Not All “Likes” Are Created Equal

I quit Facebook about a month ago.

I still have an account because I need it for work — a surprising number of business comes in through Facebook, and I maintain 3-4 Facebook Messenger conversations on any given day.  However, I stopped posting updates back in November and even went to the trouble to “gut” my Facebook account.  I found a $2.99 Firefox extension which deleted everything, including 500 pictures and almost 3,000 status updates. Aside from a few profile pictures, my account is now essentially an empty shell.

Why I did this is a long story, involving an intersection between my own narcissism and insecurity. If there’s any platform in the world more capable than Facebook of exaggerating those two things, I have yet to find it.  I essentially spent seven years of my life trying to be interesting on Facebook and feeling insecure that I wasn’t as interesting as I hoped to be. It’s embarrassing to admit that, but there you go.

Withdrawal is hard. It’s been difficult to avoid the kneejerk reaction to share stuff. A couple of times a day, I find a web link that I want to tell people about, or something I could take a picture of and share.  I keep having to remind myself that I don’t do that anymore.

Last night, my wife and I watched the 1995 remake of Sabrina with our eldest daughter.  After it was over, I immediately thought about posting something about it on Facebook.  I could tell people about this movie, I thought, and (the thought behind the thought was…) people would “Like” it.

But I don’t do that anymore. Weirdly, I found myself I looking over at my wife (#1) and daughter (#2) on the couch, and thinking, “Hell, I only got two ‘Likes’ out of this…” Nevermind the fact that they were actual “Likes,” meaning actual breathing humans who are important to me and that genuinely liked something I did.

But here’s the rub: not all “Likes” are created equal, and it’s taken me a long time to acknowledge it. Oh sure, in the back of my head, I knew this was true. But as venal and superficial as I am, I somehow equated dozens of meaningless button presses from people I barely knew as having some worth.

So, I watched a movie last night and got two “Likes” for it – my wife and my daughter.  I’m on my way back to an emotional state where that is simply enough and I’ll know that those two “Likes” are more important than all the others.

If you are in this state now (and be honest…), stay there.  Over almost 20 years, the Internet has turned me into a damn superficial person, and at 43-years-old I’m finally in the process of extracting myself from that aspect of it.

It’s going to take a while to get there (I’m learning that Facebook is just the beginning), but I’ll be a better person for it.

Embedded Racial Bias

Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions: A good (bad?) rollup of studies which show that embedded, perhaps subconscious racism is alive and well.

  • When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients […]
  • When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.
  • […] sending emails with stereotypically black names in response to apartment-rental ads on Craigslist elicited fewer responses than sending ones with white names.
  • White state legislators were found to be less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names. This was true of legislators in both political parties.
  • Emails sent to faculty members at universities, asking to talk about research opportunities, were more likely to get a reply if a stereotypically white name was used.
  • Even eBay auctions were not immune. When iPods were auctioned on eBay, researchers randomly varied the skin color on the hand holding the iPod. A white hand holding the iPod received 21 percent more offers than a black hand.

Lots more in the article, including some analysis as to why this happens.

Reading Shakespeare

My reading goal in 2014 was 52 books (one per week). I ended up reading 66 (and counting). My tentative goal for 2015 is to read all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays.

I started early with The Merchant of Venice.  I read the text first – it’s quite short, but slow, slow going. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the writing is not…straightforward.  To call it “flowery” would be an insult to flowers.

I bought a book which, along with the script, had a scene-by-scene, Cliff Notes-ish companion. All throughout, I was dismayed at how much I was missing. I would read a scene, then read the summary, and realize that huge parts of it had gone over my head.

In an effort to better understand it, I figured I should watch a performance of it.  Completely by luck, I stumbled on an amazing collection of 14 YouTube videos comprising the entirety of a 1974 TV special.  I watched the entire thing, while reading along with the text, and I learned a lot about the performance of drama:

  • The timing is quite different. My copy of the play had only Shakespeare’s original stage direction, which were minimal. People would make huge speeches, which you could only imagine them standing there and doing as a grand monologue. But in the video, people stopped talking, then moved around the set, then started talking again.  Or they had huge pauses between words that ran together in the text – some sentences, when spoken, began in the middle of a verse in the text, and ended in the middle of another verse. Watching this gave so much more context.  What seemed to be a strange, clearly Shakespearean monologue turned out to be something much less awkward and obvious, broken up between many different actions and gaps in speech which made it seem more natural.
  • There is emotion, in voice, facial expression, and physical performance.  In regular fiction writing, you have adverbs.  Someone can say something “angrily” or “happily.”  In a script, you have no such direction – you just have dialog and stage direction.  Watching Shylock’s reaction when he realizes his daughter has run away made me understand that he blamed Christians for it, and was so happy when Antonio’s ships were sunk, so he could get his pound of flesh.  Watching Laurence Olivier delver this is scene is just amazing. Later, when Gratiano mocks Shylock, and when Shylock screams upon being sentenced – mere words in a screenplay just cannot convey the emotion of these scenes.
  • There is physical context.  When the play is being acted out, there are props and rooms and a sense of physical space.  The scene where Portia’s suitors are selecting “caskets” made so much more sense – they were actually small chests, not the funeral caskets I was envisioning. When the actors were delivering the lines in a decorated set, so much more made sense than it did when you had nothing but the text.

(Also worth nothing about this play in particular: it’s anti-semitic as hell.  It’s uncomfortable in its stereotypical depiction of Jews. I’m wondering if every bigoted perspective of Jewish people as greedy money-lenders came from this play. The character of Shylock the Jew is a grand collection of every negative cliché associated with the Jewish people.)

A script is a tough read in general.  I’m beginning to wonder if my goal to “read” Shakespeare should perhaps instead be a goal to watch a performance of each of his plays, while following along with the script. There’s no doubt that I’ll have to watch each play to make sense of it, and would it be…legal, to do my reading of it at the same time?

Indeed, was drama meant to be watched, rather than read?  Can you read a play and expect to comprehend and appreciate the full weight of it?  I think when you have a combination of (1) language and verbiage very different from contemporary usage, and (2) minimal stage direction, this makes it very hard to envision and understand what’s going on.

Teaching True North

Beverly Joy Davison Barker Huisman WhitleyMy mother died five years ago. I was 38 when she died, an adult with kids of my own. My oldest was a teenager.

Since then, I’ve watched my son graduate high school and start his second year of college. Watching one of your children leave the house is a sobering experience. You have moments of panic where you wonder if you’ve taught them everything they need to know. Are they ready for the world? I am injecting this adult that I have raised into society – will it better or worse for the experience?

Over the years, I keep coming back to thoughts of Mom and what she must have gone through with me. I was a disaster as a child and worse as a young adult. I couldn’t remember anything. I had no ability to keep my room clean. Personal responsibility was an alien concept.  My adolescence was a continual tug of war between Mom and I.  I kept trying to regress into complete disorder, and she kept pulling me back to civilization.

Mom nagged me about grades, though I never improved much. Mom kept on me about cleaning up after myself, though I never did. Mom corrected my English, but I still said things like “I want that really bad” to which she would instantly retort “Badly! You want that really badly.” Mom dragged me to church every Sunday morning, even though I continued to drift away. Mom quoted Bible verses to me, even when I tried hard not to listen.

When I finally left Mom’s house at 21, I wondered, “Is she disappointed with me?  Does she think she failed because I never managed to get my crap together?”  But now, at 43 and with the perspective that goes along with those years, I think I finally understand.

As parents, we have a core responsibility to teach our children how to find “true north.” We owe it to the world to give our children a compass with which they can always orient themselves in the right direction, even if it takes them a while to move that way.  They might get lost on the side of the road, wander aimlessly, even occasionally go backwards.  This is simply the imperfect process of growing up.  But so long as they know where true north is, they can find their way back.

I spent my early 20s wandering in circles. I spent some time in the military, dropped in and out of college, had bad relationships, drank a little too much, and spent money I didn’t have.  By all accounts, I was an aimless wreck.

But all throughout, I knew where true north was.  Even if I was heading in the wrong direction most of the time, I was at least self-aware, and I knew what I should be doing, even if I couldn’t bring myself to actually do it.

I don’t know what Mom thought during this time.  If she was disappointed in me, she never showed it. She loved me relentlessly, and was always available to dispense either support or tough love, depending on the crisis (and there were many).  I suspect she simply put faith in her belief that she had taught me true north, and her hope that eventually I’d circle back in the right direction.

And eventually I did.  I married a wonderful woman, built a business, and I’m in various stages of raising three amazing children. I even ended up on the Board of Trustees of the seminary where Mom worked for years (she would have been absolutely floored by this, had she lived long enough to see it).

I think I’ve put a life together than Mom would be proud of.  It took me a while to get here, but Mom made sure I knew which path would deliver me.

