TagUnited States

Hope Strikes Back

Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College and thereby the Presidency. There are no two ways about it. There are attempts currently underway by the third candidate to ask for a recount Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan [1] but that’s not going to change the result. However, on the popular vote front, votes are still being counted and 18 states are still pending to be certified including California, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, etc. On this measure, Hillary Clinton is leading right now by 2.7 million votes i.e. by 2 percentage points.

Some say that this is a useless exercise since the outcome may have been different due to changed strategies had popular vote been the measure [2] But I disagree.

I find solace in this measure not as a way to countermand the result but simply as a barometer of popular opinion. Days after the election, I was depressed primarily because I thought this country as a whole had decided that progressive policies of the past were no longer welcome including immigrants such as myself. This measure gives me hope that the majority of the country doesn’t think so. Even the margin in those three Rust Belt swing states has been steadily falling and at last count, is fewer than 80,000 votes out of more than 13 million votes. The margin in each of those states was fewer than 1 percentage point with the lowest in Michigan at 0.2 percentage point or just under 10,000 votes.

Just imagine, a marginal shift of those 80,000 votes and we would now be talking about how those racist bigoted working class whites were finally rebuked and cast into the darkness of history. Nearly 600,000 people in those states cast their votes for the third party so clearly they weren’t voting for Trump. So even in those woebegone Rust Belt states, most people did not vote for Trump and his racist bigoted policies. The ‘First Past the Post’ system simply helped him claim victory. That’s fine and we’ll have to live through the consequences of his victory this may be the extent of the GOP victory even while being blatant racist. If that’s the only way you can get those people to turn out and the margin was a measly 80K votes in states with a combined population of nearly 28 million people, there may still be hope. You just have to wait four more years and wish the world isn’t destroyed beyond repair by then.

As far as enthusiasm for Obama in 2012 vs. Clinton for 2016 goes:

Footnotes:
  1. I hope this blatant ruse to grift from grief-stricken and panicked Democrats doesn’t go far. []
  2. Critics claim that we don’t know what the outcome may have been but given the voter trends and regions where people live and the current margin of victory, chances are that Democrats would still get more votes. In the last seven presidential elections, Republicans have won the popular vote only once but the Presidency three times.

    People often don’t vote because they’re disillusioned that their vote doesn’t matter. They may be Democrats in deeply red states or Republicans in deeply blue states. In large red states with growing populations (TX, GA, and AZ), Democrats gained votes; even to the extent of 7 percentage points in Texas.

    Also, if popular vote was a measure then the concept of protest vote diminishes and third-party vote share would fall. You would effectively voting against a candidate. []

Betraying LBJ

I’ve lived in three cities in the U.S.; all three have been home to a Presidential Library. I still regret not visiting the Carter Center in Atlanta during my five-year-stay there but I did take plenty of visitors to the Bush (senior) Library in College Station. So finally after living in Austin for three years, I visited the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library on the University of Texas campus. It’s an impressive monolithic structure featuring a cavernous atrium within, adjacent to the Public Affairs school with its name. The library, like any other, features the work and life of Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th President of the United States. LBJ, as he was known, was a Texan native and grew up not too far from Austin in Johnson City.

LBJ Pens for Legislation

As soon as you enter the Library, you see a row of pens corresponding to the legislation it was used to sign it into law. That sight sets the tone and impact of his presidency featured extensively in the displays at the library. The amount of progressive legislation signed into law in just 5 years was enormous and continues to shape our lives to this day. Check out the following legislation he moved through Congress:

LBJ Legislative Achievements

Look at that list and think about the impact it has had on your life. I can literally trace my presence in this country (and to be writing this post) all the way to the Immigration Act of 1965 and it wasn’t even his signature legislation. Other progressive landmarks included Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Public Broadcasting (NPR & PBS), the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, and plenty others in highway safety (seat belts), urban housing (Fair Housing Act), criminal justice. Even as an Indian, I can thank the Johnson administration (& of course Norman Borlaugh) for saving over a billion lives by facilitating the Green Revolution.

So with that impressive list of achievements, you would imagine Johnson is still feted as the greatest President ever by the Democrats, right? Plus he would easily win a second term. Not so. Johnson got bogged down in the Vietnam War and didn’t even seek a second term. The anti-war progressives protested vociferously and eventually pinned the Vietnam War mess solely on Johnson’s shoulders and we ended up with a Nixon presidency who eventually expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos after having to withdraw ignominiously from Vietnam in 1974. The ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War as promised (does that remind you of someone today?) was never revealed and in fact, it’s now known that the Nixon campaign treasonously sabotaged a peace plan in 1968 to prolong the war and deny the Johnson administration any credit.

