A Political Fantasy

I have a fantasy every four years and I want to share it.  It isn’t fantasy as in impossible.  I don’t want to elect a wise unicorn to the presidency or anything like that.  My fantasy is entirely possible, it just won’t ever happen.

In a nutshell, my fantasy is for all of the people running for president to only talk about things that the president has the legitimate power to do.  I’m struck every four years by the fact that almost nothing the candidates say falls under legitimate presidential powers.  They talk about taxes, but it’s Congress that decides taxes.  They talk about education, but it’s states and towns that make real education policy.  They talk about abortion, but (barring a Constitutional amendment) only the Supreme Court can overturn Roe v. Wade.  The list goes on and on.  All the candidates do is talk about things that can only be done through Congress, the states or the Supreme Court.  It’s weird.

In my fantasy world, Donald Trump would tell us who he would appoint to the Supreme Court and why.  Bernie Sanders would tell us who he would name Secretary of the Treasury and why.  Hillary Clinton would tell us how she would instruct the Department of Justice to respond to cases like Colorado where there is a conflict between state and federal drug laws.  Ted Cruz would tell us what his criteria for pardons would be.  John Kasich would tell us how he would use executive orders within the current regulatory framework.  And it would be marvelous.

Just think about it.  The people running for President would actually try to let us know what their presidency would look like.  Instead we get all these promises that would be difficult even with a sympathetic legislature and judiciary.  It’s not like Trump could build a wall since Congress would refuse to fund it.  Clinton isn’t getting universal pre-K as long as Republicans control the majority of the states.  And Sanders certainly isn’t breaking up the banks without a super-majority in Congress and a much more sympathetic judiciary.  As long as presidential candidates keep trying to sell us fantasies to get elected, my fantasy will remain for them to talk about the realities of the presidency.


Americans don’t think in terms of coalitions. That’s one of the quirks of our separately elected executive. Parliamentary countries talk about coalitions all the time. I don’t want to say that parliamentary systems are better than the American system, they both have their positives and negatives, but I do think that the US would benefit from embracing coalitions. So many of America’s problems seem intractable even though they don’t have to be. In large part this is because the two party system is naturally polarizing.

If we could look at issues independently, we might have a better shot of forming coalitions and fixing some of our problems. You’d never know it from watching the news, but there really is a lot of agreement in this country about many issues. We should look for those points of agreement and get some things accomplished.

As an example, let’s look at the death penalty. I am against the death penalty.  My reasons for being anti-death penalty have to do with my views on justice and the role of the state.  Basically, I think that justice requires that we try to make things and people better, and killing someone cannot accomplish that.  I also think that the role of the state is to protect its citizens, not satisfy their desire for vengeance.  That’s a very simplified version of my view, but it lands me squarely anti-death penalty.  I know that view is a minority view.  But, there are other people who are against the death penalty for different reasons.  Catholics and Quakers are anti-death penalty because they believe in the sanctity of life.  Deficit hawks are anti-death penalty because it is extremely expensive and wasteful.  Minority rights activists are anti-death penalty because it is applied differently for different groups.  Social workers are anti-death penalty because mistakes are made, and death is one mistake that cannot be corrected.  These are groups of people from all over the political spectrum, but they all have one thing in common, they are against the death penalty.  It doesn’t really matter to me that a deficit hawk and I disagree about Obamacare or that a Catholic and I disagree about abortion.  We should be able to set all of those other issues aside for a little while.  If we would work together on this issue, the death penalty, we could abolish it once and for all.

Our failure to reach out to those whole share our beliefs on only some issues serves to amplify the fringes because only those on the fringe are in complete agreement with each other.  It takes a certain kind of fanaticism to agree with anyone completely.  I understand why the LGBT community would be hesitant to reach out to veterans organizations.  But, homelessness and addiction are issues that hit the LGBT community and veterans disproportionally hard.  Together, they could do a lot.  Animal rights activists and hunters could work together on habitat preservation.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving and environmentalists could work together on public transportation.  The possibilities are endless.

As I said before, there is a lot of agreement in this country.  It’s a real shame that we let wedge issues divide us.  We need to drop them and focus on the issues we can agree on.  Coalitions can help make that happen.

