Saturday, July 23, 2016

Elections are Discrete. Opinions are Continuous

As in most elections, we are seeing some people exhibit an immature attitude toward voting that goes something like this:

“My candidate did not win at the convention. Therefore, I’m not voting.”


“My candidate did not win at the convention. Therefore I’m voting for [insert name of some fringe party candidate here].”

That’s their prerogative. But if they do vote that way, they need to understand that they are really throwing their vote away in an unnoticeable protest that may make them feel good but helps elect a person they abhor.

Time for a quick lesson in statistics. Bear with me. Even if you hated math in school, this is an everyday life reality.

A variable, or quantitative property of a thing, can be discrete or continuous. The web site explains the difference clearly and succinctly:

Suppose the fire department mandates that all fire fighters must weigh between 150 and 250 pounds. The weight of a fire fighter would be an example of a continuous variable; since a fire fighter's weight could take on any value between 150 and 250 pounds.

Suppose we flip a coin and count the number of heads. The number of heads could be any integer value between 0 and plus infinity. However, it could not be any number between 0 and plus infinity. We could not, for example, get 2.5 heads. Therefore, the number of heads must be a discrete variable.

Now, apply these definitions to elections.

Opinions are continuous (and for purists, multivariate). Take, for example, capital punishment. You may believe that capital punishment is good and is a deterrent and should be an option in all murder and rape verdicts. You may believe that capital punishment is barbaric, counterproductive, and should never be an option. Or your beliefs may be somewhere in between; for example, it should only be used when the victim is a law enforcement officer.

Since there are many issues, and many shades of continuous opinion, there’s an excellent possibility that where you sit on the opinion spectrum is not where any candidate sits. You have to choose the candidate whose philosophy is closest to yours and accept the fact that he or she is not in lock step with you.

On the other hand, elections are discrete. You can’t cast three quarters of a vote for Hillary Clinton and one quarter of a vote for Donald Trump. Sure, you can vote for Jill Stein or David Duke, but the reality of today’s electoral system in the United States is that if you vote is to count, you need to select from a field of two.

Maybe you agree with Hillary Clinton on most issues, but are really troubled by her trade policy. If you want your vote to count, you should vote for her anyway, and simultaneously support an advocacy organization that seeks to move trade policy in a direction you’re comfortable with. If you stay home, or vote for a third party candidate, you’re throwing away your vote for the portions of Clinton’s platform that you agree with, and making it easier for Donald Trump to gain ground.

You may not be enamored of Hillary Clinton’s approach. But this election will be closer than many of us who live in the progressive bubble realize. Take it from an early Bernie Sanders supporter – anything less than full-throated support for Hillary Clinton helps put a racist, misogynistic xenophobe one step closer to the White House. You may have to hold your nose to vote for Hillary, but it’s the right thing to do. And be sure to vote for progressive candidates down the line in your home district, and support similar candidates across the nation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Lesser of Two Evils

Quite often in American politics, voters lament that they are stuck with the choice of "the lesser of two evils." There's a bit of hyperbole there because what they really mean is that they are forced to choose between two candidates, neither of which appeals to them. These candidates are not necessarily evil. I'll even grant that in the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, the choice was not the lesser of two evils, but rather the highly unpopular and ineffective incumbent Jon Corzine and the untested unknown Bush consigliere Chris Christie. At that time, neither was "evil", so using the phrase was convenient but inappropriate.

Even now, in the presidential campaign, people are still wringing their hands, calling the Clinton/Trump a selection of "the lesser of two evils." Still, this is not correct. Donald Trump IS evil. He's a misogynist, a xenophobe, and a bigot. But say what you want about Hillary Clinton - she's not evil. You may disagree with her policies. You may think she stepped over the line with her campaign finances. You may even believe the Fox propaganda that she single-handedly was responsible for Benghazi (hint: she was not. It was the GOP congress that cut funding for embassy security). But she's not evil. She has devoted her life to public service, for advancing charitable causes, and inspiring a generation of women and girls to get involved in politics.

So this election is NOT a choice between the lesser of two evils. It's a choice between evil and good.

