The More Extremely Liberal or Conservative You Are, The Less Thinking You Do

In case it’s news – and I hope it’s not, but unfortunately, I think it is – the forces on the extremes of the political spectrum want you to be as scared as possible. Or angry. Either will do. Both is preferred.

Also: It’s easy for anyone to make you scared (or angry), and it’s hard for you to be anything other than scared (or angry) when you perceive a threat. And that is a fact of our biology.

The sections of the brain (lateral transverse view) - via Wikimedia Commons

The sections of the brain (lateral transverse view) – via Wikimedia Commons

A quick word about the structure of the human brain:
We can think of the brain as broadly consisting of these three interconnected systems.

    1. The hindbrain, or rhombencephalon (also sometimes called the primitive brain or the lizard brain) is the part of your brain that you have in common with nearly every other animal. It consists of the stuff sitting just at the top of the brain stem – the cerebellum and the medulla oblangata. Some animals only have brains with parts analogous to these systems, which are believed to be associated with basic autonomic functioning and basic primitive responses (think heart beating, lungs breathing, and adrenaline flowing). This is where our fight-or-flight response lives – and our fight-or-flight response works, more or less, like any other animal.
    2. The midbrain, or mesencephalon, also called the mammalian brain, sits between the hindbrain and the forebrain. It is responsible for the regulation of body temperature, motor control, sleep, and the basic receipt and processing of sensory input. The midbrain connects the brain stem to the frontal brain; it’s the part of your brain, for example, that controls sexual arousal, eyesight, hearing, and pain response as a function of sensory input (such as pulling your hand back when you sense that it’s being burned or injured).  Mammals commonly have these structures roughly like we do, as did our distant ancestors; other types of animals have analogous, but usually less advanced, structures atop a mostly primitive brain.
    3. The forebrain, or prosenchephalon, also called the frontal brain, sits atop and around the midbrain and toward the front and top of the cranium. It is responsible for what we think of as executive function – logic and reason, decision-making, and advanced communication including language and mathematics. The more large, dense, and folded the structures of the frontal brain, the more advanced an animal’s capacity for these functions (for example, dogs have these structures but they lack the size, and density through folding, of the same structures in humans; as such, they are thought to have less capacity for these functions than we do).

While it’s not entirely accurate, we can think of our brain’s functions as more primitive and involving less conscious thought, the lower we go in the brain structure. When we’re afraid or angry we’re acting out of impulses that are processed largely in our lizard brain – the most primitive part of the brain. Run from it or kill it – that’s it. We perceive danger better than other animals (in some ways) due to advances in our midbrain; but, our response to danger is still rooted in the hindbrain. We are more ready to fight our way through a problem, or run from it, than to think about it – we operate more readily and quickly in our more primitive brain regions – and that gave us evolutionary advantages over other species and allowed us to develop executive functions that, thus far, we haven’t encountered elsewhere (at least not at the same level as we think we have it).

As a result of our evolutionary adaptation – making us scared or angry is easy to do. It’s much easier than making us think.

Political extremists use this to their advantage. Dividing us into groups with labels and reasons to hate and fear one another works to their immediate advantage. It consolidates political power among the people doing the hate- and fear-mongering. It sells air time and ad revenue. It makes these people rich and keeps them on top.

It also divides us further, widening the ideological gaps (now chasms) between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ thought, dumbing down and insulting everyone involved, and pitting everyone against everyone else in our society. Citizens against immigrants. Employees against business owners. Academics versus tradesmen. The wealthy versus the poor. Evangelicals versus environmentalists. There isn’t much more distance we could put between ourselves, while still calling ourselves a society.

The truth is, there aren’t simply two polar-opposite positions on everything. The truth is, the forces driving that perception want to make their perception the truth (you’re with us or against us). And the truth is, the closer this annoying and dangerous message comes to being true – the less thought occurs, on the part of everyone.

So – when you see messages from Liberal or Conservative media outlets designed to make you scared or angry – such as:

  • “They are coming to take your guns away”
  • “They want to destroy the planet”
  • “They don’t care about the poor”
  • “President Obama is at it again”

… That person is selling you something. Sales works on a simple and repeatable pattern:

  1. Create a want or a need. The deeper in the brain the want or need exists – the better. Convince you that you’re hot, tired, and thirsty.
  2. Offer a solution to the need or want that you just created. Offer you their brand of soda.
  3. Convince the buyer that your solution is better than the problem and better than any other potential or competing solution. Their soda gives you quick energy that you need and it tastes better than water.

The right thing to do is to think about who is selling to you and why, rather than to feel the way they want you to feel. What the pundits and the propagandists want you to do is to feel angry or the feel scared and then to respond by buying their product  that product is a political party, a candidate,  and thereby increasing their power and their wealth and their influence over you.

Ask yourself:

  • What is this person selling?
  • What do they get if I buy it? What (if anything) do I get?
  • Do I have some reason to believe what I’m being told?

The answers will often be:

  • They are selling fear and or hatred of a perceived enemy.
  • They get my money, power, and influence. I get nothing.
  • I have no objective reason to believe what I’m being told.

… and that’s true whether we’re talking about the extremely liberal or the extremely conservative. The bottom line is, the more extreme your position, the more you feel and react, and the less you think and reason.

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Let’s Have a Reasonable Discussion About Cars

For too long in this country, the car debate has raged unabated. It’s time to have a reasonable discussion, focused on facts and not emotion, informed by science and not rhetoric, and aimed at producing a reasonable set of laws and public policies on which we can broadly agree. A discussion like that cannot be led by politicians who seek to divide us in order to achieve and maintain power; it cannot be had in the media where polarized opinion equals profit margin. A discussion like that can only be had in person, among real people, across coffee tables and in kitchens and small meetings. A discussion like that requires people to overcome politics.

The all-too-familiar result of a car crash

The all-too-familiar result of a car crash

The Scope of the Problem
Car crashes happen all the time in this country. Although we lack reliable, independent, national and local government-funded scientific studies on the phenomenon of car crashes (more on that later), most experts agree that in densely-populated areas, car crashes tend to be more common. Most people know someone who has been affected, directly or indirectly, by a car crash. And, car crashes claim the lives of many people each year – in 2011, on average, car crashes claimed the lives of 89 people per day; and, according the CDC, automobile accidents are responsible for 33,687 deaths per year.

The Two Sides of the Debate
One would think that a problem that claims the lives of thirty-some-odd thousand Americans per year would be a problem that we would all want to solve…  And, it is. Unfortunately, there seem to be only two polarized points of view among the most vocal Americans who have anything at all to say about cars: There are those who advocate for the elimination of cars in America with only a few exceptions, and there are those who argue vociferously against anything they even begin to perceive as any sort of limitation on free and unfettered car ownership and car usage.

