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Essay:AD's Beliefs

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Liberalism demands that people without guns be able to tell people with guns what to do.
—Stephen Holmes

Contents

[edit] Life

My life is my message.

—Mohandas K. Gandhi

It is generally believed that there is a distinction between deontology and consequentialism. The former offers life guidance based on a set of accepted principles that are generally religious in nature. The latter argues for action based on a view of achieving the best results. Yet in both cases, the ethical systems are usually implemented with a rough sort of mental cheat-sheet. In most cases, these cheat-sheets actually end up looking quite similar. Taught to us as children, reinforced by society, and sometimes invoked personally, we avoid wrong and do good according to our mental short-list of ethics.

Christian commentators have noted that atheists often adopt this rough ethical consensus. This is unfortunate, but true. The sterner sorts of utilitarianism scrape uncomfortably and lead to some unpleasant results, and it would be morally dishonest to adopt a religious set of principles. Nor is there anything wrong, for the most part, with living one's life by a perceived consensus of judgment on behavior (even most professed theists actually take this path). In almost all situations, the ethical cheat-sheet will give very satisfactory results.

Occasionally, however, this approach will fail. On subjects of wide and even disagreement, such as abortion, the consensus becomes the agreement of a local tribe, rather than wider society. And because the basis for that particular ethical belief is a tribal affiliation, it is not subject to meaningful revision. This is not healthy for the person, the society, or a larger system of morals.

But the crafting of justice from nothingness is a difficult task. An atheist has no recourse to convenient a priori truths, and so he cannot leap to his goal with a single bound - "murder is wrong because God said so." Atheists walk an uphill path to the truth, and must take every step themselves.

From my reading and thought, I have found that the only consistent system of ethics that provides a basis for both personal satisfaction and a functional society is the law of reciprocity. It is a universal law in the Kantian sense, as its strength and applicability do not waver in all instances of a situation. It can be described as "enlightened self-interest" - I wish to be happy, and so I should encourage a society that will make me happy. A lust for truth is important, demanding I continually examine my own motives and relentlessly pursue new knowledge. But even more important is compassion for all people and at all times.

Wonderfully, acting with compassion for others makes your own life better in a ridiculously clichéd way.

[edit] Stuff

  • Amateur evolutionary psychologists and amateur historians are probably the worst sorts of dilettantes.
  • Without the methodology, the results of a poll are (at best) meaningless.
  • If you can't clearly explain something to a colleague, you probably don't understand it.
  • Analogies are not arguments.

[edit] Government

Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.

—John Jay

The first and most important purpose of government is to protect the rights of the people which it represents. The rights to be protected in America are listed or implied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I say "implied" because at this point, centuries after those documents were composed, we are faced with issues which the framers could never have imagined. To say we should be strict "literalists" about the Constitution is to essentially abandon it when it comes to so many modern issues. We must use the principles enshrined in those documents to decide what the rights of the people are and how they can be protected.

Government is good at some things, and bad at other things. It has a tendency towards inefficiency and over-bureaucratization. Some problems are accordingly better solved by the free market. And in fact, the more problems don't require government intervention, the better. Everything runs more smoothly - if more mercilessly - when no bureau is getting in the way.

On the other hand, the free market is merciless. The only way people stop buying tainted aspirin is if twenty children have already died. There are many essential services where we must risk sacrificing some amount of wealth by way of inefficiency in order to create an agency whose sole purview is the service of the people, rather than profit. We must strive for accountability and efficiency with these agencies (the FBI, the Department of Education, and so on), but we should also accept that we're willingly spending a little extra so that those twenty children don't have to die.

[edit] Ideology

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy's cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.
—Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

My general ideology is often what people call "liberal," although I have only recently begun to describe myself as such - and even then, it's in opposition to the "conservatism" movement, which is much more organized and sharply-defined. But in truth, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest if someone decided I wasn't liberal, or was a libertarian, or whatever. I believe my beliefs are most often in the category called "liberal" and in fact generally consistent with the Democratic party, but I am a strict advocate of doing that which makes sense through reason and evidence. The end goal must be, in all things: how can we make human lives better?

[edit] Issues

[edit] Environment

I speak for the trees.