I try to remember this when my girls don’t throw away the little plastic sleeves that the juice box straws come in. I find these all over the kitchen, and no matter how often I point it out, they still end up everywhere. Perhaps one day they’ll learn to throw them away, or perhaps they won’t, but my responsibility as a parent is to make sure they know what the right thing is, even if they leave my house never having done it.

Yes, it’d be wonderful if we could change every undesirable behavior of our children.  Lord knows I’ll never stop trying.  But even if they head into the world not being able to keep their rooms clean, staying up too late, and eating too much sugar, I promise you that I’ll be the nagging voice in the back of their heads.  Call it guilt, call it what you want, but they’ll think of me every time they don’t clean up after themselves or skip church on Sunday morning.  They’ll know true north, and they’ll always know how to find their way back to it.

Now that Mom is gone, I see the path she hoped I would follow, more and more every day. She walked me as far down that path as I would let her, then she let me go, watched me get lost, and eventually find my way back again.

Mom is waiting at the end of that path, somewhere over the horizon. One of the driving forces in her life was to make sure I knew how to find the right way to the end of it.  When I get there, I hope I’ll be able to tell her that I did the same thing for my own children.

Crowd Counting

Here’s an interesting article which makes the point that it’s virtually impossible to figure out how many people actually attend an outdoor event, and some people get pissed about the number that’s estimated.

Disparate crowd counts aren’t uncommon. Just take a look at the controversies surrounding the crowd counts for the Million Man March in 1995, or Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally in 2010. For both events, the “official” crowd count touted by the organizers was much higher than the count released by outside entities. After the Million Man March, the Nation of Islam (who estimated more than 1 million participants) threatened to sue the National Park Service, whose estimate was 400,000.

Where is your Iceland?

I just finished “Brave New World,” a novel written in 1932 which describes the “perfection” of society through science.

Parallel to the advancement of science, “Brave New World” deals in the retardation of creativity and individuality. Humans in civilized society are expected to fit in. “Everyone belongs to everyone else,” is the mantra (indeed, people are bred, with no concept of parentage or family). The masses are tranquilized with regular access to a drug called soma. No one needs to step out of line, because everyone is artificially happy. They worship a God called “Ford,” after Henry Ford, the car manufacturer who championed the assembly line method of production.

Two of the main characters – Bernard Marx and Hermholtz Watson — are misfits who have a lingering distaste for the society in which they live.  Both have been threatened in the past with being forced to leave it. The standard threat is to exile them to an island (usually Iceland), away from civilization, to live with others who have been exiled.

Due to an unfortunate event, these threats come true, and Bernard is dragged out of a room screaming for mercy.  After he leaves, “The Controller” (a man who was a bit of a subversive himself in his younger days) says this:

“One would think he was going to have his throat cut,” said the Controller, as the door closed. “Whereas, if he had the smallest sense, he’d understand that his punishment is really a reward. He’s being sent to an island. That’s to say, he’s being sent to a place where he’ll meet the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world. All the people who, for one reason or another, have got too self-consciously individual to fit into community-life. All the people who aren’t satisfied with orthodoxy, who’ve got independent ideas of their own. Every one, in a word, who’s any one. I almost envy you, Mr. Watson.”

The Controller understands that beauty is not in conformity, but in individuality and creativity.  Bernard is being sent to an uncontrolled environment, to live with people just like him: “…the most interesting set of men and women to be found anywhere in the world.”

Hermholtz accepts his fate with more stoicism, as all he has ever wanted to be was a poet:

The Controller smiled. “[…] would you like a tropical climate? The Marquesas, for example; or Samoa? Or something rather more bracing?”

Helmholtz rose from his pneumatic chair. “I should like a thoroughly bad climate,” he answered. “I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example …”

The Controller nodded his approbation. “I like your spirit, Mr. Watson. I like it very much indeed. As much as I officially disapprove of it.” He smiled. “What about the Falkland Islands?”

“Yes, I think that will do,” Helmholtz answered.

May we all find our Iceland or our Falkland Islands someday.

States’ Rights and the Scope of Government

There’s a constant debate in this country about the appropriate size, scope and strength of  government. This debate has raged since all the country was founded and shows no signs of letting up.

Conservatives think all forms of government should be smaller in scope. And while Liberals don’t necessarily want government to be larger just for the sake of being larger (few people will get elected by campaigning for more government), they think that in many cases it needs to be larger in order to adequately enforce justice and fairness.

