Saturday, May 21, 2011

The ability to debate gay marriage.

I was tweeting pretty heavily tonight, mostly trying to understand both sides of the gay marriage amendment here in Minnesota. Early this morning, the measure passed and will appear on the ballot in 2012. I once again want to point out how both sides have really failed to clearly define government's role on this subject. I also want to point out the arguments for and against the amendment that I have yet to get an answer to.

Typically, this is an issue that falls along party lines. The Democrats in the Minnesota House gave passionate speeches, some shedding tears and talking about discrimination. It is not personal discrimination as I see it. A gay couple with some planning can enter into a contract with each other that would be able to mimic a marriage as the law in Minnesota treats it. The name of the contract is different (it couldn't be called a marriage contract), but it would still act much like a marriage. So in reality, it is the definition that is taken away.

This is, however, is contract discrimination. Marriage is defined in Minnesota as, "Marriage, so far as its validity in law is concerned, is a civil contract between a man and a woman..." First, imagine if you inserted a race description before man and/or woman. Those races excluded from the law could still enter a contract as up above, but for the government to pick and choose what type of people can enter this specially defined "civil contract" is outside of the very essence of the United States Constitution which gives us the freedom to associate with who we wish. The argument that a gay couple could draw up a contract that mirrors marriage law cannot cover all things because other laws refer to marriage specifically. Also, if marriage law changes, the contract wouldn't automatically adjust to those changes. The DFL in Minnesota should have argued it from this more specific point.

I also find the emotional outpouring from the Democrats a bit disingenuous. The law was modified in 1977 to include the phrase "...between a man and a woman..." It was further modified in 1997 to add another phrase "... Lawful marriage may be contracted only between persons of the opposite sex..." If the democrats were so concerned about the rights for homosexual couples, why didn't they do something to remove this language for the many sessions where they held a majority? It concerns me that their passion is a political points passion, and not a genuine concern for gay couples.

From the conservative side, I heard a few different arguments. A couple of Twitter users had civil discussions with me 140 characters at a time, but I found some of my questions went unanswered. The main argument was "let the voters of Minnesota decide." That was probably the strongest argument. The issue I have is it is so specific and if the amendment fails, it doesn't change the existing law nor does it prevent it from coming up again. This argument seems to really be an attempt to mask the religious motivation for proposing this amendment.

One Twitter user wrote, "The gay marriage crowd has it's work cut out convincing people that sand is food," referring to the assertion that homosexuality is "unnatural" biologically. This is what you might call a "straw man" argument. If one were to extend this idea, should we ban everything that is not biologically natural? Should it be illegal to eat sand? It is readily apparent that arguing from this position is silly. Homosexuality is very common in the animal kingdom. The only counter-argument I saw to this was that animals have also been known to advance on inanimate objects. While that fact is true, it doesn't negate the occurrence in nature, including in humans long before Christianity. Humans have also come up with things such as the love doll. Do we ban those as well? My point here is that sex outside of procreation does exist. Note: I did use Wikipedia links here because they are good summaries of large subjects.

Another argument used studies showing kids do best when they have a mom and dad at home as parents. The studies are too many to link here, but those studies are very weak correlations and often done as surveys. We just don't have enough good data to make a comparison between heterosexual couples and homosexual couples. Also, since kids of homosexual couples are often because of adoption (yes, there are a few surrogates, etc), are we not improving that child's situation? Even if it could be proved a heterosexual couple was better, wouldn't having a pair of loving parents still be an improvement over no parents? A recent study showed that kids of homosexual couples attend college at a higher rate and graduate at a higher rate than the general population. The protecting the kids argument is very weak at best.

One argument that bordered on offensive was using the rates of STDs in comparison to the general population. It does need to be addressed. My brief search didn't turn up much for research, but some reading and general knowledge of psychology would lead me to this conclusion: The higher rate is partly due to the continued marginalization of homosexuality. When a person feels they need to hide something, they may not make rational decisions regarding the situation. It would be interesting to look at rates of STDs in countries where gay marriage is legal.

