Cognitive Psychology and why the Sequester is not all bad

Posted by tobymuresianu on Mar 1, 2013 in Politics, Thoughts

Many people have commented that American politicians are acting like fighting children. It does feel similar.

“Johnny doesn’t pay enough taxes!” “Barry’s being greedy!”

Eventually, most parents in that situation would snap, and arrive at the same solution:

“If you don’t learn to cooperate, nobody gets what they want!”

“But that’s not fair!” both children would reply.

Sometimes, though, fair doesn’t matter.

The difficulty of cutting things has become a key problem with our democracy. If you propose to cut one program, its patrons line up to defend it and point fingers at other people’s wasteful programs. And it works – cuts are often avoided.

In cognitive psychology you often hear the term “losses loom larger than gains”. People are much more averse to parting what they already have than they are to gaining something of equivalent value. For example, if you offer to sell someone a coffee cup, they won’t be willing to buy it for more than a dollar or two. But give them the same coffee cup and a week later offer to buy the same cup back, and they won’t part with it for less than five or six.

While people know we need to make big cuts in general, the cost of fighting over specific cuts is too great to make whittling down to a budget a good approach. A better way is to make larger general cuts that people agree to in principle and then add back what you really need. If we’re going to endlessly argue about our national priorities, let’s do it from a position of fiscal solvency first.

It’s also telling that the cuts are not always as dire as we imagine that as soon as losses in funding become a reality, the heads of the programs change their tune from defending all their programs to prioritization.

“That’s not fair,” says the military. “We are risking American lives. We should be cutting low-value, expensive programs instead.”

Where were these low-value, expensive programs during previous budget discussions?

“This is ridiculous!” say social programs. “We have to furlough all our employees instead of just laying off underperforming and inefficient ones!”

Why did you have underperforming, inefficient employees still working there?

“The timing of the cuts is terrible!” say various sources.

But has there ever been a time that people described as good for cuts?

Much is being said about how this is a self-inflicted wound. Let’s not ignore the biggest self-inflicted wound – the much harder eventual economic collapse that results after years of spiraling deficits.

Every time there’s an economic crisis – take the housing crisis, for example – people afterwards ask “how could the people in charge not have seen this coming?”. And when you look closer, you find people who thought things like “it’ll be fine” or “we’re different” or looked the other way because they were benefiting financially and it was easier to keep doing what they were doing. The national debt is a crisis everyone sees coming, but nobody’s done anything about, and there’s no shortage of people saying “it’ll be fine” because – well – we’re all benefitting financially and it’s easier to keep doing what we’re doing than bear psychologically painful short term cuts.

But no matter how politicians spin it or explain that the US is different, when political expedience runs into the brick wall of economic truth, economics will win every time. Spending far beyond your means for years catches up with everyone eventually, and we are no exception.

The sequester is tough medicine. But let’s not forget that the scale of the cuts is not massive – it’s a reasonable cut in the overall budget. Now there are petitions for programs being cut to be allowed to adjust how they want the cuts to be made – I hope these bear fruit. But either way, hopefully it will be a wake up call to politicians and programs to make more intelligent sacrifices earlier, because they know that if they act like children forever, nobody – including them – will get what they want.


3 things the NRA has right

Posted by tobymuresianu on Dec 28, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

The other week, I wrote a post suggesting measures to make schools safer that could be agreed on without politics.

They were having armed guards in schools, and reducing violence in the media.

It didn’t turn out exactly how I’d hoped.

A few days later, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre gave a press conference where he called for armed guards in schools, and blamed the media for violence.

There was a minor backlash.

It was funny – I actually thought I was being apolitical, and nobody had accused me of being a gun nut (which I’m not; I support gun control). Was I way off base? Or were liberals vilifying the NRA, cause, well, it’s the NRA and they’re villain-y?

Out of curiosity, I watched Wayne LaPierre’s press conference.

It would be easy to create a laundry list of how crazy and hypocritical the NRA is, and many people have.