By size and scope, we mean the “level” at which we are governed.  Considering yourself as a resident of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, you’re subject to multiple levels of government, from smaller to larger:

  1. The City of Sioux Falls
  2. The County of Lincoln or Minnehaha
  3. The State of South Dakota
  4. The Federal Government of the United States

Each “level” has its own laws and rules. Sometimes they contradict each other, and there are rules for how those conflicts are resolved.  In general, the larger government entity wins – county governments can overrule city governments, states can overrule counties, and the federal government of the United States can overrule everyone.

(You need to understand that word: federal. That means the government of the country. Federal means, roughly, “a group of things together,” or a federation. Whenever someone refers to “federal [anything],” they’re referring to that thing at the level of the country government, as opposed to state, county, or city.)

In the Constitution is something called the Supremacy Clause, which reads like this:

This Constitution [...] shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Essentially, the federal government wins all conflicts over laws. The federal government is “the supreme law of the land,” and if it has a law about something, that law supersedes anything at a lower level of government.

In complete opposition to this is the idea of “states’ rights.”  States’ rights means that the states have powers that the federal government shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with.  To this end, the Supremacy Clause is held in check by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which says this:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This says, essentially, that the federal government can only take powers specifically granted to it by the Constitution. Any powers outside of that belong to the states. This amendment was put in place to placate people who were afraid that a large federal government was just going to suck up all the power it could.

That this was included in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) speaks volumes about how much the founding fathers of this country wrestled with the scope of government. When this country was being formed, one of the biggest debates was how strong the federal government should be, in opposition to the state governments. The two sides of the debate were the “federalists,” who wanted a strong central government, and the (awkwardly-named) “anti-federalists” that wanted a weaker central government.

(The Federalists wrote a series of articles in the late 1780s, while the current Constitution was under debate. These articles laid out the case for our current government in an attempt to persuade people to ratify it. Collectively, they are called The Federalist Papers and they likely constitute the greatest argument in favor of the current government of the United States. As a sidenote, there was an unorganized counter-effort called The Anti-Federalist Papers, which isn’t nearly as well-known.)

Hundreds of years later, we’re still wrestling with this question. We have never-ending arguments about whether or not the federal government possesses the power to do many of the things it does.

The Civil War was certainly about slavery, but it was also about states who claimed that the federal government had no right to tell them how to deal with slavery. More recently, a lot of the argument about Obamacare has centered largely on whether or not the federal government is allowed to enforce many of the laws and rules that program requires to operate. (States have implemented things very close to Obamacare, and no one complained. It became a big issue only when the federal government tried to do it.)

In fact, a lot of cases in front of the Supreme Court aren’t even about the merits of whether or not some law should or should not be enacted. Rather, they’re arguing about whether or not the federal government tried to take power away from the states in violation of the Tenth Amendment.

Why do we care about this?  A Conservative would cite three reasons against larger government:

  1. Larger government doesn’t always represent the governed
  2. Larger government runs the risk of over-reaching and becoming oppressive
  3. Larger government is inefficient

First, many people, especially conservatives, feel that government needs to be as “close” to the governed as possible, and larger government shouldn’t be allowed to indiscriminately rule over smaller government. The argument is that The City of Sioux Falls knows what a resident of Sioux Falls wants and needs more than the county, state, or country, so the city would be more effective in addressing those needs.

Put another way, trying to enforce the same laws in Texas (very conservative) and Massachusetts (very liberal) leads to problems. You can’t blanket a hugely diverse country like ours with laws that will violate the conscience and ideals of large groups of people. Therefore, laws should take into account the beliefs and desires of the governed, and we are so different across this country that the only way to make sure this happens is to try to “drive down” government to the level closest to those subjected to its laws.

Second, the United States has a bad history with government. Remember that we broke away from England in the late 1700s, which was the very definition of an oppressive government. It ruled us from across the Atlantic (at a time when communication took months), extracted a lot of taxes, and didn’t do much in return. Therefore, fear and loathing of a large, detached government runs deep in this country. We’re quite different from the countries of Europe in this respect. They have a more trusting and welcoming opinion of government, where many people in this country are still influenced by the memory of our original relationship with the British.

This feeling is strong with conservatives.  In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan famously said (emphasis mine):

“Government isn’t the solution to our problem; it is the problem.”

