Oh, that Electoral College

A Facebook friend posted today:
Question (answer with rationale invited):
Should the Electoral College elect Clinton or Trump?”
The question is significant right now because, while Trump apparently won an Electoral College majority, Clinton won a solid majority of the popular vote (a little more than 51%). I say Trump“apparently”won an Electoral College majority because the Electors, when they vote next week, are not necessarily required to vote for the candidate whom they previously said they would vote for. Theoretically the Electoral College could still give the victory to Clinton without violating any law or the Constitution.

Rather than answering the direct question – whom they should elect – I commented with some thoughts about how to develop the rationale. It ended up being one of those annoying five-paragraph Facebook comments that draws from history, philosophy, civics, and politics, using obscure polysyllabic words and long, complex sentences to showcase the writer’s erudition. That was obviously inappropriate for a Facebook comment; if you want to show off your erudition, you’re supposed to write a blog post. So here’s mine.
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At the outset, let me say that I understand the question to be: what should today’s Electoral College do? The question is not how we wish a redesigned Electoral College might work; that’s a separate issue – one worth discussing – but it’s not the question at hand.
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My starting point is that the answer to a “should” question depends on one’s assumptions. Here, the dueling assumptions are:
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  • The United States is primarily a federation of sovereign states. This is most obviously represented by the Senate, where each state has an equal vote. This assumption was widely, though not universally, held when the Constitution was written and ratified.
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  • The United States is primarily a democracy. This is most obviously represented in the House of Representatives, where each state’s voting power is proportional to its population. This assumption is widely, though not universally, held today.
If the US is a federation, then a strong case can be made for election of the President by the states rather than by the national populace. Just the existence of the Electoral College system suggests that this is the assumption of the Constitution.
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If the US is a democracy, then a strong case can be made for election of the President by the national populace. The structure of the Electoral College suggests that this is the assumption of the Constitution — electoral votes are allocated to states roughly by population.
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(A finer point about the democracy assumption: The US is not a direct democracy, it is a democratic republic; that is, the voice of the populace is expressed through democratically elected representatives. Both Congress and the electoral college system are consistent with the assumption that the US is a democratic republic.)
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There are three flies in the ointment, so to speak, three issues that are not cleanly addressed by the assumptions above. One is intentionally embedded in the Constitution, and the other two reflect common practices that may not have been anticipated by the writers of the Constitution:
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  • First, the electors, unlike US Representatives, are not allocated strictly by population: smaller states get proportionally more representation, therefore larger states get proportionally less, because the number of a state’s electors is the number of its (population-proportional) Representatives, PLUS TWO. This triples Delaware’s voting power in the Electoral College, for example, but only increases California’s by 4%. This adds an element of federalism to an otherwise democratic process.
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  • Second, in all but two states, a state’s electors represent only the majority of the state’s populace; the minority has no representation in the Electoral College. This strongly pushes the Electoral College system in the direction of federalism rather than democracy. But the Constitution doesn’t require this system; nor does it prohibit it. In fact, in the US’s earliest elections, Electors were chosen in most states by the legislature, not by the people. Moreover, the Constitution contains no assumptions about the existence of political parties, which is important because states that adopted the “winner take all” system of choosing electors were motivated by partisan considerations — the winner-take-all system gives the majority party in the state more power in choosing the President than would a proportional system (like Maine’s or Nebraska’s).
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  • Third, the Constitution does not assume that Electors are legally required to vote for the candidate they stood for during the election. Yet many states do have laws that say that Electors must vote for the candidate for whom they stood during the election. The constitutionality of these laws has never been sustained or rejected in the courts.
So when we ask “should” the Electors choose Clinton or Trump, we need to be clear which question we’re asking.
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Should the Electors follow historical precedent?
If so, should that be the recent history, the early history, or the overall history of the US?
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Should the Electors follow the Constitution?
If so, follow only the specific articles written in the Constitution? or follow an interpretation that accounts for the authors’ assumptions and intentions, as far as we can know them? or follow an interpretation that accounts for current generally-held assumptions? or should each Elector follow her/his own interpretation of the Constitution?
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Should the Electors follow the law of the state they represent?
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Should the Electors follow their own moral conscience?
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I personally don’t think there’s an obvious answer to my Facebook friend’s question: Should they elect Clinton or Trump? It depends on what assumptions one makes. I do think it would be helpful to the discussion of the question if we were each to clarify what assumptions we’re making, because, as we see, there are so many assumptions to make.
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Computers hate me

Computers hate me. *sigh*

Well, not all computers. My personal laptop doesn’t hate me really — it loves me as much as its little brain allows it to.

