The case for lowering the voting age is probably better than you think

What you’re getting into: about 2700 words, a 9-14 minute read and some mild cursing.

Arguments about whether or not minors should vote have always struck a nerve with me. It’s probably because I’m a civics nerd at heart: In high school, I convinced a bunch of my friends to sign up for an American government elective that hadn’t run in years, I was class president, I dropped off voter registration forms with my fellow students when they turned 18, and I even amended the student government constitution to make that registration project an official part of the job for students who came after me.

So, yeah, I think voting is important. And I find all of the arguments against extending the vote to teenagers essentially without merit. Under examination, such arguments seem to be based on a selective interpretation of what it means to be a voter and uncharitable assumptions about teenagers’ ability to participate in civic life.

These aren’t theoretical discussions, either. Takoma Park, MD already lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16. And Washington, DC’s city council is considering a bill that would lower the voting age to 16, too.

Matt Yglesias at Vox wrote about this yesterday, arguing that there are already many ways people under 18 participate in politics, from knocking on doors to making financial contributions to candidates. He also argues, persuasively, that the right to vote, unlike the right to drive, is not based on competence.

But naturally, the idea of lowering the voting age seems odd at first. As adults, we like to see ourselves as very separate from the world of teenagers. And we like to think that we’ve grown a lot since our teen years, including, perhaps, politically.

But I don’t think those feelings really matter when it comes to whether or not it would make sense to lower the voting age. It’s the right thing to do, the arguments against it are hard to defend under scrutiny, and it would actually make our democracy stronger.

Voting should come with other rights and responsibilities

Voting is often considered a minimum right in a democracy. If someone can exercise other rights, it follows, they should also be able to exercise the right to vote.

Indeed, the 26th amendment was largely the product of the Vietnam War. If 18-year-olds could be drafted and die for their country, they should damn well be able to vote, the argument went.


Of course, 17-year-olds can enlist in the Armed Forces, though to be fair, it requires parental consent. Not that that matters much; if your kid is a few months away from making the decision without you at 18, will you really say no? And if your kid is the type to enlist, how likely is it that you’re the type of parent who will object?

Driving license systems, meanwhile, vary by state and the youngest drivers can be found in South Dakota, where people aged 14 years and three months who prove they have the ability to safely operate a multi-thousand-pound vehicle at high speeds can do so. They just can’t drive to the polling station and vote. They have to wait three years and nine months for that.

Three months before they get their license, however, they, along with any American, can enjoy the right to trade their time for money, something the rest of us call “work.” The Fair Labor Standards Act generally sets the minimum age for employment at 14 and some states are fine with 12-year-olds working in agriculture outside school hours. Teenagers’ income, of course, is subject to taxation. And yes, minors who work get most of that taxed money back, but the government holds onto it till they file, just like adult money. 

So, would you tell a 17 year old getting ready to go to basic training that he can’t vote for the president who will decide if and where he will serve his country?

Would you tell a 14.25 year old in South Dakota that she can drive her car to school and work every day, but she can’t vote on whether or not her town should bond money to repave the roads she drives?

And would you tell a 14-year-old who just got her first paycheck that she shouldn’t be able to vote for or against the people in Congress who set income taxes?

Personally, I find that last point the most compelling. If you can be taxed, you should be able to vote, plain and simple. In the United States, that would make something like the age of 14 the lower threshold for voting. Additionally, since we only elect presidents every four years, extending voting rights to 14-year-olds would also ensure that anyone who serves in the military at 18 has had an opportunity to vote for their Commander in Chief.

What about all those counter-arguments, though? I don’t think they’re worth a damn because the same exact arguments could be used to prevent adults from voting.

The overwhelming majority of teenage voters would be “better” than the “worst” adult voter

A lot of people imagine teenagers would make uninformed voting choices. You know, like adults do. To be blunt, teenagers should enjoy the same right to make uninformed voting choices and political judgments the rest of us enjoy. 

Seriously, picture the worst voter:


Maybe it’s your absolute political opposite. Maybe it’s somebody who blindly votes the party line like clockwork. Maybe it’s somebody who votes for president then mashes the buttons for their rest of their ballot.

Really, picture that worst voter.

Then tell me every teenager in America would be a worse voter then them.

They wouldn’t. Neither would the majority of teenagers. Neither would even a significant minority of teenagers.

