Thursday, June 30, 2011

Peace in Our Time

I've got it.  I can't believe it took me this long.  I've got the secret to achieving Peace in Our Time.  And best of all, it reflects true democracy.

It started when I saw an article on the Huffington Post about how our wars over the last decade have so far costs us $3.7 trillion.  In the last year or two I have read lots of articles about de-funding Planned Parenthood, ACRON, NRP, the National Endowment for the Arts, Social Security, etc.  And it occurred to me that I really didn't mind seeing my tax dollars go to partially fund those things, but I minded like hell that a much larger chuck of my tax dollars went to support war.  I'm not a fan of war, and I am a fan of us taking care of our own. 

This government is supposed to be "of the people, by the people and for the people", and yet despite public support for the wars waning steadily over the last few years, Congress seems oblivious to the turning tide, and continue to rubber stamp their approvals all over wasteful spending on dubious project.  And as if that's not enough of a kick in the teeth, they have the temerity to bicker among themselves about debt and spending.  Are they assuming we can't see this?  We're broke, war is expensive, peace is cheap.  Do the math.  If you added up all the money we've spent over the past ten years on Social Security, Medicare, social welfare programs and all the funding that ACORN, NPR, and Planned Parenthood have gotten, I would bet that our spending on wars amounts to a lot more.  Gutting the funding we give to all of those programs while continuing to fund an expensive war campaign that nobody wants is not the path to fiscal solvency, ladies and gentlemen.

Anyway, back to Peace in Our Time.

The House of Representatives has 435 members, and the Senate 100.  These men and women are in office because we voted them into office, with the assumption that they were going to go to Washington and represent us and our interests.  My Congressman, Adam Schiff, does a pretty good job of consistently voting in ways I agree with.  I get the feeling that on a national level, I am outnumbered in that opinion.  What I am suggesting is this: when it comes to spending taxpayers' money on projects, whether it be war or public housing, that the Representatives go to their respective constituencies and get a sense of how best to vote.  And here's the kicker: if Congressperson "A" votes in favor of a war and Congressperson "B" votes against it (assuming they are representing their constituents), and that motion to go to war passes, the costs associated with that war be shouldered only by the taxpayers in Congressperson "A"'s district.  In other words, I don't have to pay for a war out of my taxes if my elected representative voted against the idea.  If Congress voted to fund subsidies to NPR, ACORN, or Planned Parenthood, and my representative voted yes, my tax dollars will get used for that.

This idea completely solves the problem of having one's tax dollars going to fund ideas, campaigns or projects that they disapprove of.  I would love the idea of paying my taxes and knowing it goes to support the things I think Congress should be doing.

Now to the naysayers I say, yes, some people's taxes will be higher than others.  But don't complain to me about that.  Complain to your elected representatives, your Senators and Congressmen and women.  They're going to be the ones committing your tax dollars.  If you don't like they way they vote to spend your taxes, you can do one of two things:  either vote them out of office or move to another district.  I have to wonder, having written that, how many people who can't be bothered to vote would sooner move than get involved in their own democracy.

As an example of how this would work: if your representatives vote "no" on fixing road and bridges at your direction, and the bill passes anyway, your disctrict won't get any help fixing the roads and bridges from the Feds.  You had the chance to accept the help and you said "no".  Happy motoring!

If your representatives vote "yes" on funding PBS and NPR and the measures pass, you don't have to worry about your district's PBS and NPR stations doing their annual fundraisers.  To the rest of you, enjoy the marathon fund raisers!

So there it is: Peace In Our Time.  When our representatives are sticking the small minority of the population who support the idea of war with the $3.7 trillion bill, I am guessing that we'll be more willing to explore non-military solutions to our international problems.  I'm guessing that we'll see some real fiscal conservancy, once taxpayers understand the relationship between their votes and their taxes.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why the Death Penalty Makes No Sense to Me

From the Huffington Post today: "Thirty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment and approved new sentencing criteria to make it less random, a new report has found that receiving the death penalty is still as arbitrary and unfair as being 'struck by lightning.'"

