in the good sense and civic-mindedness of 12 random individuals than in professional legislators who are saturated in conflicts of interest starting with keeping their jobs and their positions of influence within the system.

It is pretty much impossible to put forth any idea that has not been thought of before. In his article called “Government by Jury” (found here), Stephen H. Unger from Columbia University discusses this general concept in greater detail and provides additional references. His suggestion is to conscript citizens into some longer period of service. I suggest that legislative jurors could be recruited only to decide one piece of legislation with minimal modifications to our current system. We recruit juries to make decisions in criminal and civil cases of comparable complexity. To recruit them for longer periods of service would include fewer citizens, would be much more logistically difficult, and would introduce more possibility of the very sort of corruptions that we are trying to avoid.

Ideas such as these should be discussed more often, more openly, and more seriously. They help stimulate real innovative, out of the box thinking rather than restricting ourselves to ideas that do not disrupt the current dysfunctional status quo. Merely raising and discussing proposals like this makes it more likely that legislators will consider more substantive conventional measures to improve the integrity and effectiveness of government.