—The Lorax

This is my first and most important issue, because it is the issue with the most lasting result. In a thousand years, few people will give a damn about the USAPATRIOT Act. But they will give a damn if strict regulations on nuclear waste disposal were not adopted. Lives are at stake, and not just our lives. The lives of our children and their children and countless generations after them are at stake. We must err on the side of caution. There are countless examples of civilizations that did not do so. Jared Diamond's Collapse details some of them, with Iceland as one such example. Iceland was once a lush place with a vibrant ecosystem; now it's deforested and filled with alien trees. Their fragile ecosystem was annihilated by unintentional human intervention. And afterwards? The devastated land couldn't support the Vikings. They vanished.[1]

These days, the world could be in similar trouble. I'm not qualified to examine the evidence on global warming and reach a conclusion - I'll be the first to admit that. It requires experience to put the data in scale and understand its reliability, as well as to follow the scientific debate and the weight of opposing opinion. Accordingly, I must rely on those who have the training and understanding to analyze the data. To date, virtually every scientific organization of any note has thrown itself in full support of the conclusions of the IPCC: global warming is occurring, it is anthropogenic, and it will probably hurt humanity and ecosystems worldwide.[2] Action must be taken.

[edit] Vegetarianism

Factory farming and fishing (the food industries) are far and away the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. They are responsible for more than 40% of all methane emissions and 62% of all nitrous dioxide emissions, not counting the incidental fraction of industrial and transportation emissions that are also ultimately devoted to food industries.

Further, the local damage done by the food industries staggers any attempt to summarize it. Massive pig farms flush tons of nitrous waste into the waters, which swell with algae and kill entire ecosystems. Out of 35 species of seahorses, 20 are endangered because of shrimp farming - a process wherein 26 pounds of seahorses and small crabs and a thousand other tiny creatures are killed and discarded for every single pound of shrimp produced.

[edit] Energy Production

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.

—Aristotle

When it comes to the environment, the oil question doesn't actually matter. It's not a question of whether or not we will run out. Much more important is that we shouldn't be using it because it is devastating to the environment because of its carbon output into the atmosphere and the nasty process of obtaining it. Likewise, we shouldn't use coal, which is an incredibly dirty source of fuel yet retains the lion's share of electricity production in the U.S.

The best solution is to cut that cord, and reduce oil and coal to just another commodity used in manufacturing. We must remove the direct link between the price of a single commodity and the well-being of so many, and give oil and coal the same loose correlation that copper or soybeans have to their lives. One way that can be done is through electric vehicles. These are becoming more and more viable every year, with cars like the Chevy Volt.

Introducing that middleman won't do it all, of course. The electricity to power electric cars will still come in large part from the oil that power companies burn. To separate the average American from his umbilical to oil and coal, power companies need to switch away from those resources as well.

There are many alternatives, of course. But the best course for energy production in the future is solar energy, as laid out by Ken Zweibel, James Mason, and Vasilis Fthenakis in their article A Solar Grand Plan. Other alternatives - especially wind power - may have the potential to help supplement solar power, but hold much less promise than when assessed frankly. Nuclear power presents a nonzero health risk and puts forth incredibly toxic waste that must be stored for centuries, ethanol is inefficient (disastrously so when we talk about corn), and other technologies can only be used in rare areas.

Unfortunately, this is a massive paradigm shift of an entire industry, and that industry just can't do it on its own. It will take, conservatively, about 500 billion dollars to change the course of the mighty river that is the American power industry. That is an immense sum. Even if many of the power companies banded together, they could never raise such a huge discretionary sum. Accordingly, this is one of those situations that calls for government intervention, so that the people of the nation can help shift the waters. Over the course of a couple of decades, that amount should be paid out in subsidies and a plan should be put together by a Congressional bipartisan council to construct a nationwide direct current backbone and construct solar concentration plants in the American Southwest.

It's a bold move, and not without risk. It will have to be done well and with wisdom. But the alternative - to passively wait for the disaster we see looming - is worse.

[edit] Economics

Power over a man's subsistence is power over his will.

—Alexander Hamilton

[edit] Taxation

Do you know what the rich and poor have in common? They both have to eat and sleep. A certain amount of money must be spent on those things. The rich spend $35,000, and the poor spend $3,500, but those necessities must be met. The thing is, the poor spend an enormous percentage of their paychecks on those two things. In fact, virtually all of the lower class and middle class spend most of each paycheck on a place to sleep and food to eat, as well as little things like transportation and medicine. In contrast, the rich spend a much smaller fraction of their paycheck on those things. Even with extravagance, the reason there are real estate funds is because there are people with a lot of extra money to put into them. So 30% means a hell of a lot more to a poor person than a rich person, in terms of everything that matters.

