Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

…The net result is that complex and high-powered economic analysis within the profession co-exists with utter ignorance and gross fallacies dominating the public, the media, and various branches of government. Even scholars with Ph.D.s in other fields are often ill-informed or misinformed about economics, though that seldom deters them from having and voicing opinons on economic issues.

The above passage is from the preface of Basic Economics: A Citizens’s Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell. It is interesting to me because it echoes and confirms that concern which prompted me to schlep down to my public library and check the book out in the first place. Economic issues are at the heart of political debates dividing our nation today, and yet the layman, myself included, is generally uneducated in this field of study. As a Ron Paul supporter in a liberal college town, I find myself constantly engaged with Obama-supporting friends on issues of economic theory. After so many discussions came to ‘yeah huh – nuh uh’ conclusions, it occurred to me that my knowledge of these issues was fairly superficial. It occurred to me that I supported the hands-off approach of Austrian Economics only because it seemed intuitive to me, though I have no real education in the subject, and I suspected, perhaps unfairly, that my friends arrived at their conclusions with similar dearths of understanding.

But economics isn’t the only field which must be understood when discussing politics. Political issues are broad and complex, requiring that one understand their own political philosophy and also be familiar with current and past events. To be an informed voter and citizen is a formidable task! Getting through a big paper such as the New York Times requires hours of reading and reflecting, with incredibly valuable and telling bits of information often being hidden away in back page columns, and even after that work is has been put in one is still required to accept a second or third hand account. With media power so concentrated as it is today, the major outlets all controlled by a handful of powerful magnates, who can accept with blind faith all that one reads and hears? In theory the journalist is impartial, but corruption is inevitable in any human enterprise. One can push an agenda without telling an outright lie. Simply by selecting what news to publish and what context to provide one can use the truth to mislead. And, of course, one can always lie outright.

Even assuming that one has access to secondhand eyes and ears throughout the world providing them with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it would still be an enormous task just to gather so staggering an amount of information as is necessary to arrive at a general standpoint on a certain policy even without having to sift through and evaluate it. Even in very local elections, I’ll often show up prepared to vote (passionately) on one or two issues only to find myself confronted with a GRE’s-worth of questions and choices to make. After voting (passionately) on those one or two issues which attracted me to the ballot-box, I’ll make the best decisions I can on those choices about which I’m at least a little informed before going to to sheepishly scribble in the rest of the sections. On a standardized test I guess ‘C’, on a ballot I vote against incumbents. The strategy doesn’t work too well on standardized tests, and I’m fortunate that ballots aren’t scored.

This is the case after I spend more time than I can afford already trying to research current issues and events. How many people actually spend any time on such activities at all? Even in my liberal college town, many of my friends have no interest in politics whatsoever, believing themselves powerless and at the mercy of a bi-partisan block of statesmen all pushing the same policy and agenda. I can certainly sympathize. After all, one’s vote is such a meager method of enforcing one’s will. Thoreau himself decried it as …only expressing to men feebly your desire that [the right] should prevail,’ and that when you have a real choice between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. As so many of my friends point out, the only options are a republican or a democrat, and that’s hardly a choice at all. In 2008, convinced that Ron Paul had no chance of winning, I voted for Obama because I appreciated his running a clean campaign and because I thought the democrats would be more progressive on social issues. In terms of real, fundamental policy differences, though, he and McCain were nearly identical. Both candidates would have kept us at war. Both candidates would have bailed out the bankers and private interests. Both candidates would have blanched at touching a bloated military budget or (god forbid) acknowledging that we can no longer afford our entitlement programs. The list goes on. Now, this frustration has led to my increased resolve to support a third party candidate such as Ron Paul, despite resistance from the machine such as the virtual media blackout he’s received. But can this be fought? Is there any point? I have no money, I have no power. I have a desire to learn and think and change a failing system, but I haven’t the means to do so. Can I blame my friends for their apathy?

