Friday, December 28, 2012

Reason #269: What Deficit?

While trawling Ezra Klein's Wonkblog this morning for the latest fiscal-cliff news (and, well, searching for today's blog topic), I came across two interesting op-eds; one by Evan Soltas at Bloomberg, and one by Paul Krugman at the New York Times, whose work I've highlighted here before.

Both pieces, to paraphrase, basically serve to point out the fact that there really is no federal debt crisis to speak of.

Sure, both men acknowledge that the actual debt is in fact roughly 1 trillion dollars at present. For starters, though, Soltas divides the debt into two categories: actual and structural debt. Actual debt is self-explanatory; structural debt is things like social security--areas where, yes, there is excess spending, but it's predictable, and baked into the core of our economy. Social security, for example, is a demographic problem due to the aging of the population, and can neither be made worse by a slow economy nor fixed by a strong one.

The actual debt, meanwhile, is shown by Soltas' figures to fluctuate a great deal based on the health of the economy. Per Krugman's piece, when we go into a recession, GDP goes down, which means the government is taking in less tax money at the same time as it's giving temporary tax breaks to low-income citizens and spending more on welfare and food stamps.

The key word there, however, is temporary. When the economy picks back up, not only is there more tax money to go around, but spending on recession-related measures goes down by definition, and the whole thing evens out--which is what led to the budget surpluses at the end of the Clinton years.

The other point Krugman makes, which hearkens back to the old post I linked to above, is that debt is not inherently evil; it's both normal and sustainable as long as the proportion of debt to GDP is managed effectively--and if you look at the light blue and grey lines on the graph above, you'll see that the last sixty years have done a fairly good job of that. The vast majority of the current trillion-dollar deficit--the dark-blue spike at the far right--is recession-related, and thus, the best way to ensure that it will go away isn't to chop federal spending off at the knees, it's to make the recession go away.

In other words: stimulus. Happy New Year!

Further Reading

The Deficit: Not as Bad as They Want You to Think

That Terrible Trillion

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reason #268: Normalization

Littleton. Blacksburg. Aurora. Newtown.

There is naturally a wealth of opinion out there on last week's shooting, and it won't be letting up anytime soon. For my part, I think gun control, mental health, and violent media are all worthy of examination while simultaneously not being the real problem. But there is one thing I want to add to the conversation that I don't hear much about.

The towns I mentioned above are just that--towns. Suburbs. The sticks, more or less. Nobody is surprised anymore at the unstable young men behind these massacres. We may not understand the profile, but we're damn sure used to it. But everyone continues to be shocked at what quaint, idyllic, sleepy little towns this sort of thing keeps happening in. As if we're all completely certain that that's what produces sane, healthy people. As if nobody's noticed yet that This Sort Of Thing does not happen in urban schools.

One could argue that the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, in Tucson, is an exception to this, but having been to Tucson myself, it's not exactly a bustling metropolis. It's a big city, but with all that desert out there, its population density is only around half that of a northeastern city like Pittsburgh or Cleveland--and nowhere near that of ultra-diverse cities like Philadelphia or New York. Lord knows New York and Philly have their own issues with violent crime, but traditional homicide, by and large, is going down, while random shooting sprees are going up.

Population density, and by extension, diversity, are what I'm talking about here. I don't mean to say that people in small towns are naturally less empathetic or mentally stable than people in cities, but I do think that those who are are far more likely to stay that way in a small town. The urban experience, to me, is the greatest normalizer of human behavior yet to be conceived. Not in such a way as to make everyone homogeneous and boring, but to foster a greater understanding of, and connection to, people who are not yourself.

Early word is that Adam Lanza's mother was a survivalist--that could be true, or an exaggeration, or outright wrong. But to hear her friends talk, she was absolutely very protective of her sons, and very hesitant to even discuss their home lives, or the manner in which she was raising them. The ironic thing is, a lot of people move to the suburbs for exactly that reason--the desire to raise their children in the environment of their choosing, free of the "unhealthy" influence of city life.

But with city life comes a degree of peer review. And with peer review comes--well, if nothing else, public scrutiny. As it was, Nancy Lanza was free to teach her sons whatever she wanted them to learn, free to surround them with whatever environment she wanted them to be conditioned to, and free to ignore or rationalize whatever troubling behavior she wanted to ignore or rationalize. As were the Harrises and the Klebolds, the Chos and the Holmeses.

I don't have any more answers here than anyone else. But I can't help but wonder, if these kids had grown up in Denver, or Richmond, or New York City or Philadelphia, whether someone might have noticed something. Or whether things would have turned out the way they did at all.

Further Reading

How Likely Are You to Be a Victim of a Mass Murderer?

Wikipedia - List of United States cities by population density

Wikipedia - List of rampage killers

Sandy Hook elementary school gunman Adam Lanza learned to shoot from his gun-collecting mom

Friday, December 14, 2012

Reason #267: $#@&#

Today's blog post was going to be about the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation, or CALM, Act, which went into effect this week and requires broadcast and cable TV stations to keep all their advertising at the same volume as their regular programming. It coasted easily through Congress in 2010, and was officially adopted by the FCC one year ago, but stations had an extra year to get their shit together before regular enforcement began.

It's a nice, simple story, and I knew from the start that it would make for a relatively light post. But right now, it seems frivolous to the point of insulting, and I just can't be bothered to waste time padding it out. I'm sure I'll have something interesting to say next week.

Further Reading

Wikipedia - Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act

CALM law regulating TV commercial volume takes effect

Friday, December 7, 2012

Reason #266: Old People

As we inch ever closer to the cliffpocalypse, I thought it was time for another of my periodic "the Republicans have a point" moments. To wit: the Medicare age should absolutely be raised.

In 1965, when Medicare was created, the average life expectancy in the United States was 70. Now it's 78, an increase of a little more than 10%. If the eligibility age had been going up proportionally all this time, it would now be at 72.

To my thinking, that is already enough of a reason. Full stop.

Currently on the table, however, is a gradual raise from 65 to 67--in other words, pretty much what both sides agreed to do with Social Security 30 years ago. While there are some compelling side-effects to factor into our equations, in particular rising premium costs both for active Medicare recipients (as their pool gets proportionally older) and regular insured people (as their pool absorbs more 65- and 66-year-olds), I don't see why this is even a debate, and it's surprising to me that the eligibility ages for retiree aid programs weren't married to life expectancy in the first place, the same way congressional districts are married to census data.

For one thing, on the subject of potential increased costs to individuals, I don't see why the argument would go one way where Obamacare is concerned (the Supreme Court ruled that federal manipulation of the insurance industry was allowable under Congress' power to tax, and Dems rejoiced) and another way where Medicare is concerned. In both situations, the premise is the same: the system is becoming skewed, and action should be taken to keep the reality in line with the ideals. If my premiums were to go up, I wouldn't see it as an arbitrary raise, but as their being corrected to where they would've been already if Medicare's initial intentions had been carried through properly over the past fifty years or so.

Second, there's still the matter of means-testing--and if ever there was an idea the Democrats should love, it's this one. Means-testing is the, well, means by which premiums and benefits are adjusted based on what a given individual actually needs, and can afford. Just as Warren Buffet's taxes should be higher than the 80-year-old wiping tables at Wendy's, he shouldn't be eligible for an identical entitlement package as her.

And speaking of Wendy's lady, that's the reality of retirement in America as I see it. To the people who really need our assistance, 65 versus 67 doesn't make a shred of difference, because they can't afford to retire anyway. Speaking as someone whose mother actually did turn 65 and retire this year, I can say with confidence that her Medicare eligibility was hardly the deciding factor--those that can retire will do so when they're good and ready, and those that can't aren't even close.