These memories also play apart in America’s love affair with personal firearms. Many gun owners just don’t think the government should interfere, but a segment of this group also believes citizens have a responsibility to arm themselves in the event the federal government tries to seize too much power. Armed insurrection is a very real option for these people, and any attempt of the federal government to regulate their gun ownership is part of a sinister program to de-arm them in order to control them. This might seem far-fetched, but it’s just a small — and perhaps extreme — example of the underlying suspicion Americans generally have of their own government.

Also remember that the current Constitution wasn’t our first form of government. Originally, we created the Articles of Confederation, which effectively made states like little countries – they could print their own money, have treaties with other states, etc. The federal government had very little power over the states. This situation lasted for about a decade before we decided it was unworkable and moved to more tightly unify the country under the Constitution. So, understand that the current configuration of the United States is an even larger government than some of the original founding fathers wanted.

Third, the United States is a big country, and scaling government laws and policies to 350 million people can be tough to do. This argument against larger government says that states can do things more efficiently than the federal government, and the federal government has a long history of screwing things up because it’s just too big.

Additionally, there is repetition and overlap are different levels. When Texas governor Rick Perry ran for president in 2012, one of his promised initiatives was to eliminate the federal Department of Education. Many people were horrified: “He doesn’t want to educate children?!”  These people forgot that every state also has a Department of Education, and most every city has a school district. What Perry was trying to say is that education is something we can leave to the states, and not spend money at the federal level to manage it.

So, in the face of all that, why would we want larger government?  Why would be want the federal government to step in and rule over states?  A couple reasons:

  1. Laws from one level of government to another are so different and “patchworked” that it causes inefficiency in commerce
  2. Laws from one level of government violate some national/federal principle of human rights

An example of the former is dealing with rules that interfere with “interstate commerce,” which is when someone tries to conduct business across state lines.  In 1959, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that Illinois couldn’t require a certain type of mudflap on trucks, since no other state did, and in doing this, it made it harder to do business since regular mudflaps were now illegal in Illinois and trucks often had to cross Illinois on their way to somewhere else. The Court said this was a hindrance of interstate commerce and the federal government could nullify this law, which is considered a landmark ruling against states rights and in favor of the federal government.

For the latter, consider gay rights.  The Constitution (the federal law) prohibits discrimination on the basis of things like sex, religion, etc., but not on sexual orientation. This means it’s still within the states’ rights to allow employers to fire a gay employee just because they’re gay. Gay rights activists say this isn’t fair, and that this violates a national principle of fairness, and that all states should be simply required to protect gay employees.Therefore, many believe the federal government needs to exercise the Supremacy Clause and require all states to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Issues of states’ rights and the size and scope of government are a never-ending tug-of-war in this country. Every year, dozens of cases make it to the appellate courts that ask for a ruling on whether or not a state or the federal government has the right to do something.

Should each state have broad powers to govern itself without interference? Or are we better served as a country by a strong central government which prevents states from deviating too far from a national standard of legislation?  Are we fifty strong, individual states which happen to form a nation together?  Or are we more of a single, unified nation which just happens to be divided into fifty states?

A defining principle of a political perspective is where you think the balance of power should lie between the different levels of government, and how strong you think our federal government should be.

Forced Cosmetic Surgery of the Ears

A Hard Look at Brazil’s Kidnapping Industry: Well, this is sobering.

The men had to prove they were serious. Her family needed to know they’d do whatever the kidnappers demanded. So the men cut off her ears.

[…]

In the video, her ears are immaculate. You would never know criminals had sawed them off. This is São Paulo, Brazil. Kidnappings are so common here that an industry of plastic surgeons specializing in ear replacements earns millions every year.

Charity and Personal Responsibility

One of the defining characteristics of your political view is how you think a government should balance charity against personal responsibility.

Charity is the government giving aid in the form of social programs for the economically challenged: welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, mortgage debt relief, etc. Helping people in need is generally accepted as a hallmark of civilized society and is very much inline with the Christian ideals that the U.S. still overwhelmingly supports.

That’s clearly good, right?  So let’s give out as much charity as possible, case closed.

Unfortunately, the opposite side to this argument is that government charity decreases the need for personal responsibility. If people know that there’s a safety net for them, then they won’t exhibit responsibility in their personal behavior. The chronic result of this will be a society of people who don’t feel the need to work hard for anything because “the system” (the government’s social programs) will always be around to save them, so their ambition and motivation dries up and they just live off the system to some extent.