The Anti-Car Crowd (Car Control activists): Those who argue for the elimination of cars tend to be more liberal-minded, tend to align with the Democratic party, and tend to live in urban areas, particularly along the coasts and in a few densely-populated areas of the Midwest and Western United States. These people clamor in increasing fervor whenever a major accident occurs involving multiple cars, injuring and killing many people, renewing their calls for an America without cars everywhere, operated by just anyone – an America in which all cars are safely operated by professional bus drivers, and by the government. These people point out that cars kill an astounding number of Americans, and that certain areas should be entirely without cars for the safety of the public.

The Pro-Car Crowd (Car Rights activists): Those who argue for the protection of car rights tend to be more conservative, aligning more closely with the Republican party or identifying as Libertarian, and they tend to live in rural areas away from population centers, particularly in the American South. These people never fail to point out that it is their Constitutional right to own property and not to have that property taken away from them, according to the Fourth Amendment; an oft-repeated battle cry of the pro-car movement is “what part of ‘shall not be violated’ don’t you understand?” These people point out that cars don’t kill people, but people kill people; and that people will continue to kill people even without cars.

The Arguments We Should Avoid
After any mass-casualty incident involving cars, the old, predictable car debate turns toward familiar subjects that add precisely nothing to our understanding or our safety. These arguments serve only to polarize an already scared and angry public.

Here are a few examples of subjects that are NOT worthy of any further discussion:

Battling Over The High Ground of History: Car rights activists have invested heavily, in the last few decades, in claiming a sort of historical high ground by aligning themselves artificially with the principles of the American Revolution. The National Roadways Association (NRA), in addition to spending millions of dollars per year on political lobbying at all levels of government, has funded literally hundreds of research papers (almost entirely by the same few ‘scholars’) on the topic of transportation in the American Revolution – a topic hardly studied at all prior to 1970. Dozens of papers have focused specifically on Paul Revere’s famous ride, alone. In response, car control activists often point out that it was not Paul Revere at all who warned the colonists of the British advance, and that there are obvious and significant differences between horses and carriages – the transportation of the Revolutionary War era – and modern automobiles. At the end of the day this whole discussion is pointless; in due deference and with all respect to the men who fought and died to found our great nation, it simply doesn’t matter what Revolutionary-era leaders would say about cars today.  We could not reasonably expect the Founding Fathers to have anything meaningful to say about a society that is vastly different from the one they founded, trying to deal with a set of problems that did not exist in their time, relating to advanced technologies that, for all practical purposes, wouldn’t even be immediately recognizable to a person from the latter 18th century who traveled much more slowly, on horseback, or in a horse-drawn carriage, on new roads that only began to traverse a small area along the edge of a largely unsettled continent.

Banning Science: In the early 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control published the first comprehensive studies on the incidence of car deaths and injuries, establishing for the first time a few early observations supported by then-current data. The government’s analysis was prototypical, focusing on some basic questions – like whether or not having a car owner in a given home made people in the home more or less likely to die or be injured by a car, and whether deaths and injuries correlate with other factors like geographic location and specific conditions in the local environment. This was early science; yet, it provoked a furious response from the NRA and other hard-line car rights activists, who argued that the research was politically motivated, poorly executed, and logically flawed. Within the next funding cycle, the NRA had successfully lobbied to place a restriction on government funding for the CDC, and later the Department of Health and Human Services – effectively ending all government research into cars, car deaths, car injuries, and car safety. Those restrictions still exist today. As a result, while the government still compiled statistical data that might look like science related to these topics – it’s not – it’s simply numbers. The NRA has also successfully lobbied at state and local levels to make less and less data concerning cars, car deaths, and car injuries available to researchers, public and private, both within and outside of government. This concerted effort to halt scientific inquiry into any topic even peripherally associated with cars (at least, any inquiry not sponsored by the NRA) has been surprisingly effective. As a result – basic and applied research in these fields is now marginalized in academic and private circles as well as government (due to the danger it poses, both politically and financially, to any institution even contemplating car research).

Any argument about science focusing on cars and car safety is itself an argument we should avoid. If we properly understand science and if scientific inquiry is conducted properly, then it has no bias (and if it does have bias, that bias is exposed through the peer review process). As such, and given the scope of the problem, we should be conducting more scientific inquiry, not punishing scientists and institutions who dare to examine research questions related to cars.

Banning Certain Types of Cars: Car control activists have in the past sponsored – sometimes successfully – legislation to effectively outlaw certain types of automobiles at national and local levels. Some people who loosely identify with car control activism point out that the most deadly automobiles are those that look the fastest, and as such, that those types of automobiles should be banned as a public safety measure. The Brady ban, instituted after a famous incident in which President Reagan and one of his Secret Service guards were injured by a crazy person driving a car in the latter 1980s (and named for the injured Secret Service Agent), banned cars that looked particularly fast and dangerous for ten years; the ban on so-called “sports cars” expired in 2004, and since then, sports cars have come back into the American car market with a vengeance due to pent-up consumer demand. A similar set of restrictions was proposed recently, after another crazy person drove a car into an elementary school, killing dozens of small children, in an incident that shocked the nation. Under these restrictions, cars with certain features – e.g., bright red or bright yellow in color, having two (vice four or five) doors, having a “spoiler” on the back, and so on – would be banned from being sold, owned and operated by private citizens. Car control activists spend a great deal of time touting that they, too, own cars, but that no one needs a “sports car” to get to and from the grocery store or drive their children to soccer practice, as responsible car owners do regularly. Car rights activists are quick to point out that the color, number of doors, and decorative features installed on a car don’t make it more or less deadly; in one famous example, the Nissan Altima SE would be legal under the ban, but the Infiniti G35 coupe would be illegal – even though both cars have the same drivetrain, the same curb weight, and the same performance characteristics. While some cars *do* go *much* faster than others, broadly speaking, a car is a car, with regard to its capacity to injure and kill people operating or just present in the vicinity of any given type of car.

Banning Cars Altogether: There are those hard-liners among car control activists who respond to any incident of car violence by calling for cars to be entirely banned. Their emotional response to incidents of deaths involving automobiles – particularly large-scale and well-publicized incidents (think massive Interstate pile-ups) is understandable. Such events are gruesome and horrific. However, as a strictly practical matter, most people agree that the wholesale removal of all cars from America is simply impossible. America is too spread-out. The car came into its own in America, and Americans have a particular love of their cars that simply cannot be extinguished, no matter how many people are injured or die in terrible accidents and preventable tragedies. Also, there are just too many cars in America to ever take them all away through any action of government or society; it’s just not something that could ever practically happen – even if the majority of us wanted it to happen – which, it turns out, we don’t.

