Musings on Politics & Policy

An attempt to take an open minded view of current topics,
strip away excess detail and arguments,
and get at underlying issues —

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


After a long period of being depressed about politics and events, it’s possible that there may be change in the offing. There are many complex factors in play; and, in the last couple of elections, voter registration, voting, and the counting of votes have all been a factor. With that in mind, please register and then vote. If you are not already registered, the following widget connects to “Rock The Vote”, where you can go through the process online and then mail in your registration.

Monday, January 07, 2008


Looking out the window at chickadees flitting to and from the feeder, hammering their seeds in the safety of the juniper. We’ve been feeding them for many years. Enjoying them. Feeling somehow connected to them. Then comes a clear vision. They are not the same chickadees we were feeding only a few years ago. Those are all dead. These too will be dead in a year or two. And yet we always have chickadees.

Life seems so rich. So full. Bursting with energy. Build a nest. Mate. Lay eggs. Raise young. It must be so, because the individual is so fleeting. It is the same for us. Time seems forever. But it is all perspective. So many years ago to have been a child. So many years ahead to think about grandchildren growing up. It’s a long time, and things in the now seem so important. Yet they are so small. A billion people feel the same. Or so we think.

The universe looking down on us. We are but a mote in a remote arm of a galaxy among myriad. How many more like us out there somewhere? And where do we fit in the scheme of things? In the cycle of Suns, our whole earth is more humble than the chickadee.

Consciousness. Somehow it makes us feel like the center for the brief candle flicker that is us. What is it? And why do we have it? And what does it matter in a view of the universe from outside?

Is the chickadee free of such wonderings?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


June 21st, just after dusk. They call it the Strawberry Moon. It hung low over the fields as I was driving home. I just had to walk back with my wife so that we could share it. The stars were not quite out yet. Maybe just a few twinkling faintly. The sky still had a tinge of lightness, but the sun was below the western horizon and the red of the sunset was gone. We held hands, walking down to the end of our tree shaded street to look out over an expansive field and see the moon. Low to the horizon, it has the illusion of being larger, and at this moment it had a somewhat orange red tinge from the sunset, now below the curve of the opposite horizon from our view. We crossed the street and stood looking at the moon over the field. It was beautiful. Then we noticed that the stars were not in the sky, they were on the ground. The field was blanketed with constellations of fireflies as far as the eye can see. A few weeks earlier, we had walked out into this field for the first time and found that it was filled with Bobolinks. We had sat in the middle of it for an hour and listened to the bubbly songs as the Bobolinks flew overhead and then settled back down into the tall grass. There were also Eastern Meadowlarks, a few Blue Birds, and Tree Swallows. It was a peaceful, calming experience. Now, we imagined those Bobolinks settled in for the night all across this field. We walked out into the middle of the field in the near darkness until the fireflies were all around us. As we walked in, fireflies further out became visible to us. We walked in until the periphery of visibility of the fireflies came between us and the road. Now we were surrounded. There were fireflies flaring in every square yard as far as the eye could see. The strawberry moon glowed above the horizon. The car sounds had become distant. It was magical. We stood in amazement and soaked in this awe inspiring creation of nature, knowing that it was safe, because it would not be mowed until fall.


Friday, January 28, 2005

Voting Statistics

Karl Rove is sharp, but has a glib tongue and freely manipulates statistics. It's easy to be caught off guard when one doesn't have the instantaneous research to fact check and respond to his prepared sound bites. When Juan Williams interviewed him on January 20tha, Karl Rove said, "He [President Bush] received the highest percentage of the vote since 1988 of any candidate for President. In fact, there were only two Democrats in the 20th century who got a higher percentage of the vote than this President did, and they were FDR and LBJ." When asked about polls contesting a mandate, he quickly responded, "you can read anything you want," followed by, "let's not conduct government by polls," and, "but, if you want to toss up polls, I'd be happy to quote numbers all day long...."

Karl Rove wants to have his cake and eat it too. But, let's not be snowed by his glib tongue. It doesn't take much research to shed some light on the numbers behind the numbers. [See, for example, the University of Michigan Government Documents Center.] First, it should be noted that the U.S. population is, and has been, on a growth curve. In 1988 the voting age population was 183 millionc. In 2004, the voting age population was 218 milliond. In fact, if we look back in time, the total number of votes for Abraham Lincoln was smaller than the number of votes that constituted Bush's margin of victory over Kerry. Such numbers are almost meaningless except as a demonstration of population growth. On a percentage basis, Lincoln got 40% of the vote in a four way split in 1860. He got 55% in a two way race in 1864 as a war time Presidente.

