Matthew Burton

Category: Essays (page 2 of 2)

Why I Help “The Man”, and Why You Should Too

Three years ago, when I told a mentor from the tech sector that I was soon leaving my job as an intelligence analyst to start a technology Masters program, she replied, “It’s good that you’re getting out of that field.”

She didn’t like the Intelligence Community’s work, and in her eyes, the longer I stayed, the more it would corrupt me. I’ve always thought of it in reverse: the longer I stayed involved, the more opportunities I would have to change it. Afterall, if you want something to get better, should you entrust the job to those who caused the problem in the first place? Or should you take care of the problem yourself? To me, it’s a pretty simple question. (That’s why I still work with the Intelligence Community as an outside consultant.)

Unfortunately, among my colleagues—fellow politicos and geeks who are trying to reform the U.S. Government—my mentor’s philosophy seems to be more popular than mine. It’s a philosophy that won’t get us very far. By not engaging our government directly, and instead choosing to merely blog about it from afar, we are surrendering the most important, most influential roles to the very people we want to get rid of.

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Upgrading Congress For the Future

Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident recently sponsored an essay contest:

When the Framers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they bravely conjured a new form of self-government. But they couldn’t have imagined a mass society with instantaneous, many-to-many communications or many of the other innovations of modernity. So, replacing that quill pen with a mouse, imagine that you have to power to redesign American democracy for the Internet Age. What would you do?

Below is my blue sky response, which was selected for publication. You can order the whole book from Amazon.

NOTE: The first three paragraphs below were inserted post-publication and do not appear in the printed version.


Richard Feyman—possibly the most brilliant physicist of his generation—once said that “nobody really understands quantum physics.”

We’ve had the Web for 16 years, and I think I can safely say that nobody really understands it, either. Sometimes we think we do, but then it surprises us with something new. We know a lot about what it’s done so far, but none of us know what lies ahead.

In spite of this, here we are, proposing Constitutional changes based on our elementary knowledge of the Web. Such changes would become obsolescent as quickly as the Web churns out new surprises. So let’s not get too eager to cure our net anxieties. Instead, let’s prepare our government to face all tech revolutions, not just the current one.

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“Obama is all talk” is all talk

Scroll down for an update to this post, February 20

The Clinton campaign’s new strategy is to cast Obama as an orator, and nothing else. From today’s Times:

“Speeches don’t put food on the table,” Mrs. Clinton said at a General Motors plant in Warren, Ohio, on Thursday morning. “Speeches don’t fill up your tank, or fill your prescription, or do anything about that stack of bills that keeps you up at night.”

“My opponent gives speeches. I offer solutions.”

“It’s about whether you choose the power of solutions over the power of speeches.”

(That last quote is from Bill.)

Hogwash. I’ve been hearing this more and more lately: Obama is all talk, everything he says is vague, he never talks details, we don’t know what he offers…and on and on. Not only is it crap. The opposite is true: there is much more meat to Obama’s platform than Clinton’s, and I’ll prove it.

Now, before I begin, I want to say that I’m neither a Clinton fan nor an Obama fan (nor McCain, for that matter). My candidate dropped out long ago. Like that candidate, I worship facts and I despise catchy slogans that belie the truth. Vote for whomever you want. Just make sure your vote isn’t influenced by a lie.

That said, let’s begin.

Go to and look at the Issues page. Read each issue’s dedicated page.

Now go to and look the issues page. Read each issue’s dedicated page.

You Obama fans already know what I’m getting at. You can stop reading this article.

