Monday, August 18, 2014

the path to a police state

  A man was killed on the streets of Ferguson.  Not by some gang banger, but by a police officer... a man tasked with protecting the public from violence.  As that man, Michael Brown, fled this officer, he was shot in the back.  And as he raised his hands to surrender, that officer shot him five more times.  And as that officer walked up to this dying man, he put a bullet in his head.  These are the facts, witnessed by several people.  This was murder.

  Some will say that Michael Brown instigated an attack on this police officer, reaching into his window, grabbing for his gun.  They will also bring up the robbery of a convenience store moments before by Michael Brown, although the officer was unaware of this fact.  Both of these things could have been true, and it changes nothing.  The reality is that in the moments that followed, the officer was out of danger, yet still chose to use lethal force.  Even when assaulted first, even if assaulted by a hypothetical dangerous criminal, an officer has a responsibility, nay, a higher moral standard, to exercise restraint in his power when he controls a situation.  It may seem unfair to the cop... that were their roles reversed and a criminal held a gun on him, he might see no mercy... but the public expects its protectors to have the integrity to do no harm unless it is absolutely unavoidable.  In exchange, the public (for the most part) agrees to comply with demands of the police.  If that social contract breaks down, it becomes a dark day for civilized society... the start of a march down the path to a police state.

  Something tragic has happened when a community has lost faith in those who are designated to protect them. When the word of a police officer has been so tarnished, that we find we cannot believe them anymore than the criminals they stop.  These men and women are given extraordinary powers and authority, and they must subscribe to a higher standard.  If they are unable to achieve these qualities, than it is time we provide additional checks and balances to hold them accountable for their actions.  We need strong state laws allowing police to be surveilled uninfringed by the public.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

the rise of putin

Anyone else noticing the striking similarities between the rise of Putin and the rise of Hitler?

Adolph Hitler, 1938 Time Person of the Year

  The end of World War I left Germany in a state of economic collapse.  The fledgling German democracy was ill equipped to deal with these challenges, and Hitler was able to rise by stoking nationalist sentiment in the population.

Hitler and Hindenburg, the man who appointed him to power

  Following a contested election, Hitler was appointed as chancellor by President Hindenburg, and following Hindenburg's death, he was able to suspend free press, and seize unilateral powers of a dictatorship.

Jessie Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games

  After showcasing Germany's rediscovered national pride in the 1936 Berlin Olympic games (albeit being embarrassed by Jessie Owens dominance over German sprinters), he began a systematic expansion annexing the Rhineland, Austria, and the Sudetenland, all in the name of protecting German speaking populations in these regions.

The Sudetenland, German speaking parts of Austria

  Leaders of the west were unwilling to enter another war, turning a blind eye to Germany, and finally signing an agreement legalizing Germany's expansions and proclaiming "Peace in Our Time".  The further invasion of Poland would spark the beginning of the Second World War.

Now the rise of Putin:

Putin, 2007 Time Person of the Year

The end of the Cold War left Russia in a state of economic collapse.  The fledgling Russian democracy was ill equipped to deal with these challenges, plagued by corruption.

Putin and Yeltsin, the person who appointed him to power

Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as a First Deputy Prime minister, and following the resignation of Yeltsin, Putin succeeded to the presidency.  Putin's presidency has been characterized by suspending free press, and manipulation of elections to guarantee himself defacto dictatorial powers.

Russian Hockey player following defeat at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games

Putin had the chance to showcase Russia's rediscovered national pride in the 2014 Sochi Olympic games (albeit being embarrassed by the Russian hockey teams failure to metal).

Russian speaking portions of Ukraine, used as justification to authorize invasion

Russia began more militaristic interventions in Georgia in 2008, and appears on the brink of invasion of Ukraine, both in the name of protecting Russian speaking populations along their borders.  NATO and the western powers have basically turned a blind eye.

I'm not saying Putin has ambitions of world domination, or that he would begin any systematic genocide like Hitler did... but the parallels of history are disturbing.  The Greatest Generation had to learn the hard way the price of appeasement of dictators.  Are we destined to repeat the mistakes of the past?

