Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Feds screw NYC and Washington, D.C.

From Reuters ("New York, Washington angry about anti-terrorism funds," May 31, 2006):
The U.S. government has slashed 2006 counterterrorism funding by 40 percent for New York City and Washington -- two targets of the September 11 attacks -- sparking angry reactions in both cities on Wednesday.

New York City will receive $124.45 million -- the largest amount of Department of Homeland Security funding under its Urban Area Security Initiative. But officials criticized the government for the sharp decrease in funds from 2005 when it was granted about $207.6 million.

Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, called the cut in funding "indefensible and disgraceful."

"New York City has been attacked twice and is doing more than any other city in the country to defend itself and our nation," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, DHS and the administration have declared war on New York City, and I am going to fight this as hard as I possibly can."
But then, what is Peter King expecting? He's a Republican. He should know better than anyone that his party has no interest in coming to the aid of his home state.

According to the article, "Washington mayor Anthony Williams also criticized the government for awarding the Washington area about $46.5 million, compared to $77.5 million last year."

Oh, and who got their funding increased? Those hotbeds of terrorist activity "Louisville, Kentucky; Charlotte, North Carolina and Omaha, Nebraska." Is it any conincidence that these cities in red states?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Suspended for sharing caffeine gum; other schools still stupid too

How dumb do you get? A girl was actually suspended for sharing gum with caffeine in it ("Student suspended for sharing caffeine gum," May 27, 2006). "What if the gum had been given to a student with a heart condition?" Amy Palermo, the school system's superintendent asked.

Good question. What if she was allergic to milk and another student gave her something with milk in it? And then she died? And didn't go to Heaven because she never accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior?

Of course, schools are a paragon of healthy dieting. No, really. Cookies? French fries? Sloppy joes? You don't beat lunches like that. The school mentioned above apparently even allowed caffeine to be sold from soda machines after school let out. As long as those kids with heart problems die on the way home, right?

And you know those big yellow cheese wagons that schools send children home in? "A recent study shows that at least 500,000 of our nation's school buses are amongst the worst polluting vehicles on the road today and pose a health hazard for our childeren who ride them" ("Nation's School Buses Worst Polluting Vehicles," May 27, 2006). Apparently, the worst are in South Carolina ("S.C. hits bottom rank in school bus pollution," May 26, 2006), where many of the worst things in the United States come from:
South Carolina ranks dead last in the nation in the amount of pollution, including soot and diesel exhaust, spewed into the air by its fleet of aging school buses.

That is according to a school bus report card issued Wednesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

South Carolina's buses received a grade of D for soot pollution and was rated poor in smog-forming exhaust, the two major categories of emissions ranked in the report.
Nevermind the stupidity of locating schools and housing miles and miles apart (hell, I had to drive half an hour to my high school—the school bus took more than 45 minutes). Why don't we hand them cigarettes too? The South still has a big tobacco industry. It's better to hook them while they're young.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bush: War on Terror is like War for World War II!

From the BBC:
President Bush has strongly defended the US-led war on terror, casting it as a struggle between freedom and tyranny similar to World War II.
The war on terror, he said, resembles "the great clashes of the last century" between democracy and totalitarianism.
"Like the murderous ideologies of the last century, the ideology of murderers reaches across borders," President Bush added.

The "enemies of freedom", he went on, mistakenly assumed that the US was "decadent" and would collapse.
The murderous ideologies of the last century who spied on their own citizens, took aggressive, preemptive action against non-aggressive powers, and won elections through demagoguery?

If freedom has an enemy in high places, it's the President of the United States.
"In those calls we hear echoes of other enemies in other times, the same swagger," he said.
Ha! Swagger! Who does that remind you of?
"We will accept nothing less than victory over the enemy," he said.

He told the new officers that the US would continue to strike terror groups around the world.

"The best way to protect America is to stay on the offensive."
Spoken like a good German circa 1939.

In all seriousness, statements like these belie the mentality of the Bush regime in a rather funny way. Much like Benito Mussolini in the 1930s, the modern neo-cons missed out on something they probably really would have sincerely enjoyed. Mussolini came about too late, in the 1920s, to enjoy the colonial adventure and grandiose political posturing that the late 19th/early 20th century Empire Club got to enjoy. Bismarck, Disraeli, and even a young Winston Churchill all had their day as leaders or at least patriots at the political and social forefront of some of the world's great powers (Winston Churchill of course became a remarkable leader in his own right during World War II, decades later).