They deride politics when they are political lobbyists. They criticize the media for dramatizing violence, then create a fear-driven narrative of a world populated by monsters who can only be stopped by “good guys with guns” – a narrative which draws more from Dirty Harry and email forwards than reality. They have zero self-awareness over the fact that someone who believed everything they said was killed by the guns she loved and enabled the entire massacre.

But packaged in the basket of crazy are a few perfectly legitimate points. Maybe they stumbled upon them by accident, and it would be easy to write them off. But if our goal is to genuinely protect kids and not just win an argument, we shouldn’t.

1) The media doesn’t know anything about guns.

I would expand the media to include “most people on facebook and twitter.” All abound with confusion over what terms like semi-automatic or .223 mean, or feature calls to ban “military-style assault rifles” – a vague and unhelpful term. As one relative put it, “is it okay to have non-military style assault rifles?”. Even the legal definition of “assault rifle” includes characteristics like bayonet lugs and pistol grips, which do nothing to affect their deadliness – barring any recent mass bayonetings or pistol whippings I’m unaware of.

It’s hard to imagine an effective weapons ban when the people advocating it don’t understand what weapons they want to ban. This was the case with the previous ban, and the result was that dangerous-sounding guns such as the AK-47 were banned, but guns like the WASR-10, which is a type of AK-47, weren’t.

Romanian WASR-10

Good thing this isn’t an AK-47, those things are dangerous

For the record – “semi-automatic” basically means it fires once every time you pull the trigger. Automatic weapons (meaning they fire three times when you pull the trigger, or continuously if you hold down the trigger) have been restricted to police/military use for years. .223 is a common size of ammunition used in everything from hunting rifles to military ones. If there’s one topic we should bring ourselves to admit the NRA knows more about than liberals, it’s how guns work.

And the practical definition of assault rifle for the purposes of a new ban that restricted the most dangerous class of weapons should be “a semi-automatic rifle with a high capacity magazine”.

2) The media – including video games – encourage violence.

Obviously, it doesn’t do so to a dangerous extent with the overall population, but for a vulnerable, alienated segment of the population violent media and video games are dangerous. Just like, you might say, guns.

Again, nobody has actually suggested ways for reforming the media, and I believe it’s irresponsible to point the finger at them without recognizing the role we all play in supporting it. Also, we have a thing called a first amendment. If there is to be a change in the culture or the media, it won’t come from legislation; it has to come from us as individuals avoiding gratuitously violent media and creating an environment in which it is no longer socially acceptable.

3) Armed guards are the only preventative measure that will take effect right now.

Nobody disputes that gun control legislation will take months and guns will still be circulating for years. Better mental health care will be a long time coming as well, will not fix people who are crazy right now, and will not ensure at any point that people with mental health problems use it.

I’m hearing two common arguments against security guards in schools.

a) There was a security guard at Columbine, and he didn’t do anything!

This is true. He fired at the attackers from 60 yards away (a laughable distance with a handgun), got shot at, retreated and called police. Here’s why: he was a shitty security guard.

I hate that the gun control debate is so driven by anecdotes – whether it’s the Columbine example or gun rights advocates bringing up one-off cases of a grandmother killing a mugger – which don’t exemplify what happens in most cases. This is a big country, and everything is going to happen a certain amount of times.

Someday, I would like to hear gun rights and gun control avocates argue about how to play roulette. “You know, in this one case, Jane Harrison placed her money on 32 black and won. Would you have had her not win that jackpot?”

b) It’s not right for teachers to have guns! We need less guns, not more!

I dislike this argument because it’s purely emotional reasoning. A related argument is that armed guards “send the wrong message about the role of a school,” which smacks of “it does not fit my mental image of the school I went into, so therefore it is wrong.” Would people saying this also argue that in the 1/3 of American schools that already have armed security, those personnel should be taken away?

