My Reason to Rally4Sanity: Donkeys, Elephants, Hedgehogs & Woodpeckers Get Along Just Fine

On October 30th 2010, I'm going to Washington DC to participate in the Rally to Restore Sanity and it seemed the reasonable thing to do is to think through my reasons for participating. This is the second in a series of posts called "My Reason To Rally4Sanity", where I'll take a look at the lack of a real political ideological divide and any other topics that seem reasonable.

I have friends that call themselves Democrats, others that call themselves Republicans, others that are self identified Independents, and even a few self proclaimed Libertarians. I don't know any Tea Party members yet, but that doesn't mean much; I haven't gotten out much lately.

Now listening to our politicians, news anchors, and pundits you would think that if you put a heterogeneous (if you think that means "gay", please click on the link, you're going to miss the point) group of them together they would:
    Wikimedia Commons user Coldbourne
  1. Violently disagree on every phrase spoken
  2. Probably require a trip to the hospital because one of them stabbed another with a salad fork over a dispute on deficit spending.
Don't believe me? Just look at the political ads running on TV and the vigor with which candidates demonize each other, often without a shred of truth to their words.  Fear, distrust and hate, even when completely fabricated, are easy to cultivate and powerful motivators at the ballot box.

There is no civility in our civil discourse... Or is there?

On multiple occasions I've gotten together with a politically heterogeneous group of friends. Initially, they recognized their labeled differences of Democrat and Republican and attempt to avoid talking about politics for fear of a salad fork incident.  But over the past few months I've actively tried forcing a discussion. I just kept bringing things up and got them talking to see what would happen. They begrudgingly started talking about budgets, the deficit, foreign policy, US drug policy, etc.

The conversations (usually economic based) always starts the same way. The Democratic friends would accuse the Republican friends of wanting to use poor people as Soylent Green and the Republican friends would suggest that the Democratic friends should sell all their belongings and give their entire net worth to a homeless person.

But we press on and pretty soon we were all talking about actual facts:
  • How much the country spent on different areas,
  • Types of income the goverment had to fund our spending,
  • How the tax system worked at different income levels,
  • What income level we were at compared to the majority of the US population,
  • What impact the decisions around Social Programs, Drug Policy, foreign Policy etc., have on all of the above.
As the discussion evolved I noticed something I didn't expect: we agreed on most points. To listen to the pundits and politicians, these conversations should have been vitriolic shouting matches with only hatred and disdain as common ground, but that's not what I saw.

I saw civil discourse. I consistently saw recognition that the problems were complicated and intertwined, that all parties brought a useful perspective to the conversation, and that they pretty quickly started agreeing most of the time.

Fun President Blog
To be honest, the only topic we couldn't find common ground on was unrelated to politics. When it comes to toilet paper installation, people seem incapable of compromise. (Editors Note:  There is no debate.  B is the correct way to install the toilet paper roll.)

But when it came to politics, these people that claim to support ideologies we've come to think of as incompatible, talked, debated, and compromised. I even saw some of them physically uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance that was being caused by agreeing with someone from "the other party." And yet, their ideas were so similar there was little room to argue.

Democrats and Republicans, listening, debating, compromising, and agreeing. Civil discourse.

I've come to learn from actually talking with people that whether your party's mascot is a donkey, elephant, hedgehog, woodpecker or warm beverage, you're probably more alike than different.

Today our countries discourse is overrun by extremists who use trickery and fear to divide us from our fellow citizens to the point where we are afraid to even discuss politics in polite company. And they do this because they know if citizen "Hedgehogs" and "Woodpeckers" start talking to each other, we'd realize that we have more ideologically in common with each other than with all the fear mongering politicians, news anchors, and pundits.

So, this weekend I'm going to the Rally to Restore Sanity because I think it's vital to our country's health and even survival that we take it down a notch and start to talk to each other in a real civil discourse.

My Reasons To Rally4Sanity: What Causes Elected Officials To Make Bad Decisions

On October 30th 2010, I'm going to Washington D.C to participate in the Rally to Restore Sanity and it seemed the reasonable thing to do to think through my reasons for participating. So, this is the first in a series of posts called "My Reason To Rally4Sanity" where I'll take a look at money in elections and any other topics that seem reasonable.

I've got a theory that most of the issues with our government can be traced back to the way we elect our public officials. It comes down to a matter of their motivation. I think politicians, just like you and me, want to get or keep their jobs, and the way we make them get their jobs causes a conflict between our interests and theirs.

Getting (re)-elected to public office takes a lot of money.  Without ads, which are very expensive, most candidates have no chance at getting elected to federal office, thus they are dependent on big donors to fund their campaigns and therefore to keep their jobs.

Here's the rub: As long as a candidate does things his donors wants, they keep funding his future campaigns, but the moment he or she steps out of line, the donors simply find a new candidate that will do what the largest donors want.