I am against the death penalty, but not for the reasons you may expect.  I am not the guy saying "have mercy on the criminal".  I'm not the one telling you that it's cruel and unusual punishment.  I leave that to the Constitutional scholars out there. 

The fact is, there are some true bastards out there.  There are folks who rape and kill.  There are people who will burn down homes just to see the pretty colors.  There are mommies who will drive a minivan full of kids into a river, or stick a baby in a microwave.

Are these people insane?  I would think so, but what do I know?  I'm no psychiatrist, I'm not fit to say who is sane or insane.  But it seems to me that anyone who decides at some point that any of that behavior is acceptable has snapped on some level.  And frankly I don't care if they spend the rest of their natural lives in a prison or a psych ward, just so long as they're removed from the general populace.

When I tell people I'm against the death penalty, I invariably get asked how I would feel if my wife and family were murdered.  If I got to choose their killer's fate, would I still be against the death penalty.  And while that's certainly a stimulating argument, I would say that in that case, I'm the last person anyone should ask.  I would not have it in me to think rationally or objectively.  I might agree, in that moment, to torture and kill the bastard as slowly and as painfully as science would allow.  Which is exactly why I should not be in charge of making the decision.

There is talk of justice, but there is no justice when someone gets killed.  Killing their killers will not bring back their victims.  It's just another hole we have to dig. 

Which brings me to my first reason for opposing the death penalty: it is not an effective deterrent to violent crime.  In states where the death penalty is an option, violent crime and other execution-earning crimes are no less common.  If you could say that there was a significant drop in violent crimes in states that offer the death penalty, you might be able to make the case that executing criminals serves some sense of the Greater Good.  But this is not the case.  Besides, most death-penalty-earning crime is committed because the person is either batshit crazy for life, or else caught up in a moment of passion - or as some phrase it, "temporary insanity".  To those people, the ones who are either temporarily or permanently nuts, they're not going to say to themselves "gosh I'd better not kill this hooker - I don't want to go to the gas chamber".

The next reason is strictly a practical one, from the financial perspective: it is cheaper to let them rot in jail for life than it is to execute them.  People sentenced to death are often kept in jail for years, sometimes decades, going through the appeals process.  And I'm not saying that they shouldn't be allowed to appeal - I've heard of many cases where a death row inmate was freed decades after being sentenced when somebody ran a DNA test that actually proved they were innocent all along.  Inmates on Death Row have a better chance of dying of old age that dying in the execution chamber.  And all that appealling costs the states money and diverts resources.

My final reason for opposing the death penalty could be taken as sadistic, but here it goes: prison sucks.  In prison, you lose your identity.  You rarely see the sky.  Nobody bakes you a cake on your birthday, you never have a chance to get promoted or be anything other than what you are: an inmate.  You get a number, a uniform, and if you're very lucky, a cellmate that doesn't think you have a pretty mouth.  You eat bad food, sleep on a steel bed, wear the same clothes every day and the only new people you ever get to meet are the new inmates.  The best you can hope for is that the guards and inmates don't think beating you is a fun way to pass the time.  There is no future, and every day is the same as the last.  And that's your life.  Forever.  Unless you do manage to get out years later, in which case you're screwed again: you will completely lost all your skills for living in a non-prison world, and your odds of getting a house or a job or ever being accepted back into mainstream society are slim.  This is why a lot of people released from prison invariably pull some stunt shortly after being released that gets them back in prison.

At one point in the 90's, I fell behind on the child support I was paying, and the Sherriff's deputies came to my home and arrested me.  I spent five days in the couty jail.  Let me tell you, it was no picnic.  And that was just county jail, not a state or a federal prison.  County jails are usually for people waiting to make bail or else serving a short term sentence (less than a year).  You have an assortment of drunk drivers, wife beaters, and general no-goodniks.  I had nightmares about that experience for years afterwards.  And if I committed some heinous crime and the prosection offered me the chioce of life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty, there would no question in my mind: kill me now.  So when we have someone who has committed some atrocious crime and we scratch our collective heads and wonder "how can we really make this bastard suffer", I say killing them is not the best answer. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mind Your Own Business

Way back in 1928, Supreme court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to "the right to be let alone" as "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men".  I agree.  We have, and ought to have, the right to be left alone - by the media, the government, and nosy people in general.