But the computers that I’m surrounded by at work, the ones I’m inundated by at work, the ones that are an ocean of computers on which I am adrift like a sailor clinging to a piece of driftwood in the midst of a Category 5 hurricane — those are the ones that truly hate…. Oh that’s not really fair either. Part of the problem is our co-dependent relationship — they need me to help them think straight, and I need them to help put food on the table — and codependency is just not healthy in any relationship.

And really, I owe them at least a smidgen of compassion, knowing how they’ve been abused and neglected in their previous relationships — just used by whoever showed up, nobody giving them the tender loving care they deserve, all of them walking away chasing the next piece of shiny hardware without so much as a fare-thee-well.

But still.  They’re old enough to know better. They know that it’s wrong to take out their anger about the past on the one who’s trying her best to love and care for them now.

It’s not really hatred, I guess. More like a temper tantrum. Or rather, make that 10 simultaneous temper tantrums today. I’m confident I can get them to settle down and behave in fairly short order. It’s just wearying.

Who knows? Maybe it’s all projection. Maybe what’s going on is that I’m the one who hates them.

Anyone know any good counselors?

A Talk About Our Relationship

Another short reflection paper I wrote for my New Testament survey class in seminary, in the Fall of ’09.
This one is about Paul’s Letter to the Romans.


Romans and I have a wonderful relationship. It hasn’t always been easy – we’ve had our share of differences. To be honest, we still do sometimes. But it’s truly a long-term, loving relationship. I’d like to talk a little bit about what makes it work, or at least, what makes it work for me. If you want to know how he feels, you’ll have to ask him, although good luck with that – he’s not always comfortable with touchy-feely language.

Any good relationship has to be based on honesty. If you’re holding something back from each other, trust breaks down, and you lose faith in each other. Whenever I’m with Romans, I try to be present with a completely open heart. He’s the same way. He tells me what he thinks, what he believes, what he thinks is and isn’t important, and so on. I never have to play “guess what I’m thinking” with him. Sometimes he tells me more than I need to know at the moment, but that’s OK, better to say too much than too little.

Another really important thing is always showing how much you care about each other – not just caring, but showing it too. Part of that is making sure that you spend quality time together. It’s not enough just to be in the same room, you have to engage each other, have real conversations. I know I always feel better when I’ve been spending time with him regularly.

Of course, sometimes those conversations are easier than others. I don’t mean in a bad way… for instance, I’m a pretty emotional person, and he can be kind of intellectual and analytical sometimes. But if you care about each other, you make the effort. I try to listen really carefully, and he’s really patient about having to explain things more than once.

I don’t want to make it sound like he’s the one with all the answers. See, he hasn’t changed much over the years, and it seems like I’m starting something new all the time. So I can bring that to our time together, and help him understand and adapt to the way the world is now. He appreciates that, because a lot of people bring their questions to him, and he wants to be able to answer them in language they understand.

And speaking of being with someone else – that’s another thing that makes our relationship work – it goes back to that trust that I mentioned a few minutes ago. We’re completely loyal to each other. If somebody else needs him, I’m OK with that, because I know he’ll be there for me when I need him. And if I spend some time with Jude or Mark or even old Isaiah, he trusts me to come back to him. And I always do.

There’s something comforting about him, even though he can be so mental at times. Like even though he has a very clear sense of right and wrong, he’s still very accepting. He doesn’t judge people by surface things, like whether they’re male or female, or workers or bosses. He’s funny – he always says that he doesn’t even care if someone’s Jewish or Greek or whatever! It makes me feel safe around him, because I know he’s accepting of me too.

Another thing – he’s not one of those who are afraid to talk about love. When he says, “Owe no one anything, except to love,” or “Love is the fulfilling of the law”, I get all mushy inside – I never get tired of hearing things like that.

