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Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 04:56 PM PDT

Utility Monsters Ate My Vote

by fleisch

This is just a brief little philosophical stroll to show how an 18th century thinker and a 21st century Supreme Court justice combined to make my vote worthless, and how a thought experiment came to life in a way that is increasingly eroding the foundations of our already shaky representative democracy.

"The greatest good for the greatest number" is a common misquotation of the founding principle of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that states that society (and people) should maximize "utility" -- commonly defined as increasing happiness and reducing suffering.

The purpose of modern government, however imperfect in execution, is to improve the lot of its citizens. In this sense utilitarianism is a generally accepted philosophy, and governments act in a utilitarian way, seeking to maximize utility (happiness of the citizenry), just as businesses seek to maximize profit.  In our representative democracy, citizens use their votes to elect representatives who will maximize utility for them, that is, congressmen who will represent their interests, and carry out a platform that works for the good of the nation.

While the founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, did indeed believe in the greatest happiness for the greatest number, his more famous follower, John Stuart Mill, was less of a populist, and redefined utility to remove quantity.

For instance, Mill felt that 'intellectual' pleasure should be rated more highly than 'animal' pleasure. Thus, education would have greater utility than fornication, and a college for the few should be more worthy of communal funding than a cock-fighting arena for the many.  Some philosophers actually tried to work out formulas for determining utility.  You can understand the reason for Mill's change in emphasis, but the loss of any consideration for that idea of "the greatest number" has brought us to the pass we are at today.  

In 1974, Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick proposed a critique of Utilitarianism in which a hypothetical 'utility monster' derived more pleasure than anyone else from his actions, so much so that his pleasure would outweigh the sorrow felt by others over whatever damage or deprivation he caused. Forty years ago, this was only a thought experiment, but thanks to the Citizens United decision, the metaphor has taken on an ugly reality (as explained below the gewgaw).

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I understood

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28%34 votes
42%51 votes

| 120 votes | Vote | Results

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Thu Oct 17, 2013 at 06:36 PM PDT

The Map of Crazy

by fleisch

I was looking at an Interactive Map (thanks, Time Magazine) of Nay votes in the House of Representatives on the deal to raise the debt ceiling (AKA HR 5775). I wanted to see if there was some pattern, some plague spread of lunacy that led these individuals to endorse defaulting on the U.S. debt.  

All the infected were Republicans, of course.  (Here's a roll call, if you're interested.)  But the victims (yes, we're actually the victims, but stick with the metaphor) were not necessarily where you would expect them (or where I would expect them, knowing nothing of the geographic underpinnings of the Tea Party besides its Koch funding).  As far as the general pattern goes, is it the Confederacy?  Does a river run through it?  Yes and no, but with some pockets of immunity and some outlying outbreaks.

More musings after the jump.

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On the Diane Rehm show yesterday, the discussion centered on the latest efforts to end the impasse in Washington.  One guest was a negotiations expert, who talked about zero-sum games, compromising vs. "satisfising", organizational goals, etc.  

The discussion really became interesting when one of the callers, identifying himself as a former Capitol Hill staffer, stated that none of these strategies applied because Congress was an institution, not an organization.  He said that it was composed of 535 separate gigantic egos, whose only interest was themselves, and whose only goal was to destabilize the institution enough so that no one could tell them what to do.  I believe this insight (which was essentially ignored or misunderstood by the guests) pinpoints the real dysfunction in Congress, one that mirrors the current societal obsession with celebrity divorced from talent or achievement.

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I believe that Congress is

6%8 votes
29%38 votes
18%24 votes
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| 127 votes | Vote | Results

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Sat Oct 05, 2013 at 06:18 PM PDT

My open letter to John Boehner

by fleisch

Open letters are all the rage these days.  Although this won't have the impact of Sinead O'Connor's advice to Miley Cyrus, a friend showed me I could tag John Boehner on Facebook, and rant directly to him rather than about him.  Or at least rant to the now-unpaid sycophantic staff who must sort the "Stay strong, John, and crush the worthless peasants beneath your boot" mail from the more thoughtful screeds such as mine :)

The text of my rant is below the paraph.  (Not really a paraph, but I'm trying to popularize that word, and also my new hashtag, #ReapTheWhirlwind)

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All the main election polling sites (the ones I frequent) now project Obama to win the Presidency, though there is disagreement over which states remain in play. But McCain's camp is claiming they still have a chance, scaring Rachel Maddow and other Cassandras like me.

Remembering that Kerry led in the polls this time last year, we might want to view them with some more skeptical assumptions—a sort of worst-case scenario for Obama—and see where the battlegrounds really are, using two different "safety" measures and data from several sites, which aggregate the polls in different ways.

The data show McCain can win, even without an "upset" state like PA. However, he has far more hurdles than Obama. A McCain win would require a massive opinion swing, as he starts from a much lower base (more than 100 electoral votes down, however you count, and he'd have to overtake Obama in "battleground" states that many polling pundits see as Obama-safe. Nevertheless, only one site has Obama with the 270 EV he needs after you toss out the leaners. And the lean may mean less than you think. In 2004, 11 states changed 7 points or more in the polls over the week prior to the vote. Let's look at the numbers.

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In which McCain cult state will Barack beat the poll numbers by the biggest margin?

5%12 votes
9%19 votes
3%8 votes
7%15 votes
7%16 votes
6%14 votes
0%2 votes
20%43 votes
5%11 votes
25%52 votes
3%7 votes
3%7 votes

| 206 votes | Vote | Results

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Given the diaries about early voting, I looked into Virginia's rules.

