Throwing Away Your Vote, Throwing Away Your Conscience

We are one week away from another presidential election in America, and since at least the early 90s, the concept of “throwing away your vote” is tossed around and used against anyone thinking about what we variously can be: voting third party, voting with one’s conscience, protest voting, or choosing not to vote at all.

Is “throwing away your vote” really as bad as the phrase implies? Well, I’ve yet to meet an English phrase that succinctly captures a truth, especially one so popular and contentious.

I’m not sure how long this phrase has been with us. I can’t seem to find an origin story for it. This is unfortunate since knowing how things start teaches us so much. For example, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was an ad slogan by the apple industry in the 1910’s. That fact alone made me realize I had a lot of unchecked assumptions about the sweet fruit as a bastion of health.

But let’s have a reality check about voting in America. We have a pretty solid two party system. Although this is only one step away from a single party system, there’s no legal restrictions that enforce this. It’s largely due to our winner take all methods which gives preference to one or two dominant parties. Over decades, the two parties have expanded power and spread offices into every state. They control most of the political message, and that influence is hard to rise above. We’re all complicit in this, regardless of how we vote. The information flow dominates our culture and political thinking.

We also only focus on people who vote. We think of the nation roughly divided between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, red and blue state, or however we look at it. No President has won with more than 62%, and the last one to get above 60% was Nixon. Famously our past several elections have been close to 50%, with Clinton and Bush winning with less than 50% (thanks in part to third party candidates and the electoral college).

The idea there’s a roughly even split simply isn’t true. The largest political party are the non-voters. No recent presidential election has gotten more than 56% of the vote. This is usually dismissed as apathy, as if apathy was an invalid political stance. What if we didn’t dismiss them?

Then we see that Obama won with 30% of the vote in 2008. Bush won with 24% in 2000 and 28% in 2004. Reagan’s famous 1984 electoral landslide was just over 31% of the popular vote. This reality doesn’t really fit with the power and prestige we attribute to the President, though it does explain why Bush’s “mandate” failed to produce any profound policy changes, and why Obama’s campaign of change failed to change much of anything. You have to go back to LBJ in 1964 to find a president who won a large chunk of the popular vote with a high turn out, and even he didn’t break past 38%.

The reality of the low voter turn out, whether they are the minority of political activists or not, is a critical political barometer. Deciding that it’s too difficult or inconvenient to vote is a political decision, and not always entirely the voter’s fault (look at the revival of attempts to find modern Jim Crow laws).

Whatever the cause, over 70% of the voting age population has not voted for whichever President is in office. And Roughly 40% of the eligible population in any recent election is not registered to vote at all. The largest party in America is the non-voter. What’s the cause of all this apathy if it’s not the fact that no candidate is really speaking to them?

I recently had a discussion online with some friends about this concept. They have very good reasons to vote for one of the two parties (okay, I’ll be honest, reasons to vote for Obama instead of another non-Romney choice). They expressed common arguments to support the idea that a person can throw their vote away.

Votes matter and make a difference. The person we elect will be a symbol for the nation and can make very important declarations that lead us in a particular direction, whether or not their enacted policies do so. This is absolutely true.

Voting for a 3rd party candidate, or not voting at all, makes it more likely that one of the major party candidates will win. This is absolutely true. We certainly saw this happen in 1992, and likely in 2000. In 2000, Ralph Nader famously took a sizeable chunk of the vote and that difference possibly cost Gore the election. But in 1992, Ross Perot became the most successful 3rd party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt 80 years beofre, and although he got no electoral votes, he certainly was a factor in Bush losing the election.

Another reason is that this election has important issues that can’t be sacrificed in the name of idealism. This certainly seems true. In 2012, the big issues for progressives are women’s rights and marriage rights. In 2008 it was the economy. In 2004 it was the “war on terror.” In 2000 it was the economy. In 1996 it was immigration and jobs. In 1992 it was the economy. These aren’t lightly brushed aside.

Because of these two points, the argument is that practicality must win out over idealism. Voting for a potential winner is a primary means of engaging with the political system, if not the only means of having an impact as a citizen. If we who agree on an aspect of change resort to idealism, then we’ll remove our voices and the practical majority will shift the center away from us.

These are all excellent thoughts and opinions. But there’s little support that this is the way things must be done.

Votes do matter. Every action you make matters. The President is an important symbol, but not much more. The election of Obama was a huge sign of how far we’ve come. 50 years prior a man who looks like him would not have been able to sit at a lunch counter in many states. The election and re-election of George Bush highlighted for many progressives that certain economic and social ideas of conservatives are extremely popular. But these men didn’t dramatically change the nation. Obama didn’t make us more racially inclusive. We the people did that. A poll from the Associated Press just came out this week that shows little positive change for prejudice despite, or perhaps even because of, Obama’s presidency. Bush didn’t create business first economic policy or violence against foreign powers. Because of him, we may even have less support for those things than ever. I don’t see how voting is more important than how we live our day to day lives. Unhappy with how things are being talked about? Then educate people, express yourself, tell people about your experience and how and why you expect certain policies to effect you. Don’t vote with the crowd to be heard.

As is probably clear from my run down above, there’s always a crisis. There’s always something that looks like it will destroy our world. But we’re still here. And if our world will end, like it did for the Romans or the Soviets, it will more likely be very slow with enough time to correct, or very sudden, forced by things beyond our control. It’s not going to come down to a vote. Despite there being strong movements, civil rights didn’t happen in the 1870s, or the 1920s, or the 1940s, but not because we picked the wrong president. It happened in the 1960s, once the movements captured the attention of the nation. Yes, Obama is the first sitting President to voice support for marriage rights, and he’s backed that up with repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If McCain was President that certainly wouldn’t happen. If Romney became President, that certainly would come to an end. But it’s only a matter of time. An election is not going to turn this country into medieval barbarism where homosexuals are persecuted. And if it did, there’s enough of us who oppose that idea that it would not last long at all. The point is these crises that seem so important are all transitory. Political change is not about short term solutions and fixes. It’s about the long view. Should a slave abolitionist in 1790 give up just because they realize that slavery will persist well past their death? Should a women’s rights activist in 1820 give up because women won’t get the vote for another century? What should a person do when they recognize that corporate political control or war profiteering are not going to end in their lifetime? Would we begrudge an abolitionist holding their moral ground in the 1808 election, instead of basing their vote on how candidates view the embargo of Europe, the biggest issue of that campaign?

One person rarely makes a different. Even a President. They can certainly be big influencers, but this nation is too large and varied to be swayed by one man, or even his entire cabinet and Supreme Court appointments. And when those things do happen, they get corrected. Having the “right” people in place could not have removed the embraced racism rampant in both the North and South after the civil war. If Nixon won in 1960 he almost certainly would have still started Vietnam, instead of ended it a decade later. Gore would not have avoided getting involved in Afghanistan after 9/11, and though we probably would have avoided Iraq, we might be in Iran or Syria instead. Lincoln’s election sparked the Civil War that he’s credited with ending, and he made no moves to end slavery until his hand was forced. It’s completely illogical to act as if every major success and mistake of a nation is the result of the person we elected, instead of allowed, caused, or embraced by the aggregate of us.

Don’t let anyone tell you who you should vote for. If you think Obama is necessary to protect women’s rights and gay rights, then vote for him. If you think our use of drones and growing military threats to Iran are a bigger danger, than act on those. Each person must decide what issues are important to them. And whether you are playing the short game or a long game, do it with open eyes. Either way you are voting your conscience.

But do this too. Talk about the issues. Open yourself to the experience of other people. Listen to what really matters to other people, and get to the root of what really matters to you. It’s easy on the human rights stuff, but no one has a instinctual response to economic policy. Our beliefs are built up on a long life of impressions and knowledge and emotional responses. Whether you think taxes should be cut or health care expanded, there’s an emotional truth underneath which you share in common with every human on the planet. Tap into that truth. Find ways to share your truth so that others understand you. Create empathy.

And always, always vote your conscience. Never throw that away.

Chuck Norris Getting His Ass Kicked

It’s another election season and time for everyone’s favorite make believe bad-ass to come out of hiding and make ignorant and racist statements about the future of the country. Feel free to let the video play as you read (Norris vs Lee happens mostly between 0:20 and 0:50)

Here’s my favorite Chuck Norris Fact: Chuck Norris was a shy kid with had an alcoholic father, and he found refuge in martial arts from being bullied and ostracized by other kids. His personal code of ethics and development of honor were an inspiration to many people. Like Bruce Lee, his showmanship in martial arts led many kids to find their own inner strength. His own martial art, Chun Kuk Do, has a code of honor, such as #5: “if I have nothing good to say about a person, I will say nothing.” And #7: “I will maintain an attitude of open-mindedness.” And these are good things.

