Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Power of the Purse

One of the basic tenets of our checks and balances is that Congress controls the money (the "power of the purse"), which the Executive commands the military. Theoretically, the Executive can only pursue military action with the consent of Congress.

The Bush administration has blown to smithereens this fundamental balance of power.

It began with initiating military action in Iraq without the prior approval of Congress. (This approval was given,in a limited degree, after the invasion. What a sad joke.)

Once a war is begun, the only tool Congress has left to check an out of control Executive is the budgetary process. Congress is left in the position of not passing funding bills for the military, which would be viewed as "not supporting our troops." (About the only point of agreement between the two partisan parties is that both want to help and support our soldiers).

And really, it likely wouldn't change anything if Congress did cut funding. Bush wouldn't pull the troops - he would instead (as he has continuously done every other time money has run out) keep the troops in harms way without funding.

Spending has 3 times now overrun caps - the Executive pays no heed. If the money was indeed cut off, the troops would probably suffer as maintenance and supplies ran low. Bush would point to their suffering as the fault of the opposition. (The opposition in this case not being the Iraqi insurgency, but the democratically elected representatives of the people of the U.S.).

So regardless of whether a majority of elected representatives vote to end a war, it really doesn't matter if you have an Executive who chooses to ignore the will of the people.

This war will only come to a close once Bush is out of office.

I think all the current candidates for President are crazy - their first term is really going to suck.

UPDATE: Wow, no sooner do I post this, than I see this article...that basically says what I just said.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Public Drunkedness

Someone comes out of a bar, and they're clearly drunk. They want to go home. You have $100 to spend on the problem. What do you do?

Most (rational) people would say "get them a cab."

If you're like the city of Fresno, CA, you arrest them for public drunkedness and use the money you saved avoiding the cab to buy cool surveillance gear so you can find more of these drunks.

In Austin, Mother's Against Drunk Driving have been using their money to buy more police vans to park downtown so they can arrest batches of drunks at a time.

Call me crazy, but if your true concern is that these people not drive drunk, then spending the money on public transportation options is the way to go. This could be cab vouchers for bars to hand out (or even the police). This could be forming a dedicated ride service, with big posters of the phone number at the door of each bar.

In truly enlightened places, the money is spent on good mass transportation. I remember going out to drink in Tokyo, and the huge feeling of relief that I didn't need to worry about a car or a cab - I could just stumble to the nearest subway (always within a couple blocks) and make it home.

I bet the public transportation option is actually cheaper than the cost of arresting, processing, and keeping someone in jail...BUT...if your goal is to impose your version of morality on others and try to bring back prohibition...then I guess cops and gadgets is the way to go.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Question Authority

The bumper sticker "Question Authority" was prominently displayed during my college years at Berkeley. It should have been the title of a mandatory course.

Over and over again we fall into the same trap, apparently never learning the historical lesson. Without checks and balances, even good intentioned people (in fact, especially good intentioned people!) can and will eventually abuse power.

The most recent example - the FBI abuse of "administrative subpoena" power granted under the Patriot Act. Did the agents think they were fighting terrorism and crime? I'm sure most of them did. Did they get overzealous at times? Sure - it was a good cause, right? Would independent judicial review of these subpoenas have helped? Almost certainly.

Unchecked power is always wrong. Always. Not because it's being wielded by a bad person - often it isn't. Not because the power wouldn't get the job done faster - it almost certainly would. Not because the goal is wrong - often the goal is agreed to be "just."

But because of human nature, it will inevitably end up going bad.

Authority should always be questioned. If the goal is just, the process is checked and balanced, and those wielding the power are lawful, then the authorities should never have a problem answering the questions.

It's only when something is questionable do authorities get on their high horse and try to avoid scrutiny.
Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience and rebellion that progress has been made.
- Oscar Wilde

[Side note: Attorney General Gonzales needs more regular questioning. It's amazing what slime starts showing up once the light is turned on (like ideological sniff tests for our defenders of the constitution and rule of law...). I doubt history will judge the integrity of the current White House crew very highly.]

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Public Sex

Why is public sex illegal?

A friend asked me this recently (don't ask why - let's just say it came up). Anyway...we decided to verify our assumption that having sex in public was, in fact, illegal. A quick web search determined that aside from a number of state laws that proscribe what kind of sex one can have, and with who, it turns out most of the laws against public sex revolve around anything that "offends public decency."

For the most part, it appears that if you perform any act resembling sex (even fully clothed, acting like you're having sex) and someone sees it and takes offense, you can be prosecuted.

So back to the question - why?? I mean, if you really think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it seems so counterintuitive that this would be proscribed. But (in the U.S. at least) we've all grown up with this strong taboo and we don't think twice about why. (Well, okay, maybe some think twice or more about it - clearly my friend and I have. But you still don't see much of it. Or if you do, you live in a more interesting neighborhood than I do).

Here's the evolutionary argument.