So even with those solid progressive victories that liberals continue to cherish and enjoy even today, Johnson was relegated to the history books as a failed President and passed away without any fanfare. Given this precedent, why would any Democrat work for any progressive agenda if he or she knows that one error in judgment in a war-related decision would take you down (again, does this remind you of someone?) The progressive Left would never stand by you and would instead let a demagogue conservative win just coz their candidate wasn’t as perfect as they demanded. Eventually, all the liberal environmentalists from the 60s ended up driving SUVs in the suburbs that they fled en masse to get away from the minorities. If nothing else, the progressives love two things – protesting in perpetuity and acting in ways that eventually underscores the goals that they are protesting against. Wait, add one more thing – being goddamn hypocritical. Holier-than-thou progressives will always complain about not getting their perfect candidate and will blame the rest of us for nominating a flawed candidate but eventually it comes down to who gets the most votes. The other side turns up but progressives don’t.

If nothing, conservatives understand electoral politics. Remember the 2010 midterms after being nearly wiped out in 2008? You can achieve your goals but you have to first get elected to introduce and pass legislation. As a Democratic presidential nominee once famously said, you cannot change minds but you can change laws. That’s how we got desegregation, civil rights, and even gay marriage. You are not going to get everything at once but you can lose everything at once. Unfortunately her words fell on deaf ears.

Be it 1968 or 2016, the progressives love snatching defeat from the jaws of victory just because they didn’t have a perfect candidate. Even when they were shown that the conservatives have fielded the most imperfect candidate you could imagine. But will we learn? I hope so but I fear we will not.

Voting for a Racist is the New Normal

“America is already great because America is good”
– Hillary Clinton

Two weeks ago, that statement was dealt a severe blow as Donald Trump became President-Elect of the United States. Just like many others in my circle, it landed like a hard blow and made me question my beliefs and assumptions about this country. I’ve lived here for little over 16 years now or rather in two Bush terms and two Obama terms and never have I felt more despair in terms of this country’s future and ideals. To be honest, I’ve not yet completely recovered much less heed to any advice of being open to the “other side”. It’s almost like America woke up suddenly and said, it’s a white country and you just live in it.

The more I read about this election especially after a grueling and anger-inducing 16 months of campaigning, the more I believe that white America stood up and stamped its authority over this country of immigrants. We often ask each other that how could anyone vote for Trump after what he said and has done throughout the course of his campaign and his earlier life? He and his supporters offended Mexicans and other immigrants, African Americans and other minorities, Jews, disabled people, and even women. He was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women and a dozen women came forward confirming that he indeed had. He called Mexicans rapists and criminals and implied black neighborhoods have an infestation of crime. He mocked disabled reporters.

Well, maybe…just maybe they voted for him just because of those things and not in spite of them. Perhaps he was so generous in his hatred of various sections of the society that people focused on the things they hated too and ignored the rest. This may just be a form of cognitive deafness if you may. A Muslim woman who hates Mexicans, or a feminist who hates Muslim, or a Latino who is sexist, or, well, you get the picture.

Pundits are already spinning narratives on why Clinton lost but don’t pay heed to those. The race angle only makes sense. I don’t say this lightly since I do (still) believe America tries the most in attempting to address the scourge of supremacy of one race or religion over the other. Except in this election, Republicans actively sought to support the candidate who dispensed with the dog whistle and actively courted white supremacists and anti-Semites.

The Republican base had been clamoring for a more overtly radical and less politically-correct candidate since the GOP chose to nominate moderates like McCain and Romney. Instead this time when the base won out and they got the brash loud-mouthed lout, they came out in droves to support the nominee. Data shows Trump won a lot more Romney voters in red counties or at least enough to counter the increased Latino voters in Democratic counties. In my opinion, Clinton’s only electoral folly was that she appealed to the better angels of the GOP’s nature only to find out that there were none. The moderate and #NeverTrump-ers either went back to the Republican fold or simply were too few to matter. A majority of whites, whether they were college educated or not, voted for Trump.

The Rust Belt is not evolving as rapidly as the other parts of the country in coming to terms with the new economy. Resentment against declining job opportunities and resistance to training for the newer jobs [1] was redirected to the presence of immigrants. Fear in those parts worked much better than hope. People did not vote for Trump in spite of his despicable views but because of it. He forced them to dig up their primal fears and baser instincts of resentment and victimhood based on a false sense of racial superiority. Other moderates hadn’t made those fears explicit yet.