The modern Bush Administration doesn't really have a "great enemy of freedom" to even do battle with. Fascists were defeated by Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, while authoritarian socialism died out by virtue of the idiocy of authoritarian socialism. (Naturally, some like to credit the Pope or Reagan for the defeat of "communism," but I personally credit nobody.) What remains of authoritarianism in the world tends to be the odd political anomoly, along the lines of Kim in North Korea or an aging, toothless Fidel Castro. More politically astute authoritarians even recognize that it's politically easier to make nice with the west and trade than to instigate the great military powers into imposing sanctions. This is why Libya decided to stop being a "rogue state" and started being an oil whore state.

Nonetheless, the militant wing of the Republican Party needs to be fueled by a boogeyman, and vaguely-styled "terrorists" have to be it now. Fascinatingly enough, the Bush types of the world can't really comprehend modern terrorism for what it is: stateless, splintered groups of disenfranchised, largely under-sexed young males who are seduced by the promise of martyrdom. There are many of these types of people in the world, and some of them are right here in the United States (remember Timothy McVeigh?).

Terrorism is not an ideology or a philosophy or even a movement. It's simply a tactic, one that even a state can use. Iraq, in turn, was easy to attack because it's everything a terrorist organization isn't: a fixed political entity guilty of incredible acts of mass murder. Stateless terrorists attack individuals and small groups of people to frighten the political status quo. It takes a government to commit acts of war. When a small group of thugs instigate violence, it's more in line with gangsterism (whether the goal is bootlegging liquor and drugs, or spreading a perverted interpretation of the teachings of Mohammed).

When Saddam Hussein fell from power, even leftist groups around the world breathed a sigh of relief. A thug had fallen, but it left a power vacuum. It's important to understand that Iraq isn't a country in the way that the United States or Germany or France or Great Britain is a country. These states, carved by centuries of warfare and mutual recognition, exist because of their histories and because they defeated the greater powers that would otherwise occupy them. It may have been a zero-zum game at best, but it created the West as we know it today. Iraq exists because the victorious powers of World War I decided to carve up one of the losers in a way that was apparently politically expedient at the time. When he consolidated his power in an unstable Iraq, Saddam in a sense became the glue that held Iraq together. Sadly, he also represented the most progressive leadership the Middle East will be likely see in our lifetimes. Women didn't need to wear veils and Christians and Mandeans could openly practice their faith.

Report: At Least 1 in 3 Drivers are Assholes

From NY1 ("Survey: New York Drivers Among Least-Informed In Nation," May 27, 2006), according to a recent GMAC insurance survey:
The poll asked more than 5,000 licensed drivers a set of 20 questions found on a typical DMV test.
The results from the survey showed that one out of every 11 drivers in the United States would fail a state drivers test and one out of three don't usually stop for pedestrians [emphasis added].

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Savage straights' rights

A couple of days ago, the Bush administrations' Christian medical government subsidiary announced new recommendations for women: specifically, all pre-menopausal women should regard themselves as "pre-pregnant." From The Washington Post ("Forever Pregnant," May 16, 2006):
New federal guidelines ask all females capable of conceiving a baby to treat themselves -- and to be treated by the health care system -- as pre-pregnant, regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant anytime soon.

Among other things, this means all women between first menstrual period and menopause should take folic acid supplements, refrain from smoking, maintain a healthy weight and keep chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes under control.

While most of these recommendations are well known to women who are pregnant or seeking to get pregnant, experts say it's important that women follow this advice throughout their reproductive lives, because about half of pregnancies are unplanned and so much damage can be done to a fetus between conception and the time the pregnancy is confirmed.
First off, for an administration that seems to oppose even birth control, it's probably not entirely a bad thing that they at least want to promote good health for their semen recepticles. However, it would be nice if the guidelines mentioned birth control as a good remedy for avoiding unwanted children and, consequently, unhealthy children. But hey, the little shits are only important while they're in the womb. Afterwards, they become welfare cases, education fund sponges, and eventually follow the course of either being workers or prisonors, either of which is apparently unworthy of the benefits of a decent education or clean air.