I guess that’s the bottom line – he’s all about love and faithfulness, and so am I. That’s really what’s at the heart of our wonderful relationship. And that’s what will keep us together for the rest of our lives.

Christmas

A friend asked today what Christmas means to me spiritually. While it’s possible to write a book-length answer to that, I limited myself to these three short paragraphs.

Christmas is that moment when God moved (moves) from transcendent, “out there somewhere”, to immanent, right here next to us and among us — and yet, without losing the power and beauty of that transcendence.

And more: That baby, Son of God and Son of Man, teaches us — shows us — the reality that the Divine and the human can co-exist in the same being. God is not just with me; God is in me. And not just as some abstract essence — everything that makes God God is in me: God’s love, and God’s power, and God’s creativity, grace, and hope. More, this God-in-my-heart is my connection to transcendence and eternity.

Christmas is that moment — not just a temporal moment, a spiritual moment — when all of that is revealed to me in an awe-filled flash.

(Un-)Forgiveness: Mark, Hebrews, and the Go-Go’s

I wrote this shortly after I had completed a major research project on the Gospel of Mark; and between my reading of the Letter to the Hebrews and our group discussion of it. Also, I listen to rock’n’roll when I’m staying up late writing and reading. Now you know how Mark, Hebrews, and the Go-Go’s ended up in the same essay.

 
 

You’re unforgiven

so go on living

knowing that I’ve unforgiven you

and my thanksgiving

came the day

I saw it was OK

to unforgive you

– The Go-Go’s

 

Maybe I’m oversensitive, having just spent 36 straight hours with the shadowy Gospel, Mark the Dark. But there’s something that really bothers me about Hebrews. It’s something that also used to bother me about Mark until yesterday, when I finally came up with a satisfactory understanding of it. It’s the same ambivalent feeling that I have about that song “Unforgiven” from the Go-Go’s 2004 CD God Bless the Go-Go’s (snippet above). It’s hard-driving rock’n’roll, and with lyrics like that, it’s a great break-up song if you’re the one who’s been dumped.

But now that I’m over my latest break-up (pretty much), I’m not as comfortable with the song. It’s clever, making “unforgive” a transitive verb, and part of going on after love lost is reclaiming your ego. But the sentiment seems so… un-Christian. Forgiving is good, not forgiving is not so good, but unforgiving someone? It seems too cold-hearted and permanent.

The troublesome Mark passage that I’m referring to is 3.29, when Jesus says, “…whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Same problem – it seems so cold-hearted and permanent, very un-Christ-like. I rescued this passage for myself in the context of the surrounding story. The religious authorities have just accused Jesus of knowing how to cast out demons because he is a demon himself, in league with the Devil; this passage is part of his response. He knows that really, he is God, so he is warning the priests and scribes that it’s dangerous to say God and the Devil are the same thing, because then you cut yourself off from access to salvation. It all comes from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity.

That rationalization doesn’t work with some of the Epistle to the Hebrews, though, like 6.4-6: “…It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance.” (NIV) What?!? After I’ve repented and been baptized and forgiven, I’m still at risk of losing it? To be sure, “fall away” here means more than missing Sunday service – it carries the connotation of treachery or betrayal. But if a Christian converts to Judaism or Islam for a time – faiths that deny the truth of the Christian gospel – before realizing the error of their ways, is Hebrews saying they can’t ever come back?

Everything I understand about our Christian view of God says that God loves us so much that God acts with grace when faced with human sin. But this and similar passages in Hebrews seem to be saying that even grace has its limits. I’m not one to cherry-pick the parts of the Bible that I like, and pretend that the rest don’t exist. But I don’t know how to reconcile this passage with the Gospels or Paul. I suppose it’s a project that I’ll have to take on later. I’ll add it to my Biblical theology to-do list.

My Heart Bleeds for SurveyMonkey… Not

SurveyMonkey*, a popular free site for creating online surveys, is playing fast and loose with the truth about their exposure to the Heartbleed vulnerability.

