2008-10-18

The Legislative process

The last few weeks have caused me to think about how laws are made. The development of the bill for the "banking bailout" is interesting to me. I am not going to get into the causes of the banking/financial crisis, but just how the bill was formed.

Just to review:

  1. On a Monday, a bill, H.R. 3997, went before the House of Representatives and 228-205. It was viewed that this wasn't the right legislation and there hadn't been enough thought put into it.

  2. The Senate picked up the another version of the bill, H.R. 1424, on Wednesday, added some "sweeteners" and it passed 74-25.

  3. The house then voted on the "sweetened" bill on Friday, and it passed 263-171.



What does this mean? I'm not an expert, but this doesn't seem like the way the process is supposed to work, but unfortunately it is how it does work.

First, lets look at the details of each version of the bill.

H.R. 3997 was originally a bill to give tax relief to members of the armed services. It was picked up by the house in order to turn it into a financial relief bill. This would have provided $700 billion to bailout the financial sector.

H.R. 1424 was a bill to deal with mental health services and eliminate discrimination by health insurance companies. The provisions added to H.R.3997 were added to this bill along with a number of other provisions. This included a number of tax credit provisions, a patch to the Alternative Minimum Tax and other unrelated items.

The only real similarity between the bills was the $700 billon. Otherwise they were very different bills. If the bailout measure wasn't good in the first version of the bill, why was it acceptable once you added a bunch of other pork for specific constituencies? This is politics, pure and simple. Why did these representatives change their votes? Was it because of fear of not doing something? This seems to me like a plan that was put in place because they didn't want to be viewed as sitting around not fixing it. Instead of debating it, they did something.

Call me altruistic, but I expect our legislators would be able to come up with a better plan for the country and the economy than this. This was extremely unpopular with the voters, financiers and economists, yet they still passed the bill. My personal opinion is that there should have been more thought put into this. I also think that the press was irresponsible and feeding into the public's fear, which forced the legislature to act in a careless manner.

Who is going to manage the new portfolio of stocks that the Government is going to end up owning? Its probably the same idiots that got us all into this in the first place? How is America going to get its value back out of the market that we've just bailed out?

We won't even get into the question of whether it is right to bailout a corporation that has been mismanaged when the same isn't done for every individual that does the same?

2008-09-15

Science, Education and Politics

Science is one of those wonderful tools that man has developed in order to determine how things work and put structure around how we expand our base of knowledge. It is a tool, a method if you will. It is not political, sort of. It is a way of determining facts and theories in the search for truth. It has the built in feature of having to change the way we thing about things as more is learned. If it isn't changing, then it really isn't science. This is fundamentally different from learning via dogma or other authoritarian means. Because it is always changing it can be threatening to those "in charge".

Let's review what the scientific method consists of:

  1. observe a phenomenon

  2. develop a hypothesis as to the cause

  3. make a prediction based on the hypothesis

  4. perform a controlled experiment to test the prediction

  5. analyze the data and compare to results predicted by hypothesis


    1. if the results match, the hypothesis can be promoted to a working theory

    2. if the results do not match, revise the hypothesis and return to #2




A problem that I have with the politicization of science is that it co-opts a method of learning things, and in doing so often gets away from learning about truth. This often results in starting with #4 and working backwards towards #2, or fitting the experimental results to fit the desired result. This is no longer science.

Science should determine facts and theories that match the evidence; what politicians do with that information is outside of science. If there is a good reason to go against the truth as determined by science, that may be a reasonable course of action, depending on the circumstances. What I find abhorrent is when the science is manipulated to fit a political agenda. This diminishes the value of science by creating confusion about what we know and how we know it.

Let me use an example: peak oil. When the oil that we are dependent upon will run out is a very political topic for obvious reasons. There are legitimate scientific means to develop estimates with regard to how much oil is available, where this oil is located, estimates on how much it will cost to recover the oil based on where it is located, etc. All of this information could be agreed upon. The question then becomes what to do with that information: do we develop alternate means of generating energy? do we drill for oil in ANWR? do we drill in the Gulf of Mexico? All of these questions are political, the answers should be based in part on the scientific information, but not entirely. The emotional and political factors must also be taken into account, but the science should be agreed upon facts. We should not use the politics or emotion to alter what the science says. There will still be disputes and competing theories as to the actual scientific data, but there are processes built into the scientific method to develop the best theory and modify this theory as more data becomes available.

What does this have to do with education? Everything. We are teaching our children in our schools about the scientific method. If we confuse them about what is science and how science works, then we are doing them and our country a great disservice. If we teach our children that science is arbitrary and can be manipulated to change the truth then we are not teaching them science, we are teaching them politics. We owe much of the progress over the past two centuries directly to science and the scientific method. We cannot expect to maintain our dominance in science and engineering if we are not teaching our children the right things.



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2008-09-13

Supporting the Military vs. Supporting the war

There is a difference between supporting our military and our troops and supporting a war. The difference is often confused. The candidates for President both use this tactic.