Subtle hints didn’t work, obvious hints didn’t work; ultimately you just had to say it out loud and repeatedly for those people to get it. No amount of talking to them about ‘economic anxieties’ is going to matter. I’ve lived for 8 years in one of the more conservative towns in the country where college-educated white conservatives consider a space space under a Republican administration and a Democrat administration. The fear is real. No one was talking about reaching across to the liberals once Obama got elected in a far bigger mandate. They just got down to work and decided to beat liberals and in 2010, they laid the groundwork of doing just that.

However, to end on a slightly positive note, it turns out that just over 100,000 voters in three Rust Belt states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) decided the election in which 130 million people voted in a country that has more than 320 million people. Of course, it was the Democrats much vaunted blue wall that cracked; however the signs have been there for a while now. So if there’s any reason to hope it’s that the majority of this country doesn’t subscribe to those views. As votes are still being counted, Clinton continues to increase her lead in the popular vote and may end up with at least 2 million votes or around a 2% margin. That’s a point and a half over Al Gore who also won the popular vote while losing the presidency. That’s progress; rest is just electoral college reality.

Footnotes:
  1. We see this as part of our professional jobs []

Math of the Democratic Primary

Finally, our long national nightmare is over. Yesterday, the last of the states voted in the Democratic Primary. Although Washington D.C will vote on the 14th, no one cares about them because, one, it will vote overwhelmingly for Clinton and two, because taxation without representation still holds true for the nation’s capital ironically. Anyway, to summarize the results of the primary:

Hillary Clinton now has:

  • Won a majority of the popular vote count
  • Won the most states
  • Won the most primaries/contests [1]
  • Won the most closed primaries
  • Won a majority of the pledged delegates

Bernie Sanders has:

  • Won a majority of caucuses

Ergo ‘super delegates’ will and most already have pledged support for Hillary Clinton (571 to Sanders’ 48) pushing her over the edge for securing the Democratic nomination quite comfortably.

Caucuses versus Primaries

As Five Thirty Eight projects, if the caucuses were primaries instead i.e. voters cast a ballot instead of spending time debating for a few hours before casting their vote, Hillary Clinton would end up winning a majority of those as well. A grand total of 10,000 people caucused in Alaska. If it was a primary, an estimated 57,000 would cast their ballot.

But why estimate when Washinghton State provides the perfect experiement. It held an official caucus that awarded the delegates on March 26. Bernie Sanders won 73% of the vote compared to Clinton’s 27%. Nearly 237,000 votes were cast in this caucus. The state also held a primary on May 24. This time, however, Hillary Clinton won 54% of the vote compared to Sander’s 46%, and even though these results wouldn’t matter and it was purely a symbolic primary, more than 800,000 votes were cast in this primary. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which method gives the opportunity to the most people to exercise their choice.

Even though Clinton won most of the open primaries i.e. open to non-Democrats, I would argue that all primaries should be closed. If you want to elect a nominee for the Democratic Party, you should be a member of the Democratic Party. It’s that simple. If you want to claim youself as an Independent, you’ll have to wait until the General Election to cast your vote. There are umpteen third-party candidates in the fray if you are not satisfied with the two major party candidates.

On to the General

However, remember that, given the structure of the country’s winner-take-all Electoral College, unless your third-party wins the majority of the electoral votes, your vote will benefit the eventual winner from the two major parties. This year, such votes will help elect Trump. You can still exercise your choice but that’s the unintended consequence whether you like it or not and nope, this is not being passive-agressive. It’s just the way things play out.

there is a chance

This Democratic Primary wasn’t really close although it went through to June. But that was mostly because California hadn’t voted hence giving the person who was behind a probable although very unlikely chance. If California had voted on Super Tuesday, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.

Congratulations to Hillary Clinton. Now onward to beating Trump in the general.

Footnotes:
  1. includes territories that vote in primaries but not in the general. A total of 57 geographic contests were held this year []

A Zero Sum Voting Game

I love Glenn Greenwald and his work. He is one of the more honest journalists out there and heck, I even agree with most of his Clinton criticisms although these days he’s a tad too obsessed. In the tweet above, he’s correct, criticism of Clinton doesn’t equate support for Trump but when it comes down to voting, if you don’t vote for Clinton, it’s effectively a vote for Trump. In most multi-party democracies, that wouldn’t be true but in a republic like America where there’s effectively a duopoly, that’s an unfortunate side effect.