If I make $3,000 in a check, then 30% of my check is $900. I have $2,100 left. I spend $2,000 on eating and sleeping, and have $100 left, instead of $1,000. My quality of life has decreased enormously, and I have to pray my daughter doesn't get sick.

If I make $300,000 in a check, then 30% of my check is $90,000. I have $210,000. I spend $100,000 on eating and sleeping since I like to live very well, and have $110,000 left instead of $210,000. I can't buy my second yacht.

Because of these factors, all taxation should be and must be progressive. The idea is not to make taxes "fair" by some arbitrary adherence to a number. These are human lives we are talking about, and so "fair" should be determined by the weight of the burden on one's life.

[edit] Welfare Reform

There is a lot of hokum about when it comes to welfare. Most of it can be dispelled with the numbers from the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation. First, the amount of men and women receiving food stamp assistance are statistically equal[3], and most people who use welfare receive it for less than five years. Median welfare receipt is 48 months[4]. The idea of hordes of "welfare queens," having numerous children and living on the dole, is a myth.

Second of all, the welfare-to-work programs attempt that push minimum-wage jobs on welfare recipients, and require increasing numbers of hours to maintain eligibility, have had the effect of pushing more and more people into the narrow and unlivable gap between receiving welfare and making a living wage.[3] Rather than raising people to a level at which they can make it themselves, these programs just crowd individuals into an even worse position; 60% of those who departed welfare under these programs still made a wage less than their welfare allowance five years later. Welfare-to-work programs don't increase accountability, just misery.

Most Americans who are in deep poverty remain there for a short time; it is a temporary condition. The way the world works and a sense of shame generally motivate people to improve their lot - at least to lower-class from devastatingly poor, even if further advancement is achieved only in astonishing increments. However, there is a small but very significant group that persists in the well of deep poverty for year after year. This status correlates very strongly with possessing limited skills, being a single mother, being a minority, and being elderly with a fixed income.[4] Aside from this small group, most people who must use welfare and are in deep poverty are those who have experienced a "transitional event": the death of a family member, serious injury, or job loss.

Given all these factors, the sensible conclusion is that welfare is an excellent program that accomplishes much of what it intends: it provides temporary assistance for those who have suffered a disaster, and provides the means to survive for the most vulnerable and downtrodden who are unable to rise further. Politicians pander to the ignorant with programs that demand "accountability," but most people do quite well being accountable only to their own conscience

[edit] Religion

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.
—Carl Sagan

I'm an atheist. For all intents and purposes, politically speaking, that is my religion - if only in the sense that I choose to have no religion, and that freedom should be just as protected. And even the most obtuse of readers must admit that a fundamental principle of the Constitution is freedom of religion. That means the government cannot favor any religion in any way. This is about as simple as it gets, and as clear-cut as a stance can be. Absolute and complete separation of church and state is the only way to ensure religious freedom for all citizens.

[edit] School Prayer

Prayer should absolutely be permitted in schools. Students, like every other American, have a right to worship when and where they choose - even if that is on public property. However, the school is a public institution of the government, and accordingly in no way should it endorse prayer. This means that teachers should not be taking class time to lead "moments of prayer" or even a "moment of silence," since both are implicit endorsements of the practice of religious prayer and thus of particular religions themselves.

[edit] Civil Rights

If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.

—Samuel Adams

The only thing more abominable than the government taking away civil rights from its citizens is the apparition of the citizens being pleased about it. A strict balance of powers is in everyone's interest, and so when the powers of the executive are swollen increasingly by a foolish Congress, and when even then a tyrannous executive brushes aside what few restrictions are cast upon him, it can only lead to an increasingly corrupt branch. And yet of late that is what has occurred with dismal regularity. Programs such as warrantless wiretapping were in flagrant and despicable violation of the law. And what is more, the program was only ended after journalists were bold enough to expose the abuse, only to suffer criticism for their bravery. A final insult came from a Congress that was so utterly gutless as to pardon the abuse ex post facto.

This isn't a party matter: each party has been heinously guilty of executive overreach. And any partisan of either side should oppose it with leather lungs, because next term it might be a guy from across the aisle with the expanded powers. Supporting the expense of executive power is arming your enemy.

