On Presidents’ Day, Appreciating Barack Obama

No other President – no other politician – in my lifetime has meant as much to me as Barack Obama. While I think policy is important and I agreed wholeheartedly with his agenda, it is more than that. And while, as Kevin Drum writes, Obama was very effective in office, being pleased with what what he accomplished is not a sufficient reason either. Nor is the historic nature of his presidency.

Part of my connection to Obama is simply part of being the same generation – I could identify with him in a way I haven’t with many other politicians. But, in the end, it comes from respecting his approach and style. Obama’s ability to be the responsible adult, to approach the world rationally, to deal with crises without overreaction, and to treat the public intelligently is what I want in a civic leader. He’s the first President I’ve known that made me think “I want to act like him.”

The anger and hatred Obama generated in parts of America (and very few other places in the world) still astonishes, enrages, and saddens me. I realize that roughly half of America opposes modern liberalism, but the personal vitriol against a leader who was so smart and dignified in office will go down in history as a huge mistake, a resurgence of the worst of America.

I’m not beyond acknowledging Obama’s flaws. Primarily among them for me was his separation from the rest of the political system. That’s not an issue of his avoiding glad-handing on the Washington circuit, but his inability to bring electoral victories for his party when he was not on the ballot. A more successful version of Obama would have left a much stronger party behind. Yes, that blames the Democrats’ deficiencies on Obama, but an effective party leader can build a deep bench and Obama did not do that.

On Presidents’ Day, I need to acknowledge how much Obama and his presidency have meant to me. I do not expect to find a politician who I can feel that way about again, simply because it is so unlikely for another successful politician to bring together the same set of skills. But this was a special eight years, an era of optimism and promise.

“Thank you, Barack Obama.”

The Election

I’m still reeling from the election of Donald Trump. I’m saddened, disillusioned, angry, and, most of all, scared. I don’t think it will lead to direct harm for me or my family, at least immediately, but I fear for America and the world. That sounds like hyperbole, but elections have consequences and this one looks all bad to me.

It’s hard to draw too many big conclusions from such a close election – especially one so close that popular vote likely disagreed with the electoral college – but there are two which come to mind.

First, the divisions in this country – between urban and rural, between feminism and traditional views of women, between the embrace and rejection of diversity – are both starker and more evenly balanced than I had ever thought. That I can’t imagine anyone actually thinking Trump would be a good President shows how far on one side of the divide I am. Of course, the country has been very divided before, but the worst previous period of division, the Civil War, is not a hopeful example of healing. (That today’s fault lines still largely follow those of the Civil War is not surprising.)

Second, celebrity and charisma are probably more important than political scientists have ever acknowledged. Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger were harbingers of the power of celebrity in elections – and, of course, Ronald Reagan started his career with his celebrity, before working his way up. But Trump’s rapid rise from a TV show to President-elect shows how powerful celebrity can be.

Charisma and celebrity are tightly intertwined. I don’t see Trump’s charisma. Every video of his rallies made me wince; I saw narcissism, vacuous promises, and incitement of hatred. But anyone who can carry a successful TV show for a decade clearly is attractive to a large number of people. And his rallies inspired throngs. It may be the charisma of a demagogue, but it is charisma.

Thinking about presidential elections, you probably have to go back to 1972 to find one where the less charismatic candidate won. The political scientists and insiders who believed that policy matters, that money matters, that Get Out The Vote matters, that endorsements matter were wrong, at least in a presidential election. At most, those can be proxies. Emotional connection to a large group of voters matters; charisma may be the most direct way for that to happen.

In the days leading up to the election, I was a mixture of complacent and panicked. I thought the complacency was rational, given both the polling and my belief that voters couldn’t really fall for Trump, and the panic was irrational, based more on the fear of a Trump presidency than its likelihood. I was wrong – panic was rational, complacency was irrational.

What now? First, family and friends. My whole community seems to be despairing. We need to strengthen and support each other.

But, also, I need to find ways to make the world a better place. I’m privileged in that my job lets me feel like I am doing good things – and I believe that I am. But it’s not sufficient now. I don’t know what else it will be, but I need to do more.

I’m excited to have voted for Hillary Clinton

Vote for Hillary Clinton

Today is the California Primary. Usually, a presidential nominating contest is long over by the time California votes. And, in most ways, it is already over this year, too. But both candidates are campaigning as if California matters, so I voted that way.

I’m very excited to have voted for Hillary Clinton. She’s running as an unashamed pragmatic liberal, which is how I identify myself. She’s very savvy about how to make government work. From all perspectives I can see, she’d be an effective leader and would take the country in good directions on climate change, healthcare, the economy, foreign policy, and social justice.

