Sunday, February 11, 2018

An Interview with Scott Menor: Candidate for Congress in Arizona's CD5

By: Alex Kack

In the age of the much hyped Democratic Party ideological divide and often discussed (if rarely acted on) progressive DEMexit, Scott Menor began his race for Arizona's fifth congressional district as an Independent before moving into the Democratic Party. He answers our questions about this and more here. 
BMR: What inspired you to get involved in this race? 

Scott Menor: A friend told me that Kyrsten Sinema was leaving her seat in CD9 and running for Senate and he encouraged me to run for the vacated seat.

I never seriously considered running before, but I was very upset since Trump was elected, and about Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and a good chunk of Congress. 

You're not going to like this but after a significant amount of time running as an Independent in AZ CD9, I decided to run as a Democrat in CD5.

There were two factors in that decision.

First, though I am much more progressive than Phoenix's mayor Greg Stanton, and though I am certainly better on issues of science and technology, when I talk with people, most who know him are at least lukewarm if not positive for him. CD9 is a relatively safe Democratic district and my team and I were much more interested in trying to take out a genuinely bad Republican than to replace a Democrat with a more progressive Independent.

Second, the deck is stacked badly against independents. It takes about 1,200 signatures to get on the ballot as a Democrat and about 4,500 to get on the ballot as an Independent. If you win a partisan primary, then you have the help of the party. If you run as an Independent, you have to build your own organization from scratch.

From my experience, I am convinced that it is totally doable to win as an Independent, but extremely hard, time consuming, and expensive, and I just don't have the resources this cycle.

For what it's worth, I am still an Independent, I am just surveying the ground and fighting the battle on the field I'm on, not the one I want to be on. With luck, that landscape will change in the next cycle or two.

How would you define yourself politically?

I hesitate to say this because it creates flak from almost everyone, but per I am a left-libertarian.

That needs a bit of unpacking.

Left means I think that there are things that the government should and can do better than individuals and free enterprise such as providing a social safety net, healthcare, education, and long-term / basic research and development.

Libertarian means that I think people should be able to do whatever they want - so long as they aren't harming others or infringing upon their freedom.

Sadly both of those terms have come to mean bad things to various groups, so as much as the term Left-Libertarian accurately describes me, it is extremely loaded in a way that is difficult to overcome.

What the biggest issues facing your area right now?

Education is huge.

There are good schools and pockets that are in reasonable shape, but overall, education is rightly the number one concern of almost everyone I talk with.

People focus too much on the return on investment in education as measured by future income, but there is a far greater societal cost to having inadequate education and a far greater potential reward to having good education. Critical thinking, knowledge of history, and understanding of civics are all woefully lacking, and they are all absolutely essential to have an informed and active populace necessary for a representative democracy to function. These are things that pay off on generational time scales, and thus they are not easily justifiable by private concerns who are focused on next quarter's profits and who consider a few years to be «long-term».

Healthcare is also a major concern.

We spend more than a fifth of our GDP on healthcare and have tens of millions of un and under insured.

The UK spends less than half of what we do proportionally on the NHS, and they cover everyone and have a generally great system. There are issues with it at present, but this is due to Tories bleeding it. Like the GOP here, they proclaim loudly «government doesn't work!», they get elected, and they see to it through their incompetence and malice that government doesn't work.

People here live on the edge and are regularly destroyed financially if they have a bad accident or disease. That is insane and shameful.

What are going to be your three biggest priorities if elected?

It isn't very sexy, but getting onto the Committee for Science, Space, and Technology is number one. Andy Biggs sits on it now and he is as unqualified to do that as I am to perform neurosurgery.

Working to get universal healthcare coverage passed is number two.

Building a nonpartisan coalition to put together and pass real tax reform is number three.

Those last two are both insanely huge undertakings, but like geology, they are just a matter of pressure and time, and both are worth the bother.

What's the key element of your campaign strategy?

Ground game

What can you tell us about your background? What makes you, you?

