Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Trolley Problem and the Protest Voter

In a well-known thought experiment called the Trolley Problem, a train is hurtling down a track towards five people tied to that track, and you can pull a switch to move it to a different track on which one man is standing.

This is generally used to explore moral choice and whether you'd be personally willing to kill one person to save five. If you do so, his blood is on your hands, but if you don't throw the switch, five people will die.

It would be a terrible decision to make.

It's also a lot like the decision voters are facing this year. The train is heading down a track called TRUMP that will cause horrible disasters, inflame racism, bring trade wars and possibly real wars, destroy America's standing in the world, and give us a right-wing Supreme Court that will chip away at our civil rights for decades to come.

The other track is called CLINTON. The train will cause less damage if it goes down the Clinton track, but there's likely to be some poor judgement, some foreign misadventuring, and a poorly-handled scandal or two.

It's a grim decision.


If only there were another way. If this were an action movie, you could fire a rocket launcher that curled the track up so that the train would fly up and sail right over those people, landing on the track right past the victims.

You could also do nothing and hope for a miracle. Perhaps the train will run out of gas right before it hits anyone. Or Doctor Who will appear and send it through a time portal into an alternate dimension where no one is tied to the tracks.

What you really need is another switch. Not one that will actually effect the direction of the train, but one you can pull so you can feel you're doing something without having to make this terrible decision.

Let's give you that switch and put a sign on it that says "PROTEST VOTE." Pull it, and you can tell yourself that those five dead people aren't your fault at all; you pulled a switch; what more could you do?


Right now we have a choice of presidents: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. One of those two people is going to be president. And a lot of people are just watching that train speed down the track and saying, "hey, it's not my train." Republicans who hate Donald Trump are saying, I can't vote for him, he's a dangerous incompetent with no qualifications, so I'll vote for a third party, but never Clinton, because she's evil. Hardcore Bernie Sanders supporters are saying they'll just write his name in rather than vote for Clinton; multiple people have said to me, in virtually the exact same words, "it's not my fault if Trump wins; I'm not the one who chose an unelectable candidate."

Years ago a friend was defending her vote for Ralph Nader in 2000. Her position was simple: if she just voted for someone terrible because their opponent was even more terrible, she was accepting this terrible political system. Things would never get better if people didn't stand up and refuse to cooperate with the status quo.

It's a fair point, but the question that should be asked is, did voting for Nader do anything besides help make George W. Bush president? Did it create a powerful liberal movement? Did it cause politicians to change their ways because a sliver of the populace was unhappy with both sides?

No, it didn't.

If we had a different system for electing people, where parties could gain power according to the proportion of their vote, or where there was a series of run-offs that would make a third-party vote more than just a throwaway, we would have a mechanism to change the system. But we don't, and I don't think many of the protester voters are even working to change our electoral system in a way that would give them that power.

Meanwhile, third parties seem loathe to go through the nuts and bolts of building a party, as Dan Savage pointed out in a wonderful diatribe:

If you're interested in building a third party, a viable third party, you don’t start with president. You don't start by running someone for fucking president.
Where are the Green Party candidates for city councils? For county councils? For state legislatures? For state assessor? For state insurance commissioner? For governor? For fucking dogcatcher? I would be SO willing to vote for Green Party candidates who are starting at the bottom, grassroots, bottom up, building a third party, a viable third party.
Voting for a third party presidential candidate won't advance any agenda. It won't give that party more power, more influence, more legitimacy, or a better future. It will be just the same as voting for "none of them."

And you can do that if you want. Just admit that this is all you are doing. You are not changing the system or creating a brighter tomorrow. You are saying "fuck it."


You don't have to do anything about that train. It's not your train. You didn't send it down the track. You didn't tie those people up. Why should you take responsibility for other people's actions just because you're the one standing there?

The people on the track screaming "please don't let us die" are probably less philosophical. To them, the mistake made when the train started moving cannot be rectified, and the only thing that will save their lives is you pulling that switch.

And it's a painful switch to pull. I mean, my god, you're going to kill someone! Sure, you'll save five people, but you'll be responsible for a death. How is that fair?

