I get half of my political news and analysis from a great podcast called Left Right & Center. (The other half is from Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square.) LR&C is an ongoing conversation between three guys from different political perspectives on what’s happened this week, and has been very valuable for the development of my own political thinking.

The other day, I was listening to another great podcast, This Week in Microbiology, and it hit me that these two shows have the exact same format. TWiM is also an ongoing conversation between three guys about the news of the week. The superficial difference is that TWiM is about bacteria and LR&C is about US politics.

The more abstract difference between these two podcasts, though, is that Left, Right & Center is an excercise in outcome-irrelevant learning, while This Week in Microbiology is an exercise in outcome-relevant learning. That is to say, the empirical events of the week change the opinions of the TWiM guys but almost never change the opinions of the LR&C guys. This is a huge difference. On TWiM, when there is a disagreement, they look up what is known about the issue and almost immediately come to an agreement based on facts: either one person is right and the other wrong, or else we really don’t yet know the answer to that question.

On LR&C, when there is disagreement (which there is on every topic), each fact that comes into the conversation is either disputed or used to proove each person’s own point. In politics, the facts are basically irrelevant. Makes me wonder why it remains so interesting.

I can sympathize with Ted Cruz and many others’ sentiments about amnesty as part of immigration reform along the lines of, “It’s not fair to those of us who’ve gone through the hell of the legal US immigration process!” My wife is Canadian, now a permanent resident (“green card”) in the US. She did almost all of the work to get here, but having supported her through it, I can say that it is extremely difficult–daunting, even, at times. It’s very expensive, confusing, and sometimes scary. The waiting periods are indefinitely long, the instructions are labyrinthine and contradictory, and there is very little truly helpful help available unless you can afford to shell out for an immigration lawyer. And we are highly educated, savvy with the internet, good at dealing with beaurocracy, and we had the money and time–several thousand dollars and a couple years.

The problem here is not that privileged people like my wife and me have a hard time with this process. It is that less  privileged people in terms of education, savvy, money, or time do not have a realistic shot at it, which amounts to a class barrier to immigration into the US; poor people need not apply.

It may be that Mr. Cruz and others do not consider this a problem. They may believe that it is better for the US and for the citizens of the US that we keep poor and uneducated people from immigrating here. That has a certain “American exceptionalist” appeal. “Bring us the cream of your crop!” Or maybe, “Keep the cream of your crop, and especially your poor, huddled masses.”

In my opinion, however, it is both wrong and short sighted to effectively bar poor people from US immigration. It’s wrong because poor people are the ones who need it the most. It’s short sighted because poor immigrants, in my experience, are the most motivated, hardest working people I’ve ever met, not to mention that entire US industries are depending on that cheap, motivated work.

Congratulations on winning a second term. I was really pulling for you. I even gave money to your campaign, breaking a lifelong rule. I used to think that the person in the presidency did not make a big difference, but that has changed a lot since your predecessor’s term. I appreciate how well you speak, that you lean a bit left, that you can take and synthesize multiple perspectives, and that I have been at worst less embarrassed and at best quite proud of you as our representative to the world. Thank you.

That said, I am painfully aware how little my vote communicates what I actually think and care about to you and the rest of the world. You, your opponent, your parties, and the media do not talk about it, and I understand why. A small-time blogger can say this stuff in public, but not a viable candidate for the presidency. Still, I thought it better to tell you than not.

As a preface, I’d like you to know that I am a data-analysis and outcomes kind of guy. I couldn’t care less about the size of government, tax rates, or the continued existence of any particular government institutions as long as we get the right outcomes. At the same time, this is not a utopian vision, some infinitely good future which justifies any means. I believe that both narrow, status-quo or partisan thinking, and utopia-through-destruction thinking are naive and inefficient.


I want the elimination of negative externalities from our economy. Markets do a lot of great things, but they cannot accurately value or even see many of the social and environmental costs of their behavior. It is important to me that people and planet get treated in ethical, sustainable ways, especially when those ways are less efficient and profitable than pure market behavior.

