Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Minting a trillion-dollar coin is harder than you think

Sunday, May 21st, 2023

The trillion-dollar coin is an idea for one way that Democrats could get around Republican threats to throw the United States into default. (There are other options, including standing on the 14th Amendment clause that says “the public debt… shall not be questioned”.)

The basic idea is this: The Department of the Treasury has the authority to direct the US Mint to produce a platinum coin at any denomination they see fit. The value of such a coin is its face value—that is to say, whatever it says it is. So when the Republicans start throwing around threats like “you need to cut off services to these groups of people or else the government is going to run out of money!!!”, as they have been, one option is to simply literally make more money—in enough of a quantity that it will pay for all the US Government’s expenditures for the next year or so and take a lot of the hostage-takers’ leverage away.

I’m not qualified to debate the policy or economics of it, and most likely, neither are you. But what I can do is think of any number of ways that someone—intentionally or otherwise—could fuck it up.

Mis-striking the coin

The last step of the process of producing a coin is called “striking” it. That’s the part where the design gets pressed into the faces of the (hitherto) blank.

Normally coin production is a mass-production process; the country’s mints produce up to tens of thousands of coins per minute. In this case, we’re talking about a one-off, so I don’t know whether they’d do the process differently or just run the machine for a very, very short amount of time.

Either way, it’s certainly possible for the coin to be mis-struck, or otherwise produced in a way that it is obviously defective. This has happened in a variety of ways to nearly every type of coin, and normally, mis-struck or otherwise defective coins are worth significantly more than face value.

What does that look like when the face value is $1,000,000,000,000?

Most likely, the mis-struck coin wouldn’t stay that way—they’d melt it down and try again. (After all, platinum ain’t cheap.) We might never know that there was a mis-struck trillion-dollar coin in existence for some short amount of time.


The specific section of the US Code that authorizes this stunt says:

The Secretary [of the Treasury] may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.

The trillion-dollar coin wouldn’t be a bullion coin, which is a coin defined by its amount of some precious metal—that would be a “this much platinum” coin, not a coin with a dollar denomination. So the trillion-dollar coin would be a proof coin.

The Mint regularly issues platinum proof coins, such as this coin for this year. That coin contains 1 ounce of platinum, and has a face value of $100, but is sold at a price dependent on the value of its platinum content, which is somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000—ten to twenty times its face value.

So, for a trillion-dollar coin, how much platinum would they need? Does there need to be a particular ratio, or could they make a zinc coaster with 1 oz of platinum mixed in?

Or does it even matter? Could they make a 1-oz platinum coin, not much different from the ones they’re already making, and just add ten more zeroes across the back of it?

Speaking of which…

The design

There’s at least one artistic rendering of what such a coin could look like, but it’s just one artist’s conception and not an official rendering from the US Mint.

Presumably they’re not going to just type in “ONE TRILLION DOLLARS” in Impact and call it good. This is The Coin! It’s got to look like something.

On the flip side, this whole idea is an emergency measure. They’re not going to have time to go through the usual processes for coming up with new coin designs—not when the US Government could reach the statutory debt limit in… not even a couple of weeks at this point.

Hopefully they’re coming up with a design now that they can have ready to go if and when it’s needed. (And make absolutely sure it has no typos in it.)

Of course, having the design ready to use at a moment’s notice gets into issues of…

Operational security

It’s easy to say “the Mint should do this” or “Treasury should do that” but it’s worth remembering that these are granfalloons, in the sense in which Don Lancaster used the term (slightly different from Kurt Vonnegut’s original meaning):

tactics secret—beware the granfalloon, my son

A granfalloon is any large bureaucratic figment of people’s imagination. For instance, there’s really no such thing as the Feds or the General Veeblefeltzer Corporation. There are a bunch of people out there that relate to each other, and there’s some structures, and some paper. In fact, there’s lots and lots of paper. The people sit in the structures and pass paper back and forth to each other and charge you to do so.

All these people, structures, and paper are real. But, nowhere can you point to the larger concept of “government” or “corporation” and say, “There it is, kiddies!” The monolithic, big “they” is all in your mind.