On the other hand, I find Bernie Sanders very appealing, too. My beliefs on economic policy and foreign intervention are probably closer to his than to Clinton’s. And, if we were looking at a Senate with 65 Democratic votes and a 55% majority Democratic Congress, I could see voting for Sanders. But his agenda seems impossible to advance with a closely held legislature, let alone the Republican majorities we have today, and I don’t see him being effective in those circumstances. To use a term that’s usually pejorative, I want to elect someone from “The Establishment” now.

Is Hillary perfect from my perspective? Of course not. I think she’s too hawkish on foreign policy, as epitomized by her vote for the Iraq war, which was my most significant policy reason for not supporting her in 2008. And I have grave reservations about electing the spouse of a former president – America should not have dynastic habits. But, Hillary Clinton is smart, well qualified, and hard working enough to justify her election.

And, finally, it is important to remember that electing a woman to the American Presidency would be historic. When America didn’t allow women the vote for more than a hundred years and more than fifty Presidential elections have gone by with no women nominated by either major party, even her nomination is an important accomplishment to recognize.

The question I asked Justice Scalia

When I was an undergrad, I took a Constitutional Interpretation class taught by Walter Murphy. For a guest lecture, Professor Murphy brought in Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who had only joined the Supreme Court a couple of years earlier, to talk about originalism, his legal theory. Being taught by a Supreme Court Justice was, of course, a special occasion. Even more so by virtue of it being Scalia, who was already famous (or infamous) and controversial. And, to top it off, Justice Scalia would take questions from the class after his lecture.

To a liberal like me, the opportunity to ask Scalia a question was too good to pass up. And I knew exactly what I wanted to ask about. I spent a little time doing research so I could formulate the question well. In the end, I asked something like “The Constitution never mentions corporations or talks about giving the rights of persons to non-persons. Yet, the court ruled in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. (1886) that corporations have the rights of persons. Doesn’t this go against the original meaning of the text?”

The Justice’s response was terse. I can’t claim to remember the exact wording, but it’s stuck with me as “That’s settled law. Move on.”

While I thought the “settled law” response was a little arbitrary, in a nation that values stare decisis and precedents, it makes sense. The question, of course, is how you decide that something is “settled law” and, therefore, should not be tampered with; or, in contrast, that a precedent so violates the original meaning of the Constitution that it must be overturned.

And there, lies, for me, Scalia’s hypocrisy. Where was the reverence for settled law in Heller or Citizens United? And why the respect for precedent in Obergefell v. Hodges?

In the end, I’m sure that Antonin Scalia – who criticized the opinion in Atkins v. Virgina for “rest[ing] so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members” – believed that he kept his political and legal beliefs separate. But the conclusions he reached about whether precedents were “settled law” or not appeared to coincide quite closely with his political views.


I strongly opposed the Iraq war. I was in favor of the US invasion of Afghanistan. I favored intervention in Kosovo and the first gulf war. I opposed the US interventions in Latin America in the 1980s. I held all these positions firmly and had few doubts.

But I don’t know what to think about the UN/NATO campaign in Libya. I’ve never felt this way about a US military campaign during my lifetime. On the one hand, Qaddafi is clearly an awful dictator who shows no hesitation in attacking his own people. Unseating him would be a great outcome. Support for intervention – even if not for the specifics of current military actions – from populations across the middle east is remarkable. It does feel as though taking action puts the US on the right side of history.

But at the same time, it doesn’t feel like this is the US’s or NATO’s fight. Western governments attacking a middle eastern regime has rarely worked out well. There is no obvious endgame here. Partition and an extended civil war is clearly a possibility. And even if the rebels win, it’s far from clear that they’re much better for the Libyan people or the world than Qaddafi.

In the absence of clear reasons for intervening, my bias is against military action, at least until the facts become clearer. But in this case, where delay would have presumably meant total destruction for the rebels, it’s harder to convince myself that that’s right – this is a decision which, once made, can not be unmade.

So, for the first time in my adult life, I’m left ambivalent about whether a major US military involvement is a good or bad idea.

Intelligence failure?

Spencer Ackerman argues that attempted suicide bombing of Flight 253 on Christmas Day didn’t necessarily represent an intelligence failure. I think the key part of his post is:

The intelligence community is drinking from a fire hose of data, a lot of it much more specific than what was acquired on Abdulmutallab. If policymakers decide that these thin reeds will be the standard for stopping someone from entering the United States, then they need to change the process to enshrine that in the no-fly system. But it will make it much harder for people who aren’t threatening to enter, a move that will ripple out to effect diplomacy, security relationships (good luck entering the U.S. for a military-to-military contact program if, say, you’re a member of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, since you had contacts with known extremists), international business and trade, and so on.