I have received links to this video from several friends. I appreciate the service of this soldier; he has clearly sacrificed for something that he believes in deeply. There is no question in my mind that he joined the military to make a difference and was able to help the Iraqi people. I support our soldiers, their sacrifice and the work they are doing to make a difference.

However, I do disagree with several of his statements and I think he is answering the wrong question. He seems to be equating thinking that the war itself was a mistake with not supporting the troops or their sacrifices. This is a false premise. You can respect the sacrifice of the troops and the work they are doing and still think that we should not have been in the conflict to begin with. Could we have accomplished more and avoided the sacrifices to begin with? Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice isn't a support of freedom.

When we were presented with evidence in 2002 to go to war with Iraq, the primary argument was that Saddam Hussein was preparing weapons of mass destruction, funding terrorism and planning further attacks on the United States. This was a reasonable reason for a preemptive attack on another nation. However, the full facts were not presented to the American people, and the administration repeatedly tried to link Iraq to the 9/11 attacks. There was no evidence that this was the case, and has been subsequently been demonstrated that this was a complete fabrication. This was a purposeful misleading of the American people in order to fulfill and agenda.

The soldier in the video talks about helping people in Iraq. This was not the purpose of our mission. Our reasoning for going to war was to avoid an "immediate threat", not to free the Iraqi people from a tyrannical dictator. The first is a justification, the second is imposing our will on another sovereign nation. We have changed the mission into fixing the civil war that was precipitated by our destruction of the previous regime and infrastructure. It is correct that we are fixing the mess that we created; this seems only right considering that we caused the harm. The country was not in a good place prior to the invasion, but it was better.

If our initial mission had been to protect and improve the lives of the Iraqi people, why didn't we do the same thing in Bosnia or Rwanda? There were clear evidence of ethnic cleansing going on, yet we did not act in the same decisive manner. If our mission is humanitarian, then why not act in these regions? Is it because they don't have any natural resources (e.g. oil) that we need? But I digress... I will address this topic in a future post.

It is not unpatriotic to question a war that you don't agree with. Disagreeing with a war does not mean that you do not respect and appreciate the sacrifices of our military personnel. These two positions are not mutually exclusive.

2008-09-11

Thoughts on 9/11

Being the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, I thought it would be appropriate to start here...

As with most, I will never forget the day of the attacks. I was on my way to work from the dentist's office when one of my coworkers called me with the news that a plane had hit one of the towers of the world trade center. At this point in the day it was very confusing exactly what had happened. Reports were varied on the size of the plane, whether it was an accident or the extent of the damage. I arrived at work just around the time the second plane hit the other tower.

This was particularly distressing to me because days before the attack I was at the site. I was with another coworker on a business trip to an office of my employer that was across the street. We had actually debated about moving our trip from the previous Wednesday through Friday to Monday to Wednesday; we would have been there if we had waited. When the towers collapsed, I was convinced that our office was destroyed and all of the people that I had been working with were injured or dead. Luckily, this was not the case.

Over the following months, I was encouraged by the direction that President Bush was taking in determining who attacked us and taking decisive action to attack the Taliban and Al Qa'eda in Afghanistan. As we were victorious and routed them into the mountains, I was further encouraged.

Then we decided to take our eyes off of the ball and attack Iraq. It turns out that instead of focusing on our attackers, we were learned that Saddam was working on WMDs, funding terrorism and planning further attacks against the U.S. We needed to act or we were in great danger. Or so we were told.

It turns out that Saddam, while evil, was not capable of launching an attack. I'm sure he wanted to, but he wasn't capable.

I find it frustrating that we haven't captured bin Laden, have allowed the Taliban to gain a foothold in Pakistan, have gotten involved in or caused a civil war in another country, and frankly, haven't made us feel any safer.

The other major problem I have is that the tragedy of the terrorist attacks are being exploited for political gain. It is a common speaking point for the Republicans in order to maintain an atmosphere of fear among the American people. And saying that if you don't believe it you are unpatriotic or somehow "letting the terrorist win" is manipulative, self-serving and offensive.

One of the reasons that I have started this blog is to express my feelings on Patriotism. Just because I don't agree with the stated policies of the President and other leaders doesn't mean that I am unpatriotic. On the contrary, as one of We The People it is the duty of each of us as involved citizens to question our Government. When the Government comes before the people, that is called Fascism, not Democracy. The role of Government is to serve the people, not the other way around. To say otherwise is un-American.

First post

During the past several years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the way our country is being managed. I know that this is not a recent phenomenon, but I am becoming more aware of it and much more interested. Given the current political cycle, this has become even more the case.

Discussions about these topics have definitely caused stress within my family. In order to maintain the peace with my loved ones, I needed to find another forum to express my opinion and work out my thoughts. Much of what I plan on saying in this is intended as a way for me to refine my feelings on the subjects of politics, policies, the military, the war on terror, etc.

I welcome comments when I am being naive, inconsistent, etc or just to express alternative opinions.

It is interesting that I chose to post the first comment on this new blog at the seven year anniversary of the 9/11 attack. This is complete coincidence.