Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Well Regulated Militia

So, I started writing about gun control about two weeks ago; The Thursday before last to be specific. I was going to talk about reasonable gun control. I was going to talk about mental healthcare. I was going to talk about the whole idea of gun ownership for defense, the statistical risks and all of that. 

I'm not going to do that now. After this most recent shooting, I've been talking to a lot of people. I've been discussing all of those issues at length, and now I'm going to step outside of my comfort zone. This is not going to be a philosophical exercise. It's not going to be ethics and stats and all the stuff I've been doing on this blog. This is a rough draft for legislation. An actual, honest to god, concrete idea. I need help with it though. I'm not a gun owner, nor a particular fan. There will almost certainly be some logistical, logical, and technical mistakes and flaws. Help me fix it, help me make it better. By god, let's do this thing.

So I'm a Merchant Mariner. Technically I am way way way way way Naval reserve. If thing got apocalyptically bad, I could get called up, most likely for supply duty. I only bring this up because it's the general basis for the idea. You see, to be a merchant mariner you have to get licensed by the coast guard. I'm not in the coast guard, but they license me. There is an entire rating structure that everyone who works commercially on boats is required to be a part of. You start out with your Merchant Mariners Document, which basically says "I can pass a drug test, a federal background check, a basic physical, and I like boats." From there it moves up. There are different directions you can go in your ratings. There are classes on basically everything you can think of in terms of the boating world, and different ratings require different combinations of classes, along with practical real world sea time. It's kind of complicated, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

I'm thinking we can do something similar with guns. Let me be clear here, I am in no way trying to ban guns. I am talking about limiting access to guns to people who lack training in safety and proper use of guns. I'm also talking about keeping better track of guns in this country, and adding layers of responsibility to gun ownership, particularly guns that are more dangerous due to capability, capacity, or ability to be concealed.

So now we get into the meat of it. Please help me with this, because this is all hypothetical to me. There is a lot that I don't know, and my theories on a lot of this may be off base. Help me make it better.

The way I figure it, you start at 12 being allowed to use a .22 rifle or a shotgun after completing a thorough safety course. At 12, you are required to have a parent with you whenever you are shooting. You are basically on their license, like a learners permit. At 16, after enough logged experience, another round of safety classes and exams, you get the option of using the .22 pistol and being able to shoot without an adult. At 18 the other stuff opens up.

the handgun tier would revolve specifically around using it for self defense. actual, practical training with regular refreshers on how to use a gun in defense. CCW will obviously be an endorsement in this tier.

the hunting tier, I don't entirely know. I imagine moving up to more and more powerful calibers. again, every five years needing to take a safety refresher.

the combat stuff.... I'm not a big fan of them in all reality but i think it's a compromise point. the second amendment talks about the well regulated militia, and I see this heading in that direction. tactical training, more powerful guns, three round bursts. regular training. with this stuff comes more thorough refreshers, psych evaluations, and a much higher expectation of training.

My big problem is that I don't know exactly how to set up the structure of those tiers. What I'm really asking for on that front, assuming you don't find the entire concept completely unpalatable, is what exactly are the skill sets that one learns as one becomes a better shooter, and how do we measure those skills.

Inherent in all of this is also a national registry. I don't think its unreasonable that the government should be able to know who has a gun, what kind of gun, and how well trained they are. If you want to fall back to the whole "we are all in the militia" argument with the second amendment, this would be critical information should the militia ever need to be called up to action.

Another critical piece to this, to prevent accidents and lessen theft, all guns should come with a trigger lock, and a good gun safe should be required. Now, it is my understanding that the trigger locks are cheap and fairly effective, but good gun safes are very expensive. I've also been told that cheap gun safes are pretty much worthless. So, to facilitate the gun safe issue, they should be subsidized. It is your right to have a gun, but in the interest of public safety, we demand that it be stored safely. To that end, in the public interest, we will help you pay for it.

Then there is the issue of illegal guns. This one's tough. So, the higher you go in the license structure, the more responsible I think you should be. For everyone, if a gun is stolen there is an investigation. If any negligence on the part of the gun owner is found, penalties start to happen. If you're at the basic level and your gun gets stolen, you lose your license for a year. As you move up, you're dealing with more powerful guns, and we have instilled more trust in you, so fines start getting levied. If after you get your license back, you have another gun stolen, you lose your license for life. (this point i could certainly negotiate on, but I'm trying to avoid people buying guns to give to criminals that can't buy them on their own). If no negligence is found, the first time is a free pass. After that the same process starts up. If a gun registered to you is involved in a crime, and you didn't report it stolen, you have a legal and civil liability, and the level of liability is again tied to your level of training and responsibility. Same goes for someone caught with your gun.

And speaking of that, if you are caught with a gun that is not registered to you while in the commission of a crime, mandatory 20 years; no parole, no plea bargain. If police catch a drug dealer, and he is illegally in possession of a gun, 20 years, no question. If the gun has been somehow modified to make it harder to trace, 40 years. This, admittedly, does nothing about the kinds of mass killings that we have seen lately, bringing the whole discussion back up. It would, however, have some impact on the cartels, gangs, and other organized crime. They are, at the end of the day, business people. Let's make it more difficult for them to do their business by taking their soldiers and dealers off the street in a meaningful way. Couple that with some serious prison reform and we can do some damage.

