Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Your Point. It Doesn't Exist.

There are videos on YouTube that make you laugh. There are videos that make you think. And then there are videos, like this one linked to by Wonkette, that just make you say "what the hell?"

Put the Impact font down, dude. You'll hurt yourself.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Porn: Cure For... What?

This sad yet unintentionally hilarious development in the Ukraine comes via a very old Nobody's Business post:
Porn is now illegal in the Ukraine, unless used for medicinal purposes.
The offense to free speech is obvious, so I won't go into it, but... medicinal purposes? Whoever heard of medicinal porn? Is there some sort of disease porn is supposed to cure? What's the doctor supposed to do, say "take two copies of Juggs and call me in the morning?"

The Small Business Screw Job

Commenters on my previous post have brought up the unique problems taxation and big government cause for small businesses. One commenter writes that small business profits are required to be reported as personal income tax for the owner. Others have commented that, as small business owners, complying with all the tax laws and regulations simply isn't worth the hassle when taxes are at their current rate.

I'll agree to some extent - current government policy does give a pretty solid screw job to small businesses. I do, however, think that liberal thought provides a way to help small businesses out - or at least not screw them over as much.

Small businesses, who don't have access to the same giant pots of money that large corporations have, are already at a competitive disadvantage; big companies can use economies of scale, national branding, and more effective marketing whereas small businesses can't. These are things that government policy can't change. But there are other things that government can change...

Tax law: Currently, the corporate tax rate is at 35%. But most big companies don't have to pay that - they have lots of accountants moving money into subsidiary companies based in tax havens offshore so they don't have to pay American taxes. Presumably, your average small business isn't putting its profits into some shell corporation in Bermuda, so they're exposed to the full tax burden in a way that big companies aren't. The solution to this - limit offshoring of profits and slash the hell out of the corporate tax rate. (And allow small business owners to file their business' profits as a corporate tax, which, according to commenter Steve, currently isn't the case.)

Another problem that came up in the comments - tax law is just too damn complicated. This puts small businesses at a disadvantage too - while large corporations can hire armadas of accountants who can navigate the tax forms while taking advantage of loopholes, small businesses often can't. So simplify the tax code. That way, small businesses can quit wasting time on filling out a Byzantine tax form and use that time more productively. The problem here is that too many legislators are addicted to the idea of using the tax code as a means of social engineering (a frequent bugaboo of my father's). That's gotta stop.

Health care: The bizarre coupling of health care benefits to employment is one of the biggest potential drags on small business, far as I can tell. Any meaningful health care reform would decouple employment and health insurance. That's not to say that companies couldn't provide benefits if they wanted to - indeed, it might be good business practice - but there wouldn't be a mandate or an advantage to doing so.

Regulations: There are so many articles chronicling how compliance with regulation places a disproportionate burden on small business that it's difficult to give you a catalog of them all. Jacob does a good job with food-based regulation. Recently, he's been railing against laws that mandate calorie counts for restaurants, and so I'll use that as an example. The argument against such regulations are simple - while big chain restaurants with access to giant corporate pots of money can afford to get their food tested at a calorie-counting lab, little independent restaurants often can't. Throw in the effect such regulations have on innovation, and you have a pretty convincing argument.

I find such regulations ridiculous, so maybe it's better to use a different example: the toy safety act passed last year after the Chinese lead toy scare. Again, the argument against such regulations is the same - small manufacturers can't afford the testing while large manufacturers can. But there's a more compelling argument for the regulation in this case - the regulation is necessary to keep kids from getting lead poisoning.

The way out, to me, is simple: if government believes that a regulation is integral to maintaining public health, then it ought to pay for businesses to comply with the regulation. Government wants toys tested? Pay for the testing. Government wants calorie counts? Pay for the calorie counts. That way, a minimum of burden is placed on small businesses. Compliance with regulations shouldn't be that much of a strain on a business' resources. (Obviously, we also ought to think before we regulate. Are calorie counts really going to do enough good to offset the annoyance factor for businesses, even if government pays for the testing? Requiring government to pay for regulatory compliance seems like a way to limit regulation proliferation - if government suddenly has to foot the bill for every regulation they pass, the ridiculous regulations will start to fall by the wayside.)