I'm not thrilled with the entire scope of Hillary's policies. But I love America. America is too good to have another racist president. So I will support Hillary as if our country's life depended on it, not because she's the lesser of two evils. Because she is better than that.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Reddest of Herrings

Whenever there is a terrorist massacre, it galvanizes advocates on one side or the other to call for actions that are, at best, peripherally related to the attack and are sometimes overreactions. For example, the Paris attack brought out the immigration xenophobes who stonewall rescue of Syrian refugees trying to escape an untenable situation – lumping all of them with the terrorists. When a lone shoe bomber fails to bring down a jetliner, we are immediately placated by the TSA telling us to take off our shoes at airports.  When a gunman terrorizes a school, gun safety advocates use these tragedies (justifiably) to spur efforts to protect our children and teachers.

And when a 9/11 or Paris attack emerges from the shadows where these despicable organizations live, there are calls to weaken internet encryption approaches in the name of preventing future attacks.

Much of the traffic on the internet is encrypted using algorithms that government agencies can’t crack. We know this because those algorithms are in the public domain and if there were a backdoor hack available, it would probably be divulged by a whistleblower, an academic paper, or a high school teenager.

Internet encryption is important to protect banking and other personal information. Because of the very nature of the Internet, we have no control over where traffic is being relayed, and unencrypted traffic might as well be posted on a bulletin board in Times Square.

Now, government agencies and terrorism experts are calling for the security of the Internet to be drastically weakened. In the name of preventing terrorism, They want to impose regulations that would require encryption software to have a “back door” – a master key that the NSA and other agencies could use to decrypt any and all internet traffic. Their claim is that since terrorists use uncrackable encryption, it makes it harder for agencies to prevent attacks.  This is a red herring – it has nothing to do with terrorism or protection from attacks.

Because the uncrackable algorithms are already available, there’s nothing to stop terrorists from using them. Even if the U.S. bans these public-domain tools, our enemies can get them in other countries. By requiring a back door, government and their corporate sponsors will have unfettered access to the activities of ordinary Americans. Sure, there will be claims that safeguards will be put in place. But unscrupulous politicians, corporations, and criminals will eventually find these so-called protected entrances.

So if these suggestions that have been prompted by the fear of terrorism are implemented, ordinary Americans will suffer and the terrorists will continue to use already available tools. Some people might have a false sense of security, but the terrorists will have won yet another battle.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Martin O'Malley vs Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley have a lot in common. Most notably, both are running for President and neither of them has a chance of capturing their party’s nomination. Christie is only 124 days older than O’Malley. Both are white male Catholics who governed east coast states. Both are former chairmen of their respective party’s governor’s association. Both were governors during the national recovery from the Bush Recession. But that’s where the similarities end.
O’Malley, a moderate-to-liberal Democrat, had a great degree of success in Maryland during the recovery. Christie, a conservative-to-Tea Party Republican, governs a state that is still floundering in comparison to neighboring states.
While neither man will become President in 2016, presidential ambitions are persistent and we may see an O’Malley-Christie contest down the road. Both are relatively young and have many presidential campaign seasons ahead of them.

And there’s no love lost between the two men. Back in 2011, O’Malley came to New Jersey to speak at the State Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson Jackson Dinner. This video contains some of his remarks about his New Jersey peer. (It should be noted that O’Malley was one of only a handful of top-tier Democrats who came to New Jersey to campaign for Barbara Buono in 2013.) In the video, O’Malley is flanked by former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and former State Democratic Chairman John Wisniewski.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bernie's Right. TMac is Wrong.

Whenever something newsworthy happens, political candidates of all stripes spew out fundraising e-mails regardless of the topic. This week’s Democratic debate was no exception.

One such e-mail I received was from Congressman Tom MacArthur. While his $5 million campaign in 2014 was mostly self-funded, it seems that he now wants us to send him money so he can have a second term.

In his e-mail, MacArthur’s people wrote:

Last night's Democrat Presidential debate blew me away. One of the candidates actually said that the biggest threat to U.S. national security was CLIMATE CHANGE!
 Not ISIS. Not a nuclear Iran. Not Putin. Not a President who plays politics with our defense budget. Climate change.

