Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I don't want to spend to much time on veepstakes speculation as it really is just that: speculation. However, I thought I'd make one brief post to stick my two cents into this. It seems lately that polls and the media are already playing off each other to try and frame this election in terms of the conventional paradigm of Republicans are strong on national security and Democrats are strong on the economy. As the theory goes, whichever of these issues ranks of higher importance in voters' minds on election day will determine who wins. Now, this might have been a plausible paradigm in 1992 when president George H. W. Bush had just fought a successful war in Iraq, but the economy was slipping into recession. It's absurd though, that after 8 years of dubya, anyone could still believe the Republicans are stronger on national security. What have 8 years brought us? A war in Iraq with no end in sight, 4,000 US troops dead (more than were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11), Al Qaeda growing ever stronger, Iran exerting more influence than ever over the region and coming ever closer to developing nuclear weapons, a North Korea that is reportedly selling nuclear weapons technology to Syria, a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories. This administration has been a disaster on national security and McCain offers more the same. If ever there has been a year for Democrats to win the election on national security issues, this is it. And yet, perhaps owing to the length of their respective resumes in the area, the press insists on continuing to portray McCain as strong on national security and Obama as weak. This is why I think Obama needs to pick a running mate with strong, bona fide, national security credentials. Someone who can, and will, forcefully make the case that the Democrats are stronger on national security than the Republicans are. The obvious choices would be Joe Biden, Wesley Clark, Jim Webb, or Sam Nunn. Sam Nunn is probably too old. Jim Webb, while he's obviously been a strong critic of the war in Iraq, I'm not really convinced he shares the basic overall philosophies of the Democratic Party. Between Biden and Clark, though I like them both, and I think they would both be strong picks, my preference goes with Biden. In addition to his national security credentials as chairman of the foreign relations committee, he also brings a long record of accomplishments in Washington, something else Obama is lacking. He will be able to provide president Obama with vital assistance in how to actuallly accomplish things in a city resistant to change.

Perhaps, in the end, Democrats will not be able to claim national security as their issue. There are many people who automatically associate militaristic with strong and non-militaristic with weak. For the good of the country, I hope this is the year Americans finally learn that isn't true. Picking Joe Biden would certainly go a long way towards making that happen.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Post-partisanship and a New Kind of Politics

There seems to be a lot of talk lately about a new kind of politics; of moving to a post-partisan era where we don't think about what party we belong to, only about what is best for America. On the surface, this naturally seems like a wonderful idea. Of course politicians should focus on doing what is best for America. The problem is, more often than not, trying to push for a new kind of politics before you're in office means ensuring you will lose. Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry all lost for this reason. They insisted on taking the high road; on sticking to talking about issues and not responding to personal attacks. You can't change the system if you're not in office, and you can't get in office if you won't play the game as it works now. Taking the high road when you're still a candidate amounts to unilateral disarmament against your opponent. The great irony is Barack Obama, the candidate who talks the most overtly about a new kind of politics is probably a more conventional politician than most Democratic candidates we've seen in quite a while, with the exception of Bill Clinton. And from what I can tell so far, he's a damn good one. He's been effectively hitting back, and hitting back hard every time he's attacked. He made the right decision in forgoing the public funding. Taking it would be a good way to ensure he will lose. The overwhelming advantage he'll get in the fall from all the extra money will more than outweigh getting a few days of bad press for the decision now. And of course, one has to admire the way he played the race card during the primaries and managed to blame the Clintons for it. As a Clinton supporter, I really feel no animosity towards him for this. He played the same game we were and he beat us at it. He earned the right to be our party's nominee, and hopefully he'll run as strong a campaign against McCain as he did against us.

