Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wasted Vote Syndrome

I just dispatched my ballot back to the registrar – and for longtime readers it will not come as a surprise that I have voted Libertarian.  Over the years as I’ve proudly voted twice for Harry Browne (RIP) once for Michael Badnarik, held my nose voting for Bob Barr and just ticked for Gary Johnson.  While it’s nice to be enthusiastic about the individual carrying the torch, I vote not for the person, but for the party.  Rather old fashioned, and not at all consistent with today’s personality driven campaigns.  Since my candidate (and party) is going to lose, is my vote a waste?
Voting matters.  It makes a statement.  It’s not about whose going to win.  That’s a sporting match.  Voting for a party (or a person) that aligns with your own beliefs cannot be a waste.  There are six candidates who have qualified on the California ballot for President.  Only two of them will have gotten any substantive media analysis and coverage – with the former being pretty superficial.  It begets the ‘which came first – the chicken or the egg’ question:  should candidates get coverage because they’re well known or because they’ve qualified for the ballot and could win and should be known?
A horse race is easier to report on - it’s a nice simple narrative to tell.  Toss in the occasional twist – a John Anderson or a Ross Perot – and that makes for a great human interest element, but it’s always more interesting between the front runners.  With all their money and attention, really, why wouldn’t you vote for one or the other of the big guys?  Elections matter and if you’re going to vote then you should at least do so because it matters to you. 
Picture this:  November 7th, 2012:  One of the corporate-backed parties will have won the billion dollar race, 90% or more of Congress will have retained their seats (even if power shifts in Washington DC that’s the retention rate) and the smaller parties will have collectively garnered 1.5 million or fewer votes.  The political world will be at ease and this is the most likely of scenarios based on history, polls and common sense.
Imagine a slightly different result:  Gary Johnson (the only candidate among the other parties who mathematically could win the Electoral College) wins 10% of the vote, ten times more than what he probably will get.  One of the major party candidates will have won, Congress will have the same retention rate – but the political elite will be agog.  The Libertarian perspective will at least become part of the discussion.  That would be good for finding solutions and good for discourse.  And  it won't happen.
The traditional argument goes something like this:  if all of the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 hadn't wasted their vote then the U.S. would have had President Gore.  Why isn’t it that if even more had voted for Nadar then the issues that the Greens were passionate about would have become more impactful instead of them disappearing? 
Voting for Mitt Romney or Barak Obama guarantees some level of consistency.  Both have unbalanced budgets, both redistribute wealth, albeit in different ways, and rhetoric is all that differentiates their foreign policy.  Partisan gridlock will remain constant no matter who wins.  Support them if you align with them.  Not voting is the only scenario that qualifies as a wasted vote. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Death: pros and cons

I am both for death and against death this election season.  Californians will vote on Proposition34 that would abolish the death penalty.  In Massachusetts Question 2 would permit assisted suicide (under a whole range of rules and conditions, like in Portland, OR).  I would vote to allow individuals and their families to choose a dignified death while I oppose state sanctioned death.  The two ballot choices have death in common, what matters is who makes the decision.
My father and I had many conversations over the years about dying.  Some were esoteric intellectual musings that disintegrated into rambling diatribes about the meaning of life.  In later years after his stroke the discussions became more personal.  I researched and studied all of the various options and we corresponded regularly about it. 
There were two conversations in this process that remain with me.  One was sitting at the Dining Room table with both my parents filling out a very detailed document of their medical wishes.  Most forms are pretty generic – want to have a machine assist?  Yes or no.  This document, rooted in the Episcopal Church tradition, drilled down.  Is oxygen OK to ease the pain versus a ventilator that is needed for living?  Difficult conversations and at the end of this several hour process we not only had a mutual understanding for legal purposes, we had a familial agreement.
Some years later as Dad’s prognoses deteriorated and it was clear that the end was coming, the years of detailed discussions he and I had been having needed to be part of a larger family discussion.  In the living room we approached a subject that most of us are uncomfortable with:  How Dad wanted to die. Consensus and agreement didn’t ever materialize.  That’s not the point.  We all knew what Dad’s fears were and what his wishes were.  At a certain point those wishes couldn’t be fulfilled because of the laws in the state of Massachusetts and he died before any of those ‘what if’ scenarios materialized. 
It is for those years of conversations that I support having options available in the law.  Our family may never have gotten to the point where we would have ever actually taken action, but the idea that we could have would have made a monumental difference in Dad’s life and our respecting his wishes.  In a country that celebrates individualism, assisted suicide (with rigorous controls in place) is something that is needed.
On the Death Penalty:  Government should not be in the business of killing people.  The U.S. system is based on justice, not vengeance.  It’s really that simple.
There are financial arguments as well. 
·       Putting a prisoner to death cost Californians $4 billion since 1978 and less than a handful of people have been executed. 
·       Maryland spent $37.2 million per execution. 
·       Approx. 25% of all medical costs occur in the last year of life.
Putting a price on somebody’s life is a helpful way to look at the public policy part of the issue.  The value that any of us would place on a loved one versus a nameless prisoner will be inherently disproportionate.  We must as a society value life.  We do that by respecting people’s individual choice with their doctor and their family on how that life should end.  We do that by punishment rather than vengeance.  If that all saves some money in the end, great.  It might just make us a better people too.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pigs are flying

