Friday, February 29, 2008

close-minded professors and open source software

My life has recently been consumed by all things graduate school...last fall it was applying and convincing four professors that 18 schools was not too many and that writing letters for a number of them on my behalf wouldn't be all that time consuming. The first part of Winter, from January 15 to February 1, was a brief respite from all the hubbub. However, the days since then have been even more dreadful than the entire process of filling out applications, printing statements and writing samples, and coordinating it all with professors.

This, my friends, is the season of decision notification. After gleefully reading an acceptance letter from the University of Wisconsin, I have systematically been humbled by some of the finer institutions of America. Part of me thinks there is a History Department Roundtable that convenes and decides to trick students into thinking they are worthy, only to follow up with a plethora of "sorry, but we just had so many applicants this year..." letters. Fortunately, two discoveries have given me a modicum of enjoyment during this apprehensive time: one close-minded professor and an unrelated bit of free software.

My wonderful political science professor, Rodney G
runes, makes our class read the New York Times everyday. I've been following the primary season using precisely that outlet, and in Tuesday's Op-Ed section I found an interesting piece. Apparently they had the neat idea of asking several different experts what questions they thought were being ignored in all the debate. Most of the respondents seemed thoughtful enough, but then I got to the questions of one Ruth Wedgwood, professor of international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University. JHU is one of those schools that, unfortunately, will not be graced with my presence this coming fall, and reading the ridiculously hawkish, narrow-minded, stupid comments of Prof. Wedgwood took most of my rejection pain away. Her first, and, reason leads us to believe, most natural, question, was,
Senator Obama, as commander in chief an American president must understand the sense of honor that motivates his armed forces. Last September, ran an advertisement in The Times that mocked Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, as "General Betray Us." You chose not to vote on the Senate resolution that condemned the advertisement. Would you still characterize the Senate vote as a "stunt" and "empty politics"?
The fact that this was apparently the most pressing issue on the mind of this well-paid professor at one of the more illustrious institutions of higher learning in our nation is disturbing. With the dire economic situation, millions of Americans without health care and facing home foreclosure, the entire international scientific community talking about environmental tiping points and a climate that is literally on the brink of destruction, Professor Wedgwood is primarily concerned that Senator Obama didn't step up to the plate and censure an organ of the American free press. Apparently honor means never allowing the people to utter a negative syllable about an individual with bars on his shoulder.

Wedgwood also takes a parting shot at Senator Clinton when she says
The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution bars any former president from election to a third term. Is it truly consistent with the spirit of the Constitution to have the same professional couple occupying the White House for 12 years? Isn't this all the more true when Bill Clinton promised that voters would receive, during his first term, "two for the price of one"?
Only finding such absurd and embarrasing comments has made me realize that I could never be happy at an institution that rewards such an obvious lack of scholarship, intelligence, and courtesy. I'm going to go out on a limb, temporarilly ignore my rule gainst generalizing, and possibly even display a tiny bit of animosity, and say that I doubt such statements would ever come from the lips, pen, or keyboard of any professor from any department at the more progressive, prestigious, and higher-ranked-by-US News & World Report University of Wisconsin-Madison, a beacon of learning that provides cultural, intellectual, and practical support to an entire state of cold, loving, Packers-cheering people.

The latter half of the title to this entry refers to my newfound interest in open source software, specifically the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. Some kind soul left an installation CD in the library, and I've since tested it out and fallen in love. It should be noted that I'm writing this blog after booting from the CD. I've decided that the first thing I buy with my next paycheck is going to be an external harddrive, partly so that I can backup my music and other files, partly so that I can install Ubuntu (or possibly Xubuntu) on my laptop. It's very exciting.

To close, I'll give you what Newsweek's Conventional Wisdom would look like if I was writing it this week: Microsoft goes down for not keeping up with the times, the NYT editorial board goes up for providing me with a laugh, Google goes up for making viable server-side solutions to propriety software, dedicated nerds all over the world go way up for slowly paving the way to a post-Microsoft world, the JHU board of trustees drops for hiring Beth Wedgwood, and every citizen of Wisconsin climbs to the top for never allowing such a tragedy to happen.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

you can't fix new problems with old ideas...or in this case, an old election system

In my opinion, the most important issue facing America today is that of reforming the process by which public officials are elected. Though America may pride itself on having the oldest Constitution still in use, much of it is antiquated, and nothing is more fundamentally out of date and contrary to the ideals of American equality and opportunity than our election system.