A quick tangent, running on the whole "dealing with the cartels thing" because that is a whole lot of the gun crime. We need to legalize pot. The writing is on the wall, it's going to happen. Let's do it now, and tax it. More money coming in, money not going to the gangs, and less non violent criminals taking up cells. That makes room for the influx of people who will be locked up for a long time due to gun possession.

We also need to deal with gun sales. First off, every gun sale needs to include a background check and a waiting period. I understand that it's inconvenient, but if you need the gun "right now" you're probably need it for the wrong reason. Also, if a dealer is found to be bypassing that law to sell to a legal, licensed gun owner loses their right to sell guns. A dealer knowingly selling to people who can't legally have a gun goes to jail.

So that's the general outline. It's also worth noting that there is nothing in here about mental healthcare other than the psych evaluations for the more military style training. I absolutely think we need a serious overhaul of the mental healthcare system. That is a separate, related issue, and needs fair, solid treatment done to it as well. I'm already biting off more than I actually can chew here, which is why I need help with it. If someone wants to work on that stuff, go for it.

Now, I'm well aware that there are some problems here, and a lot of room for clarification and details. I'm asking for help here. Let's put aside the bickering, the trolling and the hyperbole and try to actually get something reasonable here. No "the blood is on your hands" or "you're trying to take away all our guns just like Hitler." We can be reasonable people.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Illusion of Security

America has a security problem, but it isn't the one we hear about on the news. It's a pretty serious one in my book, and it is one that impacts all of us. It's also a bit of a strange problem.

We're safe, you see. We really are pretty safe. We are also afraid, and react out of that fear in strange, often bad ways.

So obviously, 9/11 is going to be a big part of the background for this one, because it really lead to a lot of where we are today. I feel like I should do the token "inspirational monologue" about it, but that's not the point here, and I think we all realize nothing I am going to say really matters on that front. Let's just say it was a really bad day that has had widespread effects on the world, and move from there.

After the attacks, a lot of things changed fairly quickly. The PATRIOT act was brought to the house and passed before most of congress was even given a chance to read it. Almost immediately this was a controversial law that had a pretty profound impact on American discourse. You had a lot of people throwing around a lot of quotes from a lot of people about the relationships between security, privacy, freedom and my favorite, the old "If you aren't doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to hide." The emotional state of this country got, understandably, a little nuts.

Another big change was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). We had this grand plan of opening up communication between our various security agencies and trying to streamline intelligence. This hasn't really worked the way we hoped. There are also the many many problems with the TSA. Along with the low success rate with internal testing, we are seeing lots of privacy and safety concerns with their newest line of defense, the backscatter scans.

And some of these concerns are due to the very agents who are implementing these security protocols. The supposed last line of defense. If the entire intelligence community fails to catch them before making it to where they can hurt us, then we obviously want the best and the brightest there to catch the bad guys. Of course, all of this is rendered a little silly when you look at the fact that here in the U.S. you have almost no chance of being killed by a terrorist anyway.

When did America get so scared? We used to be the big bad superpower that would shake the world from time to time, and now we're hiding behind ineffective security that makes us feel "safer" without really doing much good.

Humans, in general, are really not very good at dealing with probability. When it comes to risk assessment from an evolutionary standpoint, all this fear makes a lot of sense. We are fairly easily eaten. But when we move this same instinct to the modern world, well, it just makes us a little nuts. We are afraid of being murdered, even though violent crime is on the decline. We are afraid of our children being kidnapped so we shelter them, even though statistically it really isn't a likely event.

And the problem with all of this is that we use these fears as excuses for all kinds of terrible things. We give away our rights in order to protect ourselves. We give up privacy and safety to get a false sense of security. We have militarized our police forces, giving them a new mindset along with new weapons and tools.

I pretty clearly think this is a bad thing, however I'm not suggesting that the response to any of this should be anger. Anger is even less rational an emotion than fear, and I'm all about rational. What we need to do is recognize our own emotional responses, and then think through it. What we need to do is stand up, calmly and rationally, and say "no... it's ok... we're not afraid, and we don't want this."

Send well thought out and calm letters to your congress folks. Go to city counsel and talk to them. Get involved and get things done.

But most of all, keep calm and carry on.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Education and Economics

Economics is meant to play the long game; it just functions better that way. Sure, you can sell short, or flip a house and do very well, but it's very risky and not just to you. This should be one of the lessons of 2008. People ended up gambling on all of our futures, and damn near lost them because of the short game.

We talk about sustainability in the environment all the time, but economic systems need it as well. We need systems that are dynamic enough to adjust to changing times and events, but with a foundation that is solid, and well rooted to prevent collapse. 

We, the people, on the whole are not very good at long games. We like our instant gratification and are easy to panic. It's not good, but it also makes a lot of sense. Our brains really haven't caught up with civilization yet. As flexible and adjustable as our minds can be, we still have those hardwired responses and instincts that are just damned hard to override. When the market takes a down tick, people start selling, pushing it further than it would have gone without the fear response; it's what we do. 

But we need to be more clever than that. We need to be playing the long game.