Perhaps after you pull your protest vote switch, someone else will rush up and pull the working switch so you can feel good about yourself and your principled refusal to take responsibility for a problem not of your making. If not, you can watch those people die and say, "fucking railroad company, this is all their fault."

Hopefully you'll feel just as good about that decision later on, when you're tied to the track, the train is coming, and the one person who can save you turns to go.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Children: Savage Enforcers of Society Conformity

Look at your fingernails. Go ahead, just take a peek. Do you look at them the masculine or feminine way?

If you know the answer to that, you probably learned it in childhood from a peer. In case that's a lesson you missed, boys look at their fingernails by curving their fingers over their upturned palms. Girls point their palms forward.

If you know that, you probably also know that boys look at the bottom of their shoe by bending their knee in front of them, while girls kick their foot up behind and look over their shoulder.

I failed both of these tests in grammar school, and was told I was a girl. I was unhappy about that, and changed appropriately.


When talking about gender stereotypes, it is often suggested that much of the problem comes from toy companies that make all girl toys pink and advertising that divides toys into those for boys and those for girls. Some people seem to think that if we could just remove these societal messages, that children would be free to choose what they enjoy, rather than what society considers appropriate.

But what if Mattel and Walmart aren't really the problem? What if the problem is, in part, a culture of conformity passed from child to child, with rigid, stringently enforced rules? How do you change that?

Childhood is full of rules and tests (according to this thread, there are also gender tests involving looking at the sky and removing sweaters), created not by the media or the government but by children who use them as weapons. Yet even though these rules appear to arise organically out of the muck of childhood, they seem to strongly reinforce the culture's priorities. Besides gender conformity, consumerism is encouraged through attacks on things like "floods," a term for too-short pants.

Floods are a natural result of the speed at which children grow. A typical parental strategy is to buy things when they're too big and keep them until they're too small. This is sensible, but ill-fitting clothes can get you in trouble with the herd. (Note: I have no idea if floods or fingernail testing are still done; children may have different tests now, but I guarantee they have some.)

Why would children be so insistent that their peers shop frequently? No reason. In fact, it's unlikely children actually care that much aesthetically about the length of your pants or the way you look at fingernails.

Instead, it's all about beating you down, because children are savage, sadistic monsters. Children simply grab the popular weapons and use them on every target. They try out new insults and see what sticks. And if it sticks, it is carried on, year after year.

The weapons that stick tend to be those that society at large emphasizes. Society says boys should not act like girls, and boys find ways to test for girliness. (I imagine girls have their own tests, although I don't know what they are.)

To some extent, Mattel actually does effect the concept of normality, because they show children what society holds important. Movies do as well when they feature brave boys and crying girls. But these concepts are so deeply embedded that superficial changes like removing gender recommendations from toy boxes probably won't do much. Fix the toys, and you've still got a society where women speaking firmly are accused of shrill shouting even when faced with men who are shrilly shouting to no objection. You can't teach children to be more open and accepting if all of society if promoting the opposite. One of the first thing children figure out is words mean much less than actions.


My first inclination when I thought of this was that it's all pretty hopeless. Childhood conformity is so powerful that I doubt tweaks to marketing and speech would have any effect.

I did have one idea, though. Children, as I say, just want weapons they can use to beat down their peers (you non-cynics will probably disagree with that, but I feel the evidence is pretty solid). So what if that destructive power could be used for good?

Children, reflecting society, push gender conformity and consumerism because those are the weapons that work. If you could convince children that the worst, most embarrassing, most deviant qualities were racism, or greed, or bad manners, or littering, then these children would create tests for these qualities and crucify those who didn't do things the "right" way.

How can that be done? Well, as someone who doesn't care for children and avoids them as much as possible, I'm not able to answer that question. But if you like children enough to interact with them yet still understand their dark nature, see if you can come up with a way to use their savagery to make the world a better place.