Karl Rove's facts are accurate as far as they go. George W. Bush did receive the highest percentage of the vote of any Presidential candidate since 1988. He also received more votes than any candidate for President, ever. These statistics are accounted for by the facts that the population has been growing, the turnout has increased from 1996 to 2000 to 2004, and 2004 was the first essentially two-way race since 1988. The intervening races between 1988 and 2004 had significant third party candidates who took a large enough percentage of the vote to prevent the main party candidates from attaining a simple majority. They arguably affected the outcome of each of those elections. That said, if we look at margins of victory as a percentage of the vote, Clinton beat Bush Sr. by 5.5% of the vote, Clinton beat Dole by 8.5% of the vote, and Gore actually beat George W. Bush by 0.5% of the vote. So Bush's 2.5% victory over Kerry was his first popular vote victory, and the margin was not large. [All candidate statistics from Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.]

One could also point out that John Kerry received more votes than any previous Presidential candidate in history. That's like breaking a world record and still losing a race.

"There were only two Democrats in the 20th century who got a higher percentage of the vote than [George W. Bush did in 2004]". Yes. That's true. Does it mean anything? There were 25 Presidential elections from 1900 through 1996. Of those, 12 were won by Democrats and 13 by Republicans. Of the 12, four were won by FDR, and all four gave FDR more than 51% of the vote. LBJ accounts for another. That leaves only 7 additional Presidential elections won by Democrats. But 15 of the 25 elections were three way, four way, or even five way elections {using 1% of the vote as a cutoff to define a viable candidate}. Of the remaining 7 elections won by Democrats, the only one with less third party drain than the 2004 election was the 1960 election of JFK. Most had much more. In 1912, Wilson, the Democrat, beat Theodore Roosevelt, running as a Progressive, by 42% to 27%, with the incumbent Republican, Taft, taking only 23%. We had a Democrat beating out a former President, Roosevelt, and the incumbent Republican, with a margin of victory of 15%, but not getting a simple majority, because it was a five way race. The Socialist, Eugene Debs, took 6% of the vote. In 1976, Carter took 50.08% of the vote, but Eugene McCarthy took 0.91%. It could easily be argued that McCarthy was more progressive than Carter; and, if he had not run, those who voted for him would have voted for Carter rather than for Ford, giving Carter 50.99% and beating Bush's 50.73% (which we hear in the press routinely rounded to 51%).

The 1960 election is interesting; because, although it was a two way race, 0.45% went for unpledged electors, and neither candidate got a simple majority. Kennedy took 49.72% of the vote, and Nixon took 49.55% of the vote.

What we know about 2004 is that the country is intensely divided, the voting age population is continuing to increase, the turnout was higher than it has been since the 1960's, and it was essentially a two way race, with Nadar taking an insignificant 0.38% of the vote. It was a close election, and one could also say that more voters voted against George W. Bush than against any president in history. That's a fact, just like Karl Rove's facts. But how much does it mean? Over hyped, isolated facts tell us more about the person doing the hyping than they do about the election.


aA Conversation with Karl Rove, Morning Edition, January 20, 2005, National Public Radio.

bElection 2004, University of Michigan Government Documents Center.

cFederal Election Commission.

dU.S. Census Bureau .

eDave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Social Security

The push to privatize Social Security, or part of it, is about the distribution of risk and opportunity. It's not presented that way; but, strip away economic, bureaucratic and legal details, and that is what is left. Take a system where the risk and opportunity are balanced by sharing them collectively, and change it to a system where the risk and opportunity are faced individually by everyone without collective support. The current Social Security system is backed up by a government guarantee. The proposed system would leave the individual facing their chances on their own.

Since we already have individualized retirement accounts, 401Ks, company retirement funds, individual investments and savings, insurance, and more, why would we want to remove the one government guaranteed safety net? What advantage could there be?

The arguments for making the change tout the higher potential investment returns and pander to individual egos ("those who oppose this plan are trying to tell you that you can't manage your own money [smirk]" ). In fact, while some would experience higher investment returns, others would experience significant losses and find themselves without the resources for retirement. How much money was lost when the long running bubble burst? How many lost their retirements when Enron imploded? And what about the massive losses in professionally managed retirement funds that got sucked into hedge fund investments? There will be losses, both among private investors and among professional investors who are handling money for others. And, where there is big money being handled on the free market, there will also be fraud. There is always fraud.

People who experience losses and/or fraud on the free market have had the government guarantee behind Social Security as a safety net. Take that away, and what is left? This is the real question. Is it right that people who have put a life into working should have some base level of retirement to fall back on? Or, if the fates are unkind, should they simply be left to fall into poverty and pan handling? There can be many reasons why a person might be unable to take up work again after a presumptive retirement or even be unable to work to their expected retirement age.

It leaves one wondering what the real reason is behind this push to privatize Social Security. Could it be just to make all that money available to the money managers and "robber barons" so that they can sequester more wealth, gain more power, and make more contributions to those in politics who have favored them? That's a pretty cynical supposition, but what else are we to suppose?


