Already Calling for Surrender

I think there’s a major problem with one of the major political parties in the United States.  I’ve been seeing a meme making the rounds on Facebook that asks “independents” et al. to “Get over it” and plan to vote for Democrats in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Really?  You haven’t even nominated a candidate yet, but you already want people to vote for them?  You don’t have issues or policy, but think that the rallying cry of “This country is a dumpster fire” is going to win votes?  It will probably get some, but not enough.

I do my best to vote for what I think is the best direction to go.  I distinctly remember wandering through the brickyard (a courtyard, but covered with bricks), where the campus Democrats had set up a tent and were trying to encourage people to vote for some candidate (I forget who).  When I approached them, thinking they would be the best place to get their viewpoint, I asked “Why do you think I should vote Democrat?”

The student attendant responded “Well, look around.  Do you want four more years like we had under Republican leadership?”

I responded, “I’ve already decided I’m not voting Republican, but I don’t know who I’m voting for yet.  I don’t vote against candidates, I vote for them.  Why should I vote for yours instead of voting third party?”  At that point, my fellow student seemed to be at a loss for words, and stammered out some talking points verbatim from the brochures they were passing out.  It wasn’t terribly convincing.

That seems to be the problem with the Democratic party, that they think all they have to do is not be Republicans and that will be good enough.  There’s not a clear vision, beyond having everyone unified under their command.  Democrats seem more intent on just being part of a social club rather than having a vision for where they are trying to take the country, or some idea of how to get there.  It certainly explains why they are more likely to inflict emotional pain by calling people racist or sexist or Islamophobic, rather than making logical or moral arguments about why any of those things are wrong.

If Democrats (or any other candidates) want to win votes, they need to focus on problems and solutions.  I’d like to see our political discussion get back to focusing on real problems and their potential solutions, and get rid of the name-calling.  Insulting me will never win my vote.

Applauding Their Own Demise

I have seen a bit of a problem that I don’t understand completely.  I see people who are in their mid to late 50’s and even early 60’s who take a hard line in opposition to Medicaid, and it baffles me.

Now, I understand their firm belief that “people should pay their own way” and “if you can’t afford it you shouldn’t have it”, but the medical conditions people suffer from are usually the reason that they are not more productive and can’t work.  Often, the beneficiaries of Medicaid are the elderly and children, for whom the opportunity to work has not yet arrived or has already passed.  There are only so many jobs that people can continue to work in their old age, and for many people working is no longer an option.

Cutting Medicaid to children seems to be saying “Your potential is not worth the investment.”  Cutting Medicaid to the elderly is basically saying “You have outlived your usefulness, therefore it is time for you to die.”

What bothers me so much is seeing people who are likely to be on Medicaid in the near future cheering its demise.  That is some dedication to principle, to applaud the end of a program you will shortly be dependent on (or die).  Either that, or they have no foresight.

Yes, I Work for Money

One of the major problems in our American culture today is that even though every job is literally “working for the money”, there’s an awful lot of social judgment put on people for looking at and negotiating the financial aspect of their work.  That seems wrong, especially in a nominally capitalist system.

From Hollywood culture, there’s a lot of push to demonize people who “do things for money”, as if life should be spent doing only those things that bring you innate pleasure.  I am not oblivious of the irony of producing a for-profit movie whose message is that money does or should not matter, but it seems that many people take that message and try to apply it to a world that is not a contrived fiction.  This even trickles down and gets misrepresented as if being rich itself were some kind of crime.

Then there’s the problem of negotiating pay for work.  I realize that asking about money upfront is ill-informed (how could you know how much to ask for before you know what the job is?), but people need to be comfortable talking about money, and doing it as if their lives depend on it (because it does).  The fact that unpaid internships, volunteer positions, and actual jobs are sometimes advertised in the same spaces does not help anything, since there’s no way you can accept a position if you were looking for a job but discover it is actually completely unpaid.  Unrealistic employer expectations (that you will relocate and live at your own expense while working for their benefit) have not helped this process.