I think you'll agree it's a given that most people like sex. (Those that don't tend not to pass this trait on to the next generation, so it tends to die out).

In fact, some surveys indicate that most people think about sex multiple times a day. Every day. Again, given the obvious evolutionary argument here, this shouldn't be much of a surprise either. (Great recent recap of the research here).

So...most people like sex, think about sex every day, and would like to have sex a fair portion of their waking minutes (and many of their sleeping ones as well).

So given that this appears to be one of the most common, natural impulses of humans everywhere, why don't we support having sex in public?

The obvious answers, of course, is that we're all prudes in the U.S.; that people love to make laws telling other people how to behave; and any laws that require only that one person be offended for an act to be a crime would tend to squelch excessively exuberant behavior.

But being interested in behavioral evolution, I wanted to investigate more. Evolutionary theory would say that unless there were a breeding disadvantage to a behavior, over time it should die out. Prohibitions against sex are definitely a disadvantage to breeding.

More research led me down a number of garden paths with little satisfaction. Some related to classic (and overused) arguments regarding males need to ensure paternity (selfish genes), female fertility cycles and receptivity, monogamous relationships, protection of children, "we are not animals" (yeah, right).

All of it left me cold, because in every case the big large pink and blue elephants in the room were ignored, such as the eternal proliferation of prostitution and the enormous economics of the sex industry in general, both of which provide direct evidence that there always is huge pent up demand for sex that finds an outlet somehow. (Though I did learn a new word in the search, which is always cool.)

So again - how did these prohibitions against public sex evolve in so many cultures? (Side note - not all cultures have this prohibition. For example, people used to (and still do) live in small houses, or even huts where everybody is in one room. Sex is carried within sight of everyone else in the household. It's apparently ignored, treated as just "one of those things", like taking a piss). But this isn't common).

One argument my friend and I came up with involved the productivity hit to a society - that if everyone was having sex anytime they felt like it, nothing would get done. One could envision a societal evolution model of two cultures competing for resources, where one redirects sexual energy toward behaviors that better benefit the group as a whole and therefore outperforms the other culture that is still laying around humping in the street.

Another idea is maybe those caught by the enemy tribe (or lions, tigers, and bears) with their "pants down" were killed and weeded out, and only those who had sex in "safe" places survived to reproduce. But probably not - when exposed to danger, your best bet for survival is to be surrounded by friendlies, not off by yourself. If exposure to danger was a large factor, we would more likely have a taboo against having sex without other people around.

After batting around a few other ideas, we finally just gave up and had fun envisioning a culture where public sex was legal and acceptable. The porn industry and sex trade dies out - you can get better for free on any street corner. Sanitary Engineer takes on a whole new meaning, and stock in cleaning products skyrockets. Breastfeeding is no longer the primary concern of the religious right. Cluster fucks are no longer a bad thing. "Would you like to be seated in fucking, or non-fucking?" Everyone is reminded once again that there is good naked, and there is bad naked. (Hmmm...maybe that's the answer...)

Try to come up with a few yourself - it's pretty fucking hilarious (if you'll excuse the pun).

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Urination Rumination

I was at a school this past weekend watching a lacrosse game, and I had to go to the bathroom.

Only there was no where to go.

I wandered all over the school, and every door was locked. No bathrooms. No porta-potties. Not even the nice trench away from potable water that I might have found 2000 years ago in a Roman field camp.

But! There were some bushes. Thank God. Or Mother Nature. Or whoever the Patron Saint of Pissing is.

Sure, I could have chosen instead to walk the half mile back to my car, drive to some gas station, lose my parking place, and miss most of the game. But clearly I'm an uncivilized urinator. A criminal crapper. A penal penile.

As I returned to the sideline, having regained the ability to focus on something other than my bladder, I noticed I was not the only one with this predicament.

How does it benefit a school to make peeing so difficult that it encourages unsanitary practices? Why on earth would they not make at least one restroom available for public use? Is maintaining the cleanliness of one restroom that much more expensive than replacing the row of trees destroyed by the river of uric acid generated by hundreds of Big Gulp drinking sports fans?

Over the next few days I started noticing that there are lots of places where it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make a waste deposit in a sanitary way. "Restrooms for customers only". Gas stations requiring a key. Miles of road with nary an outhouse to be seen.

It used to be one of the main purposes of government was to create and maintain the basic infrastructure for human life. Successful city-states knew that a common defense and good city planning of walls and such was better for everyone - it was the purpose of the city. Roads in the city and between neighboring trading partners increased flow of goods and standard of living. They also knew that having everyone crap in the middle of the tribal circle was bad - it stank, people got sick, and it lowered property values. So they created latrines.

We seem to have forgotten some basic hygiene along the way.

Its not like we're talking about special class treatment here, catering to the excretionarliy challenged. As I learned as a child, Everybody Poops. Given the public health risk of poor human waste treatment, you would think it would be in everyone's best interests if there were public restrooms everywhere.

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