We should be talking about how to help them.

Further Reading

Google Public Data - United States Life Expectancy

GOP plan would raise Medicare age, lower Social Security COLAs, while raising $800B in revenue

Obama Non-Committal on Means-Testing Medicare

Trade-offs In Raising Medicare Eligibility Age

Friday, November 30, 2012

Reason #265: Further Reading

Given that the big news story for the next month is almost certainly going to be the Bush tax cuts and the oncoming "fiscal cliff"--and given that this blog is called "Why I Enjoy Paying Taxes"--I figured now would be a good time to dig a bit into how federal income taxes actually work, and how they're applied.

Tax brackets, the ranges of income that dictate the tax rate you pay, were a fairly well-known thing even before their current spotlight. But what I, at least, didn't know until recently was how those rates are actually applied.

Number one: the Bush tax cuts don't involve tax rate manipulation so much as bracket manipulation. Rather than take the existing bracket arrangement (known as the rate schedule) and lower the rates associated with each bracket, they created a new rate schedule--causing all the existing brackets to shift.

This is especially important because of point number two: any given tax rate only applies to the specific range of income in its own bracket. In other words, if the bottom bracket involves a 10% tax rate on income up to 25 thousand dollars, after which the rate goes up to 15%, and you make, say, thirty thousand, you don't pay 15% on the entire thirty thousand, only the five thousand you made past the cutoff. Your first 25 thousand is still taxed at the 10% rate, and would be whether your total income was thirty thousand or thirty million.

Going back to the Bush tax cuts, what this means is that the actual bottom bracket, 15% up to about $36 thousand, stayed the same, but a 10% bracket was added underneath it for people making about nine thousand or less. There probably aren't a lot of people making less than nine thousand dollars a year, but for those who make, say, twenty thousand, it means that only about half their income ix taxed at 15%, and their overall tax rate comes to around 12.5%. Great, right? This is why everything above that bottom 15% is called a marginal tax rate--they only apply to the margins.

The problem with the Bush cuts, and the reason the Democrats are seeking to change them, is that all the higher brackets then shifted downwards instead of upwards, and the top bracket, 39.6%, disappeared entirely. This was helpful for everyone, really, but because there were never any tax brackets higher than $400 thousand, taking the people who make more than that from a 39.6% rate down to a 35% rate meant losing untold millions of dollars of revenue from mega-ultra-millionaires who were now being taxed according to the rules that has previously existed for people in the $200-400 thousand range.

Take a good look at the chart above this post--the dotted line is what the poorest Americans have paid in income tax over the last century; the solid red line is what the richest have paid. If Obama gets his way, the dotted line will stay where it is, and the red line will nudge back up to about 40%. Not only is that the same place is was in the late nineties, but it's ten percent less than it was in the early eighties, which itself was twenty percent less than it was in the seventies, which itself was twenty percent less than it was in the fifties.

That 90% fifties tax rate seems fucking insane until you understand how marginal rates work--all it was really saying is, there's a limit on the amount of money one person can reasonably need, and while you're free to make a hundred or a million times that limit if you can, you're damn well gonna put a greater-than-usual chunk of that money into the service of your nation. As far as I can tell, at the time, no one seemed all that unhappy to do so.

What changed?

Further Reading

Wikipedia - Rate schedule (federal income tax)

History of Federal Individual Income Bottom and Top Bracket Rates

2013 Federal Income Tax Brackets And Marginal Rates

Congressional Proposal Could Create ‘Bubble’ in Tax Code

Friday, November 16, 2012

Reason #264: Round Numbers

I am by no means an expert in Puerto Rico's history and legal status. My rough understanding, based mostly on my fairly good historical understanding of territoriality, has always been that Puerto Ricans would very much like to be a state, but the federal government has always managed to screw them out of it one way or another.

Well, in the wake of last week's election and the mixed-at-best results of Puerto Rico's statehood referendum, it looks like the situation is nowhere near that simple.

Here's the deal: according to the first part of the referendum, a tight 54% majority "disagrees" with Puerto Rico's current legal status. Given that their economy isn't doing so great and their population is shrinking as more and more people leave for the mainland United States, it's fairly easy to see how a rethinking of its role in the US could shake up a better scenario, at least where taxes are concerned.

According to the second part of the referendum--technically--61% supported statehood, as opposed to 33% for "sovereign commonwealth", whatever the hell that is, and 6% for balls-out independence, which I believe is a Jeffersonian term. However, a large enough portion of voters only filled in the first part of the referendum, such that if you counted all the blank ballots as tantamount to a vote for "none of the above", the actual percentage of voters who supported statehood was only 45%.

What exactly these theoretical "none of the above" people would've preferred instead, I can only imagine, but given that the pro-statehood officials who were also on the ballot last Tuesday were soundly defeated, it seems clear that the statehood thing is at best controversial, if not downright unpopular.

For my part, I would be happy to have Puerto Rico become a state were it not for the fact that we're currently sitting at the nice round number of fifty--equal representation is all well and good, but give me numerical aesthetics or give me death.

Here's my proposal: since Obama's reelection, over 112,000 citizens and counting have signed an official petition to the White House to grant Texas independence, that it may become a sovereign nation of its own. some many point out that it doesn't quite work that way, but I think that from this point on we should have a sort of barter system--if a state decides they want to secede, they can only go if they convince someone else to take their seat at the table. If Texas wants to go, they can go just as soon as they figure out a way to bring Puerto Rico on board.

Of course, once Texas has seceded and the US government has taken back all the military assets and personnel currently stationed there, we may have to talk invasion--can't have a rogue nation like Texas sitting unhindered right across our border. But don't worry, Texans; I'm sure we can come up with a nice territorial option for you. Puerto Rico seems happy with theirs.

Further Reading

Did Puerto Rico Really Vote for Statehood?

Obama’s Re-Election Inspires Southern Secessionists

Official Petition for Texan Secession

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reason #263.5: Redistribution

I'm taking the week quasi-off in honor of Election Day, but I did want to follow up briefly on Reason #258 from a few weeks ago. For all the fretting over Citizens United in the last couple years, and for all its brazen trampling of election law, what did it actually accomplish on Tuesday?

  • Foster Friess - Friess Association - $2.5 million
  • John Joe Rickettts - Hugo Enterprises - $13 million
  • Robert Perry - Perry Homes - $21.5 million
  • Harold & Annette Simmons - Contran - $24 million
  • Sheldon Adelson - Las Vegas Sands - $53 million

That's just a small sampling of some of the top conservative donors in this election. For the record, Republican bogeyman George Soros tied with Foster Friess at around $2.5 million, coming in a little under Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenburg's $3 million, while the top liberal donor was one Fred Eyechaner, of Newsweb, at $12 million. For better or worse, that money is now gone--the PACs and campaigns still undoubtedly have some of it, maybe even a fair amount of it, floating around, but those individuals will never get it back.

So what did they get for their money?

  • American Crossroads (Karl Rove) - 1.29% successful
  • Crossroads GPS (also Karl) - 14.4% successful
  • American Future Fund - 5.57% successful
  • Restore our Future - 0% successful

Note that while both Crossroads groups and AFF put some money into opposing down-ticket candidates who did end up losing, they didn't support a single winning candidate. ROF only spent money on the presidential race--about $118 million--and thus accomplished absolutely nothing.

The majority of Sheldon Adelson's money famously went to Newt Gingrich, who lost in the primaries, and Mitt Romney, who lost the election. He less-famously backed seven other down-ticket candidates, each of whom lost their own races, meaning Adelson personally earned a 0% return on his investment. Not that he can't afford it.