The Discussions We Should Have
Hiding between and among the polarizing and misleading arguments of the demagoguery, we find points on which large segments of the population broadly agree. Those points are worthy of our time, our attention, and our investment as a society; they should be discussed at length, studied until they are fully understood, and expanded to form the framework of sound and reasonable public policy on the subject of cars.

Here are a few of the discussions that we should be having:

Setting Standards for Car Operator Qualifications: Operating a car is universally acknowledged to be a dangerous endeavor – to the car operator, to operators of other cars, and to third parties in the public who may be exposed to cars as they go about their daily lives. Car control and car rights activists, both, tend to agree that car operators should have a certain, baseline understanding of cars and how to safely and effectively operate cars. In fact, car rights enthusiasts are more than happy, usually, to both offer and engage in training for car owners and operators, both those who are new to cars and those who wish to increase their skills in operating cars or brush up on car operations and car safety. Since we agree, broadly, as a society, on these points – we should exploit that agreement to establish some reasonable baseline for the knowledge and skill required of a car operator, and we should seek to prove or disprove that setting this baseline of skills and knowledge would make us safer as a society that owns and uses cars. We could consider testing and licensing of car operators, and we could even consider re-testing in old age, or perhaps having slightly different laws and standards from state to state, in the event that we cannot agree on a national set of car operator standards.

Acting Against Irresponsible Car Ownership: Practically everyone (save some hard-liners in the car rights camp) agrees that not everyone should be allowed to own and operate a car. Owning a car brings with it a serious set of responsibilities, and not everyone can handle those responsibilities. In particular, people who have a history of operating cars unsafely and illegally (perhaps people who have caused accidents due to negligence in the past, who have operated cars while impaired, etc.), and people who have a diminished capacity to safely own and operate cars (people with physical / mental impairments that would keep them from being able to operate a car safely) probably should not be allowed to own and operate cars. Car rights activists are quick to point out that people can obtain cars in many ways, some illegal; that it would take some kind of massive government bureaucracy to keep tabs on all cars when they change hands and all drivers; and that trying to control who can and who cannot legally own and operate a car may be as futile as trying to remove all cars from the road. This may or may not be the case. The question we need to ask ourselves is, is it worth it? Is the benefit to society of enforcing responsibility and using both administrative and judicial resources to try to keep unsafe people from operating cars freely, worth the potential benefits of safer roads?

One argument that hard-line car rights activists make, that we should reject, is that there is only one reason for keeping lists of cars and car owners, and that is to take away all cars from all car owners. This is patently false, and an example of the slippery slope fallacy. The purpose of keeping lists of cars and car owners is to know who owns what car – so that, if the circumstance arises where that knowledge is important (say, the car is stolen, or the car is used in the commission of a crime, or the owner of a car loses his or her ability to operate a car safely), then, and only then, can we as a society use that information to take some particular action related to that particular car, or that particular owner.

Establishing Consistent Limits on Car Operation: The United States of America has a Federal government (central) and State governments (provincial), and the tenth amendment to our Constitution says that any powers that aren’t specifically granted to the central government are reserved for the provincial governments or to the people individually. This has been part of our culture from the beginning of our culture; we tend to distrust a far-away central authority and we empower government closer to the people over government that is further away, and may not have the interests of the people as its primary motivation. We are careful not to set as a national standard something that should be a local standard, to which local leaders can be held to account by local people. However – when it comes to car operation – there are some standards upon which we can all agree, and the few standards that now exist are often contradictory and differ radically from state to state.

We should seek to identify those standards that *should* be elevated to the national stage for adoption, and we should have those debates on the national stage in order to set and enforce car rights and car operation standards, and specifically limits, more effectively from state to state.  It is not right that New York requires car operators to be a certain age and to possess a license to operate a car, while a four year old can legally operate a tractor or a tractor-trailer in Wyoming. It’s not right that in some states you drive on the right, in some states you drive on the left, and in some states you drive wherever you want. It’s not right that some cities have specific places where only pedestrians are allowed and cars are not – and other states don’t have any places where cars aren’t allowed to go. It’s not right that some states specifically allow cars to be operated where people are drinking, and others do not. A national conversation needs to occur; we need to consider what are reasonable consistent limits on our rights to operate cars, and what are not; and, where we see that a limit on the operation of cars is reasonable and responsible universally, we need to make that limit a national standard, so that Americans, no matter where they are, can count on that standard being applied the same way – whether we are operating cars or not, from state to state, from town to town. This will give car owners the predictability they need to own and operate their cars anywhere in this nation subject to a consistent baseline set of standards and limits, and it will also give non-car owners the ability to predict what car owners should and should not be able to do and where cars should and should not be able to be operated. It also means that states will respect other states’ car operation standards and that we can begin to operate cars both more safely, and more broadly.

Again, in this case, there are hard liners in the car rights camp who maintain silly positions on this topic. One silly argument is that no limit is reasonable (e.g., anyone should be allowed to operate any car anywhere in any way they choose, and that if there’s not a specific law against that, then there shouldn’t be, and that most existing laws limiting car usage in any way should be repealed as ineffective, unnecessary, or fundamentally at odds with our rights). Another silly argument is that no limit is reasonable because criminals will not obey any laws establishing any limits. Both arguments should be summarily dismissed as the poppycock they are – because both amount to arguments for a society without law and without respect for the rule of law. If no limit is reasonable – why limit anything? If criminals will not obey the law – why have any laws at all? We write criminal law not because we expect it to be universally obeyed, but because we expect the opposite; criminal statutes embody societal norms, and we have them because we want to tool our society to be able to both expect compliance and respond effectively to noncompliance.

In Conclusion
Everything said here is true – but not about cars.

This topic is complex. If your opinion on this topic fits onto a bumper sticker – you’re wrong, and you should reconsider your position. At present our thinking on these complex issues is limited to two, equally fallacious positions. Both positions – both extremes – should be rejected. MOST OF US fall somewhere in between these two equally lunatic positions on the subject of cars; yet, all we see on television, all we read in the news, all we hear from our political leaders, is one idiotic position or the other.

I invite you, having read what (I hope) is a neutral and central position on a difficult and divisive set of issues, to take a stand against both extremist viewpoints, and engage in personal conversations, with people, in small groups, on these and similar topics. I challenge you to come to a consensus with someone who you’ve been told hates everything you stand for. Your reward is that you get your country back, you get the full benefit of civil discourse, and perhaps we all learn that two polarized opposites is not the beginning of wisdom but the end of all progress – in this, and in so many other matters facing our great nation.