If the Mint produces a trillion-dollar coin, it’s because people designed it and people fabricated it. If Treasury deposits the coin into the Federal Reserve, it’s because someone from Treasury personally visited the mint where the coin was struck, took possession of it, carried it to the Federal Reserve, and deposited it.

There are so many ways that could go wrong.

Every person involved in this would need to be vetted sixteen ways to Sunday. No foreign allegiances, no debts, not even a whiff of past criminal activity.

And you’d need a significant number of people. Nobody gets to go alone; you’d need multiple people monitoring each other, all with bodyguards, while also trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible and not look like they’re carrying the most valuable single object in the country.

Assuming, of course, that it remains a single object. I mentioned above that the production run would be a one-off. It would be supposed to be, at least—but as soon as the die exists, it’s theoretically possible to strike a second blank and make another trillion-dollar coin. Either a counterfeit, if it doesn’t actually contain the platinum, or a duplicate if it does.

You could argue that theft or counterfeiting are not actually as big of a concern with this project as they might be with, say, one-dollar coins. Supposing you stole the trillion-dollar coin, or struck a duplicate—what could you even do with it? Nobody will accept it as tender. No commercial bank or credit union will accept it in deposit; they’d immediately phone up the Secret Service and be like “yeah we found your coin”. What could you do, put it on eBay?

Small things, easily lost

Even barring any acts of malice or greed, what if the Custodian simply… lost it?

Coulda sworn it was in that pocket.

Did it fall out when I was paying for lunch?

Hope it didn’t roll into a storm drain…

But let’s say none of that happens and the Custodian makes it to the Federal Reserve with the solution to the debt ceiling crisis safely on their person.

Then what?

When you deposit hard currency—including coin—at your local banking institution, they put it in their drawer and mark up your account. From that point, the physical coins you left behind are then eligible to hand out to any other customer in service of a withdrawal, or to be transferred between tellers or between branches. They are fungible; the bank has hundreds or thousands of them and there is no particular reason to care about the location of any single one of them.

The trillion-dollar coin would be an extremely different situation.

To be fair, it is a (mostly) solved problem. The New York Federal Reserve stores gold and other reserves on behalf of various governments, including the US. It may also be that other Federal Reserve Banks around the country offer similar services. The trillion-dollar coin would likely end up at any of those locations.

Buuuut there are some differences.

First, it’s not a stack of gold bars. It’s a coin. Its value wouldn’t derive from its scrap metal value (as noted above, somewhere in the 1- to 2-kilobuck range) but from its denomination.

A stack of gold bars is hard to exfiltrate. Maybe a thief could remove a bar or two (if they somehow got past all the security) without anybody noticing. It’d be an extremely high-stakes game of Jenga. (Don’t ask me for tips; everything I know about this sort of crime I learned from heist movies, and I haven’t watched many heist movies.)

A coin is, well, a coin. People regularly carry dozens of them on their person without anyone noticing. When you go through a metal detector, you dump your coins into a pile in a little plastic tray and nobody looks at it.

Where would they even keep The Coin? Do they have little safety deposit boxes at the New York Fed?

That leads to the other problem: Keeping track of it.

Somewhere there needs to be a record of where, in the New York Fed or wherever else, the coin is kept. It needs to be in a place where (theoretically) someone from Treasury could retrieve it if there were ever a need to do so, not to mention a place that could be checked if there were suspicion of theft. Of course, that would also be sensitive information; you wouldn’t want anyone in the whole organization to be able to look up where the USG’s trillion dollars is.

Some of this is, again, solved problems or otherwise not worth worrying about. It’s a bank; not a normal bank but still a bank that (one hopes) has a means to keep even something as small as a single coin in a safe place, remember where that is, and guard access to both that location and the knowledge of it. And, as I mentioned above, theft is of limited concern for a coin that there is (or should be) only one of and that no place will accept.

On a more serious note

None of this is to say that they shouldn’t do it; that’s more of a policy and economics question. Government works on hard problems all the time, and usually does better than we give it credit for. (Especially better than libertarians give it credit for.) Success is the expectation, and I’d argue it is actually the norm, but we don’t notice it and don’t appreciate it. Failure stands out, and certain actors are ideologically motivated to spotlight it. I’m more interested in anticipating failure as a means to ensuring success.

