The Third Camp

In the past, people tended to fall  into one of two political camps regarding the Constitution.

Camp One thinks the Constitution mostly protects our right to own guns without restriction, protects Christianity (and other religions to a lesser degree) and (if read correctly) prohibits abortion and other sins. The rest is boring boilerplate but basically says that, aside from the common defense, the government shouldn’t interfere with our lives, especially by taxing us or regulating our businesses.

Camp Two thinks the Constitution mostly protects rights like free speech and assembly (including guns, but maybe they could be “well regulated”) and says the government should not play favorites with any religion, including Christianity. It instructs the government to act as a counterweight to the rich and powerful when they’re tempted to discriminate against the poor and weak. The government should try to solve the problems of citizens. Beyond that, except for defense, the government shouldn’t interfere with our lives, especially by restricting personal choices regarding our own bodies. Sinning is a personal choice.

A third camp seems to be emerging. This group thinks words (including those in the Constitution) and facts are fluid; their meaning changes, and they don’t really matter. This camp and the way it’s evolving scares some of us. Think about it: rights are just words on parchment; convictions and beliefs shouted with righteous fervor are trivial ephemera; science is a story woven to comfort children. With this mindset, there’s nothing wrong with repeating crap spawned by the Internet that old fashioned guys like me call “provably wrong.” There’s nothing wrong with calling people “liberal pukes” (as some of my Facebook “friends” call me) because those are only words. Insults are colorful blossoms in the garden of free speech. “Lies” just represent differences of opinion. What’s the big deal?

I think words matter. America is a country based on ideals, but those ideals are powerless until crystallized into words. We write down our laws. History is experience condensed and preserved as language. Christianity grew from the words Jesus spoke, the words His disciples wrote down. Without the Bible, there is no Christianity. Without the Constitution, there is no America. Without history, the next generation becomes cavemen. When we trivialize words and their link to truth, we risk everything our country and its people stand for. Conservatives revered Justice Scalia for his (perhaps extreme) agreement with this idea.

People supported Trump for various reasons, many of them noble and sincere. But did they make their decision based on his words? Words like “drain the swamp” and “make America great again?” If so, they should prepare to be disappointed.

Trump does not treasure language the way our founding fathers did, or Scalia did, or Jesus did. Words don’t really matter to him; he says what comes into his head even if it’s not consistent with the words he said five minutes earlier. Some of Trump’s fans might have second thoughts once they realize that, to him, the “right to bear arms” is just four or five words strung together randomly. Not important. Certainly not one of his core beliefs. “Right to life” is only a phrase and subject to interpretation. “Well regulated” could mean “regulated strictly by me.”

If a man doesn’t care whether or not his words match the truth, even a little bit, we’ll never know what he actually believes. There is no way to predict what he might do. That doesn’t seem to bother people in that third camp.

And that’s scary.



The Candidates and Their Issues

hanging-chad-guy-570x430I thought it would be fun to compare the presidential candidates’ opinions on the important issues of the day. It would be easy, I foolishly thought, because each one has an “issues” page on their website. (direct links at the end of this post). I’d compare their positions on things like “education” and “national defense” etc. Then I’d whip up a quick, concise comparison that would clarify my own thoughts and make me sound smart when I argue with relatives.

After spending several hours I realized there was a good reason why large news organizations have not already done this: It can’t be done. These candidates don’t agree on what an issue is, what the purpose of an issues page is, or even if that page should feature written words.

I started by comparing the simplest, most general things about each “issues” page.

The first difference is they don’t think the country faces the same number of critical issues. Hillary lists 30, Sanders lists 28. Trump lists 20, Kasich lists 11, and Cruz lists 9.

The second difference is that, while Clinton, Sanders, and Cruz took the traditional approach of listing issues facing the country as a whole, like national security etc., both Kasich and Trump included issues facing them alone. For example, Trump lists as issues, “Trump University Truth,” “Self Funding,” and “Life Changing Experiences.” John Kasich lists “Electability.” While “self funding” and “electability” are certainly important in a sales pitch, it’s a stretch to consider them national issues in the traditional sense.