The recent presidential election of 2000 is a perfect example. For the fourth time in our nation's history, democracy was made a fool. President George W. Bush received less votes than did former Vice President Al Gore, but due to confusion and an arbitrary selection system in the Electoral College, Bush was awarded the presidency on a 5-4 vote, a decision that many have heralded as the worst supreme court decision since Dred Scott v. Sanford. Beside the fact that many constitutional scholars have held that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over Florida's electoral process, thousands of citizens were disenfranchised because allowing their votes to be counted would run the risk of "casting a cloud upon what [Bush] claims to be the legitimacy of his election."

But it is not just the Electoral College that makes a mockery of the freedom of choice. A more significant detractor of democracy is the system by which campaigns and elections are funded. The inordinate power of big businesses and powerful lobby groups severely limits the ability of the mass public to choose its leaders. With PAC's and other loopholes making it easy for candidates, Democrat and Republican, to bypass what little limitations legislation has placed on campaign contributions, it is clear that our process for selecting and then influencing public officials needs vast restructuring. The Almond-Lippmann consensus holds that, in the matter of foreign policy, public opinion is volatile, incoherent, and irrelevant. This reality can only partly be attributed to the constant dilution and trivialization of the news. Also at play are the powerful interest groups who provide the money officials need in order to get in office and stay there. Most big lobby money goes to incumbents, for the simple reason that they are easier to elect, and with the unfortunate consequence that the fundamental structure of our government rarely changes. It is no wonder that they listen to the hand that feeds.

Finally, our means for determining a winner is unfair and precludes our legislative bodies from accurately representing the diversity of political opinion. First past the post electoral systems are inherently unfair in that they allow only the two most popular choices to ever have a shot at winning. By sacrificing legitimacy for simplicity's sake, plurality voting systems make anyone who votes for their top preference a loser if that preference is not a member of the two major parties. By creating waste vote candidates such as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, the United States' election system keeps those candidates who have grass roots appeal but lack the support of major lobbies and businesses out of the contest. It is completely unfair for a party to win 51% of the vote in a state with 44 votes and have all 44 votes go toward their candidate. The 49% may well have not shown up.

The 2008 presidential race is also revealing the failings of this system. Ralph Nader's recent announcement to run for President no doubt has many Democrats already up in arms against the man who, many believe, ruined their chances in 2000. Voting discrepancies have cropped up in either party: Mike Huckabee wants a recount in the confusing state of Washington, where both the primary and caucus results determine delegates, while Obama supporters are reading conspiracy into reports of heavily black congressional districts in New York that went to Hillary by margins of 118-0 and 141-0.

Marc Ambinder's article "A Fine Mess" in the New York Times (7 February 2008) highlights just how convoluted this process has become. After unimportant white people in Iowa and New Hampshire set the tone for the Democratic primary race in 2000 and 2004, chief Democrat Howard Dean devised a new plan to make the early selection process more representative of Democratic voters: move Nevada, and its Hispanic vote, and South Carolina, with its heavy black concentration, up in the calendar and punish any other state that tries to hold its primary before the 5th of February.

The ramifications of this decision were seen when Michigan and Florida tried to snatch the spotlight by moving their primaries up, thumbing their noses at the DNC. Now the Democrat party chiefs face a crucial dilemma: seat the delegates and suffer a loss of influence, or stand firm on their earlier decision and risk being portrayed as disenfranchising millions of voters. It wouldn't matter so much if the race wasn't so close. With Obama and Clinton neck and neck well through the halfway point, that earlier decision is looking like it could be a deal breaker. HRC has made her opinion clear: the delegates should be seated. This of course despite the fact that Clinton, along with all other Democratic candidates, agreed not to campaign in those states. Why does she want the delegates seated? Either she firmly is against stealing the voice of millions of Americans, or she just won those states. The fact is that she did win Florida and Michigan, her name being the only one on the Michigan ballot. Now, I'm not intending this as an anti-Hillary point. I believe the delegates should be seated too, for the simple fact that they represent one of the few forums the public has to influentially weigh-in on who will be the next President. Nevertheless, the episode is a great illustration of the problems that follow a confusing, arbitrary electoral process.