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Okay – oddly – I have this habit of thinking that people deserve an unbiased look at anything that’s not explicitly labeled “opinion” in the news.

If you pick up a newspaper and turn to the Editorials section – you are reading opinions. That’s all they are. Opinions. They may be well-informed opinions; they might match or amplify your opinion. But at the end of the day, you are reading opinion. Likewise, television news used to separate news (the unbiased delivery of information pertaining to recent events of interest to the public) from opinion (what people think about that). It seems that, since the advent of the Internet as the medium we now know, the line between news and opinion has become so thick and so blurry that we can no longer make it out as a line.  It’s just a big gray blob of “news-pinion” out there.

So when the news goes on an on about the new Government Web site – talking ceaselessly about how bad and horrible it is, but providing no real specifics among volumes and hours of commentary – I have no way of knowing how much of that is news, and how much of that is opinion (and whether or not that opinion is well-informed or reasonable). The longer I hear how bad this Web site is without hearing what, specifically, is wrong – just that “it’s bad” – the more I tend to suspect that these reports are mostly opinion, and that most of that opinion is uninformed, or worse, opinion that was not recognized as opinion, being repeated over and over again by people who think it is news.

At the same time, I am a software engineer and an experienced Web developer. I am also an American who is eligible to use the exchange – and I live in a state that elected not to set up its own healthcare exchange. So I’m fairly well-suited to go and look at the Web site myself and develop an opinion based on what I can observe. So… That’s precisely what I did.

Up front – I have no special knowledge of this Web site or its design. I had nothing to do with building it. And what I’m reporting here represents only my own experience using the Web site. At the end I’ll share some opinions about what I was able to observe, but until then – what you see is simple observation.

Background and Test Conditions
I used a computer in my home with moderate specifications to access the Web site. The basic properties of the computer are shown below. It’s a reasonable, nothing-special, mid-range computer purchased a couple of years ago, with no upgrades at all (integrated Intel graphics, no additional RAM or hard drive space, same OS that came with the computer – it is more or less the out-of-the-box computer running the out-of-the box software).

Properties of the computer used to access the Web site

Properties of the computer used to access the Web site

My Internet connection is provided by Time Warner Cable.  I’m using their Turbo Internet service.  According to their speed test app – I’m currently getting about 15 Mbps download speed, with a little over 2 Mbps upload speed. See below.

Internet speed test results (Time Warner Cable)

Internet speed test results (Time Warner Cable)

I typically use Google Chrome for general Web browsing, and decided the most realistic way to determine how the Web site works is to do what anyone else would do – use the browser you always use. Chrome reports its current version is 30.0.1599.101 m and that it is currently up-to-date. I did not go out of my way to update it prior to accessing the Web site; Chrome updates itself (like most modern software).

I accessed the Web site this morning (Sunday, 3 NOV 13), between about 0845 and 0945. The entire session reported here took about an hour (with several interruptions, including a break to heat up a leftover piece of chicken for breakfast, and note-taking as I encountered things I found noteworthy or captured screen shots for later use).

Also, as a matter of conditions – every bit of information I entered into the Web site was real. I used my own information, on the assumption that I would actually buy health insurance through the exchange – thus I entered actual addresses, phone numbers, email accounts, social security numbers, and so on, as I went through the process. Before today I had only ever accessed once (from my mobile phone – very briefly) and I had not created an account or provided any information to anyone. I also did not have anyone with me or otherwise assisting me through the process.

I am providing a list here of observations by exception. I will not list those activities that proceeded exactly as I expected them to proceed. This means that, other than as noted here, the Web site looked, responded, and behaved in ways that are not noteworthy in any way.

General: The only general observation I’ll offer here is that some news accounts have talked extensively about lack of responsiveness, error screens, dead links, and so on. I experienced none of these things. Throughout my interaction with the Web site it remained responsive and did not produce any general error indications.

The following observations seemed noteworthy (per the above description):

Security: Identity verification included information I’d previously entered.
There is a step during the process of signing up for an account that attempts to confirm your identity, apparently using information drawn from other sources. This is similar to the experience you’d have signing up to get access to your credit report online. However, one of the questions used to validate my identity asked me to select the last four digits of my cell phone number. I had just entered my cell phone number on a previous screen. The choices presented did not include the last four digits of my cell phone number (thus I selected the “none of the above” option), and the Web site did confirm my identity. However, this seems like a weird choice, given that a screen just prior to this one had prompted me for the same information, just a moment prior.

Integration: I was asked what type of phone my mobile phone was at least twice, but possibly three times if you count the security question noted above.  I would count this as an artifact of poor integration.

User Experience: I chose to receive notices electronically, and used a checkbox to indicate that I would like to use the email address that I’d previously entered to receive those notices.  The UI forced me to re-enter that email address – even though, by this point in my experience, I had entered, confirmed, and received an email from this system at that address – AND clicked a link from that email to return to the system. This is just a bad choice on the part of the developer. It was a useless thing to do and an annoyance to the user.

User Experience / Security: I indicated that no one was helping me to fill out the forms in the online system. Yet, the system forced me to select a new, fourth security question, after I indicated that no one was helping me right at that moment.  A message on the screen indicated, paraphrasing, that just because no one was helping me now did not mean that no one would be helping me later – so I still had to pick a new security question and answer it just in case someone was going to help me later (so that someone could prove that they were sitting with me or represented me). This is just silly. By this time I’d entered a slew of personal information – things no one but me should be able to know absolutely. So if there is a need for this type of feature, it could be implemented without creating a new piece of information for me to track. Moreover, I have to question how this system is implemented based on this ham-handed approach to security. In principle, if there is someone else who is helping me – that person should have an account of their own in this system. The basic security principles of authentication, authorization, and non-repudiation apply to whoever is helping me, just as much as me. In that case I would expect that the “helper person” has his or her own account; uses his or her own information to log in; conducts all of his or her activities using that account, with all actions taken traceable to that account;p and, that his or her activities on my behalf are authorized by me (since I also have an account) before they become effective.

Inconsistency: The middle name is not shown on the “Who needs coverage” screen.

Poor UI design: There is an optional set of fields toward the bottom of the screen for each family member’s data entry, used to indicate ethnicity / race. The first such field is a radio button indicating whether or not the family member is of Hispanic origin. Once I select Yes or No – I cannot unselect my answer (because of the type of control used and how it operates by default). In principle, since it’s an optional question, it has three choices: Yes, No, and no answer. Once you give an answer – that’s it – you can’t un-give that answer.