This is a perennial argument in politics, and the side taken on it will very much affect whether you see yourself as a conservative or liberal.  Liberals generally believe in greater charity, while conservatives believe in less charity and greater personal responsibility. Liberals don’t believe that the poor are poor because of personal choice and that social justice therefore compels us to help. Conservatives believe in a “tough love” approach, that anyone can improve their circumstances if they are sufficiently motivated to do so, and that too much charity kills that motivation.

The sad fact is that both sides are correct, based on how they view the group needing charity. This is one of the biggest problems in arguing about this – both sides tend to think that everyone in a demographic group is there for the same reason. Both sides have created strawmen (go read that link) of the recipients of charity, and based their arguments around supporting or destroying that strawman.

When we consider “the poor” as a mass group of people, the two extremes look like this:

  1. They are poor because of circumstances outside of their control
  2. They are poor because they’re unmotivated and don’t work hard enough

And this is how many people view the situation – they pick one of the above, and paint everyone in the group with that brush.  The truth is that there are a lot of reasons why someone might be poor, and different people fall into different groups.

Consider:

  1. A single mother with four children and a deadbeat ex who doesn’t pay child support. She might be working as hard as possible, but just can’t make ends meet, so has reluctantly applied for food stamps but is trying to find a way off them as soon as possible.
  2. A high school dropout who refuses to get a job and just sits around a smokes pot all day, only leaving the house to cash his welfare check. So long as the government is going to pay him to play XBox, then why should he do anything else?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that we, as a society, want to help the single mother, but the high school dropout can dry up and blow away for all we care. The problem is that social programs are not great at sorting these two groups out. We’re expecting finely-grained targeting with a sledgehammer, essentially.

Now, it’s an over-statement to say that each political view  thinks the poor is completely comprised of one or the other, but the two sides do disagree on the proportion.

Liberals think that most of the poor fit the profile of our single mother – people who work hard, but just can’t make ends meet due to specific circumstances out of their control (the deadbeat ex, for example), or due to larger forces brought about by the wealthy (“the 1%”) involving income equality, depression of wages for the working class, erosion of worker rights, etc.  Social programs need to exist because we have failed the poor as a country by allowing (even encouraging) oppressive economic environments to exist.

Conservatives think that a larger proportion of the poor are not sufficiently motivated, either due to their acute lack of personal ethics, or because they’ve simply grown up in a society that has chronically rewarded inactivity and has therefore ingrained a lack of motivation in them. They believe our society has minimized moral hazard (read that link too) by building larger and larger social programs. Cutting social programs might not fix the personal responsibility problem immediately, but a generation growing up with less charity will be forced to develop more personal responsibility therefore strengthening the country over time.

I think that both sides have the same intent – we don’t want people to have to rely on social programs as a necessity of life – but there are different ways of solving the problem. Liberals think that the problem needs to be solved by the community, and that the poor cannot raise themselves up until we solve larger issues of our social structure like the aforementioned income inequality. Conservatives think that the problem is a lack of personal initiative, and that relying on social programs should not be a comfortable situation, which risks that people simply want to stay there rather than improve their circumstances.

In the end, both sides have set up strawmen for each other. Conservatives think that liberals are naïve and get taken advantage of. Liberals think conservatives are heartless and care about money more than people. If you believe one of these scenarios, then it’s very easy to disagree with the other side and think they’re idiots.

If somehow we could get to a point where social programs existed but only helped those who truly needed help, then both sides would likely be happy.  I have no doubt that the average conservative very much wants to help the single mother get to a point of self-sufficiency, and I also have no doubt that the average liberal wants the high school dropout get off his ass and find a job.

But, until we get to that day – which we likely never will – there will be a constant argument over what level of charity we should provide as a society, and what effect different levels have on our individual personal responsibility.

The Politics of Getting Re-elected

One would hope that politicians always act in ways which they think will directly benefit the country.  But, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they do things that actually go against their better judgement. Sometimes they do this in a specific situation, and sometimes they just adopt long-term positions which they might not completely agree with.

Why is this?  Because they need to get re-elected.

If a politician could get into office and stay there with no threat of ever getting kicked out, then they would be free to act in ways completely true to their beliefs (one would hope). Sadly, the actions of a politician are always somewhat covered up by artifice, because they have to be re-elected and this will influence their behavior.

There are three things you usually must have to get re-elected:

  1. The support of your party
  2. A lot of money
  3. The support of your constituents

Obtaining and retaining these three things will influence the actions a politician takes while in office.

First, you need the support of your political party.  If you’re a Conservative, then this is likely The Republican Party, and if you’re a liberal, then it’s The Democratic Party.