As much as Bernie or Trump supporters would say, it’s not exactly a conspiracy by the Republicans and the Democrats to maintain their stranglehold. The main culprit is the winner-take-all electoral system in the general election. Given this system, voters align themselves strategically and you eventually end up with just two main options. Even if it may seem that the parties themselves have at least two factions, eventually both factions vote for the party nominee and the election boils down to the few battleground states with the small number of undecided swing voters. It’s not easy to change the system since it depends on each individual states to do so. Right now, only Maine & Nebraska divvy up their electoral votes. If any large states especially battleground states like Ohio or Florida choose to do so without others following suit, they would instantly lose their importance. It can only be done if all states do it which seems highly improbable.

The Democratic primary is a proportional system and that’s why Bernie is still in the race because theoretically although highly improbable, he can still win. If the Democratic primaries were also winner-take-all, Hillary would be the nominee after New York. I made the following tweet just before New York primary and New York has 29 electoral votes [1].

The Republicans have a mishmash of proportional allocation, winner-take-most, and winner-take-all. This was done primarily after 2012 when Romney couldn’t lock down the nomination but now it has come back to bite them in the ass coz it’s helping Trump. The race would be wide open if it was proportional allocation.

Getting back to Greenwald’s tweet, this general election, it’s going to come down to Hillary or Trump. Either you vote for one of these candidates or you’re effectively risking seeing the other person winning even if you choose to stay at home. It all boils down to which candidate you do not want to win and how bad and not really about whom you want to see as President. This time the stakes are that high.

This Quora answer makes a great case on whether voting for someone because they’re the lesser of two evils is a good reason and the author says that, “it’s not just “a good reason”. It’s the only reason“; mostly because whether you vote or not, someone among the two is going to be President. So if you along with your purist friends don’t vote while waiting for the perfect candidate, you may end up with a candidate who is the greater of the two evils. In that case, you along with others suffer the consequences for a long time [2]. There is no perfect candidate and even if there is, unless you’ve the majority of people thinking that, you’ve to make hard choices and go with the pragmatic choice. If you don’t show up to vote, you’re part of the problem and would’ve no legitimate reason to complain later.

In this election, it’s more than clear on who is the lesser of the two evils although I don’t think she’s in the same ballpark to even compare. Hillary Clinton would still be better than any generic Republican candidate in today’s era. That said, if you still find faults with here, there is no reason to stop criticizing Clinton even after she is sworn in as President. But vote you must.

Footnotes:
  1. She’s at 315 right now []
  2. The next President may nominate as many as four Supreme Court Justices thus leaving a legacy for more than a generation []

The Need for the Perfect Candidate

February 8th, 2016 - Hudson, New Hampshire

Increasingly, voters in America, more so for the Democrats than for Republicans, are asking for the perfect candidate in terms of what they say and what they promise to do when elected. At times, what they promise to do may not even be realistically possible but I’ve already tweeted about that. This is more about demanding something from the candidate that he or she isn’t.

Continue reading

Look for America – Bernie Sanders Campaign Ad

A lovely ad by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Such a stark contrast to the sky-is-falling Republican ads. I like Bernie but I don’t think he’s going to win against Hillary Clinton. Hillary is not perfect. I had supported Obama against her in 2008 but compared to the GOP field, she’s the best we’ve got.

Next to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. must be the most misquoted and least understood figure in American history which is especially galling since we have folks living among us that’ve heard him speak and even walked beside him.

Brown Traitors

The Devyani Khobragade incident is almost forgotten now and people have moved on to outraging about other things. But I’ve always wondered what about the incident prompted such visceral reactions from folks in India. The tweet above by actress and now-avid Twitterer/activist, Gul Panag [1] unwittingly encapsulates why the issue made Indians reflexively hate the United States.

At the heart of the issue, it was a very simple law and order problem. Khobragade lied on her visa application, underpaid her maid, and implored the maid to lie about it, all of which are serious crimes in the United States. However, the ensuing hullaballoo failed to highlight these issues and instead chose to dwell on conspiracy theories and debates on diplomatic immunity. If diplomatic immunity was in fact valid, India should’ve clamped down on the noise and keep repeating diplomatic immunity ad naseum and whisk Khobrgade out of the country. Other countries go to extreme lengths to protect their citizens charged with crimes in foreign lands but never is the crime excused. Debates on Twitter and the media pontificated on the differences in wages in the two country for both the maid and the consulate staff.

However, the most ridiculous theory thrown out even by prominent journalists and TV anchors in India was how Preet Bharara, the prosecuting U.S. Attorney was conducting a witch-hunt to prove his “American-ness” by punishing “fellow Indians”. Even otherwise educated and aware Indians subscribed to this view and brushed it off as not trusting politicians. The thinly veiled racism was evident but was shrouded in subtleties unlike Gul Panag’s tweet above. Why would a U.S. citizen albeit a brown person be deliberately prosecuting other brown people to prove his “Indianness”? Are all brown people always Indian regardless of what their passport says? Isn’t that similar to likening the norm of being American as being an Anglo Saxon White Protestant (WASP)?