As far as I can put the pieces together, they were indeed running the broken version of OpenSSL before this week’s public disclosure of Heartbleed, and they quickly patched their computers with the fixed version. They also sent e-mail to their user base, advising everyone to change passwords, which, while not an admission, is certainly a strong hint that users’ passwords may have been exposed.

What they won’t admit is that, for who-knows-how-long, their data was also at risk of exposure. By “their” data, I mean your and my and all their other users’ surveys and survey results. Probably not a big deal to many users, but certainly something you would expect a service provider to be honest about.

I tried to get a straight answer from them, but they refused to give one. Posted below is the e-mail conversation I had with them yesterday. While I don’t have a final answer from them yet, it appears unlikely I will get one. The support person, Ian, offers at the end to take my question to the technical team on Monday. But no technical person will be able (permitted) to answer my question any more clearly than Ian.  The decision to fudge their answer came from Marketing/Communications, and the decision to stop fudging will have to come from there too.

I can’t tell you what you should do, dear reader, but you deserve at least to have accurate information when you’re deciding whether to trust a web site with your data.

_______________

* SurveyMonkey link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/



Date: Fri, 11 Apr 2014 17:33:00 -0700
To: (me and all the other SurveyMonkey users)
From: “SurveyMonkey” <surveymonkey@go.surveymonkey.com>
Subject: SurveyMonkey Heartbleed Security Update

Dear SurveyMonkey Customer,

On April 7, 2014, researchers disclosed a vulnerability in a technology called OpenSSL that powers encryption across much of the internet. The vulnerability is commonly known as the “OpenSSL Heartbleed Flaw.”

Our team took immediate action to secure SurveyMonkey’s infrastructure against this flaw. We closed any exposure that might have existed and wanted to let you know that SurveyMonkey is not vulnerable to the Heartbleed flaw.

Although we have no reason to believe that any part of our service has been improperly accessed due to this vulnerability, as a matter of best practice we would like to recommend that all our customers reset their passwords. To reset your password, visit My Account and change your password in the Login Details section of your Account Page.

Thank you for being a great customer. Happy surveying!
The SurveyMonkey Team


 

From: (me)
Sent: 4/11/2014 8:30 PM
To: support@surveymonkey.com
Subject: OpenSSL Heartbleed vuln

Your e-mail to users doesn’t actually say whether you were vulnerable to the Heartbleed exploit in the past — it only says you took immediate action and are not vulnerable now. Were you at any time running a vulnerable version of OpenSSL (1.0.1 through 1.0.1f) on any of your public-facing servers? Please give me a straight answer — I admin servers for a living, and I don’t suffer FUD gladly. Thanks,


 

From: support@surveymonkey.com
Date: 4/12/2014 12:06 AM
To: (me)
Subject: Re: OpenSSL Heartbleed vuln [ ref:_00D301HuKJ._50030Tmot8:ref ]

Hi ,

We promptly did a thorough assessment of our site to resolve any exposure that might have existed and are happy to let you know that SurveyMonkey is no longer at risk to the Heartbleed flaw. We have no reason to believe that any part of our service was improperly accessed due to any exposure that may have existed.

Due to our security policy, we are not able to disclose any specifics on our production infrastructure.  Your confidence is of the highest importance to us and we have taken pains to ensure that customer and survey data remain secure.

You can confirm this via an independent Heartbleed vulnerability test site, such as http://filippo.io/Heartbleed/#surveymonkey.com:443

If you have any additional questions about the SSL encrpytion used on our site, you can learn more about it in the following FAQ:http://help.surveymonkey.com/articles/en_US/kb/What-is-the-enhanced-security-option-SSL-encryption

You can also review our security policy here:https://www.surveymonkey.com/mp/policy/security/

All the best,

Ian
Product Support Specialist


From: (me)
To: support@surveymonkey.com
Date: 4/12/2014 12:37 AM
Subject: Re: OpenSSL Heartbleed vuln [ ref:_00D301HuKJ._50030Tmot8:ref ]

Really, Ian? Really? I understand that you can’t tell me any more than the marketing suits will allow you to tell me. But I think I can read between the lines of “SurveyMonkey is no longer at risk to the Heartbleed flaw.” Yeah, “…no longer…”

In other words, at some point SurveyMonkey was running the vulnerable version of OpenSSL on public facing servers.