Or if not a better place, at least one where one is judged by something more important than fingernail examination.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

David Cameron is Paul Ryan's Ghost of Christmas Future

The lesson many pundits are taking from Britain's vote to leave the European Union is that the appeal to bigotry, hatred, and fear can lead people to vote against their best interests and royally fuck themselves up out of pure spite. If that can happen there, they say, then a Trump presidency can happen here.

That may be true, and we should certainly all be scared. But Brexit should also scare one particular American, Paul Ryan, who just had a chance to see what happens when politicians make a short-term political calculus that destroys their career.

Brexit happened because Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to get reelected. A chunk of anti-immigration conservatives wanted Britain out of the European Union and to keep the Conservative Party together and win an election, Cameron agreed to a referendum on leaving the EU.

Cameron didn't want Britain to leave the EU, he just wanted to pacify those on the right and counter the popularity of the anti-immigration U.K. Nationalist Party. He figured he could easily persuade voters to vote REMAIN.

He couldn't, and having created a disastrous situation with disastrous results, he had no choice but to resign.

Now, Cameron will go down in history as the guy who screwed Britain and the EU. That is his legacy. Nothing he has ever done in his life will matter; he's the Brexit guy.

Like Cameron, Paul Ryan decided to do something dangerous to the country for political expediency: support Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate. Trump, a racist, xenophobic no-nothing conman (or, as the Scottish would say, a weaselheaded, Cheeto-faced, jizztrumpet/fucknugget/shitgibbon) who spews hatred against minorities like a shit-throwing sprinkler system, gained the nomination through big lies and absurd promises. It's clear to everyone with half a brain, including Ryan, that he is a toxic bomb set to blow up this country.

But Ryan also believes, probably correctly, that Trump is somewhat more likely to support his help-the-rich, screw-the-poor agenda than Hillary Clinton, and for that reason, he has chosen to endorse the monster.

Ryan's endorsement looks worse and worse every time Trump claims his right to be judged only by those with European ancestry or congratulates himself when horrible tragedies befall the country, but while Ryan will mildly criticize Trump's remarks, he is still determined to make him president.  Ultimately, whether he succeeds or not, he is probably destroying his career.

In November, one of two things will happen. Either Trump, in spite of a phenomenally incompetent campaign, will win, or Clinton will. If it's Trump, well then, an authoritarian lunatic will helm this country, most likely sending the world into economic collapse, and Ryan will intimately tied to that disaster (and probably won't even get much from his shopping list out of the short-fingered megalomaniac). If it's Clinton, then Ryan sold his soul and got nothing for it except a GOP in flames.

The U.S. does not have Britain's parliamentarian system, so Ryan won't have to resign anything. He'll still be a congressman. He might even get reelected; in this country an incumbent can get reelected even if he's in prison for fraud. But his career as the golden boy of the GOP will be over. Like Cameron, he will forever after be known for one thing; tying himself to a bucket of shit, throwing the bucket down a well, and trying not to fall in after it.

Watch out Ryan; it's a very heavy bucket.

Monday, June 27, 2016

On Not Being Photographed by Bill Cunningham

I first heard of Bill Cunningham years ago when someone told me he was at the Jazz Age Lawn Party and I said, who? It was something I was supposed to know.

For 40 years, until quite close to his recent death, Cunningham took photos for the New York Times, specializing in people he found stylish. Some were famous, some were just people walking by. He would also turn up at events that drew those who wanted to show off their finery, which is why I used to catch sight of the dapper gentleman clicking away at JALP and the Easter Parade.

The dress-up people at JALP seemed obsessed with getting their picture taking by Cunningham. By dress-up people, I mean those who devoted themselves to period wear. The people who scoured eBay and thrift shops for authentic 1920s vintage clothing. Who studied old photos to get the look just right. Who purchased vintage picnic baskets. For many, that picture in the Times was a victory, and Cunningham obliviously walking past you without a glance at your authentic, over-priced 1920s hat a terrible defeat.

It was a race I never ran.

I mainly went to JALP to dance. Sure, I dressed up a little, but I've always had a close-enough-for-rock-n-roll approach to vintage dress, and worried more about being comfortable in the blazing heat of summer than in wowing the dress-up world. I would certainly never, as the serious folk did, wear wool on a humid, 90-degree day.