Also, nobody is suggesting all teachers be issued handguns. But if a teacher has completed training and wishes for their own safety and that of their kids to have, say, a handgun locked in their drawer or in the principal’s office, is it really helpful to tell them that they can’t? When did teachers go from being saints who could do no wrong and always deserved to be paid more to authority figures who couldn’t be trusted with such decisions?

On the other hand, there is one great argument for not having guns in schools – we don’t need it. This argument comes courtesy of Josh Barro at Bloomberg, who points out that schools are still overall the safest place for our children to be (though I do disagree with his arguments that guns “sending the wrong message on education” for the reasons above).

It’s surprising this argument isn’t made more, but after a catastrophe the pressure is so strong to “do something” that sometimes it’s hard to make the case that we don’t need to.

On the other hand – there is a good argument for armed guards even if they are not cost-effective. As with terrorism, the damage done by school shootings isn’t in terms of casualty numbers alone. The damage is largely mental – in the national anguish and atmosphere of fear it can create.

We need to balance the pain of not having an armed guard there to defend against the next school shooting (which will happen, at some point, even if it is hopefully later due to gun control or other means) against the savings of not having them there. The side consequences and benefits of gun-related accidents and prevention of other crimes should also be in the equation.

Considering those things and determining the right thing to do is a difficult question. But it is an honest one, as opposed to slogans or blanket arguments which do not alleviate the problem.

It’s my personally still my belief that we should encourage guards in schools – because when the next shooting occurs, we will either stop it, or be able to say we did all we could to – even if it wasn’t our idea.


Holiday video for y’all

Posted by tobymuresianu on Dec 17, 2012 in Clips, Politics

Merry Christmas – or if you’re not Christian, Merry War on Christmas!

Here’s my present to all of you. It’s a song parody I wrote of Jingle Bell Rock about the Fiscal Cliff. My friend Adam Campbell-Schmitt is the one singing, not me, so please give him the rock star treatment (quitting your job to follow him around, stalking him incessantly, etc) and not me.

Hope you enjoy it!

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How to stop shootings without politics

Posted by tobymuresianu on Dec 15, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

In the wake of the shooting yesterday, there have been arguments for gun control, and against gun control.

I’ll assume you’re familiar with both arguments and won’t repeat them.

But if our goal is to help prevent loss of life in the future, let’s not assume the only path to safety is to lobby our politicians to a) ban guns or b) have them distributed free with happy meals (depending on your political beliefs). Our politicians are terrible at enacting any legislation, let alone something as difficult or inundated with lobbyists as gun control.

There are two things we can do right now.

First, at the school level, let’s train teachers how to respond and have a security guard (or two) in our schools.

It’s crazy to think that unrestricted access to arms will turn citizens into Dirty Harry instantly when the time comes with no ill effects. Yet it’s also crazy to think the danger will disappear in the near term if we restrict gun sales or improve mental health care. Fortunately, these aren’t the only options – nobody disputes that armed, professional security personnel can help provide security where we need it. Having an officer in schools accomplishes three things:

– It deters people from attacking to begin with. Shooters don’t pick areas full of defenseless civilians because they want a fight.

– It stops or at least slows down attacks when they do occur.

– It makes people feel safe day to day.

Obviously, cost is an issue. But at smaller schools it’s possible this role could by fulfilled by training a few teachers to fill this role. And in any case, it seems a bit disingenuous to cry that we have to do whatever it takes to make sure this doesn’t happen, then balk at paying for a single security guard at a school with a few dozen teachers and a few hundred students.

My second idea is one which you can put into action right now, today, without relying on anyone and no matter what your political beliefs.

If you haven’t already, watch this video:

Or read this post from Morgan Freeman.

Here’s the thing – I don’t think that news organizations are not trying to be evil. They just broadcast things because we watch them. How can we blame them for what they show when we’re the ones making it profitable?

