A Political Fantasy

I have a fantasy every four years and I want to share it.  It isn’t fantasy as in impossible.  I don’t want to elect a wise unicorn to the presidency or anything like that.  My fantasy is entirely possible, it just won’t ever happen.

In a nutshell, my fantasy is for all of the people running for president to only talk about things that the president has the legitimate power to do.  I’m struck every four years by the fact that almost nothing the candidates say falls under legitimate presidential powers.  They talk about taxes, but it’s Congress that decides taxes.  They talk about education, but it’s states and towns that make real education policy.  They talk about abortion, but (barring a Constitutional amendment) only the Supreme Court can overturn Roe v. Wade.  The list goes on and on.  All the candidates do is talk about things that can only be done through Congress, the states or the Supreme Court.  It’s weird.

In my fantasy world, Donald Trump would tell us who he would appoint to the Supreme Court and why.  Bernie Sanders would tell us who he would name Secretary of the Treasury and why.  Hillary Clinton would tell us how she would instruct the Department of Justice to respond to cases like Colorado where there is a conflict between state and federal drug laws.  Ted Cruz would tell us what his criteria for pardons would be.  John Kasich would tell us how he would use executive orders within the current regulatory framework.  And it would be marvelous.

Just think about it.  The people running for President would actually try to let us know what their presidency would look like.  Instead we get all these promises that would be difficult even with a sympathetic legislature and judiciary.  It’s not like Trump could build a wall since Congress would refuse to fund it.  Clinton isn’t getting universal pre-K as long as Republicans control the majority of the states.  And Sanders certainly isn’t breaking up the banks without a super-majority in Congress and a much more sympathetic judiciary.  As long as presidential candidates keep trying to sell us fantasies to get elected, my fantasy will remain for them to talk about the realities of the presidency.


Guns and Mental Illness

As I stated in yesterday’s post, after a mass shooting, there are always people who say that guns aren’t the problem, mental illness is the problem.  This bothers me because it is just a smokescreen used to prevent any real discussion of the real issues.  But it also bothers me for deeper reasons.

Very generally, it bothers me that we distinguish between health, mental health, dentistry and optometry.  I can’t see any good reason why a broken leg and cancer are medical problems, but a toothache, blindness and schizophrenia are different and handled by separate fields and might or might not be covered by insurance.  They are all health problems and should be treated as such.

Mental health in particular is not only treated differently by doctors and insurance companies, it is perceived differently by the general public.  As a result, when people talk about mental illness as a cause of gun violence, they are really talking about a caricature of a person with a mental health issue rather than the reality of people with mental health issues.

Most of us, at some point in our lives, suffer from a mental illness.  This is just like the fact that most of us, at some point in our lives, suffer from a physical illness.  All it really means is that, just like from time to time our bodies don’t function quite like they should, from time to time our minds don’t function quite like they should.  In both cases, it is usually not serious, there is no need to see a doctor.  With a bit of down time, we make a full recovery.  And, in both cases, there are times when it is serious and requires medical intervention.  And, again in both cases, there are in between cases.  These are cases where we would recover without a doctor’s help, but it would take longer with more suffering.  So, hopefully we have access to a doctor in the in between cases so we don’t suffer needlessly.

This really does matter when talking about mass shootings.  Blaming them on mental illness does several things.  First, it helps stigmatize mental illness.  That, in turn, can make people who need help avoid talking to their doctors.  Second, it vilifies something that is quite common, if not ubiquitous.  Mental illness is a huge blanket category.  It’s so big that it isn’t helpful as a descriptive cause of anything.  Third, it makes us both paranoid and amateur psychiatrists.  We’ve probably all known someone who has openly speculated about an acquaintance being a murderer just because that acquaintance is a little odd.  Even in jest, that kind of speculation isn’t good for anyone.

The worst thing, though, about this talk of mental illness in relation to guns is that it tries to create a separate class of people, a class who is not equal under the law.  In the US, we are famously innocent until proven guilty.  This is one of the things that Americans are most proud of.  We talk about it all the time.  It’s part of what we think makes America great.  It pretty obviously follows from this idea that we are innocent before any crime has been committed.  But, people would have us make sure that guns are kept out of the hands of the mentally ill.  Aside from the practical problem that almost all of us are mentally ill at some point, this viewpoint is saying that peaceful, non-threatening, law abiding citizens should be kept from exercising a Constitutional right* because they have an illness.  What’s next?  People with glaucoma can be forced to incriminate themselves?  Paraplegics aren’t allowed to peaceably assemble?  This is scapegoating at its worst and decidedly un-American.

Please keep this in mind the next time someone tries to confuse the debate about guns with a debate over mental health.  There are myriad problems with our healthcare system, including the way we treat mental illness.  I would love to seem them fixed.  But, they have nothing to do with guns or mass shootings.