Look at this picture from the New York Post of me dancing with my girlfriend Laurel. I am making less effort than the three people I'm sharing the picture with, who are all aiming for authenticity. I've got some nice wide-legged pants, but I'm also wearing a golfing shirt that wicks away moisture, a bow-tie with a crossword puzzle design, and elastic suspenders with skulls on them.

Not that I don't think I look great. I love those suspenders, and that bow tie is hilarious. I had other great things I wore to JALP, like orange linen pants that Laurel still mocks me for. But though I liked my colorful, somewhat rumpled style, I knew it wasn't Cunningham-worthy. And I respected his vision.

While others think fondly back to the day Bill stopped to snap their picture, I celebrate him for a different reason; he knew enough about style to ignore half-assed outfits like mine.

Orange pants, suspenders with a newspaper theme and a golf shirt. Close enough.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Democracy: The System Everyone Likes Until the “Wrong” People Win

In 2011, Egyptians protested against their authoritarian dictatorship, overthrew the government, and held democratic elections that installed Mohamed Morsi as president.

By 2013, unhappy Egyptians were holding mass protests and demanding that Morsi resign. When the military stepped in, many of those protesters were thrilled. Soon the new government proved itself to be at least as bad as the one ousted in 2011.

I remember that after that military coup, there were pundits on both the left and the right who supported it, seeming to believe that this was a way to reset a democracy gone bad. To me that seemed a long shot. Democracy works when people accept it as the thing you’re stuck with. If after every election the people who didn’t vote for the government could persuade the military to step in, you wouldn’t really have a democracy.

Democracy is when both sides agree to accept the results, even if they don’t like them. It doesn’t work otherwise.

Now let’s talk about Bernie Sanders.

I’ve always liked Bernie Sanders. The things I want – a single payer health system, more taxes on the wealthy, greater worker rights, a stronger social safety net – are the things Sanders wants. If I were declared ruler of the universe and could choose the next U.S. president from anyone who has run for the position in the last couple of years, I would pick Bernie.

But in a democracy, one person can’t choose the president, or the nominees. Instead, there’s a whole electoral system in place.

Regarding the Democratic primary, that system is one Bernie Sanders has liked less and less the more it has become apparent that he is unlikely to win more votes or pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton.

As little as a few months ago, Sanders still had some hope for the democratic process, as long as it was truly democratic. He made the reasonable suggestion that superdelegates – free agents who can vote for whoever they like at the convention – should vote for whoever their state voted for.

The problem is, under that system, Sanders would still lose. Because Sanders is way behind Clinton. About three million votes behind.

So Bernie has a new plan. We throw out the democratic system and decide the nominee based on polling.

What Bernie wants is for all the superdelegates, regardless of who their state supported, to vote for Bernie. And he says they should, because in head to head polls, he does better against Trump than Clinton.

There are reasons those polls shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As the Times points out, Sanders hasn’t experienced a full-on Republican national attack yet, which could drive his numbers down markedly, and Trump is no longer competing against anyone, while Clinton is still fighting off Sanders, softening her support.

But beyond that, picking candidates according to polls is wildly undemocratic.

Right now, RealClearPolitics collection of recent polls shows that averaged out, Sanders beats Trump by 10.8%, whereas Clinton loses by .2%. Each of these polls represents 800 to 1100 voters. If you were to assume that these polls had no overlaps, then they give us the opinions of a few thousand voters. If Sanders is up by 10% over Clinton among a group of 5,000 voters, then that means a few hundred people like Sanders better than Clinton. Yes, they are presumably a representative sampling, but still, if we’re using the polls to select nominees, very few people are actually getting a say.

As of April, over 15,000,000 people have voted in the Democratic primary, and by the convention that number will be higher. Sanders plan is, very simply, to discount the millions of people who prefer Clinton over him in favor of the preferences of a tiny sliver of America’s voters.