All this creates an atmosphere where talking about money is taboo, but it needs to be discussed openly because money and financial security are important.  Even if you don’t want to be wealthy, nobody wants to be poor.    I have been extremely frustrated by persons who advertise for unpaid internships on job boards who mislead me into thinking we are discussing an actual paid position when they have no intention of paying anyone to work, and equally frustrated by peers who literally told me “never, ever ask what a job pays; just take it and be happy to work.”  This is not a healthy for capitalism, and it undermines basic workers’ rights.

Making sure you aren’t being taking advantage of in the job-market requires knowledge and some negotiation skills, but it also requires that we remove that taboo on money.  Yes, the wealthy would rather we not discuss money and pretend it’s all about our moral character and willingness to work, but it’s not.  If you don’t negotiate for your pay, you let the employer unilaterally set your pay rate.  Could anyone realistically be a “pay what you want” professional worker, in any field?

And yes, sometimes that means taking a crappy job you don’t want just to get money because it’s all people are willing to pay you to do.  There shouldn’t be a great deal of shame in doing what needs to be done.  The problem is that not only has the system found a way to rip people off, it also stigmatizes them for being robbed of their just wages by the very same people who are also getting screwed over.  This is a completely backwards part of our culture, and it needs to be fixed.

Thoughts on Potential Voting Fraud

I am writing today regarding an issue I have seen discussed with increasing frequency in recent years, and that issue is “voting fraud”.  It has been said that “It does not happen”, and that is stated based on the almost non-existent evidence of that voter fraud.  I accepted for many years that lack of evidence implied lack of fraud, but on closer examination, the paucity of evidence for fraudulent voting seems to be a feature of the system’s design rather than the prevalence or absence of voting integrity.  That would cast extreme doubt on the entire voting system, which would need to be improved.

I have seen the issue come up repeatedly about whether elections might be tampered with or how easily they might be compromised. It was when I stumbled across the work of Project Veritas that the issue seemed urgent rather than hypothetical.   I realize their group is an extremely conservative group, so it must be considered with a hefty helping of salt simply because it is so likely to be biased and have an agenda.  However, their group recorded conversations which implied that voter fraud was very possible, and might even be prevalent in less secure states (see video below).  Further, the video seems to suggest that some members of the Democratic party may have been sympathetic to unethical or illegal voting practices and takes credit for getting them fired.  I’m aware that edited video can be biased and omit important facts, but these videos speak for themselves on the ease of potential fraud.

What prompted me to write this article was the article I saw in “The Intercept” (link below) about the leader of Project Veritas being sued for damages relating to the videos he made.  The article says the information that was gathered for this particular video was allegedly gathered “illegally”, because persons were allegedly “recorded without their knowledge”.  The article even says (and I quote):

“Basically O’Keefe and Maass were modern-day Watergate burglars. They used fraud to get Maass a position as an intern at Democracy Partners so they could steal documents and secretly videotape conversations,” said Joe Sandler, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. “There is no question that, in doing so, they violated federal and D.C. law and should be held liable for the damages suffered by our clients as a result.”
(See “James OKeefe Sued Sting” below)

I don’t know whether any crimes were committed because I don’t know those laws, so I can’t speak to that accusation.  What troubles me is the possibility that the act of collecting the information which could or would reveal voter fraud could itself  be an illegal act.  It troubles me deeply that they were compared to the Water-Gate burglars over these specific videos (if they had been accused of stealing political strategies, the analogy would make sense).  These particular videos look more like a kind of journalism, documenting vulnerability in the system and how it might be exploited.  I recall that, at my local election, use of cell phones and producing photographic evidence of any vote was illegal.  If it is illegal to produce evidence that would confirm or deny voting fraud, that would explain why there’s so “little evidence” of it, and even imply it could be widespread even without evidence.

