Sunday, November 29, 2009

A pro and two cons for the death penalty

I should preface this entry by stating that I have for some time been against the penalty on an absolute basis; I feel our laws should never allow for it. Nevertheless, I did read an interesting argument in favor of the death penalty at my favorite blog, The Economist's Democracy in America.

A post at DiA a few weeks ago brought up the death penalty, and much of the ensuing conversation focused on whether it acts as a deterrent or is just an ugly expression of vengeance. One poster made the interesting point that the death penalty is partially about revenge, but that it should be. The argument goes that laws should reflect society and human nature, and revenge is a part of human nature, for better or worse. Better to channel it through the less biased and more cool-headed legal system than to let individuals be the ones taking eyes for eyes, hands for hands and lives for lives.

I actually find that argument compelling, but not enough to change my mind. Laws should reflect human nature, true, but they can also be used to fix it. I know that sounds incredibly Orwellian, but consider that racial discrimination was made illegal far before it was made socially unacceptable, and the same is true of drunk driving and debtors' prisons. In the case of the death penalty, the government puts itself in an odd position by saying that certain people deserve being killed by the state, but don't deserve to be killed by individuals.

And although it's not related to the above, my second argument against the death penalty is as basic as it is boring: until we can ensure that the law is administered without biases or other human factors (professional ambitions, differences in competence between the prosecution and defense, etc.), the death penalty is going to inevitably result in some innocent executions. And that "until" will never happen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The problem with unemployment is that it's too low

I've been thinking a lot about the economy the last few months — shocker, right? — and I think I have an insight as to why we have such a bubble-prone and consumeristic society.

Let me back up a second and explore the problem: what's to blame for our double-digit unemployment? Subprime loans and over-leveraged banks, sure; but if GDP is a measure of a nation's wealth, and wealth is a measure of productivity and resources, how did we lose so much of GDP without any major disasters wiping out people or natural resources? Even the Great Depression had the Dust Bowl to help it along (although that isn't what started it). But today, America has about as many able-bodied people as it did five years ago, and about as many natural resources. Our GDP should be about the same now as it was then.

I'll skip to the punchline: one reason we have so many people unemployed may be that a lot of our jobs aren't necessary. Unemployment is high because there's nothing for people to do.

And technology is to blame. It used to be that a person's job was hunting and gathering, and that job generated just enough wealth to feed his family. There were, by definition, just barely enough people to fill the open positions. I don't know of any stats from pre-Sumerian days, but I'd bet they had somewhere around 0% unemployment.

Today, only about a third of the world is involved in creating food, and it's even more drastic in the US, where about 2-3% of our jobs are agricultural.  The other basic requirement for survival, shelter, doesn't provide nearly enough jobs to employ the rest of us. Residential construction employs about 1 million people in America, or around 0.3% of the population. In short, technological advances have enabled a minority of the world's population (including just 3% of America's) to supply us with the bare necessities of survival — a task that used to provide full-time employment for everyone.

The rest of us need jobs, though, and that's where consumerism kicks in. We make stuff that we don't really need and sell it to one another, because otherwise two thirds of the world (and 97% of America) would be out of a job. All of these jobs are predicated on the assumption that I can sell you something superfluous, because you have lots of money to spare, because you just sold someone else something superfluous, ad infinitum.

If I suddenly suspect that you won't buy something, then I have to lower my production, meaning I have less money to buy something from someone else, who was going to use that money to buy something from you so that you could buy from me. The same 97% of American GDP that was previously functioning without a raison d'ĂȘtre now shuts down for the same non-reason, which is the state we're in now. Indeed, if you look at the states that were hit least by this recession, they tend to be the ones that farm most; that is, the ones that produce something we actually need.

What's the solution? Going back to sustenance farming is obviously impossible, but a friend to whom I once mentioned this theory suggested replacing the consumeristic bubble with a more useful one, like finding ways to address global warming. The socialist in me wants to first redistribute our excess wealth, so that everyone gets to eat before the richest (by which I include even middle America) gets a new PS3 or yacht. Whatever route we go, it'll be both egalitarian and economically stabilizing to shift our production toward artificially-amplified needs rather than artificially-amplified trinkets.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bad timing

I wonder what good it’s doing gay rights activists to keep participating in the debate over same-sex marriage. I definitely want equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians (being gay tends to have that effect on a person), but there have been some pretty devastating defeats across the country. Recently voters in Maine and California have approved an all-out ban on same-sex marriages within their borders, even after judicial or legislative actions in those states permitted gays and lesbians to marry.