But recently, he and his wife released a video that harkens back to a speech Ronald Reagan gave in 1964 to support of Barry Goldwater (who you probably know, never became president because much like Romney, he was pretty distasteful and an ugly person to pretty much everyone except conservative hardliners).

Instead of picking part Norris’ political message, let’s tell a parable called Way of the Dragon (or Return of the Dragon if you prefer) and remind ourselves why Chuck Norris got famous in the first place.

Years ago in the city of Rome, a Chinese family was being targeted by the Mafia – the name for an organization of corrupt businessmen. I don’t want this fictional Mafia to get confused with the operations of real criminals, so since this takes place in Rome we’ll call the bad guys “the Romeys.”

When Tang Lung (Bruce Lee) arrives, the Romeys are trying to force his friend Wang and Wang’s niece, Chen, to sell her restaurant. When she refuses, they try to use physical and legal pressure to get her to sign a contract and sell the place. Tang fights them off and teaches Chen’s friends karate so they can defend themselves against further attacks.

This doesn’t go over well with the Romeys. The can’t have people standing up for themselves. They need everyone to know that they own this country. Several more violent attempts are made to keep the workers down and kill Tang directly. All fail. Chen, however, is kidnapped. Tang and his friends go to free her from the Romeys’ control.

In the Romey’s den (no kidding, the Roman Coliseum) Tang faces hired fighters, the toughest of which is a man named Colt (Chuck Norris).

Norris plays a hired mercenary. The Romeys hire him and the other fighters for no other reason than to protect their greed, oppression and rule through violence. He’s strong, he’s tough, and Colt gives Tang a run for his money.

But Tang’s philosophy of fighting is much the same as Bruce’s. “Be like water.” This philosophy is one of flexibility, fluidity, reacting to changing circumstances. There is no attack in this. It’s all about defense. And it’s all about keeping a flexible mind, body, and spirit.

This fluidity is what eventually allows Tang to triumph over Colts fierce and strong, but ultimately rigid and calcified style. Colt’s style seems much like Norris’ current philosophy. One where the words of an ancient book are sacrosanct and unchanging. No change is allowed here. No fluidity. No flexibility. Rigid dogma.

After that big showdown, Tang takes the fight to the bosses and things don’t go so well for them either.

Recounting this story just seems appropriate right now.

I know how hard it is to hold to a code of honor. It’s sad that Chuck repeatedly has a hard time following his own. He breaks rule #2, #4, #5, #6, #8 when he speaks about Obama bringing a reign of 1,000 years of darkness. He breaks rule #2 and #7 when he closes his mind to the wonderful discoveries of science, and instead only sees them as an attack on his faith. He seems to be intent on playing the villain, the role that made him famous.

I’ll leave you with my least favorite Chuck Norris Fact: Chuck Norris is a closed-minded, frightened old man who displays more in common with the greedy, mercenary villain he played in Way of the Dragon, and falls entirely short of the code of honor he developed in his very own martial art style.

Clint Eastwood: Crazy Old Man or Some Kind of Genius?

Grandpa Simpson I mean, the chair thing was hilarious and awkward. And I love the Grandpa Simpson image. But did you watch the whole thing?

It starts off really awkward and rambling. It was like he planned to improv, but forgot how. This sets it up as a bad speech overall, and I won’t deny that.

But then he goes into a comedy routine, with Invisible Obama cursing at Romney, which I thought was pretty well done and certainly targeted to the right audience (reserved people love implied cursing without actually having to hear naughty words). He really gets into flow here, and cracks some jokes at Biden, who honestly deserves it and can take it.

The real gems start when he abandons the chair and starts talking to the audience. This marks the high point of the entire convention (although competition was low). But all in all, his skit was a call for moderation at the peak of a party who’s message is anything but.

First, he was there to endorse Romney. Here are his two glowing endorsements.

“I think that Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan are two guys that can come along.”

“And I think if you (Obama) just step aside and Mr. Romney can kind of take over.”

Is that really an endorsement? He’s disappointed in Obama, as many of us are, but his ringing endorsement is well, if he’d kindly step aside (because we know he’s not going to lose) these two guys will try their best (and we know it will be terrible).