When I studied in China, I asked many Chinese about their views on the fascism and social control exhibited by their government. Some Chinese, especially the well educated and/or scholars, were suffocated by it. I heard more than one Chinese say that Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution was incomplete, that real political liberalization would come with bloodshed. Many Chinese, though, pointed out that China had been led with such a system for thousands of years. A farmer told me that he was not a statesman, didn’t understand politics or economics, and so had no right to exert his influence on the leadership. Let the politicians handle the politics, he told me, and I’ll farm. It makes sense, but the lesson to be taken from it is not democracy’s inferiority. Democracy is dangerous, in a way, but only when the people living in that democracy allow it to become dangerous by becoming dangerous themselves. After all, it is mob rule, and elections popularity contests. The obvious appeal is that in a democracy one enjoys the freedom to hold power over their representatives, holding them accountable for their actions and theoretically ensuring that the authority to govern is derived directly from the consent of the governed. The drawback is that this freedom, as with all freedom, comes with responsibility. A Chinese citizen needn’t concern him/herself with such matters as politics and current events. They are free to live their lives blissfully unaware of those things. An American citizen, on the other hand, has by virtue of citizenship an influence on the policies of the United States. Should the population of the democratic state become apathetic and ignorant, their leaders will continue to do whatever they must to appease that apathetic and ignorant population. The goal of a leader in a democratic society is not to enact intelligent and effective public policy, but to be liked by enough people to ensure his/her political future.

Now we have reached a point where the nation is divided nearly down the middle, along strict party lines. The debate has become democrat vs republican rather than policy vs policy or ideology vs ideology. Presidential debates are little more than glib exchanges of tired talking points, 30 sec soundbites delivered in lieu of more expansive and less easily digested explanations of political philosophy or policy details. Whatever complaint one has against the United States government, our nation’s faults are ultimately the result of the United States populace. Just as a business will only do that which it believes will be profitable, so will our leaders only do what they believe is politically expedient. Where is the incentive to push alternative public policy rather than selling oneself to the two-party system when these third party candidates are largely marginalized and ignored, and what’s the point of defiance? My main man Dr Paul has stuck to his guns through three decades of service, and though he’s miraculously managed to retain the support of his constituents, he’s been and will continue to be pushed to the sidelines in the presidential elections, shunned by a mainstream media spouting self-fulfilling prophecies of his inevitable failure, when they choose to mention him at all. Can it really be that so many are aware of and believe in the mainstream policy pushed by both of the two parties? If so, how is such a rift drawn between them, that so many people are so passionate about how ‘crazy’ or ‘extremist’ their opponents are?

I propose that to educate oneself, to see past cheap scare tactics and chicanery and really understand the issues, proposed actions, and consequences of those proposed actions is quite an undertaking. I propose that too many Americans have, to this point, not been up to that undertaking. Too many of us are distracted by our daily struggles and entertainments, by fear of losing that ‘American Dream’ lifestyle which we have somehow come to believe is our right, and by a national debate framed by partisan finger-pointing rather than rational discussion of different policies. I have heard my friends berate others for failing to vote, saying that the right to vote is one which must be exercised to avoid betraying one’s own freedom. To cast a vote, however, should not be the be-all-end-all for the American citizen. It is easy to cast a vote. The more difficult task is to cast an informed one, and until the American citizen is willing to rise to that challenge we’d be better off choosing to abstain, or giving up that right entirely to a government whose role has switched from one of a protector of the rights of the citizens to determine their own futures to that of a parent guarding and minding its irresponsible children.

Well, the social conservatives have long argued that legalizing same sex marriage was a slippery slope which would end with the legalization of, among other things, polygamy, and it looks like their predictions are coming to pass. (Story here).

Gay rights advocates are understandably worried by this, but for them to criticize the professor’s attempts to legalize polygamy on the same grounds used to legalize same sex marriage in California is to ignore the bigger picture, which is civil rights and the freedom for an individual to conduct his/her private life as s/he sees fit. LGBT is just the contemporary form of that movement. At one point it was about racial equality, today it is about equality across sexual orientations, tomorrow it will be equality for polygamists, and as a social libertarian I am absolutely fine with that. If one is truly devoted to the cause of liberty, one must fight for it consistently, across the board. I cannot imagine being in a polygamous relationship, I don’t think I could be a part of a successful such relationship, yet I can no more do so for a homosexual relationship. (Hell, after my last serious relationship I shudder to consider joining another human even in heterosexual matrimony). Does my inability to romantically love another male give me the right to prevent other males from making the plunge? If any number of consenting adults wish to be joined in civil union, who am I to deny them those basic civil protections?