Naturally, such things aren't quite surprising from the Bush Administration. As many have pointed out, and as I thought myself immediately upon reading about the new guidelines, they certainly don't seem to expect men to regard themselves as "pre-fathers," and things men can do to their bodies certainly can affect the health of their sperm, and consequently, their offspring. Men, of course are busy ruling and working and stuff, while women should be expected to stay healthy, slim (I kid you not: "...maintain a healthy weight..."), and in the kitchen.

Sex columnist Dan Savage, a homosexual who has been endorsing the start of a straights' rights movement, had great line in his column from today:
There is a bright side in the CDC's announcement: If we're going to regard all females as pre-pregnant, then we can, as my friend Gomez points out, regard all virgins as merely pre-fucked.
I'm only speculating here, but if you maintain a healthy lifestyle, take the right dietary supplements, and still end up having your fetus look like a mutated hammer-head shark, it's a safe bet the Bush administration will still oppose abortion as a remedy.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Pataki lowers gas prices

According to NY1 today ("Hoping To Ease Pain At The Pump Governor Signs Gas Tax Cap," May 22, 2006):
A new tax break signed by the governor is aimed at easing prices at the pump.

Governor George Pataki says the so-called "gas tax cap" creates a maximum sales tax on gas and diesel fuels.
A cut in utility taxes would make much more sense, since it would give tax relief to every New Yorker. It doesn't make sense to drive needed jobs to the suburbs to pick on utilities. Keeping gas taxes higher keeps cars off our roads and people in public transportation, which is especially good for New York City.

Illegal German immigrant gets attention from senators; is it because he's white?

From AOL News ("After Graduation, Teen Faces Deportation," ABC News, May 22, 2006):
Manuel arrived in Ohio in 1997 with his American-born step-grandfather on a temporary visa. Manuel didn't realize it, but the man had never adopted him legally. His legal troubles started when he got a letter from his local immigration office. The letter informed him that he had filled out the wrong form when he applied for a Social Security number. They told him to come in for an appointment to straighten it out.

Manuel was excited about the possibility of getting the Social Security number so he could take his college boards, but when he showed up for the interview he got a shock.

"I got there and they handcuffed me and brought me to jail," he said. He spent the next 16 days behind bars.
First of all, the U.S. immigration service is run by assholes. Pulling something like that is just cowardly.

Of course, help from higher up came:
In April, Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine introduced a special bill to help Manuel gain legal status.

"In my opinion, Manuel's status in this country must change," the Republican senator said. "Through no fault of his own, Manuel is not a legal resident of the United States. Had his step-grandfather adopted him, Manuel would be an American citizen today. And, if his step-grandfather had moved to legalize Manuel's status at some point before he turned 18, he would not be subject to deportation today."
Is all this welcoming support because he's white? There are plenty of stories of Mexican children coming to the U.S. in the early years of their lives and still not having legal status after graduating high school, and being American in every sense except having a passport.

Tory bullies

Great letter in today's New York Times ("The Religious Right," May 22, 2006):
To the Editor:

Re "Conservative Christians Warn Republicans Against Inaction" (front page, May 15):

Since 2001, Republicans have fed the maw of the religious right with hundreds of millions of dollars for its "faith-based initiatives," done everything possible to restrict abortion here and abroad, subverted science by forcing "abstinence only" AIDS prevention policies, stacked the federal bench with conservative zealots and relentlessly sought to eliminate any financing for gay-related health and social service programs. And it's still not enough.

All this proves is that bullies can never be appeased.

Matt Foreman
Executive Director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
New York, May 15, 2006
Quite true.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

MySpace's popularity

An article on CNN ("Teens seek MySpace to hang out") hit the nail on the head in regards to MySpace's popularity with teens:
As the real world is perceived as more dangerous with child abductors lurking on every corner, kids flock online to hang out with friends, express their hopes and dreams and bare their souls with often painful honesty -- mostly unbeknownst to their tech-clumsy parents.

"We have a complete culture of fear," said Danah Boyd, 28, a Ph.D student and social media researcher at the University of California Berkeley. "Kids really have no place where they are not under constant surveillance."

Driven to and from school, chaperoned at parties and often lacking public transport, today's middle-class American kids are no longer free to hang out unsupervised at the park, the bowling alley or to bike around the neighborhood they way they did 20 years ago.