Right now the U.S. has around $16 trillion in debt. That is a truly unimaginable number. We also have around a $1 trillion budget deficit. Neither of these things are good, by any stretch of the mind; we really need to do something about this.

Now, the obvious answer is to cut spending and possibly raise taxes, though that second part is certainly contended in a lot of circles. On a base level it's like balancing a household budget. Spend less and bring in more, and the deficit goes down; easy as lying.

Sadly, national economics are a bit more complicated than this. We also need to look at things like unemployment and job growth along with GDP, social security, and the social safety net in general. Things get tough very very quickly.

One of the first places we see the tightening of belts is in education. As the author of that piece explains, although real dollars spent in education is going up, its relation to the GDP is steadily dropping; we are investing a lower percentage of our income into education. We have seen it in the cutting of arts programs, music programs and now even physical education programs. We are seeing class sizes grow and school libraries shrink. And it kind of makes sense. On that basic budget model, we have to make a cut somewhere, and education is expensive.

But again, I want to talk about the long game.

There are lots (and lots and lots) of scholarly articles about the relationship between education and crime, and I'm linking you to one of the better ones that doesn't require downloading things. It's pretty simple and even logical; the better educated people are, the lower the rates of crime you see. Now, there are lots and lots of factors that can go into this, including education level of the parents and a whole host of other issues, but education is absolutely a big factor.

Education is also, for some obvious reason, a good indicator of future success. It should come as no surprise to anyone that places with higher poverty rates also have lower levels of education. Now, to some degree this is going to be a chicken and egg argument, which is actually one of the big issues with poverty; it is a cycle. Low income families don't have the same access to education, and educational activities, so the children of low income families are at a disadvantage, so they are more prone to staying poor.

It is also worth noting that low income children are more likely to miss school than their higher income counterparts.

We are also in a place where people with lower incomes, lower education levels, and who are on public assistance are having significantly more children than those who aren't in those social strata. Breaking tone for a moment, I've tried for a good chunk of time to post the link from the census data to demonstrate that, and apparently I just can't. It's a PDF that you can get at If you want to fact check me, search for p20-558 and look at pages 6 and 7.

The effects on the individual are pretty clear. A lack of education increases the likelihood of dependence and future incarceration for our children. This, in and of itself, is obviously a negative, but one could make the argument that it isn't "our" problem. One could make that argument, assuming they didn't look any deeper into the social and financial effects that this has on society as a whole; we should probably do that though.

Right now, the cost of sending a child to public school from k-12 runs right around $10,000 per year per student, though there is a pretty wide variation state to state and district to district.

We, as a nation, are spending about $800 billion on welfare for about 56 million people. This comes out to around $14,300 per person.

And, at least in California, it costs around $47,000 to keep an inmate in prison for a year.

So as it stands, we are spending less on our students than we are on taking care of the consequences of a bad education.  If we could lower the incarceration rate by one person, we could double the education budget for 2.3 students. Higher levels of education also reflect a lower chance of being on welfare and a lower rate of childbirth, which means the social safety net gets less use.

As is almost always the case, prevention is less expensive than dealing with the aftermath, and we are not doing nearly enough prevention. I'm also not saying that we need to just throw money at it. It needs to be a reasoned and rational response to the issue, targeting money into places where it has the highest chance of helping and using methods with the highest returns. I'm not going to go into all that right now, if for no other reason than a hope of getting this posted soon.

I would also like to touch on the argument that all of this support should be coming from the parents, not the government. This is an absolutely fair argument, and I don't disagree. I personally went to public schools in a mediocre school district, but luckily have fantastic parents that pushed me to learn, think, and try more every day to better myself. The problem is that some parents are busy; so busy trying to support their families financially that they can't support their educations. Some parents aren't educated enough themselves to help out. And tragically, some parents just don't care enough. In none of these cases can any blame be put on the children, but it is without question the children who suffer. The "American Dream" is that everyone has a fair shake at life, but we're not actually offering that; we can, however, get closer to it.

The United States became a superpower in the world because of innovation and technology booms, along with some philosophy and political growth that changed the world. If we hope to maintain that position we are going to have to keep pushing in those fields. We need educated, intelligent, and productive people to keep driving this country forward. With innovation and creation comes growth, making the country stronger, reducing our reliance on other countries in every possible way, and strengthening our position in the world.

But regardless of that, if we tactically invest in the youth of the nation, even without all the growth that will come, we can save money and cut the deficit just by giving children the tools to get off, or stay off, welfare, and to stay out of prison.

It's not complicated, but it is a long game.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hey Folks,
        I have been offered the opportunity to contribute to my friend Brendan's blog. As a shipmate and fellow free thinker I both appreciate and support what he does with words and actions. As a graduate student in history I bring a fair amount of critical thinking, and writing skill to the table and I look forward to diving into this mix to help promote thought, and civil dialogue among human beings. Thus far I have not completed a topical entry of any kind and have been serving in an editorial capacity only. I believe my first true post will center on the idea of civilian oversight of police and some of the problems I see with the way things work as of right now.

Jeremy Stolz.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

excuses excuses

So I don't have anything for this week. I've had a bunch of traveling going on, and then some decompression time from the end of the season. Now I'm watching the election. I promise, next monday I'll have something for you.

