Third Party Politics


There has been a lot of talk lately about third party candidates and whether or not they should be allowed to appear in the presidential debates.  The debate organizers came up with a criteria for what a “major” party candidate would be.  The criteria they came up with are pretty simple, the party has to be on enough state ballots that the candidate could theoretically reach the 270 electoral vote threshold and they have to be polling at 15% in several national polls.  No third party candidate is going to meet these criteria this year.

Of course the supporters of these candidates are crying foul and complaining that that the Ds and Rs have rigged the system against their ideologically pure candidates and parties.  The system is certainly rigged, but not in any direct conspiratorial way.

Imagine if you wanted to, say, compete against Wal-Mart and Target.  Is the system going to look rigged to you?  Of course it is!  And sometimes it really is.  Lots of municipalities will be giving tax breaks, infrastructure improvements and all kinds of goodies to get a new Wal-Mart store.  You ain’t gonna get bupkis.  Is is a conspiracy?  It probably is sometimes.  But overall people just want a known entity, one they already consider a winner.  So, yes you are going to have a heck of a time gaining traction on those two and complaining that the “system is rigged” is not going to help at all.

Does this mean that Wal-Mart and Target can’t be beat and will last forever?  Let’s ask Jeff Bezos what he might think about that.  Or let’s ask Sears and Penneys what happened to their market share.  Market leaders can be taken down, but complaining about the system is not going to do it.

While there may be historical reasons that we have two parties rather than three or four, the current dominance of the Democratic and Republican parties is pretty simple.  It is the same as Wal-Mart and Target, they are pretty darn good at what they do.

The two major parties are represented in pretty much every county in the country.  They have tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to knock on doors, make phone calls and attend meetings in every nook and cranny of the country.  They are able to run candidates in pretty much every congressional district and every Senate race.   In most states they can run a slate of candidates from dog catcher to governor.  And finally, they have people who are willing to put their money where their mouth is and fund these operations.

So, this year when maybe 10% of voters are willing to tell pollsters, “I hate those guys, I am voting for Jill or Gary.”  This does not make them a political party.  It may be true that: “Americans have never been closer to rebellion against the political establishment. Millions are fed up with the sold-out Democratic and Republican parties, and looking for a new politics with integrity, values, and vision. This isn’t just a feeling in the air; national polls show that a large majority of Americans agree that the establishment parties are failing us, and that a new major party is needed,” as the Green Party of Wisconsin website says.  But wanting and needing a new party is not the same as actually having one.

The Green Party of Wisconsin “supported” four local candidates according to their website.  They have no congressional candidates on this year’s ballot.  Their governing committee consists of 2 people per congressional district, which means they need 16 people to fill out — they only have eight.  No candidates and not enough people to even fill out a committee.  This is not a “political party.”

The Libertarians are actually better, but not much.  They also would like 16 people on their own governing committee and can only find eight.  They do have seven candidates running for office, one for Senate, three for congress and three for the state legislature.  Two of those candidates are college students.  Better than the Greens, but again, this is not really a political party.  Just because you have some mops and brooms at your country store, nobody is going to confuse you with Wal-Mart.

And even if you are right that people want “authentic goods” from “local merchants” that does not mean that you are going to beat Wal-Mart at its game.   Jeff Bezos is going about beating Wal-Mart.  Micro-breweries are going after the big guys and winning.  Taking down the established big guys can be done, and there are many methods for doing it.

But right now, the third parties are not doing it, it is all just wishful thinking and slogans.

If I ran the presidential debates, I would change the criteria.  Yes, the part about being on the ballot in enough states to get 270, but also having candidates in 15% of the congressional and Senate races.  Neither the Greens nor Libertarians meet this criteria.

Political parties run candidates for office.  It’s what they do.  If you want to talk about political philosophy and policy recommendations, then you are a think tank.

Neither the Greens nor the Libertarians run candidates for office in anything approaching significant numbers.  Until they do, they should not be in the presidential debates.

