Saturday, March 27, 2010

Will Marijuana Use Become Legal In California?

On Wednesday, March 24th, the Secretary of State in California certified that there were enough signatures to put this question on the ballot in November. Just in time to distract us from the never ending post-mortem of the health care debate, this should be an interesting issue to watch, particularly when a 2009 Field poll indicated the “yes” vote at 56%.

California, with its unique “legislation by ballot measure” approach to governing, is always entertaining for political observers like me. What will be interesting is watching which groups line up on either side of this issue. Not surprisingly, all candidates for Governor plus police associations have come out against it. And I would expect social conservatives, particularly conservative Christians, to be against it, as typically they like government to enforce their view of moral behavior on all, even in private.

Also, in the “to be expected” category, many in the industry supplying California’s legal medical marijuana are for it. But the argument for the ballot measure has a new twist: proponents claim a $1.4 billion benefit to the state in terms of tax revenues and savings related to police enforcement and court cases. That's a lot of revenue in tough times. So, legalize pot and ease the state out of the recession is their theme of proponents.

True Libertarians would come out for this idea, as it legalizes a private matter that adults could partake in and it’s not worth wasting the government’s time and money on keeping it illegal. The measure would allow those over 21 to use it in private, but not in public places of where minors are present.

Perhaps more surprising are that a number of police officers, frustrated by the wasted effort on nonviolent drug offenders, who support the measure as a way to focus on more significant criminal activities. But joining the "nays" are some of the current growers who fear legalization will flood the market with cheap pot (as anyone can grow it legally in a plot not exceeding 25 feet), thereby putting them out of business.

Most of all, I’m interested in seeing how conservatives and Republicans line up on this issue. This is a wedge issue that separates the true Libertarians from the social conservatives. So, I wonder where the tea party folks will be?

So, I’m looking forward to this on, if nothing more than seeing who lines up on which side of this issue. (And it’s not health care, for a change!)


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health Care Hangover

A major Health Bill passes, but few are satisfied. Worse, we see a breakdown in civil discourse, replaced with angry outbursts inside and outside of Congress.

How did we get here? Back a year or two, and the nation was behind some form of health care reform. Be it the ever rising cost of health care, the high cost of insurance if you don’t get it at work, or people dropped from insurance, or others who can’t get it due to “pre-existing conditions.” One bad illness can drive an uninsured family to bankruptcy. Does this make sense in the richest nation on earth?

But now we have a bill that promises many changes: keeping your children on your insurance until 26, preventing rejecting coverage for “pre-existing conditions,” and subsidies for some who can’t afford insurance, among others. Yet, there are so many vocal opponents.

How We Got Here: Three reasons:
  1. Politics
  2. Politics
  3. Politics
Both parties chose to blow this out of proportion. Republicans and many ad-hoc groups (some of which are labeled “tea party” folks) see this as the wedge issue that can unseat many Senators and Representatives. And they hit the issue hard, early and often. They went heavy negative. They got media attention by being loud and to the point. And they gained a lot of support.

On the other side, the Democrats made this a “must pass” bill. Much as I believe G. W. Bush felt he almost had to invade Iraq to finish what his father started, Obama was painted into the corner of getting the bill past somehow, some way, at whatever cost.

With stakes so high and politics ruling the day over the interest of the people, there was zero hope of reasonable bipartisan reform.

Our National Loss: Civility? Have we lost the ability to have a national debate on major issues in a civilized manner? The thing that was great about this wonderful land we live in was our freedom of speech and our ability to have different points of view heard. Back when I was in high school, we had a great 10th grade social studies class where the teacher encouraged the airing of all sides of the issues. We had conservatives, liberals and moderates. And we had some very impassioned, yet civilized, debates on the issues of the day.

Right now, I fear that America may be lost. As a Libertarian and American, I believe we need to have respect for everyone’s Freedom of Speech. I wanted to hear the arguments for and against the bill and the various provisions.

But, what I heard was a lot of bullying: shouting down speakers in town hall meetings, including the epithets used against some representatives. When I wanted to hear the rational reasons why the bill may ill-conceived, I heard too much hyperbole or exaggerated claims (government takeover of health care, “baby killer” and “death panels”), and this strange concept that Obama is a fascist trying to obtain totalitarian power over the nation. Only occasionally, in the mists of the sonic bombardment of the opponents, could I once and a while find some rational substance why provisions of the bill are ill-advised.