Anyway, those are a few ideas of how the left would deal with the issue of leveling the playing field for small businesses.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

You're On, Balko

The Agitator's Radley Balko has a post up at Reason's Hit & Run blog challenging left-leaning bloggers to "state your limits." That is, Radley asks a series of questions about government spending, taxation, and the deficit and asks liberals to state, essentially, when taxation or government spending has gone too far. I don't write a lot about economic issues on this blog, and I'll freely admit that my understanding of economics is well below what it should be. Nevertheless, I'll take a crack at Balko's questions and see where it leads...

Progressive Taxation

Balko wonders why the richest 1% makes 19% of the income and pays 37% of the taxes. (My numbers say 31%, but that's probably because I'm including payroll taxes and Balko isn't.) He then asks what our limit to progressivity is. Well, for one, I don't think we've reached it yet. Right now the richest 1% still makes $1 million-plus after federal taxes, so pardon me if I'm not particularly worried about their financial health. Furthermore, state taxes tend to be somewhat regressive, since most states, as far as I know, balance a not-particularly-progressive income tax with a highly regressive sales tax. I don't think the 90% rate we had during the '50s is reasonable, but then, our economy seemed to chug along quite nicely even with that tax rate. I'd have more sympathy for the rich if they were paying 75%+ in taxes. Right now, with the federal top-bracket rate at 35%, I'd say we've got nothing to worry about by making things more progressive.


Again, I know next to nothing about inflation, but I do know we shouldn't be printing money to get ourselves out of debt. Inflation as a normal economic phenomenon is okay as long as the average investment still gains money compared to it. Government shouldn't be artificially inflating the currency in order to get out of debt, though. That's all I got.

National Debt as Percentage of GDP

Balko asks what percentage of GDP can the debt reach before it becomes excessive. We're at 80% by Balko's numbers - I have 73.2% from the OECD. That sounds bad, but comparatively speaking it's not awful. Canada's in the mid-60s, as is Germany; France is in our neighborhood; Italy and Japan make us look like we're spending chump change. We'll be adding significantly to that debt in the next few years as the costs of the bailout and porkulus stimulus get factored in. I, personally, don't like carrying around debt, especially as a country because it can mess with your foreign policy something severe (how much more would we be pressuring China on human rights if they didn't hold a crapload of our debt?). So while zero debt is ideal, I'll use 60% as my limit, since that's what the EU uses to judge whether a country is ready to join.

Federal Spending as Percentage of GDP

Radley asks us to put limits on spending as percentage of GDP - currently 26% and more if health care reform gets done - and on the deficit, currently 7%. I'll be simple on the deficit - my limit is 0. I guess I differ from other liberals in that I'm something of a deficit hawk. But spending? It's tempting to put a number down here, but I don't think I can. There's a lot of spending that could do some good, but there's a hell of a lot of waste too. I'd like to see the waste (coughfarmsubsidiescough) go away and have us spend well on anti-poverty programs that work, as well as on infrastructure and science. I think by the time we get all the waste out and spend wisely, we'll be somewhere in the low 20s. We should spend whatever's necessary... but we should tax at a level that reflects that spending. If people want a government service, they've gotta pay for it.

A caveat - a little deficit is okay every now and then, as long as there's a promise that we'll be back in the black soon. It's just like running a business, in that regard.

Unfunded Liability of Entitlement Programs

The dirty little secret of the entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - is that they work pretty well. They're just not funded well. Again, if we want a service we should pay for it. A few simple tweaks - raising the payroll tax ceiling, limiting benefits to rich seniors who don't need them, raising the retirement age - can fix our problems. No need to panic here.

Income Equality

Again, I'll differ from my fellow liberals in saying that I don't care about income inequality. As The Economist once said, a long ladder is okay, but it must have rungs. The real problem is the lack of upward mobility - we're on a par with class-obsessed Britain in that regard right now. Government spending should be targeted in a way that increases upward mobility, and we shouldn't be concerned about inequality.