*I really wish that gun ownership was not a Constitutional right, but it is.  Unfortunately, that’s what the Supreme Court has done to us with their idiotic interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  If we lived in a sane country, one where guns ownership wasn’t a protected right, then we could easily prevent people with certain mental illnesses from owning guns.  It would be just like preventing the blind from driving cars.  If we ever get to that world, I’d be happy to discuss which mental illnesses would disqualify a person for gun ownership (it wouldn’t be many).  Until then, the only thing that can prevent a person from exercising a Constitutional right is being convicted of a fairly serious crime.

Reflections on the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled that gay couples can marry in all 50 states. I don’t talk all that much about gay rights. I’m a strong supporter of gay rights, it’s just that I don’t feel like I have much to say about it. It is so unbelievably obvious that all human beings, regardless of orientation, deserve equal rights. It is equally obvious that the only reason not to support gay rights is bigotry. It’s not like racism which has been institutionalized to the point where people don’t see what they do as racist. And it’s not like sexism where positive changes have repercussions that need to be dealt with. Being gay has no effect on anyone other than the person and their partner. Literally the only reason to treat gay people differently is bigotry.

So, why am I writing about it now?  Because there is something in this decision that I just can’t figure out.  It was 5-4.  That means that there is something wrong with four justices on the Supreme Court of the United States.  I just don’t know exactly what is wrong with them.  It is easy to say they are stupid.  But, real stupidity is rare.  The odds against four of any nine people being stupid make it unlikely.  Plus, frankly, even stupidity doesn’t explain these four.

If this were any other political body, I’d say this is easy to figure out.  Congress people and Senators and Governors and Mayors are always in need of money and support.  They either want to be reelected or elected to a higher office.  So, they will naturally support positions that they think will help with their goals or help with their fundraising.  The Supreme Court is not like that, purposely so.  The nine justices have reached the pinnacle of their profession.  There is nowhere higher for them to go.  They are all wealthy, so they don’t need money.  Money and ambition explain a ton of the bad decisions made by relatively smart people in the rest of the government, but they don’t explain this group of justices.

It seems that all that’s left is bigotry.  We have four unabashed bigots sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States.  Reading their dissents doesn’t do anything to change that perception.  I know they aren’t the first set of bigots in the position, but I find it really disturbing.  Society has progressed to the point where being openly bigoted is not tolerated.  Bigots are either marginalized or they are forced to conceal their bigotry.  Roberts was the only one of these four that even attempted to use legal reasoning as cover.  He did a horrible job, but at least he tried.  The others would have read more naturally if they had just used slurs in their dissents.  Thankfully five of the justices got it right.

The Death Penalty

The death penalty has been in the news a lot lately.  I read recently that Oklahoma has approved nitrogen gas as a way to kill people.  The Boston Marathon bombing trial is in its sentencing phase.  There have also been several high profile executions gone wrong.  And, of course, The Supreme Court just heard oral arguments on a capital punishment case.  It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that we even still have capital punishment.  And it’s even harder to believe that it is relatively uncontroversial.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a debate, there is.  I’m just saying that inmates are killed with great frequency and it doesn’t generate nearly the kind of angst that gay marriage, abortion and missing emails generate.

Most of the arguments about the death penalty are well worn.  People that are for capital punishment say that it is a deterrent, even though it isn’t.  They also say that it is justice, which, again, it isn’t.  Sometimes they’ll even say that it is for safety, that certain people are too dangerous to be kept alive.  That one is usually reserved for deposed dictators, but it is there all the same.  People that are against the death penalty point out that it is far more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life.  Going along with that one, they point out that death penalty cases take up a lot of the court system’s time when there are other things they could be dealing with.  And, they also point out that mistakes are made and innocent people are put to death.

The anti-death penalty group is right in all of their arguments while the pro-death penalty group is wrong in all of theirs.  So, this seems like a slam dunk.  Let’s just get rid of the death penalty.  I support the idea of getting rid of the death penalty, but I don’t like the arguments.  On both sides, they are too oriented towards the practical.  It seems like if we could find definitive proof of someone’s guilt and if we could kill that person cheaply, we should go ahead and do it.  That doesn’t sit well with me.

It’s a little strange to say, but I like the religious objections better.  The Catholic church* and Quakers are famously anti-death penalty.  Essentially they say that killing is a sin (one of the ten commandments), so we shouldn’t do it.  That’s better since the law shouldn’t hinge on particular cases, and it is universal, but I don’t like a faith based argument.  What reason does a non-Catholic and a non-Quaker have to agree?