Many other states have done the same, altering either their laws or their constitutions to prohibit same-sex unions. Once a statute has been passed banning same-sex marriage or such a ban is written into the state’s constitution, it becomes significantly more difficult for gays and lesbians to achieve marriage rights in those states.

It is hurtful to watch rights being taken away from gays and lesbians. Knowing that there are so many narrow-minded Americans is highly discouraging. There is evidence that popular action against same-sex marriage is literally making gays sick.

The news isn’t all bad. Some states, namely New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa either recognize or will soon recognize the right of gays and lesbians to marry. Polls also suggest that public opinion is slowly moving in favor of equal marriage rights. But it’s not there yet. If California voters can ban same-sex marriage, it can happen anywhere. The risk of continuing this debate right now is too high. With constitutional amendments in place, we are making it much harder to institute equal rights once public opinion demands them.

Here’s what I suggest: hold off for now. By vociferously fighting for marriage rights across the country, we are doing more harm than good. Let’s work on other things for a while, like laws against discrimination in the workplace, adoption rights, and hate crimes legislation. Success in those areas will put us on equal footing with heterosexual Americans in other aspects of life, paving the way for marriage equality.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Abortion and gay marriage

The Stupak-Pitts amendment to the House of Representatives' health care bill, which prohibits federal funds from even indirectly paying for abortions, has caused a bit of a stir here in Massachusetts. The special election to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate has four largely indistinguishable candidates, but the forerunner in that race made some news by saying she would vote against the bill if it contained the amendment. The second-place guy went on the attack by saying that it's wrong to vote against imperfect bills, before reversing and saying that he too would vote against the bill if its final version included Stupak-Pitts.

To those who say that the amendment is necessary to get more votes, I'd counter that voting against the bill solely because it doesn't include this amendment would be wrong. I understand that without the amendment, people would end up paying for something they feel is morally wrong; but that's the nature of democracy. I have moral qualms with the death penalty, but I wouldn't vote against a bill overhauling our judicial system just because of that.

Still, although I'm relatively pro-choice, I can understand the pro-life argument. If you consider a two-day-old embryo to be human life, then ending that life is murder. There's a long precedence that murder is a crime against society as a whole, not just against the victim; so that abortion affects you, and you have the right — the obligation, even — to outlaw it.

On the other hand, if you don't consider that embryo to be human, then it's nobody else's right to prohibit you from preventing it from becoming one by controlling your own reproductive system. It's a tough situation, and that's why it's a significant, perennial wedge issue.

But there's another wedge issue that shouldn't be one: gay marriage. Call me a crazy liberal, but it seems completely obvious to me that if we let straight couples marry, we should let gays marry, too. Unlike the case of abortion, a gay marriage doesn't affect anybody who's against it, except insofar as it makes them uncomfortable — which is not a justification to outlaw something.

If you don't like gay marriage, don't get gayly married. If you want to tell a gay married couple that they're going to Hell, well, I think you're a jerk, but you're within your rights. But until you can come up with a convincing, secular, consistent argument for why gays shouldn't be allowed to marry while straights should, the idea of banning gay marriage has zero legitimacy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Are you smarter than a conservative?

I read an interesting article recently about whether liberals are more intelligent that conservatives. The article was in The American, published by the libertarian American Enterprise Institute, so of course it's got a bit of an agenda. Still, it admits that many Republicans in the flyover states are probably not the sharpest knives in the drawer. (That's probably also true of a lot of Democrats across the country.)

Personally, I reject the contention that there is a correlation between intelligence and political beliefs. I do, however, thing that other attributes are generally more common in conservatives than liberals.

When I'm feeling bitter, I will say that conservatives are more selfish and evil than liberals. I'll say that conservatives don't care about anyone but themselves, and are too narrow-minded to understand the problems faced by people who are marginalized.

When I'm feeling a little more diplomatic, I'll say that conservatives are well-intentioned, but they don't look very far beyond the people they know and interact with on a regular basis. Conservatives worry primarily about their own families, friends, and neighborhoods. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to worry more about the environment, rights for the oppressed, and care for the poor. And of course, people who themselves are oppressed or poor tend to be liberals.

Still, intelligent people can and do have different perspectives on the world. And there are definitely conservatives who care about the world and want it to be as good as it can be. I personally just find it difficult to understand how social and fiscal conservatism is a path to a just and prosperous society. So maybe I'm the one who's stupid.