In the history of the United States, the norm has never been more different. It is the ultimate melting pot and although the corridors of power are still dominated by white men, increasingly people of other races and backgrounds have been making their way in there. People like Preet Bharara who otherwise would be lauded on India Shining slideshows on Rediff and Times of India have worked their asses off often in face of still-prevalent institutional discrimination to get to their position.

There were other socioeconomic issues [2] at play too but this painting of Bharara as a “brown traitor” troubled me the most. I fail to understand the underlying sentiment (resentment?) that leads to such reactions. At what point is a brown person no longer an Indian? Does it take 3-4 generations? Any person is free to hold on to his or her ethnic or cultural background as long as they want but is it the right of others to claim such people as their own?

When other brown people who have lived outside India dare to point out inefficiencies in India, it is mostly because they’ve had the opportunity to see better. They’ve had the opportunity to witness a well-functioning government which for the most part takes care of its citizens and provides the basic amenities without much hassle. In today’s globalized age, most urban Indians also seem to be aware of these shortcomings so why the reflexive anger when an NRI points them out? Improvements start with criticisms and that’s how political change comes through e.g. Aam Aadmi Party’s electoral success. So next time, when your cousin from the U.S. come visiting and dares to utter a barely negative remark about India, don’t label him a traitor and ask him to go back to “his” country.

Footnotes:
  1. This post is not intended to target Gul Panag specifically but in fact, just to point out how otherwise sensible people harbor deep rooted resentment []
  2. underage and underpaid labor class in India and at times, among Indians outside of India []

Constantly Disappointed

For the past 5-6 years, I think we have been constantly living in a sense of disappointment. Perhaps the big financial crash scarred us and made us skeptical of everything around us even when things started to finally look up. The social media tools of quick feedback and need to comment on every issue you hear about often relied more on negativism. The tweets that bash people or make condescending puns tend to get retweeted more and hence subsequently get tweeted more. I’ve been guilty of this but over time, I realized the constant barrage of negativity around me. Part of the reason I stopped blogging as frequently was also because most of the posts we read during the heydays of blogging involved critical analysis, more often not constructive. So I decided to make a conscious effort of not doing that. The IIPM saga also hardened the cynic in me that nothing ever changes.

Among all the things we are constantly disappointed with, I think Obama’s presidency has to rank right at the top. More often than not, the right’s implication that he was considered a messiah by the left rings true. Things he never said or promised are often attributed to him e.g. ending all wars and waging none. What is easily forgotten that he in fact supported right until he got elected, the “good” war in Afghanistan. The drone warfare as illegitimate as it sounds is done with the complicity of the Pakistani and Yemeni governments (hence you don’t see drone strikes in Germany or India) and often result in a far fewer accidental civilian deaths. This is in no way a defense of the drone strikes. It should be subject to Congressional oversight and all legalities of conducting such strikes should be tested by the federal if not the Supreme Court; checks-n-balances and all that jazz.

However, this post tries to focus on the latest disappointment in the Obama presidency. I may often come across as an Obama apologist but this charge often comes from people who are more than willing to overlook the consequences of having the other side in charge [1] The rollout for Obamacare hasn’t been exactly smooth and the primary website where people can enroll has suffered from numerous technical glitches. If you use the relative scale, ten years ago, we couldn’t find WMDs that we were told existed before we invaded a Middle East country that cost thousands of American lives and countless civilian lives. Today, we have a slow website that can and is being fixed.

Obama clearly erred when he promised that no one would lose their existing insurance plans although such plans clearly are not up to the mark. He should’ve apologized and he did [2]. It’s like letting people drive around in cars without seat belts and unusually low emissions standards. The insurance companies have been conning people into a sense of complacency by offering junk plans and denying people benefits when it came time to pay for healthcare. How bad are these plans? Here’s one example:

Under her current junk plan, she would probably receive no more than a few hundred dollars of benefits for doctor visits and drugs. It wouldn’t cover her surgery, her chemotherapy, her many expensive medications, or the repeated diagnostic tests she’d likely require. She would end up with probably $119,000 of unpaid medical bills. With the Humana plan [from Healthcare.gov), those bills top out at $6,300 a year, no matter what.