The other major problem with post-partisanship (what we used to call bipartisanship) is what exactly does it mean? Obviously, I want a candidate who puts America first, and if the Democratic party does something wrong is not afraid to stand up and say it. However, I hear a lot of conservative pundits saying that he needs to break with the mainstream of the Democratic party on some issue to show that he's post-partisan. This is absurd. If the Democratic party platform has the right ideas for America, why should a candidate take a stand against it, just to show their post-partisanship? That would be just as bad and not taking a stand against the platform if it is wrong. I'm all for bipartisanship if it means working together with Republicans who decide they want to do what's right and join the Democratic party on any one of its issues. However, if it means having to put together a compromise agenda where each party gets half of what they want, why should I agree to that? The Republican party, as a whole, has been on the wrong side of every issue for the last 60 years. Let's just look at what the Republican ideas are at the present. A never-ending war in Iraq, giving the executive branch unlimited power to ignore the constitution during wartime, cutting taxes even more for the people who need it least, leaving tens of millions of men, women and children without health care, offering fewer veterans' benefits. Not one of these is a good idea. Right now the best way for Democratic politicians to do what's best for America isn't to reach out to compromise with Republicans, it's to beat them into submission. As a friend of mine's father once put it, "I never understood the point of moderation. Who wants to be half way between right and wrong?"

I find it mildly comical that we have two candidates who both appear committed to this "new kind of politics" and are both clearly poised to run one of the most conventional dirty campaigns we've seen. John McCain, I don't think, ever believed in the new kind of politics. For him, and the rest of the Republicans, it's just a tool to bludgeon the Democrats with and make sure the Republicans can continue to win elections ensuring the change to the political system never happens. Barack Obama, I think, deep down does believe we need to fix the way politics works in Washington. However, he realizes that nothing will get fixed if he loses, and so he's not going to make the mistakes of his predecessors and unilaterally disarm against the Republican attack machine. And thank God for that.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stable Marriage Problem

Since there hasn't been much excitement happening the political world in the last week or so to comment on, I thought I'd do something a little different this time. It's something of a fusion between my interest in mathematics and my interest in politics. A while back, I learned about a mathematical problem known as the stable marriage problem. The professor, of course, warned us about drawing any social implications from this problem. I, of course, promptly ignored her and when I got home wrote an article on the social implications on this problem. I tried unsuccessfully to get the article printed in the actual print media, so I'm publishing it here instead. Here goes:

In the mathematical theory of algorithms we discuss what is known as the stable marriage problem. The problem goes as follows. Suppose we have some number of men and an equal number of women. We will assume all marriages are between a man and a woman. (This is merely to simplify the mathematics. It is not a political statement.) Each man lists all of the women in his order of preference for who he would want to marry. Each woman lists all of the men in her order of preference for who she would want to marry. We will assume everyone would prefer being married, even to the last person on their list, to being single. (Again, this is to simplify the mathematics, and is not a political statement.) The stable marriage problem asks if we can pair up the men and women into couples so that there are no blocking pairs. A blocking pair is defined as a man and women who both prefer each other to their spouses in the given solution. If no such blocking pair exists, we call the set of marriages stable. We can prove that a stable set of marriages always exists. In fact, in most cases, many possible stable marriages exist.

The algorithm to find the stable marriage partners is rather simple to understand. On day 1, each man will propose to the first woman on his list. Any woman who receives just one proposal will accept and the couple gets engaged. If a woman receives more than one proposal, she will accept from the one who is highest up on her list, get engaged to him, and reject the rest. On the second day all the men who are not engaged propose to the next woman down on their list. As before, the women accept the best proposal offered to them. This means even if they were already engaged, they will break the engagement, and instead get engaged to the man they prefer more. This process continues until all men and all women are engaged, and then all the engaged couples get married. I’m not going to give the proof here, as it’s fairly mathematically involved, but take my word for it that these marriages will be stable.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Mathematically, the people are just lists of numbers, so it doesn’t matter who we call the men and who we call the women. We can equally well run the algorithm with the men proposing and the women accepting, as with the women proposing and the men accepting. Both ways will give us a set of stable marriages, but not the same set. Let me define one more term. A partner is said to be feasible to you if there exists some arrangement where you could have a stable marriage with them. We can prove that if the men do the proposing, every man will end up with his most preferred feasible partner and every woman will end up with her least preferred feasible partner. Conversely, if the women do the proposing, every woman will wind up with her most preferred feasible partner and every man will wind up with his least preferred feasible partner. Without going into the details of the proof, let me give some intuition as to why this is true. Think about the preference list for the average person. On the top, you’re going to have the people who are out of your league. On the bottom will be the people you are too good for. Somewhere in the middle will be the feasible partners. If you’re doing the proposals, you start from the top, and work your way down to someone who is in your league. If you’re accepting the proposals, you start by getting proposals from the people you wouldn’t even consider, and accept as soon as you get someone who’s “good enough.”

Obviously, real life marriages do not work quite like this highly simplified mathematical problem, but its social implications still bear tremendous relevance. Though it is starting to change, the dominant social norm in our society is that the men do the marriage proposals. Of course, we can’t say with the same mathematical certainty as we could in our problem that this means every man will end up with his most preferred feasible partner and every woman with her least preferred feasible partner. However, the basic intuition that this system is going to mostly benefit the men still applies. This may seem surprising to some. After all, the system is designed to portray the woman as the one in charge. The man is supposed to make the proposal all romantic, get down on one knee, put the woman up on a pedestal, buy her expensive gifts, etc. This is all an illusion, though. Patriarchal society would never knowingly adopt a social norm that would really give women an edge over men. This all gives lie to conservative apologists who would point to things like this as evidence that old-fashioned socio-cultural norms in fact give more respect to women than modern feminist ones. In reality, the very institutions that seem to give the most respect to the women are mere clever ploys to manipulate the women for the benefit of the men.

However interesting marriage proposals might be, the implications go far beyond marriage proposals or gender dynamics. Any time one person or entity is in a position of power over another, they will tend to maintain this power by giving the other person the illusion of choice. Go to the supermarket to buy laundry detergent. You might see over 15 different brands on the shelf. You might think, “Wow. Look at all the different choices I have. This is really capitalism at its best.” If you read the labels, though, you will see that most of the brands are manufactured by one of three companies. The companies know that people are happier thinking there are 15 different companies competing to make the best product for them than knowing there is a 3-company oligopoly manipulating them for profit. If the one you are dominating thinks they are really in control and does not know you are dominating them, they are far less likely to revolt against the status quo.

It can often be difficult to know when a choice life presents you is a real choice or a fake choice someone is offering you to maintain their dominance over you. However, I think the mathematics of the stable marriage problem holds the keys to the solution. When you get to actively choose what you really prefer, you are the one in control. If you are presented with options and can only passively accept or reject them, someone else may be manipulating you. Now I don’t mean to say that active choices are all good and passive ones all bad. A society without any kind of power relationships may have been the communist dream, but it certainly is not realistic, and probably not even desirable. However, an equitable society must have a proper balance of the power relationships so there aren’t classes of people, some that are always in the active role, and others that are always in the passive role. An awareness of the nature of our relationships is the first step to bring about this positive change.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

More McCain Idiocy on Iran

I just noticed this, and it's great. In his speech to AIPAC last week, John McCain had this to say about Obama's willingness to negotiate with our enemies:

"We hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before."

The funny thing is the Obama campaign has never tried to portray it as a "sudden inspiration" or "bold new idea". They've constantly pointed out that it's the same approach to foreign policy employed by presidents across the political spectrum from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. Until now, I thought the McCain line was going to be portraying Obama as a dangerous radical, but now it seems as if he has acknowledged that Obama's view has represented the mainstream foreign policy consensus for decades. In doing so, he has all but acknowledged that his own "war is the only answer" approach is the one offering the radical departure from how diplomacy has traditionally been conducted. It's time for the press to stop portraying this guy as a moderate and tell the American people just how dangerous he is.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

We hardly knew thee, Bobby

If you didn't already know, today June 5, 2008, is the 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy being shot. (He didn't die until the 6th. I believe he was shot around 15 minutes to midnight.) It is often mentioned by the media that he was shot the night of the California primary. That is certainly true, but to a Jew and a Zionist, there is another significance to June 5. June 5, 1967, was the start of the 6 Day War in Israel. I don't believe this was a coincidence. During Israel's struggle for survival in 1967 (and of course when you're surrounded by enemies who don't recognize your right to exist as a country, every war is a struggle for survival), she had no bigger supporter in the United States Senate that Bobby Kennedy. His assassin, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, identified his nationality as Palestinian. (The media at the time reported his nationality as Jordanian, as US government policy then did not recognize Palestinian as a nationality.) Sirhan mentioned Kennedy's support for Israel as his motivation for killing him. I think it is fair for us to say that Bobby Kennedy was not merely a great political leader who was assassinated, but the first American victim of Palestinian terrorism.

