When a vote isn’t a vote

One of the greatest points made in Larry Lessig‘s book, “Republic, Lost” is that corruption may be evident by appearance even when no actual laws have been broken, and in the case of our government, one of the ways this shows up most profoundly is when we erode the fundamental principle that each citizen’s vote in the Unites States of America carries exactly the same weight as each other citizen’s vote.

Sounds pretty simple, but is it true?

Lessig points out with great effect that when money starts changing hands, most visibly in the form of campaign donations, specific people and corporations begin to lose their anonymity with respect to our elected officials.  In short, if I write a big enough check to my Congressman, I may not actually be entitled to expect him to vote the way I’d like, but I can be sure he’ll know who I am and how I feel about positions that are important to me.  This, as Lessig points out, pretty quickly starts to look a hell of a lot like a duck, if you catch my drift.

But that’s small-potatoes stuff.  I read an article today that absolutely blew me away.  There’s a fella named David Siegel who’s not a big Obama fan.  So much so is he not a fan that he sent a letter to the 7,000 employees of Westgate Resorts explaining that if Obama is reelected, this would represent a threat to some of the jobs that these 7,000 people presumably wish to keep.  In short, Siegel implies, vote against Obama, or else.

Now, I’m no lawyer, but I’m frankly floored that this is even legal.  Beyond legality, however, I’m troubled that a CEO acting as an agent of a corporation would express political motivations this overtly.  It’s not unusual for CEOs or even entire corporations to be pretty forthcoming about their political affiliations, of course, but as citizens, I believe we should give some thought to what, exactly, this is doing to the power of our individual votes.

It’s clearly troubling all by itself when corporations and big-time campaign donors (who happen to represent corporations) wield undo influence by virtue of these donations.  That’s bad enough.  But when a single individual attempts to strong-arm 7,000 employees into voting with him (or else!), we’re seriously at risk of losing any claim of democracy at all.

Again, if this isn’t illegal as hell, I’d really like to know why it’s not — beyond the cynical explanation that keeps popping into my head.  Anybody know the answer?  I’d love to hear it.

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A trillion bucks? Says who?

I read a tweet today claiming that the US has spent $1,350,000,000,000 spent on war in Afghanistan & Iraq — that’s $1.3 trillion U.S. dollars, and that this money would be sufficient to wipe out world poverty for ten years.

Pretty provocative thought.

If you’ve read this blog before, you can probably guess my first reaction:  “How do you know that?”  These are exactly the sort of “facts” that get tossed about with abandon with no concern whatsoever for whether there’s any truth to them, and in my opinion, that really doesn’t help make our public debate any more productive.

So, then, how might we verify this number?  At a bare minimum, we’d like to see it from multiple sources.  So, here are some of the top google hits for “how much money spent on war in afghanistan and iraq?”:

Do you know how much a Trillion Dollars is?

Do you know how much a Trillion Dollars is? (Photo credit: ClaraDon)

In this case, one big bias remains — all these results were found via Google.  Now, I love Google as much as the next guy — maybe more — but if you’re going to be responsible about understanding where facts are coming from, you can never forget the potential for them to add bias.  For what it’s worth, in this case, I checked Bing.com for the same question and found similar (but not identical) results.

Next up: interpretation.

Reaction #1 — I think we know where the $1.3 trillion quote came from.

Reaction #2 — There’s a phenomenally huge variance here.

Reaction #3 — It doesn’t matter.  In my opinion, when you start looking at numbers this big, it’s pretty hard to wrap your mind around the difference between $1 trillion and $5 trillion.  In this case, it certainly appears that a number North of $1 trillion is credible, and I think that’s probably precise enough for most of the arguments that are likely to ensue as a result.  Just remember that it’s pretty hard to place any real precision on this number based on the brief research we just did — there’s still a pretty huge spread of claimed dollar amounts across the five sources we dug up above.

I’ll leave the actual argument about whether this chunk of money has been well-spent for another time or another venue.  My point here is that if we claim to be responsible citizens and responsible decision-makers, we need to be critical of numbers like this.  Tonight, we’ll watch the first Presidential debate between Obama and Romney, and you can bet there will be numbers tossed out.  Make sure you listen critically — to both sides — because you can’t form any meaningful opinions based on shoddy facts.

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