Long-dreaded politics post

Until today, I have failed to uphold one of the most sacred responsibilities of the guild of bloggers: that of weighing in on the Democratic primary. This is not because of any desire to keep politics out of this blog: I’ve never succeeded in keeping anything out of this blog. Rather, it’s because I find the question genuinely difficult.

The general election is so damn easy by comparison. There, the only questions I need to ask myself are, “do I prefer the Enlightenment or the Dark Ages that preceded it? Is the Earth 4.6 billion years old or 10,000? Do anti-gay laws spring from a less repugnant part of human nature than Jim Crow laws?” While I look forward to the day when my answers to such questions won’t determine my vote, so far they unfailingly have — thereby eliminating the need for me to adjudicate more complicated social and economic issues that I don’t really understand.

In other words, my view of Democrats and Republicans couldn’t possibly be further from that of (say) Eliezer Yudkowsky, who sees the general US election as a meaningless, Kang vs. Kodos popularity contest. Like Yudkowsky, I can easily imagine two political parties fighting over nothing — but what I see in reality is a clearly-identifiable neo-Union and neo-Confederacy, who every four years re-fight the Civil War. As many others have pointed out, even the geographic boundary between America’s two subcountries has barely changed since the 1860’s; the one real irony is that the “party of Lincoln” now represents the Confederate side. (And yes, if the free-market/libertarian wing of the Republican Party ever broke free of the medieval wing, then this correspondence would break down. I’m only talking about things as they currently stand.)

On the other hand, as Clinton and Obama debated their subtly-different proposals for health insurance, subprime lending reform, etc., I realized that, in a race between Democrats (or a general election in a more normal country), my “go with the Enlightenment” approach can only take me so far. Faced with two non-lunatic candidates, you almost have to, like, know something about policy or economics to make a sensible choice.

So being an ignorant computer scientist, what can I say? Let’s start with the obvious: that after seven years of Bush, to ask whether I’d “prefer” Hillary or Obama is like asking a drowning person surrounded by sharks which of two lifeboats he prefers to be rescued by (and adding, in case it’s helpful, that one lifeboat is rowed by a woman and the other by a half-Kenyan). It’s a shame we can’t elect both of them, and then send one back in time to have been president for the last eight years. As the next best option, I wish the candidates would just agree right now to choose the winner by an Intrade-weighted coin flip, and thereby save money for defeating the religious-right-courting hypocrite McCain.

But of course they won’t do that, and hence the question of whom to prefer. Until recently I had a mild preference for Hillary, my reasons being as follows:

  1. Because she’s been despised for so many years by so many people who I despise (and the worse they say about her, the better she seems).
  2. Because she’s been doing better than Obama in crucial swing states like Florida.
  3. Because with her you get all the advantages of her husband but with considerably less chance of a sex scandal.
  4. Because on one issue that I actually follow — ending the Republicans’ “war on science” — her position paper is full of excellent specifics, whereas (so far as I know) Obama has only said much vaguer things in the same direction.

Recently, though, I’ve been tilting more toward Obama, for five reasons:

  1. Because he’s winning (still, after last night). This, of course, would be an important piece of evidence about his likelihood of winning the general election, even if it weren’t also a prerequisite to winning.
  2. Because unlike Hillary, he’s clearly stated his position on the inefficiency of bubblesort.
  3. Because I’m told that some Americans now supplement their reading of text by the viewing of “YouTubes” and “tele-vision boxes” — and in those settings, Obama clearly does better. His jokes succeed where Hillary’s fail.
  4. Because the 2000 and 2004 elections suggest that experience is now a severe liability: it simply translates into more stuff that an opponent will twist against you.
  5. Because people whose judgment I respect, and who follow politics more closely than I do, seem to prefer Obama by a wide margin. As in Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, the mere fact of these other people’s opinions ought to change my own opinion if I’m a rational agent. Whether for rational reasons or not, it has.

Incidentally, so far as I can tell, the accusations of anti-Semitism against Obama that have filled the right-wing blogosphere are completely baseless. The assumption underlying these accusations is that admiration is a transitive predicate: that is, if x admires y and y admires z (where, say, z=Farrakhan), then x must admire z, even if x claims to “reject and denounce” z. But it’s easy to think of counterexamples: I admire Sakharov who admired Stalin (at least for part of his life), I admire Bertrand Russell who admired all sorts of thugs and poseurs, etc. Of course it’s impossible to know Obama’s heart about these matters, but I don’t think one needs to: it’s enough to know his brain.

69 Responses to “Long-dreaded politics post”

  1. Jay Gischer Says:

    “Because she’s been despised for so many years by so many people who I despise (and the worse they say about her, the better she seems).”

    That really is a pleasant prospect isn’t it? Putting her in the White House just to irritate the “Hillary murdered Vince Foster” crowd.

  2. Scott Says:

    It’s not a great reason to vote for her, but it would be a nice bonus.