Cruz took a much broader approach than the others. Rather than focusing on specific policies, problems, or plans, he talks about the philosophical issues facing the country. His nine “issues” include “Religious Liberty,” “Life, Marriage and Family” and “Stand With Israel.” Because his main appeal is a firm conservative stance on the Constitution rather than specific plans, this makes some sense. But it made my own task harder. How do you compare “Second Amendendment” with “Alzheimer’s Research?” And how do those compare to “Electability” or “Trump University?” It’s no wonder the media has not focused on “issues,” whatever those are.

Complicating the task, they disagreed on the assignment itself.

Clinton and Sanders both thought it was a term paper on the theme “issues facing the country;” they thought they were supposed to explain their specific plans for dealing with them. Like annoying, over-achieving A-students, their reports are complete with footnotes, references, links to additional information, articles they’ve written on each subject, and arguments supporting their plan.

If I had to summarize them in one word, Hillary’s word is “reform.” She wants to expand the programs she likes, reform the ones that could work better, and only eliminate or reverse a few things, like Citizen’s United. She argues hard for each of her 30 issues.

Bernie’s word is “progressive.” He wants to correct imbalances and  empower the poor and disenfranchised. Twenty of his 28 issues boil down to this.

Democrats apparently love details. Not content with large, vague ideas, Sanders goes into details as fine as making election day a national holiday, and removing marijuana from the federal list of outlawed drugs. Clinton lists raising research money for Alzheimer’s from $586 million per year to a very specific $2 billion per year.  It’s like they were applying to be CEO of a company with over 2 million employees and a budget five times larger than Apple Computer. Which, of course, they are. Beyond merely attaching resumes, they outlined specific examples of how they intend to govern. That’s great, but it’s pretty hard for a guy like me to go through all that stuff and compare it to other job applicants who took a much different approach. Therefore, I suggest you go to each of their websites, choose an issue that’s important to you, and read what they have to say. Both of these Democrats like what Obama’s done. Clinton intends to do more of the same. Sanders intends to do MUCH more of the same.  Their biggest difference is that Sanders would work to eliminate most trade deals with foreign countries. Clinton would work to improve them.

Trump thought the assignment was to repeat the case for why we should vote for him. Perhaps out of kindness to citizens who are literacy-impaired, his issues page downplays reading in favor of little videos of him explaining each item. Nearly all are less than one minute. In one word, Trump’s plan is “Trump.”

One of his major issues is “The Economy.” His plan for the economy is 25 seconds long, including opening music. I typed that one verbatim. Trump, probably reading from a carefully crafted script, says “One of the things I’m going to do, and largely with our great tax plan where everybody’s taxes is going down, is we’re going to grow our economy. We have to get rid of the 19 trillion in debt. So unfair! So unfair! So TOTALLY unfair to our young people! We are not going to leave you with that burden.” That’s it. That’s his plan for the economy. As Dave Barry might say, “I am not making this up.” Other Trump videos are longer. The one about the national issue of “Trump University Truth” is nearly 4 minutes long. Based on the size of the video, Mr T. feels that this is more complex and important than “the economy.” In fact, by that metric, “Trump University Truth” is the most important issue facing America.

Trump’s video labeled “trade war” is 38 seconds long and says that, if a company moves out of the U.S., we have to tax their goods at the rate of 38 percent coming back into the country. That’s the entirely of his plan. His video on solving the Israel/Palestine problem is a bit less than a minute. After the opening music, he professes his love for Israel, then outlines his plan. His plan is to remain “somewhat neutral” and “I’ll try.”

