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More data on Presidential candidates

February 9th, 2004 (09:42 pm)
annoyed

current mood: annoyed
current song: The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour

I just finished reading The Buying of the President 2004, by the Center for Public Integrity. It lays out the history of each candidate in the race, with special emphasis to who their major donors are.

They've set up their own site to complement the book; but I wanted to write up some summaries. I will not cover Gephardt, Graham, Lieberman, or Moseley Braun, since they're no longer in the race.

Bush

Lots of bad stuff here, of course. Some low points:

  • A long history of stonewalling open-government efforts--the Cheney energy task force was the norm, not the exception.
  • Some really nasty tactics against John McCain in 2000; in South Carolina, rumors were spread that would have led to massive slander suits if it had been possible to prove where they were coming from. Bush's response? "John. It's politics."
  • Truly obscene fundraising practices. In the 2000 election, his campaign came up with the Pioneer system, whereby supporters get tracking numbers. When supporter #24601 convinces someone to donate, that someone writes 24601 on their check (or something), and the campaign "credits" supporter #24601, and their industry. This is open, out-and-out bribery.

Clark

Let's see. He apparently didn't do so well as a general; at least one former colleague implied he rose by telling people what they wanted to hear. In Kosovo, he was the one that recommended threatening Milosevic with air strikes; when Milosevic was not cowed, the US went through with the strikes. Not only did it not stop Milosevic, he actually stepped up the ethnic cleansing. The air strikes were powerless to stop him, because the planes flew too high to target his tanks accurately.

After Clark was removed from command, he retired from the military and became a lobbyist and a news analyst. (Technically, in fact, he was still registered as a lobbyist at the time he announced his candidacy.) At least once, he blurred the lines between these two roles: while lobbying for a company called Acxiom, which was seeking a government contract to create CAPPS II, he appeared on CNN and claimed that the country needed, in essence, CAPPS II. He did not mention that he had a financial stake in what he was saying (he was on commission). If he's compromised his ethics once for pay, why should we expect he won't do it again?

Dean

This was disappointing; although I've long preferred Kerry, I had thought that Dean was at least cleaner than average. It turns out that he's got some serious flaws on his record. As governor of Vermont, he invoked "executive privilege" to keep secret the records of his staff's deliberations on energy (like Bush); he took steps to gut campaign finance reform (like Bush); and he sealed his government records (like Bush). This last is particularly disturbing: two of his predecessors had sealed their records for 6 years; but Dean, when he left office in 2002, picked 10 years. The obvious guess is that he was afraid to have the records opened in 2008, if he was hoping to be President then and running for re-election.

Edwards

Edwards was an extremely successful trial lawyer before he ran for Senate in 1998. He is worth somewhere between $13.7 million and $38.6 million, earned from his attorney's fees. He specialized in medical malpractice cases, and became so feared that many doctors would settle as soon as they learned Edwards was on the case. In the Senate, he has been active primarily for his fellow trial lawyers.

On the other hand, it's possible that he genuinely believes that, in representing people who have been injured, he's simply seeking justice. Seen in that light, his support for trial lawyers translates into support for justice.

Kerry

I favor Kerry for President, so I read the chapter about him with some trepidation, afraid that I would find something unacceptable. Instead, I found somebody who, while not perfect, certainly seems better than the alternatives. The worst things I found about him:

  • Despite his 20 years in the Senate, and his expertise on many issues, he hasn't actually written any major legislation. This is odd, but I'm not sure it's a big handicap; some people can do more good supporting other people's efforts than starting their own. The real problem is when a legislator writes bills for the sake of his own pride.
  • He's gotten major backing from the Cellular Telephony and Internet Association (CTIA), and his positions on telecom have largely matched theirs. This doesn't really bother me much, though; I know something about telecom, and, on most of the issues covered in the book, I think Kerry's position was the right one. For example, in 1999, a company called NextWave, which had bid huge amounts of money for spectrum, filed for Chapter 11; they couldn't pay the FCC, so the FCC held a fresh auction. The bankruptcy court ruled that the FCC couldn't do that (I still don't know why not), but the FCC still wanted the winners of the new auction to pay up. This was insane, of course, and Kerry introduced a bill to shake loose the billions the FCC was trying to steal.

