Slate: Why Snowden Won’t (and Shouldn’t) Get Clemency

Here is the link to the Slate article.

This whole situation with Snowden contains elements of the classic debate in ethics:  is some action good (or bad) because of its “results” or because of the “means” or “motivation” involved in the action.

Snowden says his “motivations” were noble … but there is a lot of his behavior and past (a history of cheating and lying) that should cause many to doubt he is telling the truth. (I spent a little time last night on Google looking up various press stories that have tried to gain background on his schooling, family, junior college, brief stint in the Army etc.  Nothing but failure and fabrication.)

But Snowden’s “means” were clearly dishonest and ignoble: cheating on qualifying tests to get his job and then lying to friends and colleagues to get their passwords so that he could gain access to classified material that he was not supposed to have access to.

But many think he is a hero because the “result” is that he revealed how extensive is the NSA capability and that they were keeping records on the communications of Americans that MIGHT BE illegal overreach. In a sense, “the end justifies the means” for many Americans (though this has always been a dubious perspective.)

Importantly, nobody has yet claimed that the NSA was doing anything illegal (neither involving Americans nor foreigners) … though there is now doubt that maybe the “legal program” it was administering was maybe itself unconstitutional. (My guess is, push comes to shove, it will be judged “constitutional” … though there will likely be generally stricter controls on the programs.)

My personal thought is that this guy will not spend his life in exile under the protection of one or another of the world’s autocrats (like, where he is now.)   He does not seem to have the smarts and character to hold out with the conviction that he is a hero in exile.

My guess is that he will come back to the US (within 5 years!?), be prosecuted after a highly public and long trial, and then jailed … reveling in the celebrity he has manufactured around himself … but locked up as an otherwise creepy nobody.

Incidentally, that CIA official who said that he would be willing to “discuss” clemency made it clear in the 60 Minute Show that he would do so because he thought it vital to find out what information he had given to foreign governments and how to obtain and to secure other information he may have so that it would not fall into the wrong hands. It was not because he thought Snowden was some kind of hero whose actions deserved clemency … but “a means to an end” of securing information that was vital to US security interests.

Here we are again: is it “means” or “ends” that justify an action?

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On Obamacare Republican Caucus a Total Failure

What’s the difference between the Republican caucus, in particular the Tea Party, and the Hindenburg?  One is a flaming gasbag full of hot air and the other is a dirigible.  The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is like the Hindenburg, except it’s fire-proof.  After doing their utmost to undermine Obamacare, it’s time the Republican caucus ratchet in their rebellious step sister, the Tea Party, and work towards constructive Obamacare reforms.

While the debt ceiling played a significant role in the shutdown, the looming roll out of Obamacare was the primary catalyst for this latest congressional debacle.  House Republicans, who did not have the votes to repeal Obamacare through the processes of democracy, closed the federal government in hopes that the Senate and the President would accede to their demands.

I appreciate Geoffrey R. Stone’s article, in which he puts this “undemocratic” behavior in perspective.  Since 2008, the Republicans, especially the Tea Party, have tried to kill or repeal Obamacare every step of the way.  They have tried to do this politically, judicially, electorally, and most recently with a government shutdown.

  • Politically: they lost every time they tried to repeal Obamacare through the legislative process.  As of September 20th, 2013, there were 42 votes to repeal Obamacare.
  • Judicially: they lost in the Supreme Court when they challenged the constitutionality of the law.
  • Electorally: they failed politically with the electorate when they were defeated in the 2012 election.  Stone’s states that “the only reason House Republicans can play this cruel and criminal game at all is because they gerrymandered congressional districts to enable them to control the House even though they were defeated by the Democrats in the national popular vote for Congress.”
  • Shutdown: 16 days and all but nothing to show for it.  Republicans got a glorified olive branch involving a slight tightening of income verification rules for Americans accessing new health insurance exchanges created by Obamacare.

While the administration is responsible for the technological problems associated with the roll out, there is little doubt that the odds for success would have been greater if Obamacare would have received the funding it needed for such a complex system, if it had not had to handle insurance exchanges in so many states that refused to build their own and, of course, the larger fact that the administration went with such a complex approach to expanding coverage because of the political and industry opposition to the far simpler solution of Medicare-for-all single payer coverage.

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My New Favorite Paradox

I had to revisit some old calculus lessons for a software development project I’m involved with.  In this effort, I came across Zeno’s famous paradox of Achilles (or a rabbit) and the tortoise (that’s Zeno of Elea, from the 5th century B.C.).  Fascinating!  A paradox is  a statement that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that is contradictory.  For instance, “I always tell a lie” is a paradox because if it is true, it must be false.