How can anyone who believes in Democracy find that acceptable? If we are going to choose our nominees by poll, why don’t we just get rid of elections altogether, and every four years take a few polls and make whoever wins the president? How can Sanders supporters who scream about unfairness every time Clinton gets an extra delegate they believe belongs to Bernie be fine with simply taking the choice out of the hands of the electorate altogether?

What would happen if next week the poll numbers switched, and suddenly Clinton had the edge against Trump? Would Sanders drop out of the race? My guess is, no.

I understand why democracy failed in Egypt, a country unused to the messiness of a system that, in the words of Winston Churchill, “is the worst form of Government, except for all the [others].” But in the U.S., we’ve been doing this for a long time. And even if the results don’t turn out as I hope, which has happened many times, I hope we continue our experiment with democracy, and let people, rather than polls, choose our representatives.

Although I’m still open to just deciding the whole thing myself.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Finding out you're weird. Then finding out you're really, really weird.

When people tell you to imagine something, like a beach, or a polka-dotted elephant, does an image come to mind? Most people, it seems would say yes.

I didn't realize for a long time that this was true. I always took phrases like "mind's eye" as an abstract term for constructing concepts in your mind. But somewhere along the way I discovered that most people actually picture things. They can "see" a beach; see the color of the water and the shape of the birds flying through the air, much in the way I can "hear" a song in my head. I can imagine Yellow Submarine, and hear Ringo's voice, and the sound effects; not so clearly that I can throw away my stereo, but I can conjure it up.

So I figured that much out. And I thought, well, that's weird. It didn't bother me much, though, since it didn't seem like a terrible useful ability. It did explain  some things, like a famous quote that had always puzzled me. In the early days of television, some kid was asked if he preferred radio or TV, and he said radio, "because the pictures were better."

That sounded insane to me, but if people can picture the stuff they hear on the radio, then I guess it makes sense.

I didn't realize how much other people's brains use that facility until I talked to my girlfriend, Laurel. As I understand it, all her memories are visual. If she thinks on the past, she sees it. I had thought of the mind's eye as something you could turn on if you wanted, but from Laurel it seemed that it was just a constant thing. Shortly after our conversation I saw the movie Inside Out, and the main character does experience her memories visually, and I thought that perhaps this is how most people's minds' work.

The subject came up again yesterday when I read an article on Vox by Blake Ross. His mind had been blown by a 2015 article in the New York Times about a man who had lost the ability to picture things. The condition had just been given a name that year, Aphantasia. And his reaction, like mine, was, people can do that?

If you have Aphantasia, the Times article seems really bizarre, because it acts like this is an extraordinary thing. Imagine you'd been blind your whole life, and no one had ever told you, and then one day you read about a guy who "lost" his sight, and you suddenly realize almost everyone in the world except you can look up and see clouds and stars, and there's this whole thing going on you had no idea even existed.

As I read the Times article, I could see that people use their mind's eye for all sorts of things, because the researchers were amazed at what could be done without it. They asked aphantasiacs, how many windows are in your house, and were stunned that people could answer without picturing the rooms.

And I thought, that's how people remember things? They picture them?

Why wouldn't I know how many windows were in the house? I mean, you look at them, and your mind makes note of where they are, and if someone asks you, you can answer. The number of windows is a fact. I know a lot of facts. Water boils if you heat it on the stove. Cats have four paws. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. I don't even understand why you would need to picture the room to answer a factual question. That just seems weird.

While I asked a handful of friends about the mind's eye, Blake asked everyone he knew. He asked them to picture a beach, and they did. They could see the color of the water, the waves rushing in, people sunbathing.

It appears it's not something you turn on and off, it just happens. When Laurel read Blake's article, she said when he talked about picturing a red triangle, a red triangle just popped into her head. When Blake asked a friend how often he pictured things, he said a thousand times a day. The shocking this is, for 98% of you, italicizing that doesn't make any sense; it's just normal.