Sorting Out Some Perspective: If we can leave the shouting behind, here is my perspective on the bill:
  • Some of the desired reforms that will provide one way that more people can obtain health insurance. It’s not the only road to reform, but it is a road that does have the Federal and state governments have a heavier hand in the making it so. (So, as opponents claim, there is an expansion of government’s role in this bill).
  • I’m glad that something’s being done about “pre-existing” conditions as I have one. I can’t get life insurance anymore (luckily, I bought it when I was young). But the most ridiculous thing about it is my pre-existing condition is a little dot of skin cancer (about the size of the eraser on your pencil) that was removed in a couple of minutes in the doctor’s office. It was truly itsy bitsy, but because it was the BIG “C”, I can’t get insurance. So, I’m inclined to use anything, including the expansion of the Federal government to banish this “existing condition” provision!
  • It remains to be seen how it will be paid for. Right now I don’t believe a single politician on either side about how the costs will work out. But where there are subsidies, the revenue has to come from somewhere.
  • I don’t yet see a threat to the typical employer-based health plans like I have. Maybe some union jobs still have “Cadillac” plans (that will be eventually taxed), but not my cheap employer! We pay a lot and have high co-pays, but at least I have insurance! The funny thing was listening to one conservative opposing reform as it might do away with their great employer-based health care plans, as he had really low co-pays and it was about as perfect as it could be. But only 1 1/2 years ago conservative Republican candidate John McCain campaigned on health care reform that would get rid of the employer-based system and we’d all have to compete on the free marketplace to find a plan. Short are some people’s memories!
  • Notice that the insurance companies are silent. They know there’s more regulation, but there’s more customers coming. I’ve already seen TV ads encouraging people to apply for new plans that will be available under this new bill. The insurance companies will make out on this. First, they get more revenue from customers. But there is little to stop them from frequent increases in premiums, so there is more revenue. So, even if regulation cost them some additional overhead costs (to figure out all this red tape) or some limits on plan costs, they can make it up by increased revenues.

So, Is It Good or Bad? A pure Libertarian would say it’s inherently bad as it uses government to create reform, thereby expanding the role of government. And it forces people to buy insurance in a nation that should leave everyone alone. (Then again, a pure Libertarian would take us back to the 4 original Federal Departments (Defense, State, Treasury and Justice) and jettison Education, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, Environmental Protection, etc.

But I’m not a pure Libertarian. I believe government is a tool. It’s not the solution to all problems, but it can be a good solution to some. For example, who would really propose selling off the nation’s roadway system to private interests because government at any level (federal, state, county, or local) shouldn’t be in the transportation business?

So, what to do about health care? Republicans gave us the health care savings account. They assume we have a crystal ball and know our health care needs for the upcoming year. They like tort reform – always some ridiculous settlements that get any reasonable person to say “enough!” But how much will that really save? They like expanding the sales of insurance across state lines.

But that still doesn’t get to the fact there is not real capitalism (many buyers, many sellers) when it comes to health insurance, as there are too few sellers and any one individual is in a weak negotiating position. It’s not like going to the farmer’s market and bartering for price of 10 pounds of potatoes.

In the absence of true capitalism, often our nation has turned to the power of government regulation to try to level the playing field. This goes back to regulating the railroads when they had the collective monopoly on the nation’s transportation. Then, starting in the 1930s (and again in the '50s and '60s with the interstate system) the government stepped in with the “public option” of the day: federal funding of highways. But I ask you, who among the Republicans, conservatives, or tea party folks want to repeal the “public option” in transportation? Public roads represented a big expansion of government into a sector (transportation) that previously was highly privatized. But were public roads the death of freedom in America? Quite the contrary, as the car commercials portray driving on public roads as “freedom.”

So, I have to say I am not philosophically opposed to the hand of government in health care. I don’t believe it is the “wonder drug” that will make things perfect. But, we still needed to do something. I’m not too happy with the bill that passed, that’s why I’m feeling this health care hangover!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sex Scandals Continue in the Catholic Church

This week in the news was the discovery of yet more cases of pedophilia perpetrated by Catholic priests, in both Ireland and Germany. This follows years of discovery of similar crimes committed in the United States (many in the Boston area where I live) and elsewhere.

While the media is focused on the new evidence, particularly about a case of a pedophile priest reassigned in a diocese overseen by the current pope, I have some comments and perspectives on this issues that I don't see in the media.