Individual Tax Rates

Balko asks about the highest total tax burden on the super-rich we should tolerate. He says that this will reach 60% if Obamacare passes. I'm not worried about this number, economically speaking - as I mentioned earlier, our economy got along just fine with a much higher tax rate. We're talking moral imperatives now: how much of that hard-earned money should a rich man be able to keep? Remember, though, that most super-rich aren't really making that much off their income. Rather, the increase in value in their investments and property would keep them high on the hog even if we took much more of their income. I'll throw out that 75% number again, but that's really just chosen at random.

Average Tax Burden

How high should the average corporate tax burden climb, asks Balko, citing a World Bank report that places taxation at 46.2% of total profits. This number seems fishy to me, considering the U.S. only collects 2.2% of GDP in corporate taxes (compared to over 3% for other industrial nations). I think it's because the World Bank report doesn't take into account tax sheltering, which puts most American profits on overseas books. So while our 35% corporate tax rate is high, it's there because the profits companies make don't often make it onto their taxable books here. If we end tax sheltering, then we'll definitely have to drop the corporate tax rate. Until then, we could raise the corporate tax rate into the 60s and see little to no effect on corporate profitability.

I'll be interested to see if Balko actually responds to this. It was certainly interesting to write.

Update 7/24/09: Welcome Agitator readers, and thanks for your comments. I haven't been able to respond to all the comments yet because I went home from work sick yesterday and I don't have Internet access at home. I'm probably not going to be able to respond individually, unfortunately, though I'll give it a crack. First, though, thanks for the corrections on the history. I tried to correct some of that in the early going. Second, there's a lot of talk about the screw job our government pulls on small businesses. That's an issue that warrants its own post, and I'll hopefully have that up by the end of the day today. Finally, an anonymous commenter pointed me towards essays by Frederic Bastiat and Henry Hazelitt. I'll try to read those and get a response up next week (like I said, no Internet at home so no weekend blogging).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Limited Amount of Crazy

I have a theory that there's a set amount of crazy in the world. If someone becomes sane, that means that someone, somewhere else, is going crazy, and vice versa. This could answer Steven Pinker's question of why we kill each other less nowadays than we have - there are more people on the planet, and thus less crazy per capita. One problem with that theory, though, is figuring out what happens to the crazy when someone certifiable dies. So now that Michael Jackson's gone, what happened to his vast store of crazy?

Glenn Beck, any ideas?

High-pitched freakout? Not bad, but considering what the caller said that triggered it, not all that crazy. Fox News, you got anything for me?

Universal health care causes terrorism? Very nice. OK, one more entry... random lady from Virginia?

Annnnnnnd... we have a winner, kids! Remember, Virginians, vote for Catherine Crabill or she'll pop a cap in your ass!

If anyone asks where Michael Jackson's crazy went... now you know.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I Think We Saw That Coming

Well, this is about the least surprising news ever:
Teenage pregnancies and syphilis have risen sharply among a generation of American school girls who were urged to avoid sex before marriage under George Bush's evangelically-driven education policy, according to a new report by the US's major public health body.
Can we finally nail the abstinence-only coffin shut now? Or will we let it continue to wander around the country aimlessly for the next decade or so like a zombie?

If You Believe...

Forty years ago today, two guys named Neil and Buzz walked on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin, the lunar lander pilot on Apollo 11, writes today in the Post about a proposal for a mission to Mars. Just the concept of it makes the science geek in me giddy.

On a serious note, though - NASA is one of the frequent bugbears of fiscal conservatives and liberals alike. Neither like the money that gets spent on seemingly unimportant things like space exploration - conservatives would rather not see the government involved in this type of thing, while liberals would rather see the money be spent on health care or what have you.

But let's put this into perspective here. NASA, and indeed all science funding, is a really small part of our federal budget. I, personally, think it's worth it to make every effort to understand our universe, even if the applications of that research aren't readily understandable. And while some aspects of scientific exploration and discovery - like a mission to Mars - might seem of questionable utility now, it likely won't in the future. I can imagine someone fifty years ago, when faced with the idea of a program to launch a bunch of stuff into space and have it orbit the earth, calling that program a waste of time. Of course, nowadays, no one would say that now. At least not anyone with DirecTV, anyway.

"Fine," you say, "but let's leave all this up to private enterprise. Is this really the government's role?" But could anyone fund these grand programs of scientific discovery better than the federal government? Corporations are good for funding some research, but only research that can reach profitable applications in the very near future. They have shareholders, for cripe's sake, and these shareholders want a significant return sometime soon, thank you very much. Corporations simply aren't cut out to fund the big, giant leaps in technology.

And it ends up working out for corporate enterprise in the end, too. There's no way corporations could have funded the space missions of the '60s and '70s, but satellite technology has become a large part of our economy. There wasn't a lot of visible benefit in developing biotechnology twenty years ago - now, it's one of the best business tickets out there. Ditto with computers at their beginnings, though corporate America got on that bandwagon rather quickly. The point is that we shouldn't bristle at government spending money on seemingly esoteric scientific research that corporate interests won't or can't pursue. It'll probably come in handy someday.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Honduras Update: Not A Coup

Via Jacob, here's a link to someone who actually bothered to read Honduras' constitution. His conclusion - the Supreme Court, and not Congress, has the power to impeach the President. What's more, the Constitution orders that anyone who tries to amend the Constitution to expand their own time in office be thrown out and kept out for ten years. Looks like Zelaya doesn't have a leg to stand on here, legally. Obama and Costa Rica President Oscar Arias, who is taking the lead in diplomacy here, might want to recognize this.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Downward Spiral Continues

I'm officially on Twitter now - @jeffwoodhead. Dear God, what has become of me?

Oh, don't expect a whole lot of political stuff. It's 140 characters, for God's sake, and you know how long my average blog post is. It'll probably be a really random feed with heavy doses of unfunny witticisms and baby updates. So follow me for the baby updates.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Making It Too Easy

Imagine, for a second, that you're one of the people tending Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Your actions, fairly or unfairly, reflect on your church as a whole. You see a gay couple walking through, and they kiss. Do you: a) let it go, b) approach them and let them know that your religion frowns on such things, or c) have them cuffed and thrown off the property?

Of course, I wouldn't be posting had the folks in question chosen anything but option c).

I'm willing to give the Church the benefit of the doubt here and say that they were thrown off for kissing, not for being gay. Having never kissed anyone in Temple Square, I can't speak as to the veracity of the "no PDA allowed from anyone" claim, but considering the primacy Mormons place on chastity, and the intensity with which this ideal is pursued, I can believe it. And the Church didn't overstep its legal bounds; it has a right to throw you off if it wants, and doesn't really need to give a reason for doing so. Temple Square is private property, after all, and trespassing laws (which I'm okay with) apply. The couple broke a law when they were asked to leave and did not do so.

But dude, throwing someone off for kissing is just dumb PR. Throwing a couple off Church property for making out and groping one another is one thing... doing the same for a little good night kiss is another. (And when there's a doubt, as there is in this case since the AP reporter didn't really go into details, err on the side of letting it go.) Seriously, under Monson the Church has had the approximate PR acumen of a jelly donut, which is the exact opposite of what the LDS Church needs right now.

Comment Rescue from Elsewhere: Too Damn Many Laws

In response to this post from Pandagon's Jesse Taylor defending a Montana professor's prosecution for child neglect after she left her three younger children in the care of her 12-year-old daughter at the mall (the twelve-year-old abandoned the kids), commenter seeker6079 responds that this act, while perhaps a bit stupid/naive, shouldn't be considered criminal. This was a followup comment from seeker:

Hasn’t anybody noticed that this case is valuable because it is a microcosm of a larger reality? As our legal culture moves towards the enforced belief that there is a perfectible, error-free world and as the political culture moves towards that with the creation of seas of laws and regulations and sub-regulations and enforcement bodies this sort of thing is inevitable. The system is creating a platonic ideal and enforces it with subjective gut definitions of what that ideal should be.
When I was in LS one of my profs noted that one of the greatest guarantees of civil liberties is limited resources: there are only so many cops, prosecutors and courts and so the authorities can’t drag you into the criminal justice system whenever they want (and they want to all the time, and, trust me, whatever it is there’s either a law against it or a law that can be twisted to fit). I kinda think that Bozeman isn’t a town where the cops or DAs are, shall we say, overburdened with more pressing issues. They have time to be petty.