This explains so much. It explains why writers will spend two pages describing a forest; it's because people use that information to picture what's happening in the book. It explains why people claim it's impossible to not picture a polka-dotted elephant when someone tells you not to picture one. It explains how people count sheep (they actually see sheep and a fence), how people with a fear of public speaking picture an audience in their underwear to calm their nerves. It explains how people can tolerate meditation; with their eyes closed, they aren't actually locked in impenetrable blackness.

Some people are really bothered by aphantasia, one they know they have it. They feel they've been cheated. They think they might have other skills if their brain worked properly. But I doubt that.

Blake says he's been asked if he can draw, and he says he can't. I can draw, and at one point majored in art. How do I draw without picturing things? Kind of the same way I can tell you how many windows I have in my room. I store up facts. I look at a face, and see the nose hooks down slightly. So look down a draw a nose that does that and look up again. I see a short upper lip, look down, draw that, look up. Look up, note, look down, draw. It's easy.

If I had a mind's eye, perhaps I could just look at a face and hold it in my head while I drew it. That would be convenient, but it's not essential. I manage with what I've got. It's certainly less of a problem than my face blindness, which can make it difficult to make friends (because I treat people I've had interesting conversations with like total strangers). I think of aphantasia more as a curious condition.

At the same time, now that I realize how much people use their mind's eye, I feel aphantasia actually makes me more of an alien than my face blindness. I don't just lack a capability others have; I fundamentally use my brain differently than everyone else. (Between my  face blindness, aphantasia, and perhaps an auditory processing disorder, I have to wonder exactly how much my brain is diverging from the rest of humanity's.)

It also makes me wonder: is there anything else? Will I learn someday that there is something else other people can do that I didn't realize was possible? Are there other phrases that I've been taking figuratively when they are literal? Do people really *shoot* the breeze? Do bad dancers really have two left feet? Can people do handsprings when they're happen? Do hearts actually jump when people feel joy and break when people are sad?

Right now, I think I know how atypical my brain is, but I am prepared to learn, once again, that I don't know the half of it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Sanders, Clinton, and the Agonizing Process of Deciding Which One to Vote For

In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the New York primary. It was a decision I couldn't help second guessing in subsequent years, as Obama floundered amidst Republican opposition. My mother had been right; he didn't have the experience for the job.

I wondered if Clinton would have done better, and hoped that she would run in the future so I could find out. Now that has happened, and yet I find I'm strongly drawn to Bernie Sanders in much the way I was to Obama. I have to wonder; if I follow my heart, am I going to regret it a second time?


Clinton seemed terrific when she was first lady, smart and progressive, but as my senator she was suspect, displaying a mushy moderation that suggested she was more into positioning herself than changing the world. Then she voted in favor of a preemptive war in Iraq, which meant, I thought, that she was either too stupid to recognize the Bush administration's bullshit (detailed in the run-up to the war by the progressive press) or was simply taking a spineless, politically advantageous position.

Obama had been against that war. He also promised that his universal health plan wouldn't include a requirement that people buy health insurance; as someone who couldn't afford insurance, I was worried about facing fines. He spoke beautifully and offered a vision of a better, more hopeful world.

Unlike his most ardent fans, I never expected Obama to turn the U.S. into a progressive paradise. He was, after all, a politician, and bound to break the hearts of true believers. But I was still hugely disappointed by his meekness; he seemed the sort who would bring Roberts Rules of Order to a knife fight.


So here we are again. A man full of fire and fury, promising great things that might be impossible, versus a far more experienced woman who voted for a terrible war and offers less ambitious but far more concrete plans.

For a lot of people, it's an easy decision. Either Sanders is an impassioned visionary who will lead a modern revolution and Clinton is a corrupt hack with no principles who will hand the country over to the billionaire class, or Clinton is a brainy progressive feminist with deep experience whose realpolitik approach will move us forward while Sanders is an unelectable, impractical gadfly whose nomination is a Republican wet dream.

What I see are two smart, progressive, and imperfect candidates, either of which would be a million times preferable to even the least crazy Republican. Philosophically, Bernie is almost a perfect match for me, a fellow progressive who looks at enlightened Scandinavian countries and asks, why can't we do that? But as annoying as practical considerations are, they cannot be avoided. I have to ask, which candidate is more likely to win the election, and which candidate, if elected, is more likely to accomplish good things? Also, which candidate is more likely to royally screw up?