User Experience: When entering family members, I was asked what seemed like a slew of unnecessary questions about people’s relationships to one another. I assume this was because my older daughter, still living with us and going to college, is over 18 years old. Even so, the number of questions asked was positively silly. I ended up having to indicate twice what my / my wife’s relationship was to our older daughter, then to our younger daughter; then, I had to answer individually for each person in the household how they are related to each other person in the household.  This was six distinct sets of questions covering four people. It seems that the developers wanted to understand family units within the household, in order to later recommend groups of people to include in insurance coverage. With that said, the whole thing seems pointless. If you need to know this, you could find out much more efficiently; and if the only reason to know this is to form the recommended groups of people, there is a better way to do that (simply let the user form groups out of the people he or she has already identified).

User Experience: The system asks a positively crazy number of optional questions at the end of the application process. These questions all revolve around events that may have occurred in the last 60 days, and include such things like whether or not anyone in your household has moved, gotten married, been adopted (or adopted someone else), had an immigration status change, or been incarcerated. I have no idea what purpose these questions serve, other than to annoy the user. If they’re optional – why would I answer?

Security: Granted, most people in America don’t have a hard electronic token like a CAC to prove their identity. However, at the last stage of the application process you’re asked to sign, attesting under penalty of perjury that the information given is true and correct to the best of your knowledge. There is a text box in which you must type “your electronic signature” affirming this. No guidance is given on the form as to what to do with this box. I typed “I AM ME” – and that, apparently, is my electronic signature. It seems lazy; it seems like the designers simply phoned that in. A better approach might be the one used for the IRS or student aid Web sites, where you self-select a pin in the early part of the process, and enter that pin at the end of the application. Another approach would be to have the user re-enter his or her password. At least one of those approaches would have something to do with who is behind the keyboard as this legal affirmation is given.

Now – at this point – I had submitted my application. I almost immediately got a notice indicating that I, and all members of my family, were eligible for coverage and needed to select insurance through the marketplace (lest I be called a liar – see below).

Eligibility notice

Eligibility notice

Great – right?  Well – here the Web site is again not all that clear.  When I return to the Marketplace I see this screen, after logging in:


Screen shown when I log back in

Screen shown when I log back in

Looks like there is some problem, right? So I click on the Application Details link in the big orange “there is some type of problem” box, and that takes me to this screen:

Application Details screen

Application Details screen

Everything suddenly looks rosey and peachy-keen.  So then I click on “View Eligibility Results” – thinking there must be some problem there (else why would I have gotten that big orange “SOMETHING IS CLEARLY WRONG” message on the last screen) – and I see this:

View Eligibility screen

View Eligibility screen

And if I click the only thing that seems obvious in this screen – RESUME ENROLLMENT – I am back to the first screen – the one with the big orange SOMETHING IS CLEARLY WRONG message. So – these three screens exist in an endless loop. It seems something is wrong – but it’s not wrong. What’s wrong is that you haven’t yet selected a plan. And that is not wrong – that is expected.

The way out of this do-loop is to click the big green “SET” area on the first screen (the one with the big orange obnoxious message). I call this an area because it is not any type of control that I would recognize as a Web developer. It’s not a traditional link. It’s not a button. It’s not anything. When you put your cursor over it, the cursor changes to a text cursor (the one that looks like a capital letter “I” – as though the way you’re supposed to interact with “SET” – whatever it is – is to copy text from it). But, if you click it – you continue the process.  The very next thing that happens is that you get a list of plans available for you and your family in your area.

I stopped short of actually selecting a plan (there are 11 to choose from in South Carolina), but it seems like some other developer took over at this point, and things work okay. I can choose coverage level (Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum – noting that there are no Platinum plans here, at least where I am in South Carolina). I can filter by coverage levels and easily see what is, and is not, covered.

To be fair – the lower-level plans appear to be mostly crap. One in particular was just shy of catastrophic coverage only. They would work, sort of, in combination with a healthcare savings account. Sort of. At least they would prevent bankruptcy due to medical bills, but they seem to have such high deductibles that they wouldn’t be useful for most people. These are plans that cost about half of what my employer-sponsored coverage costs (both my portion and my employer’s portion).

The higher-level plans cost about the same as what my plan at work costs, roughly. They aren’t as good as the plans I have – but they are pretty good, and while I would pay more for those plans in the marketplace, that’s only true because my employer wouldn’t be paying for a portion of the coverage I get anymore. I wouldn’t do it this year – but it would be interesting, in a year or two, to see how many people would elect a plan out of the marketplace voluntarily, if their employers simply paid the employees (directly) what they used to pay to the insurers as their portion of the cost of health insurance.

So – there you have it. Reports of sucking are true in some ways. But, broadly speaking, I was able to get on, create an account, apply, get an answer, and select from available plans (and see what all those plans covered) in just shy of an hour (with breakfast and note-taking / screen-grabbing thrown in). Many of the problems I saw make me question whether there are deeper integration or security problems, but many of them were just annoyances that are properly characterized as superficial.

In short – it does suck, even in some important ways – but, it also does work.

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Our Fiscal House Isn’t An Actual House

The US Government is NOT just like your household

The US Government is NOT just like your household

Much political hay is being made these days about the government’s out-of-control spending, deficits, and the national debt. You don’t have to go far to find a politician or a pundit saying something that amounts to comparing the nation to a household, or that government should be run like a business. The Web sites of many politicians, political organizations, and news outlets feature a “debt clock” – showing purported amounts of the national debt continuing to rise. Both Democrats and Republicans do it (though Libertarians tend to be the biggest deficit and debt hawks, and Tea Party activists are making the most noise along about Federal spending today).

The problem is, Government is not a household, and Government is not a business.

If you’re one of those people who is enamored with the idea that the government should run like a household – e.g., save its money, incur as little new debt as possible, pay off old debt as quickly as possible, invest in order to make a profit, and so on – then this article is for you.

Here are five important ways in which the United States Government is different than your household, when it comes to fiscal and monetary policy:

1. You don’t have your own household currency.
There is not a Smith Family currency.  The Jones Family does not pay its debts in Jones Dubloons. However, there is United States dollar.  That’s the currency used by the Smith and Jones and Martinez families (and every other family and business) to settle their debts and obtain goods and services on the open market. The issuer of the dollar is The United States of America – specifically, dollars are Federal Reserve Notes.