I’m not sure what point he was trying to make with jokes about Air Force 1, the flight designation that’s been used by the President since 1943, when the President was required to fly in special military planes. Obama, in fact, uses the exact same planes and Bush did.

But then towards the end he starts on politicians. He reminds us that they are our employees, and they pretty much just beg for votes. Let’s keep in mind that he’s there to introduce Romney, and the sole purpose of this convention is to establish the terms by which votes will be begged.

He then praises Democrats, Republicans, and “libertarians or whatever,” clearly speaking to all Americans regardless of political creed, and tells us that we are the best.

I think that alone is remarkable. The entire tone of the convention is that Americans are not the best. If they are poor, they are drains. If they are women, they need to be controlled. If they are gay, they do not deserve equality. If they are black, they are animals. And if they are liberal, or progressive, or Democrat, they are evil, wicked socialist demons and enemies of the United States.

I’d like to think that the entire thing was staged by Eastwood. From the awkward rambling beginning, to the lukewarm endorsements and call for rationality. Let’s remember that he’s an actor, and a damn good one. He hasn’t come across like a rambling old man in recent interviews, so why would he for this?

This is a man who has stood up for equality, who believes in women’s rights and gay rights. This is not a man who finds many friends in the current Republican climate. This is a man much like Romney was when he was governor. A moderate centrist, in the truest sense, not a moderate just compared to the political extremism on display in Paul Ryan’s speech. Romney asked Eastwood to present, and maybe he took him up on the offer simply to mess with the heads of the attendees and all of us watching, and challenge that extremism as directly as the format would allow. All without playing his hand.

Maybe that’s not true. Maybe he was nervous standing in front of a room full of people who’ve demonstrated an immense capacity for hate and willful ignorance. Even great actors can get nervous.

But even if that’s not the case, the most remarkable thing is that talking to an invisible chair was the least insane thing that happened at this convention that was a celebration of a successful disconnect from reality since the 2008 Republican convention.

Thank you, Mr. Eastwood, for injecting moderation, as crazy as it sounds.

What if the national budget was your family budget?

Philip Greenspun did a great brain exercise to put the budget debate into understandable terms.

How can an individual voter make sense of quantities that are ordinarily written in scientific notation? I think the easiest way is to divide everything by 100,000,000 (10^8).

Let’s start with federal spending. The FY 2011 federal budget is approximately $3.82 trillion (3.82×10^12). Of that, approximately $2.17 trillion will be paid for by taxes collected and the remaining $1.65 trillion will be borrowed from our grandchildren. If we divide everything by 100 million, the numbers begin to make more sense.

We have a family that is spending $38,200 per year. The family’s income is $21,700 per year. The family adds $16,500 in credit card debt every year in order to pay its bills. After a long and difficult debate among family members, keeping in mind that it was not going to be possible to borrow $16,500 every year forever, the parents and children agreed that a $380/year premium cable subscription could be terminated. So now the family will have to borrow only $16,120 per year.

I love this idea, but that comparison is not quite right.

We didn’t cut a premium cable bill, which is a complete luxury, we cut into a lot of spending that help our household thrive. Here’s what our family is actually cutting (taken from this Salon post).

Let’s set up your family. You and your spouse are the main bread winners. Your son is out of school, but lives in abject poverty. Your oldest daughter is out of school and able to help out with the bills. Your youngest is still in elementary school. (Some of this breaks down if you think about it too much – wait if I have a son do they live in the same house, if not does that mean they are in another country? – that’s going to miss the point, your household is the demographics of America)

And here’s what you’re cutting from your budget (keep in mind, for most of these, you are still spending money, this is just what you’re cutting):