The law addresses such plans but yup, Obama should’ve qualified his statements which I admit don’t make for good soundbites in a fast-paced media world of today. I’m no health policy wonk but the least the White House can do right now, is to let those people keep their plans (grandfathered-in) for the next three years but prevent insurance companies from offering them to new customers. The Landrieu Bill in the Senate, I believe fixes this while requiring insurance companies to also offer the higher priced alternatives and showing the additional benefits offered under them. But then, in my opinion, this would be the wrong policy choice. The overall negative impact is far worse than having to eat crow and admit you misspoke or lied earlier. But then again, there’s the reality to consider:

The other issue is that of the slow and sometimes non-responsive website. I believe that it won’t be fixed in time before the end of this month and while that is unacceptable, penalties if you don’t get insurance don’t kick in until March 31, 2014. Latest numbers suggested that nearly 500,000 have at least filled out an application but have not bought a plan. I guess they are waiting until they have to since coverage will not begin until Jan 1, 2014 anyway. But it’s a far cry from the single digit enrollments that media reported happened on the first day.

On the other side, I can totally relate with the problems experienced in launching a website that will contain information from multiple sources and be useful to all. Because I’ve been doing exactly that for the past few months. However, my task was a millionth times as small as the Healthcare.gov website but it gave me an in-depth understanding of how state procurement even for technical services worked and I suppose the federal one is even more convoluted. The state agency originally tasked with contracting out the development was restricted in the choice of vendors it could seek out. It could, by law, only select from the vendors in its database and the program manager had nothing to go by in the list apart from names of the vendors and she had to pick ten at random without even knowing if they were capable of developing what we wanted. Clearly this was a sub-optimal solution so the process of contracting a vendor fell to our office and we could reach out to many more people, lay out specific requirements, and eventually select a private development company after an exhaustive search that included an on-site demonstration.

In our example, we had to design the system such that it could accept data from four different data systems from our sites and yet be flexible enough to handle additional fields that we could factor in for research. People often told us one thing about their systems and the data they had and it turned out to be completely different when they eventually delivered the data. Luckily we could go back and redesign the interface to handle such inconsistencies. From what I understand, the Healthcare.gov directly connects to 50 state exchanges that have been developed independent of each other and may be subject to different requirements. To top it, it contained health data so was subject to HIPAA regulations that made it doubly complicated. Further, this development and testing was happening just as the other party was willing to shut down the government in order to defund the law that administered this venture. It would have been a massive surprise if everything worked perfectly from the start.

So as much as disappointed we want to be in our state of affairs, it’s always useful to place things in context and view it relatively. Of course, we should complain but to argue that we would be better off than what we are doing right now just makes me dismiss you entirely. Changes to the status quo may hamper one party’s political future but to use that to convince the otherwise-sensible among us that we are doomed is downright evil. And it’s sad that people are willing to outrightly dismiss the efforts rather than rolling up their sleeves and saying, ok lets fix this thing and get it going.

Footnotes:
  1. They say, politics is about choosing between the lesser of the two evils so your choice is always relative. You have to constantly think about, ok, I don’t like this guy but then whom would I rather have in his place? []
  2. Remember when Bush apologized for the Iraq war? Yeah, neither can I []

What prompts a change of heart in public policy issues?

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on Proposition 8 in California that banned gay marriage. Rumors are circulating that if nothing else, the SCOTUS will not uphold Prop.8, which if you’re aware of the composition of the Court is surprising. Over the past couple of years, gay marriage has reached a tipping point in public opinion with a majority supporting it. Only as recent as 2004, opposition to gay marriage was so strong that it was credited to have reelected George W. Bush.Merely having it on the ballot of battleground states brought out hordes of conservative hell bent on preserving ‘traditional’ marriage [1].

It is 2013 now and nearly 67% of Californians and more than a majority across the nation support gay marriage. The tipping point, I think, was when the Vice President Joe Biden came out in favor which led to President Obama also overcoming his reluctant opposition. This admittedly may have been due to overwhelming pressure from big donors in Hollywood and NYC who are dedicated to the cause. Earlier this month, the governor of Senator from Ohio, a perennial battleground state, Rob Portman, also came out in favor of gay marriage. However, his motivations, at least publicly, were different. His son is gay and he considered his personal duty to support gay marriage.

Comparing the motivations of these two groups i.e. Biden-Obama and Portman, the latter’s change of heart seems genuine and as a better catalyst for a change in heart. But in terms of public policy and civil rights, is it really? In terms of advocacy and bringing about change among elected officials, what would you prefer to be a more desirable process? Although we look down upon politicians and their changing ways, it is an integral part of a democratic process. Politicians are motivated by their chances of getting reelected and their legacy, if under a term-limit. Most politicians want to be in the forefront of an inevitable wave of change. The public cannot be fooled by someone who just jumps on a bandwagon. At the same time, the politician has to be careful so as to not bet on change that may happen. It is a carefully calculated risk.

