Monday, September 3, 2012

Some Thoughts on Modern Times

Here are some of the most important geo-political and social issues of the day for the United States, and here's how I think they should be addressed:

NATIONAL POPULAR VOTE
While the citizens of the United States vote for the President, their votes, because of the Electoral College, vary in importance.  What’s worse is that the people’s vote doesn’t actually determine the Presidential elections; the power is given to 538 electors who, ultimately, can use their electoral votes to support whichever candidate they prefer.  What this means is that, in a very tight race, a handful or even just one of these electors have the power to decide the fate of the election.  What we need is to replace this undemocratic process with the national popular vote, under which every vote would hold the same weight, giving citizens equal power in selecting the President.


DIRECT DEMOCRACY

Congress has taken more and more power away from the people and have given it to themselves so that the vast majority of legislative power is held by 435 representatives and 100 senators; we must reclaim our right to make our own decisions.  Congress will no longer have the ability to both present and pass laws; they will come up with bills for the people to vote on.  Voting will occur online, through secure connections, adhering to universal processes (currently, voting regulations differ from state to state).  Thus the government will have an additional branch to go along with the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary, and that new branch will be the people themselves.


CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM
The way things are now, elections are decided largely by the amount of money candidates have to spend on advertising and publicity, and the election process is an area that needs reform.  A number of means by which to reduce the influence of money in politics have been proposed; one worth particular consideration is the “Voting with Dollars” suggested by Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayers in their 2004 book, “Voting with Dollars:  a new paradigm for campaign finance.”  Under this system, each voter would be given a set amount of money—say, $50—to donate to the campaign of the individual’s choosing.  Thus, in this regard, each voter would have equal opportunity to contribute to the campaign finance process.  Additionally, we will institute a luxury tax on those campaigns with the most financing available: each dollar the campaign with the most capital receives will be split equally between that campaign with the least funding.  This will minimize the discrepancies in candidates’ campaign financing capacities and give wealthy contributors less control of the election process.


HEALTHCARE
We belief that, as every sentient being is owed the protections of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, we must provide healthcare for every citizen in order to ensure the right to life.  This must be provided for by the government.


FOREIGN POLICY AND THE U.N.
We believe in the goal of a collective truce: that the countries in the U.N. agree to a non-aggression pact, stipulating that any act of violence by one against another will face a united international alliance, whose defense and military personnel are provided and funded by the international community.  We must be leaders in the formation of this mutually protective international community, and we can do this by allocating more of our budget to the welfare of the citizens of the world, rather than putting so much of our effort into building walls that divide people, communities, and nations.  We, the United States, seem to think that the way to peace and stability is to maximize the power of our military force.  This is misguided, and it emphasizes the differences between “us” and “them.”  Our country accounts for 43% of the global military budget but, as a percentage of gross national income (GNI), we lag behind five of the other seven G8 nations.  Of these, the UK, France, and Spain spend more than twice as much of their GNI on foreign aid as we do.  Providing more aid to countries with lower standards of living will enhance the global economy by creating more producers and more competition; it will also demonstrate an unprecedented amount of goodwill on the part of the United States, strengthening our alliances and thus enhancing our defensive position in the international scene.

While there are practical benefits to foreign aid, the most salient reason for its practice is this: it helps drive us toward a world in which everyone has a chance to succeed, however they may define “success;” it brings us toward more protection of human rights for all of the world’s citizens, regardless of financial means.  We must protect the common good of the world by protecting each constituent nation, community, and person.


WAR BUDGET
While the Department of Defense’s budget is, as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP), historically low, the proposed budget for 2013 is still $613.9 billion, and our military spending constitutes 41% of the world’s military expenditures.  We are putting an excess of resources into ourselves; we can help protect the international community by giving a portion of that funding to foreign countries or the U.N., while also putting a dent in our dangerously high national debt, whose current annual interest is $227 billion.  Even with the increased spending on foreign aid and making interest payments that exceed the premium, we can still, because of the magnitude of the discrepancies between ourselves and everyone else, maintain our military as the most powerful in the world.