Of course, this right is not absolute.  I should not have the right to be left alone to beat my wife, molest little kids, start a dog fighting ring or other crimes that involve the direct harming of others.  But whatever I do that I want to keep to myself, that doesn't involve me hurting others, ought to be left up to me, without the interference of nosey parties.

With that said, we are a society obsessed with other people's lives.  When Charlie Sheen announced his mid-life crisis and desired to have endless coke parties with porn stars, the media couldn't get enough.  I addressed it myself on this blog, but mostly just to say nobody should care.  This isn't news, a rich middle aged guy having a very expensive midlife crisis. 

A few weeks ago, several of Sarah Palin's emails were made public.  Rather than hanging our heads in shame over this invasion of privacy, we celebrated it on TV and on the Internet.  I'm no fan of Mrs. Palin, but even the jerks in our society should have the right to reasonably expect some measure of privacy.  Unless her emails have her confessing to crimes, I'm not interested.

More recently, Congressman Anthony Weiner's private life of sexy text messages and PG-13 pictures sent to various women has come to light, and the predictable media feeding frenzy has engaged.  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s many mistresses and love children became public shortly after he left office, and we all dove into the buffet at the never ending trough of public shame.

The Washington versions of our obsession with all things private is just one chapter in our saga.  Visit sites like TMZ, PerezHilton, or scan the magazines at the checkout stands anywhere in America, and you will see two things: a society obsessed with other people's private lives, and an well-funded industry dedicated to enabling this addiction.  I don't find Anthony Weiner's activities nearly as obscene as our general attitude that we are entitled to know the details.  It has been suggested that we should find better ways to spend our time, both individually and collectively.  Will it happen, though?  Of course not. 

Like Pavlov's dogs, we have been conditioned to respond to the stimuli our masters have chosen.  How much weight has Kirstie Allie lost and/or gained back?  Do Tom Cruise and Katey Holmes have a happy marriage?  What about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? What are the stars of "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" doing off-camera?  What is the private life of your favorite celebrity really like?

I have to admit that I find myself cheering every time some celebrity beats the hell out of someone in the paparazzi for taking pictures of their kids or crowding them out so they can't successfully walk to their cars when they leave restaurants.  Without the paparazzi and the tabloids, we would have lost track of Lindsay Lohan and the Olson twins, and we probably would have no idea who Paris Hilton is at all.  And to me, those are good things.  In a perfect world, or at least a self-respecting one, we wouldn't bother to care.

Our obsession does not end with the private side of celebrity.  Our government makes it a policy to wage war waged on harmless stoners, under the flimsy pretext of a "war on drugs".  Tactically, financially, morally, our war on drugs is a colossal failure and needs to end.  And since I'm one of the people funding it through my tax dollars, I feel that I should get a say in this.  But to admit defeat in the war on drugs would be to acknowledge that it's okay to leave people alone sometimes.  And that is not a message that we as a society are ready to accept.

Ask people whether two gay people they don’t even know should have the right to marry, and suddenly everyone has an opinion.  Ask them if a gay couple who they’ve never met is fit to adopt and raise a child, and you’ll get even stronger opinions.  Whatever happened to “none of your business”?  Whatever happened to minding our own business?

I've said it before and I’ll say it again: we ought to have the absolute right to be left alone, provided we are not actively engaged in harming others.  But in agreeing to our own right to be left alone, we must also stipulate that right for everyone else as well.  And that means the end of tabloids, scandals involving politicians’ sex lives, and the right to decide on the validity of other people’s marriages.  What ever shall we discuss now?