Electability is a big consideration when choosing a nominee, and in a normal political environment, electability would be Clinton's best friend. She is better known than Sanders, with more political experience. Sanders is an elderly agnostic Democratic Socialist; which normally would make him the most unelectable candidate in the world.

But let's face it, this is a weird year. Voters are sick of a political system that doesn't work and seems custom made for a wealthy elite. The Republican nominee is likely to be Donald Trump, a no-nothing blowhard with a frightening ability to sucker people in with his big daddy authoritarian promises and his constant lies and policy shifts.

Against Trump, Hillary is certainly the adult in the room, and in a sane country where voters want the reasonable, thoughtful candidate over the ticking time bomb, she could easily beat him. But in a year where people are obsessed with "authenticity," and shooting from the hip, Clinton's carefully triangulated positions and coziness with Wall Street  are more damaging than in a typical year. And her history of Republican-manufactured scandals has given her low trustworthy ratings with voters (I'm not saying that's fair, since all the problems I have with her are not the problems the Republicans have created, but it's still a consideration).

Sanders seems better positioned to beat Trump at his own game, out-shouting him, mocking his stupidity, while also being blindingly smarter than him. If people really want big changes, Sanders versus Trump offers a clear-cut choice. Sanders could win over Trump-ites, although the be fair, the reverse may be true as well; a lot of voters seem to just want to disrupt the system but aren't that picky about how it's done.

While Clinton's downside is that she has been softened up by years of molehills turned into mountains by the right, Sanders' downside is he hasn't experienced any real attacks at all. The Democrats' primary campaign has been pretty civilized. While the candidates are increasingly snippy, there is no real mud-slinging - no questioning of citizenship, no spousal slams, no mocking of physical attributes. I don't think he's even been attacked all that hard for saying up front he's going to raise taxes (claiming this will be balanced out by health insurance savings) which he would get slaughtered with in a general election.

What happens when Sanders gets into a savage knife fight with someone like Trump or Cruz? Does Sanders have any terrible skeletons in his closet? I doubt it. Can the Republicans create one? Sure. These are the people who used John Kerry's military heroism against him. Can Sanders withstand the tremendous heat? We don't know. We know Hillary can; she's been living on the sun for years.

Of course, the increased polarization of the electorate means the candidates might barely matter at all, because almost all the Democrats and Republicans will vote for their party, even if they hate the candidate. This gives the final decision to those freakishly unpredictable independents. In this case, enthusiasm and getting out the base is really important, and Sanders seems to have the edge there.

It is also possible that either candidate will win in a landslide due to a third-party candidacy for the conservatives if Trump is the nominee or a third-party run (or just a lot of sniping) from Trump if he isn't. Although things could get patched up with a Cruz-Trump ticket, which would be ... interesting.


Then there's the question of who can get more done.

Think of it this way. You have a stone quarry in the middle of a swamp, and you would like the stones mined, carried to a faraway hill, and built into a mansion. One contractor tells you it's impossible, but she can get enough stones to the edge of the swamp to build a decent, reasonably dry home, and maybe you can build a better house later. She has detailed  blueprints.

The other contractor says he will build that mansion on a hill, guaranteed. He will move heaven and earth to make it happen. He has a bunch of notes on post-its.

If she's right then voting for him will get you a bunch of stones littered along the path to the hill. But if she's wrong, you're living by the side of the swamp when you could have one hell of a view.

Who do you hire?

The pro-Clinton argument is simply that she knows how to work the levers of power. She knows how to deal, how to compromise, knows when to hold them and knows when to fold them.

She will build on what's here. She will tweak Obamacare, trying to get it closer to what it should be. She will try and push through a few more financial regulations. She will navigate the treacherous path. She will be sensible

But she'll never even try for the mansion on the hill. She doesn't believe in it.