It is my sincerest belief that, were this issue to be remedied, all other problems in America and the world would be more easily solved. Beyond the corruption inherent in allowing big business and special interest groups to completely finance campaigns, the system itself is ridiculously confusing. There is no way the average American could relate the difference between caucuses, open and closed primaries, and conventions or proportional, first past the post, or single-transferable vote systems, much less identify where and when each type is used. How can we expect the public to be engaged when the mere arithmetic is so hard to follow?

Was significant restructuring legislation to be passed, voters would be more likely to feel a part of the process. The debate over the capital gains tax and hearings regarding steroid-use in the majors would cease, and legislators would start tackling the issues of health care, wealth discrepancy, and the disparity of education quality between wealthy suburban and poor urban districts. Candidates would have a keener interest in solving those problems if they knew that voters really dictated who won and who lost.

I have no detailed plan in mind to fix the problem, but I can offer a few suggestions:

1. Make the entire process easy to follow and simple to understand. Even CNN and the New York Times take weeks crunching the numbers to figure out who is going to win. Personally, I believe this means abolishing the Electoral College, making all primary elections on the same day, and making all delegate apportionment proportional. Of course there are a variety of ways to accomplish simplicity, not all of them being preferable. But any system in which participation is effective and easy to measure would be better than our current one.

2. Eliminate every cent of corporate and individual money from campaign coffers. While the Supreme Court has made clear its belief that restrictions on campaign contributions constitute in undue restriction on the right to free speech, I side with Stanford professor of philosophy Ken Taylor, who argued on a recent episode of Philosophy Talk that, if this is the constitutional case, then nothing short of amendment must be done to remedy the situation.

3. Force all persons running for federal election to utilize only government money. This point fills the void left by the second point. Obviously there will be issues such as who qualifies as a legitimate candidate, but those could be easily resolved in much the same way that qualifications for FECA matching funds act. The New York Times, in the editorial "Read Their Lips" (16 February 2006), has agreed, to a point, urging Clinton, Obama, and McCain to use public financing. Yet I think an even more effective tool would be getting rid of all contributions other than those put up by the federal government, be it the FEC or some other body. The point is to ensure that all serious candidates have the exact same means available to reach the electorate. Ceteris paribus, voters will be left with nothing but the issues by which to judge the candidates.

So those are my suggestions, criticize or applaud them as you will. But please take away one idea from this editorial: the current system of electing public officials is fraught with problems, and there is never anything wrong with hypothesizing on a means to rectify such a situation.

Friday, February 15, 2008

why i support obama

With the democratic primary in a dead-heat, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have each engaged in their fair share of bad-mouthing one another. From Obama's visible frustration that he didn't know "who he was running against" to Clinton's remarks that more than hint at her superior experience and clarity of ideas, the Democratic front runners are hardly acting friendly toward one another. Naturally, the ruckus has permeated the entire body of self-proclaimed Democrats and liberals, as well as a great many others. Supporters of both candidates are making no hesitation to declare their true feelings as to who is the better (wo)man for the job. For his part, Paul Krugman has bluntly stated "I won't try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody" (New York Times, 11 February 2008, A25).

Clintonites say Obama, if elected, wouldn't have the experience and the gusto necessary to stay afloat in the destructive waters of American politics. However, former DNC chair and Bill Clinton campaign manager David Wilhelm has not only endorsed Senator Obama, but went on record as stating that Obama has "the unique ability to encourage cooperation as a 65-percent president after the divisive years of a 51-percent majority" (Philip Elliot, "Clinton Ex-CampaignManager Backs Obama"). What's more, they claim Obama is too focused on ideas and can't possibly do the all-important task of building coalitions to get important legislation passed for this county.

On the other hand, Obama's fans feel as though Clinton has been too willing to cross the aisle and compromise with Republicans, the greatest example being her votes and opinions on the controversial war in Iraq. Not to mention the fact that another Clinton in the White House has that inevitable aura of elitism to finish the trend: Bush, Clinton, Bush II, Clinton II. Of course, no one should be discounted simply because they are related to the powerful - if that rule were applied across the board, Washington would be a ghost town. Nevertheless, they shouldn't be propped up because of familial ties either. Having the same last name doesn't prescribe a list of policy preferences.