Altogether, even ignoring the other races, $386 million was spent specifically on either Pro-Romney or Anti-Obama causes. With absolutely nothing to show for it, that's more than a third of a billion dollars in conservative money gone forever.

Or as I like to think of it, redistributed.

Further Reading

2012 Top Donors to Outside Spending Groups

Outside spenders' return on investment

First Thoughts: Back to work

Friday, November 2, 2012

Reason #263: The Horse Race

When people talk about the results of the 2004 presidential election, they talk about Ohio. Ohio and its 20 electoral votes (now down to 18, as the makeup of Congress has evolved) played more or less the same role as Florida in 2000--it was the last state to matter on election night, and whichever way the state went, so went the presidency.

In the end, George W. Bush brought it home and won the state by around 120 thousand votes, bringing his total in the Electoral College to 286 and securing the big win. Watching from my home, I specifically remember a lot of Democratic hand-wringing over the use of Diebold electronic voting machines, and the extent to which Oho's Republican Secretary or State had made things difficult for the other side to get their votes in.

But here's the thing that always bothered me about that: say John Kerry had waved a magic wand and another 200 thousand votes had come out of the ether. He'd have won the presidency with 271 electoral votes...while still losing the popular vote by almost 3 million.

Three million votes - that's more than two percent of the total electorate that year. And he'd still have been the president.

That meant two things for me, going forward--one, John Kerry didn't deserve to have won that election; Bush didn't win it, Kerry lost it. Two, the Electoral College had to go.

The Electoral College was created as an intermediary between election by the congress, which had historically been the typical way of doing things, and direct election by the citizenry, which was only kind of the whole point of this country. Like many things about the beginning of America, it was a baby step in the right direction. Unlike many things about America, it's never really been improved upon.

That's always been kind of a philosophical problem, but the more strongly divided the country gets, the more it becomes a practical problem. The reason the disparity was so great in 2004--and more to the point I'm really making here, the reason Mitt Romney has arguably been winning the horse race (in other words, the popular vote polling) for most of the last month while never getting close in the electoral college--is that the red states are getting redder, and the blue states are getting bluer.

A majority of people in Ohio may never support Mitt Romney, but the portion that supports him (or any Republican) in places like Kansas and Alabama is getting bigger and bigger. The same goes for blue states like New York, where Obama is up by 26 points, and would win even if Hurricane Sandy had been made of fire and locusts. But even if Romney gets 99% of the vote in the red states, their proportion of the Electoral College won't go up.

Like any good liberal, I'll be happy to see Romney lose next week (and he will) no matter how much of the popular vote he gets. But the bigger issue here is that this system is built on shaky ground that only going to get shakier in the next few elections, and I think if there's one party that can get something done about it, it's the Republicans.

Look, it's very debatable whether they actively caused John Kerry to lose Ohio in 2004, but they certainly didn't help matters--and that's leaving aside the undeniable clusterfuck that was Florida in 2000. We've seen the same kind of thing in the House of Representatives ever since Obama took office. The thing is, when they want something badly enough? Republicans are amazing at bureaucracy.

It's pretty safe to say that whatever else happens, the Democrats aren't going to get the House back next week, which means Republicans will continue to have at least a modicum of power in the second half of the Obama administration. So what do you think they'll do if they decide next week that the only thing standing in their way isn't Obama, but the Electoral College?

Further Reading

United States Presidential Election, 2004 - Results

National Archives - What is the Electoral College?

Real Clear Politics: Romney vs. Obama

First Thoughts: A status-quo election?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Reason #262: Rightsizing

When the final presidential debate wrapped up on Monday night, early reactions were dominated by surprise; that in a debate intended to focus on foreign policy, both candidates had been quick to veer into economic issues in spite of the topic at hand.

One of the debate's big moments, in fact, wasn't related to foreign policy at all, but involved President Obama making the bold claim that at the end of 2012, despite current law, sequestration "will not happen". Also, of course, was the other big moment, wherein Obama related Mitt Romney's worries about the size of the military to our lack of "horses and bayonets".

I'd actually like to tie these two topics together a bit for you, but first, a little more back story.

In the final hours of last summer's debt ceiling crisis (which contributed in no small part to the start of this blog), Congress crapped out passed the Budget Control Act of 2011, which created a litany of new conditions under which the Tea Party, in its infinite wisdom, would permit us to raise the debt ceiling and continue paying back money we'd already borrowed.

The bill created the so-called supercommittee, a bipartisan group of legislators charged with finding a billion dollars or so worth of spending cuts to offset the debt ceiling increase. When they failed miserably a few months later, that turned the necessary cuts over to a process called sequestration, which would automatically take huge chunks out of future spending across the board, both defense-related and domestic, at the end of 2012.

While the sequestration cuts are viewed fairly universally as quasi-disastrous, and capable of sending the US into another recession, Obama's original reaction to the failure of the supercommittee was to promise that he would veto any attempt to wriggle out of them; either Congress find new cuts themselves, or they have to live with the consequences.

Cut to a year later, and he's suddenly got faith in Congress' ability to get things done? Well, maybe, maybe not. I don't think Obama expects the election to hinge on the threat of sequestration (or any quadrisyllabic word, for that matter), and whether he wins the election or not, by the time the year ends and the cuts theoretically take place, there'll be nothing the voters can do to him about it. This is Congress' mess either way, so better to play the optimist on the eve of your reelection than the doomsayer.

But let's circle back around to Obama's other debate comment, the one about bayonets. The point he was making was that America's military superiority should be dependent upon demands and capabilities, not sheer size. We're used to operating on the same playing field as our enemies, but that hasn't been the case since the Cold War ended. Lacking bayonets doesn't make us weaker because bayonets are irrelevant to the modern world (I might argue that the same applies to aircraft carriers and submarines, but I digress).

What I will argue, though, is that this philosophy applies, or should be made to apply, to all federal spending. I would wager that a great deal of federal programs are as useless to today's economic landscape as bayonets are to today's battlefield, and while the very foundation of this blog is that federal spending is generally fine and dandy, if we're truly so committed to making serious cuts, well, that's a conversation we can have. And if the result is that jobs are lost and our economy shrinks, the Tea Party can add that to its résumé for the midterms.

But personally, I don't see sequestration as losing a limb; I see it as rightsizing.

Further Reading

A Glossary of Political Economy Terms - Sequestration

Sequestration Cuts Will Be Avoided By Congress As Obama Claimed, Senator Mark Warner Says

Wikipedia - Budget Control Act of 2011

Is America's navy shrinking too much?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reason #261: Sesame Street

The left has been banging this drum so hard for the last couple weeks that I'm almost loathe to get into it myself...almost. So let's take a closer look at Sesame Street.

More than forty years into its existence, and with numerous foreign-language versions featuring both dubbed and new material, Sesame Street is now the most widely-viewed children's television program on the planet. But the landscape has expanded dramatically in those forty years, and where it was once the "heavyweight champion" of its field, it is now only the fifteenth-highest-rated children's show. Despite the increased competition from both educational (Dora) and decidedly non-educational (Spongebob) shows, Sesame Street continues to have a mammoth effect on our culture, and more importantly, our early education--by the late nineties, it was estimated that a resounding 95% of American preschoolers had been exposed to the show in their first three years.

When it first premiered, Sesame Street was unique for several reasons--for starters, its production values (read: budget) far exceeded the typical children's programming of the time. The show was founded on the sum of $8 million, which came from not only federal subsidies, but from the Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation. The goal of its creators was to harness the addictive properties of television (well-known even back then) for use in developing the cognitive, and eventually emotional, skills of children who were too young for school.