Monday, October 29, 2012

On Civil Discourse

So I want to start this one with a bit of a disclaimer. There will be a few unpleasant, un-politically correct, or downright offensive words in this post. I try hard not to use them in general, but given the nature of the topic, they will come up in quotations or when I paraphrase what was said. I actually know very little about the demographics of the folks that read this blog, so if there are going to be kids reading it, be responsible and talk to them about it.

I've managed to avoid talking about specific contemporary events so far, but I've been toying with this commentary for a while, and a really obvious example came up, so here we go.

This past Monday was the third presidential debate. I watched it, along with a whole lot of other people; one of those people was Ann Coulter. Now, Coulter is known for being inflammatory, and in this specific instance she tweeted "I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard." This received a lot of attention, but there was only one piece I have read that really speaks to it well in my mind. John Franklin Stephens has written about the use of "the r-word" at some length, and this is a pretty clear example of it.

But this post isn't to denounce Coulter specifically; that was just a useful example.

Public discourse, particularly in the realm of politics, has gotten ugly over the years. My mother talks about watching William F. Buckley and disagreeing with everything he said, but respecting him nonetheless. There was a time when we could do that.

But now everything has gotten polarized to a truly frightening degree and everything is given in apocalyptic terms. If the media is to be trusted at all, large portions of the country believe that if the politician they don't like gets elected president, that it will be the end of the world as we know it. Would you like to know a secret?

That is almost certainly not the case. Things will most likely be ok either way.

Here are some more fun things: Obama isn't a socialist. If you compare his policies to those of actual socialist countries, he's at best a moderate conservative. Also, Romney isn't actually a plutocrat, and for the record, G. W. Bush wasn't/isn't a nazi. Also, no one is Hitler. I'd just like to get that stuff out of the way.

We use terms like this because they evoke emotions, and are easily understood on some base level, but they are wholly inaccurate and we should aim to converse better than that.

I have a confession to make; I am an internet arguer. I argue with people on the internet. I do it a lot. I may have a problem.  And in debates on the internet, it is very easy for things to escalate quickly and get to a point of true absurdity even faster. It's generally not very productive.

And people behave the same way in the real world, too. There are rules to civilized debate and discussion. It's commonly understood that you attack the idea, not the person, and that you articulate it the best you can. These rules have also been disregarded.

Now, please don't misunderstand me. I'm not a proponent for censorship. I don't think that I, or anyone, has the right to tell you what you can or can't say. I just don't think that is ever acceptable. What I do believe in is self-control.

I grew up doing martial arts. Any dojo worth it's salt will teach you that anger is a dangerous and foolish thing. You can also easily learn that from Star Wars. If you fight angry, you will almost certainly fight sloppy, and make mistakes. If the person you are fighting is good, they will absolutely exploit those mistakes and you will lose. If they aren't, in your uncontrolled state you may well do more damage than you intended. This is as true with words as it is with fists, as most of us know firsthand.

Have you ever gotten into an argument, gotten upset, and then hurt someone you loved by spurting out something in a fit of anger? Worse, have you ever been angry and seen that opening where you knew you could hurt them, and you took it because it was there? I think most people have at some point; I know I have. I also know I have always regretted it.

Which is why I have trained not to do that anymore.

If we want to convince people of things we need to be calm and reasonable. If we want someone to see our point of view, we need to demonstrate that point with well thought-out arguments. When you attack someone, they will go on the defensive and the conversation has ended, even if you both keep talking. Words have meanings and word choice is one of the more potent tools we have. We need to learn how to say what we mean.

So if there is a hope for rational discourse, we need to change our own behavior and our own expectations. I know that I am not perfect in this, but I'm trying. I also expect a certain level of discourse from people around me, and simply will not participate if a common level can't be found. Maybe that's a little too "I'm taking my ball and going home," but it's the only move I have. As I said, I can't tell someone what they can and can't say. I can only choose what I will respond to.

Getting mad at someone, insulting someone, hurting someone can feel really good. It's one of the less pleasant parts of human nature, but it is there. Maybe it stems from tribal living, or other hierarchical structures in human development. Maybe it stems from the fact that we are emotional and instinctual creatures before we are rational. I'm not a psychiatrist, sociologist or anthropologist, and I think you would need to be all three to hope to really answer that question.

But the fact that it is real doesn't mean it is the right way to do it. We are social animals, and if you want to succeed, you need society in one form or another so we need to learn to work together.

And that starts with our ability to actually talk to each other. Not to talk at each other, yell or attack... but the ability to actually converse.

And until we decide to make that change, things are only going to keep going down the route they have been following.

Come all you bold sea men

So I have the next real update written. I have revisions back from the people who do that for me... I just need to go over it and it'll be up.

And hopefully I will get to that today.

In case anyone doesn't know, the HMS Bounty was lost today in the storm.

I don't want to start rumors and I don't have any more information than you can find on the news right now.

14 people have been rescued, two are still missing.

I just... I don't even really know what I'm writing this for. I just need to put something down to try and calm myself down.

My deepest condolences go out to the crew, who has lost their ship and their home. And God willing those last two souls will be found safe and be returned to those that love them.