I am a life-long lover of learning, particularly about science and technology. After high school, I got concurrent undergrad degrees in mathematics and microbiology at Arizona State University (ASU), then I went on to University of Hawaii to pursue a PhD in microbiology (virology / immunology), though I bailed out with a masters degree after completing the course work because I didn't want to spend a decade struggling in an underfunded lab. Then I went on to get a PhD in physics, after which I became a research scientist in high performance computing at ASU. I co-created and taught a graduate class on supercomputing for non-majors with my friend and colleague Gil Speyer. After a few years, I left to work on my own web company and then co-founded Roambotics, Inc. to develop general purpose personal robots with friend Tyler Anderson, and later brought Daniel Stone in to help.

I am extremely persistent. Getting a PhD and doing most of the things I've done is more a test of that than anything.

I try to know at least a bit about as much as I can, and I try to listen to people (which seems something that should be a given, but it's sadly not).

What makes you more qualified for this position then your opponents? What sets you apart from them? 

Biggs is an attorney, so I come up short in that regard, but I more than make up for it in my scientific and technical acumen. There are plenty of lawyers in Congress, but far too few scientists and engineers.

What are the biggest failures you think the current congress has made?

Tax reform.

It's something that everyone wants, and something that needs to be done, but (a) the GOP passed a unilateral bill which is terrible, and (b) for all the lip service that it helps the middle class, it is very clearly targeted at the ├╝ber-rich.

People get excited about a flat tax, but what we really need is a fair tax.

10% more or less for someone making $20k / year is $2k / year. To them, that is life-changing.

10% more or less for someone making $100k / year is $10k / year. That is still very significant to them.

10% more or less for someone making $1M / year is $100k / year. That's a lot and it matters, but it is unlikely to significantly change what they can or can't do.

10% more or less for someone making $1B / year is $100M / year. In absolute terms, that's huge, but practically it is not going to impact their life significantly at all.

No matter how much someone is making, if they earn a dollar more, they should take more home, but it is blind not to increase the amount they pay back into the system as they're earning more.

Most people don't know that the long-term capital gains rate is only 20%. That means if you inherit billions and you're only earning money from investment income, you're paying 20%. Someone in the top tax bracket making just $1M / year is paying 37% under the new tax plan. There is no universe where that is remotely fair, and we need to fix it.

What one area do you believe you and your campaign need to do better on and how do you plan to do so?

Fundraising is probably our biggest hole at the moment. I need to do more call time, and we need to work more in that direction.

Second to that, we need to improve recruitment of volunteers - especially ones who can and will go around knocking on doors. That, more than anything, is what it will take to win this election.

What are your views on identity politics and civil rights?

I am not a fan of identity politics, in concept. It is an anathema to independence. That said, at this moment in history, the GOP has become strongly aligned with racism and intolerance. That is one of the biggest problems with red-team / blue-team thinking. Even if you agree with certain parts of a party's platform, it is almost certain that you will not align fully on at least some issues, and, in this case, some of those issues are (or should be) deal breakers for decent and principled people.

Civil rights is a huge issue. Personal freedom is one of my core beliefs and one would have to be blind to not see that we don't have a remotely even playing field.

What are your views on the police militarization and the drug war?

I am against police militarization and am for drug de-criminalization (and legalization of cannabis).

What we are doing to ourselves and other countries with prohibition is horrible, it can not be justified, and it must not continue.

What are your views on how to fight global warming and climate change?

As a general rule, I am a fan of using capitalism to let the market drive us in the right direction.

Global warming, and pollution, in general, is an issue of the free market not being coupled to the real cost. Negative externalities can have a great cost to our civilization, but they are not felt by free enterprise without regulation.

Fuel efficiency standards and hard limits on what companies can put into our air and water are important, but for greenhouse gasses like CO2 and methane, cap-and-trade and similar approaches to internalize negative externalities are useful tweaks to make the almost-free market drive us in the right direction.

It is also essential that we invest public dollars into basic research to develop new technologies that will reduce our impact on our environment.

What can you tell us about your fiscal policies and ideas?

Broadly speaking, I am a big believer in an almost-free market, with a soft bottom, and fair, progressive taxes that whenever possible pay for what we spend.

Market forces are powerful drivers, but laissez faire capitalism inevitably leads to certain bad outcomes.