If they want to be a political party they should do what political parties do, run candidates and get people to vote for them.  You can say all you want that Coke and Pepsi are unhealthy and disgusting and that the revolution has begun, but until my supermarket shelves are filled with something else other than Coke and Pepsi, and those new products are flying off the shelves, the revolution is not actually here.

Bernie Sanders showed that it is possible to build a political organization made up of small donors, generate enthusiasm and get lots of votes.  That could be the start of a real revolution.  The Libertarians and Greens have done absolutely nothing like that.  The could follow the Sanders model or they could make a new one, but so far, they haven’t really done anything other than run boutique candidates for president.  That is not a revolution and they are not actual political parties.

And until they have an actual political party — one that runs candidates in elections up and down the ticket and gets votes for those candidates, it is perfectly reasonable to exclude them from the presidential debates.


Predictive Newsfeeds Suck

I have a strange habit when I eat, my mom called it “eating in shifts.”  I start with something, say the piece of meat and I eat it entirely.  Then I eat all my potatoes and then all my vegetables.  Apparently I use newsfeeds the same way and it really screws up my enjoyment of them.

Something comes along like the political season and I start reading those stories.  Pretty quickly, the ship of state turns and washes out all the other stuff from my newsfeed.

At that point I won’t even open the app, because if I see even one more story about Trump, I feel like I will throw up.  I would give anything for some humor or some science news or some stupid Catholic moves, but that is the last thing my newsfeed wants to show me.

So, there I am with my phone, and have a few minutes between classes or waiting in the car.  I turn the phone on.  I look at the app icon.  I turn the phone off.  Turn it on.  Turn it right off.

If there really was any artificial intelligence behind these apps, they would figure out when enough is enough.

And trust me guys, it really is enough right now.

Jobs to Mexico: What To Do?

It seems that Ford has thrown gasoline on the political fire by announcing that they are moving their small car production to Mexico.  You can almost hear the “build the wall” chants in the background.  But the more you ponder this, the more difficult the problem of what you might do about this becomes less and less clear.

Let’s start with just a little math first.  As near as I can tell, labor cost is about 15 to 20% of the total cost of a car.  But no car company publishes this number, so it is very uncertain.  If we use the high side of the estimate on a $25,000 car, we have a labor cost of $5,000 per car.  Just to make up a number, let’s say that moving to Mexico saves half the labor cost, $2,500 per car.  These numbers are probably very high, but the problem gets even stickier if the labor cost is lower and the savings less.

So, let’s try a few scenarios and see what happens.

So, let’s start with the simple and simplistic Trump solution.  Trump thinks that he is going to call up Mark Field and say, “Mark, if you move the plant, I’ll slap a $2,500 tariff on each car!”  And Ford, shaking in it’s boots will change its plans.  Well, except congress passes taxes and a tariff is a tax.  And what congressman wants signs in every Ford dealership reading, “New Higher Prices brought to you by your congressional representative!”  But I will let you decide whether the threat of a tariff would be enough to keep the car plant here.

The Democratic idea is something along the line of since moving the plant will increase profits, we’ll have a windfall profits tax on rich people and we will take some of those profits back into the public realm and redistribute them.

I don’t think either one is going to keep the plant here, but go ahead and make your case for either approach.

The other side of the problem is that if the plant leaves, we will probably provide some sort of job retraining for those affected, but if there are no jobs to go to, what difference does training make?  It really is a hard nut to crack and I really am looking for new ideas.

One thought I have is that, actually, the Mexicans are getting the raw deal on this one.  Think Cleveland in the 1970s.  Assuming that Mexican environmental and safety laws are not as stringent as ours, they are getting a future mess on their hands.  Mexican Rust Belt anyone?  Besides, since companies are moving there for low wages, there is not going to be much wage growth to go with the increased employment.  And low wage jobs don’t actually grow the economy.  Low growth and pollution…Thanks America!