When I ran several searches about the voting machines themselves, I was disappointed to learn that the voting process on those machines had limited integrity.  It seemed as if the voting totals from some of the machines used to vote were, in many cases, unverifiable and thus unreliable (based on articles I read following the Green recount request).  It also seemed that it would be relatively easy to modify voting results after the vote was complete, to say nothing of the possibility of tampering prior to an election.  I realize that there’s a certain amount of security in place to prevent tampering, but I have serious doubts that volunteers would be able to observe and prevent tampering with voting machines when that could be done as quickly and easily as demonstrated in the article from Cylance below.  This is only one specific case; there are many articles online about insecure voting machines and how they need to be updated with better models.

My big concern is that voting might not be as secure as it was presumed.  Reportedly, barely more than half the country is participating in elections (See CNN article).  But if voting is not properly secure, can easily be tampered with and then there is no verification for the vote that was cast, then how can we trust the vote itself?  When Jill Stein of the Green Party called for a recount to confirm voting integrity, she was accused of “contributing to a lack of confidence in the system”, but is that confidence well founded?

Voting is a cornerstone of our democratic process.  It cannot be allowed to be compromised, and needs to be protected in a verifiable way.  When and if that cannot be done, then we should not be “confident in the system”.  We need a system that we can be confident about, and recent events have called it into question for good reason.  I am less concerned about who specifically wins than I am that the process is followed correctly and the proper candidate receives the correct votes.

Having a better, more secure voting process should be a priority.  I’m generally opposed to voter ID laws on the basis that they are used primarily for disenfranchisement (yes, $5 is a lot of money when you are dirt poor – there must be no poll tax at all as a barrier to voting), but if a voter ID could be implemented that was not a major burden to participation while maintaining the integrity of the election, I could tolerate that.  That would probably require (among other things) that the ID cards be provided at no cost to the individual, but the cost of running the election is something government should be paying for anyway.  Having secure, verifiable results is important.  Yes, I want to maintain that everyone eligible can participate, but I also want to make sure that there’s nothing illegitimate taking place.

I do not want my confidence in the American electoral system to be blind faith.  It is important that the integrity of our elections be protected, and if we’re going to go to the trouble of showing up in person to vote, then we shouldn’t be worried about whether the machine recorded the votes correctly or whether they might have been tampered with or whether somebody might have picked up a ballot for the deceased.  I could tolerate low voter turnout if people are really not showing up, but if the system is so vulnerable to foul play then even low turnout must be questioned.  There is a quote about voting, widely attributed to Stalin, that seems particularly apt here:

“I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.”


An Unsettling Trend: Punching Nazis?

There’s a disturbing problem that’s been taking root in the country, and people have been calling it “punching Nazis”.  While I’m no fan of Nazis, I don’t think punching a person for holding a particular belief is the right direction for our country to move in.

Why is this such a problem?  First, public discussion and free speech are an important part of our political system.  If we cannot even discuss ideas, then our political process cannot work.  I’ve heard some people say “You can’t just espouse an opinion and not suffer the consequences of having that opinion”, but “being assaulted” is not one of those legitimate consequences.  It’s okay if you don’t want to be friends at the end of the conversation, but these people are still citizens, and if they’re otherwise obeying the law (which I must point out does prohibit punching people), then they are wrong but not criminals (which you are, if you punch them).

While some people have claimed that “free speech only applies to the government”, I think censorship causes problems more than it solves them, and censoring an opponent in an argument is in effect a frank admission that you don’t have a good counter argument.  If your position is better, then show and explain why it’s better.  We’re not there yet, but it’d be nice to live in a country where you don’t have to live in fear of losing your job based on your political affiliation – I don’t think a person should be fired for beliefs not directly related to doing their job, even though it surely happens.

In education, it is important for it to be okay to be wrong when you are still learning, and that extends into public discussion as well.  Yes, I’m asking for some maturity, but we’re mostly adults here.