I could not believe Mr. Trump’s campaign was this shallow, so I went back to his website. It turns out he lists six additional “issues” under the category of “positions.” In that part of the site his opinions are comparable to some of his opponents, with written words and everything. Under “healthcare” he supports repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something better. Although it’s pretty vague, that future plan will allow sale of health insurance across state lines and making health insurance premiums fully tax deductible. He would make Medicaid a block grant program, letting each state control how it spends the federal money. Those are the big points. Under the category “U.S. China trade,” Trump would immediately declare China a currency manipulator because he thinks that will force them to negotiate. He would also “force China to uphold intellectual property laws” and “put an end to China’s illegal export subsidies and lax labor and environmental standards.” Those struck me as goals rather than actions or plans. I don’t think a President has the power to change Chinese law. Similarly, under Veterans affairs and his other positions, he usually outlines goals rather than plans. Some of his ideas may sound great, like “firing corrupt and incompetent executives” but without a plan for changing federal hiring and firing rules to allow that, it lacks heft.

On the other hand, Trump’s “tax reform” position  is actually quite interesting. He wants to simplify the tax code, reduce taxes on low-income people, eliminate most deductions for high income folks. I am not smart enough to analyze this, and I’m skeptical because of the shallowness of his other ideas. If all his positions were this detailed and interesting, I might have to rethink my opinion of the man. But they aren’t.

Cruz thought the assignment was to create an outline of his core beliefs, with less emphasis on problems, specifics, or plans. He passionately defines what he believes, then refers to his past accomplishments, like arguing before the Supreme Court and supporting cheerleaders who wanted religious slogans on their banners. He had some success as a lawyer but beyond that, many of his accomplishments amount to voicing support for causes that proved unsuccessful. He spends less time on what he hopes to do in the future. For example, under Second Amendment, (one of his 11 issues) he describes what it is and why it’s important. The closest he comes to an action plan for the future is: “Ted Cruz has been a tireless defender of the Second Amendment.”

But Cruz does get specific about his plans regarding some issues. In one word, Cruz’s plan is to “eliminate.” From his website:
“To shrink the size and power of the federal government, the Cruz Five for Freedom plan eliminates the IRS, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  As President, Ted Cruz will appoint heads of each of those agencies whose sole charge will be to wind them down and determine whether any programs need to be preserved.” He would pass a “balanced budget amendment”and plans to establish a flat tax of ten percent on everyone. Regarding border security, “Ted Cruz will end Obama’s amnesty on day one, will end catch-and-release, increase deportations, stop sanctuary policies, and strengthen E-verify… he will suspend and audit H-1B visas and halt any increase in legal immigration so long as American unemployment remains unacceptably high… He will “end birthright citizenship.” He will “build a wall that works… increase aerial surveillance” “triple the number of Border Patrol agents” and “complete a biometric entry-exit tracking system” His website lists as an accomplishment that he introduced a bill to establish a five year minimum sentence for those who enter the country illegally, and that he has opposed efforts to establish any path to citizenship for those here illegally.

Cruz’s most interesting position, to me, came in an op ed he wrote, linked to his issues page, in which he calls for a “retention election” for every Supreme Court Justice every eight years. “Those justices deemed unfit for retention by both a majority of the American people as a whole and by majorities of the electorates in at least half of the 50 states will be removed from office and disqualified from future service on the Court.” This was prompted by his disagreement with the Roberts court rulings on Obamacare and same sex marriage.

Cruz does not spend any time defending his management skills or political skills or knowledge of issues like national defense. In his mind, the job of President is to support the Constitution and eliminate as much of the federal government as he can.

Conversely, Kasich (who is governor of Ohio) spends most of his time defending his management and political skills. He devotes much of his issues page to explaining what he has done in the past in Ohio, with the implication he’d do something similar in the future. For example, one of his issues is “Education;” On that one page alone, he uses the word “Ohio” twelve times. This is a bit confusing, because his main point, early on the page, is that the federal government should stay out of education and leave it to the states. He seems to argue that he did a great job with education in Ohio, and as President he hopes other governors will also do a great job, because it’s none of the federal government’s business. On his health care page he uses the word Ohio 7 times. On the “Fiscal Responsibility” page he refers to Ohio 6 times and makes no mention at all of what he might do as President.