I am a little speechless right now.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Self-regulation in a free market

One of the big debates in American politics currently is the issue of regulations. You have representatives from various industries and organizations out there arguing that the government is regulating them to death.

On the other side of things you have environmental groups, workers rights groups, and consumer advocacy groups saying that we need to be putting more regulations in place to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.

On the anti-regulatory side of the argument we often hear about the concept of industry self regulating. We hear about the invisible hand of the market applying pressure to industry to regulate itself. I see this as problematic, especially given the culture of quarterly profits that our nation seems to have developed.

To really get into this issue first requires getting into the nature of the free market. In a pure capitalist society the only function of industry, at the core, is to make money. It does that by providing goods and services that people want or find beneficial. The theory is that the people will decide on the value of a thing, and pay for it accordingly. Companies will be controlled by the market and prices will be managed because if a price goes too high, or the public finds out about some terrible thing the company is doing, then another company will step in and make the same product better, or cheaper. This prevents exploitation and keeps costs down to the consumer through competition. It also protects us against monopolies.

This is predicated on a few important  things. The first of these is an educated public with the ability to make choices. Without the consumers being able to look into the business practices and actually understand them, or the ability to choose another company to do business with, the whole model breaks down quickly. I find this to be the most clear in industries that have had the luxury of creating natural monopolies in an area. Back when I lived in Baltimore, my electricity came from BGE. For a long time, there wasn't another option for energy suppliers. (Apparently there is now, but I don't honestly understand how that works. If anyone knows more about that, I'd love to talk to you.)

So if it turned out that BGE was getting their energy from mountain top removal coal mining (with which I have some pretty serious issues) I wouldn't be able to do much of anything about it. Going without electricity is certainly possible, but we should have a higher standard of living than that. BGE also pulled one of the more impressive scams I have ever seen. During the collapse in '08, people tightened their belts and one thing that happened was a pretty massive effort to conserve electricity to save money.

BGE responded to this by raising the cost of energy so they could keep their profits; Demand went down, so price went up. This is what happens when you have monopolies.

But so without a population that has access to information, and the ability to at least basically understand it the people are unable to make an informed choice. And without choices... well... I don't think I need to finish this sentence.

Now, as stated before, the point of a business, especially under this system is to make money. Their product should be beneficial to the people in one way or another, and at a price that the market agrees is fair. The practices used in its production should come out to being acceptable to the public both in terms of human resources, and environmental impact. If any of this fails to be true, theory is that the company will fail; the free market will sort it out.

There is an inherent flaw in this idea however. It is the inherent flaw in most systems, so it's not a unique problem. Humanity simply doesn't function this way. History is rife with examples, but lets start on the basic, philosophical problem.

If a company's primary goal is to make as much revenue as possible, then they are going to make their product as cheaply as they can, and sell it for as much as they can get for it. Cheap production is easy to explain. Minimizing the cost in the labor force is providing as little pay as you can, the least benefits possible. Making things safe is often expensive, so industry has an incentive to do very little to ensure it. The less you have to spend on your employees, or your company, the more potential income you have.

And as for sales prices, I don't know that anyone can deny that advertising carries at least as much, if not more weight than actual value. The definition of the "market value" is whatever the market will bear. So really, the ideal method is to create something cheaply, and convince people that it is worth a great deal of money. I know this sounds basic and obvious, but I like to make my position clear.

So this brings us to the concept of regulations. In a pure free market, the government keeps it's hands out of business and lets  the market do it's thing. The problem is, the businesses within the market have no real incentive to regulate themselves. It is cheaper, by far, to mistreat your workers than to help them and look out for them. It is cheaper, by far, to pollute the environment than to protect it. It is cheaper to put out an inferior, useless, or sometimes dangerous product and advertise the hell out of it, than it is to make good, safe things. You can try and argue that this isn't true, but you have to argue that all of history is false to really back it up.

Much of the regulation that has come to pass is in some way connected to terrible things that have come before. I would like to start with something that is still rather fresh in everyone's minds; lets talk about the economic collapse in 2008. Bankers were making money, hand over fist bundling sub prime loans into mortgage backed securities (MBS) and re-selling them as sound investments. The ratings agencies were invested in it, and were rating these MBS bundles as much safer investments than they really were. The big banks were leveraging their investments to unheard of levels, and were making a killing doing it. Everything was great, and everyone was getting rich right up until they weren't.

The bubble burst, and it became clear just how deep the hole was and everything collapsed; we all know what followed. And the kicker is, nobody got in trouble for it. A bunch of people did some mostly legal things and managed to break the global economy and will never see the inside of a jail cell for it. This is the industry that claimed it should be trusted to regulate itself back in the 1990's and was given the chance. This is the same industry that still claims it should be allowed to do so.

Look at the shipping industry. In  1920 a piece of law known as the "Jones Act" was passed by congress giving sailors a few protections. If a sailor was injured on a vessel, he could sue the owner or the captain for negligence and take them before court to get compensation. This was not granted under the international maritime code that preceded the Jones Act. American flagged ships also were required to keep an American crew, and if an American sailor were put ashore in a foreign port the company was required to get them back to the United States.

All of these provisions were reactions to common business practices of the day. If one of the sailors was injured and unable to work, they became a liability. Not only were they not working, but they were eating, and taking up space. It was in the interest of profit to get them off the ship as quickly as possible and leave them in whatever condition they get there. Paying for medical care would be expensive, especially in such a dangerous industry.