When people talk about “right” and “wrong” viewpoints, I worry that they are forgetting history.  For example, for a long time (and still in many places today – see links below), people were attacked for having or even speaking about homosexual relations.  It was widely accepted that it was “wrong”, and that position was enforced with violence – yes, even by Nazis.  While it is dangerously tempting to human nature to use violence to maintain your power when you are able to do so, it sets a terrible precedent.  If nothing else, there’s usually a lot more of “them” than there are of most minorities.

There’s another compelling reason not to punch Nazis, and it’s because it makes them martyrs.  If they appear to want to engage in conversation, and somebody else gets violent, then they look like the reasonable, civilized person (which is a difficult position for a Nazi to gain in this day and age).  It lends credibility to their claims, because as I said before, if you had an argument to present, you could do that.  You don’t need to help them by giving them a bigger podium.

A compelling third reason that Nazis should be engaged in conversation instead of fisticuffs is because Nazis frequently appeal to people who feel excluded and left out.  Basic participation weakens the effect alienation has on them.

Lastly, and just in general, I am troubled that the application of violence is becoming so completely acceptable on a wide scale.  There are times and places for violence (the immediate defense of family and property, or when police pursue violent criminals, for example), but stifling another person’s right to speak and be heard is not an appropriate application of violence.  The line between general discussion and personal threats can get muddy, especially when open violence gets too acceptable.  I am concerned that if we decide punching Nazis is okay, then who does or does not count as a “Nazi” is going to depend (in part) on how much a person would like to punch them (note: The person getting punched in the video below does not self-identify as a Nazi).

I do want to make clear that I do think “Nazis” should be stopped from achieving their agenda; I just don’t think sacrificing the ability to discuss ideas freely and openly in public is the best way to do it.  Beat them on the debate floor, if you can set one up.  Even if you don’t convert your interlocutor, you can win the people who are listening.  Beat them in the election booth, if they ever get that far.  But please don’t beat them in the streets.  It only seems like a good idea at the time.



How I’m Seeing Net Neutrality

I’ve seen an awful lot of talk about “Net Neutrality” and how the Internet needs to be protected.  The fight was fought (and won) for an open Internet just a few years ago, but with the new Presidential administration it has come up again.

I think part of the problem is that the Internet, being the result of technology, confuses people on basic issues.  If we were talking about mailing letters or shipping boxes, the “debate” would be over already, so I’m going to lean on those for obvious parallels (even though the metaphor might not be perfect, the idea should come across).

Suppose you want to send a package somewhere.  If it’s a Christmas card, you probably sent it with a stamp at the lowest priority, because you didn’t worry too much about when it would arrive.  If you had an urgent package, you might choose to ship via an overnight service to make sure it arrives fast.  In both cases, since you’re paying the cost, you get to pick the service you signed up for.  When you sign up for an Internet subscription, you’re picking your service.  When I checked AT&T, I saw they were offering a 50 Mbps, 75 Mbps, and 100 Mbps connection – that’s like choosing your shipping service.

What this most recent “debate” is about is whether it’s really okay for you to go where you want to go on the Internet.  Large companies are upset that you might choose to look up a smaller competitor’s site, and in their view you are “donating” your bandwidth to that company.  They think that people on both ends should have to pay for a premium service, or suffer from lower quality.

That would be like deliberately slowing down an overnight package – not because you sent it to a remote part of Alaska, but because the receiver didn’t also pay for overnight shipping.  You already paid for the entire service, but the multi-billion dollar companies want to make it so that both parties have to pay.  I have no doubt that the cost will be “just out of reach” for non-billionaires.

We even have a historical example to show how this preferential treatment works out.  Rockafeller “worked together” or “colluded” with railroads (depending on who you ask) in order bankrupt his competitors.  This is exactly what the “net neutrality” discussion is about – whether the Internet will be available to everyone (similar to a common carrier), or whether it will favor some few people over many others.

