Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Vibrators and Test Tube Babies Destroy the World

This morning my fax machine spit out a flier from the Utah based group America Forever. The title was, ironically, Do Not Be Ignorant! The purpose of the flier is to stop the "homosexual movement" from enacting hate crime legislation, which they refer to as "a crime of the century against children."

Apparently, homosexuals (whose "Homosexual Declaration of War" was read to congress back in 1987) are trying to convert all children to "unnatural" homosexuality. Once we've all been converted, only test tube babies will be born. Those test tube children are going to take over the country and "stifle free speech and religious freedom."

I'm fairly certain this group is affiliated with the one the Dead Milkmen told us about, ya know those queers working with the aliens to poison the soil

The most interesting part of the whole fax is how upset these people are about "unnatural" stimulation of any kind. They claim that homosexuality should be in the "same class as hookers (and) pornography since this sexual conduct uses toys of stimulation to fulfil nature's sexual desires in an unnatural way."

I know people think vibrators and dildos are embarrassing. I had no idea people think they are a source of evil. Kind of makes you want to do a humanitarian vibrator drop over the state of Utah. Somebody needs to help those poor women.

Who is with me?

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The Other Torture Memos: Secrets and Complicity in Guatemala

The Bush administration's repugnant torture instructions were not the only declassified documents to come to light recently.

The National Security Archive has been posting formerly classified documents related to Guatemala's dirty war of the 1980s. The documents show that the United State's government was well aware of the kidnappings, murder, and torture of political dissidents in Guatemala.

The dirty war in Guatemala lasted 36 years. Two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. More than one million Guatemalans were displaced. Hundreds of villages were wiped off the map.

Guatemalan officials denied that these atrocities occurred and many still deny them to this day. General Otto Pérez Molina, who has been linked to massacres and executions, continued his denials during his recent presidential campaign.

Pérez Molina isn't the only Guatemalan who remains unconfronted by the law. Most of those responsible for the human rights abuses and genocidal war have suffered no consequences for their actions.

Why did we keep them secret for so long?

If I knew about a crime and did not report what I knew to authorities, I would be an accessory. That same rule should apply to governments as well.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Heritage Indignant that Obama Enforces the Law

I received an amusing email from the Heritage Foundation the other day. (Yes, I'm on their list. I'm keeping an eye on them.)

The email was about President Obama's recent call for $100 million in administrative cuts to federal programs. The Heritage Foundation pointed out that it is a bit disingenuous to call for massive stimulus spending to get the economy back on track and to simultaneously call for cuts somewhere else. The email says,

The Department of Veterans Affairs canceled or delayed 26 conferences (lost jobs for the airline, rental car, food service, and hotel industries). The Education Department is no longer allowing employees to have both laptop and desktop computers (lost jobs for retail and technology manufacturing companies. The Agriculture Department is terminating leases and doing more to verify the income of recipients of farm subsidies (lost jobs for agriculture). And the Department of Homeland Security is going to start buying its office supplies in bulk(lost jobs for Office Depot).
I must grudgingly admit they have a small point about the conferences and computers and office supplies. If the goal is to get that rampant consumerism going again, you'd think the cuts could wait a bit.

But that's not what I want to talk about here. What I want to bring your attention to is that blurb about the agriculture department "doing more to verify the income of recipients of farm subsidies." That isn't just a random cut to spending. It is asking the ag department to enforce the law.

A little background - We taxpayers spend tens of billions of dollars each year in farm subsidies. These subsidies aren't going to help small family farmers. The top ten percent of recipients receive the vast majority of that money. Aside from the general atrociousness of redistributing wealth from your average taxpayer to agribusiness, the subsidy programs are prone to all sorts of abuse.

According to a report by Cato, the GAO estimated that up to half a billion dollars of our money is received by people who shouldn't be getting it. So now Obama wants to enforce the law. You would think that enforcing the law would be something we could all agree on.

You would think.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Carnival of the Liberals Time

Carnival of the Liberals just came out. This issue is hosted by Johnny Pez. I particularly enjoyed American Nihilist's...uh...encouragement of Joe Scarborough. And the Barefoot Badger's story got me wondering why the hell we are saving the car companies anyway.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

American Violet Shows the Violence and Racism of the Drug War

Based on the true story of Regina Kelly, American Violet portrays the violence, racism, and institutionalized injustices perpetrated by drug warriors.

African American communities in a small Texas town were being terrorized by a drug task force led by the local district attorney. Texas law allowed for people to be indicted based on the word of one confidential informant. Those indicted were picked up in drug sweeps and were pressured to plead guilty.

Dee Roberts (the character based on Regina Kelly) was one of those picked up. Innocent, she refused to plead. She became the lead plaintiff in an ACLU racial bias case against the district attorney and others.

The film is compelling in its own right. More importantly, it conveys the violence, racism, injustice, and institutional bias of our justice system. It does it with accuracy and without getting preachy.

It shows how poor African Americans are easy targets for a monstrous bureaucracy with perverse incentives to keep arrests high. It shows the violence of the drug war, not the violence of cartels and gangs that we normally see in the media, but the everyday violence police perpetrate on communities.

