Saturday, December 31, 2016

Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the UN

Mathew Goldstein

Security issues for the government of Israel include the Jordan Valley, strategic hilltops in the West Bank; protections for the aerial approaches to Ben Gurion International Airport; access and control over the main east-west roads and passes in the West Bank.  I am not an expert on this issue, but it is my understanding that such security concerns became an obstacle to a final agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israeli governments that the United States tried to facilitate during the Obama administration in 2014. Israel does not trust international actors or technology alone to protect border security, while Abbas rejected anything more than a five year Israeli presence inside a Palestinian state.  Israel currently has 200-500 troops in the Jordan Valley and wants to retain them there after a peace agreement.

John Kerry recently said that the settlements have nothing to do with security.   I know less about the settlements than I do about the Jordan Valley disagreement.  It seems to me that Israel thinks of some of the settlements as a form of protection against potential attacks.  Maybe they are thinking of what damage can be done by someone who possesses some of the various military weapons that Hamas continuously tries to acquire.  Settlements are then located in areas with the highest risks.

Settlements are also located wherever settlers start them.  The current government expresses the view that settlements are OK.  It appears that the only way to invalidate a settlement in Israel is for the land to be documented to be owned by someone else. Although there are a variety of opinions inside Israel on settlements, the government does not appear to accept the notion, commonly expressed outside of Israel, that settlements are an obstacle to peace or are illegal.  A more pluralistic future Palestinian state with towns that were started as settlements arguably provides the potential for a better quality of peaceful coexistence than a Palestinian state with no Jewish citizens.  Militant settlers who want to remain where they are as Israeli citizens, along with some right wing Israelis who are not settlers, and Palestinian militants, including Hamas, may try to scuttle such an agreement (a few militant Palestinians tried to scuttle the 2014 negotiations with violence).  The settlers would have to choose between leaving or becoming citizens of the Palestinian state.  The current Israeli government may have to replace its most right wing coalition partners to continue with a peace deal but I do not think that would be difficult to pull off.  Something along these lines appears to me to be the view of the current government of Israel, but I am not aware that they say much publicly about this.  

My guess is that settlers who remain without acquiring citizenship could be denied access to utilities such as electricity and water, denied access to banks, denied vehicle licenses, denied entry into neighboring countries, refused employment, detained, maybe deported to another country.  I do not know what will happen, but there are multiple ways to create difficulties for them.  Uncooperative settlers are a complication, particularly if they are numerous, but I am skeptical that they can block a Palestinian state from forming or functioning.  

When two countries sign a treaty, it could be a loan agreement, a trade agreement, a peace agreement, etc., they are usually both exchanging national sovereignty for a benefit.  One such possible exchange is to commit to not granting citizenship to anyone who is violating the citizenship laws of the other country. At the same time people who comply with the citizenship requirements of both countries can obtain dual citizenship.  This arrangement benefits both countries by supporting their citizenship laws. 

The UN and many countries generally, in contrast, prioritize political boundaries such as East Jerusalem (no mention of West Jerusalem), and the pre-1967 line as it was after all of the Jewish residents were forceably expelled by Jordan.  Oddly, they fail to make the Golan Heights versus a future Palestinian state distinction.  But those political boundaries, land ownership boundaries, and demographic boundaries as they were before 1967 do not always align with Israel's security concerns.  Israel recently has had a number of small skirmishes in the vicinity of the Golan Heights.  I think it is unlikely that any Israeli government will be willing to evacuate the Golan Heights regardless of how many resolutions are passed at the UN asserting that any non-negotiated changes to the pre-1967 line are not recognized, and regardless of any past offers by Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights.  With respect to Lebanon and whatever Syria becomes, it will be peace for peace or no peace.  I predict that there will be no future offer by Israel to return that particular territory Israel captured in the 1967 war.  The results of that war with regard to the Golan Heights are final.

Everyone in Israel is not comfortable with the notions that every time Israel offers new concessions in its negotiations with the Palestinians that those concessions are retained and carried over to future negotiations, that every time there is a negotiation the Palestinians use the opportunity to communicate through the press why everyone should think Israel is evil, and that the 1967 war and its outcome are legally invalid while everything starting the week before Israel won that war is legal and retained as the starting point for negotiations.  Jordan and Egypt did not behave that way when they negotiated peace with Israel. Reaching an agreement with the Palestinians will be more difficult than I think many people realize.  When Netanyahu imposed a 10-month construction freeze on all of Israel's settlements in the West Bank in response to pressure from the Obama administration, the Palestinian Authority rejected the gesture as being insignificant due to the limited construction on some pre-approved housing units, failure to extend the freeze to East Jerusalem, and failure to dismantle already-built settlement outposts.  Although Abbas did negotiate anyway in the ninth month, it appears (to me) unlikely that Abbas will change his mind and agree to the concessions that Israel requested, such as a long term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley.  We do not know who Abbas successor will be or whether his successor will be more accommodating to Israel's security concerns.  Nor do I think that Israel's requests for security concessions are going to diminish or change significantly after Netanyahu is replaced.   I do not know where the focus on the settlements as a "flagrant violation of international law" will take us, but without Israel's long term security concerns about that volatile region being respected I do not think we are going anywhere we want to be.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Religion and politics

By Mathew Goldstein

Is modern knowledge a pure, stand-alone, collection of information disconnected from conclusions about how the universe functions?  Of course not.  That question is ridiculous for entertaining an obviously untenable fiction.  Yet religious believers depend on arguments that modern knowledge is irrelevant or wrong when their religious beliefs clash with modern knowledge.  This has political consequences.

Should health insurance cover contraception?  If we live in a natural universe then the answer is yes.  If we live in a supernatural universe then the answer to this question, and for that matter the best answer to almost any other question regarding government policy, and individual decisions, depends on what it is claimed a supernatural entity wants, as was revealed to us in various texts, according to the interpretations of some religious authorities.

Some people who self-identify as secularists say that because our government is defined as secular it does not matter what anyone thinks regarding deities because it is legally forbidden for lawmakers to even consider such claims.  After all, any claim that asserts god says such and such is automatically religious.  So there is no practical problem here.

Such secularists are wrong.  There is still a problem.  One remaining problem is that the definition of secular depends on utilizing modern knowledge as our decision making foundation.  Yet this principle of basing decision making on modern knowledge is itself rejected by many religious people.  Furthermore, it cannot be otherwise.  Religious people must reject at least some modern knowledge because otherwise they cannot maintain their mutually exclusive religious beliefs.  They may deny this conflict between their beliefs and modern knowledge, but this conflict is there, and their mistaken denial does not make the problem go away.