A lot of the difficulties I’ve outlined arise from the unique nature of this particular minting job. It’s a singular coin of exceptionally high face value. Processes that are normally routine become high-stakes; hazards that are normally negligible become serious concerns.

I really hope the folks at Treasury have thought about this more than the couple of hours I put into this blog post. Because with less than a couple weeks left of “extraordinary measures”, if the Republicans keep trying to hold the country hostage by threatening to throw it into default, we might need this to go from “wild idea” to “thing we are actually doing” in a hot second.

Radical is relative

Tuesday, May 16th, 2023

This was originally posted as a tweet thread in September 2019, back when Sen. Elizabeth Warren was a Presidential candidate advocating for a wealth tax. I have lightly edited it, mostly to account for the change in format plus a few other tweaks, but otherwise this is as I posted it then.

I went looking at Senator Warren’s wealth tax proposal.

Two things.

First: Wealth taxed includes “residences, closely held businesses, assets held in trust, retirement assets, assets held by minor children, and personal property with a value of $50,000 or more”.

I was looking at this because I was wondering how much it would apply to (as an example) Jeff Bezos. Bezos has a big pile of Amazon shares, but not a majority stake, so it’s not “closely held”. Not sure if any other criteria (e.g., trust) would cover it.

I like the wealth tax idea (though I’m sure it’ll get challenged in court if it ever happens) but want it to go farther: Include all stock directly held.

IMO, holding more than $50 million in stock should qualify you to start paying 2% of the overage as real money in tax.

Like, I would consider not wealth-taxing all stock to be a big loophole leaving a shit ton of money—and of “oh shit, gotta stop hoarding wealth” effects—on the table.

Bezos’s wealth-taxed net worth should be ~$110 billion [as of September 2019], not some number of millions.

Second: Senator Warren’s proposed wealth tax (somewhat famously but I probably shouldn’t neglect to mention it) kicks in at $50 million.

So imagine a thermometer. All them assets—your nine houses, $51,000 car, etc.—fill up the thermometer. If it doesn’t reach $50 million, you’re not wealth-taxed. But if it does pass $50 million, every dollar of total assets after that gets taxed 2%.

So if you have $50,000,000.00, you pay $0 tax—not $1 million.

If you have $50,000,001.00, you pay 2¢.

(Disclaimer: I am not a tax attorney.)

So both observations are why I think Senator Warren’s proposal is a moderate plan. A truly radical, socialist, wealth-redistributing proposal could go much farther!

I still like it. This isn’t an anti-Warren thread post by any means.

All’s I’m saying is: Fight for this, then fight for more.

Always remember the frame of reference you evaluate something in.

In our society, billionaires are normal. Low income tax rates upon them: normal. $billion corps paying $0 tax: normal.

Senator Warren’s proposal seems radical because it is: It’s corrective action to a tilted economy.

It’s radical in the sense that it is a significant deviation from the status quo. A change. No more full speed ahead—here we turn left.

Repealing past tax cuts is also a change. But less radical.

A more expansive wealth tax? More radical.

Radical is a spectrum.

So reject the idea that “radical” is necessarily bad—radical is just change. What change? That’s what matters.

How much is warranted? How much is too much? How much is not enough?

How much should we fight for, how much should we accept, how much more should we fight for after?

Senator Warren’s wealth tax is radical. It is also moderate.

It is corrective action on a damaged economy. A change, and I think a necessary one.

It could go farther. It’s a good start.

I hope it gets enacted. And I hope it gets improved.

Props D and E (2022-10)

Sunday, October 30th, 2022

If you aren’t a San Francisco voter, this post is going to be academic to you.

I’ve filled out my entire ballot by this point, except for two of the local propositions, on which I’ve been dithering: Prop D and Prop E.

The two are set against each other, and in fact one is a modification of the other. They’re similar enough that it’s possible to diff them, although doing that didn’t clarify as much as I’d hoped it would.

Part of the problem for me is that I know precious little about housing policy. I am neither a developer employee nor a tenant advocate. I’m just another San Francisco voter trying to make sense of this mess.