When Sirhan pulled that trigger, he shot so much more than just Bobby Kennedy. For a time in the 1960s, a generation believed they could change the world. The young people would rally together for peace, equality and justice. Together we could work to end war, racism and poverty. People stood for something other than themselves. No one represented this spirit of the 1960s more than Bobby Kennedy. He knew that government could be a real force of good in the world. He knew that politics was about more than winning elections, it was about making the world a better place. I'm always touched by his last words. On that fateful night in 1968, after he had been shot, lying on the ground with a bullet in his head, soon to go unconscious and never wake up, the last words he uttered were "Is everyone OK?" To the end, all he wanted to do was help people. *sigh* they just don't make politicians like that anymore. I'm also always inspired by the story of how one time some constituents, working poor, not eligible for welfare, came to meet with him. They told him about how hard they were working, but still had trouble earning enough to put food on the table for their families. Within a week, Bobby Kennedy introduced legislation for a new federal program known as "food stamps." No focus groups, no political calculations. He saw people in need, and knew he had to help them.
Here's a speech he made during the presidential campaign that was always one of my favorites:

"Truly we have a great gross national product, almost 800 billion dollars, but can that be the criterion by which we judge this country? Is it enough? For the gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife and television programs, which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. And the gross national product, the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither wit nor courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our duty to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America, except why we are proud to be Americans."

If only politicians still talked this way, still recognized it was our responsibility to help those who have no one else to help them. I can never help but wonder how history would have been different if Bobby Kennedy had not been assassinated. He certainly would have won that election in 1968. We would have pulled out of Vietnam at least 5 years earlier than we did and the lives of at least 30000 young American men and women would have been spared. Just think of all the contributions they could have made. The prolonged conflict in Vietnam drove up anti-American sentiment in Asia, strengthened the communist position there, led to the eventual fall of Cambodia and Laos. Maybe if Bobby Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, Russia would have been weaker, and America would have won the cold war sooner. Wars aren't always won by fighting. If Bobby Kennedy was president, we never would have seen the corruption of Richard Nixon, which means Jimmy Carter would probably never have become president. And without the failures of the Carter administration, Ronald Reagan probably never would have become president either. That one bullet from the gun of Sirhan Sirhan changed so much of American history. Sometimes, I've thought about writing a novel with an alternative history where Bobby Kennedy wasn't shot, but then, I'm not much of a novelist.

Bobby Kennedy's death was the end of an era. It was an era that was just getting started when John was killed. It was an era that was devastated when Martin was killed, but knew it had to go on. It just couldn't go on past Bobby's death though. That bullet shattered the dreams of a generation. It shattered the hopes of a better of future. It shattered whatever trust remained in the goodness of humankind. It hopelessly divided the Democratic party, wounds from which they are still recovering.

As we shed a tear today for Bobby Kennedy, let us remember that the best way to honor his memory is through action, not words. Politicians today may not be Bobby Kennedy, but they are still fighting important fights. Today's battle to bring health care to the millions of Americans who still cannot afford it in the richest nation in the world, is just as significant today, as Food Stamps were in 1968. And the Republicans are just as against any kind of progress today as they ever were. Sure they'll couch their arguments in terms of economics, business, taxes, freedom, responsibility, small government, or whatever the buzzword of the day is, but it always seems to boil down to feeling no responsibility to help the less fortunate. People finally seem to be catching on. This could be the year that a united Democratic party finally finishes the job Bobby Kennedy laid out for it in 1968. What better tribute could there be to the 40th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's death than to give them that opportunity. I'm sure it's what he would have wanted.

"Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby? Can you tell me where he's gone? I think I saw him walking up over the hill, with Abraham, Martin, and John."
-Abraham, Martin, and John