As someone whose day job involves analyzing lots of data, I think I agree with most of this. Synthesizing all the related pieces of information – a warning from his father that Abdulmutallab might be dangerous and in Yemen, rumors that a Nigerian might be part of an Al Quaeda plan, generalized threats from Yemen – seems quite hard. If heading off terror attacks requires drawing the conclusion that a specific individual is likely to attempt an attack out of hundreds of thousands (or millions?) pieces of small information like that, it’s probably hopeless; what you’ll get is a lot of noise and very little signal. The complexity involved seems huge and predictive ability seems low.

On the other hand, I believe simple things can work. In the case of Abdulmutallab, a simple thing would have been to take action based on the warning from his father, ignoring all the other factors. And the action that was apparently taken was to put his name in a list of half a million people, but that wasn’t the smaller no-fly list (~4K people) nor the “selectee” list (~14K people).

Matt Yglesias writes that, because actual terrorists and terrorist incidents are so rare, there will be lots of false positives for any methods for identifying potential terrorists. That seems right. That the level of evidence against Abdulmutallab put him in the top half million of suspected terrorists, but not the top eighteen thousand, confirms for me both that the false positive rate is very high (it’s unlikely that there are half a million active terrorists our there) and that we can’t predict very well (Abdulmutallab clearly should have been in a higher scrutiny category).

One particularly worrisome class of false positive is, of course, false reporting. I’m sure for every legitimate case of a warning that so-and-so is a terrorist, there are hundreds or thousands of cases of self-interested accusations. (False reporting could be considered the spam problem in intelligence.)

Rather than inherently ruling out doing anything, though, I think that the large false positive rate means that the consequences of a false positive should be fairly minimal – an interrogation, a more intensive physical search, perhaps an investigator making a phone call or two to understand the reason for travel – instead of denying boarding or shipping a suspect off to Bagram. No question that extra screening at the airport would be inconvenient, unpleasant, and intimidating. And no question that it could be expensive to implement more screening.

I think the relevant policy question is “for our false positive rate, what is the appropriate action to take?” Right now, it appears that there’s very little middle ground between no-fly and “just another passenger,” which appears to keep the no-fly list small. (Yet, it’s famous for having lots of false positives.) Given poor predictive ability of any of these lists, I don’t think that makes sense. Instead, a much more widespread system of heightened scrutiny would seem more likely to prevent terrorist attacks, but still not affect more than a small fraction of travelers.

“Polled” on Net Neutrality

I just participated in a phone poll from some outfit (Western Wats) calling with caller ID saying 801-823-2023. Occasionally, I’ll do these things out of curiosity about what they’re asking, but this one really offended me by how blatantly the questions were directed to a particular result (and how clumsily done that was).

The “poll” was clearly commissioned by carriers opposed to net neutrality. It started with a set of questions to gauge how engaged I was in politics and technology: Do I read news sites online? Do I post comments on blogs? It then moved on to questions about broadband internet policy: Should the government “regulate the internet”? Does Congress have more important things to do than regulate the internet? Should internet service providers ensure “routine internet usage” isn’t disrupted by “large file transfers”? (Is YouTube routine? How about Netflix-via-TiVo? Amazon’s MP3 downloads? Just to name three routine things I’ve done in the past 24 hours…) The last set of questions were looking for agreement with fairly confusing premises, all of which were along the lines that net neutrality would undermine all these good things the internet can do. For example, do I agree that we shouldn’t regulate the internet if/because doing so would prevent empowering the poor to use the internet? (No, I don’t agree.) At the end, parsing the questions, I felt as if I was continually being asked “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

I have no problem with carriers opposed to net neutrality polling to figure out where their message resonates. But this “poll” crossed an ethical line, giving questions with no good answer for people who disagree with their point of view. Perhaps most polling is of this stripe, but I’ve responded to a fair number of phone polls and none of the previous ones was this crass in driving towards a specific result.

The Irrationality of Flexible Spending Accounts

Ezra Klein has a good post up today on the problems of giving employers, but not individuals, a tax exemption on health insurance. This is clearly central to the problems of healthcare financing in the US, but, given how things are, it’s not the sort of policy that can be changed by itself – doing so without another mechanism to pay for insurance would end up making many more people uninsured.

What has always seemed to me to be bad policy, but not so intimately tied to the rest of our economy, is the existence of Flexible Spending Accounts. The gist of an FSA is that an employee of a firm which offers such a plan can set aside a fixed amount of their salary to pay for health care or dependent care; that portion of their salary is tax exempt, but must be used in the space of a little bit more than a year or it is forfeited.

I can’t see any public policy purpose here. Why is the tax exempt status of my medical or child care spending dependent on my employer offering such a plan? Why do I need to play “Let’s Make a Deal” to guess the closest dollar amount without going under to the amount I will spend on health or child care in order to exempt it from taxes? How does setting aside “use it or lose it” money help in any way to reign in health care costs?