Given that the show was being partly funded by the government, it was marked by an egalitarian and representative streak that would be unfathomable today--casting was conducted with the express goal of nonwhite actors featuring more prominently than white ones, and with specific effort being made to reflecting conditions both high- and low-income viewers could relate to. Indeed, the show was especially successful in poor neighborhoods, where parents perhaps had less quality time with their young ones themselves.

The show was just as agreeable behind the scenes--in order to attract better creative talent, songwriters and performers (notably Jim Henson) were allowed to retain copyrights to their original material, meaning that Kermit the Frog could appear on both Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, and original songs that went on to become genuine hits, like Rubber Ducky, would do as well for their writers as for the show itself.

Another bold step the show took early on was to blend the originally-separated human and muppet portions of the show, after it was determined that the mix wouldn't freak anybody out (no, really). Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, in fact, were specifically designed to easily incorporate into the human-scale sets, whereas characters like Elmo and Grover, obviously, were smaller and designed to occupy a larger portion of the screen than they typically would alongside an adult human.

As time went on, and the show's educational models--which were the first ever on television to utilize an actual curriculum--were proven to be successful, the show started branching out into larger, more serialized narratives. By the eighties, when one of the main human actors passed away, it was decided that his character, Mr. Hooper, would die on the show and allow his loss to become a teaching moment itself--a move that could easily have been disastrous, but was seen as an unqualified success in teaching viewers how to cope with grief and the loss of a loved one.

Sesame Street never looked back--shortly thereafter, Mr. Snuffleupagus was "revealed" to the human charcters (who had previously thought him to be Big Bird's imaginary friend) as a way of emboldening children to speak out about abuse in their households. By the 2000s, topics like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were being incorporated into the narrative in ways that toddlers could understand without alienating them or angering their parents.

The image at the top of this entry is typical of the Republican position on Public Television--they see it as a bureaucratic, anti-capitalist welfare program that props up its own values in defiance of the free market; in other words, as the epitome of liberal thinking, and the antithesis of a juggernaut like Spongebob Squarepants, which doesn't let education get in the way of the bottom dollar.

To which I say, damn straight.

Further Reading

History of Sesame Street

Friday, October 12, 2012

Reason #260: Endurance

In March of 2015, two astronauts--one American, one Russian--will depart for the International Space Station on a thrilling, almost-unprecedented mission: in order to study the effects of an extended manned mission to Mars, they will have to stay there for a full year.

Though that's twice the length of a typical stay aboard the ISS, it's only half the time a Mars mission would take. Meanwhile, the ISS itself is another milestone in space endurance; while individual missions have never been more than six months long, the station has been inhabited continuously for just shy of twelve years now.

Throughout that time, the ISS has completed around fifteen orbits of the Earth every day, averaging roughly seventeen thousand miles per hour, between 205 and 255 miles above the surface of the planet.

Now, not only are ISS missions getting longer (NASA and the RSA will be considering year-long missions as the status quo if the first is successful), but it's also becoming more crowded. When the station was built in the late nineties, it was designed to "comfortably" support seven astronauts, yet it has never actually held that many at once--for its first several years, missions were limited to only two or three individuals at a time, and over the last decade, that number has slowly ramped up to six.

While no one ISS mission has ever lasted more than six months, humans have in fact already been in space for more than a year consecutively--Russian Valeri Polyakov holds the record, at 438 consecutive days aboard the Mir space station in the late nineties. Russians also kick our asses in total cumulative time in space--the record for an American is 382 days, while the overall record is Sergei Krikalev's whopping 803 days--well over two years.

Meanwhile, the ISS has also been a major player in the emerging field of space tourism, having hosted seven different private citizens in its lifetime--all of whom were carried there by Russian Soyuz spacecraft for the price of $20-40 million, because NASA is apparently allergic to money.

Further Reading

1st Year-Long Space Station Mission May Launch in 2015

Wikipedia - International Space Station

Wikipedia - Space tourism

Wikipedia - List of spaceflight records

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reason #259: The Debates

Everybody who pays even the slightest bit of attention to presidential politics has heard about at least two significant debates--Lincoln-Douglas in 1858, and Kennedy-Nixon in 1960. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are known for embodying what "real" debates are meant to be--two candidates, unmoderated, addressing and responding to each other directly, speaking sometimes for as long as ninety minutes.

At the other end of the spectrum, the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was the first ever broadcast on national television, and has gone down in history not for what the candidates said, but for how they looked. Kennedy was tan and well-rested, Nixon a sweaty, unshaven mess. That one evening undoubtedly set the debates on the path they've taken ever since, but it turns out that's even more true than many people realize: prior to Kennedy-Nixon, there were pretty much zero recognizable presidential debates of any kind.

Even the aforementioned Lincoln-Douglas debates were for an Illinois Senate seat; though they two men did end up running against each other for president two years later, no debates took place in the election that year, or at all until well into the next century. Franklin D. Roosevelt notably declined a debate challenge from Republican Wendell Wilkie in 1940, and in 1948 and 1956, there was exactly one Republican and one Democratic primary debate, respectively--each between only two candidates, a stark contrast to the parade of clowns we saw this year.

When Nixon and Kennedy finally ended up before the cameras on September 26, 1960, television news was far younger than even the internet is today; one gets the impression the candidates were motivated less by the debate opportunity itself than by the desire just to get on TV for a while. After their bad showing--literally--at the first debate, Nixon's team learned quickly, and made sure that their candidate was as comfortable and presentable as possible from there on out. They had made a big mistake, all right, but it's safe to say that no one has made it since.

But even after all of that, the 1960 debates spent more than a decade as the exception rather than the new rule--there wouldn't be another of their ilk until 1976, televised or otherwise. '76 was the first time an incumbent president, Gerald Ford, had to meet his challenger on the equal footing a televised debate offers, and as Rachel Maddow thoroughly illustrated on her show last night, it would be the first in a long series of debates where the incumbent, having lived in a bubble of yes-men for four years, would come across as befuddled and indignant in the face of someone aggressively coming after his job.

Third-party candidates have traditionally been excluded from general election debates over the years, to the consternation of many, with two notable exceptions: in 1980, Jimmy Carter refused to debate alongside both Republican challenger Ronald Reagan and Independent challenger John B. Anderson, which resulted in one debate between Reagan and Anderson (who largely agreed with each other) with no Carter, and finally, one debate between Reagan and Carter with no Anderson. Sure enough, Carter didn't make it through the sequence of events looking very good, and Reagan went on to crush him a couple weeks later.

Then in 1992, Independent Ross Perot managed to attract enough support that he was allowed into all three Bush-Clinton debates, and even went on to win almost 19% of the popular vote, which is unimaginable in the modern, post-Nader world of third-party candidates. Perot's candidacy is of special significance to me, in that his near-constant 30-minute political infomercials, paid for with his own money, are my earliest presidential-election memory of any kind--if only because they were always preempting TGIF.

Vice-Presidential debates have traced more or less the same trajectory over the years, with the exception being that they've rarely made much difference in their respective races. By a long shot, the most famous moment in any Vice-Presidential debate came in 1988 (sorry, Sarah Palin), when Dan Quayle, George Bush's running mate, compared his own political experience to that of JFK, and Democrat Lloyd Bentsen replied "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

The moment rang true, and Dan Quayle went on to become a bigger joke than Joe Biden could ever dream of being. Nevertheless, people were being asked to vote for George Bush, not Quayle, so he also went on to become Vice President.