For the unconvinced, keep reading. Here’s a breakdown of their Web sites’ content in the context of the above statements by the Clintons. I’ve roughly calculated how many pages of details each candidate offers on each issue:

Issue Obama Clinton Who’s got more?
Civil rights 6 page PDF 0 4.5p press release, corrected by Syphos in comments Obama
Disabilities 9 pages. 8-page PDF on disabilities (probably some overlap with civil rights document), and a dedicated 1-page PDF on autism. 0 Obama
Economy 5p PDF, with some overlap in content with other topics Hard to quantify. The site has a “blueprint”, a “stimulus plan”, and several other plans and press releases about the economy. Many of them probably have lots of overlapping information. Can’t say
Education ~16 pages in PDF files. 14 on K-12, 2 on college affordability. 10 at most. Hard to quantify. Site has several different pages, each on a different aspect of education at various typefaces, sizes, etc. Obama
Energy / Environment ~15 pages in PDF. Two separate plans for energy and environment, with some overlap ~11, PDF Obama
Ethics/government reform 5 in PDF ~1 Obama
Fiscal policy <1 <1; no dedicated page Can’t say
Foreign policy ~2p PDF file Hard to say, but more than Obama. Site links to article in Foreign Affairs on her foreign policy. Site also has agendas on global AIDS, development, and Latin American cooperation. Clinton
Health care ~10 ~8 Obama
Homeland security 2.5 0?? Obama
Immigration 1.5 1 Obama
Iraq ~2p PDF. Disappointingly small, but still more than Clinton. ~1 Obama
Poverty 7 page PDF report No dedicated page or agenda, but details on poverty are mentioned in several other agendas. Hard to estimate page count. Obama (probably)
Rural 14p PDF report 6.5p PDF report Obama
Service National Service Plan. 5page PDF report. 0 Obama
Seniors and social security ~1.5 Web-based pages on social security. No dedicated page. Probably some info in health care agenda. Can’t say
Technology ~5. HTML-based. Some overlapping content with Energy agenda, but mostly new stuff on net neutrality, telecom infrastructure, science funding, etc. ~2.5. Also HTML-based. Also some overlap with Energy agenda. Details on science funding and telecom infrastructure, but nothing on net neutrality. Obama
Veterans <1. 10-point plan. ~1.5. 8-point plan, but more details about each point. Clinton
Women 0. Brief mentions of women in other sections (civil rights, health care), but nothing much. ~1 Clinton
“Other” The Obama site has lumped a few other issues onto one page. Each issue on that page has a dedicated PDF file fully explaining a more detailed plan: Arts education, child advocacy, Katrina, Science (in addition to his technology section, possibly some overlapping content), “Sportsmen” (probably a 2nd Amendment thing conservation stuff), and Transportation infrastructure. The Clinton site has no agenda details on these issues, except for science, which I’ve put into the Tech section above. Obama

(Methodology: These are estimates. In both cases, I did not count portions of pages or reports that mentioned past histories or experience, as I didn’t think this was pertinent to the question: “What is your plan for Topic X?” I also disregarded introductions to agendas that explain the problem being addressed (each Obama agenda contained such an intro). I mention the media format in the interest of transparency, so you know what I’m basing this on. Page counts are an estimate. Because of the different media formats, I had to estimate how many pages the content would fill up in a standard Word document. Notes regarding the inability to quantify should not be taken to mean that candidate is weak on that subject. It’s just a matter of Web site organization.)

Why use the candidates’ Web sites as the determining factor? Because it should be the definitive archive of everything substantive they have to say about any issue. And it’s all text, so there’s little room for rhetoric. Details, please.

If you disregard page counts and just skim through each site, you’ll notice something else: much of Clinton’s issue pages are devoted to sections called “Ready to Lead,” which list bullet points about her past experience. On some pages, these lists make up the bulk of the content, while real policy ideas get little attention.

Looking at this, it’s clear who is offering more details on their plans. Whether those plans are good, I’m not evaluating. I’m simply trying to debunk this myth that Obama is not offering details, and is instead simply a great orator. Why is this myth being propagated? Probably because he is a great orator.

“I’ve not observed every speech he’s given, obviously, but they are singularly lacking in specifics.”–McCain

“Obama’s message is ‘I am something extraordinary – gaze upon me and everyone will be great. By the mere fact of electing me, we will have transformed the stale politics of the United States.’”–Mark Salter, McCain’s speechwriter

Maybe, in their struggle to find his weakness, they begin these statements with the one thing that everyone knows to be true–”He’s great at giving speeches”–in order to open up the listener’s mind to the words that follow: “but is there anything more to him?” (See Chart 1 for answer).