Guns Again, Naturally

There was another mass shooting yesterday at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.  I was going to write about it yesterday, but I was too sad and angry.  I read that this is the 45th school shooting this year.  That is shocking to me.  I had only heard about a few of those.  Apparently school shootings only become newsworthy if at least five people die.  I’m still sad and angry.  I think the reason I can write about it now is reading the all too predictable reactions to the tragedy have made me even angrier.  The two reactions* that have really made me angry are the one about people being too quick to politicize the tragedy and the one about mental illness being the real cause.

There are many problems with the statement that it is too soon to politicize the massacre.  First of all, the statement itself is a political statement, so the person saying it sounds like a hypocrite.  Also, it has the effect of minimizing the tragedy.  Ten people died, but let’s all worry about etiquette.  Besides, what is the etiquette anyway?  Is it a longer waiting period the worse the tragedy or is it shorter?  Was Lincoln too quick to politicize the attack on Fort Sumter?  Was Roosevelt too quick to politicize Pearl Harbor?  How about Bush with 911?  You may counter that those were different, The United States was being attacked.  But, this was an attack, too.  And a lot more people have been hurt and killed by gun crime than all three of my examples put together.  There is simply no such thing as being too quick to politicize a shooting.  It was politicized before it ever happened.  In many ways it was politics that allowed it to happen.  And, sadly, it will take politics to stop it in the future.

The mental illness talk makes me even angrier than the people who don’t want it politicized.  Depending on who is using it, it is either a non sequitor or a red herring.  It’s the verbal equivalent of yelling, “Look over there!” and then running out of the room rather than engaging with the real issue.  Mental illness certainly isn’t a special problem that we suffer from in the States.  It is a problem all over the world.  But shootings are a special problem that we deal with in the States.  Here’s a quote from John Stuart Mill, “If an instance in which the phenomenon under investigation occurs, and an instance in which it does not occur, have every circumstance save one in common, that one occurring only in the former; the circumstance in which alone the two instances differ, is the effect, or cause, or a necessary part of the cause, of the phenomenon.”  According to this Method of Difference, mental illness cannot be the cause.  Since shootings like this only happen in The United States, the thing that is different in The United States must be the cause.  And that thing is guns.

So, I very much want people to talk about this.  It is a tragedy, but the best way to honor the victims is to learn and try to prevent it from happening again.  That means we should all want the politicians talking about it, too.  But, at the same time, we want them talking about the real issue, guns, openly and honestly.  Only then will we stand a chance of progressing.

*I have a very strong hunch that the people trying to make a religious issue out of this shooting will make me furious, but I don’t have enough information yet to know for sure.

The News Media’s Lexicon

I hate the news.  I suppose I don’t hate the news per se, but I really hate the people who deliver the news.  They do a horrifically bad job.  Everyone complains about meteorologists, but their job is really hard.  The weather in incredibly complex and they are trying to tell us things about the future.  The news media, on the other hand, is only supposed to inform us of what has already happened, but they mislead much more often than they inform.

I blame a lot of the misinformation on the vocabulary they use.  One word that consistently bothers me is, “Slam.”  Any time one politician disagrees publicly with another politician, the headline will read, “Smith slams Jones over important issue.”  Sometimes, this is accurate, or as accurate as it can be using figurative language.  I would say that Lloyd Bentsen did slam Dan Quayle with his, “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” line.  Other times it is completely ridiculous.  After the last State of the Union, the headlines said that Boehner slammed Obama by saying, “Veto threats and fantasy land proposals from the White House will not distract the people’s House from the people’s priorities.”  I’m surprised no punches were thrown.  At least he kept Obama’s mother out of it.

The reason this bugs me is because, as a news consumer, I have no sense for what actually happened from reading the headlines.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately while reading the news out of Baltimore.  There are two words that keep getting used, riot and protest, and neither seems right to me.  They seem to show the ideology of the news organization doing the reporting, but they don’t describe what is actually happening.

When I hear the word riot, I think of something senseless.  It is disorganized and destructive.  The people calling what happened in Baltimore riots seem to have a pretty negative view of the people of Baltimore.

When I hear the word protest, I think of something focused.  It is about something specific.  The people calling what happened in Baltimore protests seem to have a pretty positive view of the people of Baltimore.

I don’t think the word riot works because the events weren’t senseless.  It might have been disorganized and destructive (although that’s debatable), but it is clearly understandable.  I don’t think protest works because the events weren’t focused.  Sure, Freddie Gray was the spark, but there was a lot under the surface that led to this.