I think competition is necessary for healthy business, and one of the reasons the economy has been in the toilet for so long is the lack of good competition between companies.  Many of the companies that are prospering are doing so through the Internet.  Our Internet services are already not competitive (and among the worst value in the world, thanks to high costs and low speeds), and billionaires using this to artificially stifle their competition should not be allowed.  Internet service was determined as a common carrier in 2015, and we need to keep it that way.

Foreign Students, Local Burden

There’s a problem with foreign students attending our state universities that’s not immediately obvious, and I wanted to make sure I pointed it out.

State universities receive a significant part of their funding from the state.  At my alma mater, it was much more than half, with government funding, research grants, and charitable donations making up around 85% of funding (according to the fund raising campaigns that used to be run on campus).  Nearly all of that money comes from within the United States.

When a foreign student comes to campus, they filled a place that was paid for mostly by Americans, even though most of those students came from well-to-do families abroad.  Even if they pay twice the cost in tuition, they’re still getting a great deal on the cost of an education.  Not only that, but they’re willing and able to take student research positions without pay.  That takes away opportunities from American students competing for the all important experience required to get a job after school.

I’m not saying this out of animosity, but there’s only so many opportunities available to our students.  If we allow foreign students to come to our country and take those opportunities, then they will be the ones who prosper while our own people (who paid the taxes to support the university both directly and indirectly) never see the benefit of their country’s investment.

I’ve been told there’s plenty of opportunity for students in STEM fields, you just need to go out and find it.  If there’s really “more than enough to go around”, then we need to make unlimited opportunities available for student internships within the school.  I know that’s unrealistic – that’s the source of my frustration.  Americans are paying a premium to support our universities, but are being shortchanged on opportunity by foreign students who attend them.  If Americans are paying for the universities, then Americans should be favored in the process when there’s a shortage of work.

Ranting About Job Hunting

One of the problems we have in our country is the assumption that people (especially young people) have extra money just lying around.  I ran into it most recently when I was talking about how much trouble I was having finding work.  I graduated seven years ago with a degree in engineering.  If you have 2-3 years of experience, you’re golden and there are lots of jobs, but if you haven’t gotten that experience yet, getting your foot in the door is somewhere between difficult and impossible… at least without having someone to personally let you in by giving you a job with a hearty recommendation.

It does not matter how much you know if you can’t get a government license to be able to practice your craft.  I can’t even become an engineer-in-training (i.e. one of the first steps toward becoming an engineer) without approval from an existing engineer in my state – a most absurd restriction.  This is nothing but a barrier to entry to keep intelligent working class people out of professional positions.

And when I talk about how lack of experience is holding me back, it is met with ignorant gibberish.  I usually describe what I have been asked and told to do on multiple occasions: Relocate at my own expense to live near a company, then live at my own expense – paying for rent and food and transportation costs out of pocket – while working full time at a company doing a job for six months to two years to get some basic experience… all without ever getting a paycheck.  When I said “I need at least enough money to live from a job”, I get non-sense feedback about how “You have to be willing to make sacrifices” and “That’s not my problem”.

I’m not suggesting I need fancy dinners or a nice house – I’m saying that if I’m paid nothing at all, I literally cannot work.  The grocery store doesn’t accept “experience”, and no landlord is going to rent to me without a deposit (much less rent).  On top of that, I still have student loans accruing interest while I’m looking for work.  When I point out how ridiculous it is to expect people to work without pay, the immediate response I get from the industry is “Other people do it, it’s too bad you can’t”.

Add to it the ridiculous fact that I went to college to be more employable, and the whole situation makes even less sense.  What good is an engineering degree if it doesn’t mean that you can get engineering jobs?

I always want to ask “How many years did you work before you got your first paycheck?”  It is ridiculous and unreasonable to expect anyone to work for the benefit of somebody else without getting paid.  In the “good old days”, if you were working, you got a paycheck.