EDUCATION
Teachers, because they educate the youth of the nation, play an incalculable role in making the future a better place.  As such, it is in our best interest to attract the best teachers possible.  However, the average high school teacher salary is under $45,000.  Because of this, the most qualified potential teachers take jobs elsewhere, where their expertise yields greater financial rewards.  To attract these potentially brilliant teachers, teaching salaries need to be raised.  While this will increase the cost of education, it will pay off in the long term when these now better-educated students come into their own as contributors to culture and the economy.


ENERGY
We must continue to move away from the use of fossil fuels through increased use of wind and solar power.  We insist, in particular, on expanding the use of concentrated solar power, which, with the continuous advancement of technology has become increasingly cost-effective and should continue to do so.  It is expected that 25% of the world’s energy supply will come from concentrated solar power by 2050, now is the time to start pushing it in that direction.


GAY MARRIAGE
Whether marriage is a sacred institution or not, it is also a legal and economic institution.  And, as all citizens deserve equal rights , heterosexual marriage should be allowed only if homosexual marriage is allowed as well.  Some people would argue against this intuitive conclusion, basing their arguments against gay marriage upon their personal religious beliefs; these arguments are irrelevant, as the government is a secular institution protecting all religions but not catering to the interests of any one in particular.  Therefore, it is the goal of the Progressive Party United to legalize gay marriage universally.


MARIJUANA AND ALCOHOL LAWS

Alcohol has proven itself to be far more lethal than marijuana and yet is legal; we believe that if alcohol, the more lethal drug, is legal, marijuana should be legalized as well.  Additionally, if alcohol is to be legal, the minimum legal age should be no higher than the age at which you may join the military; if you’re old enough to sign up to die for a country, you’re old enough to have a beer.


DEATH PENALTY
That the death penalty is still used in some states is telling; to impose it is to neglect both justice and mercy in favor of vindictiveness, an “eye for an eye” approach to ethics.  This ethical failure has serious implications: while proponents of the death penalty argue that using it will deter violent crime, states that have abolished the death penalty have lower violent crime rates than those where the death penalty still exists.  The death penalty must be abolished universally not only because it is unethical but also because it increases the violent crime rate.


INTERNET CENSORSHIP
The use of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks and website defacement constitute violations First Amendment rights, as they both limit the website owner’s capacity for self-expression and communication.


TAXES
Some would, if given the choice, abolish the income tax in its entirety or, at the  very least, would impose a flat tax across income brackets—a misguided choice given that the taxes they hate are the backbone of the defensive spending they wish to maintain.  These people would argue that the government has no right to tax the individual, although on what grounds they’d make these claims is unclear.  This is because the individual, in choosing to reside within a country’s jurisdiction, implicitly agrees to the terms set forth by that country.  Producers of wealth make their earnings through, in large part, the context in which he or she lives (Who could argue two identical entrepreneurial minds would achieve the same levels of economic success regardless of whether they lived in the United States or in Kenya?)  The extent to which economic success is available to citizens is dependent largely upon the laws of the ruling government.  Maintenance of that government, then, is in the public interest, as it tends to help the continuance of the conditions required for maximum economic success.  Producers and the holders of wealth, having more power and privilege to lose than do the poor should the government collapse, have more at stake in the continuance of the government, and therefore derive more utility from its continuation.  Why, then, would they not be held responsible for a greater portion of the tax burden?

If these arguments for the implementation of a graduated tax are unconvincing, this might be: the progressive income tax reduces income inequality, the reduction of which has been shown to reduce the rate of homicide across all tax brackets.  The wealthier the wealthy are when compared to the rest of the population, the more they will be targeted as “enemies” of the people—people from whom stealing might be more acceptable when compared to stealing from the “average” citizen.  Therefore, it may actually be the case that the progressive income tax acts as an insurance policy against theft and violent crime. 