In terms of influencing change either through lobbying efforts or threatening to not donate to their next campaign, people can cause politicians to hasten their decision. Although money gets a bad rap, it is often a powerful tool, if harnessed correctly, in the hands of the people. Either that or using tools of publicity campaigns through social media. Politicians respond to external influences. That’s how the political and democratic process work. At least in such case, we know we have a chance.

Now if you consider Rob Portman’s influences, it was personal. It was his son who came out to him as gay and in turn brought him in touch with the issues that face the gay community. He would’ve no chance of knowing that had his son not been gay. So as a public, how are we supposed to deal with such influencing factors? Should we hope that children of politicians who make policy that affect millions are gay? or unemployed? or poor? or disabled? For them to support those issues. There are no external factors that aid us in changing the minds of such politicians. Dick Cheney famously was in favor of gay marriage way back in 2004 coincidentally also because his daughter was gay. But apart from saying so, he didn’t do anything about it. Given our experience with the Iraq war, we know that his voice wasn’t one of the less influential ones in the White House and the policy makers of that time.

While it is appreciable that both Biden-Obama and Portman chose to support gay marriage, it is also important to understand the motivations and subsequently, the opportunities in the future, for influencing such motivations.

Footnotes:
  1. all puns not intended []

The Innocent Take the Fall

Sandy Hook Victims

News started trickling in on Friday morning about a shootout in a school. Initially, I thought it was one of those events that keep happening on a regular basis, as if that is any less disturbing. But as noon approached, more details flowed in and while I was at a holiday luncheon organized by the college, by the time I got out, the horror of it all was evident to all. A deranged shooter had forced his way into an elementary school and slaughtered nearly 20 kids, all aged 6 and 7, in two classrooms and 7 adults, most of them teachers and school administrators. Reading about the incident which lasted nearly an hour was gut-wrenching and although such mass shootings now happen on an alarming basis in the U.S., the young victims made it more painful.

As always, there were tales of heroism of teachers shielding the kids and falling in a hail of bullets. The shootout ended with the perpetrator killing himself [1]. Details were sketchy as people searched to make sense of it all. The perpetrator was clearly mentally disturbed and his needs were ignored by a gun-crazy mother. But there are crazy people in every country in the world yet in few instances, can they have such devastating effect. The United States holds its guns dear and has even enshrined their ownership in the vaguely worded Second Amendment [2]. But as the victims have gotten younger and younger, something has gotta give. An inept terrorist tried to light his shoe on fire and now we all have to take off our shoes at the airport. Another crazy guy tried to light a fire in his underwear and now we have to consent to walk through a ‘naked’ scanner. Surely after all these shootings over the past decade including that of a Congresswoman, there must be at least be a conversation on the need for heavy-duty assault weapons that gun aficionados feel they must own, not in a warzone, but in a Connecticut suburbia.

As new parents, we are definitely more disturbed by the events since no place now can be considered safe enough for your children. At least terrorists target airplanes and historically significant structures but the terrorists among us target shopping malls, movie theaters, and elementary schools. I know what kind of terrorists I am more scared of. Yet we spend a far disproportionate amount of our security resources on the former while letting their latter run amok and unaddressed. The NRA with its unabashed support for all types of guns and ammunition are directly responsible for abetting such actions. If the killing of innocent six and seven year olds cannot turn things around, I don’t know what will. This country has addressed several difficult issues in its short tumultuous history so I’m certain that the needs of the safety and security of the innocent shall eventually triumph. Until then, I sincerely hope that there aren’t anymore such avoidable incidents. I hope.

Footnotes:
  1. The inevitable punishment of a death penalty for such a dastardly crime doesn’t seem to deter the ones determined to die in a self-determined blaze of glory []
  2. It’s all in the second comma, they tell me []

Phir Se Obama

Election maps

Source: Election maps.

So Obama won…again. The United States map weighted by electoral votes held by each state show the extent of his victory. Although marginally less than his 2008 victory, it was more significant because he was re-elected in a period of economic downturn albeit recovering slowly and he no longer enjoyed the historic benefit of being the first African-American president.

There have been reams written on why Romney lost which incidentally are directly proportional to reams written on why he wouldn’t lose. For a change, math won; as it always does. Primarily because Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight used probabilistic measures with hajjar polls as inputs and various other variables as controlling factors. It was surreal to see how even on election night political pundits kept denying the inevitable outcome. But it was fun reading Nate Silver’s blog (I’m halfway through his excellent book) during the election in lieu of crappy election analysis that pervades most election reporting. Although I dare not admit it (oops!), I’m going to miss it.