  3. cody Says:

    im really excited about the idea of having Hillary, since she probably already knows her way around the white house pretty well, and Bill would be tagging along (and i really liked Bill a lot). though i sort of fear that the intense hatred some people carry for Hillary might mobilize the right too well. in any case, i like Obama a lot too, so i sort of see it as win-win. in fact, from my perspective, even a hypocritical McCain is much better than a bona-fide right wing christian in the race… so im almost at a win-win-win. though i really do hope its Obama or Hillary in the end.

  4. Matt Says:

    I’d be happy to vote for either of them; maybe one of them is super-duper and the other is merely super. I’m not bothered by that.

    The problem for me is that elections are decided mainly by people who can’t make up their minds. Why should someone who can’t decide between, say McCain and Obama be the one who decides which candidate is elected? Bah.

  5. Isabel Lugo Says:

    As a mathematical blogger, I generally confine myself to commenting on how polls can be incorrect, the claim that people in districts with an even number of delegates are being disenfranchised, etc. — this enables me to comment on the race for the Democratic nomination without having to understand the politics.

  6. Scott Says:

    Isabel: It’s a hard line to toe. I also often feel the urge (quickly suppressed…) to confine myself to questions that I know something about. On the other hand, I’m actually interested in the politics (even, or especially, when I don’t understand it), and I also think Slate, CNN, NYT, TNR, et al. already talk more than enough about procedural issues.

  7. Aaron Says:

    Obama is really really big on government transparency. I haven’t seen much emphasis on this at all from the Clinton camp.

    http://www.barackobama.com/issues/technology/#transparent-democracy

    Further, I can believe it of him, because while in Illinois he got a bill passed that required that the police tape confessions — which should really prevent a lot of abuses.

    On science, http://www.barackobama.com/issues/additional/Obama_FactSheet_Science.pdf
    probably isn’t thorough enough.

    He says in http://www.barackobama.com/issues/education/ that “Make Math and Science Education a National Priority: Obama will recruit math and science degree graduates to the teaching profession and will support efforts to help these teachers learn from professionals in the field. He will also work to ensure that all children have access to a strong science curriculum at all grade levels.”, but not many specifics.

    I can’t find either a science or technology section on her main issues page: http://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/

  8. Moshe Says:

    Using your metaphor, I fear the drowning man paradox, where the man (donkey?) spends too much energy deciding which boat he swims to. In other words long drawn-out expensive campaign, which becomes increasingly nasty and ends in a controversial decision, is pretty much the only way the democrats can lose this year’s election. Though unlikely, based on recent history I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of them finding new and creative ways to lose.

  9. Peter de Blanc Says:

    Should the PageRank algorithm be updated to reflect the fact that admiration is not transitive, and perhaps add some sort of “anti-link” to the HTML standard?

  10. Scott Says:

    Moshe: Yes, that’s precisely the danger. The Democrats are virtuosos in the art of creative losing. Though I see in today’s NYT that Hillary is now talking openly about a Clinton/Obama ticket (with her first, of course). I predict that such a ticket would win: the Republicans would have a field day with everything they said about each other during the primaries, but most people wouldn’t care.

    Anyway, the truth is that I just felt like procrastinating this morning by talking politics — thanks everyone for humoring me.

  11. Moshe Says:

    Me too Scott, which is really inexcusable in my case since I live in Canada…my only defense is that this is the only spectator sports I enjoy: the American system is not that great for selecting good presidents, but it seems optimized for producing drama.

  12. Scott Says:

    Should the PageRank algorithm be updated to … perhaps add some sort of “anti-link” to the HTML standard?

    Possibly! I remember that this issue came up even before Google: when Jon Kleinberg talked about the CLEVER page-ranking algorithm, he pointed out that many links convey not authority but the lack of it (“click here to see what this fool says”).

  13. Dave Bacon Says:

    “I can’t find either a science or technology section on her main issues page.”

    It’s under “An Innovation Agenda.” http://www.hillaryclinton.com/feature/innovation/

  14. mollishka Says:

    Thanks for the link to the “bubblesort” video. I was mildly annoyed when Obama was campaigning here in Ohio that whenever he spoke it was in broad generalities (because the audiences were large and non-specific themselves). But at Google! It was fantastic to hear him speaking to my demographic. (And as an added bonus, I’ve been reminded of the Authors@Google series to supplement my Netflix routine while home with the flu …)

  15. Scott Says:

    Hey, maybe Clinton and Obama could co-rule, like Roman consuls? Or they could run on a joint ticket, but with the understanding that whichever one is president would step down after two years to let the other be president? Is there a constitutional way that the one who stepped down could then become vice president (instead of the Speaker of the House)? I guess anything’s possible in fantasyland…

  16. Ludwig v. Bakeoven Says:

    Mollishka, what is your demographic?

    Here’s a question: If Oprah endorsed Louis Farrakhan, would you vote for him?

  17. Johan Richter Says:

    Yes, there is. When the vice-president resigns the president can nominate a new one who then must be confirmed by both chambers of Congress. So confirmed, he/she will be just like a normal vice-president. That is how Gerald Ford became vice-president.