The Federal Reserve, or the Fed, was created in 1913. Prior to that, people actually could print their own currency, and they did.  It was backed by gold, silver, depository notes in various institutions, bonds issued by companies and regional governments, or – in some to many cases – by nothing at all. A “run on the bank” was a common occurrence. There were no reserve requirements; banks could lend out every bit of currency they had from depositors. When people lost confidence in banks or in the banking system, they would all show up and demand their deposits back – and banks often had little or nothing in their vaults to pay angry depositors (it was all invested or loaned out). Banks could also invest any deposits in highly risky and speculative ways, or simply leave town with the money that people deposited. The Fed has both a public component (the Board of Governors – also known as the Federal Reserve Board) and private components (12 regional Federal Reserve Banks and 25 Branches); together, the public and private components of the Fed govern monetary policy.  The Fed is part of a larger system that includes (principally) the Treasury, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and private banks nationwide; while the Fed acts as a central bank, it was set up with both public and private components such that no one component actually has central control.  The mission of the Fed, in controlling monetary policy, is to prevent inflation, and to also avoid recession. The Fed does this by controlling the amount of currency available in the banking system, and by affecting the interest rate that banks pay to borrow money from one another.

WARNINGThere is A LOT of VERY BAD INFORMATION on the Internet about how the Federal Reserve system works. I am going to present just a few bare minimum facts here, and I will try to correct any bad information that comes up in comments. But, please, do not assume that everything you see in a YouTube video criticizing the Fed is accurate. It’s not. Mostly, it’s the type of ‘theory’ that is postulated by folks wearing tin foil hats and pulling out their own teeth so that the Government cannot hear their thoughts through their metal fillings. Reliable resources include The Federal Reserve Education Web site,, and if you really like videos and don’t want to comb through YouTube to find one that you can believe, the Federal Reserve and You video series, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

2. You have a finite amount of resources (you are resource-constrained).
The reason why you (or me, or anyone) must control debt in the first place is because we only have, and can only obtain, so much money. This is not the case for the Federal government. The government is not constrained by the amount of money it has – but by what that money is worth.

Hyperinflation is a subject that we all probably understand at an intrinsic level. While the government could just add money to pay for whatever – if it added too much money, the money would lose value. Continuing this pattern to a logical extreme, the currency could become essentially worthless. There are plenty of current and historical examples of currencies that became worthless because of hyperinflation (think about the Confederacy after the Civil War, or post World War I- and World War II-Germany).

Man with a wheelbarrow full of currency from The Weimar Republic

Man with a wheelbarrow full of currency from The Weimar Republic

You and I are constrained by the amount of money we have or the amount of money we can obtain. Governments that issue their own currencies and control those currencies (what economists call a flat currency) are constrained by what their currency is worth. Essentially, the job of the Fed is to control the amount of money in the financial system and what people pay to obtain that money, to prevent recession on one hand, and worthless currency on the other.

3. You don’t get more resources when you spend more money.
If you spend five hundred dollars on a flat screen TV, you’ve spent your five hundred dollars. It’s gone. In exchange you have a flat screen TV. You may derive satisfaction from your purchase, but short of selling that asset off to someone else (say, in a yard sale or on Craig’s List), you will never derive monetary value from having purchased a flat screen TV. Likewise when you give little Billy his allowance, he either saves it, or blows it on whatever video game or toy he wanted – but regardless of what he does, that money is gone. You may derive satisfaction from teaching little Billy something about handling money, but the money you gave him is gone.

By contrast, when the government spends money (for example, to build a road, or repair a bridge, or to operate a dam), people get paid to provide the goods or perform the services that the people needed and the government acquired. Those people (the ones building the road or repairing the bridge or operating the dam) pay taxes on the income they earn – which then help to pay the operating expenses of the government. Also, other people (the ones who needed the road or the bridge to move goods from producer to market, or the ones who use the electricity produced by the dam to run a business) actually make money, or make more money, as a result of the goods and services provided by the government. This grows the economy, which increases revenue yet again (and probably in much bigger ways, at least when it works), and that revenue also helps to pay for the operating expenses of the government.

When you spend money, it is spent. When the government spends money – at least some (hopefully more than some) of the time – that money comes back.

4. You would be better off without debt (but the government needs debt).
I am a huge fan of Dave Ramsey. While it is true that society would suffer in some ways if consumer debt loads decreased, I think the right answer for anyone, individually, is to try to minimize, if not totally eliminate, debt. People are best off when they follow the advice of Polonius – neither a borrower nor a lender be. It is an obvious and easily defensible proposition that people are better off with less debt, and probably best off when they have no debts at all.

If our government ever paid off all of its debt, though, our economy would be in real trouble. Generally, the government will always have to maintain debt in order for the economy to operate well or properly.

How the Fed uses debt to control the value of money

How the Fed uses debt to control the value of money

Recall that the purpose of the Fed is to prevent inflation and recession. The Fed does this in a couple of principal ways – by controlling the amount of money in the system, and by controlling the cost of borrowing within the financial system. One of the ways the Fed does this is by issuing debt (bonds), and by buying up debt.  When the Fed wants more money in the system it buys securities (trading money – which flows into banks – for debt); conversely, when the Fed determines that there is too much money in the system (risk of inflation), it sells securities, trading debt for money from banks). Thus, if the Fed immediately canceled all debt, that would lead to hyperinflation, and, in principle, the Fed must always be in some amount of debt in order to be able to control the amount and value of money in the system at any given time.

Economists can disagree about what amount of debt is acceptable, healthy, etc. for various economic conditions.  That’s not the point.  The point is, although you and I are better off without debt, all economists would agree, the government pretty much needs to be in debt all the time.

5. Your motivations are fundamentally selfish.
… and there is nothing wrong with that. You want to acquire more money, to have the ability to get more goods and obtain more services and have better things for you and your family. Greed is the primary motivation of your economic life. Likewise, businesses are in business to be in business – they have a profit motive (and that is also just fine). They create value for their owners and shareholders.

There are things in the world on which all people depend, more or less equally; that are owned by everyone (or by no one in particular); and that exist specifically because of everyone’s collective interest, and no one’s individual interest. Economists call those things a “public good” – examples of a public good would include libraries, police forces, fire departments, professional military forces in a state of readiness, local and interstate roads, public transit systems, economic oversight functions, parks, funds to provide for emergency food and shelter, and various public utilities such as sewer and water systems. The common thread is this: Everybody needs it – but it is not anyone’s responsibility, alone, to provide it.

Regardless of your political stripe – from the most liberal progressive to the most conservative libertarian – this is the purpose of your government. Not to make a profit. Not to have or to make as much money as possible. To provide the public good as efficiently and effectively as possible. Or, as written in the preamble of the Constitution:

in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity

… THAT is the purpose of government.  THAT is its motivation.

So, the next time you see some boneheaded picture or video or quote comparing your government to your household, set people straight. People can, and will, reasonably disagree on what the right thing is, with regard to the direction of the country; however, people cannot argue their point about that direction using an analogy so fundamentally flawed as comparing our government to our households. Governments, it turns out, aren’t households; they don’t work like households, they don’t spend or borrow like households, and they aren’t motivated to do the same things that households do. When people claim that a government budget is like a household budget, or like a business budget, they aren’t providing an insight. They are perpetuating a myth – or, worse (and too often the case), telling a lie.