Kucinich

Kucinich is barely worth covering. Here's a quote from a speech he gave in 2002:

As one studies the images of the Eagle Nebula, brought back by the Hubble telescope from that place in deep space where stars are born, one can imagine the interplay of cosmic forces across space and time, of matter and spirit dancing to the music of the spheres, atop an infinite sea of numbers.

Spirit merges with matter to sanctify the universe. Matter transcends to return to spirit. The interchangeability of matter and spirit means the starlit magic of the outermost life of our universe becomes the soul-light magic of the innermost life of our self. The energy of the stars becomes us. We become the energy of the stars. Stardust and spirit unite and we begin: one with the universe.

This is not a serious politician. This is a fruitcake. I like fruitcake, but I don't want it running the country.

Sharpton

Hoo boy. Where do I start? The chapter on Sharpton reads like something out of The Piranha Club. Tax evasion, shady businesses, and unpaid bills, oh my! He has been fined over and over for tax evasion; as of March 2003, he apparently owed over $100,000 in unpaid fines dating back as far as 1993. He seems to consider this a virtue, though; he positions himself as a persecuted civil rights leader. Theoretically, his main source of income is preaching, about $10,000/year of which is untaxed cash collected on the spot: he speaks, they pass the collection plate and give it to him. Mainly, though, he has his businesses pay his bills directly (rather than paying him a salary), so that he theoretically doesn't have income, and his assets are more or less judgment-proof behind the corporate veil. He has allegedly done the same thing with the political organizations he's formed; in 1989, he was indicted for embezzling $250,000 from the National Youth Movement. (He was acquitted, though.)

Comments

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: February 9th, 2004 09:35 pm (UTC)

Thanks! That was very informative.

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 04:08 am (UTC)
Fruitcakeism

"Spirit merges with matter to sanctify the universe."

You don't attack anyone else's religion in this summary, and imho, there's a lot more objectionable about Bush in that regard. What about Kucinich's ethics?

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 06:35 am (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

Good point. In fact, ethically, there wasn't a lot of dirt on Kucinich. About the worst the book mentioned on that front was that, although he's spoken against the corrupting influence of money in politics, he's also trumpeted how much money he's raised. Not a serious problem, I'd say.

The main reason I didn't mention religion for the other candidates was that I was summarizing the book, which didn't mention it (even for Sharpton, a preacher). But, for most of the other Democratic candidates, it doesn't seem to be a big problem. I mean, I wish there were no religion--I think it cages people's minds--but, aside from Sharpton, these guys seem to be fairly moderate. Bush is another story, but there was a lot of dirt on Bush I had to leave out (the book spends over 120 pages on Bush, and an average of only about 20 pages on each Democratic candidate).

There is one other thing that makes Kucinich's religion different. Most people contract religion when they're young, and their critical faculties are weak; after that, it's very hard to shake off. Most New Age adherents, though, picked up their beliefs as adults, when they should have had sufficient experience in critical thinking to realize that what was being handed them was gibberish. (Of course, this is a distinction that may be weakening already, as New Agers have children; but Kucinich was born in 1946.) Kucinich's beliefs tell me that his critical faculties are not up to snuff, which is dangerous for a President. At least some of the positions he's taken also indicate an absence of critical thinking; for example, during the war in Kosovo, he went on the floor of the House and said that we should stop fighting, and that the people of Kosovo should rely on "whatever sense of humanity remains" in Milosevic. Someone who actually thought about what he said would have realized that appealing to a genocidal dictator's sense of humanity is not an optimal strategy; Kucinich apparently took his position out of an absolutist belief in pacifism. Pacifism is good, but, as President, an absolutist dove is just as dangerous as an absolutist hawk.

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 08:17 am (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

"Most people contract religion when they're young, and their critical faculties are weak; after that, it's very hard to shake off. Most New Age adherents, though, picked up their beliefs as adults,"

I would hazard a guess that there is a sizeable percentage of people who rejected their family's religion as irrational, but still need some sort of religious thought in their lives -- a partial shaking off. In that case, one picks a religion or spiritual ethic that doesn't seem to be too harmful in general (to oneself or to others), that doesn't conflict with a belief in Science, and that would be great if it were true.

At any rate, that's what I did, and it works for me.