Sen. Obama doesn't seem to entirely get this; when Obama retorted "Wait up Hillary, I can't tell who I'm running against" at the recent Democratic debate, he wasn't joking. His campaign speeches have repeatedly lambasted the Clintons for being unable to form a working majority in Congress in the 1990's - last I checked, Hillary didn't enter the Senate until 2001. He also has been quoted as saying
Keep in mind, we had Bill Clinton as president when, in '94, we lost the House, we lost the Senate, we lost governorships, we lost state houses. And so, regardless of what policies they wanted to promote, they didn't have a working majority to bring change about.
New York Times, 11 February 2008, A16
So it seems that Obama is sincere about his confusion. Still, for some odd reason the major outlets seem to have reached a consensus on one fact: the slightly more liberal Obama will be able to build a better (read: bigger and/or more stable) coalition than the overwhelmingly centrist Clinton model. Firstly, Obama can unite the Democrats. Pundits from both sides of the aisle have predicted that, if his momentum keeps up, the all-important superdelegates, once thought to be a stronghold of Clinton supporters, will soon be swinging to Obamaland. Columnist William Kristol says this could happen as early as March (New York Times, 11 February 2008, A25). Secondly, Obama can unite the country. Winning the Democratic primary race is important, but the real test will come in November, when either Clinton or Obama will have to face off the equally-attractive-to-independents John McCain. In a recent opinion column in the New York Times, Roger Cohen pointed out that,
Republicans, likely to be led by McCain with his appeal to independents, are unanimous in saying they’d rather face Clinton than Obama. Many independents will never vote Clinton but might vote Obama. This calculus will weigh: the Democrats know they will seldom, if ever, get the stars so aligned for victory. Failure would be devastating...In making their own choice, Democrats now need to think carefully about how best to counter a more defined Republican challenge.
Nicholas Kristoff has reported that polls place Obama ahead of McCain in a hypothetical general election while the same study found that McCain beat Clinton by four percent. Obama also has the highest approval among self-identified independents, and even sits well among evangelical Christians. Kristoff quoted the granddaughter of Republican icon Dwight 'Ike' Eisenhower and Obama supporter as saying, "Obama would appeal much more to Republican voters...[n]ot all Republican voters, but certainly those who might be somewhat in play." These are the practical considerations. Although I despise it and the system that creates it, tactical voting is a steadfast reality in America's first past the post election system. If Obama is more likely to both a) bring a strong Left base to the general election and b) attract the many self-proclaimed moderates of America to his campaign, then it only makes sense to put him at the top of the ticket. If there's one thing Democrats can agree on, hopefully it's that the ultimate goal is to steal back the White House.

As important as tactical voting is, picking a winner means nothing if your winner is soulless. Take that for what you will, but what I mean is that if you don't agree with a candidate on the major issues, then you really shouldn't vote for them, regardless of popularity or probability. After moving down the line from Kucinich and then to Edwards, pullouts and campaign suspensions have left me but with one choice: Barack Obama.

Both Clinton and Obama have positions I disagree with: both support the continued embargo of Cuba (Edwards did not) and both believe the death penalty should remain a legal option in America (Edwards did not). Both of them voted for HR 6061 to establish a physical barrier between the United States and Mexico, a bill that is one of the most Republican-endorsed, blatantly symbolic, impractical, and, in this author's opinion, unabashedly against the American tradition of freedom and acceptance in recent memory. However, there are several issues that are important to me where Obama gets it right and Clinton just doesn't get it.

On the issue of campaign finance reform (my baby plank), Senator Clinton failed when she voted in 2002 for HR 2356, which effectively raised the limit of individual contributions and Political Action Committees, these a major loophole by which campaign regulations are often bypassed. In comparison, Obama worked to pass a tough law that banned the use of all personal money for legislator campaigns in Illinois, a state which was prior to that ranked worst in campaign finance regulations.

My favorite sound byte on the issue of 'illegal immigrants' came from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) who refused to answer the question on the premise that, to him, there is "no such thing as an illegal human." Unfortunately for all involved, Kucinich dropped out. Hillary Clinton takes the ever-precarious position on the fence of this issue. At a CNN debate in January, she had this to say:
...[W]hat we've got to do is to say, come out of the shadows. We will register everyone. We will check, because if you have committed a crime in this country or the country you came from, then you will not be able to stay, you will have to be deported.