Something one gun-rights advocate said stuck with me. He said they had all the same guns in the 70s, but they never had mass shootings, so it was a cultural problem. While I don’t think that reduces the need for gun control, I do agree that the increase in mass shootings has something to do with our culture of escalation and prizing fame as the ultimate measure of success. Unfortunately, nobody can change our culture – not the government, not any one person. In cliched terms, it can only be changed by you.

When an event like this happens, don’t read salacious news articles or watch excessive news coverage. Don’t reward reporters that interview 3rd graders or bother families. Now, it’s a fine line between being informed and being voyeuristic. But look within yourself, and if you don’t need to read an extra dozen articles or watch an episode of 20/20 about the shooter’s life, don’t. Let’s make watching news that sensationalizes shooters a faux paux, as we should for “journalism” that explores the lurid details of child molestation, rape, and murder. The lower the viewership of these programs, the fewer will air, and we will in some small way reduce the incentives for sick individuals to seek out this notoriety.


Final Thoughts on Third Parties in the 2012 Election

Posted by tobymuresianu on Nov 7, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

Well, the election’s all said and done – and assuming they reject my petition to recount Ohio in case Gary Johnson makes a comeback, I guess it’s time for a few final thoughts.

I’m a little disappointed in the third party showing in the election, though maybe more than that in the lack of coverage they’ve gotten yesterday and today.

Even on sites which have run articles about third parties and when discussing close races I haven’t heard them mentioned. On CNN they’re lumped into a hard to see yellow color at the end of their exit poll bar graphs. The best I’ve found is Politico, which includes third party polling by state though not overall. Obama & Romney together now have 98.4% of the popular vote, so we can deduce that 1.6% went to third parties. Gary Johnson appears to have taken the most third party votes (including over 3% in the swing state of New Mexico), followed by Jill Stein.

So while it wasn’t the 5% necessary for a third party to get federal funding, it’s more than the 0% you might think from watching the news. In real numbers, that’s nearly 2 million votes. Maybe all third party supporters should move to Wyoming, Vermont, DC, North Dakota and Alaska – we’d have 15 electoral votes.

There is also a little hope for third parties when looking at the exit poll breakdowns – they took 3-4% of the population under 44. If these generations maintain their tilt going forward, it would bode well for third parties in future election cycles. In less optimistic news, third parties seem to represent a mostly white enterprise, with little minority support. Given that both parties are generally anti-immigration (before the election-year DREAM act, Obama’s administration had deported more people than any other), one would think there’d be an opportunity among Hispanic voters as most third parties (Libertarian, Green and Justice, though notably not the Constitution party) are much more pro-immigration. I suppose like most things it’s a question of money, volunteers and awareness.

I must say I’m a little pleased that the GOP – generally the more obstructionist of the parties – lost. And there was certainly a lot of talk about ending partisanship. If it sounds familiar, though, it’s because it pretty much happens every election as the winner wants to govern as smoothly as possible while the loser seeks to appear gracious and angle for concessions. You also can’t help but notice how vague the talk of “supporting bipartisanship” and “reaching across the aisle” is, though – once it gets into specific issues like health care, it’s all back to “principles” and “taking a stand”. And it doesn’t look like the ideological lines have drawn any closer together. Still, Obama had a good speech and hope springs eternal that this time will be different, perhaps due to the visible and high-stakes fiscal cliff looking and ever-heightening dissatisfaction with partisanship and congress.

I guess my final thought is that I’m happy I started writing this blog and grateful towards people who have read it. I started because I felt like there were some important things that weren’t being said, and after writing them, I was really pleased to hear from a number of people who agreed, some of whom changed their votes. Though the third party vote overall was not as strong as I would have hoped, it’s also worth noting that those votes are still counted and used to inform the political debate, and there would have been proportionally less impact having voted for Obama or Romney; for those who say it’s important to vote for someone with a chance of winning, Nate Silver has an interesting index of the value of a vote for either candidate by state (check the right sidebar). I believe that if you choose to engage in this peculiar institution of voting – and you should – it’s important to vote for what you believe in, because simply, you might as well.