So, first, I must say that I was brought up by my Irish Catholic mother, so I’m quite familiar with this church. I remain a Christian in faith (as I can separate the teachings of Jesus from these grievous sinners), remain a “cultural Catholic,” but have a tenuous relationship with the Catholic Church (for obvious reasons).

Here in the US, we've been through the devastating news of how such trusted men could use their position of unquestioned authority to take advantage of the most vulnerable. We've been angry with the cover-ups, the reassignment of abusers, the failure of church officials really to "get it" that these are serious sins and serious crimes!

Yet, years later I still have my unanswered questions, which deal with some truths that the institution known as the Catholic Church seems unable to say. And a disturbing suspicion about what is fundamentally at the root of this widespread abuse.

  1. I have yet to hear church officials name these crimes as “mortal sins” or grievous offences against God, which is the definition of moral sin that I learned as a child. A mortal sin also requires the full knowledge of the sinner and the deliberate consent of the sinner. Well, I think an ordained priest learned all about sin in the seminary, so they can't hide behind a claim of not knowing or not consenting. But instead of saying "mortal sin," I’ve heard these crimes called things like a “falling” or maybe a “problem.” But why did no one speak truth and call these the “mortal sins” they clearly are!
  2. I don’t know how church officials missed one of the fundamentals of forgiveness: avoiding the “near occasion of sin.” This is right out of the Act of Contrition! We learned that forgiveness is possible for even the most heinous of sins. But, and this is crucial, one must avoid the “near occasion of sin.” For a pedophile, that means no work with children!
  3. If church officials could see “mortal sins” when presented to them, they would have proscribed the path to forgiveness for the offenders: a) confess their sins; b) turn themselves into the police and serve their sentence under civil law; and c) be forever banned from ministry and particularly work with children.
  4. Finally, the sociological issue: In any organization, there can be a few “bad apples.” Thus, if pedophilia was confined to a few priests in a few locations, the “bad apple” analogy might apply. But it isn't; it's happening in some many places by enough priests that I believe it is clearly a subculture.

    While many priests were faithful to their vow of celibacy, those in this subculture seemed to integrate this dark side of pedophilia with their otherwise public face of piousness.

    But how did this subculture develop? The offending priests were in many countries, they were geographically distant so that they likely never met each other, and many of the offences happened in a pre-internet age where there was not the ease of communication among members of a small sub-culture that exists today. How does a subculture sprout in so many places at the same time period (1960s through 1990s)?

    This is what I find most disturbing. If it occurred around the world, wouldn’t officials – bishops, cardinals, even the pope – know or suspect something?

    The questions that follow could shake the foundation of the institutional Catholic Church:

    a) How long did this subculture exist? Is it a dark, unspoken “tradition” that goes back centuries? Or is it just isolated individuals?

    b) How do abusive priests come to turn to pedophilia? Did each one come up with the idea himself? Or did they find out about this from others? From some undisclosed network? Some priests who can't live up to celibacy may have relations with a woman or a gay man. By why children? Is it that they are more easily intimidated?

    c) It’s easy to think that officials – bishops, cardinals, popes – knew about it and ignored it (or just swept it under the rug) because they were in denial. Maybe they doubted the few brave enough to report what happened. May the truly believed priests could never do this. Or maybe they truly believed it was just a "few bad apples," because so few spoke out. Or, could it be they were only told a "whitewashed" story that didn't describe the incidents as sexual abuse? A heavy dose of denial, cover-up, and whitewashing could explain the reaction of officials (i.e., reassigning priests to a new parish).

    d) But if it had been so wide-spread geographically, did they ignore it because it was just a “thing” that some priest did, tantamount to other habits like smoking or drinking?

    e) Or worse, did officials ignore or deny it because it was commonplace and even some of their ranks also participated?

I shutter to answer these questions, but I just can't convince myself that this is just a "few bad apples" here and there and, well, everywhere.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Attacks on Freedom from the Right

As a Libertarian, I have learned there is more to fear from conservatives attacking our basic freedoms enshrined in the US Constitution than from liberals. Conservatives are more likely to talk up small government and personal freedom (and “sound” libertarian), and then advocate government enforcement of their which often includes the expansion of government power, be it by snooping into our libraries and phone calls (with the Patriot Act) or even into a woman’s womb (with their anti-choice agenda).