It seems to me, for example, that government has to be the one to set accurate discount rates for non-immediate events, like the value in the future of doing something today about climate change.

One way to accomplish that (and a lot of other good things) is shift our tax revenues completely away from income and profit and largely onto externalities like pollution. Just make sure to jigger it some way to make it progressive.

Some consequences for the behavior that caused the recent crashI’m a rare agnostic on the morality of your bailouts but I’m bummed about how little teeth came with the money. The argument that regulation is bad for the financial industry is completely hollow from people who had to get bailed out by taxpayers and show no consciousness of having personally played a part in the problem. I want one of the following to happen: Either there was a bunch of illegal activity and bunch people should go to jail, or things that they did should become illegal. That might look like resurrecting Glass-Steagall and/or expanding monopoly laws to make too-big-to-fail equal to a monopoly worth busting.


I want a massive, worldwide conservation effort. Any old growth forest, wilderness and wetlands that remain to us should be sacrosanct. Wherever we have the leverage, I want reforestation and habitat restoration projects. For a good example, look at what John and Margaret Jones are doing in Camp Myrtlewood, Oregon, implementing a multi-century plan to steward the land to old growth forest. You can think of it as a long term carbon sequestration, or you can think of it as a way to increase our resilience through biodiversity during the kinds of large-scale catastrophic events that hit us over thousand-plus year periods. But it is also just the right way to live in relation to our ecology: respectful, with a long-term view.

Solve the engineering problems we have with nuclear fusion. NASA and our other groups of super smart physicists and engineers can go back to their pet projects once they have figured out how to power it all with perfectly clean energy.

In the meantime, efficiency. Put Amory Lovins in charge of efficiency in the US and take it all the way. It’s embarrassing that we are excited about new cars that get gas mileage in the same range that my old 1970s Honda Civic got.


In health care, focus on preventative care, research on prevention, and epidemiology. I’d love for us to be able to cure all of the big diseases, but what I’d love even more is preventing them in the first place. The money is in pills or surgeries for people who have developed emergency-level conditions. The money should be in keeping people from developing those conditions in the first place. 

The elimination of child abuse and neglect. The research has been done and we know what we need to know to largely eliminate child abuse and neglect. This would increase the quality of life for so many of us who are currently children, with a multiplier effect for all generations to come. It would reduce our tome of mental disorders back to the size of a pamphlet. The pilot program for this effort is 90by30, in Lane County, Oregon.

The real availability of education to women, worldwide. This isn’t just a humanitarian issue. It’s an issue of global development, peace, and stability.

If taxpayers pay for research, we should get the data. All of it. For free. As it stands, we don’t even get free access to the journal-articles that are published to summarize it.


Real campaign finance reform, along the lines of Lawrence Lessig‘s $50 tax voucher plus $100 per person, period. Amend the constitution. The current system of campaign finance reduces politicians to extortionists and hobbles their long term thinking and statesmanship, and it is not working.

Not that I need to tell you that, Mr. President. Or maybe any of this–maybe you think about all of this and just don’t see the movement that will allow you to talk about it. I just wanted to let you know that I’m part of the movement and willing to go public about it.

Thanks for reading,

Nathen Lester


A lot of pundits are talking about “the youth vote” and how it is part of “the coalition” that is responsible for President Obama’s recent election. Their big question is whether “the youth vote” will remain part of the Democratic coalition, and whether or how it might be swayed to vote Republican in the future.

Young people are not a constituency in the same way that, say, White women are. So when you note that the “youth vote” for Obama was up 1% from four years ago, that means something significantly different than noting that White women voted for Obama 4% less than four years ago.

The “youth vote” in 2012 is actually a group of individuals who are constantly getting older. The easy mistake to make (and I’ve written more about it here) is to sample young people and think that we know what “young people” are like. What the Democrats have at the moment are the votes of 60% of voters who are currently 18-29 years old. That group has a turnover rate of about 1/3 per election cycle, a completely new group of people every four cycles. The current “youth vote” group who voted decisively for Obama will be with us for a much longer time–another 50+ years, as middle aged adults, then older adults.