The candidate that MacArthur refers to is Senator Bernie Sanders. From the debate transcript:

Moderator Anderson Cooper: Senator Sanders, greatest national security threat?
 Senator Sanders: The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.

No matter how deep in denial MacArthur and his ilk are, Senator Sanders is spot on.

Human beings are fragile creatures. We evolved (sorry, GOP) over the centuries to live in a narrowly-defined climate. We can survive cold and hot temperatures, but not extreme heat. We can survive in an atmosphere consisting of 21% oxygen, but not significantly less. We need clean water to drink. But the continuous burning of fossil fuels is making our planet less habitable and no one really knows how far we are from the tipping point for human civilization.

Governor Martin O’Malley also correctly identified climate instability as one of the top threats to our survival. He mentioned mass migration as one consequence. As people desparate for food and water move to areas more habitable, it will make the current Syrian refugee crisis seem like a walk in the park.

But don’t take Senator Sanders’ or Governor O’Malley’s word for this. Consider the analysis by the Department of Defense and other national security organizations:

[T]he U.S. Department of Defense, the G7 Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board, and many other military experts agree that climate change a top national security threat. In fact, the Department of Defense's 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review stated that climate change impacts, such as resource scarcity and severe weather, are "threat multipliers" that will create conditions that can "enable terrorist activity." That's one reason why the Pentagon is already preparing for the impacts of climate change.[1]

No doubt ISIS and a nuclear Iran pose significant threats to America. Dealing with these threats won’t be simple. Just like dealing with Nazi Germany or secessionist states was not simple. But without the basic elements that sustain life on earth, those threats pale in comparison.

[1] - Accessed October 14, 2015

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Should We Prolong or End Unnecessary Suffering?

This week, former Jesuit student and current governor of California Jerry Brown signed a law that makes his state the fifth in the nation to offer solace and relief to certain terminally ill patients.

California’s “Death with Dignity” act is modelled after a similar law in Oregon that gives people with less than six months to live the option to accelerate their inevitable dying process by prescribing medication that enables them to die peacefully at the time and place of their choosing.

There’s a bill that would extend these choices to New Jersey residents who find themselves in similar tragic situations. The bill is supported by a diverse, bi-partisan group of legislators ranging from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) to the Assembly Minority Budget Officer Declan O’Scanlon (R).

There are multiple of safeguards in the bill that would ensure the patient is not making a decision under coercion, and experience in Oregon demonstrates that this option is not being misused.

Opposition to giving people this choice is huge. Some oppose on religious grounds, but people need to remember that this aid in dying initiative is totally optional and one’s religious beliefs should never be imposed on someone else. Others like Governor Christie oppose the bill for political purposes. He would rather cater to the misnamed “pro-life” crowd and see prolonged suffering of someone who is severely ill than allow that person the choice of how to end the final chapter of life.

We won’t see enactment of death with dignity as long as Christie is governor. But he won’t be in that office forever. It’s time to alleviate unnecessary pain and suffering and enact New Jersey’s  Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Americans United Puts Cape May City Government on Notice

The upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia and the accompanying World Meeting of Families (which may bring 2 million people to Center City) presents many challenges regarding the Constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.
Because the Pope is a head of state, the normal security afforded to a person in that position does not present a constitutional problem. But there is also a religious aspect to his visit.

Recently, the Cape May city government announced that they will be streaming a live broadcast of the Papal Mass in their Convention Center and one of the outlets handling ticketing will be their City Hall. This is clearly a case of the government promoting a religious event.

When this was brought to the attention of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, they sprang into action. They sent a letter to the Cape May city government (see the letter below) outlining how the event, as currently planned, may violate both the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions. Appropriate judicial precedents are cited, and AU goes on to provide suggestions on how this event may be provided without government sponsorship.

Pope Francis' popularity among Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic is unprecedented. But the organizers of his visit need to pay as much attention to the Establishment Clause as they do to safety and logistics.

Disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of AU because I believe the First Amendment clearly requires separation of church and state.