Then there is the idea that it is not so much location that matters.  According to this: Mercedes has the highest labor cost in the auto industry and Volkwagen is listed as the lowest.  At least part of the difference between the two companies is surely the amount of automation that they use in the manufacturing process.  Small cheap cars are made cheaply.  Big expensive cars get more hands on treatment.  Ford points out that they are increasing investment in big car (such as SUV) production here in the US.  So, even if the plants stayed here they would be more and more automated and use less and less skilled labor.  Once again, maybe we are better off to export these jobs.

Another question is about the future of the car industry anyway.  Some people are predicting a future where the only people who own cars are Uber drivers.  And then those drivers get replaced by computers.  Perhaps the auto industry as we know it is on the path of the buggy whip industry.  Once again, exporting our dinosaur plants could actually be a good idea.

Just one other thing, when Obama wanted to bail out the auto industry (and for many years before that, frankly) there were lots of complaints that labor (unions especially) had pushed up the cost of labor so high that they were the ones putting the car companies out of business.  But now, those are the very jobs that the electorate seems most nostalgic for.  We can be pretty sure that cheap cars and high wages are not going to be on the same plate anytime soon.

Or we can just say, its the free market and you can’t fight the market.

I used to think I might know the answer to this kind of situation, but I don’t any more.  I’d love to hear what proposals you have and what you think.

Meanwhile on the Religious Front…

Being a recovering Catholic, from time to time I tune into (Ir)Relevant Radio, from the far right wing of the cathedral.  I do this so you won’t have too.  Sometimes I also get a blog post idea or two.  But frankly, it turns my stomach so fast that I usually turn it off before I get enough information to actually write a post.

In the minute and half that I was able to listen over the past few days, I caught two snippets that actually go together and explain in a nutshell what is wrong with much of religion in our society currently and why I no longer hold any truck with those folks.

Today some joker named Joshua McCaig was on discussing “Catholic politicians in public life” on the Drew Hystriani show (if you listen for even a few minutes, if you can stomach it,  you will know why I call him that).

McCaig, Mr. Religious Liberty, according to the link above, was going about how Catholic politicians should honor their home faith by forcing it on everyone else through legislation and such.  The idea that someone (presumably someone like Tim Kaine) who would follow Catholic rules in their own life, but not force those rules on others, is just wrong.  Several times in the few minutes I stand listening, McCaig said that things are “black and white, no gray areas.”  Follow the church’s teachings and that is all.  At one point he mentioned that he started a Catholic Bar Association, because he can’t fathom why lawyers, lawyers of all people, can’t understand that these issues are black and white!

I had to give up when they took a call and the caller breathlessly praised Mike Pence for basically preaching the gospel while running for office.  Couldn’t take it any more and I bailed.

But in those two minutes, I got enough to go on for quite a while.

Let’s start with hubris.  The clown thinks he knows the mind of god so well that everything is “black and white.”  He knows god’s answer for EVERYTHING! Every time!  Wow, pretty amazing!  Better than Jesus even!  That would be enough to turn a thinking person from religion, but there is so much more.

How about a different kind of hubris, chutzpah (which was once defined as someone killing their parents and begging the court for mercy because they are an orphan.)  Here is a guy saying that Catholic politicians have to enforce Catholic orthodoxy on the country — and then says he is in favor of “religious liberty.”  This is a new definition of liberty: “To force my ideas on you.”  And he wonders why lawyers don’t understand?

Now, when he said that being a Catholic politician was simple, “because it is black and white” he is really speaking in a short hand code.  What he really means is that you just have to vote against abortion at all times and none of the rest of it matters.

So, I wanted to call in and ask him, what would the Catholic position be on, say, voting to limit the liability of companies that made deadly products, like say, lead paint?  Surely the church would be in favor of people making amends for their actions when they hurt other people.  Surely allowing rich people to walk away from their obligations — in exchange for a few campaign contributions would not be pleasing to god.  Or would it Mr. McCaig?  You seem to know god’s mind perfectly.  Is there a politician anywhere in any party that follows Catholic teachings completely?  I would say the Republicans here in Wisconsin with their pay to play system fall a bit short.  And I am sure McCaig thinks those immoral Democrats are not worthy either.