The parties hold considerable power during a political campaign – they have a lot of money they can choose to spend or not spend on your race, and they often hold the key to getting endorsed by more powerful members of your party. If you’re a Democrat running for office and you get an endorsement and a couple of campaign commercials with the sitting Democratic president, well that’s huge for you. With any luck, he’ll even stop by your state and make an appearance with you.

This means that you have to have your party behind you before you run for re-election. To do this, you have support “the party line” over the years – you have to mostly vote the way party wants you to vote. Your party helped get you elected, and you are expected to support the party’s policies, projects, and philosophies in return. In most cases, you were going to vote the party line anyway (or else, why would you be a member of that party?), but in some specific case, you might have wanted to vote differently but were coerced into following the party line.

If a party — Republicans or Democrats — want to pass something, for example, they each have a position called The Whip.  The Whip is a special congressman whose has the unenviable job of “whipping” his colleagues into shape when the party needs to come together on a vote.  Whips enforce the party line.  This is the person who visits the offices, arranges for vote trading (you vote for my bill and I’ll vote for yours), and I’m sure even threatens people with the withdrawal of political support.

(Future president Lyndon Johnson was famous for this when he was in Congress — look at this picture, for example. Johnson was a physically imposing man, and sometimes his “persuasion” bordered on physical threats.  And remember Frank Underwood from House of Cards? He was the Democratic Whip in the House, and you can see how he treated people that didn’t support him. The Whip’s job is to enforce party discipline by whatever means necessary.)

If you don’t vote with your party most of the time, you can expect to pay for it come election season. Your party might withhold funds, they might support your challenger in the primary election, or they might offer only lukewarm endorsements from prominent party figures.

This sounds vindictive, but it’s just common sense. They obviously want to spend money and influence on someone who will be an asset to the party, and if this isn’t you, then they’ll find someone else.

Whatever the consequence, it won’t be pretty, and you likely won’t survive.

Second, you often need a lot of money to run for re-election, especially if your challenger is popular (or if you’re unpopular).  Political campaigns are insanely expensive, and it’s a sad fact that you can largely buy elections in this country.  I don’t mean that you can get anyone elected, but if most everything else is equal, the candidate spending the most money will usually win.  You know that political advertising that drives us nuts every other fall?  Well, sadly, it works.

A lot of this money comes from your party (see above), and certainly some of it comes from everyday people who believe in you and donate to your campaign.  If you’re rich, you can even pay for some of it yourself – in 2008, Mitt Romney spent $35 million of his own money trying to get elected president.

Unfortunately, there’s another option – so-called “special interests.”  These are often individual companies, but also groups of organizations that band together into what are called “political action committees.” These groups are seeking out some kind of political goal, and they donate money to political campaigns to achieve it.

This takes two forms:

  1. A general donation in the hopes of getting a politician elected that will further the goals of the organization.
  2. A specific donation in return for an implicit favor, in the form of a vote on something the organization wants.

The former is relatively innocent – we’re all allowed to support politicians that we agree with.  The latter, however, gets pretty sleazy pretty fast.  You can’t actually trade money for a vote, but it’s fairly clear that if a certain company donates a ton of money to particular candidate, that candidate is going to vote their way if they get elected. Additionally, when facing down an important vote, a lot of politicians will likely take stock of who donated to their last campaign, and how this vote will affect them.

Here’s a quote from a news article about Comcast (the cable company):

Comcast even in normal years is a major political donor. The company spent more than $3.5 million during 2011 and 2012 on a slew of Democratic and Republican candidates, and it has shelled out just under $2 million already in the 2014 cycle, according to federal records.

Why do you think Comcast is spending that money?  Because they want something in return.

You have to consider cause and effect here – which came first, the political position, or the money?  For example, consider these three things:

  1. Comcast does not want the Internet classified as a public utility, because it would affect the way they set prices
  2. Comcast has donated a lot of money to the campaign of Senator Ted Cruz
  3. Ted Cruz has opposed classifying the Internet as a public utility

So, which came first?  Did Ted Cruz always oppose this (point #3), and Comcast thought, “This is guy we want to keep in office, so let’s help him stay there” (then #2)?  Or did Ted Cruz not have an opinion, and Comcast donates a bunch of money (#2), and suddenly Ted Cruz forms an opinion which miraculously coincides with what Comcast wants (then #3)?

For the record, I don’t know, and Comcast has donated to a lot people, not just Ted Cruz. Cruz is a conservative in favor of smaller government, so he very well might oppose the public utility option purely on principle, and Comcast donation had nothing to do with it.