Teenagers are people. So are Millennials. So are octogenarians. So are Boomers or members of the Silent Generation. The idea that we can make sweeping, definitive, universal judgments about how people in an age-based demographic would approach voting is just stereotyping. Yeah, there are tendencies, which I’ll get to later, but there are no universals and there are no special thresholds of “maturity” or “objectivity” that people magically pass when they turn 18 that turn them into “good” voters.

If teenagers aren’t “mature” enough, categorically, to vote, then surely there are older voters whose lack of maturity should disqualify them from voting, too.

Of course, no one would argue for that because there’s no such thing as a “maturity” requirement for voting. Nor are voters required to be intelligent, virtuous, or even nice people.

Whatever it is you might think teenagers lack that should disqualify them from voting, I can find a large group of adults of varying political loyalties who share those same characteristics. No one is suggesting those adults should be blocked from voting because that would be wrong. I’d argue that blocking teenagers from voting based on such weak justifications is wrong for the same reasons. The only fair, logically consistent conclusion, in my mind, is to extend the right to vote to teenagers.

Every parent already influences how their children vote

Another thread of argumentation against extending voting rights to teenagers assumes that parents will force their children to vote a certain way.

First, let’s be clear: asshole parents will attempt to force their children to vote a certain way. Most parents won’t care because they have better things to do like put food on the table. Or they’ll treat it like any other relative voting and assume it’s something they can influence, but that is ultimately not their damn business.

mom voting
Damn it, Mom…no peeking at my ballot!

Second, we are all already influenced by our parents when we vote. Maybe you vote the same way your parents do. Maybe you take after one parent, but not the other. Maybe you rebelled and stuck with it. Maybe your family’s political disagreements shape your own views.

To that end, here’s a counterfactual to consider: imagine a very old voter who goes straight party line just like their father did. Forget about which party it might be. This person is a “yellow dog” Democrat or Republican. They are voting exactly the same way their parents did because that’s what their parents told them to do. And they may be in their 60s or 70s. And they may have never sat down and challenged their own political beliefs. I don’t think they should be disqualified from voting because they’re still doing what their parents told them to do, so I don’t think teenagers should be either based on the false assumption that some parents will try to force them to vote a specific way.

Finally, as a practical matter, voting booths are still private spaces. We have all bullshitted our parents about who we’re hanging out with or what we’re doing. Asserting some private, individual space is a natural part of growing up. All of that day-to-day child / parent negotiating is far more difficult than simply telling mom or dad you voted based on your values or that it’s simply none of their business.

Voting is about who counts in society, not just our individual judgments

The great value of voting for society is that it requires the political system to be responsive to people who show up to the polls. We all don’t have to serve in office, or work for the government or lobby or give money to candidates, but if we vote, we keep the political system’s excesses in check and we reward leaders who have our collective best interests at heart. Not every time, but over time.

Allowing teenagers to vote wouldn’t dramatically alter our political landscape overnight. What it would do is introduce a new constituency to the political calculus leaders perform every day as they cast votes, make demands and strike compromises.

To cite a specific example: Social Security won’t be there for me or people younger than me when we turn 70, at least not in the same way it’ll be there for my mother and father. (You’re welcome, Boomers!) But that doesn’t mean teenagers will go to voting booths armed with retirement calculators, rationally voting in their self-interest. And it doesn’t mean politicians will make empty promises to teenagers about Social Security any more or less than they make empty promises to Boomers. But I do think the political system as a whole would be more responsive to such longer-term concerns if teenagers could also vote.

Dismissing teenagers’ worth as voters is condescending (at best)

Yet another thread would argue that allowing younger people to vote would dumb down our political discourse. To which I would retort, you really think it can get worseSeriously, go Google “weirdest political ads.

A good test for anti-suffrage arguments...has someone maybe been down this road before?
An anti-suffrage cartoon. If you’re making an argument like this about anyone, including teenagers, you’re probably being uncharitable, at best.

There’s an idea that people who are different from us, especially younger people, are somehow more impressionable than we are. And sure, maybe teenagers are, a little bit. But is the average teenager more impressionable than the most impressionable adult? No way. And does that really matter to such a degree that teenagers should be denied the right to vote? And if so, is there another group of people who are equally so impressionable that we must shield them from voting? And before you say that’s a ridiculous question, keep in mind that most of us have shaken hands with women who couldn’t vote when they turned 18.

Indeed, there’s a whole body of literature about the so-called “third person effect.” We tend to think that everyone else is more impressionable to the mass media — and to political media — than we are. It turns out, we’re all pretty impressionable. But in our own heads, we feel like we’re being very rational. Regardless, it’s wrong to say that any group of people should be categorically denied a right because they aren’t “good enough” to exercise it.