Let god make the laws directly!  Who needs politicians!

The pay to play issue just broke wide open here in Wisconsin, but what about more mundane things?  We appear not to have enough money to fund our schools and fix our roads.  Republicans cut $300 from our university system and now are short about a billion in road funds.  So, what is the Catholic position on this Mr. McCaig?  Take more money from roads to fund schools?  Bad roads can kill people, so maybe close the schools completely to fix the roads?  Or perhaps the solution is to raise taxes to take care of both.  Jesus said god had no problem with taxes.  Please tell us what god thinks about this Mr. McCaig!  It must be a simple black and white answer!

I could go on, but I know you understand.  There is no politician anywhere who follows the line of any church or religion from top to bottom.  We know that religious people cherry pick, and religious politicians most of all.

Finally, to switch subjects just slightly, I caught a snippet a few days ago where a lady had called into a program and she was looking for an “ethical” doctor.  What she meant was a doctor who would not only recommend only church approved treatment options not only to her, but to everyone the doctor saw.  In other words, a doctor who would not recommend or prescribe birth control to her or anyone.

I should probably make this a separate blog post, but here goes.

“Religious” reasoning is not the same as “ethical” reasoning, lady.  Religious reasoning may include ethical principals, but ultimately religious rules are just that, rules for no real rhyme or reason.  Wearing a hat (for women) or not wearing one (for men) are religious rules with no ethical import.  Sure there are reasons, but they are reasons that are only meaningful to those who follow the religion.  Hat or no hat, makes no difference ethically.

I will not say that using birth control has no ethical import, but I am sure any open minded ethicist can make a good case for the use of birth control, here is a listing of a few considerations.  It is also true that not all churches, or even all Christian churches oppose contraception, so the Catholic argument doesn’t even apply to all Christians.

This lady — and McCaig — both want to take their narrow understanding of what god wants and to force it on everyone, no matter what the conscience of those other people might tell them.  They both are completely cocksure that they know every thing god thinks, wants and demands and wants to force that view and those actions on the rest of us.  That is not ethical thinking or even religious thinking.

It is fascism, pure and simple.  Calling fascism “religious liberty” is just polishing a turd.


Epistemology and Donald Trump, which is backed by about a bazillion scientific organizations has published the answers of the presidential candidates on twenty questions that revolve around issues that are on the border of science and politics (for example climate change.)  You can find all the answers here, although I don’t think any of them are going to surprise anyone.  Clinton’s answers look like they were put together by a PhD policy wonk committee and Trump’s look pretty much like his tweets.  But that you could already figure out.

In his last answer, Trump says something that at first seems jaw droppingly stupid, but turns out to be quite a conundrum.  Here is the question and answer:

20. Scientific Integrity

Evidence from science is the surest basis for fair and just public policy, but that is predicated on the integrity of that evidence and of the scientific process used to produce it, which must be both transparent and free from political bias and pressure. How will you foster a culture of scientific transparency and accountability in government, while protecting scientists and federal agencies from political interference in their work?

Trump’s Answer:

Science is science and facts are facts.  My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.  The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration.

“Science is Science and facts are facts” at first seems so self evident (and so opposite of Trump’s problems with actually relating to facts) that it is laughable.  But hiding underneath that is a problem that philosophers have been struggling with for millennia and I am currently trying to get across to my critical thinking students, epistemology.

Epistemology is a big word (which Trump is probably unfamiliar with) which deals with the question of how we know what we know and what is knowledge.  And it turns out that, after all is said and done, “science” is not Science and “facts” are not Facts.

When I was in high school, I was taught the “solar system” model of the atom, which at once a simplification of the current theory and an older theory (Google images for “general science” and see how many solar system atoms you see!).  The electron cloud model has replaced this.