Posted by: maestrateresa (maestrateresa)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 10:24 am (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

Essentially what she said :)
Framework/structure doesn't *have* to be a mind-cage....

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 05:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

To elaborate: every religion is made up of:

  1. Ethical positions
  2. Beliefs compatible with science
  3. Beliefs contrary to science

(Of course, some religions might not have all of these.)

You don't need a religion for #1 and #2; you can stick to ethics and science. And, to me, #3 is pretty much equivalent to "lies". Lies are not a good foundation for clear thought.

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 11:55 am (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

While I thought the quote was quite poorly worded, I didn't actually find anything objectionable in its content. It basically says that there is a connection between matter and spirit. If you have any least *smidgen* of spirituality, of whatever stripe, that's pretty much a given.

It kinda reminded me of badly-phrased Minbari philosophy :-)

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 12:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

Chortle! John was describing it to me last night, and he said "It sounds like something Delenn would say. But she'd say it better."

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 05:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

OK, so, first, no, I don't have any smidgen of spirituality. I am a materialist and a rationalist; I do not believe in any sort of spiritual world, because I have never heard of any good evidence for it. (I know you've mentioned having had such an experience, but I mean evidence that can be shared.) Minbari philosophy is interesting on B5, but I don't take it seriously.

Second: what content? What does he actually say? (Here's a link back to that text if you want.) Saying there's a connection between matter and spirit is not useful unless you understand what that connection means--or, for that matter, what spirit means. It can't guide rational thought. It's basically an extended metaphor, using some scientific words but no scientific concepts. So, what we have here is an elected official who's basing policy decisions, not on rational thought, but on what sounds good in his metaphor. Consider the Milosevic bit again: rational thought would have told him that what he was proposing was doomed to fail.

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 06:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

"So, what we have here is an elected official who's basing policy decisions, not on rational thought, but on what sounds good in his metaphor."

This might be in the book, but your excerpt doesn't talk about *why* he was talking about the Hubble and all that. So your readers don't know what policy, if any, he based on "spirit and matter are interconnected."

Since the book is about integrity and fundraising ethics, I wouldn't expect it to have a hard-hitting analysis of candidate's philosophies, religions, or whatnot.

What the book seems to say (based on your summary) is "here's the dirt on all these other candiates, and this guy is clean. So let's abuse him on his religion instead of being astonished how clean he is." Maybe he's clean because his religion, however loopy, actually helps him navigate the ethical minefields. But we won't know that because it's not that sort of book.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: February 12th, 2004 06:53 am (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

This might be in the book, but your excerpt doesn't talk about *why* he was talking about the Hubble and all that. So your readers don't know what policy, if any, he based on "spirit and matter are interconnected."

He was speaking at a conference in Prague on "The Alchemy of Peacemaking". However, it seems to me that the same confused metaphor is what underlay his desire to trust Milosevic to do the right thing.

Maybe he's clean because his religion, however loopy, actually helps him navigate the ethical minefields.

Possibly. The absolutism that keeps him from doing the right thing in extreme cases may also keep him from doing the wrong thing in more common cases.

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: February 12th, 2004 06:56 am (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

"The Alchemy of Peacemaking"

Sounds like it's not only him that had a confused metaphor that day. What a stupid conference title.

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: February 11th, 2004 01:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

I am a materialist and a rationalist; I do not believe in any sort of spiritual world, because I have never heard of any good evidence for it. (I know you've mentioned having had such an experience, but I mean evidence that can be shared.)

Depends what you mean by "shared". There are a number of well-documented methods for deliberately achieving these mental states, including psychedelic drugs, fasting, certain kinds of ritual and meditation, etc. These are not as fully repeatable as a classical Newtonian experiment, but they are *way* more repeatable than, say, ESP card-reading.

And parts of the experience can be shared by language. They are of limited utility in communicating to people who haven't had such experiences, but they do manage to communicate between themselves well. (Compare, for example, written descriptions of orgasms -- I never *really* understood these until I'd had one myself.)

In a later comment, you make the classification:
Can't be proven or disproven. So it isn't actually a statement about the real world, and it doesn't provide any help in making decisions.

Do you actually *never* make decisions involving human beings? Politicians have to make decisions involving human beings nearly every day. The mental landscape of individual human beings is notoriously difficult to prove or disprove anything about, yet has a huge impact on "the real world".