Teenagers deserve to be just as gloriously confused as the rest of us when they go to the voting booth.

Political algebra is lame, democracy is vibrant and awesome

Younger voters tend to lean Democratic, so, the assumption goes, teenagers would also lean Democratic. But there’s nothing intrinsic about youth that makes someone lean Democratic or Republican.

Indeed, there a few generational tides when it comes to how people vote.


And not to cherry-pick, but in 1984, all those “youths” somehow put aside their mindless Democratic leanings and overwhelmingly voted for Ronald Reagan.

And what about younger people in Utah, Oklahoma and other generally conservative areas of the country? Shall we bar them from voting because they might be outnumbered by their generally more liberal brethren in California and New York?

The most important thing here, of course, is not political party calculus. It’s introducing another constituency to the electorate. It would be up to each party — and candidate — to figure out how that should shape their agenda, their campaigns and how they govern.

Finally, take the flip side of this argument: if older people tend to lean toward Republicans, would you think it was wrong to help them vote in greater numbers? If so, would you object to offering them free publicly subsidized transportation to the polls? I’d hope not. They’re citizens, too, just like those car-driving, tax-paying teenagers.

Let my people vote!

I was an argumentative teenager (shocker) and occasionally the adults in my life would resort to the worst argument: you’ll understand when you’re older. It’s a great way to punt the conversation a couple years if a teenager just made a good point you don’t want to deal with, but there’s some truth there, too.

Age and experience do make us wiser. Ideally, we become more empathetic people, better workers, better partners, better friends. But I don’t think growing older makes us better voters. And that’s okay.

Voting is about welcoming people into society and acknowledging that their voices count. If you can serve, if you can drive, if you can work and pay taxes, your voice should count. And not in the “speak up and be heard” kind of way, but in the way the rest of us enjoy: when politicians are thinking about the tough decisions they have to make, they need to consider and even worry about what we will think when the next election day rolls around.

Even if you don’t exercise your rights, you are counted

I distinctly remember one of the teachers in my high school chasing after a kid urging him to sign up to vote. I never had her as a teacher or interacted with her much, but I guess we were part of the unofficial “we give a shit about politics” club in Lacey Township, New Jersey. I just caught the tail-end of the conversation as they walked by my classroom. It wasn’t going well. She earnestly told him that signing up to vote was the best way to ensure that his ideas and needs were counted by society. He told her, in so many words, that it didn’t matter.

Thinking back, the student she was talking to was probably already lost to politics. His life was rougher than most of ours and, if I had to guess, he probably had already heard a lot of broken promises from authority figures. Why would he want to bother with a whole other set of broken promises from politicians?

Maybe if he was 14 instead of 18, their conversation would have been different. But even it wasn’t, it would still matter if other teenagers like him could vote. People his age would be counted when it was time to make public policy and that is the ultimate value of extending the right to vote to more people.

It’s odd to say this, but age is a largely unquestioned barrier to full democratic participation in American politics. And the arguments people use against teenagers voting are the same lame, intellectually empty arguments people have used for generations to block others from enjoying the same rights they have.

It’s bullshit.

This is a democracy. More voters are a good thing.

Even if their taste in music sucks.

“Accepting” vs. “Believing” When It Comes to Science

I don’t believe in human-induced climate change. I accept it. I’m not a scientist, but I have a deep appreciation for the knowledge the scientific process – and the scientists who use it – collectively produce. I also accept evolution by natural selection, the health benefits of vaccines, and the link between smoking and lung disease.

But when we talk about evolution, climate change, vaccines or other “controversial” issues – as the smoking link used to be — we often talk about them as matters of “belief.” This is misleading, especially on basic, settled, scientific questions. As Neil Degrasse Tyson put it, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

All too often, in news articles, Congressional floor speeches, opinion pieces and even in public polling, we express belief or disbelief in science rather than acceptance or rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence.

Here’s why that’s wrong:

Beliefs are for politics, not for science.

Some people believe the Affordable Care Act will save millions of lives. Others believe it is cripplingly expensive. Rarely, will any one person express both these beliefs simultaneously. There’s another phrase for beliefs in this context: political opinions. More aptly, they are political talking points.

Science is not an opinion or a set of talking points. It’s evidence carefully culled over time. When we talk about science as if it’s another thing we can choose to believe in or not, we frame it as a political issue rather than a reality issue.