The resources I’ve been drawing upon are:

I really wish I had something like a Prop E version of SPUR’s article: a detailed, policy-wonk explanation of why E is better and will get housing built without screwing the low end of the market. Sadly, I have not found any such thing. The League’s argument is the best I’ve got on the Prop E side.

What I have is the following overall sense, and enough awareness of my own housing-policy ignorance to warn you that half of this might be wrong:

The shared goal of these propositions is to cut red tape. Housing development is often held up on a number of processes, including CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review and discretionary review by the Board of Supervisors.

The upside of these processes is that they’re used to drag developers kicking and screaming into building affordable housing so that the low end of the market—people who can’t afford market-rate housing—don’t get left out and priced out.

The downside of these processes is that the developers, as you might have gathered, don’t want to build affordable housing for people who can’t pay market rate, so they keep on dragging their feet, and if the process goes on long enough, sometimes they’ll sell out and profit off the appreciation of the land value rather than actually build any housing, setting everything back at square one.

(That downside is, from what I can tell, what YIMBYs refer to when they label Supervisors who vote down unaffordable housing projects as “anti-housing”. If you aren’t letting developers build whatever they want so it can trickle down, you must not want any housing to exist at all.)

What Props D and E have in common is, they both cut through some of that red tape to get affordable housing projects from plans on paper to shovels in ground faster. (D calls it “streamlining”; E calls it “acceleration”. I have no idea what that change was meant to signify.)

There we start to get into the differences.

Prop D cuts through more red tape than E does. In particular, E (the Board of Supervisors’ prop) leaves the Board’s discretionary review power intact. That then means, according to SPUR’s comparison, that these projects are subject to CEQA review.

It does seem to me that holding dense, multi-family housing up on CEQA review makes no fucking sense. SPUR notes that CEQA applies to housing in order to help curb sprawl, which does make sense, but dense urban housing getting caught in that seems like a bug worth fixing. The environmental impact is hopefully some people will get to live closer to where they work and take transit instead of highways. I consider taking CEQA review out of the way of building housing in cities to be a desirable goal.

Moreover, both props apply only to affordable housing projects (but not all the same ones; I’ll address that in a moment). Why should Prop E preserve discretionary review and thus CEQA review on 100% Affordable Housing Projects? What’s to review? It should be a rubber stamp.

So the trade-off Prop E makes is that it leaves some pretty big knots of red tape still in place.

Prop D makes a different trade-off, which has become one of the principal arguments against it (it certainly features prominently in the League’s analysis): Prop D greatly expands the set of “affordable housing” that it would apply to, well beyond housing affordable to the low end of the market.

(The Voter Information Pamphlet’s summary of Prop D and summary of Prop E include breakdowns of what “affordable housing” projects they would “streamline”/“accelerate”.)

SPUR, one of the sponsors of the measure, is explicit about this as a goal in their comparison:

Prop. D would expand the streamlining to include moderate and middle-income households. A 100% affordable project that provides an average affordability level of 120% of the Area Median Income (AMI) would be eligible for streamlining, compared to 80% AMI Income under state law. Under Prop. D, this would allow 100% affordable housing projects to also include some middle-income units for households making up to 140% of AMI.

So the trade-off Prop D makes is that developers get to build “affordable housing” for a more profitable segment of the market, but that might mean people at the low end get screwed.

In summary:

  • Prop D cuts through more red tape, but has what might be an overly generous definition of “affordable housing”.
  • Prop E leaves Supervisorial power to hold up housing projects intact, but uses the existing, stricter definition of “100% affordable housing”.

Ultimately, what I want is something of a mix of the two. I want Prop E’s explicit effort to promote housing for the low end of the market that developers are eager to make Somebody Else’s Problem, but without Supervisorial review because why do you need it on projects that are already “100% affordable” by definition.

But that isn’t on the ballot, so I’m left with these choices:

  • Vote for Prop D and hope the trickle-down fallacy doesn’t screw poorer residents too hard.
  • Vote for Prop E and hope the developer lobby’s veiled threats that this will stop housing production don’t come to pass.
  • Vote for both of them, if I consider either one to be an improvement over the status quo. The perfect is the enemy of the good, so maybe it’s better to just pass one of them now. (If both pass, whichever one gets more votes wins.)
  • Vote against both of them, and hold out for my ideal proposition, which will definitely land on some future ballot through no action on my part.