The drug war doesn't just take the freedom of those convicted. Poor people who are forced to plead guilty become felons who cannot find jobs, cannot receive public assistance, cannot live in public housing, and cannot vote. Children lose their parents. Communities are torn apart.

American Violet is a film everyone needs to see.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Homeland Security's Power on US Mexico Border Challenged

* Update Below

You have undoubtedly heard about the border fence being built on the U.S. Mexico border. You may not have heard what is being done in order to get it built.

When congress enacted the the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, they gave the head of Homeland Security absolute and unreviewable authority to violate any state or local laws in order to get the border fence up.

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive all legal requirements such Secretary, in such Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section.
Just to be clear, the head of Homeland Security gets to define what the law means. She can do whatever she wants. Her decisions cannot be challenged by a court unless the challenge is directly related to a violation of the constitution.

In this case, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, decided that his mandate was to do whatever was necessary to build the fence and maintain the fence. Expanding his mandate from building to maintaining means this power goes on into perpetuity. He refused to state what laws he was violating (simply that he was violating a bunch) and never clarified how far this legal no mans land extended.

The federal government was sued by the County of El Paso, Frontera Audubon Society and others. Lower courts ordered that the government did have the authority to wave all local laws in carrying out the instructions of congress - problems with water services or endangered species be damned.

There are many who don't give a hoot whether or not U.S. citizens have their property taken away or get caught on the wrong side of the fence. And there are many who don't care whether those citizens can receive water and other basic services or whether or not endangered species die. But even those people should surely be concerned if congress can give one person or agency carte blanche to ignore whatever laws they see fit, at their discretion, with no check on their power.

This unprecedented infringement on private, local government, and state rights is coming before the Supreme Court for review tomorrow. The petitioners argue that judicial review should be a requirement. Let's hope they hear it.

For links to all the relevant documents in the case, check out Turtle Talk.

* The Supreme Court is refusing to hear the case. Looks like Homeland Security can do whatever it wants.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

Should Drug Users Lose Their Right to Vote?

More than five million Americans could not vote in the last election because they were convicted of a felony. Only two states allow felons to vote. In many states, former felons are barred permanently from voting. In others, felons can get their voting rights back, but the process is so arduous that few do.

I doubt many people are losing sleep over whether Charles Manson can vote. I'm guessing many people would approve of the idea that criminals lose their rights as citizens after acting against the citizenry. But we aren't talking about Charles Manson here. More than half of federal prisoners are in prison for drug crimes.

Let's take a state like California. California has the nations largest prison population and an overcrowding problem so bad that federal judges have ordered the prison population decreased. While Prop 36 has caused a decrease in the percentage of prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, they still constitute more than 20% of the prison population in California.

Recent polling shows that more than 50% of California voters are in favor of marijuana legalization. A vote would be close. All those people barred from voting, the very people who lost their freedom and civil rights due to drug prohibition, could tip the scales.

Drug laws have been broken at least once by 40% of Americans. If that many people are breaking the law, there is something wrong with the law. Would we strip 40% of Americans of their voting rights? What kind of democracy is that?

Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced a House bill intended to restore voting rights to all ex felons within thirty days of being released from prison. The bill is languishing in committee right now. If your representative is on the House Committee on the Judiciary, call and tell them you want to see that bill move.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Individual Effort vs? Collective Action

Andrew Sullivan wrote in a recent blog post that conservativism needs to "recover its core sense of itself as the movement that values...individual effort over collective action." The Washington Post also snubbed the idea of collective action when it described how Obama "yields to 'collective action'" by the G20. So what is collective action? Is it really a bad thing? Why are conservatives so against it? Are individual effort and collective action mutually exclusive?

Collective action is people working together to do things they cannot do alone. It is organizing to build infrastructure. It's pooling resources to help farmers in a drought or hurricane victims after a storm. It is the march of the military and the march on Washington. It is the Chamber of Commerce and the slimiest group of lobbyists. It can be a lynching or a sit in. It isn't inherently good or bad. Collective action is neutral.

What Sullivan seems to be saying is that collective action protects the unworthy, the lazy, the moochers. That idea rests on an assumption that defies logic, that individual effort and collective action are mutually exclusive. Collective action requires individual effort. Anyone who has ever tried to do anything collectively can confirm that it's a lot more work than going it alone.

In fact, collective action often protects individual effort. A farmer can work all year tilling fields and that individual effort may be for nothing if a drought comes and there is no collective action to help. An employee may give 80 hours a week of amazingly productive work to an employer and have nothing to show for it because of their manager's personal prejudices. We are at the mercy of powerful forces throughout our lives - nature and human nature. Collective action can help to ensure that all our work is not wasted because of some whim beyond our control.

In the conservative worldview personal responsibility became code for black and brown people taking advantage of you. Selfishness is a given. The ideal is a cowboy (always a man) out on his own - no family, no community to restrict his selfish desires. Conservatives resent having to show consideration for other people. If anyone is in need, according to this worldview, it must be their own fault.