Anyway, looking forward to taking a small vacation from political thought and getting back to writing about being drunk in exotic places or whatever it is I do. Thanks again for reading and being openminded and awesome, everybody!


The Two-Party System and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 29, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

Watching party politics unfold, I’m continually reminded of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, an exercise in decision-making and morality often taught in philosophy and computer science. The gist is this:

Two accomplices are arrested and interrogated in isolated chambers. They have a choice: they can betray their partner by confessing to the crime, or cooperate with their partner by remaining silent. They know their partners have the same choice, and the sentences they will receive depend on both their action and the action of their partner.

If they are both silent, they will both be convicted on a minor charge and sentenced to one month in prison. However, if one confesses while their partner is silent, the confessor will be rewarded and go free, while their partner will go to jail for a year. If they both confess, they will both be convicted and receive a three-month sentence.

This table represents the potential sentences:


Person A Silent Person A Confesses
Person B Silent 1 month each No jail time (Person A)
1 year (Person B)
Person B Confesses No jail time (Person B)
1 year (Person A)
3 months each


The key part of this is that it’s always in a person’s best interest to betray their partner rather than cooperate, because their outcome will be better no matter what their partner does. However, considering both their outcomes together, cooperating is a better option for both. This is often considered a model for how individuals acting in their rational self-interest can lead to group outcomes inferior to those where individuals act contrary to their immediate self-interest.

I think our two-party system represents a similar situation. It’s set up so that the best interest of the parties lie in not cooperating, even though the government and the country is worse off for it.

If both parties cooperate by attempting legislative compromise, they get a reasonable outcome (moderate progress towards their goals with some sacrifices). On the other hand, if neither party compromises, they both get a worse outcome (no progress towards their goals). However, if one compromises and the other doesn’t, the one that doesn’t compromise is rewarded with a better outcome (good progress towards their goals at the expense of the other party’s) and the one that attempts to compromise has the worst outcome possible (less progress than sacrifice, and poor re-election prospects).

Further hurting the situation presently are two factors. One is a history of non-cooperation that makes both parties unlikely to want to compromise for fear of getting screwed. The other is that representatives who compromise, particularly on the right, are also subject to punishment from within their own parties – with members willing to compromise being replaced with party loyalists unwilling to. The net result is that our two-party system of government discourages cooperation and rewards bad behavior.

Obviously, there are differences – there is, ideally, communication between parties and the game is played multiple times (modeled by the more complicated ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’). However, I believe given the way the parties are acting and with the conditions as they are, the simple Prisoner’s Dilemma is the most useful and straightforward model to use.

Most of my friends are left-wing, and they will say that while the two party system is broken, the Republicans bear most of the responsibility for breaking it. I think there is truth to this – I think Democrats were and are by nature more willing to cooperate, whereas Republicans (and especially Tea Partiers) embrace an Ayn Rand-ian “Greed is good” ethos that encourages selfish behavior. The problem is that the prisoner’s dilemma is a perfect example of why greed isn’t good – it results in poor long-term outcomes. And it’s not surprise that after getting screwed in negotiations a few times, Democrats – realizing their partners were not cooperating – chose to not cooperate themselves or take Republican gestures in good faith.

The problem is that even if you prefer the Democrats (and I’ve avoided mentioning whose ideas are better), they can’t change the situation on their own, and there are no indications that Republicans are willing to. Even if they gain a supermajority, it seems to be the tendency of Democrats to then divide amongst themselves and act our their own internal prisoner’s-dilemma situation. Witness the last time they had a supermajority, in 2008, when they were still stymied in efforts to pass bold legislation by infighting and united Republican opposition.

So what can we do about this situation? While the obvious thing is to have both parties cooperate and stop punishing cooperators, sadly, nobody is expecting that to happen. The set of rules that set up the prisoner’s dilemma situation remain intact and are only likely to make it worse.

However, there are a few changes to the system that could help.