You’ll note also her perceptive realization that what was needed from here was emotional theatre: kabuki grief and remorse. The bitch must be shown to be penitent. This is difficult for many people. Me, I come from both a culture which demands (and a personal propensity towards) having one’s emotional discipline increase with the severity of the problem. (I can freak out over somebody else’s driving error, for example, but have faced some fairly serious problems and dangers with almost no emotional response at all.) I’ve noted it before but will repeat it here: some people in serious cases get arrested, tried and convicted simply because The Forces That Be (cops, prosecutors, juries) feel They Didn’t React The Way That They Should, which is one of the most bullshit and subjective measures of analysis out there. Ask Robert Baltovich, a young man who spent over a decade in jail for the death of his girlfriend, a woman who was, it now seems clear, abducted and murdered by one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers. Baltovich reacted to the disappearance of his gf with cool aplomb, helping her parents, helping the police and seeking in every way to help solve the mystery. His reward was to have the first two detectives who interviewed him walk out of the house, call their Homicide colleagues and say “he killed her”; they never seriously looked at anybody after that, and distorted, altered or buried evidence that would point to other people. Or ask Guy Paul Morin, who was convicted of a child’s murder and jailed because he was a socially awkward eccentric. Oh, never mind that the child’s brother led police to the bones because “he saw them in a dream”. Oh, never mind the fact that a local worker with a history of sexual offences against children was in the area in a company van, raced it back to the yard, and scrubbed and hosed it out—it had NEVER been cleaned before—and then fled town. No, the cops thought weirdie did it. (I mean, who relaxes by playing a clarinet alone? He MUST be a child killer.)

This is one of the reasons that I see no conflict between being a progressive on the one hand and having a libertarian’s suspicious, gimlet eye on the state with the other. We want government to work, and we want to make society a better place, including our rights to be free, to live how we want and love who we want as long as we don’t hurt anybody. The state that we rightly create to achieve these ends is also the state which, left to its own devices, will undermine those very objectives. Yeah, I know it’s a paradox. But the investigative and prosecutorial arms of the state are over-staffed with people who are certain that most people should be in goddamned jail and it’s just a question of whether you can get ‘em or not. They are people we should be warily watching.
The reason I rescued this comment is because it hints at a major problem in our society that most people don't realize exists. Or if they realize it exists, they're okay with it. Seeker points at one problem - ruthless prosecutors and cops who don't understand the meaning of restraint and who view the people they're supposed to serve as sheep to be herded into line, by force if necessary. Readers of The Agitator are quite familiar with this issue. But seeker hints at another but doesn't quite get there - the fact that, even with proper prosecutorial and police restraint, there are still just too damn many laws in most places in this country.

One of my little eccentricities is that there are several "nuisance control" laws, almost universally present in America, that I don't believe should exist, at least not in their present form. Disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, disturbing the peace - they fall into this category. The problem is that these laws don't exist to protect people from harm. If there was some harm about to befall someone else, generally these laws aren't necessary, as there are other, more serious laws that could be used. What's more, these laws are so poorly defined that they essentially mean whatever the cop watching the situation wants them to mean. No, these laws exist for the sole purpose of allowing police and prosecutors to enforce their vision of society using the coercive power of the state.

Constitutional protections exist, of course, but they only go so far. Most of the time, law enforcement officials don't make it obvious that they're trying to violate free speech or the right to assembly with a disorderly conduct arrest, and in fact, I doubt that violation of rights is their true aim. And most people lack the requisite stubbornness to take a disorderly conduct rap to the Supreme Court. Furthermore, so many people have bought into the idea of these nuisance control laws that they're rarely fought - thus, due process becomes unimportant.

