Friday, September 28, 2012

Reason #258: Citizens United - No, Really

Might as well get this out of the way right off the bat--in the abstract, money is indeed free speech.

In the original Supreme Court case that decided as much, Citizens United v. FEC, "Citizens United" was a nonprofit, non-party-affiliated (in the SuperPAC sense) group that had produced an anti-Hillary Clinton movie years before the 2008 presidential election, and wanted to release it on-demand to influence the results of the Democratic primaries (which Clinton ended up losing regardless, so hey).

Surprisingly, CU actually initiated court proceedings on the matter themselves, in an effort to forestall a possible violation of the infamous (now infamously irrelevant) 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. A judge originally ruled that the film did in fact run afoul of McCain-Feingold, and only in 2010, after two years of appeals, did the Supreme Court make its famous ruling that CU had a First Amendment right to broadcast the film.

And in that respect...I agree with them. The problem, in my opinion, is that unlimited corporate spending is in the same realm as shouting fire in a theater--yes, to prohibit it is to infringe upon someone's free speech, but in certain special cases the public interest outweighs the Bill of Rights. And in a practical, non-abstract sense, Citizens United has the potential to do far more harm to the public interest than causing a riot during Hotel Transylvania.

But this is a blog about good things the government does, isn't it? So let's talk about that how far that potential goes.

Now that I'm digging a little deeper into my subjects on this blog, I've been talking a lot about the nation's ability to self-correct when faced with existential problems. I see it in many places, and sure, you can staple a broad enough philosophy onto any sequence of events and say "look, that proves it!", but the alternative is a world where centuries of real progress can be destroyed in an eye-blink if we pass the wrong law or elect the wrong leader--and I think a lot of people would agree that America is stronger than that.

So what happens when money is free speech? Well first, of course, you see way, way more of it--Sheldon Adelson, the poster child for Citizens United run amok, has not only broken the record for individual spending on single election season, but tripled it; and there's still a month to go. Of all outside spending (meaning not by the campaigns or political parties) being done on the presidential race, 78% of it is donations made possible by CU. And sure enough, Romney and his supporters have been largely outspending the other side--$24 million to $19 million just this week, which is unheard-of for elections with an incumbent president.

Yet no matter how much Sheldon Adelson hates Barack Obama, his money can't polish the turd that is Mitt Romney. Every idiotic comment Romney makes, in fact, sinks the real-world value of an Adelson dollar lower and lower. And meanwhile, the race is getting tighter and tighter, and the battleground map smaller and smaller. States that were up in the air a few months ago are now largely settled; their trajectories largely established. And all those millions of dollars' worth of TV spots are being dumped into fewer and fewer markets.

For anyone who looks at Citizens United and doubts the limits of corporate ad spending, I have five words for you: "apply directly to the forehead".

Of course, none of this means I don't still disagree with CU philosophically. It should be gotten rid of, and I think it will be eventually, either by a constitutional amendment or a future Supreme Court. But I don't think that will be what kills it, because it will already have died a much slower and more demeaning death: that of irrelevance.

Further Reading

Supreme Court Shreds Campaign-Finance Laws, Lifts Corporate Spending Restrictions

Wikipedia - Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Billionaire Adelson sets new US political donation record - report

First Thoughts: Obama's closing ad (with 40 days to go)

Citizens United Ruling Accounts for 78 Percent of Outside Campaign Spending

Friday, September 21, 2012

Reason #257: Hope - No, Really

"...if you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible, well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void (...) Only you can make sure that doesn't happen. Only you have the power to move us forward."
The above passage from President Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention definitely contains a healthy dose of pablum--"be the change you wish to see in the world" and all that--but it was also one of the very, very few times I've caught even a hint of the feeling that Obama was actually speaking directly to me, and to my own worldview.

An incumbent's message, by nature, has to be one of pragmatism. It has to be results-oriented rather than aspirational, because otherwise it's like he's pretending he doesn't have the job already. But even to a hard-bitten cynic like myself, who started this year all but certain I wasn't going to bother voting for Obama again, this particular vein of pragmatism strikes a chord with me--not because it's stirring, but because, ultimately, it's correct.

Compared to most people (certainly many of the politically-minded), I give western society a great deal of credit in the area of self-correction. Once you have something that at least approaches a genuine democracy, I think the people's ability to govern themselves kicks in at what could be considered, in the arc of history, warp speed. This works very nicely as a personal philosophy, but it makes it hard for me to get too invested in certain issues, because they take on an air of inevitability.

Gay marriage is a great example. I'm absolutely convinced that it will eventually happen everywhere, the same way abolition eventually led to integration--civil rights are like a snowball rolling downhill, and short of a dictator stepping in, that snowball doesn't roll backwards. But what Obama was getting at is that a component of that inevitability comes from the fact that a certain segment of the population will fight for these things tooth-and-nail. So even if it's hard for some of us to muster up our own indignation, the reality is that wanting something badly enough is a bigger component of making it happen than we tend to realize. Obama is, was only ever, a tangible expression of that desire, and the more people stop believing in him, the less power he has.

The right's core argument against Obama has always been that he's a fallible human being like the rest of us; that his presidency is nothing but an empty vessel for other people's hope. There's a lot of truth to that. But, more often than you might think? Hope is enough.

Further Reading

Transcript: President Obama's Convention Speech

Timeline of African-American Civil Rights Movement

Friday, September 14, 2012

Reason #256: Classified

Were I a religious man, it would be my opinion that Barack Obama will probably go to hell.

But perhaps I should back up a bit.

As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal coming of age during the post-9/11 Bush Era, you would think I'd have a very clear understanding of the lines that should not be crossed by the government in the name of peace and security. And indeed, I definitely do believe that a lot of what the previous administration got up to, from the Iraq War to waterboarding, was inhumane at worst and counter-productive at best.