Part of the problem with America is that nobody wants to pay for anything anymore, and that is most true of the people who have the most money.  Labor, more than anything else, is being deemed worthless and paid accordingly.  So where do I end up?  I end up as a laborer in a warehouse, or waving a sign, while holding an engineering degree, because nobody is willing to hire me and I can’t ever get together enough money to “make the sacrifice” I need to make to be a professional.

I have no sympathy for companies that want to cry about “not having any engineers”, because they won’t pay for the ones they’ve got.  I’m not the only engineering graduate who can’t find a job.  What these companies really mean is that they aren’t willing to invest in the human capital (the engineer) and pay them enough to keep them on board once they’ve completed their basic training.

Why Educate Everybody? (This is why)

One of the problems I’ve seen in principle (if not explicitly stated) is “Why do we bother to offer everyone an education, especially when so many people waste the opportunity?”  I think our country has forgotten why we educate absolutely everyone (even -and especially- the poor and disadvantaged), and provide everyone with the opportunity to be successful.  Thankfully, that reason has nothing to do with high-minded altruism, so it’s rigorous to survive the most unabashed selfishness.

The robust reason that we provide everyone with the opportunity to succeed is because we cannot know in advance who the geniuses are going to turn out to be (no matter how much we try), and the cost of offering education to literally everyone is cheaper than the benefit even a single genius brings to our nation.

It is true that there will be many, many people who choose to squander the opportunity they get – that’s just the nature of offering something extremely valuable to children who don’t appreciate its worth.  But the best and brightest are the ones who will change the world (at least in the realms of science, medicine, and engineering), and we should not hobble our country by condemning young people based on their parents’ ability to pay for their education.

These are the people who could cure cancer, master fusion, or something else we haven’t even imagined yet.

This is ignoring the compelling but non-selfish argument that everyone should be offered the opportunity to become the best person they can be, and how that opportunity is fundamental to basic personal liberty, but that’s requiring people to care about morals and principles.  We can always trust people to be self interested, and if living in a wealthy nation where you don’t have to be the genius yourself to enjoy the fringe benefits, then I don’t know what is.

I have heard much made about how “China and India have so many more doctors and engineers than we do”, and “There’s a shortage of STEM professionals”.  Those countries also have far more people than we do – we can’t afford to let anyone with potential slip through if we want to be able to keep up with them.

How not to Judge Labor

There’s a problem, and while it’s very common to teaching, it’s still a problem elsewhere, too.  That problem is that employers are trying to judge their employees on both compliance with standard procedures and evaluate them based on results.

It is completely reasonable to evaluate an employee based on their compliance with following protocol, and in a perfect world that would be the best way to achieve success.  In teaching, throughout the year, it seems like our teachers are expected to teach using the lessons and on the subjects that administration demands.  There is a similar parallel in sales, where following a certain protocol should deliver results, most of the time.

It is also completely reasonable to evaluate employees based on their output and results.  If a teacher’s students are learning, then the methods they are using are clearly working – regardless what those methods happen to be.  Similarly, if a salesperson is evaluated based on their sales quota then, unless they are breaking laws or making empty promises, it does not make sense to condemn their methods.

But judgment cannot be done both ways at once.  The results come directly from the methods used to obtain them.  If a teacher spends the entire year compliantly teaching in a specific mandated way, and a significant portion of her students failed to learn anything, it is completely unreasonable to condemn her as a “bad teacher” or reward her as a “good teacher”.  If everyone is using the same method, then success or failure come more from the capricious whims of fate that decides who sits before you on a given day.  It is unreasonable to spend the entire year putting workers into a straightjacket with no room for individual deviation, and then trying to evaluate their results based on their “performance” at the end of said year.  Reality just does not work that way, in spite of what our evaluative methods would lead you to believe.

I am convinced that our leaders cannot reasonably judge their workers on both compliance and performance.  If a person is compliant with required methods, and is not getting results, it means the method sucks.  If a person is going to be judged on their performance, then they need to be free to work in a way that works.