Further Reading

The Commission on Presidential Debates - Debate History

Wikipedia - Presidential debates

Wikipedia - United States Presidential Election Debates, 2012

Wikipedia - "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"

Friday, September 28, 2012

Reason #258: Citizens United - No, Really

Might as well get this out of the way right off the bat--in the abstract, money is indeed free speech.

In the original Supreme Court case that decided as much, Citizens United v. FEC, "Citizens United" was a nonprofit, non-party-affiliated (in the SuperPAC sense) group that had produced an anti-Hillary Clinton movie years before the 2008 presidential election, and wanted to release it on-demand to influence the results of the Democratic primaries (which Clinton ended up losing regardless, so hey).

Surprisingly, CU actually initiated court proceedings on the matter themselves, in an effort to forestall a possible violation of the infamous (now infamously irrelevant) 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform law. A judge originally ruled that the film did in fact run afoul of McCain-Feingold, and only in 2010, after two years of appeals, did the Supreme Court make its famous ruling that CU had a First Amendment right to broadcast the film.

And in that respect...I agree with them. The problem, in my opinion, is that unlimited corporate spending is in the same realm as shouting fire in a theater--yes, to prohibit it is to infringe upon someone's free speech, but in certain special cases the public interest outweighs the Bill of Rights. And in a practical, non-abstract sense, Citizens United has the potential to do far more harm to the public interest than causing a riot during Hotel Transylvania.

But this is a blog about good things the government does, isn't it? So let's talk about that how far that potential goes.

Now that I'm digging a little deeper into my subjects on this blog, I've been talking a lot about the nation's ability to self-correct when faced with existential problems. I see it in many places, and sure, you can staple a broad enough philosophy onto any sequence of events and say "look, that proves it!", but the alternative is a world where centuries of real progress can be destroyed in an eye-blink if we pass the wrong law or elect the wrong leader--and I think a lot of people would agree that America is stronger than that.

So what happens when money is free speech? Well first, of course, you see way, way more of it--Sheldon Adelson, the poster child for Citizens United run amok, has not only broken the record for individual spending on single election season, but tripled it; and there's still a month to go. Of all outside spending (meaning not by the campaigns or political parties) being done on the presidential race, 78% of it is donations made possible by CU. And sure enough, Romney and his supporters have been largely outspending the other side--$24 million to $19 million just this week, which is unheard-of for elections with an incumbent president.

Yet no matter how much Sheldon Adelson hates Barack Obama, his money can't polish the turd that is Mitt Romney. Every idiotic comment Romney makes, in fact, sinks the real-world value of an Adelson dollar lower and lower. And meanwhile, the race is getting tighter and tighter, and the battleground map smaller and smaller. States that were up in the air a few months ago are now largely settled; their trajectories largely established. And all those millions of dollars' worth of TV spots are being dumped into fewer and fewer markets.

For anyone who looks at Citizens United and doubts the limits of corporate ad spending, I have five words for you: "apply directly to the forehead".

Of course, none of this means I don't still disagree with CU philosophically. It should be gotten rid of, and I think it will be eventually, either by a constitutional amendment or a future Supreme Court. But I don't think that will be what kills it, because it will already have died a much slower and more demeaning death: that of irrelevance.

Further Reading

Supreme Court Shreds Campaign-Finance Laws, Lifts Corporate Spending Restrictions

Wikipedia - Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Billionaire Adelson sets new US political donation record - report

First Thoughts: Obama's closing ad (with 40 days to go)

Citizens United Ruling Accounts for 78 Percent of Outside Campaign Spending

Friday, September 21, 2012

Reason #257: Hope - No, Really

"...if you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn't possible, well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void (...) Only you can make sure that doesn't happen. Only you have the power to move us forward."
The above passage from President Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention definitely contains a healthy dose of pablum--"be the change you wish to see in the world" and all that--but it was also one of the very, very few times I've caught even a hint of the feeling that Obama was actually speaking directly to me, and to my own worldview.

An incumbent's message, by nature, has to be one of pragmatism. It has to be results-oriented rather than aspirational, because otherwise it's like he's pretending he doesn't have the job already. But even to a hard-bitten cynic like myself, who started this year all but certain I wasn't going to bother voting for Obama again, this particular vein of pragmatism strikes a chord with me--not because it's stirring, but because, ultimately, it's correct.

Compared to most people (certainly many of the politically-minded), I give western society a great deal of credit in the area of self-correction. Once you have something that at least approaches a genuine democracy, I think the people's ability to govern themselves kicks in at what could be considered, in the arc of history, warp speed. This works very nicely as a personal philosophy, but it makes it hard for me to get too invested in certain issues, because they take on an air of inevitability.

Gay marriage is a great example. I'm absolutely convinced that it will eventually happen everywhere, the same way abolition eventually led to integration--civil rights are like a snowball rolling downhill, and short of a dictator stepping in, that snowball doesn't roll backwards. But what Obama was getting at is that a component of that inevitability comes from the fact that a certain segment of the population will fight for these things tooth-and-nail. So even if it's hard for some of us to muster up our own indignation, the reality is that wanting something badly enough is a bigger component of making it happen than we tend to realize. Obama is, was only ever, a tangible expression of that desire, and the more people stop believing in him, the less power he has.

The right's core argument against Obama has always been that he's a fallible human being like the rest of us; that his presidency is nothing but an empty vessel for other people's hope. There's a lot of truth to that. But, more often than you might think? Hope is enough.

Further Reading

Transcript: President Obama's Convention Speech

Timeline of African-American Civil Rights Movement

Friday, September 14, 2012

Reason #256: Classified

Were I a religious man, it would be my opinion that Barack Obama will probably go to hell.

But perhaps I should back up a bit.

As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal coming of age during the post-9/11 Bush Era, you would think I'd have a very clear understanding of the lines that should not be crossed by the government in the name of peace and security. And indeed, I definitely do believe that a lot of what the previous administration got up to, from the Iraq War to waterboarding, was inhumane at worst and counter-productive at best.

But I also think--and hey, maybe Bush colored my view of this as well--that part of the president's job is to perform--within reason--evil acts. It would be great if we lived in a world where drone strikes, for example, were unnecessary, but in the pantheon of horrid ways the United States has chosen to carry out its overseas military objectives, the innocent casualties of a drone strike don't add up to a hill of beans.
Not only do I believe that being the leader of the USA at this point in time requires one to willingly accept a black mark upon their own soul, but I think--and this is where I'm really gonna lose some people--that it's also their job to keep that from us as much as possible.

Personally speaking, I don't want to know the details of the Bin Laden raid. If "Mark Owen", the ex-Navy SEAL whose new book No Easy Day has gotten him into hot water with the Pentagon, did indeed release classified information about the operation, I am fully behind him being prosecuted for it. From what news coverage I've seen thus far, the only thing I know now that I didn't know already is that "Owen", who wrote the book under a pseudonym, claims to have put a few bullets into Osama Bin Laden's body himself, despite someone else having already shot him to death before Owen was in the room. That, already, is a messy notion, and I have no desire to hear about it.

The red line, as I see it, is between "messy" and "felonious".

Waterboarding, as I understand it, is a deliberate cruel act performed on suspected terrorists that produces little to no helpful results. Iraq was the same thing on a drastically larger scale. But Bush using his executive power stupidly isn't an argument for executive power never being used at all. Short of direct, one-on-one assassination, drone strikes seem like the absolute lowest-impact method possible of taking out terrorist leaders--which, with organizations like Al Qaeda, means taking out or crippling entire networks.

