Category Archives: U.S. Government

Changing Campaign Finance is Tough

During the 2014 election cycle, Lawrence Lessig tried to change the shape of American politics. Or at least he tried to start a change. With his PAC, the Mayday PAC, Lessig raised over $10 million and spent it to influence eight elections around the country. This was meant to be a test election to see if the PAC could get people who were supportive of campaign finance reform elected. Here is a little bit of what happened.

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CIA helps spread of Polio

There have been a lot of unintended consequences of the War on Terror. This is one that I had not heard of before.

Polio had almost been eradicated in Pakistan and now it is on the rise again. This story from Freakonomics Radio is specifically about why more people don’t take the flu vaccine. In their examination they came across this story of how actions taken by individuals and organizations can effect peoples views of vaccines.

Humanities fight against disease has been waged for thousands of years. This fight has sometimes been extremely low tech such as sterilizing wounds alcohol and washing hands. Other times it is very high tech and experimental such as current efforts with gene therapy. Without a doubt, one of the greatest weapons in that fight has been vaccinations. Polio, small pox, measles, it is hard today to understand the fear that parents only a few generations ago had that their children would get some of these horrible diseases because our campaigns against them have been so successful

However, that success is leading to a strong backlash. This map from the Council on Foreign Relations shows the massive rise in preventable diseases, particularly in the United States. Even worse, the actions of the United States are giving people in other regions of the world proof that vaccines are part of a western plot.

As the Freakonomics story points out, providing additional information to people who don’t believe in vaccines tends to just make them less likely to get vaccinated. If we can’t change the minds of people in this country, can we at least not act in such blatant disregard for public health in other countries?

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What we have here is a failure to communicate

It has been hard the last few days to listen to the news and not here about a report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. The actual report is over 6,700 pages long and is still classified. What was released was an executive summary which itself is over 500 pages long. Here is a clip of the reaction from Slate’s Political Gabfest.

You can hear the whole discussion here. I will say right now that I have not read the full report, just a few bits and a number of stories. Because of that, I do not want to talk directly about the report or what it says the CIA was up to for several years. What I want to talk about is the comparison of what we just hear from the Slate podcast and this:

Our times seem to be defined by political divide. The thing making today’s political divide different from the past is that our disagreement isn’t over how to deal with problems, our disagreement is over what is even happening. Torture, Benghazi, climate change, these are all issues where one side says the sky is falling and the other doesn’t even recognize something is going on.

All of these issues often come down to two people yelling at each other saying the other one is a liar. I honestly haven’t completely figured out a way through the mess but looking at each argument on its logical and philosophical merits seems to be a good place to start.

The first question is the logic of listening to Vice President Cheney or past leaders of the CIA on any of this. If anything was done wrong, he is one of the primary individuals to blame, would he ever admit something bad or illegal happened? Also, he was an inside player, we never let the players ref themselves. You have to have an outside observer who can impartially determine what happened. I will admit Congress may not be a completely impartial observer, but they are certainly more impartial than the former Vice President.

The next argument constantly used is about the importance of the intelligence gathered by enhanced interrogation. Both sides have their talking points and I do not know who is correct because at the end of the day, I don’t care.  If the line in the sand in determining what is appropriate is how effective it is, than we are going to have some problems.  Japanese internment made certain no immigrants attacked the US from within. The shooting at Kent State University was effective at stopping protests on the campus. You should rarely use the ends to justify the means, especially when the means are people and also especially when you are talking about government policy and not “in the heat of the moment.”

The final argument I will address is the protection offered these individuals by the Geneva Convention. Vice President Cheney has stated there is no protection because the detained individuals were unlawful combatants. Politifact did a great job of summing up this issue.

Among other things” prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever” by Common Article 3 are “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture” as well as “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”

This is a very heated issue with a lot of claims on both sides, the only way to make sense of everything is to do the hard thing and think. Don’t let someone else tell you the report is baseless, ask them what they mean and examine the reasons. Often the people talking loudest are the least qualified to say anything.

The Spending Bill

As I write this, Friday December 12th, the US Federal Government is operating under a 48 hour Continuing Resolution. Late Thursday night the House of Representatives passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill to cover the rest of the fiscal year but because the Senate also needs time to vote on that bill, the House also passed a two day spending measure to avoid a government shutdown.

Unlike the last time we were in this position, it is now the Democrats holding up the spending bill, with nearly all of them voting against the measure. Why is that? Here is Kai Ryssdal from Marketplace to explain.

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This American Life #540: A Front

Act One and Two of this episode were the most interesting to me and involves what most people would describe as government missteps. Act One, featured in the audio clip, discusses the many failings of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, commonly known as the ATF, in their failed attempts in numerous operations around the country. Often it sounds like the ATF agents if anything created more crime because of their operations.

Act Two goes into a lot of detail about U.S. Border checkpoints that are far from the border, sometimes over 50 miles. I haven’t spent much time near the Mexican border so I have never interacted with these checkpoints but some people have to pass through them regularly and some people react in amazing ways. You can follow this link to, mentioned in the podcast, to find out more information and link to the numerous YouTube videos of these encounters.

As always, you can download the full podcast at or find it on iTunes.