"A lot of that coming-of-age stuff in public is gone. So kids are creating social spaces within all this controlled space," said Boyd.
It's true. There's just not a lot to do in modern suburbs, many of which don't even have bus service.

I always felt that lack of trust amongst people in society is a serious social ill. Society tries to segregate teens from older people, even older teens it seems. In one case in Minnesota, prom officials turned away a girl who brought her 22-year-old husband to the dance ("Schools Set Age Limits For Prom Dates,", May 7, 2006):
In northwestern Minnesota, Ada-Borup High School senior Rosalie Carnegie made local headlines recently when school officials ruled she couldn't take her Iraq war veteran fiancÄe [sic], John Neset, to the prom. The couple have a year-old baby together, but couldn't share prom memories because Neset, 22, is too old, according to the school's prom date policy.

"It's a black-and-white thing," said Ada-Borup Superintendent Ollen Church. "We're not playing the gray area. It's not that we're not patriotic, because we are. We appreciate what John did for our country, but we felt that couldn't enter into the decision."
According to The Wilmington Star in North Caronlina ("New twist for high school proms Some include corsage and background check," May 19, 2006):
"Proms you always worried about, but there was an innocence to them. Now, kids these days have more brass, they're more sophisticated," said Paul Dakin, school superintendent in the Boston suburb of Revere. The school has an under-21-only rule for promgoers to try to stem the flow of alcohol to minors.

Background checks for dates who aren't students are only one hurdle at West Salem High School in Oregon. All students also must pass by an administrator at the door who "gets pretty up-close and personal," said principal Ed John. If a student appears to have been drinking, a police officer gives a sobriety test.
At Montclair High in New Jersey, parents and teens must sign pledges before youngsters can buy tickets to the prom. The teens must promise not to drink or use drugs. Parents must be reachable the whole night. Dates from outside Montclair High must send in photo IDs and sign the pledge, too. No one over 21 is admitted.
Stuff like this is just the tip of the iceberg for young people; the above article mentions background checks for some dates. Often in the name of preventing drinking or providing for their safety, the liberty of young people is seriously curtailed. Some schools create almost prison-esque environments complete with metal detectors.

At my high school, Loudoun Valley High School (it's even in WikiPedia!) in Purcellville, Virginia, I suppose it was the county that had a policy of not allowing students to go get a pizza at nearby pizzeria during their lunch breaks; it once suspended two of my friends for walking maybe 2000 feet across the sports fields and a parking lot to get pizza over the unpleasant school lunches we had to eat (we weren't allowed to order delivery either). Purcellville was a relatively small town/suburb hybrid. Most of us were 14 or over, didn't have to cross any streets (much less busy ones) to get food in the shopping center where the pizzeria was located, and probably weren't prime meat for child molester types. Essentially, we were locked indoors and herded like cattle until the state was no longer responsible for us at 3 P.M., after which the younger kids tended to board busses, and the older kids got in their cars and drove home. Today, the school seems to lock the doors during the day to keep outsiders out and has a police officer patrolling the corridors to keep away Dylan Klebolds and terrorists (I may not even be exaggerating).

Americans piled into suburbs en masse starting after World War II, often leaving behind desolate city centers replete with poverty and crime. Rather than becoming more safe, they appear to have become more paranoid about safety. An important, and counterproductive, instantiation of this paranoia is the "protect the children" cliche—a result of such ideas is that children are kept away from older people who might be role models, for better or for worse. In the long run, this tends to hurt children because the restrictions placed on them affects their maturation process. Adult behavior, including sexuality, drinking, voting, driving, and freedom of movement, ends up having an air of mystery around it.

Most adult behavior is learned. While deprieving children, particularly teens, of the opportunity to interact with older children and adults, we deprieve them of the ability to handle social situations that adults have to learn to handle. Some of these social situations are completely benign, but still have to be learned. Even having a casual conversation in a mature way requires that teenagers have the opportunity to converse with mature people.

MySpace isn't a bad thing at all. If anything, it's a dumb thing. However, that's mainly because of the type of company you find on it—and it's really not a surprise. Teens go to MySpace because it's the one thing that offers them not only an outlet for expression, but also a place where they can kind of explore things—adult things, no less—with a degree of anonymity. The end result, of course, is they only interact with each other at their level, so very little maturation can possibly take place.