  18. anonymous Says:

    American: Our system is far superior to the one party system in the old Soviet Union…

    Socrates: Oh? How many parties does your system have?

    American: Uh … [ahem] … er …. two. We have two parties.

    Socrates: I see ….

  19. Scott Says:

    I didn’t know Socrates was familiar with the Soviet system.

  20. Aaron Says:

    Ah. Don’t know how I missed that. Thanks Dave!

  21. komponisto Says:

    In other words, my view of Democrats and Republicans couldn’t possibly be further from that of (say) Eliezer Yudkowsky, who sees the general US election as a meaningless, Kang vs. Kodos popularity contest.

    Scott, I don’t think that was Eliezer’s point. Rather, that post was about how the psychology of group loyalty interferes with intelligent policy discussion. You may believe, for instance, that cheaper tickets are much more important than better seating — indeed, that the latter is positively harmful — but the cause is not best served by painting yourself green and jeering loudly at Blue supporters.

  22. Scott Says:

    Yeah, OK. Eliezer describes the supporters of the respective parties as “Republifans and Demofans … enthusiastically cheering for rich lawyers because they wear certain colors,” but I suppose his choice of imagery doesn’t logically imply that he thinks there’s no substantive difference.

    So suppose we accept your interpretation of his post. In that case, my response would simply be that we have a Tragedy of the Commons on our hands. Yes, the world would be a better place were there no group loyalties in politics — but once millions of your countrymen are acting as a unified bloc to pursue goals antithetical to yours, there the matter ends. Without your own unified bloc to counterbalance the other one, you have no hope of preserving anything you value. Eliezer’s ideal is not a Nash equilibrium.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    “American: Our system is far superior to the one party system in the old Soviet Union…

    Socrates: Oh? How many parties does your system have?

    American: Uh … [ahem] … er …. two. We have two parties.

    Socrates: I see ….”

    The quality of a political system is not proportional to the number of parties.

    One definite positive feature of the US system IMO is that there is less party loyalty than in most political systems.

    Also, maybe you’d like your opinion which is far outside the mainstream to be heard. But in general, reducing the effect of people at the extremes is a very good thing. E.g. xenophobic far right parties in Europe or the far right parties in Israel that want to do things like expanding settlements, etc..

  24. Nick Ernst Says:

    I spent the past couple of months campaigning for Obama, but really I feel the same as you do – I can easily reason between sharks and rescue boats, but between the two candidates they both shine (and have many similar shortcomings). Not that they’re at all the same, when one is forced to use any metric within sane space.

    Now a real question is, when will the Nadertrading begin? We should not risk losing any of those votes. But I suppose we need a nominee first!

  25. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    Is the Earth 4.6 billion years old or 10,000?

    You’re posting from an alternate timeline where Huckabee was the nominee?

  26. Greg Says:

    I found some of Obama’s positions here.
    “Invest in the Sciences: Barack Obama supports doubling federal funding for basic research, changing the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology. This will foster home-grown innovation, help ensure the competitiveness of US technology-based businesses, and ensure that 21st century jobs can and will grow in America. As a share of the Gross Domestic Product, American federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering research has dropped by half since 1970. Yet, it often has been federally-supported basic research that has generated the innovation to create markets and drive economic growth. For example, one recent report demonstrated how federally supported research in fiber optics and lasers helped spur the telecommunications revolution.”

  27. Chris Granade Says:

    About the whole linking-without-authority thing, the rel=”nofollow” standard exists for just that reason. Google and other search engines treat any <a> element with the rel=”nofollow” attribute as if it wasn’t there at all, allowing users to follow links without the search engine assigning authority.

  28. Yatima Says:

    Not being from the US, here’s hoping that the next president is not the one to start another 3-trillion-dollar war (or more) and is also the one to put significant effort into moving the republic a few meters back from the cliff of totalitarianism. That leaves us with a trivial total ordering of the current “alpha” candidates. Good Night and Good Luck.

  29. Scott Says:

    You’re posting from an alternate timeline where Huckabee was the nominee?

    McCain himself doesn’t think the earth is 10,000 years old (unlike our current president, who very well might); the point is that, like the current president, he’d legitimate and empower those who do. He’s waffled over ID, but most of the time speaks in favor of the same postmodern “teach the controversy” position as Bush.

    Look, it’s clear that McCain would be an improvement over what we have in almost every respect, but that’s setting the bar too low. Like going from drowning in the middle of the ocean while being pursued by sharks, to treading water while being pursued by one shark.

  30. harrison Says:

    The Earth is clearly 6,011 years old, not 10,000 or 4.6 billion.

    (And yes, I did use the rel=”nofollow” attribute there. :) ).

    And yes, if the free-market/libertarian wing of the Republican Party ever broke free of the medieval wing, then this correspondence would break down. I’m only talking about things as they currently stand.

    As one who occasionally votes Republican based precisely on those attributes of the party, I have serious trouble explaining my vote to close friends who’d never, ever, in a million years vote for someone like Huckabee. (To be fair, neither would I. I cast my primary vote for McCain [I’m not a registered Republican, it was an open primary.])