Furthermore, understand that this happens all the time. Every politician takes money from special interests (here’s a website that documents special interest donations; here’s the donations to our own Tim Johnson, for example), so it’s tough to single anyone out.

This sounds a lot like bribery, but the politicians’ defense is that their positions came first, and the money came second. However, I’m quite sure the reverse is often true – some politicians will form (or reverse) a position in exchange for donations, and I’m also sure that some blatant vote-selling happens (“Donate $X to my campaign, and I will change my vote for you.”).

Finally,to get elected, you have to have the support of your constituents. This is clearly a no-brainer – you have to get people to vote for you.  And remember that even if you’re serving the entire nation as a U.S. Congressman, the only people that vote for you are the people in your district back home, so you will do things to make them happy.

What’s one of the best ways to make them happy?  Bring them money in the form of federal projects. The federal government has money to spend on stuff, and your goal is to get the government to spend as much money has it can in your home district, so you can show your constituents all the money your brought home and consequently get them to vote you back into office.

This is called “pork,” or “pork barrel politics.”  Pork is stuff you managed to get the federal government to spend in your district.  Some of it might be necessary and justified.  Some of it, however, is clearly unnecessary and is done simply because a Congressman worked hard to make it happen.

(This brings up the question of who a Congressman is supposed to serve — their country, or their district?  Should they always act in the best interests of the country as a whole, or should they freely screw the country and other states if it will benefit their own district? People have different opinions here.)

This spending can be in the form of all sorts of stuff – you can get the government to bring disaster relief funds after a hurricane, you can get the Army to open a new base in your hometown, you can get the Department of Transportation to spent $100 million on a new interstate, etc.

The late Senator Robert Byrd was famous for this.  He was from West Virginia and was a master at steering federal money back to his state.  They called him the “King of Pork” and he got so many federal projects back to his state that there’s a Wikipedia page listing all the things named after him because of this. He was quite proud, saying:

I lost no opportunity to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home.

This was a good strategy. Byrd served in Congress for well over 50 years, he was re-elected over a dozen times (by overwhelming majorities), and technically never left office — he died while actively serving in Congress.

Pork politics might get you to do things that go against your philosophy and label, which always seems to get overlooked.  For instance, conservatives who campaign against “big government” will usually ease off this language when there’s a chance for millions of dollars in federal spending in their home district.  The general adage is, “We need to cut government spending!…except if the government is spending it in my district, then it’s cool.” And it goes both ways — a liberal who wants to cut the military budget might shockingly support a proposed Army base in their district…

And consider George W. Bush, who campaigned as a conservative in favor of small government, yet pushed for Medicare Part D, which was a historic and expensive expansion of a social program. He did this during his first term, leading to cynical speculation that he was just trying to lock in the senior citizen vote for his upcoming re-election campaign.

Military base closures in particular are a great example of pork politics in action.  Many politicians admit that the U.S. military needs to close several bases around the country because they not necessary.  But a military base is usually a huge impact to the regional economy – the average base has thousands of people working there, and contributes millions and millions of dollars to a local economy.  Ellsworth Air Force Base out in Rapid City is a great example – if it ever closed, it would devastate that part of the state.

So, politicians want to close military bases in general, but not in their home districts. Indeed, when Ellsworth was threatened with closure some years ago, all three of South Dakota’s Congresspeople (a Republican and two Democrats, at the time) united in a massive (and successful) effort to save it.  I don’t know if that was justified or not, but no matter how badly a politician wants to cut military spending, you can bet they don’t want to cut it in their own backyard.

Now, this all seems very cynical, I know.  I don’t mean it to – I’m sure many politicians are very principled people who genuinely want to do good things.  But the fact that remains that to do anything in office, you have to stay there first.  If you’re not in office, then all your raving about your political philosophy isn’t going to do anyone any good.

Senators have it easy – they get six years, so they can forget about getting re-elected for a while and concentrate on governing.  The president and most state governors (48 of them) are a little worse off, as they only get four years.

It’s the Representatives (and two state governors) that have a hard time, because they only get two years in office, which means they’re essentially always campaigning for re-election.  The minute they get put back in office, they have to start thinking about the next election and how they can get re-elected again.

As sad as all this is, it’s the reality of it.  The need to get re-elected will influence what a politician does in office, because they need the support of the party, money from special interests, and votes from their constituents in order to keep doing what they’re doing.