The slogan is often flippantly said that "freedom isn't free." It is in fact repeated with such comfortable chaw-mouthing ease that it has lost its meaning for some people. But it's true: freedom is not free. We pay for freedom in blood. The blood of men, women, and sometimes children.

It has to be admitted that warrantless wiretapping has the potential to save human life. By abandoning due process and judicial revue of any kind, law enforcement officers would be swifter and better able to pursue criminals. Anyone who says differently is lying to you or lying to himself. Certainly, the gain in intelligence seems to be comparably small, and the lawful system hasn't delayed justice to all appearances, with the legal FISA court having denied only four of hundreds of wiretapping requests.[5] But it could save lives and stop the shedding of innocent blood.

But giving law enforcement officers the ability to beat and torture whomever they pleased would also increase intelligence input and possibly save lives. In point of fact, any policy that increases their power will generally have that effect. We have restrictions on their power because we acknowledge that some things are more important than safety. We are willing to pay for our freedoms and civil rights. And we pay for them in blood.

Some people sailed an unknown ocean for the privilege to pay that price. Soldiers have fought and died to protect the very opportunity to pay that price. And I'll be damned if a squeamish modern nation is going to discard that heritage of courage. That's one reason why I'm a dues-paying member of the ACLU.

[edit] Affirmative Action

While well-intentioned, affirmative action generally relies upon the very discrimination whose effects it was intended to alleviate. This very process of discrimination is itself unjust, and no ends justify such means. Accordingly, the only affirmative action that should be practiced is that which is inherently non-discriminatory, such as the United Negro College Fund, which dispenses voluntarily-donated funds to African-Americans for educational purposes.

[edit] Animal Rights

A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.

—Leo Tolstoy

A rational analysis of the manner in which we derive rights has to be founded upon suffering as the first arbiter of a life's value. While it is more common instead to claim that value follows from intelligence, this is inconsistent with the way in which we value the lives of the mentally handicapped. This follows from the philosophy laid out by Peter Singer in his Practical Ethics. While much of Singer stretches these principles untenably to conclude that capacity to suffer is the sole metric of the value of a life, his core observation remains true: suffering should be minimized.

Accordingly, it is immoral to live in such a manner as inflicts additional suffering when it is not necessary to do so. Cows, pigs, and chickens are all raised in generally dismal circumstances and then slaughtered once they reach their physical peak (or sometimes before), resulting in a tidal wave of suffering on an immense scale. It is not moral to encourage this by the consumption of meat products or leather when there is a wide variety of easy and comparable alternatives. Nor is the suffering of animals in bloodsports like dog fighting or bullfighting a moral thing to participate in. None of these things are necessary, and so paying for them in pain is not right.

On the other hand, there are many situations in which eating meat or using leather is perfectly moral. Hunter-gatherer societies like the Mek of Africa are obliged to hunt and kill according to their ancient way of life, and lack alternatives. Accordingly, the suffering created thusly is not superfluous, and their actions are moral.

It is also worth noting that animals raised for food in the United States consume 90 percent of the soy crop, 80 percent of the corn crop, and a total of 70 percent of its grain.[6] Meat-eating is not environmentally sustainable.

Further details on my feelings on animal rights and vegetarianism can be found at Essay:Becoming_Vegetarian. An expanded form of the argument made here can be found at Essay:Why You Shouldn't Eat Meat.

[edit] War

No man is justified in doing evil on the grounds of expediency.
—Theodore Roosevelt

According to the above principles, war is seldom moral. It is only moral if it is engaged in to prevent an accordingly higher level of suffering, or for self-defense. A war of choice is almost never the right thing to do. Nuclear war would never be the right thing to do, under any circumstances.

The best way to prevent future wars would be to help work towards a respected and fully-functional United Nations. When Iran sits on the UN's Council on Human Rights, there are serious problems with the way in which the system works.

[edit] Torture

Torture doesn't work, and it's wrong. For both reasons or for either, America should not torture its prisoners. The information obtained by torture is notoriously unreliable - which makes sense, since one can imagine the victim saying whatever was required to stop the pain. This has been demonstrated yet again by the fruitless torture of Guantanamo detainee Abu Zubaydah, which yielded nothing actionable and much false information.[7]

Following the law and morals helps keep the faith of all in the government. As a contemporary example, when attempted bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was captured, conservatives howled at the foolishness of President Obama for directing that Abdulmutallab be properly arrested, Mirandized, and taken into custody. But because they did what was right, some weeks later Abdulmutallab's family agreed to help. He began giving all manner of information to the FBI.[8] It seems unlikely that his family would have been willing to help if their son was being tortured daily overseas.