To put this on a more scientific plane, are you familiar with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem? Just because something is unproven - or even unprovable - does not necessitate its falseness.

=====

Changing topic slightly, I used to be a reductionist materialist myself. And I think that the existence of materialism, and strident believers in it, has done a lot to improve the world. So I don't even necessarily *want* to change your mind on this. I'm just arguing vehemently on account of I *like* arguing vehemently :-)

But I don't (now) think that materialism is even close to being a "complete" system, nor is it likely to become one any time soon. Materialists tend to remind me of Mr. Spock, who always denied the existence of his emotions, no matter how obvious those emotions were to those around him.

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: February 11th, 2004 01:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

He may have gotten his threads tangled; he knows I've had a couple of unexplainable experiences that fall in the ESP realm.

Is a "reductionist materialist" the same as an agressive anti-religionist?

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: February 11th, 2004 09:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

Not exactly, though they are strongly overlapping sets. It is possible for a reductionist materialist to not care what *other* people choose to (falsely) believe (or to be non-confrontational about it, at least). And it is possible to be agressively anti-religious on non-scientific grounds.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: February 12th, 2004 06:47 am (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

No, I was referring to Alexx's mention that he once had a visit from the Goddess.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: February 12th, 2004 06:39 am (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

There are a number of well-documented methods for deliberately achieving these mental states, including psychedelic drugs, fasting, certain kinds of ritual and meditation, etc.

All of which involve causing your brain to function abnormally, right? To me, that doesn't support the case for religious experiences, it weakens it.

The mental landscape of individual human beings is notoriously difficult to prove or disprove anything about, yet has a huge impact on "the real world".

Um...true. But individual humans are rarely the subject of religious premise, either; a religious premise tends to be of the form, "Everybody is like this" (which can be replaced by psychology) or "Everybody should do that" (which can be replaced by ethics). When you get down to individual humans, how you decide comes down to experience in how best to apply your premises, regardless of whether those premises are religious or rationalist.

To put this on a more scientific plane, are you familiar with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem? Just because something is unproven - or even unprovable - does not necessitate its falseness.

I don't think a finite universe is subject to Gödel's theorem, is it? Gödel's theorem applies to any system complicated enough that some subset of it is isomorphic to integer arithmetic. I'd have to look it up, but I think that means it doesn't apply to any finite set, because a finite set maps to only a subset of the integers.

In any case, I was speaking more of statements that can't be disproven because they aren't falsifiable. For example, "when nobody is looking (including cameras, etc.), this sentence is green", or "after death, you go to an afterlife; but nobody gets to come back and talk about it".

So I don't even necessarily *want* to change your mind on this. I'm just arguing vehemently on account of I *like* arguing vehemently :-)

Sounds good to me. :-)

Materialists tend to remind me of Mr. Spock, who always denied the existence of his emotions,

Yeah, Spock is pretty much a caricature of a materialist. I once read somebody claiming that Spock (actually, they said Data) was an impossibility, because, without emotions, we can't make subjective decisions. I'm not sure that's actually true, but it's certainly true that we need some set of values to make judgments, and those values are not material entities. However, I don't think they have to have a supernatural origin. Individual preferences can come down to psychology, brain chemistry, etc.; and societies can value some sorts of individual preferences over others based on pragmatic reasons (for example, most societies disapprove of mass murder, because societies that don't tend to get murdered).

Posted by: C. Virtue (cvirtue)
Posted at: February 12th, 2004 12:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

"All of which involve causing your brain to function abnormally, right? To me, that doesn't support the case for religious experiences, it weakens it."

It makes your brain function *differently*; whether that should be called abnormal is at the crux of things.

Eyeglasses make your eyes function in a way other than they are designed to, but the deviance from normality is a useful one.

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: February 12th, 2004 09:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

It makes your brain function *differently*; whether that should be called abnormal is at the crux of things.

Dingdingding! Rationality and logic are also "abnormal", at least judging by the mass of humanity. That doesn't mean that they aren't *useful*.

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: February 12th, 2004 09:25 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

The mental landscape of individual human beings is notoriously difficult to prove or disprove anything about, yet has a huge impact on "the real world".
Um...true. But individual humans are rarely the subject of religious premise, either; a religious premise tends to be of the form, "Everybody is like this" (which can be replaced by psychology) or "Everybody should do that" (which can be replaced by ethics).