More studies into this arena are necessary, but lowering the tax burden on the poor and middle-classes will almost inevitably enhance the common good by minimizing economic and educational discrepancies, showing goodwill on the part of the wealthy, and giving the poor and middle-class the chance to compete in a world in which economic success is based more on lineage than merit.


UNEMPLOYMENT

As our economy and the economies of the world become more technology-driven, many of the tasks performed by humans will be allocated to machines, which will be able to perform jobs traditionally held by humans with ever-increasing speed, efficiency, and reliability.  As a result, there will be decreasingly many jobs available to humans.  This natural tendency toward unemployment will exacerbate the ongoing economic stratification, as there will be fewer jobs for the lower- and middle-classes and more economic profit for the wealthy, who will no longer have to put as much faith in the reliability of humans.  To temper this paradigm shift, we must temper the rate at which humans are replaced in the workforce by machines, and we must find ways to ensure for a basic, humane standard of living for each and every citizen.  To address the first: the use of machines to carry out what are currently “human” tasks must be taxed to a reasonable degree: if a company saves $100,000 through the use of a machine in a situationwhere, currently, a human would be employed, a portion of that profit must be given as compensation to the worker who is now out of a job despite being qualified and more than willing to work. Splitting the net economic utility between the company and the displaced workers, the companies using these human-replacing machines will increase their profitability while minimizing the extent to which these technologies hurt the individual worker.


TERRORISM

In this new age of technological advancement and discovery, we can expect the internet to be the battleground on which increasingly many acts of terrorism will be perpetrated and on which it will be confronted.  A cabinet department focused on internet law, cyberterrorism, and the protection of individual rights online must be created, and it must include a diverse group of thinkers.  This department will interact with other departments—such as those of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security—to address the day’s most pressing internet concerns.  The formation of a United States-based think tank will facilitate these processes.  Because cyberterrorism is a new and emerging threat, our response to it must be new and well-conceived.  We must allocate time, attention, and resources to protecting the rights of those engaging in the use of technology.  By introducing the subject of cyberterrorism to the general assembly of the U.N. and showing how the way the internet is used, abused, and regulated is directly tied to human rights, we can address these concerns through a global and joint effort that draws from the power of the many rather than the resources of the few, and which is held accountable by the world, rather than by only small and wealthy subsets of the international community.


MEDICINE

While the advancement of technology gives us new and powerful means by which to harm humanity, it also gives us the means by which to enhance the human experience.  In the 1990s, newly FDA-approved psychiatric drugs such as Prozac provided the means by which some sufferers of mental illness might return to “normal.”  We find ourselves now at a point where many of the drugs we create have the potential to help us achieve “better-than-normal” functioning.  Adderall, for instance, has been shown to enhance creativity and to speed up the cognitive processes of the individual taking it.  We must negotiate the gray area between ensuring basic healthy living standards and transcending them; between historical models of trait-selection and evolutionary processes and our newfound ability to manipulate our genes and ourselves to our desires.  Effectively, the question is: do we accept the status quo and humanity’s reliance on evolution, or do we “play God” and reverse roles, such that evolution relies on the will of humanity.

Some life-improving drugs and technologies will be implemented with very little controversy—who loses, after all, when we have the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives.  The matter of human enhancement becomes more complicated when the opportunity to use these technologies is focused in the hands of the wealthy, and the question of the morality of human enhancement brings religious arguments into the arena of debate.  We must resist the temptation to debate from religious grounds, as our government espouses the separation of Church and State.  When we accept that these emerging technologies have been used and will continue to be used once created, we can turn our attention to the question of implementation, and how the opportunities to use these technologies are allocated across the population.  We must exercise great discretion in how we approach these issues but, in general, we are in favor of enhancing the human condition so long as it doesn’t harm the advancement of the conditions of others.  We espouse the continuation of gene therapy, stem cell research, and the development of universally accessible human enhancement and life extension efforts.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The End of Human Trafficking

Peter S. K. Lynch

While the Kony 2012 movement, driven by Invisible Children and members of Anonymous, is about bringing a criminal to justice and bringing attention to the world of human trafficking—two noble endeavors—the project’s aim is off the mark, and to focus on Kony in particular is to miss the forest for the trees. To be sure, the man’s among the most wanted in the world and must be brought to justice, but he’s in hiding now and in no position to continue abducting children and use them as sex slaves and child soldiers. He’s pure evil, but there’s a better way to attack human trafficking.