Neither did Obama. He always started with a reasonable position, something centrist and practical that deserved wide support, and then was slapped down by Republicans who painted his most modest proposals as the works of a wild-eyed, America-hating Muslim anarchist.

Obama tried to be reasonable, and that failed because the other side was unreasonable. Sanders would not make that mistake. He would make huge progressive proposals. And while he might not get free college or a single-payer system, not starting at the center could be a powerful negotiating tactic.

What worries me about Sanders is that when asked how he will bring these miracles to pass, he says we need people to rise up, we need a revolution. But how does that happen? Politicians casually ignore what the majority want (better gun control laws, for example) in favor of what donors and lobbyists want. Even if Sanders could get people to demand the same things he demands (and this country is so polarized that this is unlikely), politicians entirely concerned with their own little gerrymandered districts are not going to join the Sanders revolution. This is a big, unwieldy country; it can only turn so sharply.

Still, Ronald Reagan created a pretty major shift in this country, and if Sanders can't turn the U.S. into Denmark, he could still, in theory, push it as far left as Reagan pushed it right.

Sanders is worrisomely vague about how he's going to pay for everything. He claims that his policies will lower health costs and improve the economy, and if that's true then we might be able to afford Sanders' big dreams. But what is the difference between Sanders' claims and those of Republicans who say if they cut taxes on the rich the economy will improve so much that the government will have more money than ever?

Once again though, the point may be trivial; if Republicans keep control of congress, neither Sanders nor Clinton is going to get anything done. The Republicans are perfectly happy to obstruct the government forever if need be. The stones will never be mined, the house never built. The contractor won't matter.

On the other hand, if Democrats get control of both the house and the senate, Sanders' big dreams could make a better country than Clinton's little ones.


Presidents can do a lot of damage. George W. Bush managed to tank the economy, plunge us into war and destabilize the mid-east. Bill Clinton pushed through laws that vastly increased the racial disparity in prison populations. 

I'm on the fence in terms of Clinton's electability and her efficacy, but I am far more worried about her capacity to screw things up. Because while Clinton's supporters offer her vast foreign policy experience as a positive, it is what worries me most.

First off, she voted for the Iraq war. At the time, I saw that as pure politically expediency, but it could also represent her general inclination to muck around in other countries and hope for the best. After all, she lobbied for regime change in Libya, which just further messed up the midle east.

I strongly believe in Obama's foreign policy tenet: don't do stupid shit. The history of U.S. foreign policy is the history of screwing up other countries, breaking their governments and alienating their citizens. Clinton, alas, has the interventionist mindset that leads to doing stupid shit, sometimes for very noble reasons. Obama gets a lot of grief because he realizes that America cannot remake the world; Clinton doesn't seem to get that.

I don't think Sanders wants to recreate the world in America's image. I don't think he's interesting in nation building. My feeling about Sanders lack of foreign policy experience is best summed up by the satirical op-ed, Sorry Bernie Bros, Your Candidate Just Doesn’t Have The Foreign Policy Experience Necessary To Prop Up A Pro-Western Dictatorship.  

The danger of Sanders is the danger of  unintended consequences. The more powerful the pill, the bigger the side effects. The more radical the change, the greater the unpredictable ripple effects. Sanders' sweeping proposals are tricky. A $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles is likely to affect the local economy differently than in Podunk, Idaho. Sanders could find himself spending an entire term trying to make one change work the way he expected it to. It's a sizable risk.


Sanders versus Clinton is not an exact repeat of Obama versus Clinton. Sanders has more experience in government than Obama had in 2008 and he's a far more progressive candidate. But once again I find myself torn between a candidate whose positions are appealing but whose practicality is suspect and a shifting compromiser who has a plan for getting things done but may not want to do the things I want her to. 

Maybe I was wrong to vote for Obama in 2008, but maybe I wasn't. Could Hillary really have done any better against the anarchists of the Republican party? We'll find out if she becomes president, and then I might be able to decide whether my Obama vote was a mistake. But I'll probably never know for sure whether Bernie or Hillary was the right candidate for 2016. All I know for certain is, whatever happens, I'll always wonder about the path not taken.