To be fair, Sullivan expressly says that he is not talking about "welfare queens," although he shouldn't be surprised that people assumed he was. And he is not attacking a basic social safety net. In fact he defends it. For him, "it's about those who contribute their labor to produce something of value, and those who primarily rely on government, directly and indirectly, to get them through their lives." The moochers he cites include corporate welfare recipients and teachers unions.

I'm all for getting rid of corporate welfare, but is the problem too much collective action or not enough? Where are the citizens collectively screaming from the rooftops when they hear about Archer Daniels Midland getting billions in tax dollars. Where are the citizens screaming from the rooftops when a bad teacher continues to teach. Better yet, where are they when good teachers are fired for political reasons or when horrible administration makes good teachers quit.

It is not collective action that is to blame for corporate welfare and lobbyists and obstructionist unions. It is abuse of power on the part of a few and a lack of collective action on the part of the many. What Sullivan should be asking himself is how the very conservative values that Sullivan is pining for are part of the problem.

Democracy is collective action.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Portugal Proves that Decriminalization Does Not Increase Drug Problems

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug use. Much like in the U.S., the naysayers claimed that decriminalization would lead to increased drug use and drug tourism. Glenn Greenwald went to Portugal to find out if the dire predictions were true. They weren't.

Portugal in the 1990s was experiencing an increase in drug abuse and related problems. A commission was convened to decide what to do about it. Drug legalization was taken off the table because international treaties force countries to keep drugs illegal. Barring legalization, the commission was tasked with looking at the evidence and making a rational decision. The commission decided that the best way to get the drug problem under control was decriminalization.

They had identified two obstacles that decriminalization would help them to overcome. The first was that criminalization made people hesitant to go to the state for help with their drug problem. Fear of jail, a criminal record, or simple stigma kept people away. By removing those obstacles, they reasoned, people would be more willing to get help.

Additionally, they were pouring money into the criminal justice system to prosecute drug users. Portugal, as one of the poorest European countries, didn't have money to waste. Decriminalization freed up resources to be used for treatment and education instead of for the criminal justice system.

As Greenwald pointed out in his conference at the Cato Institute on Friday, supporters of prohibition use scare tactics to justify their position. They will grudgingly acknowledge that our efforts have not resulted in less drug abuse or related problems, but they always claim that legalization or decriminalization would make matters worse. For Greenwald, the central question is "is this assumption accurate."

All the evidence from Portugal shows that it is not. According to his report Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies, drug use in the 13 - 15 year old and 16 - 18 year old groups has decreased for most drugs. Newly reported HIV and AIDS cases related to drug use have declined. Drug related deaths have declined. In fact, "in virtually every category of any significance, Portugal, since decriminalization, has outperformed the vast majority of other states that continue to adhere to a criminalization regime."

Greenwald sent a draft of his report to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy asking why, given higher drug use here than in Portugal, we continue to pursue criminalization. They didn't respond.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Do We Get Good Governance?

Suddenly I'm being bombarded with talk of good and bad governance.

The Stiglitz Commission blames, among other things, bad corporate governance for the economic disaster we are in. Madeleine Bunting credits good governance with Singapore's economic turnaround since the 1950s. My weekend movie, Life After the Fall, showed how a total lack of governance turned Iraqis from hopeful to dejected in just four years.

All of which got me thinking about what good governance is.

Systems for

  • making decisions about issues that effect the group
  • resolving disputes
  • coordinating projects that no person can do on their own (highways, bridges...)
  • preventing one person's greed and selfishness from sabotaging the lives of everyone else
  • enforcing consequences for actions that adversely effect others
  • responding to emergencies
  • keeping people safe
I think few people would disagree that we need those things, although many would disagree about what each of those things involves. Keeping people safe could be anything from an army to helmet laws - and you'll find people in favor and against both of those things.

But I don't want to argue about those definitions right now. That's the purpose of having a system that allows for group decision-making. What I want to ask is how do we get good governance?

Elections certainly don't lead to good governance. Elections in Iraq didn't do anything to stop the violence or get the electricity working. The election of Dubya certainly didn't lead to good governance. Any post Katrina New Orleans resident will attest to that. In fact, if having elections leads people to believe that voting once every few years is all that is required of them, elections may leave us worse off. Everyone just pushes the button on their local Diebold machine and then goes home to bitch about what the politicians they voted for are doing.

The corporations that led us into this financial disaster also have a farcical version of democracy. They talk about responding to shareholders the same way politicians talk about responding to constituents. And shareholders have abdicated their responsibilities even more than citizens have. How many of us own mutual funds and don't know what they are invested in, much less how our fund manager is voting at shareholder meetings.

This lack of participation by most of us suits the politicians and CEOs just fine. Quarterly reports, legislation, contracts, and financials are purposely confusing, unclear, complicated, and absurdly long. Combine that with working too many hours and the sad state of our media and most of us just give up trying to figure things out.

So what would I like to see? We could start with
  • A compensation system that enables people to work less so they have more time to participate in governance
  • A universal unwillingness to give money or votes to anything not understood
  • Accepting representative governance as a fallback position, a necessary evil sometimes, but not the be all and end all
Anyone else?

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