One of many problems with our current approach to trafficking is in the form of legislation. We have and must continue to provide help for the victims of human trafficking. But, essential as this is, it’s a treatment of a disease, not the cure. Helping victims can only do so much when their lives have already been destroyed in the first place. The goal we must share is to make it so that there won’t be any victims in the first place.

Before formulating a plan of attack, it’s essential that we first uncover the incentives underlying trafficking. With sex slaves, the perpetrator’s primary aim is to gain financially by supplying what this dirty market demands. A second motivator is, it seems, the pathological seeking of power. There are those out there (Kony among them) who get their sick thrills by forcing their wills upon others. This secondary motivator is about power and control. Both of these incentives—financial and power-derived—have to be addressed if we are to fight the disease of human trafficking. So, I’ll address them below:

To the extent that financial incentives drive human trafficking, an opposing force must be applied to stop it. It may, and probably does, seem a little perverse to try to assign a dollar amount to the victim’s subjugation and the denial of their rights, the perpetrator’s punishment must come in a language they understand. As an example of how this might work suppose that, when caught, a human trafficker will have to compensate each victim $750,000 for each year he or she was used as a sex slave or child soldier. In this case, if a captor kept five victims for five years apiece, when caught, he’d owe the victims a total of $18,750,000. Further, to convince victims to come forward, they also could be incentivized. Because a major reason why they often don’t report the perpetrator is because of the fear of retribution, any victim who comes forward should and must have the option of being placed in a witness protection program. This will increase the rate at which the perps will be reported but, if that’s not enough, we could always provide victims with financial incentives—say, a certain percentage of the perp’s assets. This would tip the tables away from trafficking for two reasons: first, the perps would stand more to lose and, second, the probability of being caught in the first place would go up (since they’d be reported more frequently).

Because power dynamics (and, in particular, the desire to achieve power) play a role in the trafficker’s mentality, and because this power is often gained at the cost of victims’ human rights, the consequences for trafficking must decrease the perps’ autonomy: prison is in order. A problem with our current system is that not only do we have pathetically lax laws against the atrocities of human trafficking (even a minimum of 20 years doesn’t seem like enough) but, also, our system of punishment lacks any semblance of coherence, giving the perps hope that, even if they do get caught, they’ll get just the 20. Like the financial disincentives program outlined above, we need to come up with punishments proportionate to the magnitude of the crimes committed. An example of how this could be done is this: a perpetrator’s prison time could be the initial 20 years, plus two times the number of years each victim has been held. So, if a trafficker has 4 victims for 5 years apiece, the prison sentence would be for 60 years total. This, along with the commiserate loss of $15,000,000 and whatever a victim would gain by coming forward, would decimate the sex trade and child soldier markets. The amount a perp would stand to gain by through trafficking would be eclipsed by the risk of losing that kind of money and being thrown behind bars for the rest of their lives.

You could point out that there are people so wealthy that $15,000,000 wouldn’t put much of a dent in their finances. To this I would say: if $15,000,000 won’t put a dent in your finances, then the amount gained from trafficking 4 victims for 5 years won’t come close to providing enough financial compensation to make it worth the risk of spending 60 years (years that could be spent making money) behind bars.

Yes, this outline is simplistic; and yes, there are other ways to put in place the necessary disincentives. But these are ideas I arrived at in under 10 minutes. If we put our collective minds together, we may have the ability to come up with a solution that would reduce human trafficking by an order of magnitude—or more.