When some secularists campaign for an end to establishment of monotheism they are criticized by some of their fellow secularists.  The criticisms go like this: There are more important issues!  We cannot win!

The "there are more important issues" complaint is bogus.  Ok, there are more important issues.  We agree.  So what?  There are always more important issues.  No one claims this is a most important issue.  That is not a reasonable standard or demand.  It is hypocritical.  No one can claim that they only focus on the most important issues.  The only valid standard is this:  What is better versus what is worse.  When we advocate for what is better against what is worse then we have met our civic obligations to ourselves and to everyone else.

The "we cannot win complaint" gets more to the heart of the problem.  This is about fear, fear of the unknown.  And it is reasonable to fear popular bigotry, hatred, intolerance, resentment.  Hell, I have experienced this too much in my own life.  So what do we do?

A good place to start is to acknowledge the fact that popular opinion matters.  Then we can tackle popular opinion as the problem that it is.  The other thing we should acknowledge is that there is no easy way to do this.  We cannot tip toe around the tulips here.  Addressing the public opinion problem entails confronting it head on.  People who insist otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking.  We should get off of our high horses and engage. We should not leave the public space to conservative and liberal theists debating between themselves.  We should actively argue against theism.  The best kind of citizen (contra Boy Scouts of America) debates other citizens to correct popular misperceptions that we live in a supernatural universe.

Debating the issues at the higher levels alone is a bad strategy.  That approach simply fails to address the underlying motivations for the disagreements which are sometimes rooted in opposing understandings of how the universe functions.  It cannot be overemphasized that people who make decisions, and advocate for policies, that match their understanding of how the universe functions are correct to be doing that.  We should be unembarrassed about focusing on that lower level, on people's understanding of how the universe functions, and in particular on the natural versus supernatural universe disagreement.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The arguments of Christian author Timothy Keller

By Mathew Goldstein

The NY Times columnist Nicolas Kristof turned to the Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the award-winning bestseller The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, to tell us if Mr. Kristof is a Christian.  An excerpt of the interview was published the day before Christmas.  I could not care less who the Rev. Keller claims qualifies as Christian (he concluded Mr. Kristof appeared to be "on the outside of the boundary").  The focus here is his arguments for why we should be Christian.  Let's see if the Rev. Keller's argument for why we should be Christian is compelling.

In response to Kristof saying he doubts the veracity of the Christian claim that a virgin women became pregnant and gave birth, the Rev. Keller points out that saying that climate change is a hoax is inconsistent with being a board member of Greenpeace.  Similarly, he argues, any religious faith must have some boundaries for dissent that cannot be removed without destabilizing the whole thing.  OK, but climate change is backed by empirical evidence, it is not a faith, and this distinction is important for the quality of any argument defending factual claims about how the universe functions.  Greenpeace is properly justified in claiming that climate change is factual.  We agree that boundaries are needed.  Let's begin by properly setting the boundary between justified and unjustified beliefs.  We know that women who become pregnant are not virgins.  The Rev. Keller's response here does not succeed in arguing otherwise.

Mr. Kristof points out that the earliest accounts of the life of Jesus do not mention a virgin birth and the virgin birth story in the Book of Luke was written in a different kind of Greek that indicates it was added later.  This is a reasonable, best fit with the empirical evidence, argument against the veracity of the virgin birth story.  The letters of Paul, the gospels of Mark and Thomas, say nothing about a virgin birth.  The Rev. Keller replies that dismissing the virgin birth "would damage the fabric of the Christian message."  He then argues for the centrality of belief in the virgin belief to the Christian message.  The Rev. Keller's argument here violates a basic premise of empiricism.  We do not start with a conclusion and then dismiss the counter-argument on nothing more than an a-priori, circular, commitment to retain that conclusion.

Mr. Kristof then asks if the Resurrection must be taken literally.  Again, the Rev. Keller mistakenly responds by citing the centrality of Christianity's historical doctrines to its ethical teachings.  OK, but when people die our metabolism stops, our body disintegrates, and shortly thereafter the physical damage is too substantial for any possibility of the metabolism restarting.  Gravity keeps the disintegrating body attached to the earth.  The Christian message is not empirical evidence otherwise.  The Rev. Keller appears to fail to recognize that historical assertions are factual conclusions, not doctrines, and that such conclusions can only be justified with supporting empirical evidence.  Christian beliefs are not empirical evidence for Christian beliefs.

Mr. Kristof points out that the first gospel, Mark, is "fuzzy" about the Resurrection being an actual historical event.  The Rev. Keller responds that Mark's gospel "ends very abruptly without getting to the Resurrection, but most scholars believe that the last part of the book or scroll was lost to us."  He then makes the argument that the fact that women who had social low status were the eyewitnesses to the Resurrection implies that their Resurrection claims are true because a fictional account would have cited men as the eyewitnesses.  He then cites "thousands of Jews virtually overnight worshipping a human being as divine when everything about their religion and culture conditioned them to believe that was not only impossible, but deeply heretical."  These are empirical evidence based arguments.  

The Rev. Keller is now recognizing that empirical evidence carries weight and has a place in this argument.  But he is being noticeably selective here, citing empirical evidence only when it favors his conclusion, having abandoned empiricism altogether when it was unfavorable to his conclusion.  His arguments are weak and dubious.  The Rev. Keller overlooks that the gospels (after Mark) all included male eyewitnesses to bolster credibility, in addition to the initial female eyewitnesses.  His claim of thousands of sudden Jewish converts to Christianity is a dubious historical factual assertion.  Most of the converts to Christianity were likely polytheists.  Christian beliefs likely spread gradually, starting with small groups of people who came in contact with the first traveling evangelical, the originator of Christianity, Paul.  Out of 1-2 million Jews, maybe 1000 were Christian at the end of the 1st century, we do not know the actual number. The Rev. Keller's claim that "most scholars" think that there is an additional final section to Mark's gospel that is missing is also dubious.  Mark, the first gospel to be written, ends where it does because the resurrection eyewitness stories were first introduced in the subsequent gospels.  We have no evidence otherwise.  I think he is defining "most scholars" as most Christian believers with a graduate degree in religious studies.  Those graduate degrees are occupational, not scholarly.  Early first century historians never mention a resurrection of Jesus (Philo-Judaeus, Martial, Arrian, Appian, Theon of Smyrna, Lucanus, Aulus Gellius, Seneca, Plutarch, Apollonius, Epictetus, Silius Italicus, Ptolemy).

Mr. Kristof responds that, as a journalist, he wants eyewitnesses and evidence because without such skepticism we apply a different standard towards our own faith tradition than we do towards "Islam and Hinduism and Taoism".  The Rev. Keller responds that he agrees we require evidence.  He then defends the existence of a god as being best fit with the evidence, citing human consciousness, cognition, and moral values as being non-materialistic.  We disagree both that those traits are unique to humanity and that those animal traits are non-materialistic in origin.  I am convinced that best fit with the available empirical evidence favors the conclusion that those capabilities found in biological creatures are manifested physically.  They are materialistically derived via selection of advantageous changes to DNA over multiple generations of reproducing life.  Physical damage or abnormalities to particular areas of the brain, or drug induced interference with particular processes that occur in the brain, alter or undermine consciousness, cognition, and moral attitudes and behaviors. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that those are human capabilities that lack a materialistic foundation and therefore evidence supernaturalism.  We now have an argument for deism.  There is still a large distance to travel from supernaturalism all the way to a bible based Christianity.

The Rev. Keller then argues, citing Nietzsche for support, that human rights, concern for others, and equality have no basis in a materialistic universe, that humanistic values require a leap of faith for non-theists.  I am not convinced that such goals have no logical or reasonable justifications in a materialistic universe.  As temporary, fragile, dependent, materialistic beings, we do better when we cooperate together towards realizing shared goals rooted in a collective respect for our common, naturalistic, needs.  But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that Nietzsche and the Rev. Keller are correct.  Does supernaturalism avoid this leap of faith problem?  How?  God said so?  

Furthermore, how is a difficulty in justifying justice as a goal that is worthy of expending effort to try to achieve relevant to choosing between theism versus atheism?  We either live in a naturalistic or supernatural universe regardless of how easy, or difficult, it is to justify particular social goals.  These are two different, distinct, questions with the question of naturalism versus supernaturalism describing the larger context within which we subsequently tackle the second question.  The first, natural versus supernatural, question may have relevance to the second, justification for justice as a goal, question.  But the second question has no relevance to answering the first question.  The horse goes before the cart, not the other way around like Rev. Keller is trying to argue here.

Mr. Kristof responded to Rev. Keller by questioning whether holding beliefs consistent with modern science, such as supporting human rights, is analogous with beliefs "that seem inconsistent, like a virgin birth or resurrection?"  The Rev. Keller denied his Christian beliefs are inconsistent with science.  He cited divine miracles as the explanation for those two conclusions.  He pointed out that there is no possibility of proving that miracles do not happen.  OK, but we humans are not all present and all knowing (of course).  Therefore, this request from Rev. Keller for proof in this context is unreasonable.  Best fit with the available empirical evidence is the standard.  Without reliance on empirical evidence there is no proper justification for believing in miracles.  It makes no sense to claim otherwise.  Possibility alone does not justify belief that the possibility is true.  Certainly, science does not function that way.  Science depends on empirical evidence backed probability, not mere possibilities.

The Rev. Keller then asserts: "Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause."  Repeatability is a limitation.  But his claim that science must always assume a natural cause is false.  Science a-priori assumes nothing regarding whether a cause is natural or supernatural.  Science seeks out whatever is successful with regard to methods and conclusions.  The methods adopted by science are themselves conclusions derived from science.  Science adopts the methods that science concludes, based on successful outcomes, work.  For several hundred years science has relied exclusively on naturalistic methods and conclusions, not because science a-priori excludes supernaturalism, but because only naturalism is successful, supernaturalism always fails.

The Rev. Keller then argues that a one time miracle is beyond the reach of science.  OK, we agree that science can miss one time events that occurred two thousand years ago.  But where does this fact take us?  Is this is justification for being a monotheist, let alone for being a Christian?  We all agree that we have limitations that carry over to the human activity we refer to as science.  We do not eyewitness the past or the future, for example.  Our capabilities are clearly limited, particularly without the assistance of machines that are more capable in some respects than we are.  But we have no business going from our limitations all the way to factual conclusions about how the universe works.  Ignorance is not a proper justification for beliefs.  Ignorance is a justification for not knowing, it is not a justification for knowledge.  When we lose our keys at night in the dark we may not find them without a flashlight, at least not until after day break, unless the keys conveniently lay under a street lamp.  Meanwhile, it is not reasonable to conclude that by a one time divine miracle the keys were transported to the far side of the moon.

Mr. Kristof then asks the Rev. Keller if it is OK to have doubts and struggle over these kinds of questions.  The Rev. Keller answers yes.  Quoting from the Book of Jude, he claims doubts lead to stronger faith.  We disagree.  Doubts about the veracity of factual claims should take us to skepticism and away from belief in those conclusions.  The Rev. Keller then asserts that our choice is between faith in naturalism or faith in supernaturalism.  We disagree.  The only option is the best fit with the available empirical evidence conclusion.  The available evidence decisively favors naturalism, the evidence is neither silent or neutral on this question.  The laws of physics that best describe the functioning of our universe are mathematical equations consistent with our universe being mechanical, material, and physical.  There is no astrology, or evidence for a God, in those equations.  Or in biology, or anywhere in our shared modern knowledge about how the universe functions.

Mr. Kristof then questions the Christian belief that billions of people are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian countries.  The Rev. Keller responds that the bible clearly asserts that "you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus".  The Quran makes a similar claim that Islam is the exclusive postmortem route to a kingdom of God.  Some arguments are so convoluted and parochial they can come only from the mouths of some Christians, or Jews, or Muslims.  They resort to similar non-empirical, anti-empirical, and empirically weak or dubious, circular, incomplete, biased, arguments.  Instead of asking Rev. Keller to judge if he is Christian, Mr. Kristof may do better to say he has no desire to be Christian.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Better ways to select our leaders

By Mathew Goldstein

Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by more than 500,000 votes. Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by more than 2 million. Yet she still lost the White House because Donald Trump narrowly won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania combined by fewer than 100,000 votes.

The electoral college is not neutral, it favors the presidential candidate who wins in the small states and/or the largest states over the candidate that is most popular. How should this problem be fixed? First we will identify where the electoral college goes bad.  Then we will examine whether the leading proposed electoral college reform, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, remedies the problems.

One problem is that all states get two electors for free, in addition to one elector per House district, the same way that each state gets two Senators.  This gives smaller states substantially more electors per voter than larger states.   

A second problem is that 48 states and the District of Columbia award all of their electors to the candidate who wins the statewide vote instead of awarding electors individually by each House district vote result or collectively in proportion to the statewide vote.  Although the electoral college is a federal institution, the states decide how their electors are selected.  State lawmakers assign their electors this way, despite it being unfair to their own voters who voted for the non-first place candidates, because it increases the influence of the state over the final result.  

When states select electors individually based on each House district result (as does Maine) then there is a different problem.  The drawing of House district boundaries for partisan advantage (a.k.a. gerrymandering) biases both the state and national results.

Avoiding these problems with the electoral college is the motive behind the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  It is an agreement among several U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all of their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote. Once states totaling 270 electoral votes join the compact—which only requires passing state laws—then the next presidential election will be determined by the popular vote, not the Electoral College.  As of early November 2016, 10 states and the District of Columbia have signed the compact, totaling 165 electoral votes which is over 60% of the way to 270. This approach to reforming the electoral college avoids a federal constitutional amendment that requires support from two thirds of both houses of Congress and three fifths of the states.

Under that National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, what happens if six (or more) candidates for president split the vote so that no one candidate wins more than twenty percent of the vote?  The candidate who won twenty percent of the vote would receive 100% of the electors from the majoritarian subset of the states that have adopted the compact.  Will the resulting president be the most popular candidate overall among the voters?  The popularity ranking of the newly elected president relative to the other candidates could be anywhere from first place to last place.  We do not know because the voters did not express their second (or third, etc.) preference.  This is not merely a problem of lacking information, it is a problem with the election outcome.  The election winner may, in fact, be the most disliked candidate overall who was elected by the 20% of the population that, to quote Hillary Clinton, define the "deplorables".

The only context where the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact avoids the problem of a candidate who is less preferred overall among the voters winning the election is the context where there are exactly two candidates.  The moment a third candidate draws some votes the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact makes it possible for a candidate who is not the most popular to win the election.  Our electoral college provides an imperfect mechanism for resolving this problem by requiring that the House of Representatives select the president from the three candidates with the most electoral college votes when firstly the voters, and secondly the electoral college, failed to identify a most popular candidate with their votes.  The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact subverts that mechanism by always giving one candidate an automatic majority of electors even when that candidate is unpopular nationwide.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is like a game of whack-a-mole.  It fixes a problem in one place while enabling the same problem to recur in a different place. In the short term the interstate compact could help avoid the wrong candidate winning the electoral college.  But for the longer term, fixing our 18th century method of electing people to public office will require more changes than the interstate compact would implement.

It is easy to diagnose the problems, including the problem with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  It is more difficult to design an optimal method for electing a single person in multi-candidate elections.  There is arguably no one election method that is the best method, certainly there is no perfect method.  

But it is not difficult to identify methods for electing a president that are technically better than both the existing electoral college and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Unfortunately, the better methods alter the electoral college and will therefore require a constitutional amendment to implement.  The integrity of our presidential elections is important.  The presidency of the United States is a very powerful position.  We need something better than either the existing electoral college or the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

A constitutional amendment focusing on federal elections provides an opportunity to populate the House of Representatives with lawmakers who more accurately represent the voters by including a provision that prevents gerrymandering when drawing House district boundaries.  To create election districts without gerrymandering we can rely on automated mathematical methods designed to optimize election district compactness.  This will tend to result in major changes to election district boundaries in ten or twenty year intervals.  This potentially increases the turnover of elected officials without decreasing voter choice or eliminating all of the experienced lawmakers, as happens with term limits.  

{On 12/7 changes from the original version were made to the following two paragraphs, which was previously one paragraph.}

Four changes to the electoral college would render it substantially better:  Eliminate the two statewide electors, when a candidate won a majority of votes nationally then the electoral college is dismissed and that candidate is automatically the president elect, otherwise automatically assign the electors from each state to the individual candidates proportional to the statewide vote for those candidates, and automaticaly cast each elector's vote to their assigned candidate.  Two more changes that should also be considered: Give the electoral college some time, maybe a week, to try to reach a majority consensus with several more votes before the decision is turned over to the House of Representatives, and sequester the electors, like jurors are sequestered, during their deliberations to secure them from bribes or threats.  

The first four changes to the electoral college would elect the nationwide vote winner while increasing the likelihood that the electoral college winner will also be the most popular candidate.  The latter two changes give the electoral college an opportunity to select a nationally popular candidate when no one candidate initially won a majority of votes or electors. Without those last two additional changes each elector is a particular vote and there is no need for any real people to serve as the electors.  But there may be better ways to elect a popular candidate than to hand the final decision over to the electors or the House of Representatives when there is no clear winner.

For more reliably accurate election results we would need to change the method of voting and tallying votes to allow voters to approve more than one candidate, or to rank the candidates, particularly in single winner contests.  This affects the electoral college.  The state electors could now be individually elected by House district provided that gerrymandering is eliminated. Alternatively, the electoral college could be scrapped because it is very unlikely that there will not be a clear nationwide winner. A constitutional amendment should therefore choose between retaining our current election method or replacing it with a better method and then modify the electoral college to match the election method.

My personal favorite methods for tallying the overall preference of the voters in single winner contests are the Condorcet methods.  Voters are asked to rank the candidates.  A complete ranking of all candidates is best, but omitting some candidates, or even voting for only one of the candidates, is acceptable.  Condorcet methods start by pairing the candidates with each other and incrementing the count for one candidate of each pair each time a voter preferred that candidate over the other candidate.  The pairs are usually ordered based on a measure of how strongly the losing candidate of each pair is defeated.  Any circular rankings within groups of multiple pairs, referred to as cycles (e.g. A beats B beats C beats A), are then resolved.   Different Condorcet methods take different approaches to eliminating the cycles.  After all of the cycles are eliminated there is one candidate that beats all of the other candidates.  Two different approaches to eliminating the cycles can be tried simultaneously by iterating through all combinations of culling the cycles using those two approaches.  The cycle culling that disregards the fewest voter preferences then identifies the winner. 

There are also non-Condorcet methods that are better at identifying the most popular candidate than the overly simplistic method of voting for one with the candidate obtaining the most votes winning. There are technical criteria for identifying good election methods.  We need to rely on mathematicians who study election methods to tell us how well the different methods comply with various criteria.  

Voter behavior also must be considered when selecting an election method.  It may require some experimentation and time to determine which methods actually work well in different contexts.  Primary elections, where it is common for many candidates to vie to be a political party's single winner nominee, are good for experimenting with better single winner election methods.  A problem with preference voting is that voters have incentive to vote strategically by ranking the candidates they do not want to win last because the polls say those candidates are among the most popular candidates instead of voting sincerely by ranking the candidates they most dislike last.  Sincere voters may be disadvantaged by strategic voters but strategic voting undermines the integrity of the election result.

Eliminating gerrymandering and thoughtful electoral college reform, with or without voting and ballot tallying method reform, can be accompanied by other steps to improve the quality of our elections. The federal government should automatically register everyone to vote in federal elections when they turn 18. Voter registration and de-registration could be automatically linked to state driver's licenses, state tax returns, post office change of address applications, and death certificates.  There should be regular auditing of the voter registration rolls.  Ballots could be mailed to all residents.  Governments could arrange free transportation to polling places and publish videos of the candidates promoting themselves on the Internet.  Keeping polling places open 12 hours every day for one week, as is done in Maryland, should be the national standard.  Election results should always be audited before they are finalized.  

Friday, November 11, 2016

What Trump Did Right and What Clinton Did Wrong

After the astonishing 2016 presidential election, it is natural to try to figure out what happened. This article is my excuse to blow off steam, so read it with all due caution.

What Trump Did Right

Throughout his campaign, Trump seemed to break all the rules, insult almost all minorities and interest groups, and tell lies shamelessly. He may have gotten these things right:

1. Truthfulness about his personality: Trump made no effort to pretend to be someone he wasn't. He's been in the public eye for decades, often as the butt of jokes. But he never tried to pose as a good, upstanding, mainstream politician. As a result, statements that he made or videos about his exploits that would have be scandalous for a normal politician (like Anthony Weiner's sexting) instead made Trump look honest and authentic. He never pretended to be other than that.
2. Reality show host: His time on TV should have been demeaning. But he managed to host "The Apprentice" by making other people participate in demeaning competitions. He never did them himself, and he kept the role as Chairman of the Board. So he looked like the boss, the guy in charge.
3. Policy confusion: Trump had certain catch phrases, like "Let's build a wall and make Mexico pay for it." But as serious policies, they were vacuous. A wall won't solve the problem of immigration or lost jobs. (Most of the southern border already has walls, and more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than are coming in.) But as a slogan, it sounds decisive and active. Not only that, this and other statements were so vague that media commentators spent hours trying to figure what he meant, giving him that much more publicity and a sense that he was more serious than the statements deserved.
4. Play to emotions, not intellect: Like Bill Clinton, Trump felt his supporters' pain. He vocalized and amplified their anger. Even if the policies were vacuous, voters heard his emotions and thought he must be sincere on some level. Based on that, they ignored the Trump statements that they disagreed with.
5. Salesmanship: Trump is a good salesman. He constantly emphasized his strengths and how much he could do for the country, which he said was in terrible condition without him. He has charisma.

What Hillary Clinton Did Wrong:

1. Guarded personality: Clinton's personality is more guarded than either Bill Clinton or Obama. That was clear from her speech as the Democratic Convention, when all of them could be directly compared. She didn't seem to feel the voters' pain, even though privately or one-on-one, she probably has more empathy than Trump.
2. Policies: Clinton didn't have a small number of slogans about her policies. (Reagan ran on three simple policies.) Clinton had many detailed statements and plans, but she didn't turn them into goals that were easy to say. As a result, people didn't know what she really intended to prioritize.
3. Woman's angle: As the first serious woman candidate, she should have played up women's issues. Perhaps she didn't want to alienate men. But by not emphasizing women's issues, she perhaps didn't get strong support from women. She also didn't look honest, because as a woman, everyone assumed that she should have cared about women's problems.
4. Address critics and "scandals": Clinton has been bedeviled by critics who look for scandals about her for decades. She is better known for scandals than for her positive contributions. But worse than the scandals is that she never found a way to push back against the critics. She tried in the 1990's by talking about the "vast right-wing conspiracy." But that was ridiculed and she dropped it. But there really was a kind of organized right-wing effort, led by Fox News with their attacks on liberal ideas and their conspiracy theories. She should have put time and effort into finding a way to respond. She could have allied with left-wing networks like MSNBC and become a regular guest, the way that Trump did with Fox. Because Clinton didn't find a way to respond, she gave the impression that there was substance to the accusations, and she either looked weak or like she was hiding something. She should have taken this problem head on, rather than take the "high road."
5. Nerd: Clinton is basically a nerdy person who doesn't have the charisma of Trump, Obama, or Bill Clinton. Jimmy Carter had the same problem in debating Reagan.

So this is how Trump, with no political experience, defeated Clinton, who had the best resume of any political candidate for decades.

The lesson is that presidential candidates need to be likeable, friendly people, even if they don't know anything about policy. They can be front people. Democrats should run someone like Alec Baldwin or Oprah, not policy experts like Clinton or Al Gore. It appears that even if Clinton and Gore can win the popular vote, they can't win the electoral college vote.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a moderate advocate for secular democracy

By Mathew Goldstein

Heather's Homilies defends Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the Southern Poverty Law Center's false accusation that she is an anti-Muslim extremist.  Again, as with Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali justifiably thinks that Islam contains within it a supremicist, triumphalist, stream that poses a threat to justice, peace, and prosperity and whose primary victims are other people like herself who are born and raised as Muslims.  They are both committed to trying to promote a liberal, secularist, reformist movement within the Islamic world, although Ayaan Hirsi Ali, unlike Maajid Nawaz who is an Islamic theist, had the good sense to abandon religion altogether and became an atheist.  The SPLC's misdirected argument that they are extremists is weak, selective, out of context, confused, sometimes anti-liberal and anti-secularist in content, and on careful examination their argument falls apart.