You're switching contexts here. Religious *premises* are the business of organized churches. Religious *experiences* or *viewpoints* (what I was discussing) are the province of individuals.

I once read somebody claiming that Spock (actually, they said Data) was an impossibility,

Well, as portrayed, Data obviously had emotions, he had just been brainwashed into thinking that his generally low affect meant that he didn't. How else could he "want" to have emotions in the first place?

because, without emotions, we can't make subjective decisions. I'm not sure that's actually true, but it's certainly true that we need some set of values to make judgments, and those values are not material entities. However, I don't think they have to have a supernatural origin.

??? I'm not sure I see the sequitur betwen "emotions" and "supernatural" here.

Individual preferences can come down to psychology, brain chemistry, etc.; and societies can value some sorts of individual preferences over others based on pragmatic reasons (for example, most societies disapprove of mass murder, because societies that don't tend to get murdered).

This reminds me of an interesting meme I'd like to share, from primate anthropological research. Apparently, several primate species exhibit behaviour that is "cultural" in nature. That is, different groups have different behaviours whose only apparent purpose sems to be to differentiate between the groups.

Speculation has it that this may actually be a meta-evolutionary adaptation, to solve the "dilution problem". Stated simply, if a species is widespread and homogenous, then any potentially favorable mutations will tend to get washed away by interbreeding before being able to establish themselves. In order to make most efficient use of potentially favorable mutations, you ideally want the population broken up into lots of small breeding pools, which only occasionally intermix. That way, a favorable mutation can become dominant in a single pool, can later spread to other pools, and eventually out into the populace at large. Human culture performs this function, and it turns out that other primates exhibit this sort of "culture" as well.

Posted by: Alexx Kay (alexx_kay)
Posted at: February 12th, 2004 09:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

In any case, I was speaking more of statements that can't be disproven because they aren't falsifiable. For example, "when nobody is looking (including cameras, etc.), this sentence is green", or "after death, you go to an afterlife; but nobody gets to come back and talk about it".

I think that relying on falsifiability in *every* realm is overdoing things rather. For instance, "The Goddess once spoke with me," is a completely unfalsifiable statement since, on the level of physics, it was all in my head, and neurochemistry can't meaningfully address such issues (yet). Nonetheless, it is a statement that I believe to be true, and important to my life.

Falsifiability is a very powerful tool. But I think a well-stocked toolbox has a lot more in it.

Posted by: Who, me? (metageek)
Posted at: February 10th, 2004 05:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Fruitcakeism

The problem is, if you want a belief set that doesn't conflict with science, your choices are fairly limited. Any belief which can expressed as a statement of fact falls into one of these categories:

  • Proven. So it's science.
  • Disproven. So it's not compatible with science.
  • Can't be proven or disproven. So it isn't actually a statement about the real world, and it doesn't provide any help in making decisions.
  • Could be proven or disproven, but hasn't been yet. So it's a scientific hypothesis. If you find yourself in a situation where its truth or falsehood matters, then you should go with the preponderance of the evidence (and hedge your bets); otherwise, you're asking for trouble.

Now, note that the above categories do not really cover ethics. Ethical positions are not statements of fact; they are decision-making aids. Most religions include ethical positions, and some of them can stand alone apart from the religion's contrafactual content. For example, the Judeo-Christian commandment "do not kill" is a useful ethical position, regardless of whether you believe it was handed down by God. "Keep holy the Lord's day" is not, since it includes an order to worship; but "do not work on Sunday" could be considered an ethical position, requiring employers to give workers a day off regularly.

The challenge for a recovering theist is to pick reasonable ethical positions without falling into the trap of believing something just because their religion taught them to. For example, as a Catholic, I was raised to oppose abortion; I didn't really question that when I stopped believing in God. I rationalized my opposition by saying that killing was wrong; it wasn't until our own kids were born, and I saw how much work it actually was to raise them, that I became fully reconciled to abortion, on the grounds that the parents' lives are as valuable as the hypothetical child's. (I still think that ethical behavior requires that one avoid needing an abortion; but it also requires that one not try to judge whether or not somebody else needs an abortion.)

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