I'm sure others can come up with numerous examples of the cops/prosecutors who, when faced with someone they didn't like very much, tried their damnedest to find a law they could arrest and charge them with. The mentality of "there's something we can get this guy on" runs rampant, I fear. And you know what? I don't know that the cops and prosecutors can be blamed all that much. Sure, if they're withholding or destroying evidence and railroading people, that's their fault and they should pay for it, but if they're twisting a poorly written law to their advantage... well, it's not ideal, but it's kinda to be expected, right? The shame isn't that cops and prosecutors show insufficient restraint in these situations, because in my experience, cops and prosecutors are about as restrained as you'd expect average, everyday people to be. The shame, rather, is that we have to rely on this restraint in the first place.

So next time someone or something is annoying you and you think "there oughta be a law," just remember - no, no there shouldn't. There are already way too many laws out there - no need to add another one.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Right Wing Head Explosion

Greenwald has an interesting piece up about how the recent riots involving Uighurs in western China confuse the crap out of right-wingers. On the one hand, conservatives are (rightly) concerned with the spread of democracy and ending tyranny, and the Chinese government has not been kind to the Uighurs. On the other hand, the Uighurs are Muslim, and if the right wing just spent the last couple of months cowering in fear of 13 harmless Uighurs, how would they react to a city full of pissed-off Uighurs? As of now, at least one wingnut has chosen fear and loathing.

Here's what happened, best as I can tell: about a week ago, some Han Chinese people spread a rumor on the Internet that a Uighur had raped and killed two Han women. Two Uighurs were killed at a southern China factory because of the rumor. That, combined with the lack of equal rights for Uighurs in China, touched off protests - and later, riots - in Urumqi, the capital of China's Uighur region. The Han Chinese in the city began rioting themselves, and a lot of people were killed. Police began arresting Uighurs who participated in the protests, which touched off more protests, which started more riots. This Post article is pretty good.

This is a bit of a sticky wicket, but it's clear that the Uighurs aren't solely at fault here. They appear to have been provoked by the oppressive Chinese government and some Han race-baiters. Yes, they shouldn't have rioted, but that's hardly terrorism, as Mr. McCarthy (linked above) would have you believe. Greenwald says this is indicative of the Right's fear of Muslims. Mr. McCarthy is hardly representative of the entire Right - he's a somewhat minor contributor to the National Review. But if McCarthy's views are echoed by the more establishment figures on the Right, it says a lot about conservatism in general.

By listening to right-wing talking heads, one might conclude that conservatives are afraid of a lot - gay marriage, health care reform, terrorists, you name it. There are perhaps rational conservative arguments to be made on all these issues, but conservatives rarely make them. Instead, it's "protect marriage" (as if it's under attack); or "protect us from socialism" (as if health care reform will turn us into Soviet Russia). And when it comes to terrorism, the right-wing fear appeal gets ugly - they're willing to talk people into believing that anything less than giving the harshest treatment to people who may or may not be terrorists will be signing our own death warrant. And when conservatives see violence involving Muslims and non-Muslims, that only feeds their fear.

Funny thing about fear, though - people tend to get over it after a while. Conservatism needs to jettison that fear and go back to rational arguments if they want to win elections again.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Old El Paso

I know, three posts in a day is a bit excessive, but I wanted to point out this Balko article from Reason that describes why poverty-riddled, immigrant-heavy El Paso is one of the safest cities in America. Hint: it's because of the immigrants.

This Revolution, Apparently, Will Not Be Televised

Poor Honduras. While Iran was fortunate enough to start its electoral crisis and mass protests in mid-June, the Hondurans had their impeachment-cum-coup d'etat kerfuffle right as Mark Sanford revealed his transcontinental affair and Michael Jackson died. Both of which are, of course, far more important than a Central American country basically imploding. This means that no one knows much about what's going on down there - hell, I didn't know that much until this morning when I started looking it up. Best as I can tell, here's what's happening:

It starts with the election, in 2005 (inaugurated in '06), of a leftist-ish President named Manuel "Mel" Zelaya. He began forming alliances with Venezuela's wacko Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Raul Castro, while apparently not really doing a whole hell of a lot that could be described as economically leftist. The scary part, though, is that he's been getting more and more authoritarian as time goes by. He has required television stations to air two-hour government-sponsored broadcasts, while simultaneously harassing reporters he didn't like. He has tried to monitor all cell-phone communication in Honduras. He has also been accused of trying to drain money from the electoral commission, and of trying to institute censorship. I'm not sure about the veracity of all these claims - they're varyingly well-sourced on the Wikipedia article on Zelaya - but the upshot of all this is that Zelaya's approval rating is in the 20s, and he's not happy with the way government works in Honduras.