In a system like this you rapidly fill up your elected positions with people that are doing what their donors want and often not what is best for the citizenry or the country. In biology class we called this Natural Selection.

Bad Decision Making

The problem with this cycle of natural selection is that it causes politicians to make bad decisions. Before you get your panties in a bunch wondering if I'm going after Democrats, Republicans or Independents, take a deep breath. I'm going after all of them. You see, it doesn't matter one bit to which party a congressperson belongs. This cancer of needing to raise money to keep their jobs causes all of them to make bad decisions.

So lets take a look at some staggeringly bad decision making.

Bad Decision Making Example #1
Give Me Some Sugar 

cookieI admit, I cried when I learned this from my mentor, but it's true; fruits and vegetables are good for you and processed sugar, not so much. Somehow our government, which gets lots of money form the sugar industry, came to the conclusion that we need to eat more sugar. Check out this short clip describing the story.  It's excerpted from a Larry Lessig lecture on Institutional Corruption.

Seriously, it doesn't get any more cut and dry than this.

Bad Decision Making Example #2
Exempting Used Car Dealers from the Consumer Financial Protection Agency

Yes. This example is as ridiculous as the title sounds. Congress put together a bill (H.R. 3126) to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  Seems like a good idea in the wake of the economic cataclysm we just went through. Turns out a congressman that get's lots of money from used car dealers added an amendment to exempt used car dealers from the preview of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

Not to bludgeon a stereotype, but if you were making a list of groups from which consumers might need protection wouldn't USED CAR DEALER be pretty high on that list? The bill hasn't passed yet, but it's pretty clear that this congressman votes where his bread is buttered.

Since we're talking about cars, let's take a look at another piece of legislation; the auto bail out.  There seems to be a striking correlation between how people voted and who contributed to their elections.

Screen captured from

The point here is not that the auto bailout was a good or a bad idea. The point is that it appears, rather convincingly, that our elected officials are voting based on who gives them the money they need to keep their jobs.

Bad Decision Making Example #3
What About Privacy?

Remember that FISA 3 part series I wrote about a while back. Turns out it only takes an average of 8k in contributions to get a congressman to change his or her vote on privacy legislation. It doesn't even matter what they're voting on, the point is there's a statistically significant data-set showing that for less than the cost of having a house painted you can get a congressman to change their vote.

Now Lessig (in his full Institutional Corruption lecture) argues that these congressmen and congresswomen could be good people with our country's best interests in mind but the existence of money creates at least the perception of inappropriate influence. While I agree, I tend to look at it from the other side. The likelihood that at least some of our congressmen are not selling their votes to the highest bidder is staggeringly unlikely given the evidence.

My Reason to Rally4Sanity

In my opinion, until we fix this issue, all of the other political debates are effectively moot. This relationship between congressmen needing money to get elected, and large groups providing that money, means congress is motivated to make decisions in favor of their donors. I'm pretty sure when Lincoln talked about a government "Government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people" this isn't what he meant.

Honestly it seems like a pretty bad situation. The only people that can change this are the politicians, and they're not properly motivated. So I'm going to the Rally for Sanity in part to add my voice to those people that want us to fix out election system.

I think a great way to fix this problem is to move to completely public funded elections. Opponents of this idea often complain they don't want the government using any more of their money. I'd argue that without spending this moeny, you're pretty much guaranteed the government is going to spend a lot of your money on things you don't want them to spend it on.

But it's a reasonable debate I'm willing to have, and I'll be in DC on the 30th if you'd like to discuss it.

Fall Colors - Trees, Rainbows and Kids

Fall has arrived in New England and the trees are having a so so year. The colors are not quite as brilliant as last year, but still enough to catch your eye.

We've had a few impressive rainbows this year. I'm fairly certain this one is directly over the Irish Pub in Ayer, MA.

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And then there's the trees.




We took a trip up to the CSA where the meat we eat is raised. Seems like a nice enough farm, thought I've come to the conclusion there is no way to raise Turkeys without the smell.

The Boys attempted to win a prize for catching the barn cat no one working on the farm could catch. They never got any closer that in this picture.


Moments after I snapped this picture the kids fell down in a heap. These moments don't last long. You have to be quick to catch them.

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The rest of our Fall 2010 Leaves, Rainbows and Kids pictures are here on flickr.

Allisonisms - Unrelenting Happiness

Allison at the Harvard MA, Festival
Allison's always been a happy kid, but lately she's been bringing the happy with a subtle blissful aggressiveness.

This morning she told me that her teacher has been telling her "No Smiling" which I assume/hope is said in the same way we often joke with her.

Allison explained "But I trick her. I smile when she isn't looking." And then she demonstrated full teeth ear to ear smile with accompanying two shoulder shrug that lit up the entire house.

Christine told me about this one yesterday.

Christine: Allison, please look for your shoes. No playing, just looking.
Allison: Is it okay if i sing while I look?

Until I met my daughter I didn't know you could fit so much happiness in one place.