Briefly, back to Kony: in no way do I mean to say that bringing light to his atrocities is misguided. It’s essential to have real-life examples rather than just words and ideas. But getting Kony shouldn’t be the goal—it’s a data point for us to see and a motivator for those who hear about them to aim for the real goal: the elimination of human trafficking.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Electoral College is Borked

Peter S. K. Lynch

The United States’ Electoral College, approved in 1787, isn’t just antiquated—it’s also a barrier to true democracy.

Many arguments have been made in support of the Electoral College. For those who support it, unfortunately, most of the arguments are irrelevant or just plain flawed. For instance, proponents claim that the Electoral College benefits minorities. They believe that making the votes of each state an all-or-nothing proposition increases the likelihood that these voters will turn out and have the opportunity to make a critical difference in election results, thus necessitating that candidates court a wider variety of voters. This seems reasonable until you look at the issue from alternative angles. Consider this example: 49% (a minority) of voters in a given state might support a particular candidate but, if 51% of the population favors another, the group of 49% receives exactly 0% of the Electoral votes. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Two of the most essential problems are that: the 49% of voters in a given state make no difference on the national level—essentially, in this case, the minorities’ votes count for nothing whatsoever; additionally, when a minority group knows that its vote will amount to nothing whatsoever, that group actually has less incentive to turn out to vote. With a straight popular vote, this is not the case because the minority group will know that they actually can make a difference on the national level.


ARGUMENTS FOR THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE


The most relevant arguments in favor of the Electoral College are that it does the following:
• Prevents urban-centric victories

• Maintains the federal nature of our government

• Makes it easier to detect and ameliorate election fraud.

Unfortunately, for these proponents, the first argument is flawed because the all-or-nothing system actually forces the candidates to focus on large swing states, neglecting the needs of the more rural states. Maintaining the federal nature of the government is a compelling argument, but even this can be destructive. Consider the South. There was a time when black citizens were assigned only 3/5 of a vote apiece.(They weren't actually allowed to vote, but this figure was used to juice up southern states' representation in the Electoral College. This reduction in the weight of their votes makes it possible for state legislators to push through the candidates of their choice (basically, it’s addition by subtraction). This, in turn, reuces the power of its constituents and places an inordinate value on the desires of a few, elite governmental officials. Instead, with universal regulations, the value of the minority vote can be preserved. And the third argument, while certainly valid, isn’t sufficiently relevant to match up with the arguments against the Electoral College.


ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE


Relevant arguments against the Electoral College include but are not limited to these facts:

• It devalues the national popular vote
• It gives more weight to voters in less populous states
• It discourages voter turnout
• It is a disadvantage to third parties
• In some states, there is a disincentive to vote at all

When the national popular vote isn’t the deciding factor, candidates are able to appeal to voters on a narrower range of issues. For instance, Vermont’s two votes are unlikely to affect who wins since it has only two Electoral Votes. Swing states—Ohio, Iowa, etc.—get the attention because of this all-or-nothing system, decreasing the representation of the states with fewer votes and those wherein the results can be intuited ahead of time. In this case, the smaller states aren’t the only ones to lose out: if a candidate can count of 51% of California’s vote, it can also count on 55 Electoral votes 10.2% of the national total. The 49%, on the other hand, will receive 0% of the electoral votes. For 2% of California voters to determine 10.2% of the Electoral College’s votes is a travesty. Since 2% of Californians constitute 0.12% of the nation’s population, this gives a single voter in California 415 times as much sway as he/she would have if each voter had the same influence as all the others.

This, in itself, is more than compensates for the arguments in favor of the Electoral College. And that’s just one issue.

While devaluing the national popular vote (which is wrong), the Electoral College also gives an inordinate amount of influence to voters in less populous states. Wyoming, for instance, accounts for 0.2% of our nation’s population, but gets 0.6 percent of its representation (also wrong). And by now, we should know that two wrongs do not make a right.