    Although I don’t actually know any, I assume that free-market Democratic voters in red states or situations have similar trouble explaining their votes to GOP colleagues. Anyone know of a good reason why our current party system tends to break along social conservatives and economic liberals in one direction, and social liberals and economic, um, protectionists/populists in the other?

  31. Jon Sneyers Says:

    What about not voting for a corporate party? Why not vote for Ralph Nader? See e.g. here and here, and Nader’s campaign website votenader.org.

  32. wolfgang Says:

    > but between the two candidates they both shine

    where do you think they shine the most – when they propose freezing interest rates to solve the debt/housing problem or when they propose to suspend trade agreements to solve the economic problems of Ohio?

  33. Jay Says:

    I only consider that I have a choice for President when it is clear that the House and Senate will not be controlled by the same party (regardless fo which it is). There is no scenario worse than all three being in control of the same Party.

  34. cody Says:

    harrison, i think thats just how its worked out… the fact that we have a two party system meant that the divisions of economic and social issues had to both be encompassed in one split; though i do not know the underlying cause of why sides were chosen as they were. i would suspect it has to do with specific politicians within the parties who have had great influence, and have steered the parties into their current positions.

    the smaller fringe parties often have more attractive splits, such as the libertarians or progressives (at least to me, im very socially liberal, kind of economically liberal). but those parties also attract more fringe opinions, they are less well organized, and its just easier for most people to accept some differences between their own opinions and that of a major party, than it would be to try to move one of the smaller parties into the mainstream. though i suppose at the same time, it is the fact that this attitude is relatively widespread that would prevent those parties from ever taking off anyway.

  35. Gasarch Says:

    It looks like Obama will lose the popular vote in Texas
    yet still get more delegates. Thats the kind of democrat
    we need to beat the republicans!

  36. Scott Says:

    Why not vote for Ralph Nader?

    Try as I might, I just can’t think of an answer to that question — can you?

  37. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Why not vote for Ralph Nader?

    He is the egotistical nut who put GWB in the White House in 2000. Rather a disaster. I think it is well documented (does anyone have the references?) that Republicans put up most of the cash for him to run again in 2004. Apparently they are not bothering this time.

    A related note. A newspaper in my town today had an article on “Student political involvement”. A quote:

    “A few students, who identified themselves as ‘conservative’ or Republican, encouraged friends and family to vote for Hillary Clinton to throw off the Democratic race …”

  38. cody Says:

    before the new hampshire primary (where i live), i heard a woman on NPR saying she was voting for Romney, believing that the democrats had the best shot of beating him over the other potential republican nominees. though i understand the sentiment, it seems as if such behavior could generate a backlash among diehard republicans, who hearing of these antics become more dedicated to their cause. and more generally, that makes me feel like i cannot know the real effects of these odd tactics.
    on top of all that, would anyone else feel a little guilty about trying to cheat the system? or maybe thats strong language for this?

  39. Joshua Schraiber Says:

    I hate being stuck with candidates who are ALL on the far right… yeah, I’m including both democratic potentials, because neither of them has an ounce of the left in them! Our whole political system is so far on the right that it’s pathetic… I mean, clearly the Republican candidates are ridiculously conservative, whereas the Democratic candidates are only really conservative, so I guess I have to go with the Dems, but I still am upset that someone like Kucinich, Gravel, or Nader has never had a chance—despite being the only true voices of the left.

    http://www.politicalcompass.org/usprimaries2008

  40. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I still am upset that someone like Kucinich, Gravel, or Nader has never had a chance

    The fact is that few voters trust these people with executive power. And why should they? They sound like Hugo Chavez to me. Either they are sincere or they aren’t; either way it isn’t trustworthy.

    The site that you link to places the political center well to the left of most of the political parties in most free countries. It’s only human to cast your own views as moderate, but this is still a tendentious presentation.

  41. Joshua Schraiber Says:

    I recommend you take the test and see where you stand before you criticize it… I mean, I think of myself as not EXTREMELY liberal… but that test puts me way in the bottom left corner! So from my perspective, it seems to underestimate political stances.

    It’s also highly unfortunate that Clinton and Obama are criticized for being extremely liberal. This is like criticizing Kucinich for being extremely conservative, considering their relative positions…

    I don’t know, I guess that I’m just disillusioned with this country. Both Obama and Clinton are opposed to single payer health care, which, if you look at places where the quality of life is considered the highest (e.g. Norway), seems to be the way to go. Both go out of their way to cater to the American obsession with the free market. Both are for tax cuts—hell, the American political system seems to revolve around tax cuts. In other parts of the world, you don’t even think about having income tax rates lower than 30%! Both support the death penalty, which to my recollection has been out of commission in Europe for decades. etc. etc.

    Like I said, I wish we had a decent voice for the left here in this country—but we have nothing.