The SPLC cites the leaked document "Preventing Terrorism - where next for Britain" by the Quilliam Foundation, which makes recommendations for counter-terrorism policy and was co-authored by Maajid Nawaz, as evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an anti-Muslim extremist.  That document is available on Scribd.  I read some of it and it reinforced my conclusion that the SPLC characterization of him as an extremist is deranged.  When the document was leaked it understandably made some people angry because it identified their groups as Islamist to the British counter-terrorism staff (Maajid Nawaz points out that in Muslim majority countries some of these same groups openly and proudly self-identify themselves as Islamist).  I cannot vouch that every individual and group named as Islamist actually is.  But I can say that the content of the document is thoughtful and not the writing of an extremist.  It is the writing of someone who is committed to defending secular democracy against its opponents.  I have reason to think that at least some of the recommendations in that document were subsequently adopted by the government.

Barack Obama's responses to Bill Maher's questions

By Mathew Goldstein

I highlight sections of our president's responses and comment on them.

MAHER: Right… they’re atheists, agnostics, or they just don’t want to get up on Sunday morning.  And we have no representation in Congress. If our numbers were represented, there’d be over a hundred congresspeople who felt that way. It just seems like we are not included in the basket of diversity in America, which is odd because we are the biggest minority. That is a bigger minority than any other minority you can name. Don’t you think we should get a little more love?
OBAMA: You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that  are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…

My commentary: Bill Maher is asking about a tendency for non-theists to be excluded and under-represented in the political process wherein people are elected to make our laws.  The response from Barack Obama that there is no "active persecution" indicates an aversion on his part to having a discussion on the question being directed to him.  Why should "active persecution" be the standard for being satisfied that all is good in the context of a discussion on the civic standing of non-theists?  That is a rather low standard and it is not the standard that Barack Obama would set for other constituencies as being sufficient, nor should it be.

MAHER: [Laughs] What are my other wacky ideas? I usually agree with you!
OBAMA: I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are. So here’s what I would say, that… we should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.

My commentary: We agree that a culture in which religious beliefs are personal, like food and clothing preferences, would avoid the problems that Barack Obama correctly criticizes.  But are religious beliefs private?  Barack Obama is sidestepping this thorny question by assuming religious beliefs are private and personal.  Could it be that religion tends to resist and oppose attempts to foster a culture in which religious beliefs are personal?  Why should religious institutions want a culture where their religious beliefs have no say in public policy?  Whenever self-interested religious institutions see an opportunity to band together to form a majority to enact their religious beliefs into the public laws why would they voluntary refuse to do so?  Fostering a culture in which religious beliefs are privatized is like fostering a government without any fees or taxes, it is unrealistic.

MAHER: But we might be more pro-science in America if we were less religious, don’t you think?
OBAMA: Well… you know, I think that the issues we have with science these days are not restricted to what’s happening with respect to religion. There are a lot of very religious scientists around…

My commentary:  Bill Maher is asking if the equation "more pro-science" = "less religious" is true. He is not asking if all anti-science attitudes will disappear without religion.  We all agree that various problems we have are not restricted to any one factor.  Again, this avoidance response suggests Barack Obama is uncomfortable with addressing the question.  

MAHER: Really?

My commentary: I agree with Bill Maher's questioning Barack Obama comment that a lot of scientists are very religious.  Some scientists are "very religious", but far fewer than the general population.  There is wiggle room in the ambiguity regarding what qualifies as "a lot" and "very religious", but I think this response from Barack Obama is misleading.  The counter-argument that scientists are significantly more likely to be less religious than non-scientists is the relevant truth that Barack Obama is obscuring here. 

OBAMA: … I think the problem here is that in our school systems, and to some degree — and this is where it is relevant — with school boards around the country that are mandating curriculums and textbooks, you start seeing this weird watering down of scientific fact so that our kids are growing up in an environment — and this connects to what I was saying earlier abou the media — where everything’s contested. Where nothing is true. Because if it’s on Facebook, it all looks the same.  And if you’re reading something from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist next to some guy in his underwear writing in his basement, or his mom’s basement, on text, it looks like it’s equally plausible. And part of what we have to do a better job of, if our democracy is to function in a complicated diverse society like this, is to teach our kids enough critical thinking to be able to sort out what is true and what is false, what is contestable and what is incontestable. And we seem to have trouble with that. And our political system doesn’t help.

My commentary:  Here we go again, more avoidance and a reluctance to confront the question.  The watering down of scientific fact is indeed "weird" from the secularist point of view adopted by Barack Obama where religious beliefs are assumed to be personal and private.  But for many religious people, such as the religious people that the Republican Party has adopted as one of their main constituencies, there is nothing weird about contesting scientific facts.  They mistakenly think that they possess the faith based religious truth, and they then correctly apply their understanding of the truth to their public life.   Facts about how the universe functions are, by definition, not restricted to the personal and private realm.  From this religious point of view, the scientists are wrong because they contradict the divinely revealed holy texts.  Barack Obama sidesteps this problem, placing the blame on the media, the Internet (a.k.a. Facebook), and the political system.  But the problem here is not that everything is contested and nothing is deemed to be true.  That is merely a symptom of the underlying problem.  The problem is that religion claims to identify what is true in competition with, and contradiction with, the empirically derived facts.  The media, the Internet, the political system then amplify the prevailing public opinion because they are commercial or popular institutions.  Despite all that, he provided an appropriate answer to the question in the third to last sentence where he acknowledged the need to do a better job teaching our kids critical thinking.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Maajid Nawaz, a moderate advocate for secular democracy

Here is Maajid Nawaz, an advocate for liberal, secular, democracy, speaking at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum.  He is the person the Southern Poverty Law Center is inexcusably slandering.  Now the SPLC is defending their mislabeling him as an anti-Muslim extremist by calling him a conspiracy monger, an accusation that has no connection whatsoever with reality.

Here is Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels explaining that the SPLC is taking critical comments made by Maajid Nawaz about Islamists (people who favor the bad idea of government implementing Sharia law theocracy) and mistakenly accusing Maajid Nawaz of making those same critical comments about Muslims generally.

As evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an anti-Muslim extremist the SPLC cites a statement by Mr. Nawaz that “the ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists.”’.  Mr. Nawz is correct, the ideology of Islamists is broadly the same and some Islamists are violent while others are not.  Yet the SPLC idiotically cites reasonable, common sense, factually true assertions such as this as evidence that Maajid Nawaz is an extremist.

Monday, October 31, 2016

SPLC's extremist intolerance of criticism of Islam

By Mathew Goldstein

Now and then, instead of writing too much on topics that maybe I shouldn't, I will reference an article by someone else that in my judgement is worth reading.