Now, Zelaya has ordered that a constitutional referendum be held in November 2009 alongside the Congressional, local, and presidential election. What's bizarre, of course, is that for the most part Zelaya doesn't need to ask the people to amend the Constitution - he can go to Congress. And his party (the Liberal Party) has a majority in Congress, so amending the Constitution shouldn't be hard for him (it requires a simple majority in Congress, unlike here). The catch is this - there are some articles Congress can't amend. One of them is an article term-limiting the President. So it's a bit of a transparent move by Zelaya to consolidate power. In March, Zelaya ordered the referendum to be moved up to June 28.

Naturally, no one else who currently has power in Honduras likes that very much. The Supreme Court ruled that the referendum was illegal. Congress - which is controlled by Zelaya's Liberal Party - followed suit and started impeachment proceedings. Zelaya called for protestors to march in opposition to the Court's ruling. Protestors marched on June 27... but against Zelaya. Remember, this is a guy who has a 25% approval rating here.

Anyway, it seems that earlier, Zelaya had ordered the Honduran army to participate in the referendum. They refused, so Zelaya sacked their commander. The Supreme Court didn't like this much either, and ordered the commander reinstated. Oh yeah, and the Court also ordered the army to arrest Zelaya on charges of treason. Which they did, on June 28, the day the referendum was supposed to happen. Zelaya was soon shipped out of the country, to Costa Rica - a move of questionable constitutionality in and of itself, because Honduras' constitution forbids anyone from being punished by exile. The army didn't take power like in a traditional coup, though - the head of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, has assumed the role.

So the spectacle is this - a democratically elected but unpopular president who had been staring impeachment in the face was instead forcibly removed from office by an army acting at the behest of a pissed-off Supreme Court. Internationally, this has created bizarre alliances - President Obama, Chavez, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe have all called for Zelaya to be reinstated. Though presumably, if he's reinstated he'll still face impeachment and trial, and will probably be out of a job within the month if Congress' unanimous vote to accept his forged resignation letter is any indication.

Anyway, right now Micheletti and Zelaya are trying to negotiate. Micheletti wants Zelaya to be prosecuted for his alleged crimes; Zelaya obviously wants to come back and be president again. Zelaya tried to come back over the weekend; Micheletti closed the airports, forcing Zelaya to land in El Salvador. Zelaya's supporters have materialized and are protesting the whole thing - they're being met with an overly heavy hand by Micheletti, who has established a 10-to-5 curfew and has told the army to control the situation, with occasionally violent results. People who support Micheletti are marching too. Meanwhile, the UN and the OAS along with everyone else on the planet are calling for Zelaya to be reinstated and are calling Micheletti's government illegal - Micheletti has managed only two irrelevant allies in Israel and Taiwan.

None of this should have happened, of course. The military should never have listened to the court and deposed Zelaya - instead, they should have let Congress' impeachment proceedings run their course, after which Zelaya would likely have been ousted legally and Micheletti would have taken over until the election in November. Instead, they managed to bungle the situation thoroughly and get the entire world behind Zelaya despite the fact that Zelaya's got all the markings of being a quasi-authoritarian scumbag. This would be funny if it weren't so sad.

So that's that. You may now continue your reading about Sarah Palin's resignation, already in progress.

The Real World: Heaven

There is no planet on which this is not awesome (via Brayton):
A new show set to grace Turkish television screens will see a Muslim imam, a Christian priest, a Jewish rabbi and a Buddhist monk competing to turn 10 unbelievers into devotees of their own faith each week.

The show, "Tövbekarlar Yarışıyor," which can be roughly translated as "Penitents Compete," will appear on Kanal T starting in early September. The imam, priest, rabbi and monk will try to convert at least one person in every show.
My first question, of course, is this: what's the over/under on how long it takes American TV execs to steal this idea, add washed-up celebrities to the mix, and throw it out there? A year? I'm expecting this on my TV by 2011, assuming I break down and get cable by then. Would there be anyone who works for Fox not salivating over the prospect of having a rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a monk try to convert Marilyn Manson and Paris Hilton? With Morgan Freeman as the host? I can hear them drawing up the ads now.