Our beliefs lead us to accept and reject science

There’s a wealth of evidence from social science that our ideology and political beliefs affect how we view scientific evidence on “controversial” issues. Dan Kahan’s experiment-based research remains my favorite: If you favor individual freedom more than community responsibility, you’re probably going to be more skeptical about the scientific evidence showing that mandatory vaccinations are effective. If you’re happy with the distribution of wealth and power in society, you’re more likely to be skeptical about the scientific conclusion that large fossil fuel companies – and the successful people who run them – are warming our climate.

In sum, our beliefs can determine whether or not we accept or reject science, but our acceptance or rejection of science is not a belief in and of itself.

Science journalist Chris Mooney, in particular, recommends, that reporters become more conversant in the forces that lead political actors to accept and reject science.

Established science doesn’t change, beliefs do

At the most basic level, beliefs can be ephemeral and temporary. Scientific conclusions – the rock solid, replicated, triple-checked kind – are not. Our individual and collective beliefs about whether or not or how to deal with climate change will surely change over time. The fact that it’s happening and is largely due to human activities will not.

Let’s drop this “belief” business

More politicians should espouse their “acceptance” of science and their trust in the scientific method. Fewer politicians should affirm their “belief” in science in the same way they talk about their “belief” in a strong middle class or the genius of the Founding Fathers.

Journalists should write about politicians and ideologues who “reject” scientific conclusions rather than strike a note of false equivalence between competing camps of “belief” when it comes to science.

Finally, it would be interesting to see social scientists test this out a bit when they do polling. What happens when they ask people if they “accept” or “reject” scientific evidence rather than query them about their “beliefs” when it comes to these issues? Granted, it might be unfair to do this regularly, but I bet you’d find that more people would align themselves with reality when the question is posed this way.

Photo Safari — 10/20/13 — Aquia Creek, VA

Aquia Creek, VA is home to Government Island, a spit of land with a lot of sandstone. George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant bought almost all of the island so that stonemasons and slaves could extract the sandstone for use in constructing several buildings in Washington, DC, including the Capitol.

Stafford Township, VA has turned the island into a truly excellent park, with tons of delicious infoplacards that can embed knowledge in one’s gray matter as surely as a master mason can embed a chisel in supple sandstone.

The trail:

A tree that fell, but didn’t die. Check the shoots popping out of the fallen trunk. Good job, tree!

From a distance, the chiseling work on this sandstone was clearly visible. There also seemed to be some areas where boreholes had been introduced to the rock. There was evidence of animals having used the holes for nesting.

Here’s a closeup of the chisel work. It gave me chills. This was 200 year-old evidence of human contact with the stone and there’s no way of knowing if these marks were made by a slave, a paid worker or a trained mason.

To extract the stone, workers would dig 20 inch channels around the block they wanted to move. Then they’d pulley it onto some sliding carts and down to the water.


Lens flare shot from inside one of the channels.

The channels were easily walkable, if a bit tight. I imagined trying to hoist a hammer and chisel to work the rock. I had to conclude that workers and slaves were easily injured on the job. I can’t imagine what their elbows and wrists felt like at the end of the day.

Here’s some human scale for the channels, courtesy of friend and interdisciplinary technologist Mr. Aaron DeNu. It was really impressive. Even in its modern state, one feels dwarfed by the rocks:


This guy got in before the feds and carved his initials in four blocks that outlined the acre of land he owned on the island:


An enclosed pit, use unknown. I like to imagine they made the oxen sit here. Either that or I walked around in a two-hundred-year-old latrine.


I believe, but cannot prove that this is what remains of the stone pier they used for loading ships:


We went off-trail and were rewarded with the discovery of recent human occupation of the site, including a fire ring and beer can tabs, a tool humans use to open small, pressed metal canisters containing light lager, a relaxant and intoxicant.


The site was among one of the tallest on the island. From that vantage point, I tried to place myself geographically then suddenly remembered how damn fun geocaching is. I checked my phone and, yes, we were super-duper still within range of 4G, so I pulled up a live geocache map. There was one on our way back. Sweet!

We wended our way toward it and found that the cache was located on the wooden bridge connecting us back to the mainland. I’m embarrassed to say that despite the fact that the geocache was titled “Troll” it took me a good two minutes to look under the damn bridge. Lo and behold, there was the cache – a reusable bottle with a strap attached to its screw-on top, dangling from a bolt under the bridge.