  42. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I recommend you take the test and see where you stand before you criticize it

    This “test” is an obvious bait-and-switch, and a waste of time. Question 1: “If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations.” Well, gee, if you put “humanity” on one side and transnational corporations on the other, who wouldn’t give leftist answers? Clearly Obama and Clinton were placed on the site’s political map by some measurement other than direct quiz answers.

    Both Obama and Clinton are opposed to single payer health care

    They don’t promise single-payer health care, and they may even promise not to implement it, but that isn’t the same thing as being abstractly “opposed”. I’m also in favor of aggressive adoption of the metric system — here too, Europe sets a better example. But I wouldn’t promise it if I ran for president, because it wouldn’t be realistic.

    There are times when a 0-1 law makes sense in politics. For instance, the Iraq war has largely destroyed the political middle ground. But usually there is a middle ground, or at least some path of incremental progress. Usually, most of those who denounce half-measures are either foolish or insincere. On that score Nader is exhibit A. There are issues on which I’d really like to agree with him, but he has done less than nothing lately to earn my trust. Or that of most liberals.

  43. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Joshua,

    Learn a little history. Fact 1 is that left wing nuts in power are much worse than right wing nuts in power.

  44. Joshua Schraiber Says:

    This “test” is an obvious bait-and-switch, and a waste of time. Question 1: “If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations.” Well, gee, if you put “humanity” on one side and transnational corporations on the other, who wouldn’t give leftist answers? Clearly Obama and Clinton were placed on the site’s political map by some measurement other than direct quiz answers.

    They do that on purpose! Some of the questions are heavily swayed to either side make you have to answer with your gut… they mention it in their FAQ, and it seems justified.

    They don’t promise single-payer health care, and they may even promise not to implement it, but that isn’t the same thing as being abstractly “opposed”.

    I may be recalling the debate wrong, but I believe Clinton was at one point critizing Obama for having supported single payer care at one point, to which Obama said “lol well that was the past, I’m better now!” I may be wrong though!

    And I don’t disagree that we need to take a continuous path through to a better political system, rather than just abruptly saying “OKAY COMMUNISM TIME!!”… but our baby steps are perhaps too much of baby steps for my taste. Marx was wrong on a number of issues, the idea of communist revolution being one of them, but I do think we could do a bit better than we’re doing now.

    Joshua,

    Learn a little history. Fact 1 is that left wing nuts in power are much worse than right wing nuts in power.

    Really? I mean… Stalin was probably the most abhorrent major leader the world has ever seen, killing more than twice as many people as Hitler, and having the occasional respect of the left in other parts of the world; similarly, other practitioners of soviet-style leftism (e.g. Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung, etc.) have been incredibly violent and led repulsive governments. But it does seem that when I reflect on history, we usually get problems coming out of individuals that would be considered on the right… but I think this is where the the one-dimensional political system fails, as the Political Compass people point out (no, I am not a walking advertisement for them, I just think they have a good idea.) And as it is right now, it does seem to be that the more authoritarian one is, the more likely they are to be on the far right (at this moment in time—as I said, oppressive leftist regimes were highly authoritarian both socially and economically).

    My pitch is that it’s a good idea to be socially libertarian while economically semi-collectivist… strong anarcho-capitalism seems to me like it would lead to chaos, whereas a kind of anarcho-syndicalsim/collectivism seems like it would stand more of a chance, albeit a small one. The closest thing we have now are democratic socialists, and though we’re seeing a strong swing to the right in Nordic countries right now, it’s nonetheless been the work of the democratic socialists in those countries that has ensured their high standard of living and high level of personal liberties.

  45. Scott Says:

    Fact 1 is that left wing nuts in power are much worse than right wing nuts in power.

    I dunno, they’ve both put up quite a showing. More to the point, the two seem completely indistinguishable from each other in the limit of infinite nuttiness. (See: circumpolitical.)

  46. Michael Brazier Says:

    Scott, do you ever consider what goes on outside the borders of the USA when voting in presidential elections? Foreign policy is where a president has the most say, after all, yet I see no sign of it in your post. And if preserving the virtues of the Enlightenment is your first priority, that’s become very much a live issue in global politics — yet Obama, as far as I can tell, knows nothing about the problems involved, and what he has said about them is nonsensical.

  47. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott, do you ever consider what goes on outside the borders of the USA when voting in presidential elections?

    I have my own questions, Scott. Do you ever consider what goes on outside the borders when you’re not voting in presidential elections? Do you ever look at a world map? Do you know that the Internet has international connections? Is the Enlightenment important to you? Do you ever consider statistics when getting a medical diagnosis?

  48. Scott Says:

    do you ever consider what goes on outside the borders of the USA when voting in presidential elections?

    Sure. The trouble is that it seems almost impossible to predict a given candidate’s foreign policy, since it depends so strongly on events. (Recall that Bush ran in 2000 as the non-nation-building candidate.) The exceptions would be questions like whether or not to end a current war — but there the two Democrats agree.