I know you’re just doing your job, but would you please pass this up the line: that this customer, who is a 30-year veteran system administrator, thinks it’s absolutely slimy that SurveyMonkey won’t disclose such a major vulnerability to its users. At Georgia Tech, where I’m on a team that admins about 1000 Linux servers, if our department tried to hide something like this from the departments that are our customers, there would be hell to pay. And rightly so.

I’ll post your non-reply, along with this message, on Facebook, so that at least my friends know what kind of company SurveyMonkey is.

I’m sorry, Ian, that you personally are forced to be caught in the middle of this farce.

Kind regards to you, Ian


From: support@surveymonkey.com
To: (me)
Date: 4/12/2014  12:57 AM
Subject: Re: OpenSSL Heartbleed vuln [ ref:_00D301HuKJ._50030Tmot8:ref ]

Hi ,

I can certainly understand that you’re concerned and I will definitely send this over to my technical team for further review. However, since it is late on a Friday, you can most likely expect a response on Monday.

Thanks for your patience on this matter. Have a good rest of your weekend.

Warm regards,

Ian
Product Support Specialist

Death and Privilege

Quick! How many kids have been shot to death this year in Newtown, Connecticut?

That’s right, 20. That number is seared on our brains. How sad, how frightening.

“If it happened here it could happen anywhere,” said Danielle Collins, who attended a candlelight vigil in Newtown last night.

No, Ms. Collins, it could not happen anywhere. That’s the voice of privilege. You’re right, though, in this sense: We don’t expect kids to get shot in Newtown or places like it. That only happens in places like…

Quick! How many kids have been shot to death this year in Detroit, Michigan?

The answer is 21, but you didn’t know that, dear reader. Honestly, the only reason I know is because I spent a couple of hours researching it just now. And about that many kids were shot to death in Detroit in 2011, and 2010, and 2009, etc. How many child homicides were there in Newtown in those years? You know the answer without having to look it up.

Newtown is a bastion of privilege: 95% white and less than 2% black, median household income $111,000/year, 9 out of 10 people live in single family homes that they own. Unemployment is 6.1% and the poverty rate is 1.2%.

The comparable numbers for Detroit are: 11% white, 83% black, income $31,000, owner-occupied housing 49%, unemployment 15%, and poverty rate 35%.

Twenty dead kids in Newtown are national banner headline news; the same number of dead kids in Detroit… well, you can find the information if you look hard enough.

This is so unfair. Our white privilege is supposed to protect us from bad things. Our affluent enclaves are supposed to be safe for kids. As Ms. Collins said, if we can’t protect our privilege behind the barricades of Newtown, where can we?

And by the way, this is not about gun control. Oh sure, now we’re all screaming for gun control, but when the twentieth kid was killed in Detroit, the silence was deafening. And really, give me a break – nothing short of a national ban on handguns would have made a difference in Newtown. Remember, the guns belonged to the killer’s mom. Realistically, a retired white kindergarten teacher in an affluent white suburb will never be denied a gun.

No, the gun control reaction is just part of the overall emotional reaction of sadness and fear. We affluent and middle-class white people are afraid, because we never expected that violence would find us. Sure, we expect violence in Detroit; that’s just the way it is, right? We are sad because children are dead, but we are especially sad because the dead children in Newtown look like our own children. The poor, black little faces in Detroit don’t touch our hearts in quite the same way, and so they don’t make the national headlines.

It chills me and it sickens me to say it: our extreme emotional reaction, and the resultant screaming headlines, are about nothing but privilege.

References and credits:

http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=DEC_10_DP_DPDP1

http://www.newtown.org/pdf/NewtownFactSheet.pdf

http://chamspage.blogspot.com/2012/05/2012-detroit-homicidesmurders-partial.html

http://chamspage.blogspot.com/2011/12/detroit-homicide-statistics-age-ranges.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit

http://www.movin1077fm.com/cc-common/news/sections/newsarticle.html?feed=104668&article=10643188

http://www.areavibes.com/newtown-ct/employment/

http://zipatlas.com/us/mi/city-comparison/percentage-housing-units-occupied-by-owner.7.htm

http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2012/09/detroit_has_half_the_median_in.html