Was the former model (and my knowledge of it) a “fact?”  Is the new model a “fact?”  Some years from now will a science website put of a picture of an electron cloud with the legend, “This is what an electron is not!”?  Philosophers debate endlessly about what all this means, but I can assure you that almost nobody (other than religious philosophers) are willing to argue that there is something call Truth with a capital “T.”

And the same is true with “science.”  For the moment, I won’t quibble about the difference between science as a method and the results (and infrastructure) of that method.  For the moment, I am referring to science as the latter: people in white coats, collecting and publishing data and drawing conclusions.

The scientific method is certainly a wondrous thing, but what we call “science” is certainly not Science! (with a capital S).  The scientific method has many safeguards built in which are supposed to reduce or eliminate various kinds of bias, but because science is done by actual humans, we find many clever ways to allow that bias right back in and even create new biases.

Publication bias is a perfect example of a new bias that the infrastructure that is “science” has created.  Positive (and newsworthy!) results get published and negative results get set aside.  In  a similar way, more research is probably done on profitable drugs than unprofitable.  Money, politics, ego and who knows what else introduce biases that prevent “science” from ever being Science!

From the other end of the spectrum, Neil deGrasse Tyson said that what we need is a country where all decisions are “data driven.”  His idea was roundly booed from all sides, and rightly so.  What even counts as “data?”  Trying to determine what the “real” unemployment rate is turns out to be a very thorny problem.  Yes, some methodologies are much more defensible than others, but none is perfect.  How do we make “data driven” decisions when the data itself is subject to doubt?

Here is a minor example I came across today — the harm to humans from wind farms (Say what? you might ask…).  Here is a report that says wind turbines can be harmful to human health, and here is another which reaches pretty much the opposite conclusion:  “the scientific evidence available to date does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.”  They both look very “scientific,” So which data should we heed?

This is not to say that complete skepticism is a useful position either.  Philosophers say that “knowledge” is a “justified, true belief.”  Even if we allow that there may be no such thing as “absolute truth” we can effectively substitute “corresponds with reality” for “truth” in the above formulation, which we can say conforms with our current understanding of the world.

 So, then we can say that while the jury may be out on how much harm wind farms cause humans, there is pretty good data that shows it is more dangerous to live next to an oil refinery than to a wind turbine.  Or at least I would hope so.  Using the best available information is the “justified” part of the definition above, even as we concede that such “knowledge” is by definition imperfect.

So, while it is not really true that “science is science and facts are facts” we can move forward on various issues on the basis of scientific consensus.  When a vast amount research, using a variety of methods from different disciplines point in the same direction we are clearly “justified” in calling that knowledge and moving forward with that “knowledge,” even if it might be overturned later.  Business forecasting is notoriously unreliable, but businesses push forward with their plans all the time none the less with the best information at hand.  Society and government should do the same as well. 

A classic example of this is the case for human caused climate change.  Do we have a ton of information, from a wide variety of sources and disciplines that are all pointing in the same direction?  Indeed we do.  Given that the predicted outcomes of these trends are unfavorable in the long term, should we take action?  That is clearly a justified “scientific” belief.   Well, except for the guy who said that “Science is science and facts are facts.”

Trump has famously said that climate change science is a hoax invented and perpetrated by the Chinese.  So, even when he spews what look like innocuous platitudes, Trump is both lying and straddling both sides of the issue.

Trump doesn’t believe that “science is science” but not in the way that philosophers would object.  What he really means is “Science I like is real science and the rest of it is crap that we don’t need to listen to.”  Which, unfortunately is a view that many people hold about science and no amount of philosophizing  on epistemology or transparency on the part of scientists is ever going to change.

Conservative Principles

For many years now, and again in this election season, I have struggled to understand what “conservative principles” actually are.  For expro_life_pro_god_pro_gunample, I saw a car this afternoon with a bumper sticker that read: Pro-God, Pro-Life and Pro-Gun.  How does that even fit into any kind of consistent philosophical system?

Democratic party principles, while not ironclad are, I think relatively consistent.  I think it can be summed as “Freedom is a pretty good thing, but needs limits for everyone to get along.”