The last argument from conservatives I will address here is homosexual promiscuity. There are some survey studies that have been done that weakly conclude that homosexuals tend to have more partners and tend to be less committed than married couples. What isn't addressed in this data is: 1) It is hard to get people to be completely truthful, even in an anonymous survey. Perhaps married people feel more shame about their previous partners or are afraid to share the information. And 2) How does not being allowed to marry affect commitment in a homosexual couple. Would married homosexual couples stay more committed knowing they have the contract between them and could lose 1/2 their stuff? The promiscuity argument is weak because the comparison is not equal.

I have a personal plea to make to Republican politicians. I've always voted DFL until recently. I voted for the most Republicans I ever have in the last election because I really thought the platform was focused on being fiscally responsible and minimizing government's interference in our lives. This issue is not what I voted for, it is not high on the priority list, and it is not in the spirit of the Libertarian, non-intrusive government that many of you ran on during the campaign season. You are quickly losing my faith that you will take care of the things that really need to get done.

In my previous blog, I talk about the lack of logic used in this issue. If marriage is indeed a civil contract allowed between two people and a person can be in only one contract at a time, then that contract law needs to be applied equally. Some religious officials are OK with gay marriage. Some religions define marriage as only a man and a woman. We cannot choose which of these religious beliefs to follow, or to me it is in violation of the free exercise clause in the first amendment. The law might not always be fair (i.e. we don't allow polygamy), but it should be applied equally.

2012 is going to be a very difficult vote. Right now, logic and reason seems to escape anyone in office. Without logic and reason, there is no debate - or at least no progress being made.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The importance of language and logic in political debate.

Normally when I get fired up about some political topic, it is because of some news story on an issue or some misunderstanding of an issue I see people having in their conversations. However, tonight what has me thinking is the importance of language or word choice. I am in no way claiming I am a spectacular writer or a master of the English language. My issue is when people have time to think about their choice of language and do not choose to correct it, or when someone wants to attack another based on their choice of language without giving them time to correct it.

Note: There are those that have said I tend to be one-sided. While it is true I have a tendency to support Republican policy when it comes to taxes and economic policy, I don't consider myself Republican. Tonight, I am going to try to show some language concerns from both sides along with a little bit of logic mixed in to address the policies themselves.

Here's a tweet from a liberal blogger:
Where is the shared sacrifice? Other than all the poor, kids, elderly, mentally & vets get to sacrifice so richest 5% don't
What bothered me about this tweet was the word sacrifice. To say the groups mentioned in tweet are sacrificing something is wrong. You can't sacrifice something that is not yours. If you are receiving government aid, and the government sends you less, that is not a sacrifice on your part. A sacrifice would involve voluntarily giving up something which belongs to you. The other side of this is the idea that taxing the rich is somehow a sacrifice. The government takes money through the power of force. If you don't pay your taxes, they can take your wages or put you in prison. Taxation is not sacrifice. Keep in mind the top 5% of income earners pay 60% of all taxes on the federal level. The bottom 50% of income earners pay no federal taxes.

We could encourage the rich to "pay more" by giving them a reason to do so. Right now because of the AMT, high income people do not get to write off all of their donations to non-profit organization. If we could write a smart tax policy (so they can't donate to their own charity for example), we could get high income people to give more to those in need, and we cut out the government "middle-man." That's a win-win in my opinion.

I think the government should be the one looking at sacrifice. We are spending billions of dollars on rail projects that have yet to prove any decrease in congestion. We bailed out corporations instead of letting them fail and allowing those jobs, products, and services to go to other more successful and efficient companies. The government needs to sacrifice its unlimited spending for political gain and instead find ways to better use the money we give them. Cutting veterans' benefits over light rail? Energy tax credits over education? We need to stop pleasing everyone and instead get the government doing the most vital things. Let's make a list of priorities and stick to it. You can't tax everyone 100%, so let's agree we pay enough and instead focus on the important thing.