1) Term limits for Senators and members of Congress. By reducing the threat of compromise leading to losing one’s re-election bid, you reduce the penalty for cooperation.

2) Voting in a third (or fourth) party. This raises the possibility that parties who do not cooperate expose themselves to the worst outcome – two other parties cooperating and cutting them out entirely. It therefore further incentivizes cooperation.

3) Eliminating the gerrymandering which has resulted in most congresspeople representing districts that are not competitive and dominated by party loyalists who frown on compromise.

Unfortunately, neither of the two major parties are talking about the first change, the second is against their interests, and the third problem is their creation. I see the best and most direct path toward reform to be voting for a third party, as I wrote previously here and here. But I am curious to hear your thoughts.


How to Properly Dispose of Nuclear Waste

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 23, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

Yesterday I posted an article detailing why I support nuclear power.

I wanted to address another other concern that comes up – where to put nuclear waste.

I would like to propose a solution: Nevada. A state almost tailor made for leaving nuclear waste in. Anyone who tells you otherwise either has never been to Nevada or has chosen to live there, so their judgement is questionable. Nevada has even been struck repeatedly with nuclear weapons, with the net effect of – unfortunately – remaining Nevada.

Now, unfortunately, thanks to Senator and House Majority Terrible Person Harry Reid (D-NV) the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, a completed long term storage facility in a mountain so desolate it makes the rest of Nevada look habitable, was cancelled for political reasons at a cost of $11 billion. One wonders what effect that $11 billion could have had on rainforest or park preservation efforts.

Opponents claimed that Nevada was being forced to store nuclear waste by the rest of the country against its will, which was ironic since the county where it was built wanted it to open, but was forced by Nevada not to allow it against its will.

Keep in mind that Nevada is a state known for legalized gambling, prostitution, and fireworks, but playing a role in solving climate change? Not in my backyard. Let’s be clear, Nevada: your backyards probably have hookers buried in them. Don’t try to take the high road.

Hopefully if political will re-emerges, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository will come online at some point. Yet one way or another, the closure of the Yucca Mountain facility has come with a silver lining.

During the wait to open Yucca Mountain, techniques to recover fuel from nuclear waste are emerging, so the next generation of reactors may well solve the waste problem as well as lowering their costs of operation. Ordinarily I would be against reprocessing nuclear waste because it means there is less to put in Nevada, but if it helps sell people, I’m game.

It’s also worth nothing that the current solution – on-site storage at the nuclear plants – is actually not that bad. Safety is well-regulated and has not resulted in major accidents in the 50-odd years. By comparison, “clean coal” generates large amounts of toxic waste which is poorly regulated and apt to, for example, break through retaining walls, bury nearby houses and kill people.

So when it comes to finding a place where you can safely store waste without worrying about it ever getting out, just remember, “What happens in Vegas…”. I couldn’t resist.


Why I <3 Nuclear Power (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb)

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 22, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

I want to say I love nuclear power like a fat kid loves cake, but that’s a crude expression. Instead I’ll say, based on the second debate, that I love nuclear power like Obama and Romney love coal and drilling in federal lands.

I love nuclear power because I dislike global warming. And while Romney and Obama are less concerned about it than appealing to coal miners, it hasn’t gone away. Though if we develop a way to generate electricity from ignoring major issues in political debates, there may be hope yet.

Why isn’t nuclear power mentioned in the dialogue? It produces no carbon emissions and is inexpensive, reliable, and avoids dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, as a political topic it’s, well, radioactive.

When people think of nuclear power, they think of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and, probably, the Simpsons.

But let’s look more closely at these.

Disaster Year Death toll Notes
Chernobyl 1979 31 Using older style Soviet reactor design
Three Mile Island 1979 0
Fukushima 2010 0 2 people got radiation burns
Springfield Nuclear Reactor n/a n/a Fictional

This is not a bad for an energy source that’s supplied 10-20% of the world’s energy for years. For comparison – search google news for “pipeline explosion” or “gas explosion” and see how many random stories you find of people dying in the last month alone. Then visualize the thousands of people and species that are expected to die from global warming-related famine, economic destruction, etc. Cheerful, right?