It was also common practice to crew up a ship in America headed for another port, and upon arrival in some small, relatively poor nation, to fire the crew and hire on locals at a fraction of the cost, leaving the Americans stranded in some foreign, and sometimes hostile place. The companies interest was not the sailors, but the profits; it makes it all very simple.

We see abuse of workers throughout history, almost as a constant. From child labor and company towns to the Triangle Factory Fire and the Radium Girls the pattern just keeps going. To industry, the workers are just parts in the machine, and easily replaced.

In the interest of time, I'm going to skip on talking about environmental impact because I think it's pretty clear, really.

And as for the consumer, we constantly have things put out into the market that are dangerous, flawed, or generally useless. We have an entire market of "medical" supplies that are nothing but placebos with little scientific backing at best. We have shoes and cloths made in sweat shops selling for hundreds of dollars, and then there's the fight club equation  for auto recall. Tobacco companies lied about the dangers of their product while working to make it more addictive and products made for children until recently (and maybe still now) off-gas toxins. Yes, companies don't want to kill their customers, but how many have to go down before it hurts the companies bottom line. That is a very real math that we see done. As much as the advertising will tell you that they really care, and that their product will make you smarter, or more attractive, or give you a bigger penis it just isn't so. They spend more on advertising than they do on product testing because selling it is what counts.

The only way that self-regulation in industry can possibly work is if we manage to develop an entirely different mentality towards how we approach the world. If we had a collectivist view then yes, the idea of the high tide lifting all boats would certainly make it seem more beneficial to a company to regulate themselves for the protection of others. This mentality would also lead to the end of war, crime, poverty and everything else that has been holding society back since society came into existence.

This is also a pleasant fiction, and nothing more. It goes against the very basics of human nature and, as far as I can tell, will never come to pass. That is why we need to have some form of regulation to keep things in check. And that is not to say that the government is the answer to all things and can be trusted, but at least hypothetically we can vote people out of the government and have some control there. We need regulations that work, and make sense. We need to get rid of the back room deals and sweetheart negotiations between industry and government, and get it leaned down to being a swift, efficient system.

And there I go on pleasant fictions again. We have a lot of work to do before we can get to that point, I suspect.

Monday, October 22, 2012

quick note

So if you guys didn't notice, I'm generally going for updates at the beginning of the week. Got one that is still undergoing a little bit of revision and should be up tomorrow. I've also invited another person to put some stuff up here so there can be more than one a week.

not sure when he's going to start posting, but I expect it will be pretty solid.

So, see you all sometime tomorrow with a new post.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

American Prison Blues

Being "tough on crime" is a fundamental part of nearly every politician's platform in the American political system. It makes for great soundbites and on a base level makes a lot of sense. Who doesn't want people to be tough on crime, besides criminals, obviously.

The problem is that to actually impact crime in any meaningful way is complicated and not the kind of thing that lends itself to simple arguments and soundbites.

First off, I think there is some data that we need to get out of the way. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, far and away. Worse than any repressive regime you can name, and way worse than any developed nation in this world that has even the pretense of freedom.

Now, you could certainly make the claim that maybe these other nations are killing people rather than arresting them, thus keeping the numbers low, but Russia is about 300,000 behind us, and that would be quite a feat; I think it would probably have made the news.

It is also worth noting that this is a relatively new thing. Incarceration rates were fairly stable for a long time, and then suddenly jumped up in the 1980s. It is not my intention to get too deep into that, but pointing out that incarceration rates are going up while crime rates are going down seems worthwhile.

These are not my main points, but will absolutely become relevant in a little bit.

Beyond the meaningless fluff of the concept are some very real ideas. "Criminals must be punished" and "Prisons are too comfortable these days" are pretty common ideas. We have Sheriff Arpio in Maricopa county Arizona being lauded from the right for his imaginative and arguably cruel methods. We have large numbers of people promoting and defending the concept of torture, under the Machiavellian theory that "the ends justify the means." We have seen a very real shift towards hardline punishment, and a sense of callous disregard towards people who commit crimes at all.

When a bunch of students sitting on a sidewalk at UC Davis were pepper sprayed for not following an order to leave, we heard "Well, they should have done what they were told" from a huge segment of society, ignoring the fact that they were non-violently protesting. It is clear that we take being tough on crime very seriously, regardless of the nature of the crime. We see a belief that the law is the law, without even looking at whether the law is just.

And that is where we are today. We believe that crime requires severe punishment, and that whatever we have to do to get that perceived justice is fine; We believe that if we have to break a few eggs to make that omelet, so be it.

And before my liberal friends go off the hook on me for saying that they believe that, there are plenty of people who do not believe these things, but our culture en masse has accepted this as the way of things.

Now, for all the talk that prison has gotten to be too gentle, let us first all admit that we still would rather not be there. Yes, they get passable food, and apparently cable tv, and get to go work out regularly, but personally, I like being able to go where I want; to leave. And we can talk about how harsh prison should be, but we also need to talk about the why. I have been unable to find any evidence that the recidivism rate in Maricopa county has changed in any statistically significant way since Arpio took over. The crime rates don't seem to be particularly affected either.