Getting back to my original point, none of that is to say that I agree with Obama's extensive use of drone strikes. "Felonious", after all, is a legal distinction, not a moral one. Killing innocent civilians in a drone attack is an immoral act, one I could not personally instigate--and it's for that reason, and many others, that I have no desire to be president.

But someone has to be.

Further Reading

Obama Talks Drone Strikes

Pentagon Tells Ex-SEAL He Could Face Legal Action Over Osama Bin Laden Raid Book, 'No Easy Day'

Panetta Blasts Ex-SEAL Who Wrote Osama Bin Laden Raid Book

Obama’s 262 Drone Strikes in Pakistan

Friday, September 7, 2012

Reason #255: Curiosity

I wasn't sure at first what would become of Space Fridays now that all my posts are on Fridays, but considering that arguably my first Space Friday ever was devoted to the launching of the Curiosity rover aboard the Mars Science Laboratory, I knew that I had to devote at least one more entry to the mission now that it's arrived on Mars and is doing so well thus far.

Curiosity touched down on August 6th, a little over two kilometers from the center of Gale Crater, at what is now known as Bradbury Landing. After running diagnostics and sending back some early low-res images, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory spent the next week removing all the rover's flight and landing software and installing all its surface operation software--the little guy is packed with so much equipment that it didn't have enough room on its drives for both.

After a few more days of tests and instrument checks, Curiosity used its ChemCam laser for the first time to vaporize a small amount of a nearby rock. The ChemCam's role is to then analyze the rock's composition via the light emitted in the vaporization. That first rock had a lot to say--both in the resulting data and on its Twitter page.

Finally, on August 29th, Curiosity was ready to take off toward its primary destination: Aeolis Mons, the aforementioned center of Gale Crater. Aeolis Mons is a three-and-a-half-mile-high mound of sediment kicked up in the impact that first created the crater almost four billion years ago. Between the geological material wrenched upward in the impact and the fact that water is more common the lower you go, the point where Aeolis meets the bottom of Gale Crater was deemed an optimal location to analyze as wide a range of Mars' compositional material as possible--not to mention possibly find conclusive evidence of past water and/or biological activity.

That doesn't mean that all the good stuff is there, though--NASA estimates that the journey to Aeolis Mons will take around a year, with stops all along the way to analyze more rocks, take pictures, measure atmospheric conditions and radiation, and so on. The ChemCam alone is expected to take readings from an average of a dozen different rocks per day, and that's in addition to more than a dozen other cameras and instruments on board.

Another interesting thing about the commute is how Curiosity will be measuring its progress. While it can keep track of how many times its treads are rotating, the unstable terrain means that that's not an accurate means of determining distance traveled. Instead, NASA developed a system called "visual odometry"--built into its treads are a series of gaps that translate into "JPL" in Morse Code. The cameras on Curiosity are able to analyze its own tracks to spot those indentations in the terrain and determine how far away they are; and therefore, how far it has travelled.

Once Curiosity reaches Aeolis Mons, it will spend around another year analyzing the site itself. While it contains the most extensive suite of lab equipment ever sent to Mars, its primary goal is to determine the planet's "habitability"--based on the atmosphere (and signs of what the atmosphere may have been like in the past), the sediment, the observed quanitites of water (or at least carbon dioxide), and the presence of the other chemical building blocks of life (or even existing organic carbon compounds), what the odds are that the planet once harbored life.

While that should give us more than enough data to keep busy for a while, the Mars Science Laboratory mission is also seen as the final step before the optimal means of testing Martian composition: sample return. Normally NASA's budget woes would mean that getting something all the way to Mars and back would be a good ways off yet, but the varying distance between here and there means that the ideal window for a round trip would be in 2016 or 2018 at the latest; waiting longer means spending even more money. So scientists are hoping to use that impetus to get a mission budget approved in the next couple years--meaning that we could be holding actual samples of Martian soil in our hands by the end of this decade.

Further Reading:

Curiosity Rover

Timeline of Mars Science Laboratory

Aeolis Mons

New 360-Degree Photo Shows Latest View from Mars Rover Curiosity

Mars sample return: Scientists hope to one day hit pay dirt

Friday, August 31, 2012

Reason #254: Conventions

Whenever the Democratic and Republican conventions are going on, you hear a lot about how contentious they used to be--the nominees were rarely chosen conclusively beforehand, and bitter divisions in the parties would often erupt, flaming brightly in full view of the voting public. But the conventions actually began life as a fix of an even worse system.

Originally, presidential nominees were chosen by a nominating caucus, which was basically just all a party's congressmen huddled together in one of those smoke-filled rooms you're always hearing about. As the 1800s crawled forward, and the nation's borders crawled westward, eventually the newer congressmen from the far western districts started to feel left out. There were some actual primaries in those days, but not enough to have a decisive impact--nominees could easily be, and generally were, chosen without a single regular citizen voting for them--to say nothing of the party's elected congressmen who lived thousands of miles away.

The Democratic Party was the first to hold a national convention, in 1832--while actual voting still had little to do with it, the new system at least gave every state's party leadership a chance to be heard. The Republicans followed in 1856; their first successful convention nomination came four years later with Abraham Lincoln.

Speaking of which, as the Civil War was going on in 1864, there were technically three conventions--smaller Republican and Democratic conventions were held in the face of a large "National Union" convention, which was conducted by members of both parties rallying to Lincoln's side as Commander in Chief.

This system, amazingly, continued more or less unchallenged for the next century. The Democrats had probably the worst time of it, due to an infamous "2/3 rule" that required one to hold a supermajority of delegates to clinch the nomination. In 1924, the successful nomination of John W. Davis took a whopping 103 ballots, and the party's reluctance to nominate him was later justified when he lost to Calvin Coolidge, 54-28%.

The 2/3 rule did finally get overturned in 1932, thanks to the overwhelming popularity of Franklin D. Roosevelt. That change sapped the southern states of much of their power in the Democratic Party, since the northern United States now had sufficient size and representation to ratify nominees without their support.

What finally produced the system we know today was the 1968 Democratic convention, where large numbers of anti-Vietnam War voters were unable to get their own man nominated due to Vice President Hubert Humphrey's support among the party establishment, despite not having competed in a single primary. Humphrey's nomination amidst the groundswell of anti-war sentiment led to fierce rioting in the streets of Chicago (where the convention was being held), which would've been bad enough if this wasn't also occurring in the heyday of televised convention coverage.

Fallout from the convention and the riots had a number of enormous consequences. As far as future nominations would be concerned, state primaries became the default system, wherein each state would be represented at the convention by a number of delegates corresponding to the state primary's vote results (though even that system was still kind of random and ass-backwards, and remains so today). The Republicans followed suit with their own successful nomination of Richard Nixon in 1972.

The Democratic Party's national image was in shambles, as well, which only served to encourage the convention's new role of tightly-choreographed coronation ceremony. The conventions of the 70s saw the birth of an era wherein the nominees were almost always decided by primary results well beforehand, and instead of convention speakers being determined by the various party factions jockeying for position and attention, now they were determined by political consultants--they became a showcase of the best and brightest, the better to present a positive image to the public.

While this has resulted, over time, in much less national interest in the conventions as appointment television, they can still have huge effects on the future of their parties. Pat Buchanan contributed to George Bush's loss in 1992 by devoting his primetime speech to the "culture war" against radical feminists and homosexuals. Then-Senator Obama's keynote address in 2004 served as his introduction to the nation, and kickstarted his own presidential campaign four years later. And Sarah Palin's speech in 2008 resulted in...well, lots more Sarah Palin.