Cutting way back on Twitter

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

The person who invented the word “doomscrolling” deserves a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Twitter, at least the way I’d been using it up to now, which I think is coincidentally in broad alignment with how Twitter wants to be used, is two things at once: Both a social network, and a news site.

Its news function, particularly when viewed through a third-party client not subject to Twitter’s injection of hot garbage into the web client’s timeline, consists of curating one’s news intake by following people who retweet the news you want to see. Some, but not necessarily all, of these people may be your actual friends; at any rate, the two almost inevitably mix, as your friends may retweet what you have retweeted and vice versa.

Thus, the place where you hang out with (at least internet) friends becomes the place where you learn what’s going on in the world, and vice versa. Whereupon you can no longer have one without the other—at least, not without ditching Twitter and replacing it with something without that mixing.

Friday morning, I woke up in a peaceful, energized mood, and proceeded to begin my day, like every day before it for the past decade-plus, by reading Twitter.

After half an hour of that, I was too depressed to do anything but hold down my couch for most of the day. Well, that and read more Twitter.

I did basically nothing all of Friday. Like most days before it.

My greatest achievement that Friday was noticing the clear contrast between my mood upon waking up and my mood after looking at even a little Twitter. Whereupon I made a resolution.

Since Saturday, I have hardly looked at Twitter at all. When I have done so, it has been with a Tweetbot filter turned on that blocks all retweets, so I only see original tweets by the people I follow.

The filter helps a little bit, but the mixing is unavoidable; when people aren’t retweeting, they’re quote-tweeting, or subtweeting, or commenting, or venting.

And so my Twitter exposure lasts for only a few minutes at a time now. There isn’t as much there without taking an unfiltered look at the fresh horrors device, and I know what happens when I do that.

As the world (and the United States in particular) has been descending into fascism and climate crisis and long-overdue reckoning with a lot of things that a lot of us have ignored or accepted for far too long, the news on my timeline has gotten more and more captivating in the wrong ways.

This isn’t a new problem; it’s been true for years, even before the 2016 election. But it has gotten worse over time.

Often, I would spend most of the day reading Twitter. Lately, when I had my fill of Twitter—or ran out by hitting the top of the timeline—I would simply lie on my couch, unable to do anything.

How did I spend that time of doing nothing? Thinking. Thinking about the problems in the world; thinking about how I, or we, might solve them.

Not actually doing anything in such a direction. Just thinking about it.

One of my catchphrases is “awareness is not a substitute for action”.

Twitter makes it possible to be very aware of things that we do need people to be aware of. But it is possible to be too aware; to fall into “staying aware” by doomscrolling, or “raising awareness” by retweeting, QTing, etc., and never get around to actually doing anything.

We must be aware, but we must also do something about it.

In the past two days, as I have looked at Twitter for maybe a total of two hours (as compared to my previous daily average of… most of the day), I have had so much more energy to do things.

Much of this has been long-neglected tasks around the home. I’ve done two loads of laundry; put some things away; made some mask pieces. I’ve also made progress in reading a couple of books.

But also, I’ve had more energy for the political activism that has been my focus for a few years now. I can do things more than I’ve been able to do for a long time.

Looking away from Twitter is an immediate remedy, but creates a longer-term problem.

Twitter had been my main news source. “How do you stay so well-informed”, people would ask me, and I’d apologetically tell them that I spend way too much time reading a well-curated and completely irreplicable Twitter timeline, and that I absolutely do not recommend trying to get your news the same way I do.

(Which is completely, seriously true, and not just for doomscrolling reasons. There’s a lot of bullshit out there, from the factually untrue to the misleading to the technically-factual-but-incendiary-instead-of-actionable, which I have experience spotting and rejecting/avoiding and a lot of people do not. Getting your news from social media is highly inadvisable without it.)

Awareness is not a substitute for action, but action requires some awareness in order to not just be dancing in a void. Action is often reaction, which means knowing what’s happened to react to.