Thursday, December 30, 2004


We have become a divisive nation. Our politics have become an arena of negative campaigns, slanted or untruthful descriptions of opponents, and cheap one liners. Opposing sides are often unable or unwilling to openly and intelligently discuss alternative points of view. The victims are the voters, who end up misinformed, their votes based on half truths sold to them by the highest bidders.

One of the last lessons Jesus taught was humility. Before his last Passover meal, he removed his cloak that designated him as a teacher, took up a basin and towel, and washed the feet of his disciples.

Today, there are too many who think they are so right that anything they do to further their cause is also right. Their feelings of superiority are a form of hubris that almost invariably leads to some form of downfall or tragedy. The partisan effort to impeach President Clinton led to the downfall of leading Republicans when the hypocrisy of their criticisms was revealed. Most recently, Bernard Kerik backed out as nominee for Homeland Security secretary when it was discovered that he had not applied the same laws to himself that he would be required to enforce [Newsday].

A good scientist must also be a professional skeptic. Scientific knowledge is a structure built of theories based on evidence. In principle, any theory can be overturned by further evidence and observation. Einstein's Theory of Relativity was deemed "proven" in 1919 when British astronomers observed starlight being bent around the sun during a solar eclipse as the theory predicted. This year, 2004, further "proof" was accumulated with the observation, by the Gravity Probe B satellite, of gravity distortion around the spinning earth, also predicted by the theory. The pursuit of science is a constant balance of triumphs and doubt, and the best science requires a mind that is always open to alternatives.

In religious life, in civic life, and in scientific pursuit — respect for others, humility, and open mindedness are virtues. Failure to keep these in mind leads to hubris and eventual downfall, whether it is a loss of faith when one is found to be lying, a loss of office or power when one is found to be hypocritical, or a loss of national position in the world when we as a nation are found to repeatedly disrespect and misunderstand other cultures and religions. If we are to successfully strive for a better future, we must change the culture of hubris that pervades our nation.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Religious Tolerance

It is one thing to teach that by accepting and following Jesus you will find your way to heaven. It is quite another to teach that all those who do not will burn in hell. The first encourages you to accept the love and understanding of Jesus and to reflect it through yourself. The second turns away from these teachings, claims ownership of the sole revealed truth, and speaks with intolerance against other religions and people. Since there have been many schisms of the Christian Church over differences in beliefs, and there are now many different Churches claiming to have the truth, this very intolerance brings into question whether any one of them have the sole revealed truth. Conflicts over religious beliefs have persisted over millennia.

While one might get into arguments concerning ex cathedra proclamations and what constitutes the body of the Church in Catholicism, it was nevertheless in the name of church doctrine that Galileo was persecuted for claiming that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and it was in the name of church doctrine that Giordano Bruno was put in chains and later burned alive for refusing to abjure many heresies, among them that the stars are suns [Timothy Ferris, 1988, Coming of Age in the Milky Way]. Today we would question none of these so-called heresies; and, in fact, Pope John Paul II has essentially apologized, saying it was a mistake to have persecuted Galileo. ["...the theologians who judged Galileo were unable to see that the Bible does not make claims about the physical world as such. As a result they were mistaken in transposing 'into the realm of the doctrine of the faith a question that in fact pertained to scientific investigation' (John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 3 November 1992, pp. 1-2)" {quoted from a discourse on Science and Faith by Cardinal Poupard in 1995.} ]

It is part of the lore of our nation that the original European settlers came here to exercise religious freedom and to escape religious persecution. When our nation was founded, the separation of Church and State was enshrined in the Bill of Rights to ensure the exercise of religious freedom. And yet, today, we are once again struggling with issues of the separation of Church and State and issues of religious tolerance. While President Bush, in his bid for re-election, became a focal point in this debate, it is really deeper and more insidious. We have state boards of education proclaiming that we should not be teaching evolution in the biology classroom and dictating changes in science textbooks based on religious beliefs. And yet Evolution by Natural Selection is as much a fundamental part of all biology as Newton's Laws of Gravitation are a fundamental part of physics. Technical arguments over things like punctuated equilibria in evolution no more deny Darwin's theories than do arguments over relativity and quantum mechanics deny Newton's theories. They continue to be called theories because science is a fundamentally skeptical endeavor requiring that language.

Science cannot (and should not pretend to be able to) prove the existence or the non-existence of God. Neither should articles of faith in any religion be used to dictate science. Intolerance among religions has been the source of much pain and suffering in the world. Religious Intolerance imposed on science and education in this country could lead to a new generation that is inadequately prepared to face the world of the future. We risk our scientific supremacy in the world by allowing the separation of church and state to be broken down and by allowing articles of religious faith to dictate how we teach science. We risk everything by allowing religious intolerance and misunderstandings to drive conflicts both within our nation and around the world.