Relying on the middle class in another country

This is what the liberal writer Matt Taibbi invokes when, in Rolling Stone magazine, he deplores the rich for living “in a stateless global archipelago of privilege — a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.”

But you could also find the idea far afield from Rolling Stone in The American Conservative magazine last month, where Mike Lofgren, an aide to Republicans in Congress for 16 years, decried the “secession” of American elites. “Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it,” Mr. Lofgren wrote. “If one can afford private security, public safety is of no concern; if one owns a Gulfstream jet, crumbling bridges cause less apprehension.”

Source: NYTimes.

An excellent article by Anand Giridhardas highlights the malaise that I have been for long thinking afflicts America. As he points out in the paragraph following the one excerpted above, this was and still is often true in countries like Brazil, India, Haiti, etc. but not yet in America. One of the most populist lines in every other American political speech describes how anyone can come here and succeed. But now more than ever, it is becoming more of an applause line that is rarely true in reality.

One of my personal favorite ‘conspiracy’ theories (or not) for this decline or feeling of apathy among this country’s elite/rich is that, they don’t have to rely on the middle class that lives in the U.S. anymore. After globalizations, most companies find their markets spread all across the world so even if America’s middle class can’t afford it, perhaps the sheer number in China or India’s middle class make up for it. More so for the investing class of rich people like Romney who live off capital gains who no longer have to rely on the American companies. So when your livelihood doesn’t really depend on how your countrymen are doing, you are less likely to be sympathetic to their declining wages or quality of life. You have no rational self-interest in protecting much less preserving their welfare. Earlier, proximity was a big factor but with rapid strides in telecommunication and transportation, that is no longer a factor. Hence as inter-countries’ ties get closer, intra-country ties get further.

The whole notion of Ford paying their workers enough to buy the cars they manufacture goes out of the window when instead you increasingly rely on Chinese middle class buying your cars. Why care if MediCare is going bankrupt when you can simply afford the best care anywhere in the world or can simply fly to India to get the cheapest comparable healthcare? Although this country was founded on individualism, there was a strong sense of community and societal responsibility. This sentiment cannot be put into law and nor should it be. It was part of their moral fiber and institutional memory. I’m just afraid that this sentiment that make this country great might just be eroding a little.

Turning the Corner?

The December jobs report is good news. Very good news. Payrolls increased by 200,000 — and the growth was spread relatively evenly across the economy. Retail added 28,000 jobs. Manufacturing added 23,000 jobs. Transportation and warehousing added 50,000 jobs — 43,000 of them in the “couriers and messenging” subcategory, which suggests some of those gains are temporary holiday hires. Health care added 23,000 jobs. Food services added 24,000. Mining added 7,000 jobs. The only payrolls that shrunk in December were government payrolls: we lost another 12,000 public-sector jobs.

The December numbers also give us an opportunity to step back and look at 2011 as a whole. The economy gained 1.9 million private-sector jobs and lost 280,000 public-sector jobs. The unemployment rate dropped from 9 percent to 8.5 percent.

[Source: The Washington Post]

This news definitely comes as a relief to all of us; even the ones without a job yet as it gives them hope that the U.S. economy might be turning a corner. Obviously, do not underestimate the GOP’s resolve to screw things up or to dampen the spirits because a lousy economy is their best chance at regaining the presidency. I hope the American public is at least smart enough to see past this charade and obvious attempts to halt all efforts that might seem to be helping the economy. The chart below [source: The Washington Post] is a friendly reminder to efforts at painting this president as a big government socialist when in fact on his watch nearly quarter million public-sector jobs were cut.

Jobs public private 2011

However, if you step back a little and plot this chart over the past four years to include the final Bush year, we gain a little more perspective. The bottom of the barrel in this graph is December-January 2009 where things were looking desperate. George Bush in spite of his conservative leanings still offered the biggest bailout in history but this current crop of conservatives are to the right of Bush so imagine the plight if one of them takes office. We just might see a classic sine curve. By then, things might be too late.

Jobs growth in last four years

[source; red are the Bush years and blue are the Obama years]. I hope every American sees these two graphs before they vote in November. Ultimately, they’ll get the government they deserve.

Update: For even a better perspective on the lag in recovery, check out the following graph that shows the severity of the recession we are/were in. The improvement is steady but slow. However, as Jim Tankersley at the Atlantic warns, this growth can be disrupted due to any tumultuous news such as an U.S.-Iran confrontation. However, 2011 has been quite a rocky year and that did not stem the improvement so we can hope.

Recoverygraph banner CR

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