    So it seems the best one can do is to punish the candidates for past mistakes, like Hillary for having voted to authorize the war. Doing so would put me in the strange position of punishing her for not being wiser than I was. I also thought at the time that overthrowing Saddam sounded like a fine idea, provided it could be done competently and at reasonable cost [insert rueful groans here]. I should have known that the current administration can’t do anything competently, not even wars (which one might have thought was their specialty). Of course, it also wasn’t clear to anyone back then that the WMD evidence was completely fabricated, only that it sucked. But even if there’s no evidence of an external threat, I still have no moral problem with invading and overthrowing dictatorships, whenever an honest cost-benefit analysis comes out in favor of it. Which brings me back to the focus of my post: the biggest mistake I made was to forget that, when those in power reject Enlightenment rationality, we’re never going to get an honest cost-benefit analysis from them, or even the information on which to base one.

    Incidentally, I’m curious: what did Obama say about foreign policy that struck you as nonsensical? I’m willing to be convinced. On the few issues where I felt able to judge, like Israel/Palestine, he seemed sensical to me.

  49. wolfgang Says:

    > overthrowing Saddam sounded like a fine idea, provided it could be done competently and at reasonable cost

    actually it was done within a few weeks and at reasonable cost.
    The problem was (and of course still is) that nobody was thinking beyond the short-term goal.
    And this seems to have become the general problem in US politics. Quick fixes, short-term solutions, etc.
    In my humble opinion both Hillary and Obama do not deviate from this short-term thinking that much.
    debt and housing crisis … lets just freeze interest rates
    Ohio has a problem … lets just suspend trade agreements
    health care costs exploding … lets just mandate universal health care
    Iraq is a mess … lets just get out quickly

    And recently it seems that a debate about such short-term measures is already too much – talking about “change” and “hope” and “experience” etc. is so much easier…

  50. Gilad Says:

    Not talking about “change” and “hope” and “experience” doesn’t give you a good presidential candidate – it gives you Al Gore. Not that I’d mind him as president, but he’d be harder to get into the white house than either Clinton or Obama.

  51. Bobby Says:

    Hmm, if I’m not attributing more wisdom in hindsight than I actually had at the time, I think *I* knew that the WMD evidence was likely BS.

    After all, Bush talked in a State of the Union address about the invoice to purchase aluminum tubes in Africa by Iraq as evidence they were trying to build nukes, when it was already fairly common knowledge that that intelligence was totally false.

    It has seemed generally clear to me that Bush throughout his presidency made it very clear to everyone giving him information what kind of information he wanted, and in fact what points of view he wanted it to support, and has punished anyone giving information not to his liking. (See any in depth discussion by Richard Clark about his attempts to warn Bush about the dangers of Al Qaeda before 9/11.)

    That said, I agree that getting Saddam out of power could have been a laudable goal, had it been done competently. The inability to get any international support for that goal, and the long string of lies (e.g. Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11) was my main reason for consistent opposition to the war in Iraq.

  52. asdf Says:

    I have assumed Obama is better on technology issues because of his endorsement from Lawerence Lessig (lessig.org). Clinton is also a well known tool of the MPAA.

    Obama himself on the other hand reminds me of Kang and Kodos, “upwards, but not northwards! And always twirling, twirling twirling towards freedom!”. Extra points for spotting the Simpsons misquote.

    So I’ve so far preferred Obama on general anti-establishment grounds. I figure Clinton’s and Obama’s policy differences on things like healthcare are fairly narrow and will be oblitered by the time anything is through congress.

  53. Michael Brazier Says:

    Incidentally, I’m curious: what did Obama say about foreign policy that struck you as nonsensical? I’m willing to be convinced. On the few issues where I felt able to judge, like Israel/Palestine, he seemed sensical to me.

    Let’s take the issue that seems to have knocked the bloom off: Obama’s promise to alter NAFTA’s terms for the alleged benefit of voters in Ohio, quickly followed by Canadian trade reps revealing that one of Obama’s spokespeople had assured them Obama didn’t actually mean what he’d said in Ohio. First, it isn’t legally possible for the USA to change the terms of a treaty with other nations, if the other signatories aren’t willing; so to fulfill this promise Obama would have to threaten war on Canada and Mexico, which would be amazingly stupid. Second, the private assurance to Canada strips all credibility from the public threat, and any half-bright politician should have foreseen that the Canadians had every reason to publish the assurance, and make Obama look both foolish and duplicitous — when intelligence and good character are, by Obama’s admission, the only reasons to vote for him.

    Then there’s Obama’s saying that the first thing he’ll do as President is sit down with our declared foreign enemies and have a pleasant talk with them. By itself, this is dangerous naivete about the potentials of diplomacy. Combined with the NAFTA promise, it means Obama is set on punishing our friends, and persuading our enemies to become friends. Being our friend, while Obama is in office, would mean being hurt first and most — a dubious privilege.

  54. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    it isn’t legally possible for the USA to change the terms of a treaty with other nations, if the other signatories aren’t willing; so to fulfill this promise Obama would have to threaten war on Canada and Mexico

    You read a threat of war into Obama’s statement that he wants to revise NAFTA? That sort of interpretation tells me that it’s all the more important to end the Rambo diplomacy that we’ve had for the past seven years.