Nuclear power is like the inmate in a prison movie who gives off a dangerous vibe, but at the end it turns out he’s the only one who can help you and all the people who died weren’t really his fault. Yes, radiation gives people the heeby-jeebies. But the reality is that its danger is largely psychological especially when compared to fossil fuels.

“But what about renewable energy?” You may be asking. Renewable energy is great in principle. Unfortunately despite years of sunny articles and miracle technologies that never seem to reach the big time, it’s still hampered by problems of being expensive, inconsistent (since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow), and hard to scale (using wind to generate power equivalent to a one-square-mile nuclear plant requires hundreds of windmills, which often meet local opposition).

Energy demand is constantly rising, and new power plants are being built. While many will and should be renewable, due to their limitations too often fossil fuel-based plants are built instead. With the candidates falling over themselves to encourage coal and drilling, this is not likely to change.

And at the end of the day, if nuclear power didn’t exist, none of us would be here. So when it comes down to deciding whether to support nuclear power, be grateful!


The Little 5% That Could

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 16, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

In my last post, I argued that the best way to end partisan gridlock was to vote for a third party.

Sadly for my comedy career, the response was much bigger than anything I’d posted on my blog before. A number of people told me they’d felt the same way for a long time, which was really cool to hear.

Yesterday, I turned on the radio in my car and, coincidentally, there was a panel discussion about California politics on. The host mentioned that in California, the fastest growing party affiliation is independent – with 20% of people identifying as such, and both the Republican and Democratic membership declining as people have lost faith in them to govern effectively.

20% – imagine that! 20% of the electorate doesn’t feel represented by any parties of our elected representatives.

The anger at partisan gridlock is represented in article after article and in the approval ratings of congress and both parties. The only place it is not represented is in the actual presidential candidates.

I don’t believe any company or organization can serve its customers with approval ratings as low as our government has and not open the door to competition. As ratings continue to decline and the numbers of independents go up, I think it’s a matter of not if but when another party or parties rise to replace our current set.

How many people will it take to make a difference? In the initial post, I’d thrown out 5% as an attainable goal for third parties in this election. Looking into it further, it turns out that 5% is, serendipitously, also the threshold necessary for a party to receive public campaign finance funds – $90 million this year. Even better, it’s the popular vote, so people in non-swing states can help make this happen.

In an election where I know that a) no matter who wins bitter partisanship will continue and b) my votes are immaterial as I live in a safely blue state, this gave voting a new sense of hope for me. I’m voting for something specific – so that at the next debate, there’s a third person there.

Last post I specifically mentioned that it wasn’t written as an endorsement of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. And it I still don’t – if you think another party is better, vote for them and it will help diminish the two party system.

That being said, having looked into the third parties, I do think the Libertarian party is the best chance to reach the 5% level and create this visible change.

Now, I live in fear of being a party shill or that guy filling your facebook feed with smug posts about whoever’s kool-aid he’s drinking. I disagree with some Libertarian policies. Specifically, I believe in universal health care, environmental protection, and gun control, which they do not – though I also believe in a smaller government and military, an end to the war on drugs, which they do support.

So why am I supporting them even though they’re not perfect? A few reasons:

1. Libertarians draw support from both sides of the political spectrum. This mitigates the risk some feel that supporting a third party could disproportionately affect their preferred of the two major party candidates.

2. Lots of people already identify as Libertarian, and many more identify as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” which are the core Libertarian values. Candidates like Paul attract enthusiasm but get squashed by the two-party system. They are a voice that represents many Americans and should be at the table. Once they cross a threshold of relevance, people who feel Libertarian will feel comfortable actually voting that way.

3. They will bring a number of important issues which have popular support but that the parties aren’t talking about – war on drugs, scaling back military – to the table.