So, you get a reasonably consistent set of policy proposals.  They don’t want to take away all guns, but want to control which guns people can buy and who can buy them.  Wants free enterprise, but with limits such as a minimum wage and environmental laws.  Not 100 percent consistent, usually close enough that things make sense.

On the Republican side, I have never, ever been able to figure out what the underlying “conservative” philosophy really is.

For example, Republicans are for freedom with little or no limits when it comes to people who own companies.  But that same freedom does not apply to people who use drugs or want to have an abortion.  Libertarians are consistent on this, but Republicans, not so much.

The same is true of so called “fiscal conservatism.”  Republicans hate budget deficits, but only when Democrats run them.  When Reagan and W. Bush ran deficits, no problem.  Republicans want to count every penny for Zika funding, but when it comes to the Pentagon, they just pour it on.  Even one penny less reduces the military to rubble.

Religious freedom, aka social conservatism, is just a muddled.  Of course there is the “if Christians do it it’s OK, but Muslims, no way!”  But that is just too easy to pick on.  In the areas of gay and reproductive rights, the idea of “sincerely held religious beliefs” has become a bit of mantra.  When I heard the Hobby Lobby decision, my first thought was “Sincerely held beliefs in what religion?  ‘Cause it sure in hell isn’t Christianity!”

I am sure you remember the bumper stickers, “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re forgiven.”  And you can look it up, Jesus hung around will all kinds of “sinners.”  Seemed to be pretty proud of it, actually, made a bit of a point about it.  Oh yeah and Jesus DIED FOR OUR SINS.  His whole freakingperfect purpose really.  But now, somehow, allowing employees to have access to birth control using their healthcare plan dollars, makes the bosses “complicit” in the sin of the birth controllers.  WTF??  Doesn’t Christianity say we are all sinners?  Didn’t Jesus die for our sins (at least those who pray to him in just the right way)?  So, how is baking a cake for someone making you a sinner?  Makes no sense whatsoever, especially WITHIN Christian theology.  So, even on religion, there seems to be no real “conservative principles.”

Philosophically speaking that is.

Sociologically speaking, it seems the picture gets a bit clearer and Trump is making it even more transparent.  The best way to put it is “in-group vs out-group.”  It is not racism strictly speaking, but it can certainly start there or be used to fan the flames.  So, let’s take another look at “conservative principles” through this frame.

People who use drugs or women who want to control their fertility are just not “honest hard working people.”  They have “no morals.”  Lock them up, punish them.

Which explains the military (at the national level) and prisons and police (at the state and local levels).  Got to have someone to lock them up.

Honest and hard working people deserve their Social Security and Medicare.  But those people, you know who I mean, don’t deserve food stamps and welfare, so we can get rid of those programs.  One of the reasons I think it is not straight up racism is people like Paul Ryan are moving toward another in/out distinction where working people don’t deserve retirement benefits, only folks like the Koch brothers should have it easy in retirement.  Because of course folks like them are the real “creators” and the rest of us are just takers.

And of course the religious angle is really just for show.  No one can convince me that the Hobby Lobby people are really religious.  And even if they are, they can’t really believe that Jesus just loves rich people, but can’t stand people who have sex without having babies every single time.alt-right

Us versus Them is the only consistent theme I can see in so called conservatism as it is practiced here in the US.  I think we need a new name for it.  Alt-Right is not a bad start, but doesn’t really have enough punch to it.  Suggestions welcome (and I am sorry, but Nazi was already used, so I will discount that one from the start.)

Now, I do believe that there could a consistent conservative philosophy.  There is no reason that you can’t be both pro-business and also want to conserve our natural resources.  Wanting a smaller government overall can be consistent if it applies equally and includes some kind of cost-benefit analysis.  Religious freedom is a good idea if it means not telling other people what to believe and letting them live their lives according to their own principles (until they unduly affect others, of course).  These all strike me as “conservative.”  But the modern Republican party does not embody any of these ideas.

It is not “conservative” in the least.