Liquor licenses

David Rabin and Robert Bookman wrote an excellent op-ed in the N.Y. Region Opinion section of today's New York Times. They argue that the state legislature's plans to severely limit new liquor licenses will hurt the fastest growing industry in the city, which are related to hospitality and night life.

They link the problem primarily to noise complaints. Since the smoking ban was implemented in 2003, noise complaints have gone up supposedly because of additional people out on the street smoking late at night. Also, the implementation of the city's 311 line allows for residents to easily lodge anonymous noise complaints, sometimes probably frivolously.

I suspect there is a more sinister plot here: even in New York, some people are really, really offended by other people having fun. Bar owners often try to be respectful, and even do a lot for their communities that people don't really give them credit for. After other shops close, it's bartenders, deli owners, and to a lesser extent patrons and the odd resident who are watching the street—afterall, who wants trouble less than an owner of a business? Some people, especially college students often from out of the city, tend to not handle themselves very well and they tend to get loud when they drink. But being overly-prohibitive, to the point of no longer being willing to level with the owners of the businesses, leads to authoritarian behavior the likes of which you see from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other anti-alcohol groups: on the face, they want claim to want something that sounds really good—peace and quiet, less violence, less drunk driving—but in the end they try to go way too far to impose their morality on others. Problems get addressed in terms of:
  • preventing drinking outright, as drinking easily makes some people intoxicated, which is in and of itself evil;
  • limiting access to alcohol because it leads to lower inhibitions, which leads to sex
  • state limits on liberty, rather than family and community consensus (this is very notable with MADD and its rabid support of preventing under-21 consumption)
None of that does anything to address dangerous behavior, of course. People who are inclined to lose their inhibitions and have sex are probably going to find a way to do so. Naturally, none of that means that bartenders shouldn't be expected to use their judgement and cut people off when they feel the situation is getting out of control.

In the end, that doesn't mean that a balance shouldn't be struck between residents' peace and bars' profits. New York City is not like Las Vegas and other new growth cities, where night life takes place in designated strips that residents have to drive to and visitors have (probably well-soundproofed) hotels to stay in. Clubs, bars, and restaurants in New York co-exist next to residential housing, at times buildings that have thousands of people in them. However, residents and lawmakers rarely want to negotiate. Some of the problems related to the smoking ban might have been alleviated by advanced filtering technologies. Rabin and Bookmen mentioned many compromises that liquor-related industries tried to make with lawmakers, the police, and resident groups. None came to pass.

One reasonable solution to this problem might be taking away the anonymous nature of 311. We expect our governments to be transparent, but we don't seem to have any such expectation with people who use government agencies against private agencies. If I call 911, and report a robbery that's not happening, my number can be traced, and I can be charged with reporting a frivolous complaint. But if a resident makes a frivolous report on a bar to 311, there is no recourse, even if they do it again and again.

The link:

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Monday, May 15, 2006

Don't like gay marriage? Don't have one!

"I basically say, Mr. Vice President, right now marriage is under attack in this country. And we've seen activist judges overturning state by state law, where state legislatures have passed laws defining marriage between a man and a woman, and that's being overturned by a handful of activist judges around the country. And that is why we need an amendment to come to the floor of the United States Senate to define marriage as that union between one man and one woman." - Bill Frist, quoted on, "First lady: Don't stump on gay marriage ban"
Tired old lines like these probably barely deserve any response, except it's amazing how much they get repeated. There haven't been that many rulings in favor of gay marriage. The most notable, obviously, is in Massachusetts, and that has no bearing in other states (not that the "states' rights" crowd actually cares). As far as federal courts are concerned, statutes have been knocked down for being seen as overly discrimatory or irrational, but so far none have overtly granted any additional rights to gays.

The boldest federal case law to actually favor gay rights has been Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), which basically held that it is unconstutional to require discrimination against gays in a particular case. Specifically, some Colorado cities had ordinances banning discrimination against gays, which apparently threatened the collective masculinity of Colorado as a whole. In response, voters in Colorado passed "Amendment 2," which simply banned local anti-discrimination legislation. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled the anti-anti-discrimination amendment was unconstitutional under a standard known as strict scrutiny (the highest standard of equal protection judicial review in the United States).* The Supreme Court of the United States (S.C.O.T.U.S.) actually relaxed the ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court, finding instead that the strict scrutiny test didn't fit, but that the statute was still unconstitutional simply because it lacked a rational foundation. In other words, a locality doesn't need to accomodate, say, municipal benefits to gay people, but the state is over-discrimatory if it goes out of its way to prevent a locality from recognizing specific benefits for homosexuals in any form. Put simply, S.C.O.T.U.S. found that there wasn't any rational basis in law to prevent a municipality from granting gays benefits, perhaps because the benefits didn't burden anyone outside the localities where they were offered anyway. Naturally, there's a case to be made that the S.C.O.T.U.S. was being overbearing, but regardless, the Colorado amendment was stupid. (The test S.C.O.T.U.S. employed was called the rational basis review or mere rationality.**

Wow, you must be thinking, that's a real war on heterosexuality right there. There have been other isolated rulings at the federal and state level, including one in Vermont that required the state to recognize either gay marriage or "civil unions." However, no matter what Frist says, gay marriage is an anomoly in Massachusetts, not a looming "threat."

Frist is right though. There is most certainly an attack on marriage, and his party is leading it. This constant patronizing tone about what constitutes marriage in the eyes of God is, in the end, going to harm the institution more than two men or two women seeking state-sanctioned matrimony together. For all this talk about marriage being destroyed by allowing homosexuals to enter into marital contracts, nobody has yet pointed out a case of homosexual marriage actually undermining a heterosexual marriage. At the very most, the shrillness of the debate is probably just going to turn off some heterosexuals to marriage.

What makes this debate so sinister is not what is said, but rather what isn't said. Until a few years ago, attacks on homosexuals had nothing to do with marriage. They had to do with homosexual promiscuity, which granted, was a serious problem. To this day, many homosexual men regularly take dangerous sexual risks by having unprotected sex with multiple anonymous partners. That may or may not have any moral implications, depending on your world view, but it was a public health problem—one that is probably more responsible for the spread of HIV than any other human behavior. Times have changed, however, and now many homosexuals are calling on state legislatures to recognize their right to have long-term, monogamous relationships.

People like Bill Frist can't recognize that homosexual relationships may actually have staying power. While they once complained that homosexuals just had hedonistic sex with no regard for consequences, they're now complaining that homosexuals are trying to be monogamous. Frist is offended by the very thought of two men having a long-term, stable relationship.

Of course, equalizing gay marriage to the same status as heterosexual marriage has other side-effects that surely offend the self-appointed guardians of public virtue. Medical benefits? Visa applications? Oh no!

The sad thing is that Laura Bush, wife of possibly the worst president of the United States ever, is the civilized one here. At least she'd rather see us talking about, say, healthcare, than what homosexuals do with their personal lives.

* Strict scrutiny, in a nutshell, asks if a constituional right is being taken away, or if the state is attacking a narrow suspect class. For instance, if the Colorado law prohibited benefits for black people, strict scrutiny would have been applied. However, under strict scrutiny, homosexuals are not a suspect class.

**Most laws scrutinized under rational basis review end up being upheld. The rational basis review simply asks, "Did the writers of this law just pull a rabbit out of their asses?" It's pretty hard to do that if you're not overtly taking away constitutionally protected rights, which benefits for homosexuals are not, or in some other way violating the letter of the constitution. Romer was an anomoly in the sense that it failed rational basis review.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Another Reason Republicans Love Prisons: Gerrymandering

As has been quietly discussed in America for the past few years, but never really turned into a hot-button issue, one of the accidents of the American legislative system is that prisoners, while incarcerated, are counted as "residents" of the locality where their prison is located. This, in turn, bolsters the population of the locality and offers yet another variable to be taken advantage of when it's time to gerrymander seats again.

I say, "gerrymander...again," because that's basically what happens when state legislatures reapportion voting districts every ten years. It probably isn't controversial to say that, since it just happens. The party in power in a state is naturally going to be inclined to carve districts that benefit the party in power.

Today, the New York Times had an article about the problem. The article was about how the Republican-controlled New York State Senate is skewed by perhaps as many seven seats to rural, upstate districts where prisoners are sent after committing crimes in the New York City metropolitan area. This population count shifted upstate helps Republicans maintain their edge in the Senate. Similar problems exist in other states, including, if I recall, Florida.

The paper advocated its typically overly conservative reform: why, let's just count the inmates in the location where they committed their crime!

Of course, this is such a mild improvement it's barely even worth implementing. If anything, it just gives the Democrats more opportunities to have hegemony of the state, a prospect that probably isn't that far from a reality anyway.

For those who want real reform, the solution is to get rid of this antiquated system of districting. It was a great idea in its day, but it just doesn't make sense. It requires a massive federal bureaucracy to carefully track not only population numbers, but also map population distribution.

Worst of all, the districting system only feeds the status quo. It allows legislators to craft their own seats, rather than actually get elected based on the will of the populace. Naturally, this means that legislators talking about proportional representation is pretty unlikely. It's much more fun to be guaranteed that your seat will be yours in the next election.


Friday, May 12, 2006

Picking on Young Adults

Yet another plan to disenfranchise young adults is making its way through the halls of power in New York State. According an article on NY1, a bill making its way through the New York State Assembly is attempting to raise the smoking age to 19. The rationale behind the bill is that "it will stop thousands of people under the age of 18 from becoming regular smokers."

First of all, it's rather remarkable that the New York State Legislature doesn't have more important things to think about, like problems related to crime and homelessness—problems that the state has made some strides against in recent decades, but that hardly seem pristine, except by American standards.

NY1 also reports that "[s]moking rights groups say it's an attempt by government to control their lives. " Of course, given the state's rather restrictive laws concerning smoking, it's no surprise that smoking rights groups exist. However, one has to wonder why only "smoking rights" groups should be concerned. What this comes down to is another attempt by the state to regulate the behavior of people whose behavior simply shouldn't be regulated; this is a problem that anybody who worries about state control of people's lives should be concerned about.

Given the stated rationale that the state has an interest in preventing people under the age of 18 from smoking, taking away the rights of people who aren't part of the class of people the state is concerned about is the wrong way to attack this problem. 18-year-olds are decidedly adults in the sense that they can vote, own guns, marry, join the military, and sign contracts. They should not have their rights, even rights that maybe aren't "healthy," taken away just because the state wants to prevent those 17 and under from smoking.

A major issue facing young adults in America is that they're easy to pick on. Though regarded as adults under the law, they're looked down upon as children in many ways. After spending years in the American education system, they aren't very mature by the time they graduate high school. Because they don't vote in the same numbers as older people, politicians don't fear them the way they fear outspoken, overzealous suburban middle-aged parents. It was easy to take away the right of those under 21 to drink, not even two decades after a constitutional amendment gave them the inalienable right to vote. The idea behind the 21 minimum age on drinking was allegedly to stem drunk driving, but if that is indeed true, they probably would have set a driving age limit of 21.

So who should stop those under the age of 18 from becoming regular smokers? Preferably, the parents of people under the age of 18. Children should be taught from early on that smoking is a bad thing. A few simple photos of the lungs of regular smokers should prove this adequately.

Alphonso Jackson

Apparently, not liking the president is reason enough to have a government contract rescinded, according to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson. From an article in the Dallas Business Journal:
"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect -- the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell the secretary.'

"He didn't get the contract," Jackson continued. "Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."
Naturally, logic also says that the right honourable bureaucrat should follow the law, which dictates that denying contracts for political reasons is illegal.


Thursday, May 11, 2006

Gas Tax

The New York Times had an article today about New York State planning to lower its gasoline tax. The article had many telling excerpts:
[I]n reality, while a steep cut in gas taxes would almost surely be felt, modest cuts could be lost in the distribution chain from the oil companies to the gas stations, several oil industry officials said. And that could leave at least some of the tax relief in the hands of the big oil companies that have been reporting record profits.
Great, in other words, the state can cut its gas taxes and do nothing to prevent the oil companies from just keeping the difference.

In any case, cutting the gas tax is probably a bad idea because it encourages further driving on already congested downstate roadways. As Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno claimed, the high price of gasoline is apparently causing a windfall of revenue to flow into state and local treasuries:
"State and local governments should not reap a revenue windfall from high gas prices," said Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader, a Republican.
Why not cut a different tax then? A better solution would be to temporarily (I'd argue permanently) cut utily taxes and income taxes, both of which are high in New York State. As David Owen argued in his rather interesting piece "Green Manhattan" in the New Yorker back in 2004, it is pretty unlikely that utilities are responsible for anywhere near as many greenhouse emissions as driving a private automobile.

Alternatively, this might be a good time to consider better uses of our states' revenue. Oil supply probably isn't going to increase at the rate demand increases. While the federal government does little to nothing to actually offer workable solutions to the gas crunch, we in New York spend billions of dollars on entitlements to people unable to compete in the workforce or find jobs. Since we're spending this money anyway, we may as well direct it towards projects where people can do useful work. People consuming public subsidies represent a massive untapped labor force that could be trained to dig much-needed cut-and-cover subway tunnel extensions in the outer boroughs of New York City, or even for bring transit lines to surrounding metropolitan counties (which generally depend on local commuter rail and bus service for public transportation).

Given how population distribution patterns have changed in the past 102 years since the first subway was built under Manhattan's streets, a regional iniative might even be in order. Given its high transit usage, the New York metropolitan area is one of the few places that might actually be somewhat immune to problems with gas prices assuming transportation policy is crafted carefully. However, it's important to note that the subway was created at a time when Manhattan was the borough with the highest population, much higher than it is today. New transportation planning should call for better, less Manhattan-centric, service in the rest of the region.

Ironically, New Jersey, notable for its suburban sprawl over the past few decades, has been making bold strides in improving its public transportation infrastructure, and making it usable. A partnership with New Jersey could even allow the slow extension of PATH service to the other regional airports (Kennedy and LaGuardia) or to Staten Island and even Westchester and/or Nassau Counties. Another potential partnership, although politically complicated and far less useful, would be expansion of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system into Staten Island. Such projects offer the prospect of decreased traffic congestion, reduced dependency on foreign oil, and easier commutes for residents and visitors alike, all the while making the transit systems already in place much more useful.

Slow, incremental expansions to the subway and PATH systems offer the prospect of reducing the amount spent on social services while allowing those depending on such services to do useful work for a dignified wage. Resources are not only tied down in food stamps, medical benefits, and welfare subsidies, but also in administration of these programs. Retraining these people offers them the prospect to learn new skills, which might very likely be useful in many other places in the future, while investing in infrastructure improvements that can only stimulate economic growth in the long run, especially if oil prices keep skyrocketing.


Numerous media outlets reported on May 11, 2006, that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Names ("ICANN," as in "ICANN screw you however I want"), decided against the creation of a top-level domain ("TLD") of .xxx. The obvious rationale behind a .xxx TLD is that it would make it extraordinarily easy to filter so-called "adult sites." Many porn sites presently use the .com TLD. Some civil libertarian types fear governments might try to force porn sites into this domain hierarchy (this would certainly be a case of the state overreaching its power, but is still preferable to outright censorship). Moreover, the .xxx domain offers the adult industry, schools, libraries, and parents a chance to actually prevent the viewing of so-called objectionable material by minors.

Although no specific reason for the rejection was given, it's unlikely that reactionary politics in the U.S. didn't play something of a role. The rejection of .xxx is just another of a slew of examples of U.S. reactionaries ("conservatives") choosing to keep the status quo over actually protecting the interests of their constituents, many of whom probably don't want their children viewing pornography even as they view it themselves. Another rather hilarious example is when they try to prevent education about birth control, which only encourages more unsafe sex and more abortions.

There is a fear that .xxx would legitimize an industry that arguably has already been legitimized anyway by virtue of the billions of dollars spent on consumption of pornography. To go off on something of a tangent, it might be interesting to consider what type of person is actually entertained by pornography: it's likely the type of person who probably doesn't have a steady supply of healthy sex. It's a safe bet that the type of person likely to view it, even if unhappily married, is the type of bored guy sitting in a hotel room on a business trip with nothing to do, or the person who lives in a lonely suburban subdivision with nothing to do in the evening. Naturally, such people are very likely to vote for reactionaries, even if they don't want anyone interfering with their private viewing conduct.

In the end, one can only marvel at the fact that the self-appointed defenders of private conduct actually went out of their way to exacerbate a problem. The prospect of the .xxx TLD provides one of the few incentives imaginable to the adult entertainment industry to actually keep their unsavory content out of the hands of minors without even imposing a burden on their resources. The problem for moralists, of course, is that it doesn't do anything to limit the consumption of the material by adults who are already viewing it anyway. The .xxx TLD could be easily filtered. All that a firewall or filtering product need do is block the entire .xxx TLD from being accessible to a computer. It should be a no-brainer.