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Stopping on a DIME – Why we must intervene in Syria

I taught my kids that there are three pillars of national power — political, military, and economic.  Nations can influence other nations and their own populace using only these three levers (sometimes alone, but usually in combination with one another).  It’s been true since time immemorial.  It will always be true.

During the last ten years of asymmetric warfare and military operations other than war, the US military to came up with the acronym “DIME” to describe these levers of power.  DIME stands for Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic.  This is essentially what I taught my children — except that “political” is split out into Diplomatic (the ability of nations to influence other nations through political engagement) and Informational (the ability of nations to control or influence the information environment, outside of and within their own borders).

A cohesive national strategy involves the balanced application of all of our powers toward an end objective.  Any one lever on its own does not work so well; they must typically be used in some combination to achieve the desired effects.  It is up to our political leaders, and in some cases our military leaders, to figure out how best to apply power using these levers.  It is almost never an easy decision.  The factors involved are complex; the impacts can be immense.

In the case of Syria, we applied political (diplomatic) pressure early-on, and we have continued to apply that pressure on the international stage.  One of the ways in which we applied diplomatic pressure on Bashar al-Assad was by drawing a red line — we told him that we would not tolerate his use of chemical weapons, or anything that looked like his use of chemical weapons, against his own people.  The President specifically said that we would be looking for anything that looked like chemical weapons being moved around or staged.

It now appears that the Assad regime has actually deployed chemical weapons against the Syrian people at least once, perhaps more than once.  A team of UN inspectors was imminently to be on the ground investigating claims of previous use of chemical weapons when a new Sarin gas attack was alleged to have occurred in Damascus.  Bowing to international diplomatic pressure, the Syrian government has allowed UN inspectors access to the site, but only after conducting heavy shelling of the area where the attack was alleged to have occurred.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the attacks alleged — at least this last one — did, in fact, occur, and that they were carried out by the Syrian government.  These seem to be safe assumptions, by the way.  It’s not clear how rebels who can barely scrape together some rifles and a few RPGs could have pulled off multiple, coordinated artillery attacks using chemical weapons (or why they would have done so — against themselves and a LOT of civilians — ignoring the fringe theory that the Syrian rebels would use nerve gas in order to provoke international military engagement).

Let’s walk down the list:

  • Diplomatic – After about a hundred thousand deaths in the conflict to date, with no end in sight, it’s probably safe to assume that no diplomatic solution is forthcoming.  Bear in mind that Russia and Iran are supplying arms to the Syrian government, and that Russia is backing the Syrian leadership in the UN Security Council (with veto power as a permanent member of the council).
  • Informational – Outside of Syria, the media has no love for Bashar al-Assad.  Most of the world wants him gone and sees him as a monster.  I somehow doubt that leaflets, Internet reports being fed to the media, television news coverage, etc., will impact the behavior of the Syrian regime.  It certainly has not had any effect to date.  Inside Syria, the information environment is state-controlled, and opinions are hard-lined in favor of or against the government already (there is no sway-able audience within Syria for any message at this point).
  • Economic – It is possible that economic sanctions could have some impact on Syria that diplomatic sanctions have not had to date.  However, Syria’s economy is already in pretty bad shape, and they have key trade partners who will ignore any economic sanctions that might be imposed.  If we were still in a position of Syria not having crossed our red line, it might be feasible to continue political pressure and increase that pressure through punishing economic sanctions, but the effect would be gradual and the punishment resulting from those sanctions would primarily impact the Syrian people in Syria (the ones who haven’t fled) — not the Syrian government.

What tools are left?  What levers can we pull?  Only one.

The importance of this cannot be overemphasized:  We drew a red line.  Syria crossed it.

I hope that I don’t have to construct an argument as to why the US has a vested interest in having the ability to prevent other nations and non-state actors from using chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.  If you’re wondering why this is our business, go have a nice talk with your houseplant, and never, ever vote again.

Our choices are down to this (through process of elimination):

  • Take Military action.
  • Do nothing.

Doing nothing is not an option.  Why?  Because it sends the message that the United States of America is not to be listened to, when it comes to preventing the proliferation and use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons by states and non-state actors.  It sends this exact message:

Dear nefarious actors,
We might threaten you — but we will never back up our threat.  You have carte blanche to go ahead and do whatever you want, and we will not stop you. Kill whomever you want to kill, however you would like, including us, whenever you want to.

In the immediate context, this message is sent to the Syrian people.  The message reads clearly:  NO ONE WILL PROTECT YOU from these types of weapons.  YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.

In the long term, it sends that message to every future bad actor.  The next Bashar al-Assad.  The next Stalin.  The next Hitler.

That is not an option.

I don’t envy the people who have to figure out exactly how to take military action to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons.  I don’t envy the diplomats who have to convince the rest of the world to support this action (BTW, Europe doesn’t need much convincing).  I don’t envy the President who will have the final word when the moment comes.

But the path ahead of us is clear and we must walk it.  Take military action.  Make it hurt enough that Assad and every other totalitarian nutcase thinks long and hard about repeating this type of behavior.  And, importantly – do it soon.

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Pick a Side of History, Rand Paul

I don’t think there is objective evidence that we’re precluding African-Americans from voting any longer.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), 8/14/2013

In an article in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen gives Rand Paul some pointers on where to find the “objective evidence” that he says doesn’t exist.  He then offers Rand Paul a choice:  Either get behind this myth and keep doubling-down on a losing hand (like the birthers did); or debunk it, and stand on the right side of history.

By the way, if you’re going to check out this article, there’s one other that you should read:  This article in The Economist provides a bit of an overview of the recent history of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  If you’re like most Americans, you don’t know anything about ALEC — which is why you should read the article.  It turns out that ALEC is behind a huge spate of conservative social issues legislation at the state level, including so-called Stand Your Ground laws and other gun rights activism, and (relevant here) voter suppression laws across the United States.  They all came from one place, which used to operate almost unseen.  ALEC is pulling the strings of state legislatures across the nation.  Wherever you stand on these issues is beside the point; we should all know about ALEC and their role in these issues over the last decade or so.

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No Confidence

We need a new mechanism in American politics.  We need to introduce a vote of no confidence.