Pigs are flying.  Wonders have ceased.  Hell must have frozen over.  The United States Congress has investigated a government agency and issued a damning indictment.  The Homeland Security & Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations criticized counter terrorism reporting and found significant examples of waste, fraud and abuse.
“It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties,” said Senator Tom Coburn, the Subcommittee’s ranking member who initiated the investigation.

Examples of the fusion center difficulties (from the report):
                  Blaming a Russian for hacking into the Springfield IL Water District's systems. It was actually an employee logging in while vacationing in Russia.
                  Implying Jared Loughner shot Gabrielle Giffords because she was the first Jewish female elected to Congress …a fact that a simple Google search would have caught.
                  A memo suggesting that members of the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party (as well as Ron Paul supporters) are potential terrorists.
Homeland Security is one of those descriptors that is Orwellian in nature.  It came into American’s lexicon in the days following the September 11, 2001 attacks.  Politicians were desperate to do something.  The result is that 187 agencies and departments fall under the Homeland Security banner .  According to the Department’s FY 13 Budget inBrief (197 pages) there are more than 230,000 employees of the department and their last budget was $59 billion, $6 billion more than they asked for.  That’s approx. $200 for every man woman and child in the U.S..
In an enterprise that large there will be problems.  Their mission is equally as big:  “The Department of Homeland Security will lead the unified national effort to secure America. We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation. We will ensure safe and secure borders, welcome lawful immigrants and visitors and promote the free-flow of commerce.” 
There’s nothing wrong with their mission.  Thousands of dedicated, patriotic Americans who work there take their function seriously.  The problem comes with the very notion that any entity can guarantee safety from all threats.  To realize that goal anything that potentially could be construed as a risk factor has to be acted on.  To protect itself (like many innocent people), the Department initially refused to cooperate in the investigation, is unable to determine whether it spent $289 or $1.2 billion on fusion centers, and routinely violate civil liberties and privacy laws.  The ends shouldn’t justify the means…but that’s a minority opinion. 
The good news is that Congress has a comprehensive analysis and report on the ineptitude in delivering its well intentioned mission (and balancing its books).  The bad news is that it took Congress more than two years and cost millions of dollars to do the investigation and report.  So pigs may not be flying, but they were air born for a moment. The real question is whether any practical change will happen - or, more likely, things will continue on as they have.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Vanity thy name is politics

For three-quarters of my life I’ve worked in and around egos – from theatre and movies to entrepreneurs.  My own roles (professionally and volunteer) inevitably are rooted in my own sense of self-worth as with the work itself.  It’s true for all of us.  One doesn’t need to be a Freudian scholar to realize the role that ego plays in our lives.  There is a particular manifestation of the ego in politicians, however, that sets their vanity on a whole different plain.
This week Vanity Fair released its November edition with an exclusive article claiming that President Obama considered putting Osama bin Laden on trial if he had been taken alive.  The sources?  Top national-security officials and the President himself.  This claim is a whopper and proves that the id, ego and super-ego are on full display in the 2012 Presidential campaign.
On May 1, 2011 Navy SEALS raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.  The President has been unapologetic about the action, in fact has touted the action as proof of his foreign policy expertise.  The White House then leaked that President Obama maintains a kill list.  CIA Director Leon Panette stated on PBS NewsHour: "The authority here was to kill bin Laden.”
"No Easy Day" was released a few weeks ago and was written by a SEAL who was part of the mission.  The book details that bin Laden didn’t represent any threat, was unarmed and was just killed.  It was an assassination pure and simple.
The action is one of the most popular things Obama has done – with 93% of the country supporting the killing.  I have been a vocal part of the 7%, criticizing the President’s actions as being inconsistent with American ideals and a tradition of law.  The voices of dissent have been small and infrequent.  Until this article in Vanity Fair at least President Obama was unapologetic about his philosophy and his action, however inconsistent I might think it is with the Rule of Law.  The October surprise is that integrity is now gone.
If President Obama wanted to take bin Laden alive he could have.  The Navy SEALS are a highly skilled and highly trained cadre of professionals.  All reports concur that bin Laden was unarmed.  This sudden suggestion – in total contradiction to numerous statements by the White House, the Defense Department and the soldiers themselves – can only be the work of a politician wanting it all ways.  He wants to get credit for thinking of putting bin Laden on trial while reaping the benefits of exerting military muscle in murdering the man.  The sniping, lying and name calling of Campaign 2012 was bad enough.  Now political vanity rears its ugly head and the result is more cynicism, which I didn’t think was possible.