Now, I should make it clear that, while I will often use the term ‘marriage’, I am talking about civil union in the eyes of the State, not the religious ceremony of marriage in the eyes of the Divine. Separation of Church and State means that the State can no more decide Church policy than Church can set State policy. If a religious body believes a marriage to be invalid in the eyes of their god(s), then that religious body has every right to withhold its sacraments. If the affected parties are unhappy with that, I suggest they convert to a more compatible faith, or take the initiative to petition their creator’s blessings without an intermediary. If, however, the State is to intervene in the personal affairs of the citizen, and deprive that citizen of a human right, then it must first demonstrate conclusively that damage which society would sustain through the exercise of that right. Looking at polygamy from a historical perspective suggests that it would actually be beneficial to society, and not damaging at all. Polygamy has been practiced in many thriving civilizations. Social conservatives should be pleased to note that even Confucianism with its strict emphasis on family as the basic unit of society allowed for it, and in the times of Mohammed it was a mechanism by which economically established males could provide for widows and their children by incorporating them into the wealthier family. (Of course, in our modern and progressive society polygamy cannot be defined simply as one husband with multiple wives, but rather more generally as a union of three or more parties).

Now, I can see this issue being skewed as a feminist one. And while it is important that polygamy be defined as a union of three or more parties rather than as one husband with multiple wives, as I stated before, I’ll admit that I imagine polygamy will tend towards the latter. I imagine that most of those interested in pursuing polygamy will be those involved in faiths which push such a traditional model, and I agree that women seem to get the short end of the stick in this situation. Having said that, those females who choose to be the many to the one have the freedom and the right to do so, regardless of how others feel, just as females have the right to be subservient to their husbands if they feel that is how they should live, or be housewives if that is their wish, or wear stilettos and bras and comply with any of the myriad awful demands society has of them. I have a female, mormon friend who believes her church is right to prevent females from entering the clergy. As a feminist myself I believe this is wrong, but more importantly I believe that it’s none of my business. I’m not a mormon, so I am unaffected entirely. I have the right to disagree with them, and even to be vocal about that disagreement, but I do not have the right to interfere with their affairs so long as they do not break the laws of the land. As a feminist I am perplexed by females who willingly subjugate themselves, but I do not have the right to make them live as I see fit. So long as those women have the freedom to choose in the first place, my fight is won. The belief in gender equality is a good one, but if the fight for that interferes with the fight for civil rights than the forest is being missed for the trees.

Polygamy may seem backwards and oppressive to some, and it is linked for many to times of antiquity when women were second class citizens. I myself am baffled by it. However, those who claim to be champions of freedom must realize that true freedom means a certain amount of discomfort. It means not only the freedom for you to live how you will, but also freedom for others to do the same. Will this lead to discussion of allowing incestuous marriages? Bestiality? Likely so, and a defender of personal liberty will continue to fight when those debates come up. For the present it will suffice to say that if three wives are happy sharing the same husband, (or three husbands happy with their one wife, or for that matter any gender distribution of any number of people of any sexual orientation), then I am happy for them and stand by their right to share each other even as I shake my head in wonder.

As this ‘war’ drags on, the US refuses to acknowledge the failure of its policy in the face of a staggering prison population, a crumbling Mexico, and global criticism. As the debt problem develops into a debt crisis, US law enforcement continues to squander enormous resources on an unconstitutional and counterproductive fight against various recreational drugs. Despite the harm caused by the War on Drugs (WoD), the nation’s leaders remain fairly unanimous in their efforts to uphold current policy and ignore the glaring evidence of its failure. (In the current general election season the only viable candidate acknowledging the need to repeal the entirety of this misguided legislation is Dr Ron Paul, whose reward is often to be slandered as a proponent of drug abuse by opponents who rely on defamatory soundbites rather than reasoned arguments). Of those who question current policy, many stop at the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana. Their opponents criticize them on the grounds that legalization of marijuana would erode the WoD as a whole, that the legalization of one drug is a slippery slope leading to legalization of all. In fact, it is critical that reform of current drug policy not stop at marijuana. It is critical that the entire War on Drugs come to an end.