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Congressman Steve Cohen appeared on msnbc this morning to promote a cause that I strongly believe in... a check on the power of Congress to draw its own districting lines.  One only needs to look at the results from the 2012 congressional elections to reach a head scratching conclusion:  State legislatures have drawn the lines in a way that predetermines the outcomes of elections.  Republicans hold 55% of the seats in the house of representatives, while gaining only 46% of the vote.  That is not to say the Democratic state legislatures aren't doing the exact same thing.  

At some point, Americans have to come together and decide what is good for democracy should triumph what is good for your own political party.  Gerrymandering is a proxy for the slide of our society into a defacto dictatorship.  Voters in California rose up to strip the powers of redistricting from the legislature, and more states should be following their lead.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Continuing Resolution to spend

The United States government has shut its doors.  Congress has been unable to reach an agreement to continue spending...  this time, the Republican house has put at stake a one year delay in the Affordable Healthcare Act.  The problem is, Republicans have aimed at the wrong target.  This politically motivated attack trying to undermine an increasingly unpopular law with the only leverage they seem to have left does little to address independents concerns about the growing debt burden.  What they should be leveraging against is spending targets, demanding spending reductions in a continuing resolution.

Passing a continuing resolution as currently formulated really means let the government grow at its own pace, unchecked by congress.  For many fiscally liberal congressmen, this isn't a bad proposition.  Many on the left believe that the government should be taking advantage of low interest rates to borrow and spend more... increasing the deficit and debt, but perhaps providing temporary relief to the American workforce in the form of new jobs and social programs.  To them, the "status quo" of a continuing resolution looks like an easy win.

The reality is that our nation is drowning in a debt that neither us, nor our children, will ever emerge from.  If house republicans really wanted to make a difference, they would do it by insisting that each piece of the budget was passed one part at a time.  Funding the most important programs would come first... things that everybody agrees are important.  Funding for programs of controversy that can't gain majority support are clear targets for reduction in spending.  If a compromise can't be achieved in those agencies, well then maybe for them, a government shutdown is an appropriate step.

The current shutdown is theatrics only.  Both Republicans and Democrats are equally responsible for shirking the key responsibilities of our generation... and that is simply coming together to find a way to live within our means.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Your Tax Receipt

I find it fascinating how people will argue their ideologies about federal budgeting without actually considering the details of how exactly their tax money is actually spent.  Republicans will say "spend less", without considering where their spending is going, and how that may personally impact them.  Democrats will say "spend more", as if our bank accounts are a bottomless pit to be drawn from.  What are your personal priorities within the federal government?

How much do you think is your personal fair share for:

  • social security
  • medicare
  • national defense
  • health care
  • job and family security
  • education and job training
  • veterans benefits
  • natural resources, energy, and the environment
  • international affairs
  • science, space, and technology programs
  • immigration, law enforcement, and the administration of justice
  • agriculture
  • community, area, and regional development
  • All additional Government programs
  • Net interest on the debt

I'd encourage you to think of a number you feel is appropriate for each of these areas.  Then I'd like you to head over to the government's Taxpayer Receipt website, and enter your tax information in.  Where were you over-predicting your contributions?  Where were you under-predicting your contributions?  A reasonable starting point for exploring your personal convictions is examining your personal contributions to the government outside of what your party tells you you should think.  It can be a first step towards freeing yourself from the prison of partisan politics.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Strike Syria?

If there were ever a case to be made that the institution of the Presidency is far too dangerous for a single person to control, it couldn't be made better than by looking at Barack Obama's upcoming decision about what to do of the chemical weapon attack in Syria.

Consider this:

  • American's strongly oppose military intervention in Syria, by nearly a 2-1 margin.  
  • Though the constitution mandates that the power to declare war lay with congress, they are unlikely to get a chance to vote on it.  For the long standing practice of having undeclared wars, I would say that an act of war is as strong a declaration of war as there is.  If the Japanese had said after Pearl Harbor, "just kidding"... would that have slowed down our response?  
  • It won't be internationally recognized by the United Nations either, as they just rejected a call for military intervention.  
And yet, warships steam towards what seems like an inevitable destination to drop their bombs.  I think everyone agrees that what the Syrian government did to its own people is outrageous, and deserves international intervention.  But I more strongly believe the will of the people should hold the day.  Does this even remotely look like Democracy in action?