I am for using relatively light touches with just enough regulation to tweak market forces in order to drive us in the right direction.

We should revamp our social safety net. That goes hand in hand with my tax policy. I am for something like a negative income tax / minimum basic income to ensure that everyone can at least subsist, but structured in such a way that as they earn more money, they take home more, with the assistance tapering off gradually so there are no cliffs or «welfare traps» that discourage work because at some level earning a dollar more makes you take home less.

Nobody should bear too much of the brunt of taxes, but it is morally wrong to force the meek to bear too much of the load.

If someone is content subsisting and living as a poor but not starving artist, I have no objection. Even if someone wants to spend their days playing video games. The cost of both of those things will be more than offset by new productivity by people who are able to start businesses and leave dead-end jobs.

Deficit spending and debt are not intrinsically or universally bad - so long as when we borrow, we are doing so to invest in things like infrastructure and basic research that will pay off in the future.

What are important issues you plan on taking action on that you feel few people pay attention to?

The biggest thing that bothers me and that I want to work on is that people have trouble putting large numbers into context.

Hundreds of millions and billions of dollars sound like a lot, but when our national budget is in the trillions

Funding and ownership of basic research.

The Centers for Disease Control and National Science Foundation both cost about $7B/year. NASA costs under $20B, and the National Institute for Health costs about  $30B.

All together, we are talking about just over $50 billion per year. That's a lot of money, but it's well under 2% of our federal budget, and the long-term return on those investments is measured in the trillions of dollars. We could double our spending on all of those things without really feeling it and still miss opportunities.

The National Endowment for the Arts costs about $140 million. That may sound expensive to you, but it is a fraction of a percent of our budget, and what we get for that tiny amount is huge and makes our lives better. Given my druthers, I would expand that considerably, make it possible for more people to live as artists and musicians, and to expand public performances and add public art.

Cheapness is blind and pinching pennies when you're wasting dollars is irrational.

Just walk around Mesa and walk around Scottsdale or Tempe. Simply by investing a tiny bit more, the district could be so much more livable, and if it was more livable, it would be better for the people already here, and it would attract more people and businesses, raising property values and generally boosting the economy.

Selfishness is blind.
What do you think America's place in international affairs should be? What do you believe to be the most pressing foreign policy issues America faces and what are your solutions to them?

I don't necessarily think we should be the world's police force‥ but I do think the world needs a police force, and I think America should be a leader in it.

I believe in the ideal that we are (or at least should strive to be) the good guys. We should be the country that doesn't torture because it's wrong, not just because it doesn't work. We should be the country that stands up when it's necessary.

We should lead by example and be better. We should look more around the world and ideally send Americans to other countries for non-military reasons for a year or two as a mandatory exchange program. If every American lived a year abroad and worked together with people from other countries and other socioeconomic and demographic groups, we would be a much stronger country, and the world would see who we really are.

That would be far more powerful in the long term than any sort of military intervention we could muster.

We should definitely not be isolationist. That is not even a matter of choice because the rest of the world is out there and if we don't get involved, it will get involved with us.

We probably shouldn't try to build a United States of Earth, super-UN any time soon, either, because much of the rest of the world doesn't share our values, and such a thing would end badly‥ but I would love to see something like the European Union expand to allow Americans and others from countries that opt in to live in a common economic community in which we can move, live, and work freely. We would obviously have to be careful about who we include and have stringent standards for membership, but I would love to live in a that world.

A strong military is important, but like so many things, this is not a place where throwing more money at the problem helps. We spend far more than any other country and have obscene amounts of waist. Much of our military is a jobs program designed to funnel tax dollars into the pockets of defense contractors, and it's actually hurting them as much as anyone. I wanted to manufacture electronics in the US, but too many companies here are bloated and inefficient thanks to those contracts, so it is just not financially possible to do. People blame environmental regulations and the cost of labor, but it doesn't take much research to see that it really just comes down to wild inefficiency and waste.
What's one thing you wish people knew about your area?

People should know the potential CD5 has. It is growing and some areas are thriving, and with the right investment and planning, it could be one of the best places to live in Arizona.
What's one interesting thing about you personally?

I love indoor rock climbing 

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