The more polished and rehearsed the conventions become, ironically, the less people are bothering to pay attention to them, so given their tumultuous history it's possible we'll see more big shifts in the future. This week's Republican convention, by the way, was the second one in a row to be threatened by a hurricane--so clearly someone up high's getting pretty tired of them as well.

Further Reading

Presidential nominating convention - History

Republican National Convention - History

Democratic National Convention - History

1864 National Union National Convention

1968 Democratic National Convention

Culture War

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reason #253: Abortion is Awesome

To commemorate this week's big story--Senate candidate Todd Akin and his "legitimate rape" comments--I thought I'd share some general opinions of mine on the matter. And to dovetail nicely with last week's "Perspective" post, some statistics as well:
  • Point one: abortion rates are going down. Globally, they only decreased about one percent between 2003 and 2008, but in the United States and Europe they've gone down considerably, especially if you expand the time period--the US had almost thirty abortions per one thousand women in 1980, and as of 2005 (it's hard to find more recent numbers for some reason) was down to about nineteen.
  • Point two: only seventeen percent of abortions in America are performed on teenagers. Not only are around half of abortion patients 25 or older, but sixty percent have at least one child already--and one-third have two or more.
  • Point three: South America and Africa, on the whole, have the toughest pro-life laws in the world, yet their abortion rates are substantially higher than in the United States. Europe's and Asia's are pretty high as well, but in terms of actually limiting the number of abortions taking place, the effects of existing legislation are at best a draw.
  • Point four: that being the case, it's no surprise that almost half of the abortions that are happening globally are unsafe--meaning they're performed in defiance of existing laws, and therefore without the support of a legal medical infrastructure.
So, to sum up--the proportion of abortions taking place is going down, especially in the west; those who are getting them are mostly responsible parents looking to limit their existing families, not reckless teenagers using abortion as birth control; and countries with strict anti-abortion laws have the same rates as everybody else, just with far worse safety records.

And then there's the matter of baby hatches--in countries like Malaysia, where abortion is illegal and tightly controlled, and South Africa, where it's legal but strenuously frowned upon by the religious mainstream, there is a big debate going on about the increasing prevalence, and popularity, of drop boxes in major cities where mothers can anonymously abandon their unwanted babies to be cared for by various social organizations. Baby hatches have been around for centuries, as it happens, though their heyday was in the middle ages, which should tell you all you need to know about that.

I suppose you can't write an article titled "Abortion is Awesome" without being careful to clarify that no, I don't think the procedure itself is a delightful business; I don't think it constitutes murder, but I don't think it's wonderful either. What's awesome about abortion is what happens in the long term once it's destigmatized and given a legal framework--people are less overburdened with children they'd rather not have had (the abortion rate is more than four times higher for poor mothers than for well-off ones), which means those they do have can grow up happier, better-fed, and better attended to.

Those children in return also grow up better-educated, and if they're lucky enough to live in a society where birth control flows like running water (thank you, Obamacare), they're far less likely to get unexpectedly pregnant themselves, thereby making abortion not just less common, but less in demand--which should be our real goal, shouldn't it?

Like with voter-ID laws a couple weeks ago, I find it helpful with tricky issues like this to compare the two worst-case scenarios; no human legal structure will ever be perfect, so creating laws, in my opinion, should be a matter of deciding which worst-case scenario we're more willing to live with. No matter how advanced our science gets, I don't think it's possible to establish conclusively when a life truly begins; it will always be an arbitrary decision that not everyone agrees with. That being the case, all we can do is decide when the suffering--hypothetical or otherwise--of the fetus outweighs the rights of the mother and the suffering that could result in the child growing up unwanted, or worse, unloved.

And in a world struggling to keep up with the surging human population, where there's serious talk of wars over water in the coming decades and where someone already dies of hunger every 3.6 seconds, I will always---always--err on the side of fewer people.

Further Reading

P.a.p.-Blog - Statistics on Abortion

Who's getting abortions? Not who you'd think

Abortion rates same whether legal or not

The Economist: Global abortion rates

More baby hatches for unwanted babies

In South Africa, a Grassroots Battle on Baby Abandonment

REAL: Abortion Statistics

Fast Facts: The Faces of Poverty

Friday, August 17, 2012

Reason #252: Perspective

I've touched on crime and punishment a number of times before in this blog, and one thing I've always endeavored to keep in the picture--but rarely addressed specifically--is context.

Particularly over the last month, it's been very easy to lose all hope for American society in the face of the seemingly endless series of "mass" killings in places like Arizona, Colorado, and Wisconsin. Those that don't tune out entirely often respond by retreating ever more tightly into their chosen corner--too many guns (or too few), too much media coverage, too few police (or too many), etc. There are elements of truth in most, if not all, people's reactions; certainly there are issues with these events' depictions in the news, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The totality of the truth, though, is something almost no one ever thinks to look at, and it's shown in stark relief in the chart above--there is far less violence in America today than there has been over the last few decades. And for all the debate about gun control, actual gun ownership has gone down at least as sharply (possibly moreso in some cases) in the same amount of time:

While gun ownership has been going down more or less evenly, what's interesting is that violent crime was indeed going up for a while there. The best theory I've seen on that (certainly the most ironic) actually blames it on the Baby Boomers--"put a lot more 15-to-25-year-old males into a society and you will get an upsurge of violence", according to Berkeley sociology professor Claude Fischer. He goes on to mention the after-effects of the civil rights movement and the expanding drug trade, but even taking all that into account, things have been getting steadily better for at least the last twenty years or so.

What's even more interesting is this graph (which Professor Fischer admits is largely educated guesses and estimations) of the homicide rate going all the way back to America's inception. According to those numbers, even the 80s/90s peak of twentieth-century violence was lower than at any time during the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. There are big bumps during wartime, naturally (though much less so for the World Wars than the Civil or Revolutionary Wars), but I think it's profoundly important that the more you zoom out, the more clearly a steady decline can be seen. No matter how you look at it, Americans are far safer now than at almost any time in our history.

So despite having less to be scared of, why are we so scared? I don't think I need to convince anyone that twenty-four-hour news is the culprit here, but what I can do is give some numbers for that, as well. According to Gallup, the amount of people who believe there is more crime in the US compared to a year earlier peaked at eighty-nine percent in...wait for it...1991. Around the same time that actual crime peaked--despite no cable news whatsoever. No Fox News, no Nancy Grace, not even America's Most Wanted. And would you believe that that number, too, has gone down drastically since then? 9/11 threw a serious wrench in the works ten years ago, but immediately prior to that, even with cable news, the amount of people who perceived crime as increasing was all the way down to forty-one percent! It's been hovering in the sixties and low seventies since then, but I'd wager it'll start trending downward again sooner or later--and even if not, it's already low from a historical standpoint.

All this isn't to lessen the real tragedies, of course, and I'm sure demographics are small comfort to the families of shooting victims, but one last thing I'll point out is that support for the death penalty is at its lowest in almost forty years--sixty-one percent compared to a peak of eighty percent about twenty years ago. So even with all the hype and hoopla about crime and homicide and gangs and drugs and domestic terror, we somehow have less interest in executing people. Even if you support the death penalty as an option, knowing we need it less has to be a win, right?

Further Reading

The Declining Culture of Guns and Violence in the United States

Gun Control Polls Show Longterm Decline In Support, Despite Columbine Bump

A crime puzzle: Violent crime declines in America

In U.S., Support for Death Penalty Falls to 39-Year Low

Wikipedia - Crime in the United States

Americans Still Perceive Crime as on the Rise

Friday, August 10, 2012

Reason #251: Fair Voting

In June of last year, I ended 29 years of dithering and finally got a driver's license. Because things like this tend to happen with me, about a month after that I moved two buildings down the street into a new apartment. That meant that the address on my brand-spanking-new license, while very similar to my new one, was no longer accurate. I filed an address change request with PennDOT shortly afterward, and they sent me a little paper update thingy with my new address to keep alongside my license until the time comes to renew it and get a "clean" copy.