[edit] Healthcare

It is a wise mans part, rather to avoid sickness, than to wishe for medicines.

—Thomas More

The percentage of Medicare expenditure dedicated to administrative costs is about 8%. This number includes higher per capita expenditures, the cost of borrowing money when the government fails to fund the program, and many other hidden costs. It is much higher than the false and commonly cited percentage of 2%. So clearly public healthcare is not terribly efficient. But the percentage of expenditure dedicated to administrative cost and profit by private industry is almost 17%![9]

This is a good indication that the government is capable of administrating health care not just as well as, but in fact better than private industry. Even if additional money is spent on fraud protection and oversight, costs would have to more than double before they approach the costs incurred by allowing this industry to remain in the hands of profit-seeking corporations. Universal health care is the best choice for America, and Obama's Affordable Care Act was a good step forward towards that goal.

The most frequent objection to UHC is generally anecdotal, often regarding Canada. "You have to wait weeks to see a general practitioner" is a common complaint, as is "it takes months to schedule simple surgeries!"

As it happens, both of these objections are true. Canada's health care is pretty lousy. They have UHC, but it is amazingly underfunded thanks to decades of relatively conservative leaders who have viewed it as a burden. The Commonwealth Fund's Scorecard on Health System Performance aggregates numerous useful statistics about health care[10], and indicates (in part) that Americans die earlier than in most other developed nations, despite paying far more for health care per person. Even worse, those much-vaunted short waiting times are in fact much longer on average for Americans. The numbers are very difficult to argue with, however, so opponents of UHC generally tend to stick to rhetoric about "socialism." Because the facts just don't help them out.

[edit] Euthanasia

The idea that the state can direct an individual to continue living against their will is laughable on its face, inasmuch as I can see. There is absolutely zero compelling reason for the government to intrude so outrageously into an individual's most fundamental rights, excepting some sort of attempt at legislating private religious morality onto the world as a whole.

That said, accepting the idea of legalized euthanasia must recognize that it is a very dangerous thing. The death of an individual can provide benefits for numerous people in numerous ways, and so safeguards for rights should be just as stringent, if not more so, as the careful system of checks that protects our rights in things like a criminal prosecution. A healthy person can take their life whenever they please and let the chips fall where they may, but before an ill person asks a doctor to take hold of the axe, we have to be sure where the blade is going to bite. The exact strictures are beyond the scope of my own abilities, but I would imagine that a terminal diagnosis from a qualified panel of doctors would be an essential step, as well as a psychological assessment of competence. Death needs to be recognized fully as a part of life, and medical professionals should be allowed to aid a patient entering that final stage according to that patient's own choices, as with all the previous stages.

[edit] Immigration

For every complex problem there is a solution which is straightforward, simple, and wrong.

—H.L. Mencken

There is no solution to the immigration problem. It is impossible to secure such an immense contiguous border, even with the incredible fortune being spent on the problem currently, with the continual spur of dramatically disparate wealth. There is simply too much money in America compared to Mexico, and the benefits of illegal immigration are simply too vast; America's per-capita GDP in 2007 was $45,500, while Mexico's was $8,500[11]. The only way illegal immigration will stop will be for Mexico and Central America's economy to become strong and make leaving an unattractive prospect. This is very unfortunate, but it is a reality, borne out by a study of the numbers: during the peak of the recent recession, illegal immigration shrank precipitously - not because of better enforcement measures, but because of the decrease in available employment.

In the short term, however, guest worker programs will greatly reduce the number of individuals getting into the country illegally, especially if these programs are properly administered. In the longer term, America should re-invigorate itself with the "brain drain" that helped lead to its ascent: increasing the number of skilled worker and professional visas granted by a factor of at least hundred will bring in a flow of highly skilled workers, aiding the economy and those individuals both. Currently, there are a grand total of 85,000 HB-1 visas (for the highly skilled) issued every year: this is so inadequate that they run out within the first few months of every year.[12]

[edit] Sexual Issues

Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea.
—Derek Jarman

A person's body is their most precious sanctum and most intrinsic form of property, and any sexual action undertaken by a person that does not otherwise break a law has no basis for legal exclusion. It is by these principles that we must determine sexual issues.