  55. asdf Says:

    The Nafta thing turns out to be a distortion instigated by the Harper government (= current conservative administration in Canada). See:

    http://www.factcheck.org/elections-2008/the_facts_about_nafta-gate.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-loeb/did-clinton-win-ohio-on-a_b_90254.html

  56. Tyler DiPietro Says:

    Why does everyone here hate our troops?

  57. Jack Stahl Says:

    I may be recalling the debate wrong, but I believe Clinton was at one point critizing Obama for having supported single payer care at one point, to which Obama said “lol well that was the past, I’m better now!” I may be wrong though!

    Actually, what Obama said was (paraphrasing) that, if he were building a system from scratch, he’d favor a single-payer healthcare system, but that given the realities of the institutions (political and economical) that exist today, he thinks that his (and Edwards’s, and Hillary’s) hybrid solution makes more sense.

    As for the foreign policy nonsensicalness:

    asdf points out that NAFTAgate was bullshit and, if anything, should have been about Hillary being the one calling Canada. (That’s according to the Candian AP-equiv., although clearly we should be hesitant to trust an anonymous source in the story). Moreover both Hillary and Barack have the exact same official NAFTA policy, so make what you will of it but it’s not much reason to choose one over the other. (Unless you want to read something into their past records on the matter, where Hillary has something of a pro-NAFTA history, not surprising given her husband.)

    About meeting with leaders of foreign policy, that is more or less an accurate claim (though I think “first thing he does” is a little strong). Personally, I think a U.S. leader who’s working to bring diplomatically to bring democracy to other nations and who thinks its important to make America look less arrogant to the rest of the world. But it’s, as Barack likes to say, “a legitimate policy difference”, and about the only major foreign policy one between him and Clinton.

    Anyway, personally, I find that this election mostly comes down to things other than issues. Not because they don’t have substantial differences — if you believe Krugman, a health care mandate is all the difference in the world — but because there are huge differences in the styles of these people and their campaigns. Barack has demonstrated and emphasized, as mentioned above, “working together” with Republicans, transparency in government (see Google-for-Govnt bill) and ethics reform (see Senate bill on ethics). Contrast his “everyone gets a seat the table for healthcare reform as we televise it on CSPAN” with the 1993 Hillary tactic for healthcare.

    Barack is also very much a Howard-Dean-style campaigner, a big believer in netroots activism, small donations, and a 50-states strategy. On the other hand, Hillary’s campaign has focused on the “50+1″ “inside the Beltway” “Gore/Kerry states + Ohio/Florida” philosophy. Of course, this has big reprecussions on down-ticket races and in long term state-flipping.

    Finally — and I will try to say this as even-handedly as possible given my personal opinion — some say that Clinton’s tone (and more accurately, that of her campaign staffers Wolfson and Penn) has been unacceptable. Claims, justified or not, range from racism to vituperativeness to negativity to fearmongering to lack of respect for small states to lying to endorsing McCain over Obama.

  58. asdf Says:

    About meeting with leaders of foreign policy … it’s, as Barack likes to say, “a legitimate policy difference”, and about the only major foreign policy one between him and Clinton.

    I’d say their contrasting views on the Iraq war is a pretty major difference.

  59. cody Says:

    i’m going to use the fact that this thread has veered into the iraq war a few times to raise an idea that i’ve wanted to promote for a long time:

    in the first four years in iraq, we spent ~360 billion, and iraq’s GDP is ~90 billion. we could have paid the whole country to go on vacation for four years, (and afterwards they would have been much happier with us i’m sure). we wouldn’t have lost troops or resources, and neither would they; plus, since we wouldn’t have had to buy the whole country, it would have been cheaper. alternatively, a similar joke would be to outsource the war to some other cheaper military (say the north korean army, which is impoverished enough for us to buy cheaply i believe), and send them to iraq.

    obviously these ideas are a bit (completely) impractical/absurd, but the current state of the war seems somehow more absurd, at least from a business perspective. does anyone have a more practical suggestion for these approaches?

  60. John Sidles Says:

    Cody says: i’m going to use the fact that this thread has veered into the Iraq war a few times to raise an idea …

    And for similar reasons, I’m going to point to some references relating to the war, just to create some opportunities for self-education.

    Among the best overviews of America’s strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is the Army/Marine manual FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. Among the best collations of peer-reviewed articles is Small Wars Journal (SWJ). An excellent recent article is USMC Maj. Ben Connable’s recent Culture Warriors: Marine Corps Organizational Culture and Adaptation to Cultural Terrain.

    For those who want a succinct summary, commanding generals traditionally write a “letter to the troops” upon arrival in-theater. Here are two short letters by USMC Gen. James Mattis and Army Gen. David Petraeus.