Thankfully, the family taking pictures and doing wholesome stuff above us was familiar with geocaching, so they didn’t think I was actually trolling them from under a bridge. The mud was really wet down there and I was wearing Chucks, so I’m also lucky I didn’t ass-plant myself in the mud. All in all, a worthy detour!

Blame Congress, Not Edward Snowdon

A friend sent around Jeffrey Toobin’s well-reasoned argument that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is no hero.

I agree with Toobin’s piece, but I think it also misses the point. The Snowdens, Bradley Mannings and Julian Assanges are an inevitable byproduct of institutions that haven’t kept up with changing technology.

Forty years ago, Daniel Ellsberg photocopied 7,000 pages worth of the Pentagon Papers and circulated them among a few people he thought he could trust, including a New York Times reporter. Today, the papers could fit on a thumb drive, get uploaded to the cloud, and be halfway around the world in an instant. (Interestingly, the federal government officially unassed the documents in 2011, and you can download them from the National Archives right here.)

Today’s secrets aren’t printed tomes. They’re data, field reports, massive files, banal PowerPoint slides. They’re digital, like everything else and they can move easily from the hands of a disgruntled leaker to the rest of us. And the secret-keepers need our data, too. Everything we’re producing is part of an ever-expanding global net of information that can be harvested like grain: wheat separated from chaff, needles uncovered in haystacks.

Snowden’s decisions and fate are certainly interesting. But debating them won’t help us figure out how our 200-year-old Constitutional rights fit in with a modern security state based on fast-as-light bits. Right now, we have an NSA that may or may not be violating the living hell out of the 4th Amendment. For instance, Snowden claims the NSA algorithms can only detect a foreign communications source 51 percent of the time. I don’t see anything in the Constitution calling for respecting our rights a bare majority of the time.

If we wanted to know if the NSA is, indeed, violating millions of people’s rights every day, there’s no one to ask who can give us a straight answer. There’s no panel of security, privacy and Constitutional experts to tell us whether or not the NSA is cutting corners on our rights to protect us from harm. There’s no one to tell us whether or not all the data being collected is being used just to fight the terrorists, of if it’s leaking, too, and being used for unauthorized domestic purposes.

[Update 7/3/13 — I was reading a hard copy of the Post and happened upon an article that explained such a panel does, in fact, exist, but that it’s been moribund for years. One result of the Snowden leak is that it may become more active and various positions on said panel may actually be filled. Good on ‘ya, Ed.]

And that’s Congress’s fault. The PATRIOT Act’s 2001 journey from introduction in the House to passage by both chambers took three days. The Senate, the great filibustering cooling saucer of the democratic experiment, went 98-1 in favor. Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy were the only ones with enough temerity to ask pertinent questions in the mad rush after the attacks to DO SOMETHING. (Only Feingold ultimately voted against.)

Congress told the president to go ahead and create a massive, modern security state with no oversight, no transparency and no balm for the Constitutional soul of our democracy. In effect, Congress basically dared someone like Snowden to become a leaker.

Now that the law is on the books, nobody wants to be the one who takes away an anti-terrorism tool. It makes it too easy for their political opponents to blame them — and their party — the next time an attack happens. So instead, Congress should add some checks to the system. Give us a little oversight. Give us a few trusted people who can analyze what the hell the NSA is doing behind closed doors and report back to the American people — without compromising our security — to let them know whether or not our rights are being infringed. Maybe we’ll think it’s worth it. Maybe we’re okay with the NSA intercepting our drunken texts if that means someone doesn’t get blown up. Really. But we’re citizens damn it and we deserve to have just a modicum of information so that we the governed may offer or refuse our consent.

Can We Stop It With the Political Sex Scandals, Please?

Now that the election is over, our nation again turns its white-hot gaze to the inability of middle-aged men in positions of power to keep it in their pants and refrain from exchanging sexy-talk over the Internet.

The substances of the scandal aside – and the story does keep getting weirder – events like this do real harm to governance.

That’s because the most precious commodity in governance is attention.

Every sex scandal cuts into media coverage that might otherwise be about an issue of substance, be it debt reduction, immigration, or a host of other issues. It consumes valuable time for members of Congress who will no doubt launch investigations. It fills Washington’s already-humid air with the hot off-gassings of gossip. Every conversation that begins, “Did you hear the latest about what the politician did with their genitals?” is a conversation that doesn’t begin with, “Did you the latest about what the politician said about the future of our country?”