For those of you who are math oriented (not I) this paradox is embedded in the study of infinite series, and even more precisely, convergent series.  I have mostly copy and pasted this from a “Calculus for Dummies” book.


Achilles is racing a tortoise.  Our generous hero gives the tortoise a 100 yard head start.  Achilles runs at 20 mph; the tortoise “runs” at 2 mph.  Zeno used the following argument to “prove” that Achilles will never catch or pass the tortoise.  If you’re persuaded by the “proof,” you’ve really got to get out more.  Figure 1, below, provides two snapshots once the race is underway.  They will be used in this explanation.


You take the first snapshot the instant Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise started.  By the time Achilles gets there, the tortoise has “raced” forward and is now 10 yards ahead of Achilles.  The tortoise moves a tenth as fast as Achilles, so in the time it takes Achilles to travel 100 yards, the tortoise covers a tenth as much ground, or 10 yards.  If you do the math, you find that it took Achilles about 10 seconds to run the 100 yards (for the sake of argument, let’s call it exactly 10 seconds).

You have a really fast Polaroid, so you look at your first photo and note precisely where the tortoise is as Achilles crosses the tortoise’s starting point.  The tortoise’s position is point A in the first photo.  Then you take your second photo when Achilles reaches point A, which takes him about one more second.  In that second, the tortoise has moved ahead to point B.  You take your third photo (not shown) when Achilles reaches point B and the tortoise has moved ahead to point C.

Every time Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise was, you take another photo.  There is no end to this series of photographs.  Assuming you and your camera can work infinitely fast, you will take an infinite number of photos.  And every single time Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise was, the tortoise has covered more ground – even if only a millimeter or millionth of a millimeter.  Thus, the argument goes: because you can never get to the end of your infinite series of photos, Achilles can never catch the tortoise.  The tortoise will always cover a tenth of the distance of Achilles.

Well, as everyone knows, Achilles does in fact reach and pass the tortoise.  Therein lies the paradox.

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Part 1 Media Bias: Liberal or Conservative

A friend just emailed me the following video.  It’s yet another allegation that the media is liberal and that the conservative world view can’t get a fair shake.  Frankly, don’t watch it.  It’s a guaranteed waste of time but if you’re entirely unfamiliar with this assertion and need some context for this post, be my guest.

In the Political Economy of the Media, Robert W. McChesney makes a convincing case for why the conservative critique of the media being liberal is drivel.  According to McChesney, this claim rests on four propositions:

  1. The decisive power over the news lies with the journalists, and owners and advertisers are irrelevant or relatively powerless;
  2. Journalist are political liberals;
  3. Journalist use their power to advance liberal politics;
  4. Objective journalism would almost certainly present the world exactly as seen by contemporary US conservatives.

Basically, in order to claim that the media is liberal the first three conditions must be met.  In order for this claim to hold, and for one to maintain a commitment to professional journalism as it is presently understood, the fourth condition must also be met.  Let’s take a closer look at each proposition:

1.  The first point is intellectually indefensible and should be enough to call the entire conservative critique of the liberal news media into question.  As McChesney puts it, “no credible scholarly analysis of journalism posits that journalists have the decisive power to determine what is and is not news and how it should be covered.”  The fact is, in commercial media (like all things commercial), the owners hire and fire and they determine the budgets and the overarching aims of the enterprise.   As Robert Parry put it, “in reality, most journalist have about as much say over what is presented by newspapers and TV news programs as factory workers and foremen have over what a factory produces.”  Plus, if commercial media was so liberal, then why would conservatives be so obsessed with pushing public broadcasting to operate by commercial principles?  They know that the market will very effectively push the content to more politically convenient outcomes without any need for direct censorship

2.  The second proposition has the most evidence to support it.  Surveys show that journalist tend to vote Democratic in a greater proportion than the general population.  In one famous survey of how Washington correspondents voted in the 1992 presidential election, something like 90 percent voted for Bill Clinton.  To some conservatives, that settles the matter.  But, the first point undermines the importance of how journalists vote.  Again, what if owners and managers have the most power?  Surveys show that media owners and editorial executives vote overwhelmingly republican.  A 2000 Editor & Publisher survey found that newspaper publishers favored George W. Bush over Al Gore by a 3 to 1 margin.

3.  As for the third proposition, the evidence is far from convincing.  One of the core points of the professional code of journalism is to prevent journalist from pushing their own politics into the news, and many journalist, republicans and liberals alike, are proud to note that in spite of their political beliefs, their coverage tends to bend the stick the other way in order to prevent the charge that they are unprofessional.