A more controversial topic is the one of the gay marriage amendment proposed in Minnesota. Conservatives say they are ensuring they "defend marriage." As several liberal blogs have pointed out, many of these legislators are themselves divorced. If marriage is so sacred and in need of protection, then perhaps they should have spent more time making a good decision on getting married and they should have also worked harder to defend their own marriage.

Republicans have failed on a couple of areas of logic here. First is the political play they are making to play to their voter base as some conservative political analysts have said. I for one, along with groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans or the or the Gay Patriot Blog, understand that true conservatism means we stay out of people's lives, bedrooms, pockets, and everything else. Government isn't there to rule over us, they are there to make sure our rights are protected.

There is also a case to be made that this is a religious intrusion into our personal lives. If you really look at the way marriage is treated in law, it is a standard contract as dictated by law that is between two individuals. A person can only be in one contract at any time, and the way to terminate the contract is also done in a certain set manner. We allow religious figures to execute the contract as well as certain government officials. The only case that conservatives can make on this issue is a religious objection.

When our Constitution was passed, many of these individual rights were somewhat assumed within the common law procedures already in place. The argument against the Bill of Rights was that the Constitution was meant to enumerate powers to the federal government, with all other powers and rights being delegated to state governments or to individuals. Others felt that individual rights needed enumeration to ensure the most vital ones would never be encroached by any government within the United States. The preamble to the Bill of Rights states:
The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
The very first issue raised in the first amendment is religion:
 Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
So, if a religion feels that gay marriage is OK, is it not in violation of the "free exercise" clause? The counter-argument is one of polygamy. Some religions support polygamy, so should we allow that free practice as well? Here's where it gets tricky. The government is set up for monogamous marriages only. If you want to be married to multiple people within your religion, that is not the government's business. However, if you want your marriage contract to be legally recognized by the state, you need to pick which partner with which you will execute that contract. The rest of your partners will be without that contractual protection. It might not fit all religious beliefs, but by allowing any two people to be in a marriage contract it is applying the law equally. That is the essence of the Constitution - fairness.

The other logic this issue fails is the level of importance. Certainly there are people on both sides that are very passionate about this issue. But as we see above, we have a crisis of spending. In Minnesota, we are bound by our Constitution to have a balanced budget so we are not in as much danger. But at the federal level (bold for emphasis) - Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone pay out more than the entire federal government take in starting this year. We have much more pressing issues on finding a way to take care of our elderly, our military veterans, our roads and bridges, and other vital government functions to be worried about gay marriage. It just doesn't belong on our radar at this point when these other issues haven't been addressed.

Language and logic seem to be lost on the political parties when it comes to the issues. I am at a loss as to how to get the political system changed so we can have real conversation instead of gaming and misusing the language for political gain. I am unsure how to get my representatives to understand logic. I'm also unsure how to get the political extremists to do the same. Until we get back to a certain level of honesty, respect, and logic, I only see a continued regression of our government.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Choosing Sides in the Death of a Terrorist

I've been reflecting on what I was thinking and how I felt when I found out Osama bin Laden was dead. Some of the positives are straightforward. He was an evil person, leading a group set on doing evil against the United States. He was the mastermind behind the horrific attack on our country on 9/11/2001. It certainly brings closure to many of the family members of those lost on 9/11. However, there are some other issues that are not so clear.

One political argument that arose almost immediately was who should get credit for this. Liberal media and bloggers said President Obama should be praised for his increased effort in Afghanistan. MSNBC was first to mention the "Mission Accomplished" anniversary even before the President spoke that night. Liberal bloggers were also relentless when the Fox News ticker came across with the error of saying "Obama bin Laden" and called immediately for an apology. Conservative media really stretched to find any connection to President Bush, defending all of the decisions he made after 9/11. Once again, both sides missed the point.

To address the ticker error, it is simply explained by auto-correct. I am sure we've all come across the more humorous results of auto-correct.  Auto-correct works by predicting what you are going to type or what you meant to type based on what you've typed in the past and also on common misspelled words.  Osama bin Laden had been quiet on the news for months now, where as it is pretty common for the President to be in the news.  The "Obama bin Laden" error was just that, an error due to auto-correct.  The same thing happened to liberal actor Jason Alexander on Twitter.  I don't recall any liberal blogs demanding an apology from him.

Where does the credit belong?  Truly, it belongs to those intelligence agents and special forces troops that found him and killed him.  However, the leadership for those organizations is in Washington DC.  In my personal opinion, I think President Bush and President Obama deserve equal credit.  This is because President Bush brought in Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense in 2006.  Robert Gates is widely respected for his work in intelligence, the military, and education.  Like any politician, he wasn't without controversy, but obviously was respected enough that President Obama kept Gates on as Secretary of Defense in his administration.  The war on terror is a fluid operation.  I can't imagine We have 50,000+ troops in Afghanistan to find one person.  President Obama saw an opportunity and chose to act on it, but I don't think Osama bin Laden was his sole focus.

I also wonder how much did this really help to secure America.  Our war on terror has been focused in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We know threats come from all areas of the Middle East, as well as threats from North Korea and even unrest in Mexico.  It would be impossible to track down every crazy around the world that wants to cause harm to the United States.  We can't even find all the crazies here.  In 2009, there were over 1,000 murders in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago alone.  About 3,000 people died in the attacks of 9/11.  Here's my point.  The defense budget is just about $1 trillion NOT including supplemental spnding for Iraq and Afghanistan.  If we brought the troops home and reduced the defense spending, we could not only reduce the deficit but increase our ability to stop crime AND terrorism at home.  Let's say we reduced the Pentagon budget by $500 billion and put $250 billion into law enforcement.  If a new police officer cost $100,000 per year, we could hire 2.5 million new police officers.  Imagine if we had an extra 50,000 police officers in every state what we could do to fight crime and watch for terrorism.  I'm not saying it is the right answer, but I just wonder if our current policy is giving us the best benefit and if there would be ways to be more efficient and yet keep us safer than we are now.

One other thought on the war on terror and our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo, and all of the places we exert our military might - do we want to give the President so much power?  Every single person should watch this video from Penn Jillette (warning: his language can be a little crude, but he is very logical and I thoroughly enjoy his intelligent rhetoric).  He explains the danger of giving the government too much power, taxes, etc.  To summarize, he says that even if every single decision and policy of President Obama is right and good, at some point he will no longer be in office.  The next President my use that power for things not so right or good or for things we won't like.  It is a delicate balance, but the past few Presidents have gone far above and beyond the reach of power they were intended to have and we need to reign it in.

What I do know is we now have an opportunity to change policy now that we can close the door on Osama bin Laden.  I think it is time the U.S. reduces its footprint in the world.  We can better fight terrorism right here at home, with less use of the military and more use of technology.  This would have additional benefits of saving money and may even keep us safer (terrorists have pointed to the imperialistic nature of the United States for the last 50 years or so as one of the reasons they despise us and twisted words of the Quran to incite violence against us).  Let's thank our troops, credit all of our leaders past and present for their role in protecting our freedom, and let's find new and better ways to protect that freedom going forward.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sports Stadiums and Logic

This tweet from the account @BleacherView came across my Twitter feed this morning:
MN has lost 2 sports teams due to inadequate facilities: Lakers & North Stars. Paid more for new teams later.
I am always trying to improve my skills in the use of logic, and I find using analogies is a great way to help people visualize a certain subject and to also a way for people to better understand my point of view.  Today's analogy will be televisions.

Let's say you own a television.  You buy it in 1967.  It works great up until 1993 when it needs some repair.  You really don't have the money to fix it, so you give the TV away to someone who puts a bunch of money getting it working.  Now, a few years later you find yourself really missing TV.  Well, you go buy a new one.  Likely, it would cost a little more than what repairing your old one did, but you didn't have the money to fix it at the time.  The new 2000 model TV also cost much more than the 1967 TV because of simple inflation.