[edit] Abortion

The question of when a fetus becomes a person is not empirically decidable. Not everything with human genetic material is a person; no one feels that a kidney has rights. Yet a zygote has no more cognitive capacity or viability than a kidney. What is clear is that it is the potential to become a person that makes this a question at all: at some point, the fetus will with certainty be a person.

On the other hand, it seems equally clear that there is virtually no difference between a fetus one day prior to birth and a fetus one day after birth. So at some point between fertilization and birth, the potential to become a person becomes full-fledged personhood. Is it a hard line or a soft line? I don't know, but I suspect a soft one based on the "one day before" line of thought. It might seem to be Zeno's Fetus (to coin a phrase), but it is sound in individual application.

Add into this the rights of the mother. It does not seem that we can justly accord a nonperson with the rights of a person out of recognition of their potential to be a person. Thus, the mother owns the fetus in its entirety during the period in which it is not a person, as with any other part of her body. Her rights to the privacy of her own body must be weighed heavily as coming from the right to privacy implied within multiple parts of the Bill of Rights.

Ethically, it seems to me that the only moral action is not to have an abortion except at the very earliest stages, but even that requires a level of discernment that makes me incredibly uncomfortable. No abortions at all seem to be the most moral choice.

At the same time, my best interpretation of the Constitution implies no consideration of the issue at all, and only an overriding right to privacy. Accordingly, it would be unjust for me to attempt to legislate morality in a manner not upheld by the architect of our governance and in a way not actually empirically provable.

Since there is a time at which the mother's right to privacy remains absolute but during which there is no establishable person with similar rights that would be otherwise affected, I must thus conclude that some abortions should be legal, even if I feel that is not ethically the correct choice.

The question then becomes when abortion should be legal. For this highly unpleasant matter, I am often flummoxed. Roe v. Wade has suggested viability, however, and that seems to be a Gordian solution - for all the flippancy that may imply, still a necessary line. Viability provides a neat and certain line when it comes to the legality of the matter, even if in practice it is a moving target (thank goodness, moving back!)

[edit] Prostitution

The vast majority of the danger and ills associated with prostitution would vanish if the industry were legalized and regulated, vastly reducing communicable diseases and violence. There is no other rational reason to otherwise keep it illegal - although it is and arguably will remain distasteful.

[edit] Same-Sex Marriage

Marriage, as a religious ceremony, should be generally excluded from government. The government should only issue marriage licenses, and it should issue them to both heterosexual and homosexual couples in the absence of compelling rational reasons to the contrary. Let each religious institution decide on its own whether to perform the ceremony of "marriage" or not.

[edit] Sex Education

The research shows, overwhelmingly, that abstinence-only education is not effective, failing to delay the onset of sexual activity or to prepare teens for sex when they do become active.[13] The American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association,and the American College Health Association (among others) all endorse comprehensive sex education programs rather than abstinence-only.

The impetus to teach abstinence-only sex education is an interesting one, because it is a logic seldom applied elsewhere. For example, it is illegal and generally considered wrong for teenagers to drink alcohol. Yet schools still have multiple programs to stop drinking and driving. There seems to be little concern that teaching teens not to drive while drunk will encourage them to drink alcohol, yet that is the some logic that would argue against teaching teens to use condoms while having sex. We can't stop teenagers from making some bad choices. It will always be that way. To refuse to teach them about dealing with bad choices - if and when they make them - is to leave them unprepared for the inevitable.

[edit] Education

Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.

—Publius Syrius

It cannot be denied that education in America has been suffering greatly. The factors that contribute to this vary greatly, but generally stem from vast cultural differences from one country to another. Research indicates[14], however, that in general the best and clearest first move towards improvement should be a lengthening of the school year during primary education.

School vouchers are, however, a poor idea. While their intent is good, they would be virtually impossible to implement in a manner that is both fair and maintains the viability of the public school system. An example illustrates this best:

In District 12, let us say there are three schools: two public, and one private. One of them, Urban High, has a bad reputation for violence and poor education. With the voucher system, a high percentage of parents are going to send their children to the other two schools rather than the reputedly poor one. Generously, let us estimate that 40% of Urban High departs over the course of a few years. Correspondingly, and exactly according to plan, Urban High loses 40% of its funding. That 40% is split between the other two schools.