I do participate in these plans. For child care, it’s easy to figure out in advance how much we’ll spend in a year on preschool. For health care, we overestimate how much we’ll spend and, towards the end of the year, use the leftover money to pick up a few pairs of glasses, since optometry is covered as medical. (Call me cynical; I’ll take advantage of a tax break even if I think it’s bad policy.)

But who benefits from FSAs versus a policy which says “The first N dollars of health or child care spending per year is tax exempt”? I can see how the companies which offer these plans to employers benefit. I can see how such things benefit optometrists or other providers where people can spend their money before losing it. I can even see how employers benefit, since they receive the money their employees forfeit due to the “use it or lose it” issue, though I don’t think many employers are actively seeking that revenue.

But the benefit to the public? To individual employees of companies offering the plans? To people who don’t have access to such plans? There are much more straightforward, efficient, and fair ways to provide a tax exemption for medical expenses.

Lawrence Lessig and Why I’m Going on Strike

Lawrence Lessig spoke at Google this week on his and Joe Trippi’s Change Congress organization. In particular, he made a convincing pitch for the Strike 4 Change initiative, which asks people to make a pledge:

“I’m pledging not to donate to any federal candidate unless they support legislation making congressional elections citizen-funded, not special-interest funded.”

Many of my politically smartest friends believe that campaign finance changes are essential to making government work. I’ve never been in that camp – I’m very skeptical that anything can remove the influence of money on government, at any level – but I’m coming around to the belief that we need to try to plug holes in the system and hope to make progress while the “moneyed interests” are figuring out how to route around the new rules. A few observations seem to have tipped the scales for me:

  • Regulatory and legislative capture by established, often declining, industries appear to me to often be the biggest roadblocks to progress, even within those industries. (Think: cars, music, finance, or health care for starters.)
  • The common and brazen movement between government officials and lobbying firms is a form of institutionalized corruption.
  • The amount of time elected officials need to spend raising money for their next races is shocking and necessarily distorts everything else they do.

Lessig makes these points, and more, very effectively.

For the last several years, I’ve been giving money to a lot of campaigns, almost always Democrats challenging Republicans or contesting open seats. I feel good about this (even though an economist would probably find the utility of these contributions as low as the utility of voting). At first I was negative on the idea of the donor strike, because I feel it’s one side giving up a possible powerful edge unilaterally. What I came to realize, while listening to Lessig, is that this acts as a useful filter – I don’t want to give money to someone who’s wants the status quo in politics to continue; there are certainly plenty of possible candidates to give money to and this gives me a way to nudge on this important issue.

Let’s hope Lessig’s optimism about being able to pass the Durbin-Specter bill is justified; my cynical fear is a filibuster that “supporters” of the bill don’t try too hard to override.

I suspect the Google talk will be available online soon, but it doesn’t appear to be yet. This talk appears to be similar:

Obama, live

We attended a Barack Obama fundraiser in San Francisco this evening. It was my first time at a full-on, campaign-run political fundraiser. I can’t say I like the overall experience; my preference is usually to just give money quietly online. But I thought that hearing Obama live would be worth it and it was.

Obama is a great speaker and not just in comparison to Nancy Pelosi, Steve Westley, and John Roos who preceded him tonight. And not just in comparison to John McCain or George Bush. What’s appealing to me is how much intelligence he was able to convey. Tonight, he spoke without any obvious notes or teleprompter and appeared to be speaking off the cuff. He would pause at times, even stop in the middle of sentences, listen for audience reactions, and think about where to go next. He clearly had a bunch of packaged riffs that, once he decided what topic he wanted to talk about, he could rely on for phrasing — he does those set pieces extremely well. But the interludes, the improvisation, the weaving it all together was at least as compelling.

The emphasis of the speech will, I suspect, show up in his convention speech: if people believe that he will make what he promises happen, people will vote for him. A strong message about creating confidence in a government that can execute competently and effectively. Clear and measurable platform-style positions for health care (insure all children, cost effectiveness) and education (college in exchange for national service). Less on foreign policy than I had expected, but forthright statements about a war that shouldn’t have been fought and restoring alliances. The biggest applause line may have been about shutting down Guantanamo and restoring Habeus Corpus; perhaps that’s a function of the audience, but it’s a significant sign of how disappointed everyone is with what the Bush presidency has done.

This was not a big speech for Obama. He was speaking to a very friendly audience, whose main goal, I think, was looking for reassurance that this election was not going to be 2004 (or 1988) all over again; I came in cautiously optimistic and left the same way. But I also left feeling that he’d be someone you could have an intelligent conversation with on almost any topic. And, more importantly, someone I can trust to lead this country thoughtfully and with the right goals in mind.