If the recent trend continues, I’ll come back and do a similar evaluation of McCain’s site. Should be easy. He’s got five total paragraphs on the environment, each of them vacuous.

Update and reactions

I thought this post deserved a wrap-up. So here it is.

  • The day after this post, Obama started injecting more details into his speeches. Meanwhile, Clinton continues to use the “Talk vs Solutions” approach (which I think makes her sound like a management consultant).
  • In comments, Syphos corrected me on Clinton’s civil rights content. Then we had an interesting back-and-forth regarding my selection of the issues in the table. The issues in this table, he pointed out, are not necessarily representative of people’s concerns, and, if I were inclined, I could have targeted issues that I knew Obama was thick on, while not dedicating rows to some of Clinton’s less visible causes. True. However, the issues I chose were those that the candidates themselves identified as their priorities on their respective Issues pages. If they didn’t give an issue a special spot, neither did I. Some would say, “But anyone can just post reams of policy details on their Web site. That doesn’t mean anything.” Well, when you’re saying that candidate isn’t providing policy details, it certainly does.
  • In thinking more about why I wrote this, I became able to verbalize it better: Clinton is saying that “words mean nothing,” trying to suggest that Obama has no details. But what she’s really doing is exploiting the fact that many Obamanians (can we use that word now?) are ignorant of his finer policy agenda and are simply enraptured by his speeches. While this is probably true, she is attacking Obama for something that’s out of his control. And that is what bothers me. He is providing details, and if his fans don’t know what they are, it’s not his fault. Afterall, he’s doing a better job at making them available than anyone else, which takes me to my next point…
  • weighing_in argued below that “Platform statements that cover EVERYTHING are notoriously suspect to most politic watchers. Obama is trying to be everything to everyone…” I agree with the first sentence, but not the second. If you read the site, you’ll see that Obama isn’t hedging (“Guns/immigration/privacy/abortion/giving you lots of money and a hot wife is an important issue that I care about and promise to sort of think about while I’m president.”) but is instead putting his cards on the table. While he does cover lots of issues, the language regarding those issues is very clear. The pages tell you exactly where he stands. That’s very ballsy. He said very unequivocally in a recent debate that he is going to raise taxes on the rich to pay for his health care plan. There: he is no longer everything to everyone.
  • The best counterargument I’ve heard was over on Metafilter: “I didn’t see the part on Obama’s site where it says “This site created and maintained by Barack Obama.” He ain’t writin’ this stuff. Methinks he wouldn’t pass the quiz on it either.” I agree, he ain’t, and he wouldn’t. But if he read it, would he agree with it? Absolutely. There is no way they would put anything on here that wasn’t closely vetted. But again, it’s off-point: Did Clinton write her site? No. Obama’s site is a representation of him, and it provides more details than Clinton’s. Regardless, I would prefer a candidate who does not claim to know everything about everything, but instead asks opinions of true experts and then uses his/her judgment to create a prudent policy based on their input. (Credit this to my personal hero.)
  • Did I just imply that I prefer Obama? A radio show interviewed me about this article today. She asked me straight-out if I’m an “Obama supporter,” which I interpret differently from “Obama fan” (something I disavow above). I take this stuff seriously enough to write a screed on it, so I usually support someone, even if I’m not a fan of them. I have doubts about whether Obama can realize a lot of his goals, but I like that he’s going to try. I think he’s the best of the ones we’ve got left. So, yes. I’m an Obama supporter.I realize that some of you (especially the Clinton fans) will regard me as a weasel, as disingenuous, what have you, for not saying this at the outset. I hoped to stay away from any mention of my preference, given my work for the government, but there it is. (Thanks, XM Radio!) For some time, I was an ardent fan of another candidate, and now that he’s gone, I’m still bitter about having to choose among the remainders. I am honestly torn about who would eventually do a better job as president. Clinton has some things going for her that Obama does not. But, forced to choose, I will do so (indeed, I have). Most of you couldn’t care less about this paragraph, but I thought complete transparency was warranted.
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