4. Of the third parties, the Libertarian party seems to be the best organized and able to capitalize on opportunities that they received.

and 5. There is no party who I agree with on all the issues. It seems odd that despite having two major parties, four major minor ones, and a plethora of tiny ones – there isn’t any composed of well-qualified centrist technocrats, which really seems like the best way to run a country.

But every journey starts with a single step, and it’s my hope that a strong third party showing in 2012, especially one that hits the 5% goal, will open the doors to a variety of newer, smaller parties that will better reflect people’s interests and work together in a more productive fashion.

If you support this goal, we’re coming close to Election Day – so please consider spreading the word, whether by sharing this post or your own thoughts on the subject.


Why I’m (also) Not Voting for Obama

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 12, 2012 in Politics, Thoughts

Watching the debate yesterday felt ridiculous, since they didn’t address the biggest issue affecting the performance of government over the last 4 years – the inability of the two parties to work together.

It was telling that after a token question at the end about whether the parties were just tearing each other down rather than working for America, the two candidates responded by tearing each other down.

Regardless of who wins this acrimonious election, nobody is expecting bipartisanship to get better. It feels ridiculous to debate the candidates plans for this and that, when both will encounter a situation where they can pass very little.

American democracy has painted itself into a corner. The parties have defined themselves in opposition to each other, and we’ve seen how over the last few years the system has drifted into a situation where the party loyalists wield the power and push them farther to the extreme with each election cycle, thanks to silly primary systems, gerrymandering, and a perception of compromise as weakness.

Fortunately, if you don’t like the two party system, there is a solution. Don’t vote for them. Vote for a third party.

When I tell my friends this, sometimes they look at me like I’m a kook and say I’m “throwing my vote away.”

First, you’re always throwing your vote away, in the sense that your vote is not going to decide the election. Further, if you are a resident of the 40 states in the country that are not “swing” states, where the candidates have focused 93% of their campaign spending, a vote for either of the two parties is particularly meaningless.

Ask yourself – if your vote matters, why isn’t anyone trying to win it?

I live in California, the most populous state in the union, with 55 electoral votes. One would think that this would make it the most fiercely contested region in the country, and that politicians would be competing to represent our interests. But because we’re considered a safe blue state, that’s not the case. Isn’t that ridiculous? It feels like I’m a resident of Boardwalk in a game of monopoly where 80% of the properties are assigned to one of the two players before the game starts, and whoever gets St. Charles Place is declared the victor of the entire game.

If you’re in a “safe” state, your vote counts for far more if you vote for a third party because it sends a message and weakens the parties that are strangling our government. Imagine if this year enough people in “Safe” states voted for a third party to get 5% of the national popular vote. And then with the notice that created, in 2016, 10% voted for third parties. It might create an environment where a solid independent candidate could run for office and actually improve the way the country is run. Plus, the fewer voters parties can claim to represent, the less power they have to dictate votes of their members. On the other hand, if those voters just vote for the party they perceive as the lesser of two evils, those votes are washed out and forgotten.

In a free market, stagnant, out of touch organizations are supposed to fall and nimble, new competitors that listen to their customers should rise. There is a reason why our current parties are not the same ones that were established at the beginning of our republic, and they will not last until the end of time. The right thing to do for democracy to function is not to support them. There is nothing special about our current parties – there is nothing in the constitution providing for them, the founding fathers were against their existence, and if they had any brilliant solutions, they would have implemented them already when they were in power.

There have been some similar blog posts advocating Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate. I don’t agree with many of his positions (I like that he is anti-drug-war, fiscally conservative, socially liberal, but dislike that he is pro-gun, anti-socialized-medicine, and supports a hands-off environmental policy). However, I think that the value of voting for a third party out weighs this. I would encourage people to vote for him, or for the Green Party, or for any that you consider to be a reasonable alternative to the two in power.

The two-party system derives power from your votes. If you want to lessen their power, vote for someone else.

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