I bring this up because, thanks to a new PA law passed in March, it's possible that I will be turned away from the voting booth this November.

The law requires all voters to have a valid and "acceptable" form of photo ID when they show up to vote. According to the letter of the law, I should be just fine, but because my voter registration card has a different address than my license, and my license update thingy (technical term, you understand) doesn't have a photo, it's entirely possible that a difficult polling-place attendant could decide that my ID isn't "acceptable", and deny me my vote. I'd probably be proven right in the end, but by then it would be far too late to cast my vote, and the damage would be done.

And that's just a misunderstanding--there's also the matter of the almost, if not more than, one million registered Pennsylvania voters with no photo ID whatsoever. Many of whom may not even have heard of the new law, or who don't hear about it in time to obtain ID before Election Day.

That's very unforunate for those people, of course, but voter fraud is a bad thing--so if forcing people to get proper identification is what it takes to stop it, why has the law (and many others like it around the country) caused so much controversy?

A couple times now, I've been asked some version of that question, and I admit, I've had trouble putting it in a way that doesn't sound like I'm in favor of fraud. So I think the thing to do is dig in a little to what exactly constitutes real voter fraud--in PA and elsewhere.

I was able to find two different studies on instances of voter fraud; one which found 340 cases, nationwide, over a ten-year period, and one which found 120 cases over a five-year period.

In the latter study, only 86 of the 120 cases resulted in a conviction, and in both studies, the bulk of the cases involved registration fraud--generally someone filling out a form incorrectly--or people casting votes despite being ineligible due to their criminal records. Mistakes, in other words.

The only "widespread" voter fraud anyone seems to have found real evidence of is vote-buying among small, local elections. Out of the aforementioned 86 convictions (again, nationwide), vote-buying constituted a little more than a quarter of those cases. Of course, if the sheriff pays the guys on his block to vote for him, the voter-ID law wouldn't really stop that, would it? And come to think of it, felons are generally allowed to have driver's licenses, so it wouldn't really stop them either. The only people the law would actually "catch" are shlubs with messed-up registration addresses like me.

But, y'know, even still--let's say there are still people out there filling out multiple registration forms and voting multiple times under different names. Let's say all 340 of the fraud cases found in the bigger of those two studies were malicious repeat-voters.

That works out to less than one case per state per year. I dare you to think of any other crime that, if it produced one arrest per state per year, wouldn't be seen as a resounding victory against the forces of evil.

Now let's look at the other wise of that equation--maybe it's not helping that much, but what's it hurting?

Statistically, voters without valid photo ID are more likely to be either very young (can't be bothered) or very old (can't figure it out). They're also more likely to be poor (can't afford the fees), and far more likely to be minorities--in the case of Pennsylvania hispanics, more than twice as likely.

What do all these groups have in common? They vote Democratic. And sure enough, every single state to bring up a voter-ID law since 2006 (before which there were none whatsoever) did so with a Republican-led state legislature, with the lone exception of Rhode Island (and god knows what's going on with those people).

It's become such a transparent means of voter manipulation, in fact, that Representative Mike Turzai, the Majority Leader of PA's Republican House, recently went in front of a camera and bragged that the law would deliver his state to Mitt Romney in 2012.

So in conclusion--yes, voter fraud is bad. But to paraphrase Jon Stewart, it isn't happening, and voter-ID won't stop it. But what it will absolutely do is keep thousands of upstanding PA citizens from voting. What's a worse crime against our electoral system, allowing one instance of fraud, or turning away one thousand--hell, one hundred--eligible voters?

Further Reading

In 5-Year Effort, Scant Evidence of Voter Fraud

Closing arguments in hearing on Pennsylvania voter ID law

Pa.’s Voter ID Law: What’s the Big Deal?

Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Hits Philadelphia Blacks, Latinos Harder

Pittsburgh activists scramble in face of voter-ID law

Court decision on Pa. voter ID law won’t end uncertainty

Friday, August 3, 2012

Reason #250: Breadth and Depth

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled Space Friday for a little news of the navel-gazing variety.

When I started this blog a year ago, I wanted to accomplish two things--one, prove that there was no shortage whatsoever of federal activity to be happy about by presenting several valid examples each week in perpetuity, and two, prove to myself that I could actually keep up with the regular schedule that would demand.

Now that I've proven both of those by and large, the time has come to think about what else I want to do here. Why I Enjoy Paying Taxes has been a great exercise in better-informing myself about the goings-on of government; it's one thing to read a news story, and quite another to understand it well enough to then explain it to someone else--let alone advocate for it. It's also been great writing practice, having reached this week a total of roughly 40 thousand words, or about the size of a long novella (or a short novel).

What I haven't quite done, in my eyes, is written up to a standard of quality that warrants more than the most casual readership. Crucial to my success in maintaining the blog this long is the fact that I've been writing it as much for myself as for any readers I might have, and that's still the case, but now that the American government has kindly held up my initial thesis and given me a year's worth of steady, reliable positivity, it's time to focus less on quantity and more on quality.

To that end, the point of all this is to say that starting next week, I'll only be publishing one new "Reason" post per week instead of five. That way I can take the time to find a topic that particularly interests me, that warrants advocacy rather than merely offering the opportunity for it, and then really digging into it and constructing a post with more breadth and depth to it.

That hasn't been unheard of here thus far, of course--Reasons #100 and 200 are pretty much the kind of thing I'm thinking here--but if dialing back the schedule a bit allows for that to be the norm rather than the exception, I think it's a fair trade.

In conclusion, join me here next Friday at 5pm EST for Reason #251, the first iteration of Why I Enjoy Paying Taxes 2.0. I have a topic raring to go already, and it'll be a doozy.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reason #249: Minority Report(ing)

Despite its fairly tarnished public image these days, NPR is attempting to enhance its coverage of "race, ethnicity and culture" issues, hoping to reach a broader (read: less milky white) audience and better reflect the changing face of American diversity. To this end, it will use a $1.5 million grant it just received from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to set up what could be called a task force of six people whose primary responsibility is to report on stories of minority and cultural interest.

Lest we worry that the end result will be a "brown people hour" buried within its usual schedule, NPR was quick to establish that the new multicultural focus is something that will be reflected across all platforms and topics.

Considering that NPR is already something of a liberal bulwark in American culture, I'm anxious to see what a heightening of the voices of gays, blacks, immigrants, and so forth will do to their programming's already fairly one-sided worldview.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Reason #248: Lady Parts

As my one-year anniversary gets closer and closer, I now have the pleasure of following up on one of my first topics: per entry #7, Obamacare's women's health provision goes into effect today, meaning that up to 47 million women in America now have free access to a wide variety of care and preventative services that they didn't have yesterday. Among these...
  • Annual "well-woman" checkups
  • Contraception, contraceptive counseling, and even sterilization procedures, without even a copay
  • Tri-annual HPV testing, shown to decrease instances of cervical cancer
  • HIV screening and HIV/STI counseling, shown to reduce "risky behavior" in sexually-active young women
  • Breastfeeling support, supplies, and counseling - self-explanatory
  • Domestic violence counseling for both adolescent and adult women
This can be a lot to process all at once, but luckily, Republican Congressman Mike Kelly is here to explain it to us--by pointing out how today is exactly like 9/11. Because if there's one person who loved him some free birth control, it's Osama Bin Laden.