Atheist (and ex-Muslim) Kavah Mousavi (pseudonym) accurately characterizes the Southern Poverty Law Center's unconscionable placement of Maajid Nawaz on its list of 15 anti-Muslim extremists as "atrocious" for "misusing the tragic fact of anti-Muslim bigotry in the West to silence honest criticisms of Islam by mixing internal dissidents with bigots."  He also criticizes their placing the anti-Muslim extremist label on Ayaan Hirsi Ali for some statements she made years ago that are quoted by SPLC out of context.  Read his "Shame on you SPLC" article on his blog titled On the Margin of Error.

Now I will add my own voice here.  One of the SPLC's arguments for labeling Ayaan Hirsi Ali an anti-Muslim extremist is that a film she co-produced, Submission, provoked threats against her and the murder of the other film producer, Theo Van Gogh.  By citing the murder of the film's other producer as evidence that she is an extremist the SPLC is openly and shamelessly siding with violent Islamic fascists against liberalism.  This is probably a double standard, as the SPLC does not cite being targeted for murder when dissenting from popular opinion within any other religion as evidence for the targeted individual being an extremist. 

The SPLC cited as evidence for Maajid Nawaz being an extremist that he endorsed one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons. They are wonderful cartoons, reading those cartoons is better than reading the Quran, Bible, or Tanakh. What SPLC is doing here is not only anti-intellectual and anti-fun, it is also sick crazy, like labeling someone an anti-Jewish extremist because they eat pork.  There is nothing ethical about requiring everyone to obey the restrictions that other people claim their version of their religion imposes.  The Jesus and Mo cartoon lampoons Judaism and Christianity together with Islam.  Therefore it cannot be the actual contents of that cartoon that is at issue here unless everyone who likes those cartoons is also an anti-Christian and anti-Jewish extremist.  But SPLC doesn't associate those equivalent labels with that cartoon, apparently because Jews and Christians have the good sense not to riot in the streets over cartoons.

SPLC's illogic appears to be a product of an unprincipled and unhinged post-modernist relativism where being extremist is misdefined as contradicting whatever the most vocal and intolerant segment of a population demands, particular if their demands are sometimes backed by threats of, or acts of, murder, regardless of whether their demands are reasonable or fair on the merits.  The SPLC actually cites the prevalence of a belief, as if that renders it unassailable in the sense that criticizing that belief becomes evidence for being an extremist.  Has it ever occurred to the SPLC that some of the ideas favored by a large number of Muslims (dare I say it, maybe even a majority of today's Muslims world wide!) could themselves sometimes be extreme and unethical and therefore openly disagreeing with that majority over that idea will be the more moderate, ethical, stance?  Can anyone who has read any history honestly think that the majority held view is always ethical?  That opposing a majority view is ipso facto evidence of extremism?

Oops, now I am an anti-Muslim extremist because I offended millions of Muslims by linking to the critical Submission film and to the Jesus and Mo cartoons.  Kavah Mousavi is correct, the SPLC has turned being designated an anti-Muslim extremist by them into an honor.  The SPLC is totally fucking up here, big time.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Privacy: How Much is Enough?

By Bill Creasy

The movie Snowden (2016) by Oliver Stone again raises the issues that Snowden himself raised in 2013. How much electronic surveillance should the federal government be allowed to do in pursuit of a small number of terrorists? Unfortunately, the movie doesn't give an answer. It does give some background on Edward Snowden. 
According to the movie, Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was deeply affected by the events of 9/11/01. As a patriotic young man, he first joined the U.S. Army Special Forces, but he shattered his legs during basic training. He got a job with the CIA in 2006 and wrote an important program designed to back up huge amounts of data. The program later found uses in other unintended areas including targeting drone strikes. 
He had a series of intelligence positions as a contractor until 2013. In the process, he became familiar with the U.S. Government program for mass data collection of both U.S. citizens and noncitizens, including phone calls, email, and social media. The movie illustrates how easily this database can be searched for personal information on essentially anyone. Snowdon admitted to using it once to check on his girlfriend.

The goal of the data collection is to look for terrorist networks. But a search to the third degree of separation (searches of all contacts of contacts of contacts of a suspect) gives over 2 million people, whose data could be viewed with no need of a specific court order or informed consent. So if you happen to have the same dentist or delivery person or Facebook friend as a terrorist suspect, the NSA can search all your email for anything that looks incriminating or that looks like you are connected to any other terrorist suspect. 
Snowden felt obligated to report this surveillance to the press, even though he knew that such an act would make him a criminal and a target of all the U.S. intelligence agencies, cause him lose his job in Hawaii and his security clearance, and threaten his relationship with his long-time girlfriend.

A problem with the movie is the depiction of Snowden's personality. The movie has the "feel" of a fictional movie story. Perhaps that is just Oliver Stone's directoral style. Snowden appears in person at the end of the movie in a cameo. There are documentaries and interviews of Snowden himself, for example the documenary Citizenfour by Laura Poitras. (Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill were the first journalists that Snowden talked to in Hong Kong.) Snowden was also interviewed remotely in a public event at Johns Hopkins University while he was in Russia [1]. So there are sources for seeing Snowden himself on video without the filter of a movie.

Snowden doesn't seem like a movie star or a narcissist, just a fairly average, smart, computer nerd. He seems to have remarkably calm attitude about his actions. Perhaps he has developed a emotional detachment from his chosen role as the center of a world-wide controversy and as a person taking on the federal intelligence agencies. That kind of attitude is not easily captured by actors. 
It is hard to see Edward Snowden and his background and call him a traitor to the U.S. This is a clear message of the movie. He hasn't done anything to hurt the U.S. for his personal gain. He claims no one has been hurt by his data release, and no intelligence agency has said anyone was hurt. He has acted in a way that is consistent with a strong belief in the ideals of the U.S. founding documents, including in freedom and privacy. 
But it's also hard to judge his ideas about the problem that he has brought to light. Is he arguing that the government shouldn't do any surveillance or intelligence collection? How does he reply to the people who are worried about terrorists? There are officials who say antiterrorism is an important social need, and what Americans don't know about surveillance won't hurt them. They say that many people voluntarily put personal information on the internet, so why should they expect privacy? In short, how much privacy do people need?

There is an ideological conflict between those who think that the government should have access to any electronic information to track criminals and terrorists, and those who think privacy is a right. Neither extreme is practical, but both can make arguments to support their extreme. So we must consider what privacy is for and what it is worth. These are philosophical questions as well as practical ones. Is it possible to balance the practical with the idealism, and the personal vs. social?