If I were an election strategist, I would be thinking of the “youth vote” as very up for grabs, and worth paying a lot of attention to. If I were a Republican election strategist, I would be thinking about how to  gain the affections of the next “youth vote,” our current crop of high school kids.

The most interesting question for me about how Washington and Colorado’s new marijuana laws will interact with contradictory federal laws is what conservatives will say about it. I’d love to hear a Fox News pundit say, “This is a states’ rights issue. If people in these states want legal marijuana, we can’t have our bloated federal government telling them what to do or, God forbid, stepping in to police them.”

I have never met an undecided voter that I know of, but I know plenty of uninspired non-voters. This is for you.

I get it and it’s true. Political campaigns are mildly entertaining at best and a grinding, discouraging farce at worst. Any bluntly honest politician who actually talks about important issues is so far from viable they are immediately disqualified. On top of that, your individual vote almost certainly won’t make a difference. If you are paying attention, it is very difficult not to become bitter. If you aren’t paying attention, it is more pleasant to continue to ignore.

I’m asking you to vote anyway. Consider it a study in cross-cultural anthropology: How are the other humans in your region behaving as their ideas of democracy and citizenship interface and the larger system they exist in? Consider it a study in phenomenological psychology: What is it like to consider the various people and ballot measures that so imperfectly aim to represent you in our culture? What is it like to make choices about them that are so much more murky and compromising than your principles?

Or consider it a personal favor to me. Please vote tomorrow.

I’m writing a post that uses the word “egalitarian.” I looked it up to make sure I was using it right. Here it is, below, copy-pasted from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/egalitarian. I saw the Google ad for Mitt Romney at the bottom and wondered if the Romney campaign was targeting voters who were wondering what egalitarian meant. Maybe they figured if you don’t know what it means, you’re more likely to support Romney?

It’s more likely a coincidence. I looked up “democracy” and “republic” and the ads were for “Dominican Real Estate” and “Hottest Dominican Girls!”

e·gal·i·tar·i·an  (-gl-târn)


Affirming, promoting, or characterized by belief in equal political, economic, social, and civil rights for all people.

[From French égalitaire, from égalité, equality, from Latin aequlits, from aequlis, equal; seeequal.]

e·gali·tari·an n.
e·gali·tari·an·ism n.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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A couple weeks ago I had a friendly and helpful conversation about how to get my trailer’s propane tanks filled at G & K Propane in Yucca Valley. G & K is “the place to go for propane around here” according to my dad, who knows about these things, and I’d say he’s right, based on my experience there. They were clearly looking to help, not just make a buck off me, and I really appreciated it.

As I was about to leave, I noticed a bumper sticker prominently displayed in their lobby, the clever if mystifying “I’LL KEEP MY GUNS, FREEDOM & MONEY.. YOU CAN KEEP THE ‘CHANGE'” with Obama’s logo in a red “no” circle. I have a funny mix of irritation and admiration at businesses who put their mouth where their money is like that. Usually it’s a business advertising in some way that they really only want Christians to come into their store, and I think, “Wow, it’s actually more important for these people to not have to be around heathens than to make money. That’s taking a stand.”

Underneath this bumper sticker was scotch-taped a handwritten note reading, “YA FILTHY ANIMAL!” I was upset enough by this that I’m still thinking about it. The bumper sticker is a way to voice one side of a political debate. “Filthy animal” is not. “Filthy animal” is an expression of total contempt, disgust, and hatred. You can kill a filthy animal with impunity, maybe even with satisfaction or pride. I remembered the manager of a restaurant I worked at, stomping a rat to death in the kitchen.

It reminded me of how afraid I was that Obama would be killed–lynched, really–for the crime of having come into so much power in America. How many people in this country would kill the president if they had the chance? Is the person who wrote that one of them? I seriously doubt it, but “YA FILTHY ANIMAL” is a way of aligning with that group.