When I think about the death penalty, the first thing I think of is John Locke.  He was a huge influence on the founding fathers and a lot of our government is reminiscent of his ideas.  One of the things that he talked about is the “state of war.”  This isn’t war in the sense of two governments fighting with soldiers.  This is a case where one person tries to take control of another person.  When that happens, they are no longer fellow citizens of the state of nature, they have entered a state of war.  When in a state of war, the victim can use any means necessary to stop the aggressor, including killing the aggressor.  However, the state of war is short lived.  Once the aggressor has been subdued or surrenders, it is over.  Then, it becomes a question of reparation, and killing the aggressor won’t repair anything.  Locke also said that one of the main reasons we enter into society is so that we, as private individuals, no longer have to worry about states of war.  The State will be the one with that power.  Naturally there are times when a person is being attacked and the police are not around, so killing in self defense is still a rare option, but once the State intervenes, there can be no state of war.  The aggressor is subdued, so killing the aggressor does nothing.

As for why the state shouldn’t kill the criminal after a fair trial, I look to Plato.  In The Republic, one of the early guesses as to the nature of justice is that justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies.  Socrates, however, points out that justice is supposed to be a good and asks if a good can ever make someone worse.  They decide that it doesn’t make sense for a good like justice to make someone worse, so harming one’s enemies cannot be part of justice.  On this view, punishment can only be rehabilitative (I thought I was making up a word there, but the spell checker said nothing).  Putting someone to death cannot rehabilitate.  Therefore, the state, acting in the name of justice, shouldn’t use the death penalty.

When you put those two views together, you get the state having a monopoly on the use of force and only an unjust state uses that force to kill convicts.  It seems pretty clear to me.  I’d rather live in a just state.  So, we should stop capital punishment.  All of the pragmatic concerns are just icing.  I want to hear some real angst the next time someone is put to death.  Then, maybe our state will stop doing it.

* It’s funny they way liberals ignore how progressive the Catholics are in many areas.  I know they are wrong about LGBT issues and birth control.  I disagree with their position on abortion, but I understand it.  But, when it comes to the death penalty, climate change, homelessness, hunger, evolution and a host of other issues, they lean way left.

Old News – Volume 2

On October 24th, 2014, there were at least two shootings in America.  One involved high school students in Washington and the other involved police officers in California.  Shootings like these have become so common that they don’t even steal the headlines in the news cycle.  These two incidents were right alongside stories about the Ebola threat (which is basically non-existent for Americans) and Joe Maddon opting out of his contract with the Rays.  While it is still  too early to say anything meaningful about these two recent tragedies, they did get me thinking about prior, similar incidents.  The three that immediately came to mind were Sandy Hook; Aurora, Colorado; and Tuscon, Arizona and what, if anything, we have learned.

Although it shouldn’t be needed, here is a brief reminder of those incidents.  On December 14, 2012 in Newtown, CT, a 20 year old used his mother’s gun collection to murder her and kill 20 children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  On July 20, 2012 in Aurora, CO, a lone gunman opened fire in a movie theater killing 12 and wounding 70.  On January 8, 2011 in Tuscon, AZ, 19 people were shot at a constituent meeting for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  Six people died, including a Judge and a nine year old girl.  Rep. Giffords was badly wounded and has still not fully recovered.  In the aftermath of each of those shootings, there were calls for changes.  But, little actually changed.  In large part the lack of change is due to the NRA and their congressional friends.

My first thought about these incidents is that we have not learned much.  Shootings still happen with enough regularity that they don’t even knock reality TV out of the headlines.  But, that’s not right.  Our failures can teach us a lot.

The first thing I have learned is that anyone who thinks for a second that the 2nd amendment is more important than a human life is a stupid scumbag.  These events are horrible and tragic.  There is no other way to look at them.  The victims are simply victims.  It is only natural for the survivors to grieve and to try to make sure that there aren’t future victims.  This is noble and good.  Survivors of earthquakes push for better building codes.  Survivors of disease push for better medicine.  To view these efforts by the survivors of gun violence as an attack on the 2nd amendment or people’s rights is selfish beyond description.  I want to live in a world where the survivors of tragedies work to prevent future tragedies.  I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would try to prevent that.

The second thing I have learned is that many, if not most, Americans don’t understand what The Constitution is.  It is not a sacred document.  It is not perfect.  And it was not meant to be either of these things.  It is a political document meant to set out the framework and powers of our government.  It is full of compromises and mistakes.  People have often, correctly, pointed out that the most powerful feature of our Constitution is our ability to change it.  This document was written to allow slavery and specifically said that black people are worth, “three fifths of all other Persons.”  The 13th and 14th amendments corrected these obvious mistakes (that they were largely ineffective is another matter for another time).  This document denied women full citizenship and the right to vote.  The 19th amendment corrected this obvious mistake.  The Constitution originally had the federal government collect taxes from the states based on the states’ populations.  This is outdated and was corrected by the 16th amendment.  Yes, the 2nd amendment is a part of the constitution, but that doesn’t mean we are stuck with it.  If it turns out to have been a mistake, like slavery or denial of women’s suffrage, or if it has become outdated, like like the original federal tax structure, it can, and should, be changed.