Second, I'm still trying to figure out whether religious people should be up in arms or embracing the idea. And secular people, for that matter. It's kind of a Rohrshach for your ideas on religion, actually. I can picture secularists enjoying the show because they think it turns religion into meaningless competition, and I can see religious people enjoying it because it's a way for secular people to learn more about their religion. And secularists could hate it because it's flogging religion as better than atheism/agnosticism, and religious people could hate it because it makes a mockery of the idea of religion as a personal, spiritual experience. So there's all kinds of reactions to be had here. I'm more of the opinion that such a show is a great way to introduce people to the complexities of religious belief, and would help spark theological discussions (and I'm a sucker for a good theological discussion). There's the added bonus that a real, honest-to-God rabbi will be broadcast to the people of a majority-Muslim (at least culturally) nation that probably holds some bizarre stereotypes about Jews, so there'll be a little bit of mythbusting there, which is good.

Heaven only knows if this will last. I hope it does, and I hope it can be pulled off in a respectful, intellectually interesting manner... or failing that, I hope it's at least funny as shit.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Fun With Culture War Controversies

I don't post on abortion much (read: at all) on this blog, mainly because it's an issue that is impossible to debate rationally. I think I avoided talking about it in the wake of the Dr. Tiller killing by posting on it and then posting a funny video. I'm not sure, I don't check my archives much.

Anyway, I guess this post isn't about abortion per se, but about the debate around it, and it's inspired by this U.S. News article about the latest abortion reduction plan from the Obama White House:
Many abortion rights advocates and some Democrats who want to dial down the culture wars want the White House to package the two parts of the plan together, as a single piece of legislation. The plan would seek to reduce unwanted pregnancies by funding comprehensive sex education and contraception and to reduce the need for abortion by bolstering federal support for pregnant women. Supporters of the approach say it would force senators and members of Congress on both sides of the abortion battle to compromise their traditional positions, creating true common ground that mirrors what President Obama has called for.

But more conservative religious groups working with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships say they would be forced to oppose such a plan—even though they support the abortion reduction part—because they oppose federal dollars for contraception and comprehensive sex education. This camp, which includes such formidable organizations as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention, is pressuring the White House to decouple the two parts of the plan into separate bills. One bill would focus entirely on preventing unwanted pregnancy, while the other would focus on supporting pregnant women.

OK, I'm going to have to call bullshit on the bishops and the SBC here. You can't be pro-life and anti-contraception at the same time. You just can't. Restricting access to contraception will increase the number of abortions, whether said abortions are legal or not. That's just common sense.

Look, I'm not going to say people who oppose contraception and comprehensive sex ed don't have good reasons for doing so. The thought of young people getting it on makes a lot of folks nervous, so I understand the impulse to remove from our society things that might remind young people of sex. But such people shouldn't call themselves pro-life, because they're supporting a policy measure that will increase the number of dead fetuses.

That said (and despite my apparent anger in the preceding paragraph), I don't buy the cynical argument advanced by Amanda Marcotte that equates opposition to abortion with the desire to control female sexuality. From the religious organizations' perspective, it's the classic case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Catholic bishops and the SBC want a world where no one has sex outside of marriage and no one kills a fetus. Great. But let's be clear - that first one ain't gonna happen anytime soon. The CDC reports that 85% of women have had sex outside of marriage. Guess what? Government actions can't change that.

The same report shows that 82% of women have been on the pill - roughly the same number, and if you add patch users, implants, etc. in there you probably get to 85. Now imagine that none of these women were using birth control at the time of intercourse. Can you imagine the spike in unwanted pregnancies? And the corresponding spike in the abortion rate? That's what anti-contraception legislation would lead to, and that's what legislation encouraging contraception would combat.

So it's nice to be utopian and all, but it kind of undermines the pro-life agenda. I think it's time for pro-lifers to make a choice - push utopian ideas of morality, or reduce the number of abortions? Because you can't have it both ways.