But for the vast majority of people who are here, we will give you a path to legalization if you meet the following condition: pay a fine because you entered illegally, be willing to pay back taxes over time, try to learn English -- and we have to help you do that, because we've cut back on so many of those services -- and then you wait in line....
On the contrary, Obama has clearly worked as a state senator in Illinois to give aliens driver's licenses, job training, and health insurance. In a 2006 floor statement given in the US Senate, Obama said the following:
I will not support any bill that does not provide this earned path to citizenship for the undocumented population--not just for humanitarian reasons; not just because these people, having broken the law, did so for the best of motives, to try and provide a better life for their children and their grandchildren; but also because this is the only practical way we can get a handle on the population that is within our borders right now.
Barack Obama has direct familial ties to the immigrant heritage of America, and I will feel astonished and betrayed if he sides with the neocons and employs the politics of fear to justify discrimination against humankind just because they stupidly chose to be born on the wrong side of an arbitrary border.

But of course the most controversial, and one of the most important, issues on which Senators Clinton and Obama differ is the Iraq War. In 2003, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein. I believe that that was the right vote. I have had many disputes and disagreements with the administration over how that authority has been used, but I stand by the vote to provide the authority because I think it was a necessary step in order to maximize the outcome that did occur in the Security Council with the unanimous vote to send in inspectors. And I also knew that our military forces would be successful.
Although she finally relented in 2005, it does seem suspicious that this about-face came so close to her decision to run for President. On the same token, Clinton has wisely, although hypocritically, reversed her position on setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq just in time for the 2008 campaign, saying in 2005 that it was time for "not a rigid timetable that terrorists can exploit, but a public plan for winning and concluding the war" only to vote in 2007 in favor of a timetable. Of course, realizing one's mistake is hardly a fault, but the ideal would be good judgment from the start

To conclude, if you didn't already know, Barack Obama is heardly perfect. His recent approval of the ridiculous amount of US aid given to Israel merits a serious loss of points. Of course, we should take such incidents with a grain of salt: most all major US politicians are hesitant to fly against the traditional logic of subsidizing, to the tune of $3 billion per annum, Israel's aggression. What's more, in 2006, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz ranked Senator Obama dead last in its consideration of which presidential candidate would be "best for Israel." That has to count for something.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

democracy in action!

U.S. Senate: Legislation & Records Home > Votes > Roll Call Vote

Final Vote Results for Roll Call 25 (House)

As you may or may not know, today President Bush signed into law the recently debated congressional stimulus package that will be sending at least $600 in rebates to American families.

Since we live in a democracy, take it upon yourself to find out how your Congressmen represented you when voting on H.R. 5140 (Economic Stimulus Act of 2008). Both of my Senators are Republican, but Alexander voted YEA while junior Senator Bob Corker voted NAY - one of only 16 to do so. My Representative Zach Wamp, also Republican, voted YEA.

A harder to question to ask might be "why did Corker or Sen. Hagel (R-NE) vote NAY?" The first person to answer gets bonus points, and perhaps even a career in political analysis!

Also note that Senators Clinton and Obama did not vote, although to their credit the campaign is in a deadlock and their added YAY's were not necessary.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

a fun show at an intimate, enjoyable venue

Last Saturday was a great day to be in Shreveport, LA. Fairfield Studios hosted an evening of fun with Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines (father of Natalie, outspoken member of the Dixie Chicks). For just a $20 donation that went straight to the artist, you got to hear some great music and storytelling, not to mention sample some tasty treats provided by a local caterer. Ms. Hendrix did most the singing, while Lloyd backed her up on dobro and other instruments. The songs were of an eclectic variety, with one even having a middle eastern feel to it.

My favorite song was entitled (I think) "If I had a Daughter." The verses were spoken word on what Terri would do if she had a daughter - what she would tell her, how she would raise her, etc - while the chorus was a simple melody exhibiting Ms. Hendrix's beautiful voice. Another song was a fun one about not petting an easily-excitable dog.

There were only about 40 or so people there, but that just added to the level of intimacy experienced by all. Terri and Lloyd told stories of learning about music, touring together, humorous incidents, and basically whatever was on their minds. This is the type of show that makes you wish big media and sell-out arena concerts just didn't exist.

But don't feel bad if you missed it. Anyone in the ShreveBo area should check out Fairfield soon. Any show they host should be a good one. Check their website for upcoming dates. You'll be glad you did.