The WoD began with the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, implemented by the Nixon Administration. The legislation divides all controlled substances into five schedules based on potential for abuse, medical potential, and safety. Title 2 of the act goes on to regulate or restrict the production, sale, and use of various drugs as well as the materials required to produce them.  50 years before, the US had enacted a prohibition of alcohol with disastrous consequences. As organized crime syndicates grew from the black market created by the ban, they clashed with authorities and with one another, leading to a decade of violence and bloodshed. 13 years later the ban finally ended, as former proponents across the nation acknowledged its utter failure. It was a lesson hard learned, yet it was soon forgotten.

Within a few years, wealthy and powerful men such as Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of Treasury, and Randolph Hearst, a democratic congressman, began to feel threatened by the production of hemp. A government report had been released concluding that a new technique made it possible to produce paper from the fiber more cheaply and easily than from wood, which threatened Hearst’s vast timber holdings. Mellon had invested heavily in nylon, and for the emerging industry to get a foothold it had to compete with traditional hemp fiber. Such economic interests created a political environment hostile not only to the strain of cannabis used to produce hemp, but all strains of cannabis by association. In 1937 a new tax was created by the Marijuana Transfer Tax Act to discourage the sale of the drug, with severe penalties for violation, and the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics began a campaign against marijuana use. The Boggs Act of 1951 created minimum sentencing for possession of marijuana and the Narcotic Control Act of 1956 made the penalties harsher yet. The various anti-hemp/marijuana legislation was rationalized with absurd claims of widespread addiction and users driven to madness. As the drug was more popular among the hispanic and African-American populations, campaigns were often laced with racist rhetoric to generate public disapproval. (This racist element is still strong today).

Fast forward to the Nixon administration and the WoD begins in earnest. As a global initiative, the WoD wasn’t merely a matter of US domestic policy, but also became part of the USA’s imperialist agenda of using economic sanctions/aid and military force to defend its interests and push its policy across the world rather than leading by example and allowing other nations to manage their own affairs as friends and equals. (For example, in 1989 the US invaded Panama to remove then general-dictator Noriega, a known drug trafficker who had formerly worked with the George H. W. Bush administration and the CIA to resist the spread of Communism in South America).

Since then, the efficacy of the WoD has all too often been measured by the arrests made and the product destroyed. These numbers are high and rising, and proponents point to this as proof of the ban’s success, but remember that the goal of the WoD is not (ostensibly) to arrest people or burn things, but to stop the use of ‘dangerous’ recreational drugs and improve public health. These measures, then, indicate not success but collateral damage. They demonstrate that there is a struggle, and that lives are being ruined, but do not indicate what effect this has on society. Meanwhile drug use continues to rise internationally and at home.

The WoD, like alcohol prohibition before it, has also created a booming black market, and as a result a powerful criminal element at home and abroad. Rather than taxing and regulating the drug market as a profitable and relatively safe industry, the US government has turned it over completely to gangs and criminal cartels with no oversight. Many of the claims levied against illegal drugs, that their purchase strengthens criminal elements, that the industry is unregulated and so the consumer is often at risk of purchasing products produced in unsafe conditions or cut with other, unknown products, etc are results not of the drug industry itself, but of our turning that entire industry into a criminal market. I have even heard the high costs of the WoD itself, the money spent and lives ruined, touted as proof that drugs are harmful to society, rather than as serious consequences of our policy.