At least for now we are being spared the grainy visages of shirtless or pantless Congressmen. And for that I am grateful. But I do not look forward to the email correspondence the FBI has collected becoming public. And I’d be very happy if they redacted any sexy-talk.

People’s private lives should be just that.

I really don’t care if a politician is cheating on his or her spouse. That’s their personal issue. Does it reflect on their personal character? Absolutely. Just as surely as cheating reflected on the personal character of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Maybe they had it easier because they didn’t have cell phones, email and Twitter. And they enjoyed a press corps that hadn’t yet allowed the cultural norms of Hollywood scandal-mongering to creep into political reporting. And their political opponents were probably astute enough to know about the hypocrites in their own ranks. Or at least they had the good sense not to fill the public’s head with trash. The 1988 Dukakis campaign, for instance, fired Donna Brazile after she encouraged reporters to look into rumors that George H.W. Bush was cheating. This came a month after the Dukakis folks got hit with the Willie Horton ad and they still pulled the punch.

But times have changed and we’ve suffered through the draining spectacle of the Clinton impeachment and the turmoil in the House that resulted in resignations by two subsequent House Speakers, one of them over an “extramarital affair.” (What a quaint euphemism for cheating).

There is little in life more private than a marriage and even those in public life should be able to draw the curtains on their own bedrooms. As Dan Savage has written time and again in response to unsatisfied spouses – and there seem to be a significant number of them writing him – the single biggest thing partners owe to each other is honesty. Whatever a couple wants to figure out (or lie about or ignore) is their business and none of mine, even if I voted for the cheating bastard.

And, sure, more generally, there is a case to be made that politicians who make “family values” a cornerstone of their public image are hypocritical if they cheat. But public approbation in that case is questionable. Every politician sends out mailers of them smiling with their family. The implicit and nearly universal message of a healthy, honest marriage is clear.

Greater hypocrisy is involved when closeted politicians rage against gay rights. That more clearly deserves to be exposed.

Then, of course, there are the rare times when a politician “hikes the Appalachian Trail” for days without telling their staff. Shirking basic responsibilities to go-a-cheating crosses the line into bad governance. We didn’t elect you to be faithful to your wife, but we did elect you to do your job.

In this latest case, it’s also ethically wrong to make secret sexy time with a not-your-spouse who also happens to be your biographer. And yes, there are national security and criminal implications, too. After all, this was the nation’s spy chief, not a Congressional back-bencher.

But the worst part is that this is going to waste a lot of Washington’s time when Washington should be focused on more important things. People need jobs, not gossip. We deserve a resolution to the endless fights over the federal budget, not breaking news alerts about cheating.

We would benefit greatly as a country from redrawing the lines of decorum when it comes to politicians’ sex lives. But I don’t think we can unring that Pavlovian bell. And I don’t think our cultural expectations around cheating or marriage will alter that much in the next few decades.

I can’t help but thinking that there are many politicians – men and women – who are cheating on their spouses and who are doing us a strange sort of service. They’re not posting pictures of themselves on the Internet. And they’re not exchanging a flurry of sexy and discoverable emails with their cheating other.

They’re probably being deeply, personally unethical. But they’re keeping the curtain drawn. And they’re not letting it interfere with their work, which is what we elected them to do.


Bruce Springsteen at the Political Conventions

Bruce Springsteen is probably the only American artist who can get play at both political party conventions.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie referenced one of his songs in his RNC keynote address, talking about his childhood and the role his mother played in his life:

“I was her son as I listened to ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ with my high school friends on the Jersey Shore.”

And the Obama campaign has been using “We Take of Our Own” as a campaign theme song. It played at the DNC as Obama ended his acceptance speech.

For the record, Springsteen is publicly supporting Obama and made a new video of the above song for the campaign.

Springsteen has a storied history of politicians invoking him and his work.

Wikipedia has the tale of the mixtape for the 1984 election. And Salon has a more detailed overview of Springsteen’s evolving politics and ideology.

It started with Reagan name-checking Springsteen in a speech:

“America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in [the] songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

Springsteen responded at a concert a few days later:

“Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the ‘Nebraska’ album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”

Then he sang “Johnny 99,” a song about a laid off autoworker driven to robbery – which inadvertently leads to murder – to pay his mortgage. “I ain’t saying that makes me an innocent man,” Johnny tells the judge. “But it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.”