The private school does very well, of course. The wealthy in District 12 already paid for tuition previously, but now they universally send their children to "public school" and don't have to pay out any money themselves while still receiving the same service. The upper-middle class and upper class save quite a bit this way, and the private school raises the price of tuition to match the new enormous demand. Everyone who goes to the school does very well, particularly since as a private institution they can turn away everyone they consider undesirable. They need not educate the disabled, those with learning disabilities, or simply the slower children who fail the entrance exam. Teaching only the smartest children makes it much easier and continues to raise the school in the eyes of the public.

It doesn't go so well for Urban High. Fewer students mean fewer expenses, but it also means there is much less extra money for the things that help education these days such as new textbooks and televisions. And since Urban High can't turn away the disabled or poor students, they have many more of them proportionally. This costs a great deal more in teacher time, since the disabled and slow children are much more difficult to educate to minimum standards. The school can't afford the best teachers, of course: they can't afford to pay as much as the private school, especially as the money coming in plummets (not to mention the dangerous area and infamy).

Voucher systems would ghettoize the poor and disabled, who do not have a "choice" in whether or not they can pass entrance exams. And since attempting to require private schools to admit all applicants would essentially eliminate their distinction and infringe on their rights, it's not a workable scheme.

The same argument tends to apply to charter schools, the latest vogue in education reform. This is despite a spate of recent media such as Waiting for Superman that demonizes teacher's unions and exalts charter schools. As much of a problem as teacher's unions are, the bigger question is why charter school students do no better, on average, than public school students of similar backgrounds.[15]

[edit] Crime

An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty.
—Thomas Paine

Because I see no evidence for absolute moral poles, I do not believe in "evil" human beings. All of my experience and all evidence indicates to me that very few people engage in acts they think of as "wrong," but rather they indulge in complicated systems of self-indulgent justifications. This is to prevent the phenomenon known as "cognitive dissonance": the inherent discomfort that comes from consciously holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time. These justifications range from "everyone else would do the same thing in my position" to "I'm just taking back from the world what it took from me."

Because of this, crime prevention should be focused entirely on just that: preventing crime. Efforts should not be expended to balance a hypothetical moral scale or administer the justice of one's religion.

[edit] The Death Penalty

There are two reasons to oppose the death penalty. Either one would be sufficient unto itself, but both together condemn the practice entirely.

The first reason is that it is as faulty as every other process in the criminal justice system, but unlike the others, it is final and irrevocable. Wrongful prison sentences can be appealed, misplaced fines can be addressed, and subpoenas can be fought. But once you're executed, the state has eliminated any future possibility of restoring some measure of stolen rights to the wrongly convicted. Like any killing, the state takes away not just the person's life, but all future possibilities as well. Such an action must be without error, because it is so absolute. And yet since 1973, more than a hundred inmates, convicted of capital crimes and waiting to die on death row, have been subsequently exonerated.[16] Every new significant advancement in DNA analysis has led to some exonerations; there have been over a dozen in the past ten years. A limited and inexact justice system should never deal out absolute sentences.

The second reason is that it just doesn't work as a deterrent. Punishments should have the end goal of reducing harm to people by reducing crime. While some studies show a deterrent effect on the homicide rate in the states that have the death penalty, other studies that have examined the issue with a better approach identified the fact that only a very few states execute more than a few individuals every year, representing one percent of the total executions. "Reanalyses of the existing data are presented showing that claims of deterrence are a statistical artifact of this anomalous 1 percent."[17] In other words, having the death penalty does not produce a deterrent effect; it does not lower the homicide rate.

[edit] The War on Drugs and the New Jim Crow

Tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars are deployed every year in an effort to fight the "war on drugs." This is an outrageous expense, and has led to a huge increase in the number of those who are in prison - yet a third massive expense. While drugs should not be legalized (except marijuana), this expense should stop and a significant fraction of the money should be directed towards education and safety instead. This would lead to much better overall results, and would stop the disastrous geopolitical consequences of our "war." Farmers in Brazil don't need to bear the weight of first world vices.

The most heinous aspect of the drug war, however, is that it is the major tool used in the creation of a new system of Jim Crow, replacing the poll taxes and segregated lunch counters of the past. Now that blatant discrimination is impolitic, the drug war and the massive incarceration waged disproportionately against black and Hispanic males serves to oppress these minorities and keep them at the bottom of the social scale. The set of laws for drug enforcement that permit racial profiling, property forfeiture, mandatory minimums, and public housing "one-strike" rules combine with the stigma and legal branding of "felon" status to restrict the opportunities of a majority of black men. It is an elegant and insidious system of racism that needs to be eliminated.