Here's the other question to ask in this analogy: Is television a necessity?  Television is  primarily an entertainment vehicle.  Now granted, there are some economic considerations, such as the jobs created to design, manufacture, and distribute the TVs, along with the on going benefit you provide your local cable company.  However, not everyone has a TV and those people do fine.  And again, I would argue that television is not necessary for a fulfilling life.  I don't think the government has money for the 2000 model right now anyway.

Hopefully you followed my analogy in regards to sports teams.  When it comes to government funding, I just can't find any justification for the government to fund a sports stadium.  Professional sports is primarily an entertainment vehicle.  Should the government really be funding entertainment?  Why not fund movie theaters?  Why didn't the government step in and bail out Blockbuster or Borders Books?  Are those not venues of entertainment where thousands of people's jobs are affected?

The arguments for a stadium are usually the economic benefits.  Is there really a large economic benefit from a stadium?  Let me ask it another way.  If the Vikings/Twins/Wild/Timberwolves didn't exist, would you not find some other form of entertainment?  I would guess you would still go out to dinner.  maybe you would go see your local high school or college sports team.  Those teams would benefit because the admission could be put back into the education system.  You might read more books or rent more movies.  You might go to more plays.  The idea here is that people like ways to relax and getaway.  You don't need a sports team to convince you of that.  A stadium simply concentrates that money into a smaller area.  Likely you wouldn't travel to a central location if the stadium wasn't there - which is also a benefit by saving infrastructure cost and maintenance to the government.

The other consideration is how pro sports works.  The Vikings are threatening to move to Los Angeles.  Could LA really support all 30 NFL franchises.  Or 15 each in New York and LA?  Obviously, no.  The markets need to be spread out to maximize ticket sales, TV revenue, and merchandise revenue.  I guess if a team can't make it in a market, they need to find a market where they can make it.  If a league can't survive without government support, then perhaps the players need to get paid less so the league can be profitable.  If the current players can't survive on $5 million per year instead of $10 million per year, well then find another job because I am willing to be quarterback for the Vikings for a nice cool $500,000.  I bet I can find a few others willing to play for alot less, and now the Vikings will have $100 million+ per year free to finance a stadium.  OK, I understand the last sentence is a stretch and who would go to the stadium when the best athletes aren't playing.  On the other hand, that also means the stadium could be much smaller and it would cost even less.

I do understand stadiums are a much larger project, and the government would have some limited involvement with infrastructure planning.  The government would also have some role in perhaps helping to secure property and maybe even offer some property tax breaks.  I say this only because I would say it is hard to value a stadium.  When our homes are valued for property taxes, it reflects what we could sell our home for on the market.  A stadium isn't exactly easy to sell, so I think offering some concessions on property taxes could be considered while planning for a new building.  We do already offer teams government help, such as anti-trust exemptions.

We all like TVs and we all pretty much have one.  But should the government pay for our TVs?  I wold hope you would all answer no.  We shouldn't be forcing our friends and neighbors to pay for entertainment they might not use.  By taking the cost of stadiums off of the teams and the leagues asking for government assistance, we artificially increase their profits, allowing them to pay their players more and benefit the owners of the teams.  As much as I like watching sports, sports will survive without government help.  Elite athletes will play for less money if they have to, because they will still make far more than most of us ever will see in our lifetime.  I hope the Vikings stay, but I am not willing to have my taxes diverted from roads, education, etc. just to have a football team play 8 times a year.

Let me leave you with this last thought as we all near property tax payment time.  The Vikings want $500 million from the state in assistance.  I couldn't find numbers on how many homes there are in Minnesota, but there is just over 5 million people.  If there is 1 million homes in Minnesota, that $500 million dollars could instead reduce all of our property tax bills by $500.  That's alot of money to me.  I really don't feel the Vikings have delivered $500 worth of entertainment to my house.  I have been at a few games, and have been very entertained, but I also paid for the ticket.  That's exactly who should pay for it.

I'll buy my own TV.