According to the Associated Press, Walter Mondale stepped into the fray, too:

…Mondale went to New Brunswick, N.J., and accused Reagan of trying “to steal one of New Jersey’s most important heroes.”

“Bruce may have been born to run, but he wasn’t born yesterday. And when Bruce heard what President Reagan had said, here’s what the Boss had to say to him,” said Mondale, pulling out a U.S.A. Today article in which Springsteen was quoted as saying:

“There’s something really dangerous happening to us out there. We’re slowly getting split up into two different Americas … I don’t think the American dream was that everyone was going … to make a billion dollars. But it was that everyone was going to have a chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity.”

“That’s the real Bruce Springsteen, and he’s for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket,” Mondale said to cheers. But his press secretary later admitted there had been no formal endorsement.


The confusion probably started with columnist George Will, who mistakenly declared “Born in the U.S.A.” a paean to hard work and patriotism. In fact, it’s about a veteran who is let down by a lot of empty promises and misguided decisions from his government.

An artist’s worst fate, even more so than being ignored, is to be misunderstood. Being misused by politicians probably sucks even worse.

In any case, Springsteen seems to have taken matters into his own hands.

It’s much harder to confuse the message of “We Take Care of Our Own” than “Born in the U.S.A.” And he’s become much more explicit about who he does and doesn’t support for president.

If politicians are going to invoke you by name, they practically invite you to declare yourself for or against them and their policies. And while a lot of artists might have responded by taking a long vacation every two or four years, Springsteen made the right decision — to stand up for himself and what he believes in.

Honoring Neil Armstrong at the Air and Space Museum

On Saturday morning, I learned that Dr. Neil Armstrong had passed away. I half-remembered a history I never lived through. I felt a sense of loss for the man. His quiet dedication and humble shunning of the limelight spoke more powerfully to his character than his footsteps on the Moon.

I also felt a sense of loss for an era in which an American president could call us to do something great and trust that we could do it.

“We choose to go to the Moon,” John F. Kennedy told an audience at Rice University. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

It is a wonder to go back to his speech. Kennedy traces the grand scope of history, condenses it into a decade, and places the Moon shot on the next calendar page.

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.

Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson revved the engine of American ingenuity. And they greased the wheels of production. Our best and brightest stepped forward to touch the stars. The ones who made it had the “right stuff.” They were daredevil geniuses and fighter jock book worms with enough tempered steel in their guts to act as if it was just another job.

Still, they suffered and struggled. Some died. Their names grace the sky and mark the peaks of Martian hills.

All so men could set foot on the Moon.

And despite all the technological progress, the seductive wonder of the Space Age and the automated, systemized protocols of check, check and go, no-go, the computers on the Apollo 11 landing craft didn’t respond as expected. Armstrong landed on the Moon through the power of his own mind and his own hands.

I used to work at the National Air and Space Museum. I had a work study job in the children’s gallery in college. I remember walking past the Apollo 11 capsule before clocking in. I also remember when Columbia disintegrated. The museum staff created a memorial space for visitors to leave notes and flowers and to reflect.

So I bought a bouquet of flowers and headed to the museum.

There are amazing artifacts from the Apollo era. A piece of the Moon, the capsule, the spacesuits, food and tools the astronauts brought. Everything packed tight on top of tons or propellant, ready for a trip of uncertain success but certain purpose.

The Lunar Module exhibit on the first floor seemed the most appropriate place to lay the flowers. The module is a wonder to behold and a testament to the careful redundancy that was built into the Apollo program.

A crowd, bigger than usual, gathered around a tour guide. I noticed a man being interviewed by a news crew. I listened and learned he curated the Apollo artifacts in the museum. I spoke to him when he was done with his interview. His name is Allan Needell. I told him what I wanted to do and he agreed the Lunar Module exhibit made sense. To my astonishment and admiration, he took the flowers from me, climbed over the small railing between the visitors and exhibit and placed the flowers at the base of one of the lander’s footpads.

He told those paying attention that he had placed the flowers about where Armstrong would have taken his first step.


I thanked him – and the museum’s media relations director — profusely. The local ABC station interviewed me and several other patrons.

I’m so grateful to have been able to honor Dr. Armstrong in this way. I spent some time discussing his legacy with Dr. Needell and other staff and patrons.

Armstrong was certainly not the most boisterous astronaut. And others surpassed him in articulating the wonder, horror and joys of space travel.

But he represented the best of us.

I can’t find the original source for this, but it’s my favorite Armstrong quote. Remembering his view of the Earth from the Moon, he expressed incredible humility and humbleness:

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Earthrise over the Moon, 1969.