[edit] Gun Control

While I think the second amendment to the Bill of Rights clearly establishes a right to ownership for firearms, I advocate strict gun control. People should only possess guns they need for reasonable purposes, as a general guideline. Hunting and home defense are two purposes, which is why I think rifles and shotguns are perfectly acceptable, as well as some handguns. However, automatic weapons and above only exist for the purpose of killing people. There is some argument to be made for recreational shooting as one of my "reasonable purposes," but that must be balanced against the welfare of the people as a whole.

In addition to this, there is the clear empirical evidence on the matter. Canada has almost as many guns per capita as America, but half the gun violence. Japan has almost no guns at all, and much lower per capita gun violence. Clearly, the problem lies in items like handguns - uncommon in Canada and nonexistent in Japan - in causing so much violence. 75% of all firearms homicides in America are committed with handguns, versus 4% for rifles and 5% for shotguns (with the remaining percentage unknown).[18] The evidence is right there.

On balance, it does not appear that any empirical evidence matters. The recent decisions by the Supreme Court have ensured a personal right to bear arms is now the dominant view, the result of decades of harsh advocacy by the gun lobbies and conservative jurists such as Clarence Thomas. Despite continued fearmongering, this appears to be - lamentably - a settled question.

[edit] Actions

If not now, when?

—Hillel the Elder

This is a list of things that I think should be done. They range from general morality to specific American legal reform. The chances of some of these actions actually occurring is quite reasonable, while others unlikely, and still others are vanishingly improbable.

  1. The death penalty should be eliminated from all countries.
  2. America should legalize marijuana, decriminalize most other drugs, and drastically reduce mandatory minimum sentencing laws. The resulting savings in incarceration should be spent on intervention and counseling programs: drugs should be treated as a public health problem.
  3. We should stop factory farming at an absolute minimum, but preferably everyone who is able should become a vegetarian.
  4. The world should reduce reliance on fossil fuels immediately, with the first world acting within a few years while poorer countries transition more slowly. America specifically should engage in a large public works program to install solar panels and wind farms, or perhaps nuclear plants (if necessary). Because Treasury bills are so much in demand and so ironclad-safe that borrowing money with them will actually generate funds with no risk, it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to do anything other than borrow a huge new sum ($1 trillion, perhaps) to pay for this and the other necessary infrastructure improvements. These are all costs we will have to pay eventually, so it is smarter to do it now when we'll gain by the borrowing and benefit from the results for longer.
  5. Two higher tax brackets for the ultra-rich should be created in the American income tax system.
  6. America's USAPATRIOT Act should be repealed, and similar minor laws created in the years since to support warrantless wiretapping, extrajudicial killings and imprisonment, and other gross expansions of executive power.
  7. America should institute single-payer healthcare, accepting some slight degradation of service for the wealthy in exchange for the necessary moral imperative of caring for the health of all citizens.
  8. Prostitution should be legalized and, in America, statewide or federal licensing requirements should be enacted.
  9. Many of these other actions could become palatable with the implementation of proportional representation, reducing the effects of the zero-sum current state of American politics.

[edit] References

  1. Iceland and Ecology
  2. First Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Summary for Policymakers
  3. 3.0 3.1 Working Paper 236, U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation
  4. 4.0 4.1 Working Paper 245, U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation
  5. Electronic Privacy Information Center
  6. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/sb973/sb973.pdf
  7. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/28/AR2009032802066.html
  8. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/03/us/03terror.html?hp
  9. Matthews, Merril. Medicare's Hidden Administrative Costs. Council for Affordable Health Insurance Note these numbers come from a lobbying group that advocates the opposite of what I do... just not very effectively.
  10. Scorecard on Health System Performance
  11. World Bank
  12. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/why-is-the-united-states-telling-immigrant-geniuses-to-get-lost/258513/
  13. Emerging Answers 2007. National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
  14. Pischke, Jörn-Steffen. The Impact of Length of the School Year on Student Performance and Earnings. Centre for Economic Policy Research.
  15. http://www.slate.com/id/2302578/?from=rss
  16. List of Exonerated Death Row Inmates. Wikipedia. Not the most reliable source, but even if the number is off by 50% it would still be far too high.
  17. Efficacy of Deterrence.
  18. Expanded Homicide Data Table 7. Uniform Crime Reporting Program.
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