Speaking of high costs, the federal government spent around 15 billion dollars fighting the WoD in 2010. State and local governments that year are estimated to have spent an additional 25 billion dollars. In 2009, around 858,000 Americans were incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses alone, and of those citizens approximately 89% were charged with possession only. And what of those arrests? Who is arrested and are they reformed? Non-violent drug offenders are placed in hostile and dangerous prison environments for years before being released again into society, with a severely compromised ability to seek education or employment. Do we truly believe that this sort of treatment will make them more willing and able to function as law-abiding citizens? Our nation’s leaders, more interested in currying political favor than enacting sound policy and afraid of being labeled ‘weak on crime’, pass mandatory-sentence legislation which cripples the power of the judge to decide what punishment is appropriate on a case-by-case basis and leads to legally enforced racism. (For example, mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine is much harsher than for powder. Crack cocaine is much cheaper than powder cocaine, and so much more prevalent among poorer minorities than their white counterparts.)

I have discussed the pragmatic aspect of the WoD, but there is a considerable ethical element as well. In favor of the WoD, there are those who believe, for personal or religious reasons, that the use of drugs to adjust one’s state of mind is immoral, though strangely enough this belief often does not extend to such drugs as alcohol, tobacco, anti-depressants, ADD medications, etc. That is all well and good, but it is also fairly arbitrary. I, personally, do not believe it is immoral, and as an American I am guaranteed protection of my personal human rights against the whims of others. Ethically opposed to the WoD is the US Constitution itself. The government is no more entitled to tell me which drugs I can put in my body than it is entitled to regulate my diet and exercise, because it is not the government’s role to oversee my personal health. That is my role alone. The role of government is to protect my rights as a citizen and as an individual. One may argue that there is no protection in the Constitution specifically for the use of drugs. In fact, one could go on infinitely listing individual rights which are not specifically protected. Many of the founders were, on these grounds, opposed to an inclusion of a Bill of Rights entirely, believing it impossible to list all rights and that the exclusion of a right from any list could be used as grounds to empower the government. That is why the founders included the 9th amendment, which states, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” This means that a right being left out of the Constitution is not grounds for denying that right. In the case of Roe v Wade, this amendment was even interpreted such that federal protection was given to abortion. This means that if the State wishes to deny the citizen of a right, then the State must demonstrate that the citizen’s exercise of that right is sufficiently damaging to society as a whole to justify its being stripped. In the case of the WoD it has often been demonstrated that the stripping of the right to do what one will with one’s body is itself harmful to society, (see paragraphs above), and not the use of drugs at all.

I also find it interesting that, in discussion of values, personal responsibility is generally left out. The US was once a nation which prided the strength of the individual to take care of itself without government intrusion, as evidenced by the uniquely American transcendentalist movement. The poor came here and made something of themselves, and the self-made man was an all-American image. In the days of Emerson, the individual was expected to be strong and independent. Now we have become a welfare state, and the government is expected to care for us. Unfortunately, hand in hand with this expectation of government care has come government managing of the citizen’s life. This resembles much more the Confucian idea of the parent-child relationship between the State and the citizen than the traditional, American ideas of personal responsibility and freedom from government interference. It has gotten to the point now, with the WoD, that the government is mandating to the citizen what substances the citizen can and cannot put in its body, and the people have accepted this as natural and necessary. Even assuming that the government is actually carrying out this interference in the interests of public health, this creates a truly dangerous precedent. If the individual is not responsible for his/her own health, then it falls eventually to the State to regulate such facets of the citizen’s lifestyle as diet, exercise, medical care, and pastimes. Riding a motorcycle, for instance, even with a helmet, is much more dangerous than driving a car. Health care costs related to transportation could probably be reduced by outlawing the use of motorcycles, and the citizens who no longer enjoyed the right to choose whether or not to use such a device would be kept safer for it.

The WoD has not only proven entirely ineffective and impractical, but as legislation establishing a dangerous precedent for government managing of the individual’s habits is also unsound on Constitutional grounds. You needn’t take me at my word, though. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, comprised of several former presidents, prime ministers, international human rights activists, US statesmen, and even the former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, released a damning report concerning the global WoD and the failure of US drug policy. They aren’t the first to do so, and unfortunately they are unlikely to be the last.

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This is how it is done.

Okay, did it work?