Edit: Looks like Congress will get its chance to vote on a strike in Syria.  While I thank the Obama administration for seeking the consent of American's in committing an act of war, I still believe he very well could have carried out the strike had he wanted to... for instance, he never sought a vote in attacking Lybia.  Because of this, I stand by my previous opinion that too much power lay with the institution of the presidency.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Corporate influence of politics and the disengagement of the general public

There is a strain of thought through American politics that corporate influence in government has grown so far beyond the term "influence" that you might as well say their candidates have been bought and paid for.  Corporate money flows through the vanes of election coffers, and has become the lifeblood of a candidates reelection prospects.  And if elections are the blunt instruments of change, campaign contributions from lobbyists are the the scalpel, laser focused on individual issues, or even individual phrases in bills related to issues.  So does democracy even offer tools for the greater public to weigh in on a policy level?

On the one hand, the reality is there needs to be a place for so called "special interests" to be heard.  We have chosen a representative democracy specifically because the electorate doesn't have the time to become an expert on legislative matters.  But some people are, and they can help guide representatives towards the expertise they need to make a qualified decision.  Take for instance, the computing industry has a strong interest in the concept of net neutrality, a term that most Americans couldn't even explain.  Software engineers and internet companies must take the lead in clarifying policy repercussions for any semblance of a coherent strategy.

On the other hand, there aren't very many avenues for mainstream people to engage with their representatives on issues which they have come to informed opinions.  Corporate money guarantees face time with lawmakers, and even a hand in drafting legislation.  Most public campaign donations are contributed to political parties or individual candidates, which tend to focus again on the blunt instrument instead of the scalpel.  Not surprisingly, the public has become disengaged with the issues, allowing elections to be driven by personalities instead of policy.

There are some common sense reforms to our democracy that could help restore the balance in a non-partisan manner, and engage the greater body politic in issues again.  First of all, we can recognize that corporations benefit tremendously from the economies of scale when it comes to donations.  TV advertising has a built in fixed cost barrier that must be overcome before political money becomes effective.  On a per voter basis, this becomes feasible only when the size of the electorate for an election reaches a critical mass.  The President's campaigns are more cost efficient than a Senator's, and in turn a Senator's is more cost efficient than a member of the house of representatives.  Can you even remember the last time you saw a TV add for a city council member?  Consider when the country was founded, we had one member of the house of representatives for every 30,000 people... a ratio very similar to that city council member.  Today, we are approaching 1,000,000 people for each representative.  If we were to restore that ratio, the pool of corporate money would be diluted on a per representative basis to levels not seen in a generation, and we would see a waning of corporate influence... at least in the house of representatives.  Another benefit of this system is that people can have a lot closer contact with their representatives when they have to represent such a smaller group.  It could serve to empower people to seek out their representatives on a personal level.

Another possible way to provide democratic institutions with the mechanisms to support issue level representation is to change the way we vote.  Consider that the house of representatives is formed of a number of committees that are much more issue focused.  These committees are designed to allow representatives to become experts on individual issues, and are a driver of legislation before it reaches the wider house of representatives for a vote.  But these committees are appointed by the leadership of the parties, largely on a seniority basis.  In a two party system like are own, it virtually guarantees that Americans who care about issues have no say at the ballot box, unless all their issues align with one of the two party choices.  If instead we had many parties, where people could vote nationally for the parties that best matched their personal ideologies, we could have a better reflection of the American will on individual issues in these committees.  Better yet, we could even potentially have issue specific parties, which the public votes separately for on a per committee basis.  I could vote for my charter schools party for the Education and Workforce committee, and my deficit reduction party for the Budget committee, and my isolationist party for the Armed Services committee, and so on.  Imagine the engagement Americans could have in such a system!

In conclusion, corporate influence in American politics is not a problem to be addressed in and of itself, but a symptom of a greater problem of public disengagement in the issues of politics.  Common sense reforms which empower individuals to engage with their representative democracy would naturally dilute the influence of special interests, yet preserve their rights to engage in the political process with their expertise.  Changing the levers of elections to allow voting for committee members would turn politics on its head, and help bring the body politic back in line with the values of the people they represent.