The third thing I have learned is that many Americans fight for their 2nd amendment rights without understanding what rights the 2nd amendment grants.  The 2nd amendment says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  The introductory clause, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” is key if one cares about the framers’ intent.  If they had wanted people to have the right to bear arms for self-defense or hunting, they would not have narrowed the amendment with the introductory clause.  It does not say, “A vibrant editorial page, being necessary to political debate in a democracy, the right of the people to express their opinions shall not be infringed.”  That is because they did not want to limit the 1st amendment rights in the same way they wanted to limit the 2nd amendment rights.  I know that the Supreme Court has recently expanded the right to bear arms to individuals, but they did not say that there are no limits on the right to bear arms.  This is from Wikipedia, but it gets the point right:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons. Pp. 54–56.

All of the people who are “protesting” by carrying their weapons into public places like restaurants and stores are not demonstrating a constitutionally protected right, even with the Supreme Court’s ultra-liberal reading of the amendment.

The fourth thing I’ve learned is that the Supreme Court was obviously wrong in the decision to expand the 2nd amendment to cover individuals.  And, they weren’t wrong because they went against the framers’ intent (which they did – even Scalia, the strict constructionist himself).  The were wrong because the “security of a free state” is a constitutional issue.  Stopping a rapist or burglar is not.  Prohibition should never have been a part of the Constitution because that is not what the Constitution is for.  The Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage by not accepting appeals, and that was the right decision.  It wasn’t right because homosexuals should have all of the same rights and privileges as everyone else (which they should).  It was right because the Constitution doesn’t have anything to say about marriage and families.  Self protection is a local, criminal matter.  I’m not saying that it is unimportant.  I’m saying that it is unrelated to the framework and powers of the government.

The fifth thing I’ve learned is that too few people think about the legitimate use of force.  One of the foundations of the state, any state, is that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  Any other option would result in anarchy.  This isn’t the time or place to discuss the problems with the libertarian ideal of anarchy, so I’m going to assume that we are all interested in having a state.  In order to have a state, all citizens must agree to grant the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  There are situations where people are allowed to defend themselves, but these exist for strictly pragmatic reasons.  If I am being attacked now, I can’t wait for the police to arrive, so I have the right to defend myself.  That right extends only so far as it takes to stop the attacker and must be commensurate with the attack.  For instance, I cannot stab a person in the neck for trying to pick a rose from my garden.  And once I have disarmed or neutralized my attacker or the police arrive, I must stop my use of force.  In other words, the right to self defense is limited and should be thought of as a last ditch right anyway.  There’s a weird romanticism in the language of gun advocates.  “The best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  But, that’s just not true.  The best defense against a bad guy with a gun is to make sure bad guys can’t get guns.  If that fails, then the police are the next best defense.  Then there are protections like door buzzers, panic rooms, bullet proof glass, etc.  If all of that fails, then I’ll grant it would be nice to have a good guy with a gun.  Although, only if that good guy with a gun is well trained and actually in a position to help.  The last thing I want is a bad guy with a gun and a panicked good guy with a gun making things worse.  In other words, despite the propaganda, the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force is a good thing.

The sixth thing I’ve learned is that the NRA has become a large collection of douche-bags*.  The NRA has, at various times, been tolerable.  They supported responsible gun ownership.  They were for background checks and waiting periods.  Those days are long gone.  The NRA says that your first grader would not have been killed if her teacher were packing heat.  Talk about blaming the victim.  They are keeping our country from having a Surgeon General because the nominee thinks that gun violence is a problem.  They spread fear and distrust with statements about the tree of liberty and the blood of tyrants.  They intimidate rather than convince to get their way.  Look at their scorecard and how it plays out in elections.  There is rampant xenophobia and racism in their statements.  Just look at their reaction to Obama being elected president.  At this point in history, the NRA might as well be the KKK.

While it is still too early to say anything meaningful about the Washington and California shootings, I do know that they should never have happened.  I do know that they happened because we have failed to learn the lessons from all of the previous mass shootings.  We have failed the victims of prior shootings.  I’m not optimistic, but I can only hope that we will not continue in our failures.


*I am using douche-bags here in the technical sense – useless, sexist tools.  See https://medium.com/human-parts/douchebag-the-white-racial-slur-weve-all-been-waiting-for-a2323002f85d.