But I also think--and hey, maybe Bush colored my view of this as well--that part of the president's job is to perform--within reason--evil acts. It would be great if we lived in a world where drone strikes, for example, were unnecessary, but in the pantheon of horrid ways the United States has chosen to carry out its overseas military objectives, the innocent casualties of a drone strike don't add up to a hill of beans.
Not only do I believe that being the leader of the USA at this point in time requires one to willingly accept a black mark upon their own soul, but I think--and this is where I'm really gonna lose some people--that it's also their job to keep that from us as much as possible.

Personally speaking, I don't want to know the details of the Bin Laden raid. If "Mark Owen", the ex-Navy SEAL whose new book No Easy Day has gotten him into hot water with the Pentagon, did indeed release classified information about the operation, I am fully behind him being prosecuted for it. From what news coverage I've seen thus far, the only thing I know now that I didn't know already is that "Owen", who wrote the book under a pseudonym, claims to have put a few bullets into Osama Bin Laden's body himself, despite someone else having already shot him to death before Owen was in the room. That, already, is a messy notion, and I have no desire to hear about it.

The red line, as I see it, is between "messy" and "felonious".

Waterboarding, as I understand it, is a deliberate cruel act performed on suspected terrorists that produces little to no helpful results. Iraq was the same thing on a drastically larger scale. But Bush using his executive power stupidly isn't an argument for executive power never being used at all. Short of direct, one-on-one assassination, drone strikes seem like the absolute lowest-impact method possible of taking out terrorist leaders--which, with organizations like Al Qaeda, means taking out or crippling entire networks.

Getting back to my original point, none of that is to say that I agree with Obama's extensive use of drone strikes. "Felonious", after all, is a legal distinction, not a moral one. Killing innocent civilians in a drone attack is an immoral act, one I could not personally instigate--and it's for that reason, and many others, that I have no desire to be president.

But someone has to be.

Further Reading

Obama Talks Drone Strikes

Pentagon Tells Ex-SEAL He Could Face Legal Action Over Osama Bin Laden Raid Book, 'No Easy Day'

Panetta Blasts Ex-SEAL Who Wrote Osama Bin Laden Raid Book

Obama’s 262 Drone Strikes in Pakistan

Friday, September 7, 2012

Reason #255: Curiosity

I wasn't sure at first what would become of Space Fridays now that all my posts are on Fridays, but considering that arguably my first Space Friday ever was devoted to the launching of the Curiosity rover aboard the Mars Science Laboratory, I knew that I had to devote at least one more entry to the mission now that it's arrived on Mars and is doing so well thus far.

Curiosity touched down on August 6th, a little over two kilometers from the center of Gale Crater, at what is now known as Bradbury Landing. After running diagnostics and sending back some early low-res images, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory spent the next week removing all the rover's flight and landing software and installing all its surface operation software--the little guy is packed with so much equipment that it didn't have enough room on its drives for both.

After a few more days of tests and instrument checks, Curiosity used its ChemCam laser for the first time to vaporize a small amount of a nearby rock. The ChemCam's role is to then analyze the rock's composition via the light emitted in the vaporization. That first rock had a lot to say--both in the resulting data and on its Twitter page.

Finally, on August 29th, Curiosity was ready to take off toward its primary destination: Aeolis Mons, the aforementioned center of Gale Crater. Aeolis Mons is a three-and-a-half-mile-high mound of sediment kicked up in the impact that first created the crater almost four billion years ago. Between the geological material wrenched upward in the impact and the fact that water is more common the lower you go, the point where Aeolis meets the bottom of Gale Crater was deemed an optimal location to analyze as wide a range of Mars' compositional material as possible--not to mention possibly find conclusive evidence of past water and/or biological activity.

That doesn't mean that all the good stuff is there, though--NASA estimates that the journey to Aeolis Mons will take around a year, with stops all along the way to analyze more rocks, take pictures, measure atmospheric conditions and radiation, and so on. The ChemCam alone is expected to take readings from an average of a dozen different rocks per day, and that's in addition to more than a dozen other cameras and instruments on board.

Another interesting thing about the commute is how Curiosity will be measuring its progress. While it can keep track of how many times its treads are rotating, the unstable terrain means that that's not an accurate means of determining distance traveled. Instead, NASA developed a system called "visual odometry"--built into its treads are a series of gaps that translate into "JPL" in Morse Code. The cameras on Curiosity are able to analyze its own tracks to spot those indentations in the terrain and determine how far away they are; and therefore, how far it has travelled.

Once Curiosity reaches Aeolis Mons, it will spend around another year analyzing the site itself. While it contains the most extensive suite of lab equipment ever sent to Mars, its primary goal is to determine the planet's "habitability"--based on the atmosphere (and signs of what the atmosphere may have been like in the past), the sediment, the observed quanitites of water (or at least carbon dioxide), and the presence of the other chemical building blocks of life (or even existing organic carbon compounds), what the odds are that the planet once harbored life.

While that should give us more than enough data to keep busy for a while, the Mars Science Laboratory mission is also seen as the final step before the optimal means of testing Martian composition: sample return. Normally NASA's budget woes would mean that getting something all the way to Mars and back would be a good ways off yet, but the varying distance between here and there means that the ideal window for a round trip would be in 2016 or 2018 at the latest; waiting longer means spending even more money. So scientists are hoping to use that impetus to get a mission budget approved in the next couple years--meaning that we could be holding actual samples of Martian soil in our hands by the end of this decade.

Further Reading:

Curiosity Rover

Timeline of Mars Science Laboratory

Aeolis Mons

New 360-Degree Photo Shows Latest View from Mars Rover Curiosity

Mars sample return: Scientists hope to one day hit pay dirt