4.  And finally, the proposition that truly objective journalism would invariably see the world exactly the way Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity see it, points to the ideological nature of the exercise.  Name an instance, or better yet, identify a pattern, where conservatives criticize journalist for being too soft on right-wing politicians or unfair to liberals on the left.  It’s a one way street.

As for the overarching theme of this post, is media bias liberal or conservative, I take the 5th for the time being.  McChesney’s logic makes sense to me and offers a fairly convincing argument against the contention that media bias is liberal.  But, that doesn’t necessarily mean media bias is conservative.  I will investigate that issue and get back to you all in, wait for it, Part 2 of Media Bias: Liberal or Conservative.

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Spoiler Alert!

Snopes calls bull on John Hanson’s claim to the Presidency.

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Who was the first President of the United States?

So, who was the first President of the United States?  George Washington right!  Well, not necessarily.  It turns out this is debatable.

Between 1776 and 1789, five men can actually lay claim to the title of the first President: John Hancock, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, John Hanson and George Washington. All five men operated as head of state for the new nation.  Perhaps the essential question, therefore, is when did we become the United States of America?

In 1775, the Second Continental Congress formed. Its first President was Peyton Randolph. The second President was John Hancock. It was during John Hancock’s tenure that the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. With this document, the colonies became independent and the Second Continental Congress was the governing body of these independent states. The President of the Second Continental Congress was effectively head of state. Although there was not a constitution or much of a governmental structure at all, the united States did have a fledgling government. This government coordinated the activities of the thirteen states, mustered an army and appointed a Commander-in-Chief, George Washington. In this regard, one can make a case that John Hancock was the first President.

Although the United States celebrates July 4, 1776 as Independence Day, we were not, however, considered the United States of America at that time.  In fact, in the Declaration of Independence, the word “united” was not considered a pronoun and thus not capitalized.   Our real birthday, arguably, is March 1, 1781, when the Articles of Confederation were adopted.  This murkiness reemphasizes the ambiguity between 1776 and 1789.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the terms for President only lasted one year. The first man to hold that position for a year was John Hanson. Hanson, a Maryland native, accomplished a number of highly important tasks. He established the first State Department, ordered all foreign troops on U.S. soil, established the U.S. Mint, called for the first national Census, negotiated a peace treaty with Britain, established the Great Seal of the United States, declared the fourth Thursday in November as a national holiday, Thanksgiving, and established the first central bank. Hanson achieved impressive accomplishments for a single year in office.

However, it was on March 1, 1781, that the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union came into effect.  Hanson did not take office until November 5, 1781. Samuel Huntington, who was President of the Continental Congress from 1779 1781, presided over the ratification celebration in March 1781. He continued to act as the head of the government until Thomas McKean was elected. McKean held the position for only a few months. Further confusing the situation was that Samuel Johnson was elected to the position between Huntington and McKean, but he refused to serve.

Although Hanson considered himself a successor to Huntington and McKean, he was the first to use the title “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” Huntington and McKean used the title, “President of the Continental Congress,” as did their predecessors. However, a government document does refer to McKean as President of the United States. This was the first time the term is used, thereby, giving McKean some claim to the title.  So, if John Hanson is to be considered the first President, it is only because he was the first person elected to a full term after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation.

That said, not only was George Washington not the first US President but apparently he may well be the 9th.  The list reads:

  1. John Hanson (1781-1782 A.D)
  2. Elias Boudinot (1782-83)
  3. Thomas Mifflin (1783-84)
  4. Richard Henry Lee (1784-85)
  5. John Hancock (1785-86)
  6. Nathan Gorman (1786-87)
  7. Arthur St. Clair (1787-88)
  8. Cyrus Griffin (1788-89)
  9. The man himself: George Washington (1789-1797)

The first eight Presidents were elected by Congress under the Articles of Confederation.  Unfortunately, the Articles of Confederation didn’t work so well.  They gave individual states too much power and nothing could be agreed upon.  A new doctrine needed to be written – something we know as the Constitution, which was ratified June 21, 1788.

So, George Washington was, arguably, not the first President of the United States, in title at least. He was the first President of the United States under the Constitution we follow today. And the first eight Presidents, under the Articles of Confederation, and even John Hancock before them, are forgotten in history.

Go to the following link if you want to see what the Daily Show has to say about the matter:

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Seven Deadly Sins:

Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Science without humanity,
Knowledge without character,
Politics without principle,
Commerce without morality,
Worship without sacrifice.

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