Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I Voted for Gary Johnson

On Friday I submitted my early voting mail-in ballot for the Maricopa county, Arizona state, and federal general elections of 2012. Since the midterm elections two years ago there's been a deluge of noise from the presidential campaigns. First, the rather anemic pack of republican candidates savaged each other with negative ads and smearing on the social networks, then Mitt Romney emerged to repeat the process with Barack Obama. Like many voters, I’m unhappy with the appallingly low signal-to-noise ratio of modern campaigns, and I’d pretty much made my decision in the presidential election by the start of the summer. I've  learned little new on any of the candidates and their policies since then. I suspect that anyone reading this has already made their decision as well, so I intend this note to be more for historical than persuasive purposes.

For a number of reasons I felt that I couldn't vote for either major party candidate in good faith. Briefly, I think that President Obama has continued too many of the infuriating policies and practices of the Bush administration, and I don't trust Governor Romney to deliver on the promises he's made over the six years he's been running for president. Since the democrats and republicans have failed to offer candidates willing to address what I think are the most serious problems facing the United States, I felt that my vote was more meaningful opting out of the two-party system and voting for the libertarian candidate for president. There are reasons for this, which I'll explain in more detail below.

Since the economy and deficit have dominated recent news coverage of the election cycle, let's start there. Romney has focused his campaign on attacking Obama for not doing enough to pull the US out of recession and not getting the federal budget deficit under control. It's true that the GDP growth and unemployment numbers have been bad during Obama's term in office - shockingly bad to my non-expert understanding of economics. Controlling the deficit and reducing the national debt needs to happen. If it doesn't happen soon, the United States will start facing the type of financial crisis now facing nations across the Eurozone like Ireland and Greece. This will be devastating to the global economy when it happens, and I agree with Governor Romney that I'd like to see someone more dedicated to deficit control in the White House.

Mr. Romney has made it clear that he's unwilling to be such a president. The federal budget is composed of, in descending order of spending, entitlement programs, defense, discretionary spending, and interest payments. The fact that the United States government paid $227 billion on interest in 2011 (roughly 12 times NASA's budget) should make clear how important deficit reduction is. There's nothing to be done about interest payments, and Romney specified in the debates that he doesn't intend to reform entitlement programs in such a way that there would be meaningful savings soon. He's also clearly stated that he intends to increase defense spending, despite the fact that the United States shoulders 40% of the global defense budget already. The US Navy operates 11 of the 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers currently in service. We don't need more ships, guys. Even cutting discretionary spending entirely (which would be a terrible and untenable idea) wouldn't be enough to close the deficit while keeping the rest constant or growing.

Increasing tax revenues could pick up some of the slack. Romney's proposal amounts to an across-the-board tax cut, however, exacerbating the deficit growth problem. When pressed for specifics on what loopholes Romney would close or what spending he would cut to move America's budget toward the black, the republican candidate has decisively failed to make a convincing case that he can actually make any of this happen. "Trust me," he's said "I know how to run a business and balance budgets." That may be, but he didn't do so by naming countless ways he won't accomplish the task at hand. I don't trust that Governor Romney will follow through on his pledge to improve the economy and manage the deficit better than President Obama, and I don't think you should, either.

Of course, there's more to the election than the economy. I didn't vote for President Obama in 2008, but when he took office I was glad for several, mostly foreign policy-oriented, reasons that Bush was gone and he was in the White House. I believed that the step-by-step infringements on civil liberties that were the cornerstone of Bush the younger's counter-terrorism strategy would stop. I believed that unauthorized drone strikes on foreign soil would stop. I believed that the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay would be shut down and the detainees would be charged and tried in a fair court. How wrong I was.

Over the last four years, Obama has made it clear that all these practices of an administration fueled by terror and shame will continue indefinitely. The culture of fear that's persisted in America after 9/11 has been corrosive to our civil liberties and the values that we ought to (in my opinion) stand for. Our enemies might torture our troops and blow up innocent civilians by the thousand and write them off as collateral damage, but that doesn't mean that we should stoop to their level of inhumanity. In the last presidential debate, there was no difference of opinion on this issue. Obama bragged about upping the tempo of robotic assassination strikes in Pakistan, and Romney hastened to add that he'd keep the Predators and Hellfires coming. What a nation we've become. At least Obama seemed less eager to bomb Iran.

What about the environment? I'm not a climatologist, but the expert opinion in the field is that Earth's global average temperature is increasing, human activity seems to be at least partly responsible for this, and that accelerating increased temperatures will probably be bad for society at large. There isn't an airtight case that action must be taken now to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions, and there probably won't be until well after the droughts and famines and hurricane seasons that run into the Greek alphabet start. There was evidence, sobering but imperfect evidence, that tetraethyl lead and chlorofluorocarbons were doing serious harm to public health before they were better understood and banned, and it would be nice to learn the lesson from these cases. We should take meaningful action now, before the truly nasty effects of anthropogenic climate change start showing up. Where do the candidates stand?

There's little to say about Mitt Romney. He scoffs at the idea of climate change and blasts the current president for not drilling for more oil and not leveling more Appalachian mountains to find coal. In 2008, Barack Obama argued for a cap-and-trade system to reduce American greenhouse gas emissions and investment in renewable energy. Some investment has happened, but cap-and-trade has been abandoned, and the drop in American carbon emissions over the last four years is mainly from a dramatic increase in shale gas extraction. "Drill, baby, drill" has become "Frack, baby, frack." I don't expect a second Obama term to pick up where Obama the 2008 candidate left off.

When Romney hasn't been talking about the economy this election cycle, he's almost always been focused on Obama's healthcare initiative, passed in 2010. I'm neither a doctor nor an economist, and frankly, I don't think I'm qualified to comment on this issue. This may be selfish of me, but I'll have excellent health insurance through my employer either way, and I distrust the candidates so much on so many other issues, that their bickering back and forth about healthcare reform is simply noise to me.

Generally speaking, I don't think it makes sense to vote for a presidential candidate based on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, or gun control. Politicians adapt to the popular consensus, and when there's enough momentum behind a cause, it'll happen, whether it's a good idea or not. I have opinions on these issues, but I don't think they're relevant to this discussion.

Looking at the two major party candidates I'm at a loss to decide who I think would be less bad for America. President Obama is a clear supporter of commercial human spaceflight and investment in science, and seems less likely to agitate for more military action in the middle east than his republican rival. On nearly all other issues, they're actually pretty similar, so though I'd rather see another Obama term than a first Romney term, I'm far from enthusiastic about either opportunity. What other choices are there?

Gary Johnson is the libertarian candidate running for president this year, but is less ideological than a typical libertarian candidate. He served as governor of New Mexico for eight years, balanced its budget, made spending decisions on a cost-benefit basis, and pushed back against the disastrous federal war on drugs. He's repeatedly spoken out against the hawkish neoconservative foreign policy America has followed since the Bush years, and seems trustworthy when he says he would take meaningful steps to reduce the deficit and debt. I don't agree with him on all issues, but to be honest, I'd rather have someone like Mr. Johnson serve as president than either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney.

By casting my ballot, I've articulated that I will put in the effort to express myself politically, and I'm dissatisfied with the candidates the republican and democratic parties have produced. I know that Gary Johnson won't win (it'll probably be Obama, but it's a close race), but I also feel like this is the most meaningful way I can exercise my democratic privilege. If you can, vote. Vote for the candidate you think is least bad. It might not be much, but the ability we have to influence our government this way is a precious thing.

It's late, and that's all that comes to mind now on this election. Here's an image that more succinctly describes how I feel: