The Police Problem

Posted in Law and Disorder with tags , on June 9, 2015 by Genius

It seems like every day now there’s another video of a cop going ape-shit on someone. Nobody’s really sure why this is a sudden trend. Some people think it’s just the fact that everyone now has a video recorder in their pocket, and I’m sure that’s a factor but that’s been largely true for years now.  Everyone got a flip-phone that could take video a decade ago, and a smartphone at least five years ago.

Maybe it’s that cops are becoming more violent. The lack of reporting around that is shocking. We don’t know and never will. I can’t imagine they’re too terribly much more vicious than they were a decade ago, but I guess you never know. They have effectively no oversight.

Maybe it’s a combination of the two. Regardless of reason, I think the current trend is a great thing and we need more of it. We Americans have accepted too long our slide toward a police state. We have too many police, who are too well-armed, enforcing far too many laws. We have them because like any large bureaucratic organization, the police state constantly seeks to increase its size and influence. Politicians, who don’t want to look soft on crime, go along with it.

Over a million people are employed by state and local law enforcement agencies. That’s a big business. Only one American corporation, Wal-Mart, employs more than that. The second largest employer, Yum Brands! (Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut) employs half that.

I’ve written before about how local law enforcement uses unreasonable means like excessively low speed limits to fund itself. This is at least not directly, physically harmful. Cops don’t shoot people for speeding. But it does cause accidents and loads of economic damage.

In a year, cops make about 11 millions arrests in the US. (See link below to FBI Data.) But they write about 41 million speeding tickets. Seriously, they’re about 4 times as likely to annoy a motorist for revenue as they are to do anything of actual use. And that’s implying that the arrests are of use, which many aren’t, but I’ll get to that in a second.

Cops no longer serve the public, they oppress. Their unstated purposes are to incarcerate the poor and raise revenue so they can justify their existence. They’re of little utility beyond that. If someone broke into your house, how quickly do you think they’d get there? (In my case I know the answer because I once accidentally tripped my alarm while leaving the house and didn’t know it. They showed up 40 minutes later. When they got there, they talked to the girl I was dating at the time, who said “I’m his girlfriend.” They didn’t ask any questions, not even whose girlfriend she was, and just left. Had it been a strange woman who broke into my house, she could have looted it for over a half hour, told the cops she was my girlfriend, then kept on looting.)

Ask yourself this: when was the last time a cop did anything good for you? Now when was the last time they cost you time, money, or worse when you were doing nothing that was of any harm to anyone else?

As for things other than speeding tickets, by far the largest group of arrests are drug-related ones. The most frequent is possession of marijuana. Does it make you feel safer to know that cops are arresting hundreds of thousands of pot heads every year for holding dime bags? Me neither.

Drug laws in particular give police forces an excuse to buy military-grade weapons and vehicles. They don’t restrain themselves to using them against meth labs though. I wasn’t there for it, but a a low-stakes poker game I used to frequent, full of little old ladies gambling for amounts in the low three digits, was raided by a SWAT team with machine guns and flashbangs. These weren’t hardened criminals packing heat. There weren’t hundreds of thousands of dollars to be protected. The cops even knew that because an undercover agent had played in the game and filmed it with a hidden camera three times. And yet they brought an armored van and put a bunch of harmless old retirees’ heads to the ground with machine guns pointed at them. Luckily nobody was injured, but it’s easy to see how a slight accident, like a nearby car backfiring, could have turned that scene really ugly, when all they had to do was walk in the front door.

Drug laws don’t reduce drug use. Our country should have learned that by 1933, when we repealed prohibition. Making alcohol illegal didn’t stop people form drinking, it just empowered violent, organized crime. Despite incredibly strong penalties, Americans do more drugs than anyone else. We use four times as much cocaine as the next country. Suck it New Zealand!

For awhile we were lucky. We have actual law and order (often too much) so it’d be hard to get away with a giant poppy farm in the states. So most of the violent organized crime was restricted to areas south of us. Our drug prohibition became Central and South Americas’ problems. Violent cartels grow the drugs in Columbia and ship them up through Mexico, destabilizing the entire region. We ship hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cash and weapons to their governments in an attempt to counter it, but it’s nowhere near enough when the drug lords are making hundreds of billions. We didn’t care because they kept their violence out of our country, but in the post 9/11 world, having a large group of paramilitary organizations who are very good at the logistics of smuggling things across our border has gotten scary.

As far as I’m concerned, pretty much the only good things cop do at any scale is bust drunk drivers. I’m glad they’re out there giving DUIs. I’m glad DUIs are extremely expensive. And they’re about 10% of arrests. Driverless cars will solve that problem for us entirely in a decade or two, but until then this is really the only thing cops are doing that benefits us law-abiding Americans.

The solution to our cop problem is obvious.

1. Decriminalize drugs. All of them. You should be able to walk into a CVS and buy cocaine or heroin. I know that might sound scary, but remember, pretty much every real bit of data we have says that making them illegal doesn’t reduce use. Instead regulate drugs so that users can easily access clean needles and services and know what they’re buying, and tax it so we can pay for treatment.

2. End the practice of local governments using speeding ticket revenues to pay for services. All fees from speeding tickets must go to charity (and not the local F.O.P. chapter.) Between #1 and #2 here we’ve just reduced our police force staffing needs by 75% so we’ll save a lot of money anyway.

3. Enact effective oversight of police by third parties. We can’t trust internal investigators and local prosecutors to be fair when it comes to their colleagues. Cleveland made national news for agreeing to a federal oversight program in the wake of the Michael Brelo verdict. This is a great program and every police department should be subject to it.

These things are starting to happen, bit by bit, around our country. I’m not optimistic about legalizing all drugs anytime soon, but perhaps marijuana will be a gateway legalizer. Demonstrations and riots will force police departments to agree to oversight. Perhaps more importantly, they’ll make fewer people want to become cops, and reduced police forces will (hopefully) have to prioritize better.

Modernist Cookware

Posted in Cooking, Startup, tech with tags , , on March 26, 2015 by Genius

I was checking out Y Combinator’s recent batch and was surprised (and elated) to see two low-temperature cookware devices in it! As someone working on a product in the space it’s good to see the segment of the market heating up. Pun intended.

For those who don’t know, low-temperature cooking is a new(ish) method of preparing food. The old style of cooking (we’ll call it high-temperature cooking, for lack of a better term) had a good run. It had a near monopoly from the dawn of humanity until about ten years ago. The idea is that you throw food onto or into something much hotter than the desired final temperature of the food (a grill, a pan, an oven, etc.) and then pull it out when the center of the food has reached your desired point. For instance if you’re trying to cook a steak to medium rare (130F) you toss it on a 500F grill and pull it off when the center reaches 130F.

The downsides to high temperature cooking are numerous. For one, it’s extremely easy to overcook your food. I’ll spare you the thermodynamics, but suffice it to say that while it may take 10 minutes to get your juicy rib-eye to medium rare, it may only take one more to get it to well and still one more to be burnt to a crisp. The chef must play what Modernist Cuisine calls “the role of human thermostat.” This is why you’ve probably eaten more food in your life that was overcooked than properly cooked.

Worse yet, the heat in the final product is distributed unevenly. Even if you cook a steak to perfect medium rare, cut it open and look at the inside. You’ll see a ring of well-done meat around the outside. It’s because heat is overcooking the outside as it diffuses toward the center.

Because of this there’s also something chefs call carryover cooking. Carryover cooking is just heat that continues to diffuse from the outside in after you take the meat off the hot surface. If the outside of the steak is 500F, and the inside is only 130F, it’s easy to see that heat will transfer toward the center, cooking it more. So a chef must actually guess at what temperature to pull the steak off (probably more like 125F) based on the cooking that will happen afterward.

With low-temperature cooking, things are much simpler. Thanks to accurate temperature control technology, which is now very cheap, it’s much better to just cook the steak at 130F. Now you no longer have to guess when to pull it out. A simple formula (don’t worry, you can just use a chart or app because nobody wants to do that math) tells you how long it will take to get your steak to the same internal temperature as the heating element. Because you’re cooking it at the final temperature, if you wait a little too long nothing bad happens. The steak will never get hotter than the 130F.

Your food is cooked to one internal temperature throughout. Here’s a graphic from Cooking Issues (thought I’d replicate it here before that blog’s takeover by Viagra spammers is complete) showing you the difference.

So low-temperature cooking is considerably better. You’ve probably had a ton of food cooked sous vide (one type of low-temperature cooking) and didn’t even know it. Chipotle cooks their barbacoa and carnitas that way. Panera cooks their steak, turkey, salmon, and even their oatmeal that way. High-end restaurants cook many things sous vide, in fact you’d be hard-pressed to find a Michelin-starred restaurant without a rack of immersion circulators.

So needless to say, Y Combinator made a smart move investing in the space. I don’t know much about the two specific companies but am excited to see them.

The first was Nomiku, which is a decent home immersion circulator. An immersion circulator is one type of device for cooking sous vide. Sous vide is a form of low-temperature cooking in which food is (almost always) sealed (sometimes in a ziploc bag, sometimes a vacuum bag, sometimes in its own shell like an egg) and cooked in an accurately-controlled water bath. If you’ve watched shows like Top chef, you’ve probably seen contestants cook in something that looks like this:

That’s sous vide. You can see the carrots are bagged (probably with a little oil) but the eggs shells serve as sufficient packaging. 

I actually pre-ordered Nomiku’s upcoming Wi-Fi model months ago on Kickstarter. I’ve been cooking sous vide for years, having built my own from some schematics I found online. Back then the Polyscience models shown above were the primary option and cost close to $1,000. In recent years we’ve seen the prices on immersion circulators fall to $200, and I think they will drop all the way down to $100 in the near future. (More on that later.)

More interesting, though, was Cinder. Cinder is kind of a cross between a George Forman grill and a low-temperature cooking machine. It’s not really sous vide at all, despite using the term many times on its website, it’s low temperature cooking. I have a lot of questions as to how exactly this thing works for many types of meat. But it does look like an incredibly simple way to cook a steak or pork chop! That thing would be really awesome for someone in a situation where a full stove is impractical too. Imagine having that in your college dorm.

I have a lot of thoughts about the space in general, having been doing this for a few years. I’ll get more into depth on that in the not-too-distant future.

Brief Update on Speeding Ticket

Posted in Politics with tags , on March 17, 2015 by Genius

My first step in fighting the speed trap I mentioned last time was the arraignment. The ticket was in the Village of Oakwood, which has a mayor’s court. For those of you who live in states where mayor’s courts don’t exist, which is most states because they’re ridiculous, they are basically kangaroo courts in which a magistrate appointed by the mayor finds people guilty of speeding violations and misdemeanors to raise revenue for their towns. Ohio has been slowly eradicating them, as they’re a flagrant conflict of interest. If you ever find yourself in a mayor’s court for any reason, and it doesn’t matter at all what it is, plead not guilty at your arraignment and ask for a change to a court of record.

Of course on my way to the courthouse I was blasting Rage Against the Machine, because what else would you listen to when fighting the man? I was singing along, getting hyped up for my encounter with the justice system. Right when I got to the end of Killing in the Name and was screaming “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” a cop pulled alongside me at a red light. Thankfully it wasn’t yet windows-down weather in Ohio or I probably would be fighting two charges instead of one.

I got to my arraignment early, and was surprised at what I saw. Now, I’m not going to say the justice system is racist. But there were five white people on my side of the room. Other than myself, there were two lawyers (representing black clients) and two white fellow freedom fighters. This is in a room of probably a hundred people. The two white defendants were wearing sweatpants and t-shirts. There were exactly four people wearing a tie in the whole place, the two lawyers, me, and the magistrate, who looked like Doc Brown from Back to the Future. I was waiting for men with machine guns to raid the courtroom but thankfully there hasn’t been a Libyan terrorist in about thirty years.

I sat there for about a half hour listening to the other defendants before I got called. These were the sort of crimes for which people should have an attorney. DUIs. Driving under suspension. Lots of driving under suspension. Minor drug possession charges. People who missed their last x court dates. The magistrate told one girl “I’m going to pretend you aren’t here, because if you were I’d have to take you into custody. Go get a lawyer and send him.”

When I finally got called Magistrate Doc Brown said “A speeding ticket? Haven’t seen one of those in awhile.” I pleaded not guilty and he looked surprised. He warned me that I wasn’t going to win just because there was a typo on the docket. I told him I didn’t know about the typo until he pointed it out. He looked at my quizzically. I asked about getting the venue changed to a court of record. He said “Ok, we’ll get you an arraignment in Bedford.” And that was it.

A few weeks later, I got a letter in the mail about my arraignment in Bedford, of course 5 days before it was scheduled, and of course when I was out of town on business.  I motioned for a continuance, which got denied because I hadn’t waived my right to a speedy trial and we were already 40 days from the date of the ticket. I resubmitted with a waiver, which required some expert Photoshopping from me since I was in Chicago and didn’t feel like going to Kinko’s to print, sign, and scan some forms, and it was granted.

So now I have an arraignment in a few weeks in Bedford. Wish me luck.

Why I’m Fighting My Speeding Ticket, & Think You Should Too

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on February 13, 2015 by Genius

TLDR: Speeding tickets are an unsafe, uneconomical, and unethical way of raising revenues without taxes and by fighting them you prevent that from happening.

A few weeks ago I got pulled over in what could only be described as a routine speed trap. I was on my way to dinner with a friend in a little town called Solon. I got off the expressway, and was on a state route that started off at 35 mph. I didn’t realize it dropped to 25 in a little town called The Village of Oakwood, and of course there was a cop right there waiting to snag me.

This has happened to me (and everyone else) a dozen times, and every time I just called the phone number and paid the ticket. That’s easily the most economical use of my time. A ticket is something like $150, plus probably a couple hundred more when you count in the raised car insurance rate that will result. So let’s say the total cost is $350. It wouldn’t need to consume much of my time to make it not worth fighting, monetarily, even if I knew I would somehow win. And you never know you’ll win. In fact you know you probably won’t.

But I am nothing if not a man of principle, and speeding tickets of this kind are, in principle, abominable. See what happens is little podunk townships like The Village of Oakwood want to have a nice town. They want to have nice schools, and nice parks. They want the garbage collection and snow plows to run on time. But of course the residents don’t want to pay for it, because having a nice town is expensive.

So they erect a speed trap. They drop a speed limit by 10 mph and then essentially tax passing motorists. This works especially well if they’re located between two spots people actually want to be, because then the speeding tickets won’t be issued to locals. They’re almost always on a highway or a state route as a result.

Speed traps are problematic for citizens for a few reasons, the largest of which is that they are a safety issue. It sounds counter-intuitive, but lowering speed limits can make roads unsafe. What causes accidents isn’t necessarily high speed, but high speed differentials. Research conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation showed that the percentage of accidents actually caused by speeding is very low, 2.2 percent. An expressway on which everyone is traveling 65 mph is fairly safe. A road on which half the people are traveling 25 mph and half the people are traveling 40 mph is dangerous.

People tend to drive at a safe speed regardless of speed limit. Studies show that raising the speed limit of a highway, for instance, barely alters the speed at which people drive. Traffic engineers know that know matter what speed is posted, about 85% of people will travel at or below safe speed.

In Ohio (and many other states) speed limits are proscribed by state law. Localities can deviate from them, but to lower them they are supposed to have a traffic engineering study showing that the legally proscribed speed limit is unsafe. This is quite simple, engineers just measure the speeds of passing motorists and set the new speed limit such that 85% of people are at or below it. You’ve probably seen engineers do this on the side of the road with a device mounted on a tripod and didn’t know what it was.

Speed traps cause accidents. Accidents cause injury, and death. Seriously. By setting speeds artificially low to collect revenue, townships are literally maiming and killing people. Let that sink in. They’re funding their schools by physically harming passing motorists. I’m not being hyperbolic.

Then there’s the economic damage. Slowing traffic wastes time, and time is money. The speeding tickets add points to licenses, which is great for car insurance companies, but bad for those of us buying the insurance. Car repair bills from the non-fatal accidents, hospital bills from when people get injured. The economic impact is a multiple of the tax revenue generated. Instead of taxing the citizens for a buck, they’re doing $5 worth of economic damage and getting $1 of it. Why? Because nobody has to vote to approve it, whereas a tax hike is hard to get passed on a ballot.

On top of that, revenue-based speed enforcement fosters a hatred of the police. For most Americans, traffic tickets are pretty much the only interaction they have with cops. There’s a reason even middle-class white people who’ve never had even a misdemeanor say “fuck the police” when I tell them what’s happening. I have a couple cop friends, and they tell me they hate writing speeding tickets for that reason, but their job security depends on it. Most people become officers to protect and serve. Nobody gets into policing because they want to issue tickets and harass passing motorists. But it fattens the town budget, and therefore their police department’s budget and their salary.

Because speeding tickets are entirely about revenue, they rely solely on your compliance. Unless you’re going highly in excess of safe speeds, a ticket doesn’t cost very much. In Ohio they max out at $150 (I think) which has to cover the time the officer spent writing the ticket, the time the prosecutor spends on your case, the time the judge and all of the other courtroom personnel spend, etc. Pretty much by challenging a ticket at all you’ve turned it into an unprofitable venture for the city. If you just plead no contest and pay your ticket, the city makes $150 for very little. (Basically ten minutes of an officer’s time.) If you fight it, they lose money. But you do too, and they know that. They are relying on you to be selfish.

To put that another way, if everyone started challenging their tickets, the whole system would crumble. Hell, if probably ten percent of people challenged the ticket, the system would shut down. Insurance rates will drop. Commute times will be shortened. Accidents will be prevented. Lives would literally be saved. Think about that. If we all challenged unreasonable speeding tickets actual lives would be saved.

So while I realize I’m not exactly Dr. Martin Luther King for fighting this one, I consider it my civic duty. Some day I hope to be in a position to end speed traps and revenue-based traffic enforcement altogether. But for now all I can do is fight this ticket. I’ll keep updating here as I do so about how it went.

I’m Baaaaaaaack

Posted in General Thoughts on February 6, 2015 by Genius

Anyone still here? It’s been a long time, I know. I’ve been doing most of my writing for the last year or two anonymously. It’s been enjoyable to say whatever I want, even if my readership was relatively tiny as a result. I had even hidden this site for a bit. Don’t worry, I’ll bring back the good posts bit-by-bit. I felt the need to more carefully curate what had been over a decade of assorted grabasstic raving. After all, this place has my name in the domain.

This blog has been with me for a very long time. It’s seen a major change of career, from poker player to entrepreneur. It’s seen marriages and other relationships come and go. It’s seen the world change in numerous ways.

Unfortunately my personal blogging had been suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. And as distribution outlets like Google Reader went down one by one, succumbing to things I either barely comprehend (Twitter) or don’t much enjoy (Facebook) it began to feel pointless. There’s a certain dread you can only experience when your blog has just enough readers that you have to be careful what you say, but not enough that it really matters to your life.

I’m trying to avoid the totally cliché metaphor of the phoenix here, but you see where I’m going. I’m ready to start again. I’ll keep some of the more niche items I care about anonymous, like my totally bitchin’ cocktail blog. But the general purpose brain dump will go here.

So it’s good to see you again dear reader. It’s been too long.


Posted in Politics with tags , , , on November 7, 2012 by Genius

So the election is today and unlike 2008’s, I haven’t said much about it. This is primarily for two reasons. First, there was no Sarah Palin. I’m not a big fan of Romney, and like Ryan even less, but their existence in national-level politics isn’t offensive. Neither of them are stupid, lazy, or mean-spirited. I disagree with them on more topics than not, and even though many members of their party often make me feel embarrassed to be an American, they don’t.

The second is there’s just nothing left to say. As I’ve gotten older I’ve blogged less, probably, more than for any other reason, because I’ve grown less conceited. It isn’t that I can’t say something insightful, or well-written. It’s just because you’ve already read the same thing ten times, probably by people who are at least as insightful and better at writing. Ten years ago that was probably equally true, but I just didn’t know it yet, and sometimes I wish I still didn’t because I’d probably write more.

I’m also just not so sure the election matters anymore. To be totally honest, the Republican Party scares me a bit. The rest of the world is horrified at the thought of a Republican winning the Presidency, and it shocks me that half of America isn’t. This is a party whose policies have seemingly no relation to reality. Their answer to every problem is tax cuts for the rich, despite 30 years of that failing in America, and thousands of years of that failing around the globe. They attempt to stay in power not by doing what would best serve the middle class, but rather by disenfranchisement and convincing poor middle-Americans that whether or not gay people can marry is not only up for them to decide, but is also more important than their own economic welfare.

On the other hand, the Democratic Party is no prize. They’re the sort of party that would win elections in Europe, and I don’t think that’s a compliment. They’re willing to accept scientific facts like global warming, and they remember history and read papers written by economists enough to know what happens when you let the income gap get too wide. But on the really big picture items, like global warming, financial industry regulation, or the deficit, they either don’t have a clear solution, or if they do are unable to explain it to the country well enough to get it done.

The Republicans have chosen staying in power at all costs over sound decision making, and the Democrats have chosen statistics over leadership. We need a party with policies both firmly rooted in reality and practical enough to become law, and that party needs majorities in the House and Senate as well as the Presidency to get anything done. And if there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s that nothing that happens at the ballot box today is going to make that a reality.

Take, for instance, our financial sector. Republicans are, on the whole, opposed to bailouts of any sort. (Never mind that Bush started the financial bailouts and signed TARP into law.) They’re opposed to government regulation of any sort to. (Never mind that the Hank Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and who probably was not a fan of government bailing out and nationalizing banks before the shit hit the fan on his watch was Treasury Secretary when the meltdown came and led the bailouts). Their policies, when you add them together, seem endorse letting banks grow too big to fail, then not bailing them out when they do fail, which is a surefire way to bring about a depression.

(If anything, though, I’m glad that when the meltdown did happen the people in charge chose what was best for the country over party ideology, and when you know your name is going down in the history books you’ll make that call every time.)

Democrats are in favor of regulation. And they’re smart enough to realize that a $700 billion bailout, while odious, has to be compared to the alternative, which could have been trillions of dollars worth of losses to the economy. What they’re not smart enough to do is explain to the American populace why the economy melted down (most people still don’t know) and as a result we’re still in danger of losing the Volcker Rule the minute a Republican sets foot in the Oval Office.

I’ll be the first to admit that I find nothing more trite and annoying than the fifty people you’ve already seen say “All politicians suck” in your Facebook feed over the last month. That’s armchair quarterbacking at its worst. And it’s a flat out denial of reality which is that politicians, just like the people who tanked our financial industry, are merely responding to their incentives.

We ask them to provide more services and tax us less, so they do, then we’re hit with a deficit (which is the only possible result) and we complain. Our country’s financial behavior is pretty much identical to that of the families that vote those politicians into office. Coincidence?

We ask them to make everything we don’t like illegal, then complain when they trample on someone’s civil liberties. We ask them to stop “redistributing wealth” then complain anytime someone threatens to cut Social Security. We allow corporations to spend money lobbying and buying political ads, then are shocked when they get away with whatever form of malfeasance.

And so in the end our politicians do what exactly we elected them to do and we say “these guys are all douche bags.” But in reality we have met the douche bags, and they are us.

In my opinion there are exactly two things our country needs to do, and neither of them are on the ballot. Neither politician from either party will enact them because both have a vested personal interest in the opposite.

#1. Campaign finance reform. This is the root of all American political evils. The funny part is most research seems to show that campaign spending has a negligible result on the outcome of an election. But politicians think it matters, and as a result we get Republicans who deny the existence of global warming and Democrats who are too afraid to hold teachers to any sort of measurable standard.

Laws like SOPA would never even be dreamed of by a politician who wasn’t getting campaign contributions.

Interestingly we have a bit of a Mexican standoff going on between our parties about this. Neither party wants to give up hundreds of millions of dollars. Piss off corporations and unions too much and fail to enact sweeping change and you might be handing the other party a huge campaign spending advantage. And Citizens United made it clear that we need nothing short of a constitutional amendment to enact real change.

And both parties take donations from major beneficiaries of current campaign spending. Regardless of who wins the popular vote, the real winner in an election year is whoever owns a television station in Ohio.

#2. Giving Americans a good fiscal education. It’s shocking how little the average American understand about economics, despite it being the driving force in the voting booth. Why do high schools not require 4 years of economics classes?

Again, neither party has a real interest in fixing this because neither advocates a sensible fiscal policy. Our deficit is so large that the only way out is clearly a cut in spending and in increase in taxes, and both parties hold one of those sacred and refuse to do the other regardless.

If I ever find myself an idle billionaire, these two, in order, will be the first things I turn my attention toward fixing. I believe that campaign finance reform alone is enough to get our country on the right track.

So that’s why I’m no longer even optimistic enough to feel like it matters anymore. Either way I think we’re looking at a rough twenty years. And don’t even get me started on the shift to post-scarcity economics. I’ll save that for my next long-winded, unedited rant.

Gay Marriage

Posted in Politics on October 6, 2008 by Genius

I was thinking about gay marriage a bit today. It seems to be the hot button issue of the last 4 years or so. When the Republicans needed to get George W. Bush reelected despite a low approval rating, their most powerful tactic (and the one that may ultimately have worked) was putting anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballot to drive the religious right to the polls.

Gay marriage is clearly the new abortion, the topic separating the red half of the nation from the blue. It seems that the social conservatives are more or less admitting defeat on abortion, at least as far as ballots are concerned, and moving on. They know they can’t do much about it other than to hope they can keep electing Presidents until they’ve stacked the Supreme Court in their favor, but that’s too long-term a plan to make much difference at the polls. So they had to go digging for another hobgoblin, and lo and behold, Massachusetts and then California dropped it into their lap.

When you really think about it, you realize that something like 95% of the population doesn’t have a vested interest in the outcome, so it’s clear that it isn’t the issue itself that’s bringing people to the voting booths. At least with abortion, there was a clear rationale for wanting it to be illegal. Many of us disagree with the premise (that life begins at some definable point, such as conception) and prefer to err on the side of civil liberties, but at least we can sort of understand where the opposing side is coming from. They believe, for whatever reason, that a fetus is still a human, and therefore abortion is murder, and that our government has a responsibility to protect unborn babies from murder just as they do born ones. Again, many of us may disagree, but we get the argument.

Not so with gay marriage really. The actual issue is a little esoteric, because it’s always being danced around. Separation of church and state forces those in favor of such amendments to come up with some justification beyond “The Bible says so” for outlawing it, but the ones they come up with are flimsy and weak, obviously a ruse to hide some deeper motivations.

The first of the big two justifications is that “marriage is between a man and a woman”, which is really nothing more than semantics. A lot of people say they’re ok with gay people having “civil unions”, which are just marriages but called something different, which essentially means they want the government to take over Merriam Webster’s job of defining words.

The second is that we need to “protect the institution of marriage.” That’s such bullshit that even most of the social conservatives I’ve talked to laugh at it. We have a 50% failure rate for first marriages, which climbs to 67% and 74% for the second and third, respectively. Any “institution” that fails more often than not doesn’t need protection, it needs life support. And nobody but Pat Buchanan could possibly blame gay people for the current state of affairs there.

So what it really comes down to, what really drives people to the polls to vote one way or the other, is epistemology. What we’re voting on isn’t whether or not gay people should be able to file a joint tax return. It’s whether we’re going to make our decisions based on science and reason or religion and fear of what we don’t understand.

As Bill Maher said in the first video from my recent post:

“It is two Americas. There’s like a progressive European nation that a lot of us live in, or would like to live in, and it’s being strangled by the Sarah Palins of the world. It can’t quite be born because this other stupid redneck nation won’t allow it.”

It’s pretty clear which nation I’d like to live in, of course. My heart lies with science. And scientists say that homosexuality isn’t a choice but rather a genetic disposition. And therefore, it cannot be wrong, any more than being tall or having brown hair can. (Science also says that there isn’t a black and white distinction between homo and heterosexuality as we tend to view it, but rather it’s a continuum and we’re all some shade of grey, but that’s beside the point I suppose.)

So that’s why I could never pull the lever for a candidate who was opposed to gay marriage. It isn’t because I care one way or the other about the outcome. It doesn’t really affect me either way. I only know a few gay people, and they don’t really seem to care. What does affect me is having leaders who base their decisions on 2,000 year old mistranslated folk stories, and irrational fears that if we let gay people be openly so, our moral fabric will somehow be ripped to shreds.

It’s a bad epistemology, and it’s one that’s threatening the very future of our country. It’s what’s allowing the redneck half to hold the progressive half back. And it’s why I find myself so often voting for a party that I consider the lesser, by far, of two evils, and lamenting that there hasn’t been a truly conservative candidate on the ballot since 1964. And don’t say Reagan or I’ll punch you in the teeth.

So the question is, where do we go from here? I really don’t know. I don’t see much of a way out of our current predicament beyond education, and that’s nearly non-existent in the red half of the nation. The differences in average wealth and education between the red and blue states are astounding, and it’s not a coincidence. It all goes back to the epistemology.

But the very policies of those kept in power by the religious right keep their base poor and uneducated. Our nation is already a statistical outlier in terms of religion, but it’s also very young, and it can’t stay that way forever. Nothing ever does. In the end, science and reason always have their way. It’s just a matter of time.

Perhaps if the progressive half of our nation wants the redneck half to allow it to be born, it should focus on educating them. Fear and religion are both predicated on ignorance. Maybe we should be donating to their schools and scholarship funds. Surely there are loads of intelligent people even in those states, give them the tools they need to stamp out fear and ignorance through education. It sounds a little counterintuitive to give money to the very people who are preventing you from fixing our nation, but it might build a progressive dynasty.

Or maybe not.