  • Those renewable energy upgrades for your house -$9
  • Money you give to your son to help pay utility bills – $4
  • Accountant fees – $8 (which might mean you’ll get a smaller refund next year)
  • Repairs on your chimney and air conditioner to stop them from spitting out poisonous fumes – $17
  • Money to keep your son and his kids out of gangs and jail – $3.30
  • Money you give to poor cousins for food – $6 (you suspect they spend half of it to keep gang thugs from burning down their house, and at least one of them will die of starvation, but you are still giving them $480 a year so the rest will live)
  • Keeping toxins out of your air and water – $25
  • Fees you pay so your kids have a park to play in, and a place to take them fishing – $5
  • Fees to go to the beach – $3.50
  • Cost of gifts you give to neighbors to make sure no one steals your stuff – $9
  • Cost of your daughter’s astronomy kit – $3.79 (she was really into astronomy in the 60s)
  • Community college for your son so he can get a job better than fast food service – $20
  • And helping your son with his rent – $9
  • Ensuring your food isn’t going to poison you – $3 (you still spend $23, which is what you spent 2 years ago, and your family got food poisoning several times since then)
  • Flu shots – $8
  • Help you give to your son’s family to ensure he can get medicine and house his kids in his crappy apartment, and ensure his wife (who is pregnant with your grandchild) gets to see a doctor – $35
  • Help you give him to stay off drugs – $1
  • Money spent on your garden – $7
  • Keeping your documents safe – $2
  • Spent on your youngest’s science and math tutor to ensure she’s competitive when she graduates – $11
  • Spent on arts and crafts for the whole family – 12 cents.
  • Cutting that family rail pass so you could stop relying on the car – $14 (you will still need to spend $400 a year on your car [but probably won’t])
  • You aren’t cutting your cable bill (in fact, they’re a client and are supposed to pay you) but you are going to stop paying $4 for mostly news and educational programming. Your family seems to like Jersey Shore more than Sesame Street anyway. They don’t really care for the news unless it’s about celebrities.

    It’s not just TV clients, you paid hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars to other clients, when they are supposed to be paying you. You paid $10 to just one bank (and they were involved in cutting your income severely in the past 4 years).

    You’re also ignoring your biggest expense.

    You live in a neighborhood of around 200 other households. You have some great neighbors around you (although you’re a little pissed at your neighbor to the south, and threaten to build a bigger fence) and plenty of cold relationships. But there are a couple you are fighting against (10 years ago one of their kids threw a rock, hitting one of your kids in the head and breaking a window, you’ve been trying to get them evicted ever since, you got another neighbor evicted already and he wasn’t really involved, and you’re not too happy with the new people that moved in). You are the wealthiest household in your neighborhood by far (even your deadbeat son gets by better than some of your neighbors, many of whom die of disease and starvation and their own fights).

    You spend a lot of money keeping your home safe and secure. Some of this is necessary. If you didn’t spend any your house would probably fall apart (like some of your neighbors’ constantly do). However, you spend $6,870. ALL of your other neighbors combined spend $17,000. In fact, you spend more than the next 40 richest neighbors combined. You could cut your security spending by half, heck even 1/3, down to $2,290 and still be spending double what any one else spends (and most importantly, double the neighbor you’re getting nervous about, they have a lot of kids and you have strong philosophical differences). Instead of doing that, you’re actually planning to spend $500 more, making it over $7,000.

    Cutting here you’d still be $12 grand in the hole, but that’s a better result than all the other cuts you planned on making.

    (Also your son figured out a way to grow weed and make some money from your daughter, you could have him pay you back, but instead you’ve just spent money on locks all over the house, which have done nothing except cause him to charge your daughter more so he can afford lock picks.)

    You can also make more money.

    Your income is based on a bunch of clients. You have clients from all income levels. Some of them are rich, some of them are poor. So you use a sliding scale. 50% of them can barely afford food and housing, you cut them a break and many pay you nothing, the rest just pennies. You know you can ask your wealthier clients for more. For the past 30 years you’ve built a reputation as never raising your prices, and you’ve lowered them to appease these clients. And they’ve said they are happier and will give you more business, but instead they’ve moved a lot of their business to your neighbors (particularly the one to the south and the other with a lot of kids). But you can easily raise your prices. You have the best house, and they aren’t going to abandon you. Sure, they’ll rant and rave and call you names in front of a lot of people, but they will pay it. And most of your family agrees that you are worth the higher price. If you ask for a small increase, 5% (cost of living, really) you’ll get $980 more. In the past, you charged much more, almost triple! That is probably too much, but times are tough and your clients have seen their incomes increase by much more than 10 times, so raising your rates isn’t a bad idea (you are arguably the best household in the world, right?). So you raise your rates (and to step aside from this extended analogy for a bit, instead of raising tax percentages, which would work too, I’m going to use this model of closing loopholes, deductions, exemptions, and credits, however since credits and exemptions are key to ensuring the working poor can get by, the true workable formula is probably a combination of this and increasing taxes on the top 10% of earners), and that will get you $12,000 more per year.

    And now you’re breaking even. When the economy turns around, you’ve got a surplus to spend on repaving the driveway and reseeding the lawn, because that’s all gone to hell.