If I had to put a label on what happened, I would go with outcry.  It seems to capture both sides.  It is almost like a sensible riot or an unfocused protest.  Unfortunately, the news media’s lexicon is so small, they can’t even try for a more accurate word.  And that leaves us all ill informed.

Logic 101 – Politics

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these Logic 101 posts.  Just as a refresher, I like to look at a topic from the point of view of logic 101.  That is, I try to see where the basic errors in reasoning occur.  My theory is that if everyone took an intro to logic course, these arguments would be more productive and far less annoying.  I could write something longer than the Mahabharata, Ramayana and War & Peace combined when it comes to the errors in reasoning you’ll find in politics.  Some of the obvious ones are ad hominems, slippery slopes, appeals to tradition, appeals to authority, the naturalistic fallacy, appeals to nature, and straw men.  Oh, and hasty generalizations, the genetic fallacy and begging the question.  Like I said, I could write a very, very, very long book on the topic.  So, today I’ll just focus on one that I find particularly troubling, the false dilemma. A false dilemma is when an argument is presented as if it only has two possible solutions when, in fact, it has at least three.  There are two basic causes of a false dilemma.  One is honest, where the speaker simply cannot see the other possibilities.  The other is a dishonest rhetorical device where the speaker wants to strengthen one position by juxtaposing it against a silly or abhorrent position.

The false dilemma is, I think, a big part of the reason that so many people feel like there is no place for them in politics.  The abortion debate is a perfect example.  The way things are presented, you are either pro life or pro choice.  If you are pro life, you believe that life begins at conception and it is wrong to kill, therefore it is wrong to have an abortion.  If you are pro choice, you believe that a woman is free to do with her own person as she sees fit.  The problem is that many, if not most, people don’t fit happily into either of those descriptions.  It is entirely possible to believe that life starts at conception and still be pro choice.  A standard utilitarian approach does not fall into either camp.  A strict utilitarian calculus would show that some women who want an abortion should not get one, but other women would be justified.  And it might even show that some people who want to have the baby should have an abortion.  My point here is not to settle the issue.  But, until we start having realistic discussions that address the possibility that there are more than two positions, we will never make any progress.

Foreign relations is another area where the false dilemma is constantly used.  The only possibilities presented in any conflict are with us or against us.  It creates all kinds of problems when the whole world is divided into allies and enemies.  It forces us to care about things that have nothing to do with us and that can lead to unnecessary and illegal interventions.  It can makes us support horrible leaders like Netanyahu just because Israel is an ally and Iran is an enemy.   Realistically, other countries must do some things without even considering the US.  We should let those countries be neutral.  We should also understand that even friends can do bad things, like Israel’s illegal expansion, and adversaries can do nice things, like the Russians providing shuttle service to space for American astronauts.  I’d like to think that the state department realizes that it is not a black and white world, but until the electorate is clued in, how can they make informed decisions?

Surprisingly, I don’t really blame the politicians for the rampant use of false dilemmas.  Of course, I would prefer that they be up front and honest, but even though it is an informal fallacy, the false dilemma is a powerful rhetorical tool.  Given how cutthroat politics is, it is only natural that the politicians use it.  I put the blame on the press.  When you get right down to it, there is no profession as consistently bad at its job as the news media.  One of the key parts of the media’s job is to report the lies and misinformation that politicians spew.  This should include false dilemmas.  Progress is impossible when only two of many possibilities are considered.

The Left – Environmentalism

The other day, I published a post about how stupid the Left side of the political spectrum is.  My point was basically that they fail to convince people of even the most obvious things.  I got a comment suggesting that I make the arguments.  I don’t get too many comments, so I figured I’d give it a shot.  Since the original post started off giving environmentalism as an example of liberal stupidity, I’ll see what I can do with it here.

The first thing we need to do is figure out why the Left seems so stupid.  What are they doing wrong in their arguments?  I think the two culprits are idealism and smugness.  Idealism makes compromise impossible because it makes the perfect the enemy of the good, to borrow from Voltaire.  Environmentalists have a strong sense of the final goal, but seem to think we should just jump right to it.  If someone says, “We don’t have the renewable capacity to power the country right now, but natural gas is much better than coal, so let’s use natural gas as a bridge,” it sounds reasonable to most people.  But the environmentalist will immediately point out that natural gas still releases carbon into the atmosphere and methane is released during the drilling process and fracking is evil.  What started with the potential to be a conversation is immediately squandered.