Libertarians have to call out the conservatives on two recent proclamations:

  1. Glen Beck claiming he knows better than you what religion or congregation you should belong to; and
  2. Lynne Cheney’s attack on the patriotism of lawyers defending detainees as provided for in the law of this land.

Glen Beck’s Attack on Freedom of Religion.
This one has me steaming! Recently Glen Beck ask his audience to leave their congregation if the words “social justice” or “economic justice” are used. He said: “I beg you, look for the words ’social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”

While I support his freedom to say anything he likes, I don’t want anyone – in government or in the media (like Mr. Beck) – telling me ANYTHING about how I should practice my religion!!

No one has the right to tell me which religion to believe in or which house of worship or congregation to attend! The First Amendment to the US Constitution may only talk about Congress not making any law to prohibit the free exercise of religion; I take it as my personal right that I am the one and only person who decides what I believe in and where I choose to go to practice this religion. No one who believes America is the land of Freedom should be letting someone like Mr. Beck tell them how to practice religion!

Lynne Cheney’s Attack on Defense Lawyers
The implication of these attacks by Keep America Safe was to question the patriotism of lawyers that would defend detainees who were accused of being terrorists. There was another issue that lawyers who defended detainees should be “outed” if they want a government position.

Here’s thing: Amendment 6 of the US Constitution guarantees the right of a defendant to have counsel at trial. Even in a military trial (as were the cases in question), there is also the right for counsel. Within the legal profession, there is a tradition that no lawyer is looked down upon for defending an unpopular defendant.

And there are plenty of unpopular defendants accused of despicable crimes. There are mass murderers, serial rapists, organized crime, kingpins, pedophiles, and other despicable criminals. But when they go on trial, they all have a right under the laws of this land to defense counsel. From the time of John Adams providing defense counsel to British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre, the tradition is not to look down upon those who defend unpopular defendants.

And we need this right to prevent government tyranny. Without a trial system where the government has to prove its case, it would be all to easy to trump up a case against anyone it didn't like or considered an "enemy." If they do that to detainees or alleged terrorists today, they could do that to you and me tomorrow!

Even in this post-9/11 world, we have to preserve our freedoms and the American way. Conservatives seem to need an "enemy" to validate their policies. Libertarians make no such distinctions. Today's terrorist could be tomorrow's patriot. Today's enemy can be tomorrow's friend. Therefore, equality under the law for all.

So, why do some conservatives think detainees are so more evil or threatening than mass murderers, serial rapists, pedophiles, or even the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre (all of whom are allowed defense counsel)? Terrorists are not the only ones out there who want to deprive us of life and liberty. There's plenty of criminals with the same aim!

Yet it seems part of some conservative agenda to fully demonize detainees and terrorists to the point that they should have absolutely no rights and do not deserve legal counsel. Then pile it on by promoting guilt by association: anyone who would assist these terrorists is therefore not patriotic.

My point here is to quote the conservative mantra of the ‘60s and ‘70s” Law and Order. If the laws of the land guarantee legal counsel for detainees in military trials, then they should have counsel and any lawyer providing that service is acting within the law and should not be disparaged. If some conservatives don’t like the law, well, then work to change the law! But we must obey the laws as they are! And don’t attach those who are providing a necessary role as prescribed by law.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

School Spying on High School Students

Recent allegations of spying on high school students while at home are at the root of a controversy in the Lower Merion School District outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The situation was unveiled when school officials used webcam evidence to accuse high school student Blake Robbins of using illicit drugs in his home. As it turned out the “illicit drugs” turned out to be Mike and Ike candies. But the disturbing thing was the ability of school district employees to remotely activate the web cam and take pictures of the student in his home.

To me, this is a gross intrusion of government into places and matters that are not their concern. Yes, the school district can monitor what students do while in school. But they do not have the right to monitor students, without their knowledge, in the privacy of their own home!

At home, it is the parents’ right and responsibility to monitor what their children are up to. In fact, 24/7/365 from birth until they reach legal adulthood, the parents have the primary responsibility for raising their children.

We’ve seen schools overstep the boundaries of law in the case of the strip searching of Savana Redding. In that case, the school officials committed what I would call sexual abuse of a minor by subjecting the girl to such a visual intrustion of the most private parts of her body. (See my previous post.)

All in all, we need to be vigilant for cases where school officials and others in government overstep the bounds of their authority and invade the privacy and constitutional rights of students.