Thank you, Dr. Armstrong.

Currency and Humanity at the Air and Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world. I found something amazing there today I had forgotten about: the donation boxes.

People contribute currency from all over the world. I counted more than a dozen types of bills.

National Air and Space Museum donations

Why do people give so willingly to another country’s aerospace museum? Because the Untied States space program is a universal, human achievement in addition to being an American one. The donation box is mere steps away from the Apollo 11 capsule.

Apollo 11 capsule


And sometimes it takes seeing the capsule in person — including the narrow seats Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins occupied when we flung them further from our planet than any human beings had ever traveled — for me to truly remember that and feel the consequences of that achievement.

And if you go upstairs, you see another human achievement: the role air power played in defeating fascism. The World War II exhibit has currency from around the world brought back by members of the U.S. Air Force.

World War 2 currency

We do these things, John F. Kennedy told us, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

We must do hard, grand things again. We owe it to ourselves as Americans and as a species.

The money collected, the money brought back, reminded me of these truths.

Political Polarization and Obama’s First Term

Ryan Lizza’s excellent new piece in the New Yorker examines a series of memos that underscore some of the tough choices President Obama made in his first term.

An early passage caught my eye:

According to the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have devised a widely used system to measure the ideology of members of Congress, when Obama took office there was no ideological overlap between the two parties…Polarization also has affected the two parties differently. The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.

The authors to whom Hacker refers have a webpage I’ve been perusing, that shows some interesting data linking income inequality and immigration rates to increased polarization throughout history. Three graphs to note are the overall polarization graph as well as the graph showing the harder ideological swing the House Republicans have taken recently and the corresponding graph for the Senate. The three graphs refer to the liberal / conservative divide over economic policy.

I often hear friends bemoan the false balance the media creates between the two parties and the liberal / progressive corollary that “the other side does it worse.” I do think conservatives are generally better at creating, distributing and adopting messages for media consumption. There are a lot of reasons for that, but maybe an overlooked but important one is that they benefit from a more uniformly ideological set of elected officials.

In any case, I do think we benefit from having more moderates in power.

Why Are We Paying To Fill Out Tax Forms?

Turbo Tax saves me hours of work, confusion and eye strain every year when I do my taxes. But using tax preparation software always leaves me with the uneasy feeling that companies are making a buck off the government’s failure to make tax filing easy or intuitive.

Turbo Tax saves me hours of work, confusion and eye strain every year when I do my taxes. But using tax preparation software always leaves me with the uneasy feeling that companies are making a buck off the government’s failure to make tax filing easy or intuitive.

How hard is it for the average citizen to file his or her own taxes? In 2008, nearly 58 percent of individual tax returns were professionally prepared. And a 2005 Government Accountability Office report estimated that Americans spend $107 billion complying with the tax code.

Unfortunately, the tax preparation industry has a perverse incentive to keep tax filing difficult. For instance, in 2007 Intuit (worth $5 billion today) and HR Block ($4 billion) actively lobbied against allowing Americans to file taxes online. Unless, of course, taxpayers did so through tax preparation companies like Intuit and HR Block.

That’s a pretty crass move, even for corporate lobbyists. And I imagine if the IRS ever seriously considered creating their own easy-to-use tax preparation software or web forms, the entire tax preparation industry would fight it.

This year, I’m going to pay Turbo Tax $29.95 for a federal return and probably an additional $36.95 for a state return. Do I save more because I use Turbo Tax? Probably. The software takes me through income reporting and deductions in a clear, methodical fashion. I’m sure I would have missed some deductions if I had to do my taxes on my own.

But more importantly, I would have missed a couple hours of my life. I loathe the idea of filling out the IRS’s little boxes and following cryptic instructions, such as this 16-page guide for writing off the interest I paid on my mortgage. In Turbo Tax, I answer a few question and the software does the obtuse “Subtract line 8 from box 3B” work for me.

But still, that’s $70 of “my money” going to Turbo Tax to help me navigate something the government has made too complicated.

Easy-to-use tax forms — and software — should be a basic government service. If we, as citizens, are handing the government thousands of our own dollars, the least the government can do is make that process as painless as possible.

Further, I’m sure the pain and confusion of paying taxes contributes to people’s dislike and distrust of government. Politicians and agencies interested in burnishing the public’s esteem for government, especially the federal government, would do well to focus on making the act of paying our taxes just a little better.