The smugness is probably worse.  It comes from the sense that anyone who fails to agree with the Left’s position must be a bad person.  A feeling of superiority is destructive to conversation.  No one wants to talk to someone who acts superior.  It doesn’t matter how right a person is, if they act smug, they will not convince anyone.  When an environmentalist acts like someone is a bad person because they buy conventional food rather than organic, it is more likely to send that person to McDonalds than Whole Foods.  So, the first step in acting intelligent is to drop the idealism and smugness.  Approach people, whatever their beliefs, as if they are smart and have valid concerns.  Also, be willing to compromise.

The next step is to know the audience.  This should be so obvious as to sound silly, but it isn’t.  I think it stems from the idealism, but remember that different people have different worries.  If you’re in LA on a smoggy day, fertilizer run off isn’t a big concern.  Save that for the gulf coast fishermen and talk to the LA commuters about particulate matter and emissions standards.

Don’t blame people.  Keep the discussion positive.  People won’t change their behavior because big oil is evil.  They will change their behavior if they can save some money or live more comfortably.  Tell someone that a regular car costs $150 a month to fuel, but an electric car costs about $40 and you will get somewhere.  Tell them that SUVs are bad for the planet and you will get nowhere.

Keep the discussions about the present whenever possible.  Even if everything you say is true about the droughts and famines that will hit in the next century, it is hard to care.  In fact, it isn’t clear that we should care, but that is getting off topic.  I need to get dinner ready and I have a conference call in the morning.  I’ll worry about next century when I have some free time.  For now, just tell me about how upgrading the grid will help keep me employed or how shopping at my local farmer’s market will make my dinner tastier.

This is just an outline.  I really do have a conference call in the morning, so I’m not going to construct a full argument for environmentalism.  But, this is a much better place to argue from than where we are now.

In Defense of Relativism

There are two types of facts in the world.  I know it sounds odd to say that, but it’s true.  There are facts that are true no matter what and there are facts that are contingent.  That probably still sounds odd, so I’ll give some examples.  A fact that is true no matter what is that force equals mass times acceleration.  It doesn’t matter where you are, when you are or who you are, F=ma is a fact.  An example of a fact that is contingent is that the New England Patriots won the last Super Bowl.  This is only true after Super Bowl XLIX, but before Super Bowl L (Do you think they will use the Roman numeral for 50?  It doesn’t look all that impressive.) or between Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVII or between Super Bowls XXXVIII and XL.  When put like this, it seems rather trivial, but distinguishing between these two types of facts is important.

The reason it is important is that contingent facts are much more common than many people realize.  Plato did an excellent job of demolishing relativism over 2000 years ago by mis-characterizing it, and it has yet to fully recover.  As a result, people either assume that facts are eternal and universal and relegate contingent facts to the realm of opinion or they assume that there are no facts and everything is relative.  The above example shows a fact that is true, but not eternal.  An example of a fact that is true, but not universal is that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Celsius).  This is only true at normal sea level air pressure on Earth.  A pressure cooker in an average kitchen raises the boiling point of water considerably, and carrying a pot of water up Everest will lower it considerably.  This may sound smart alecky, but it shows that the boiling point of water is contingent on where the water happens to be.  Accepting this could matter if someone is trying to sterilize something.

One reason it is important to distinguish the two types of facts is that whole areas of human activity are built around contingent facts.  Mostly any fact having to do with economics and politics is contingent.  Even something as basic as the “law” of supply and demand is only true within a certain type of market economy.  Keeping this in mind can help us fix real world problems.  If the fact that deflation is bad is a contingent fact and deflation is caused by a shift in supply and demand, which is also contingent, it opens up more ways to make things right.  If economic laws weren’t contingent, an economic downturn would be akin to a natural disaster.  Unfortunately, too many people take that view and real solutions are never found.

Another reason it is important to distinguish between no matter what facts and contingent facts is that the former need to be addressed differently.  Since people don’t see a difference between politics and physics and economics and chemistry, they treat physical facts as if they are political and vice versa.  They discuss vaccinations as if they are discussing the education curriculum.  They discuss climate change as if they are discussing a tax increase.  They are fundamentally different types of issues.  Vaccinations only work if virtually all of the population is included.  There are myriad ways to successfully educate a child.  When you add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, climate change results.  When you raise taxes, all kinds of different things can happen.

We need to distinguish the no matter what facts from the contingent facts so that we stop debating the things that are true no matter what and focus our debates on the facts that can be changed.  Not all facts are contingent, but some are.  This simple realization can really help.