So the only real argument for these harsher methods is that it should be punishment, justice; It should be vengeance. If the punishment doesn't lessen the recidivism, and can't be demonstrated to be a deterrent, then we are only left with it being a form of collective revenge.

So we take these criminals and we lock them up. We take them out of society and we put them into cold, concrete cells with other criminals. If there is the slightest bit of truth to television and movies, regardless of the cable tv, prison is not the best place ever. The biggest issue is the very nature of the people involved.

The prison community is one of dominance through force; Violence and sexual predation. Rape, murder, assault and gang violence are all kind of the norm, along with a thriving black market for various goods and services. This is the community we throw these people into.

So lets say that a person is arrested for robbing a bank. I'm not going to sit here and say he's a good guy; he robbed a bank, and didn't physically hurt anyone in the process. This guy is probably looking at fifteen to twenty years in prison for it.

We have all heard the ubiquitous advice to people going into prison. "Don't drop the soap" and "When you get in, find the biggest baddest guy you can, and hurt/kill him." The first is obviously about protecting yourself from rape, and the second is about positioning yourself in the power structure of the prison community. You have to prove that you are not someone to trifle with.

And for fifteen years, our bank robber will live in that society. Never mind the fact that he will be sitting around with other criminals, often talking about crimes and committing them. We are taking a relatively bad guy and putting him into a situation where being the worst guy you can possibly be is one of the better survival tactics. He will be conditioned to it- he has to be in order to survive. He will learn to see vulnerabilities and attack them, viciously. He will learn to react to any attack on him, regardless of scope or scale, with extreme escalation because that's how you protect your reputation as the biggest and baddest.

And then he will be released when his time is served.

So now this thing, this animal, this warrior that the prison culture is in the real world, but all of those instincts and conditionings are still intact. Add on the fact that he's going to have a difficult time getting a good job because he's a felon, and has a fifteen year gap in his work history. If he's lucky he ends up at a minimum wage job. So he works his minimum wage job, but that's not really enough money to survive, so now we have a trained, vicious animal in a place of desperation.

Is it any wonder that recidivism is so high?

There is a fundamental flaw in this system, because it creates conditions to make people worse, not better. And yes, there are certainly people who come out completely reformed, but they are not the norm. They are what we should be trying for.

But rather than trying to fix this system and build it towards rehabilitation, we're incarcerating more and more people, driving more people into this world of crime.

Rehabilitation vs. Punishment has always been the argument about prisons, probably ever since we started building prisons. I get the instinct towards punishment. Revenge is sexy, and in the heat of the moment it can feel great. It can even be righteous. The question we have to ask, however, is whether it furthers society as a whole.

Pretty clearly, I'm contending that it doesn't.

We need to control the violence, and break up the gangs in prisons if we ever want to let people come out whole and functional. If we continue with what we are doing, we're going to just see these cycles continuing.

We should have education and job training in prisons, and it should be mandatory. We should have therapy, both group and individual to try and help people actually see what they have done as wrong. It will not be easy, and it will not be one hundred percent effective, but it is the only way to have a hope of giving these criminals a real sense of remorse.

Without remorse, they have nothing that will really keep them from repeating the behavior.

And we need to keep non-violent offenders well away from the population that breeds this kind of violence, because all we do by locking them together is create more violent offenders with short sentences.

This is getting longer and longer, and I could just go on, but it may be time to stop. If you will only indulge me on one last little trip.

We are now talking about privatizing our prisons. Outside of the huge risk for conflicts of interest between judges or attorneys and the owners of the privately run prisons, and ignoring the fact that this ends up costing the state more while removing oversight, there is a base problem here.

Do we really want it to be in anyone's best interest for the incarceration rate to go up? Should we have owners and stockholders rooting for it? Encouraging it?

Like I said, I understand the desire for punishment for the wicked, and I'm not saying that there shouldn't be punishment. Personally, the idea of being locked up and unable to roam is maddening and terrifying to me-that covers the punishment in my book. But we have to decide if that punishment is the best thing we can hope for, or if we can perhaps strive for better. To actually make these criminals better; to make them able to be part of society.

I'm struggling to conclude this, because the conclusion seems very clear to me. As this blog continues, you will often see me advocating for the less satisfying answer because it's also the answer that better solves the problem. It's not about feeling better, it's about being better.

What we are doing is clearly not working, and we need to fix it.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Thoughts on the City on the Hill

There has been a lot of discussion about the concept of bringing freedom around the world, specifically to the middle east in the past years. We moved into Iraq under the theory that we would be greeted as liberators bringing the light of democracy to the people. We saw this not to be the case.

I cannot think of any examples of that actually working.

In our own history we saw slaves stand up against the northern soldiers there to free them. If you will indulge me to a slight expansion of the concept, you have the Europeans and Americans both trying to bring "civilization" to the natives on this continent with bloody and terrible results. A people will fight against an outside instigator, even if it is against their own personal best interest.

And yet, when faced with the atrocities of dictatorships and theocracy, one cannot justify on a moral level a tolerance of such things. Genocide, violence, and cruelty will always follow in the shadow of these things.