I have ideas. Maybe I’ll check NPR’s front page on some schedule. Maybe I’ll check Google News. Maybe I’ll just have to trust that people I work with who have stayed plugged into the news, or the occasional glance at my (retweet-free) Twitter timeline, will fulfill my need for some awareness without overloading or depressing me into inaction.

One way or another, in the meantime, I’m happy to be doing stuff.

I’ve been pretty quiet on Twitter since I stopped reading it, but I may actually start posting more, as I start doing more things worth posting about. Masks and other projects; things I’ve made; some political actions; nail polish.

I have long been intentional in what I tweet and retweet, especially about the sociopolitical. I try to keep things actionable, not contribute to people’s rivers of mood slime. I also try to uplift wins, to highlight the achievability thereof. That will likely not change, though I will probably be retweeting much less simply because I won’t be coming across things I would retweet in my timeline.

So you may see more tweets, and will definitely see fewer retweets. I’ll still be reading my mentions and occasionally replying to tweets I do see. I don’t think I’m leaving Twitter entirely, at least not yet—but my approach to it has already changed and I like the change a lot.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes.

Awareness is not a substitute for action

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

There’s a pernicious, though well-meaning, sort of mindset around “raising awareness” of various evils in the world.

The idea—such as it is—is that it’s vitally important to raise as much awareness as possible of whichever evil, and important as an individual to “stay informed”, which is to say, tuned into some daily dosage of news coverage.

I have a couple of problems with this.

First off, moment-to-moment news coverage, such as you typically see on TV/radio, on most news websites and newspapers, and indeed in all major news outlets regardless of medium, is extremely bad for actually being informed.

Moment-to-moment (often, but not necessarily, “breaking”) news coverage only tells you what just happened. This is insufficient in three ways:

  • what: but without much delving into who (or who else, or who didn’t) or when (or when else, or when it didn’t)
  • just: only the most recent event/act, with little to no history
  • happened: agency may be subtracted or actively denied (language such as “officer-involved shooting”, as well as more generally reporting on events rather than acts)

Truly informative coverage provides history, context, and depth—the sort of information that requires time and work and knowledge to assemble into a coherent and informative story.

Moreover, “staying informed” is only beneficial as a means to an end.

The opening cutscene to “Watch_Dogs 2” bothers me particularly because of this. The player character describes a system of corporate-administered mass surveillance—a system whose name is emblazoned on numerous hackable in-game objects, at least for the player’s convenience but seemingly diegetically as well—and concludes that the hacker group he belongs to, DedSec, needs to expose this system, its nature, and its ramifications to the world.

The problem I have is: That’s a start.

Playing that game in 2019*, I felt like there would’ve been at least four news articles about the fictional system in question already. One in WaPo, one in ProPublica, two in Reason magazine, and assorted reblogs and other coverage on Boing Boing, HuffPo, and various other sites. Plus innumerable tweets and Facebook posts.

And yet the system persists.

It persists because everyone is vaguely aware of it already—it’s directly involved in their lives; part of the problem is that they functionally can’t escape it—and they have accepted it.

Dig into the ramifications of such a system—enabling discrimination; enabling unwanted disclosure/privacy violation; etc.—and most people will go “Wow. Sure hope that never happens to me.”.

We are trained—mostly by news media themselves, passively, as a side effect of how stories are selected, reported, packaged, and delivered—to regard news coverage as spectacle. That thing happened, over there, apart from you, apart from your life. It happened without you, and so you have no influence upon it.

I haven’t played far enough into “Watch_Dogs 2”’s main plot to know whether this spoils a twist or not, but I feel like if it happened in real life (arguably it has; the game’s reflections of its inspirations are not subtle), the consequence to DedSec blowing the lid off the story and revealing ctOS’s true nature to the world would be a worldwide collective shrug.

Not just because that particular story is about a computer system and most people’s eyes immediately glaze over when you start talking computer shit, but because it is a part of their lives already, and such an exposé, with the implication that the system being exposed is bad, in turn implies that a part of their lives is bad.

For each individual person, the response to this is as follows:

  • Wow. So what can I, individually, do about it?
  • Well, I need to be in this system to get hired, to pass credit checks, to rent an apartment, etc. So, I can’t opt out of it, even if such a thing were theoretically possible. And I cannot personally destroy it, even though I wish it didn’t exist.
  • So… nothing. I shall do nothing.