People have an instinctive, emotional desire for privacy, especially if they think they are around people they don't trust. If others aren't trustworthy, they may use embarrassing information for blackmail or coercion. But once people feel safe in a situation, they are less worried about protecting themselves, and there are rewards for being trusting. People who are charming or good leaders tend to reveal more about themselves in order to get people to like them and to do what they want. So even on this non-rational level, privacy is in a balance with openness.

When it comes to social policy, a rational analysis is necessary. We can't decide how private other people need to be based on our own feelings. We have to break up the problem into several cases (but this may not be an exhaustive list):
1. Privacy for criminals. These include protests against the government, since these can be defined as criminal by the government, but the protest can have a higher principle or oppose the laws themselves.
2. Privacy for business secrets or competitive advantage.
3. Privacy for military.
4. Privacy of sexual relationships.
5. Privacy for making arts or simply for making harmless mistakes, because the thought that someone is watching will keep a person from trying some action that is novel
6. Privacy as a basic, irrevocable right that the government can't take away

All these facets of the issue are different, and they can't all be covered in detail here. Some of the cases are easy to agree on. For the first case, it is easy to see why a criminal wants privacy, because without it someone will try to stop them. Clearly, this is a case for a social agreement to invade the privacy of individuals to investigate crimes. The legal and police systems are set up according to that agreement. If someone breaks the law, their privacy will be invaded. Even a suspect of a crime may be investigated, within accepted rules and limits such as those in the Bill of Rights. 
Of course, no system is perfect. The government can make laws that no one likes, and then label the protesters against those laws as criminals. It can keep secrets, and prosecute anyone who reveals the secrets. Snowden is charged under the Espionage Act, a law to prevent spying, and any trial would be held in secret and without public oversight. Hence, the law creates its own Catch 22: any effort to inform the public about the law is defined as illegal, but the only way to get rid of the law is by public opposition.

Daniel Ellsburg, the whistleblower who published the Pentagon Papers, said that whistleblowers are important.  But the courage for a person to support the country or the president is easier and much more common (even in the face of death) than whistleblowers who may loose their jobs, clearances, or freedom to oppose the social conventions.  In trials, they can't make a case or explain their motives in open court.  He said that Snowden or Chelsea Manning wouldn't have been heard in open civil court [2].

Snowden echoed the same idea, saying, "Whistleblowers are really rare and they have to be willing to strike a match to their whole life and burn it." [1]
Case 2 is generally considered almost sancrosant in a capitalist society. Every business is expected and allowed to keep secrets. Fortunately, the Founders set up the patent system, which allows businesses and individuals to publish their methods as patents and still own the rights to them as property. 
Case 3 is also often unquestioned, as long as there is a legitimate need for national defense. The big problem with privacy for national defense is when "endless" wars are declared, like the war on terrorism or the war on drugs. The government, or the military/industrial/government complex and the associated special interests, can use the endless war as protection for indefinite funding and corruption. Citizens should be skeptical of calls for endless wars for this reason. Anything that is labeled as a “war” should be an existential threat to the country that has a definite enemy to be defeated.
Governments should also be concerned about the harm that can be done from a security state. Roger Ebert wrote,
"But the movie [The Lives of Others] is relevant today, as our government ignores habeas corpus, practices secret torture, and asks for the right to wiretap and eavesdrop on its citizens. Such tactics did not save East Germany; they destroyed it, by making it a country its most loyal citizens could no longer believe in." [3]
The endless war on terrorism can also be questioned in terms of whether it is really effective. Kade Crockford from the ACLU said that dragnet surveillance is a lousy method for preventing terrorism. The NSA failed to prevent 9/11 or Boston marathon bombing. It is good for social control, and hence it is used by authoritarian governments. Terrorism is prevented by investigating crimes with probable cause, consistent with rights in the Constitution. NSA has stopped zero terrorist threats from electronic surveillance. [2]
One can argue that the other three cases deserve unrestricted privacy subject to personal choice. Case 4 is a case for personal choice about sexual relationships, either to reveal relationships or not, unless there is a specific dispute that may affect others. Cases 5 and 6 are related in that they assume a personal right to privacy that can't be violated.
Snowden has strong feelings about a right to privacy. Snowden said in a published interview,
"So when we think in the context of the last decade’s infringements upon personal liberty and the last year’s revelations, it’s not about surveillance. It’s about liberty. When people say, “I have nothing to hide,” what they’re saying is, “My rights don’t matter.” Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen—that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, “I don’t need them in this context” or “I can’t understand this,” they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights. You’ve converted them into something you get as a revocable privilege from the government, something that can be abrogated at its convenience. And that has diminished the measure of liberty within a society." [4]
The general emotional reaction or the legal right to want a privacy right can be hard to accommodate with modern technology. Anyone who uses the internet, a cell phone, or a credit card, leaves a "footprint" in electronic records. Even if the message content is encrypted, there may be a record of the source address and destination. Because information on the internet is send as small packets of data, it is necessary to collect all information in order to get the specific packets that make up a phone conversation or a document. One option is to stay off all electronic media, but this is a Luddite solution to stop technological advance. An effort to encrypt all information takes a constant vigilance by an individual.
Ultimately, the problem of privacy doesn't yield to any simple or ideologically pure answers. In some ways, it is a kind of arms race between those collecting information and those keeping it secret. Snowden made a contribution to publicizing the nature of the arms race and the involvement of the government. It is the responsibility of the rest of us to be vigilant about who is getting information about us and what they are doing with it.

1. Edward Snowden gave a presentation at Johns Hopkins University Schriver Hall as part of the Foreign Affairs Symposium, a student-run lecture series. He gave it via Google Hangouts videophone. The talk was moderated by Daniel J. Solove, the John Harlan Marshall Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School, on Wed., Feb. 17, 2016.
2. Constitution Day panel discussion at Maryland Institute College of Art on Wed., Sept. 17, 2014, with Hasan Elahi (U. Maryland), Daniel Ellsburg, and Kade Crockford (ACLU).
3. Roger Ebert, review of the film "The Lives of Others," 2007.
4. Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen, "Snowden: 'I Did What I Did Because I Believe It Is the Right Thing to Do,'" Edward Snowden interview in The Nation magazine, reprinted on, Nov. 11, 2014.