All this was going through my mind as I decided what to do. I tend to be outspoken when confronted with racism, once even debating a self-avowed racist barber as he cut my hair. I think of it as one of the more useful things I do. In the case of the barber, for example, I got to hear and be sympathetic about this man’s struggle growing up around LA gangs, how scared and angry he was all the time, how members of his family had been hurt. He got to hear and eventually allow some credibility to my ideas about how it was poverty and oppression rather than skin color that made the people he interacted with as a kid so dangerous.

I imagine there is a similar encounter to be had here, but this case, I just left. I was running late and that was enough of an excuse to get out.

Still, I have a decision to make. When I need to refill my propane tanks, do I go back? Do I say, “I’d like to refill my tanks, but first I need to talk to the person who wrote that note on your wall”? Or do I go somewhere else, possibly driving way out of my way, to find propane people who put less offensive things up in their lobby?

I listened to some conservative talk radio this evening while I fixed some plumbing in my trailer. I hadn’t checked in with these guys in a while. The tone was quite anxious, reminding me that everyone is anxious about this election. What drew my attention the most, though, was the conversation between the host and a high-level electoral strategist about presidential politics in Ohio. The host asked the strategist to give him some hope about Ohio. The answer was no, sorry, but the race is just really close. If it rains on election day, though, he said, it will keep people from voting and we’ll probably win.

It seemed a very uncomfortable thing for a political party to hope for. The fewer people that vote, the better our chances. When I looked into electoral demographics, though, it seemed true: The younger, the more female, and the less white the voter, the more likely they are to vote for Democratic candidates. And the less likely they are to vote. It looked like if everyone voted we would probably never have another Republican president. The more democracy, the more Democrats.

So it’s easy to see why Democrats get upset when Republicans pass laws that make it more difficult to vote. And lately they are talking up early voting, which could help with turnout. But I’ve never heard Democrats talking as plainly about it as these two Republicans did tonight. Why is that? Trying to be polite?

I’ve listened to 247 podcasts of Planet Money over the last several years–about 80 hours. This show is the best way I’ve found way to learn about economics in fun, thought-provoking, 20-minute bursts.

I just finished a show called “The No-Brainer Economic Platform,” about six economic reforms that apparently almost all economists agree on, regardless of ideology. The major point of the show was that even though there is agreement, political candidates will not consider running on them. And if they did, they would stand no chance of winning.

One of the major points (though probably unintended) of my 80-hour economics education has been that economists are much closer to political pundits than scientists. The “facts” vary widely depending on their political stance. That’s why this show was so exciting: There actually are six things that economists agree on across the political spectrum!

1) Eliminate the home mortgage interest deduction. It is extremely regressive and distorts the housing market in bad ways. They make it sound here like almost all economists are in favor of eliminating all tax loopholes and deductions, though the point is less clear. Read on, though, and you’ll see that loopholes and deductions would become mostly obsolete under this platform.

2) Eliminate the deduction for employer-provided health insurance. It’s one of the main reasons for high healthcare costs in the US.

3) Eliminate taxes on corporations. If you want to tax rich people, do it directly. The idea is that tax rates serve as incentives/disincentives. Don’t tax things we like. We like American businesses making money.

4) Eliminate the individual income tax and payroll tax. We also like individuals making money and we like businesses creating jobs. Make up for the loss by taxing consumption, I think especially on luxury items–make it progressive in some way.

5) Tax things we don’t like. Use taxes as disincentives for things like cigarettes and pollution.

6) Legalize drugs, or at least marijuana. The war on drugs is basically a massive waste of money that makes drug cartels rich. Without it, we’d have another kind of consumption that we don’t like to tax.

Again, the major point of this show was that these ideas are political non-starters, but I wonder if that is true. Each plank on its own would have entrenched detractors, but as a system of reforms it’s more appealing. Pay more for your mortgage and gasoline, but pay no income tax. You would have to show people a model of it working.

Here’s a challenge for any math-oriented readers: Give us some examples. How much would we need to charge for cigarettes, pot, gambling, fossil fuels, yachts, and mansions to make up for the loss of all income taxes?

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