So, what did that exposé accomplish?

Here in 2020, look at the mask thing. It’s so hard to get people to understand that even a mask that only protects other people protects everyone when everyone wears them. Americans don’t grasp collective action and the importance of it.

We really need to fix that. We need to start to see ourselves as part of a society, able to take actions that affect more of that society than just ourselves and able to choose actions that improve rather than harm.

We can’t just stop at awareness forever. It’s exhausting to be aware of problems and just watch them happen. We need to choose some subset of the problems and take action, and encourage others to take action along with us.

As long as we do nothing, nothing will continue to be done, and we’ll all be very aware as it happens.

*It’s now 2020 and I still haven’t finished it. I got distracted by side missions and driving around the fictionalized version of the City. And now there’s a pandemic, so “Watch_Dogs 2” has become the Going Outside In The Before Times Simulator.

Becoming a Democratic voter

Thursday, February 20th, 2020

This month, I did something I once thought I would never do.

Screenshot of the online voter-registration form on the California Secretary of State's website, with my party preference filled in as Democratic.

My whole adult life, I have been what’s known as a “no party preference” or NPP voter. (Sometimes called “independent”, but this is ambiguous as there is a party called the American Independent Party, and they are very much not centrist or big-tent.)

Largely this has been because I don’t like political parties. And I still don’t. In theory, they’re money and resource pools for candidates to draw on; in practice, we often see them working against insurgent candidates who are proposing change. I’d much rather have campaign finance restricted to some equal share of a publicly-funded pool, with strict laws and even stricter enforcement. (Yes, I know there are risks there, too. There are no perfect solutions.)

I also have always held a somewhat idealistic openness toward third parties, largely as a result of all of the shitty things that politicians of both major parties and the parties themselves have done—some credible competition might help keep them honest.

But now?

John Wick, from the first movie, with his lines changed to “People keep asking me if I have a party preference. And I haven't really had an answer. But now yeah… I'm thinkin' I've got a party preference!”.

On top of the significant difference between the two major parties these days, there is also some realpolitik involved.

For one, I’ve accepted the fact that as long as we have a first-past-the-post voting system, our elections will always tend toward two polar parties, with all the other parties and all the candidates and voters arrayed around them like iron filings around a bar magnet. Ranked-choice voting is a prerequisite (but not the only step by any means) to dismantling the two-party binary. And until we get there, power resides with the two major parties and power must be won and wielded to make change.

But more immediately, the current election in California, which started this month and ends March 3rd, is not only a primary—it’s also used by various Democratic Central Committees (county party organizations, basically) to elect their board members.

As a NPP voter, the Democratic Party in California would let me vote in their Presidential primary—this is called requesting a crossover ballot, and it’s done through the same form through which you request a vote-by-mail ballot. You then get a ballot for NPP voters that includes the Democratic Presidential primary.

But a NPP voter cannot vote in their county’s DCCC election. That’s for registered Democrats only.

So that’s what pushed me over the edge. In San Francisco, we have two roughly-defined slates of candidates running, one formed of current and former elected officials looking to transition from holding power in state or City government to holding power in the county Party, and the other a slate of activists who want the Party to drive progressive change.

One of those Democratic Parties sounds a lot better to me—and I want to cast my vote accordingly.

As I mentioned, the election has already begun—I had already received my crossover ballot when I made the decision. I emailed the SF Department of Elections and got confirmation that once I re-register (and check the box to receive mail-in ballots, same as I did last time), a new ballot would automatically be sent to me. So I did the thing, got my new ballot, and will discard my crossover ballot.

(If you want to do this, the deadline to register and get a Democratic mail-in ballot was February 18 here in California, but you can do Conditional Voter Registration at any polling place/voting center in your county. If you’re in another state, check with your Secretary of State or county Department of Elections.)

Scarcity vs plenty

Friday, December 29th, 2017

I’ve been thinking a lot about political rhetoric here in the US, and one thing I’ve identified in it is a dichotomy, or maybe a spectrum, between poles of Scarcity and Plenty.