US Capital Dome

Home of the Least Productive People Anywhere

We’ve probably all heard the term “no confidence” before.  We might even believe that we already have a tool like this in our collective tool belt.  Various issues-based organizations, activists, and social policy wonks advocate a “vote of no confidence” in some thing or another all the time.  In that context, a vote of no confidence isn’t a vote at all.  It’s a vague statement of malcontent, about something, to everyone at once and no one in particular.  It all seems pretty meaningless, because it is meaningless; and, to be clear, this is not at all what I’m suggesting.

Most of the Western world, unlike the United States, practices some form of a Parliamentary system of government.  In such a system, the people elect representatives, and the representatives then form a government.  The government may be a singular political party, if it holds a dominating position following elections, but more often than not the government is a coalition made up of multiple parties, who must be willing to cooperate with one another in order to govern.

In that context, a vote of no confidence is a serious matter.  Someone in government, typically in the minority, calls for the vote.  The vote targets either a particular minister or ministry (what we’d think of, probably, as secretaries or departments) — or, a vote of no confidence can be called on the ruling government as a whole.  If the vote succeeds, the subject of the vote is obligated to resign and the process to replace that portion of the government proceeds.  This can trigger the appointment of new officials, new elections, and the formation of a whole new government.

A survey taken in the last few days indicates that a whopping 10% of American voters rate the performance of the US Congress as good or excellent.  This is up from a month earlier, when the same survey gave Congress a 7% approval rating.  It’s also the first time that Congress has broken double-digit approval ratings this year.  A resounding one in ten voters approves of the work done by his or her elected representation in Congress.

It’s not hard to see why we don’t approve of our elected representative lawmakers.  As of the middle of last month, the 113th US Congress had passed a whopping 15 bills into law.  That’s right.  15.  Here’s a list of them.  In terms of their effect on the law, this is what our Congress has done (at all) since elections:

  • Passed a revised version of the Stolen Valor Act (after the Supreme Court struck down the first version) – making it illegal again to make a false claim of being a veteran
  • Kicked the can down the road on the debt limit
  • Made Flu vaccines taxable (wow, that was important)
  • Changed the law to allow someone to fill in for the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the District of Columbia if there is no CFO
  • Put Air Traffic Controllers back to work so that they could fly home on recess
  • Gave themselves permission to conduct insider trading (revised the STOCK act)
  • Reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, and the Animal Drug and Animal Generic Drug User Fee Act
  • Kicked the can down the road on the budget (passed another continuing resolution)
  • Passed a disaster relief bill for victims of Hurricane Sandy (several months after it happened, with a huge and stupid political standoff in the process)
  • Passed an appropriations bill funding disaster relief agencies generally for the year (which hadn’t been done in appropriations to-date, with all of that can-kicking)
  • Posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to each of the victims on the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing
  • Passed a law, I kid you not, specifying the size of precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins.
  • Passed a law called the “Freedom to Fish Act” which opens up boating around dams in Kentucky and Tennessee.

That, people, is the sum total of our business that our representatives have done.

We have a mechanism by which we vote for elected representatives.  However, we clearly and desperately need a mechanism by which we can vote against them.  We could impeach or recall the whole lot of them — triggering 535 separate actions in all 50 states and in DC.  But, with an abysmal record like this, doesn’t it make more sense that we should have some kind of mechanism by which Congress could be effectively forced to just admit collective failure, go home, and trigger a whole new set of elections?  It’s, admittedly, not quite the same thing as recalling or impeaching every single one of them, and also not quite the same thing as what happens in a vote of no confidence in other systems of government.  But, with this type of absolutely unprecedented failure, I find myself wishing for a giant red RESET button.  The closest thing that seems to exist is a vote of no confidence in the government.  I really find myself wishing that we had something like that to force a government-wide reset and reorganization.

Screw it.  Just start over.

I tend to think about it this way:  What are we really losing if Congress goes home today?  They’re not doing anything.  What would be the harm in not paying them to pretend to do something?

We need a reset button.  We need to implement something very much like a vote of no confidence.  I’d be interested to hear random thoughts about how this might work, even though it seems to be about as likely to occur as, oh, I don’t know, Congress doing something of consequence.

[he said, from his bedroom, where he sits now, furloughed, because Congress could not be bothered to do anything]

Update: [8/4/2013]  As of the August recess, Congress had passed, in total, 22 bills for the President’s signature.  The Senate is moderately more productive than the House, but a slew of legislative business requires action by both houses of Congress, so aside from confirming nominations, this is largely unimportant.

When Congress returns from its summer recess, there will be nine working days left in the Fiscal Year.  In that time, Congress will need to resolve a host of differences (including a self-created crisis concerning the debt limit) just to keep the Government operating.  A short list of legislative priorities would include every annual appropriations act (there are 13 annual appropriations – an overview from 2004, which is still accurate, can be found here).  Even if Congress passed all 13 required appropriations, the government would still shut down shortly thereafter unless the debt limit is again extended, and Republicans are vowing to make a fight out of this (and again threatening to downgrade the country’s credit rating, unnecessarily, in the process).

Also: I think it’s important to note here that Congress does a lot more than just opening and closing the purse strings annually.  I’ve been surprised, and saddened, to see that there are those who believe that the framework of laws that govern our country is “done” and that Congress should focus purely on spending and oversight functions.  This view is, to put it mildly, naive.

Let’s be clear: No law is perfect.  And we have a lot of laws.  And our laws often need to be reauthorized and updated in order to remain relevant.  Reauthorizations are a normal part of the legislative agenda and a fact of life in a system of complex laws; on a multi-year cycle, Congress must revisit laws such as The Patriot Act, FISA authorizations, Trafficking in Persons, FISMA, Federal education laws, and so on (too many laws to effectively list).  Revisiting these laws is necessary in order to keep them current and to address problems in their implementation through changes in the basic legislation (for example, No Child Left Behind was introduced in Federal education law in 2002, was first reauthorized in 2007, and is due for reauthorization again).  In all, Congress must effectively pass hundreds of pieces of legislation annually in order to keep funding the government and to keep our system of laws updated (even if none of those laws fundamentally change).  Doing less means having a non-functional government.  If Congress continues to do nothing, our system of laws and our ability to execute the functions of government will continue to slowly unravel.  Congress doing nothing has no positive effects for anyone, regardless of what you happen to think about any of these laws.

In some cases, our laws must even be updated in order to remain constitutional; for example, in the last session, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, principally because the coverage formula established under the law had not been updated by Congress since 1975.

At the end of the day, we have three branches of government: One that enforces and executes the law (the Executive branch), one that interprets the law (the Judicial branch), and one that writes the law (the Legislative branch).  Each must work with the other and must do its part in order to have a minimally functional government.  A Congress that is this ineffective does not suit anyone’s interest, because the entire government is crippled by Congress’ inability or unwillingness to do its job.

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