    For those who just want the gist of America’s strategy, Mattis’ letter boils down to “First of all, do no harm” and Petraeus’ letter boils down to “I call upon each of you to be war-fighters, nation-builders, and diplomats.”

    Obviously, these objectives depart pretty significantly from both Army-Marine military traditions and from America’s tradition of left-versus-right politics. Without commenting further, it is clear that America’s mainstream political dialog has become largely irrelevant to the America’s actual strategic challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Just to stimulate discussion, I will offer the opinion that the mainstream dialogs of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers (like this one) have become only marginally relevant to the urgent global strategic concerns that our communities could (potentially) be better helping to address, albeit only with concomitant cultural adaptations on a scale similar to those that Maj. Connable discusses.

    To the best of my knowledge, the technical community has created nothing like the vigorous forum that SWJ offers for discussing these shifting paradigms. This may in part reflect a perceived lack of urgency, which IMHO is a mistaken perception.

    I have a solid personal basis for recommending the above references, having just returned from a three-day wilderness kayaking trip with my son, a USMC sergeant, who now departs for his third tour of Iraq.

  61. michael vassar Says:

    All I have to say on this post is a hearty AMEN!

  62. HelmutS Says:

    I suggest you stick with science and mathematics, leave the politics to people who live outside (of academia, or is it arcadia?) and by all means DO NOT take off the tin foil hat…

  63. John Sidles Says:

    HelmutS Says: I suggest you stick with science and mathematics, leave the politics to people who live outside (of academia, or is it arcadia?) and by all means DO NOT take off the tin foil hat. …

    With respect, HelmutS, may I suggest that the opposite trend is well-underway, namely, that modern scholars are reaching out from academia with a creative vigor that has not been seen since the days of Newton and Hooke.

  64. Yatima Says:

    “I suggest you stick with science and mathematics, leave the politics to people who live outside of academia.”

    I had hoped that attitude had gone somewhat out of fashion after the 30s and mid-40s. Ah well. Those that resolutely ignore history are not wont to learn much from it. (Do you hear me, McCain?)

  65. Eric Says:

    A pointer you may find interesting.
    http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0811,374064,374064,1.html
    DavidMamet: Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal’

    My favorite paragraph:

    Bush got us into Iraq, JFK into Vietnam. Bush stole the election in Florida; Kennedy stole his in Chicago. Bush outed a CIA agent; Kennedy left hundreds of them to die in the surf at the Bay of Pigs. Bush lied about his military service; Kennedy accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book written by Ted Sorenson. Bush was in bed with the Saudis, Kennedy with the Mafia. Oh.

  66. Jon Sneyers Says:

    I think the political compass is rather accurate in its placement of US politicians. Obama or Clinton would be considered center-right-wing politicians in most other countries. Nader would be considered center-left-wing. Real left-wing politicians barely exist in the USA
    (but they do exist).

    By the way, as mentioned above in other words, left-wing or right-wing are not very descriptive ways to talk about Staling or Hitler. They are both extremely authoritarian; them being fundamentally anti-democratic was probably more of a problem than their economical views. Also, I would like to point out that economically, Stalin was not that left-wing (compared to, say, Lenin or Marx).

  67. Jon Sneyers Says:

    If anyone is interested: this is my position on the political compass, and I’m a member of LSP/MAS, which is the Belgian sister party of Socialist Alternative. I am quite confident that my position on that graph is rather close to that of SA. In the US presidential elections, Nader is closest to my view, even though he’s still about 4 units more to the right than me and about 5 units more authoritarian. Then again, Obama is about 8 units more to the right than Nader and 6 units more authoritarian.

    So, to repeat an earlier question: why not vote Nader? Unless I overlooked something, the only reason people here gave for not voting Nader were that he is an “egotistical nut supported by the Republicans” and that “left wing nuts in power are much worse than right wing nuts in power”. Those arguments don’t seem very convincing to me.

  68. John Sidles Says:

    Anyone who is interested in the intersection of complexity theory, politics, morality, and science (and who finds peer-reviewed articles more useful than political polemics) can benefit from reading modern research like Animal Social Complexity in the light of older scientific history like Enlightenment Contested and the Volksaufklärung.

    Nowadays these ideas are being given new labels like “Web 3.0″ and “Science 2.0″. These represent centuries-old ideas about the quintessentially human activities of war-fighting, nation-building, and peace-making, that now are increasingly better-informed by mathematics and evolutionary biology.

  69. szeni Says:

    In the case of Barak Obama’s (X) admiration of Rev Wright (Y) there is no need of a Z; Obama’s spiritual mentor of the past 20 years cuts a disgusting figure even when Farrakhan edited out.
    Not sure what Sakharov’s stint as a young Stalinist proves in relation to Obama’s pastor. Sakharov was sincere when brainwashed by Stalinism; he was sincere later when he hated Stalinism with a passion. Sincerity was Bertrand Russell’s trademark as well, in contrast with Obama who is acting as a husband to all wives and a wife to all husbands. Ah, but he is a politician, unlike Sakharov and Russell. Well, it wasn’t me who made the comparison in the first place