A logical extension of these two points lead to a third: the discouragement of voter turnout. A democrat living in Texas, for instance, won’t affect the results of the election in any way whatsoever, while, were California a swing state, each citizen therein could have up to 415 times that which he or she would if the election was determined by the national popular vote.

Finally, the Electoral College is a disadvantage to third parties because, in essence, they just plain won’t gather any Electoral votes. This entrenches us in a situation where the two-party system will always be in place. Even if that’s the best system, we the people should at least have the opportunity to make a change if we so desire.


WRAPPING UP


I’ve acknowledged, in just over two pages, the merits of the Electoral College and the overwhelming arguments against it. When a convincing argument against an institution can be made in only a couple of pages, and when the issue at hand has such an influence on the election of our President, it becomes clear that the issue must be addressed and the system reformed. And the continuity of this system is undemocratic, disenfranchising, illogical, and ultimately destructive. This issue deserves far, far more attention than we give it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Economic Incentives to Combat Disease

Peter S. K. Lynch

While research and development aimed understanding, treating, and preventing disease is making progress at an ever-increasing rate, growth can be increased through grants from the government.

There are two major factors contributing to our attempts to eradicate disease: economic profit and altruism (pure or otherwise). As such, progress can be made by either increasing the relevant institutions’ potential for economic profit or by increasing the altruism of those participating (in terms of the goals of the institutions themselves and the individuals associated with them). Altruism can be increased through changing the worldviews held by those involved but, while there is potential for improvement in this area, progress is limited in large part because individual people almost universally haven’t reached their maximum capacity for contribution until we are adults, at which point our worldviews have been formulated and developed to such a degree that changing them would rely almost entirely on educational efforts. While changes in educational systems can still contribute to changing worldviews in favor of altruism and should certainly be used, it seems that creating economic incentives for the institutions and individuals involved would be a valuable means by which to contribute to disease-fighting efforts.

I propose that government grants can be used as a powerful tool to these ends, and that providing these incentives would constitute a trivial cost for the government when compared to its total budget. And, in any event, providing such incentives would require only minor changes with respect to the distribution of its budget and could even involve simply re-allocating some current healthcare expenditures. Additionally, the creation of powerful incentives would require very little legislative effort. I will now briefly outline one such incentive:

Institutions and the individuals comprising them will put more effort into fighting disease when each contributor sees the prospect of economic gain and, if the government increases competition, progress will occur at an increasing rate. Allocating $10 billion dollars for these grants—while to individuals this may seem like a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to America’s overall budget—to, say, the ten most valuable contributors (deciding how this will be measured will require further attention) each year, would provide a powerful incentive. As an example, our government could give out grants of $1 billion to each of the 10 companies it deems to have made the most progress in the last year. Each company would jump at the opportunity to secure these grants and, it must be noted, the winners of these grants would have more capacity for further contributions to disease-fighting efforts, creating the potential for a positive feedback loop.

I mentioned that providing this kind of funding wouldn’t require much legislative effort. This is because both Democrats and Republicans would want to create these grants as, the public would obviously benefit from increased disease fighting efforts and, as such, would ameliorate, to a certain degree, the public’s political unrest (in case you’re cynical about the intentions of our legislators, bear in mind that they would realize that such an effort would increase their chances of re-election).

The biggest remaining problem would be deciding not on whether grants should be created but, rather, how much money these grants should be worth and how many institutions will earn them. The public would also create pressure to have these changes go into effect as soon as possible, so the two parties would come to an agreement quickly, making the increase in progress begin almost immediately. And, consequentially, the quality of our healthcare would increase while, at the same time, reducing its cost.It amazes me that this kind of incentive for progress isn’t used by our government to a greater degree than it currently is.

As an extension of all this, I believe that applying this kind of incentive should be used in a broad range of other causes, in order to affect change. I’m amazed that we do this as infrequently as we do, and I know that we must use this tactic more frequently, across a wide variety of fields and pursuits.