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.