In one word, Kasich’s plan is to “dismantle.” This surprised me, because he comes across as such a moderate when you watch him.

Kasich actually lists a “Strategy for Dismantling Washington.” He believes the federal government should return much of its power to the individual states. He want to “cut taxes,” pass a balanced budget amendment, “shrink and dismantle the Washington Bureaucracy” but increase defense spending by $102 billion. He wants to return control to the states for many areas now handled by a federal department, including transportation, education, labor, medicaid, low income assistance. He would approve the Keystone pipeline and eliminate “reckless regulations.”

He would specifically eliminate the Department of Commerce. This means the elimination of the National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Suspecting those agencies might actually do useful stuff, he’d transfer their responsibilities to the Dept of Interior. He does not mention what he would do with the 47,000 employees of the Department of Commerce. The website implies that many, many other departments should be dismantled as well.

If you resonate with a word like “reform,” Hillary might be your candidate. If you like the word “progressive” you’re probably already feeling the Bern. If the word “Trump” excites you, we know what you like. If you like “eliminate” you’re a Cruz guy. If you like “dismantle” you’re a Kasich person.

To make that even more concise, the Democrats believe in “adding.” Given a problem, they see the solution as one of adding something: more money, a new agency, new energy or attention. The exception is the military. They think we already spend enough money, we need to spend it smarter.

The Republicans believe in “subtracting.” Given a problem, they would reduce taxes, reduce regulations, eliminate departments and programs. Except for the military. In every case, they think we need to add money to the military budget.

You can vote for adding or subtracting. If that sounds like an oversimplification, well, it’s that kind of election.  (just kidding. He didn’t secure that domain and someone else snagged it)

Can I name my new van Tonto?

Naming vehicles is silly. On the other hand, I’ve named blank sheets of paper for a long time, and occasionally make money at it. I named one ream of blank paper “Jumper.” Others pages became Belinda, Marcus, Malcom, Billy Billy Billy, The Magician who was learning electronics, Miss Pounder the exercise instructor who inadvertently taught math, Bruce the Duck who saved the day, the evil Nightsmoke, Pon, Braindead the Algebra Student, and many more. Naming things is kind of what I do. Continue reading →

Cicada Songs, Ebola Dreams

I’ve read several popular books about diseases recently: Rabid, The Hot ZoneSmallpoxDisease, Spillover, and  Deadly Outbreaks. More books on a single topic than usual, but not with any project in mind. It just happened, the way it happens to folks who start to read books by Michael Connelly or Rex Stout. Several focussed on diseases that leap from animals to humans (“zoonotic” diseases). No curious person could resist daydreaming about some of the unsolved mysteries one encounters when reading about diseases like Ebola and Marburg. You play detective in your brain and then you almost certainly come up with your own crackpot theory, just like I did. Continue reading →

Political Plagiarism

Rand Paul is upset that people caught him using lines from Wikipedia and elsewhere as if they were his own. He feels like a victim and wishes he could just duel someone to settle it all. Or spend a couple days in detention after school, but certainly not his whole career. His words, I hasten to admit. Personally, I think most of what he did was harmless and we should cut him some slack. Continue reading →

Goats and Pigs, Iodine and Thiamine: a Hypothesis

It’s easy to decide that iodine deficiency plays some role in neurological diseases like ALS and Alzheimers. For over fifty years we’ve known that you’re much likelier to get one of these diseases if you spent your infancy in a region that’s deficient in iodine. Another example: exposure to the fungicide maneb dramatically increases the chances of getting a neurological disease from a toxin; maneb works by disrupting the use of iodine in animals. Our instincts shout that iodine must be involved; but we can’t say it out loud. Although iodine deficiency remains the number one cause of mental retardation in the world, we can’t prove it has a role in Alzheimer’s or ALS. No one has found a smoking gun. Continue reading →