The question is, what can be done to fix this; to stop these evils and promote freedom and social justice into these darkest of places. It is problematic at best.

I would posit that freedom as a concept is infectious; it has gone viral, if you will. We see it in European history as well as American history; there is a pattern. In Europe there has been a slow, constant push against monarchy and theocratic rule since the Renaissance driving towards more and more secular, egalitarian and humanitarian political and social systems.

In America we have extended rights to more and more groups of people as time has moved along; African Americans, Women, Immigrants, various religions and now we are on the cusp of giving Gays full marriage rights.

There is a inexorable march towards freedom and liberty.

We equally see this march moving through the Middle East. What has come to be known as the Arab Spring was the most obvious example of this, but not the first. The youth of Iran have been in rebellion of one form or another for years now. They are pushing for a more western nation and government, and have been slowly making progress. While they may not say it, they are looking to be more like us, and without our direct involvement at all.

We may not have invented the concepts of democracy and freedom. We aren't the first to talk about inalienable human rights. We weren't even the first to ban slavery, but we have popularized these ideas, and through American Exceptionalism we have silently, almost insidiously pushed these ideas upon the world. Western culture has permeated the world.

Which brings us to the whole idea of the City upon the Hill. Originally from the bible, but used by American politicians as a philosophy for America to follow; and we have. The effects can hardly be denied: American culture has changed the very nature of the world we live in.

So after this long introduction, we come to the point. The best thing that we can do is to be better ourselves. If we make ourselves stronger, more just, and kinder, then we further strengthen the lighthouse on our shore that shines as a beacon of freedom.

Let me be open and pragmatic. I love my country, but I do not feel that it is without fault or problems. I will speak more to the problems because, well, the good stuff can stay good; we need to acknowledge and improve on our weaknesses.

We have a country that glorifies the soldier and the "just war", but leaves thousands of veterans in the streets. They lack medical care, housing and mental care. On a base moral level, this is unconscionable. At the very least, we owe it to those who put their lives on the line for us that they should be cared for.

And both morally and philosophically, that concept should be extended. We believe in the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. With life, comes care for life, and to my mind it is truly that simple. While the numbers are difficult to nail down, most studies I have seen claim that tens of thousands of people die annually in this country due to a lack of healthcare. Many more are driven into poverty.

Our education system has slowly been falling apart, leaving our youth less and less prepared to deal with a global market. There are many that blame the unions for this, and some of that blame is probably fair. More importantly though, is the fact that we have been cutting funding for education left and right. We have cut art and music classes, dulling the creativity that has always been at the core of what makes our country great. We talk about the liberal arts as being worthless, as if culture, literature, history and philosophy were not fundamental to our founders. Our students now learn from outdated books in crowded rooms catering to tests and the lowest common denominators. How can we hope for advancement if we don't expect it of the future generations and hold them to that expectation?

Our government has started cracking down on our base freedoms more and more. Rights to protest have been limited. Privacy in many forms has been attacked, and are still being attacked as I say this. None of this is to say that we are less free than many of the countries that we are standing against, but we are less free than we have been in the past.

So outside of the philosophical and moral issues with these problems, we have to look at the bigger picture. This is propaganda for the nations we wish to improve. These are things that can be used against us, showing our hypocrisy. It gives them the ability to say "what right do they have to come here and tell us how to live when they can't keep their own house in order?"

And that argument is absurd, because we are far better off than those living within these theocracies and dictatorships, without question. But perception is as important as reality, and propaganda does have the capability of changing perception.

So rather than attacking these countries with our military, I posit that we must turn inward and take away the propaganda tools that are used against us. Let us inspire those around the world to fight for their own improvement. We cannot bring them freedom; invasion only inspires people to fight against you. What we can do is show the revolutionaries, the freedom fighters and the youth that the freedoms they desire are real.

Let the idea be a virus sliding through their borders. In this day and age, information cannot be stopped. The flow of information can be slowed, and diverted, but never stopped; like water, it will always find a way. And the idea of freedom, once it finds a bit of fertile soil, cannot be stamped out. It is a long game, without question, and one lacking in the sense of glory of direct involvement. It doesn't let us feel like the great heroes, but it will also lead to real success.

And it will be hard, because a regime will have terrible death throes before giving up its control. We need to be cautious and defensive, with great focus on our intelligence community to keep us safe from attacks meant to instill fear and create regressive reactions. We have to be strong, and brave, and truly stand for the ideas that have, and can once again, make us the greatest nation on Earth.

And by holding those principles above all else, we show the world what freedom means, and what it is capable of. We remove the easy propaganda and let the people see that we are truly what they can be. We need to be the beacon again; the City upon the Hill.

Changing Tacks

So in the time since I had the idea to start this blog I have has little luck in visiting more occupations, so my involvement has become far less direct. I have, however, been studying, debating, and thinking a great deal.

I've decided that there are things I want to write out, if nothing else to get them into a place that they can get torn apart and revised by a wider audience than I normally get to speak with.

We will see how well this goes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

An introduction and Explaination

Some of you know me, some of you know other things I do. I'm trying to compartmentalize my life because I have to. I've been involved with Occupy since October, and have been to a lot of Occupations in those months. This is the place where I'm going to talk about what I've seen, and what I see as the movement progresses.