Early voting as such doesn't exist here.  VA has absentee voting (with votes counted on Election Day, not after), but you're supposed to have a legitimate reason.  I could lie, but that just doesn't seem like the right way to treat this election.

So I looked at the legitimate excuses, and one was to be a poll worker.  So I volunteered.  I'd been meaning to look into it anyway.  

About a week later, I got this notice:

Dear Election Volunteers,

Thank you for your interest in serving as a Fairfax County election officer.  Please be advised that due to the overwhelming response of citizens wishing to serve as Election Officers this November, available Election Officer position’s[sic] have become extremely limited.

You are welcome to attend an upcoming Election Officer training class. However, your attendance will not guarantee an assignment to a polling location. Your training class attendance will guarantee that your name will be placed on an Election Day Stand-by list. The Election Day Stand-by list will be utilized to fill positions as cancellations occur.

(More)

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Editor & Publisher has been tracking endorsements of the presidential candidates, and as of noon on Sunday, Obama has a more than 3-to-1 lead over McCain, picking up more than 50 papers today. E&P will be updating all day, so follow the link, and feel free to add any unlisted endorsements you're aware of.

In a real shocker, two solid Bush papers in 2004, the Houston Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman, also came out for Obama today. So did the more traditionally Democratic the News & Observer in Raleigh and the Orlando Sentinel, both in key battleground states.

Conventional wisdom has been that endorsements don't count, but I suspect that it's different this time--that the lopsided endorsement count says something about a shift in the political currents. The crossover endorsements from traditional Conservative outlets can be seen as indicators of that transformational election that Obama talked about when he entered the race and was chided for invoking Reagan.

A few more comments over the fold.

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I'm normally a night owl, and don't have to expose myself to the blitherings of the right-wing dominated morning talking heads.  However, a trip to Europe has set my biological clock back a few hours, and I can no longer dose myself entirely on Olbermann and Maddow -- I'm forced to watch the morning shows.  And none of them are watchable.  Is it any wonder stay-at-home Moms voted for Bush if this is the political fare they are exposed to (assuming the evening is reserved for entertainment TV)?

I leaped from MSNBC to CNN to (horror!) Fox News, and there was really not a penny's worth difference among them. This morning's menu included: telling McCain his campaign wasn't negative enough, blaming Tina Fey for the fall in McCain's poll numbers, blaming Obama for the fall in the stock market, blaming ACORN thugs for the housing market collapse and massive voter fraud, and even blaming FDR for worsening the Great Depression.

On Fox News, Greg Gutfeld offered the following advice to McCain: It's better to win bitterly than to lose gracefully.    

There's more, if you can stand it.

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The purpose of the surge was supposed to be to create opportunities for us to leave Iraq, not to stay there.  Supporters of the surge have conveniently forgotten the political goal of the surge, and focused only on military success.  Naturally, more American soldiers improve the military climate -- our soldiers do good work, but you cannot win an occupation.  Our task in Iraq is political --no political progress has been made, the surge has not succeeded.

Every month we stay in Iraq takes $10 billion out of our treasury and lowers the value of the dollar. The lowered value of the dollar corresponds more with the increase in oil prices than any increase in demand or drop in supply.  Every day we spend in Iraq, with the Iraqis asking us to leave, keeps us from addressing urgent issues at home, pursuing those who actually attacked us from Afghanistan, and drains our economy while hiking our gas prices.

Below the fold, McCain thinks Iran is looking at him funny.

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I think the first country McCain is likely to attack if he's elected President is:

1%1 votes
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| 55 votes | Vote | Results

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If you like to read, you ought to be familiar with Project Gutenberg, producer of free ebooks, whose goal is to provide etexts of all publications in the public domain.

I could go into a rant here about how, in the new Gilded Age, our Congress is attempting to prevent anything (from Mickey Mouse to vaccine formulations) from ever entering the public domain again, but that's not my purpose today.  My purpose is to get information into Project Gutenberg, while we can. And you can help.

How? One major way is through Distributed Proofreaders.  One page at a time.

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The current DP project I'd most like to proofread is:

2%1 votes
11%4 votes
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17%6 votes
2%1 votes
8%3 votes
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11%4 votes
0%0 votes
2%1 votes
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22%8 votes

| 35 votes | Vote | Results

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Wed Jun 18, 2008 at 06:50 PM PDT

Do-it-yourself Nostradamus 2008

by fleisch

Since the French physician and seer Nostradamus [Michel de Nostredame (1503-1566)] is widely believed to have predicted everything ever, I decided to look in his writings for something about the coming historic election, because surely it would be on the mind of a 16th century Frenchman (after all, his modern American interpreters would have us believe he was obsessed with the Kennedy assassination).  

As luck (or fate) would have it, I found not one, but several references to play with. And yes, these are real Nostradamus verses. The first was a simple quatrain, so defiantly (and predictably) obscure that I'm giving you the chance to figure it out for yourself.

The most interesting example is a series of half a dozen verses that takes us from the horror of the Bush 43 administration to Obama's triumphant election.  Or not.

Come along to the past to take a look at the future.

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This diary demonstrates that

1%2 votes
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29%31 votes
2%3 votes
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12%13 votes
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8%9 votes
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1%2 votes
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| 106 votes | Vote | Results

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In an exclusive interview with the London Times, George W. Bush expressed regret that his legacy was as a warmonger.

But if you read the article, it turns out he's not sorry he started the war, he's just sorry he sounded all warmongery while he was doing it.

He's also concerned that Obama will screw up everything he's done (?)

The limits of Bush's self-realization, in his own words, coming up

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