Friday, March 27, 2009

On Unemployment Benefits

A local radio talk show was discussing the proposal of a few states that individuals collecting unemployment benefits be randomly drug-tested. It was clear that the host, who often comes down on the side of legalizing drugs, particularly marijuana, thought that this was unjust. He also stated that "Libertarians" were up in arms over the proposed legislation and I found myself wondering if that were true. After all, I'm a libertarian (little "l" libertarian) and I found myself thinking it a reasonable idea.

I am for the legalization of marijuana, at the very least, and think the legalization (or decriminalization) of other drugs would probably be a good idea as well. I have also always questioned the wisdom of employers doing random drug-screenings of employees. After all, if you have a good worker, why should what they are doing at home in their free time matter?

However, despite that, in the case of individuals receiving unemployment benefits from the government, I think the random drug-testing might well be warranted. These benefits are funded by tax-payers and paid out to the unemployed as a sort of life-support while they seek a new job. Therefore, I have two problems with these individuals using drugs. First, given the high likelihood of a new employer requiring a drug screen, use of these drugs significantly reduces the chances of being hired. Second, tax-payers should not have to fund someone's recreational drug use. Ceasing drug use while you are unemployed is a good-faith demonstration of earnestly seeking work. After all, the money is being paid out on the basis of need, not entitlement. You are entitled to the money you earn from working and can therefore spend it how you like. Government assistance should be spent to the effect for which it is offered.

*** Addendum *** Some have pointed out that we pay into the unemployment insurance pool when we are working and that benefits are somehow based on the sum/duration of these payments. Therefore, receiving unemployment benefits is hardly the charity I make it out to be and that there should, therefore, be no conditions on how they are spent. Excellent point.

However, the fact that "we all pay taxes" isn't always sufficient argument that we are all equally entitled to the services they fund.These benefits are paid out to individuals that find themselves unemployed "through no fault of their own". The fault of your unemployment doesn't end when you are laid off. The spirit of the insurance is still for you to make an effort to find employment. You are not necessarily "entitled" to all 26 weeks of unemployment that may be available. That's kind of like saying your health insurance should cover your boob job and face lift because you haven't been sick enough to use up your deductible. Just because you've paid into the system for your unemployment benefits doesn't entitle you to collect money for the full duration while sitting at home smoking crack instead of lookingfor a job.

Someone else worried that the expense of drug testing would only be an additional tax burden. But, random testing of 10 or 20% of individuals shouldn't be prohibitively expensive. Even though the hope would be to dissuade people from using the drugs, it wouldn't take many people losing their benefits to cover the cost of the testing.

It is, of course, hard for me to argue the logistics of a system that I largely disagree with in the first place. I would rather we not beforced to pay the government for this insurance in the first place.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Sex Offenders

Sex offender legislation is in serious need of revision but the kind of revision it needs is impossible for any politician ever planning to seek reelection to implement. After all, a politician can never go wrong with "harsher punishment for sex offenders", but the reverse? Political suicide.

Let me be perfectly clear. In straight-forward cases of sexual violence and child molestation, where guilt can be determined beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am for the harshest of punishments. Jail sentences coupled with removal of the genitals would suit me fine. However, the laws at present, which vary greatly from state to state, often fail to make vital distinctions between what I would consider to be highly criminal, highly immoral, highly dangerous behavior and behavior that is relatively benign and hardly criminal at all.

I am personally familiar with a couple of individuals who met the silly end of the sex offender laws. The most ludicrous example is the 14-year old son of a friend of mine who was charged with statutory rape for having "consensual" sex with his 14-year old girlfriend. Just to be fair, the police charged her with raping him as well. Another example is a young man I met shortly after he was released from serving 2 years in prison. His crime? He had a one-night stand with a girl he met in a bar. Turns out the girl was 17. He was 24. According to the law, it is the burden of the "adult" to verify the age of their sexual partners... even if you meet them in a bar, even if they lie to you, even if they have a fake ID... In my view, neither of these individuals are criminals. They are, at worst, guilty of behaving foolishly.

Sex crimes involving minors present a particular challenge because they require us to draw lines in the sand when it's hardly clear where the line should be drawn. When does childhood end and and adulthood begin? At what point can a person "consent" to sexual contact? Is age difference important? I like age 16 as an official "age of consent" for most sexual behavior. I know that many will argue that 16 is too young, that girls will be taken advantage of at this age. Yes, they will. However, the possibility of being taken advantage of is life-long. People must be allowed to take responsibility for their own decisions at some point and 16 strikes me as a reasonable age. If we left the age of consent up to fathers of daughters, it would probably be set at age 35 or upon marriage to a man of the father's approval. Ages below the official age of consent must be sub-divided as well. Non-violent sex crimes with adolescents should not be treated the same as sexual contact with pre-pubescent children.

The Human Rights Watch web site lists a number of non-violent "crimes" that require registration as a sex offender, including public urination, public nudity (keep in mind that this may include "mooning") and consensual sex between teenagers. The site also relays the story of a high school student who was arrested after flashing a group of freshman girls at his school. He spent 4 months in jail and was released with a 10-year sex offender registration, which made it difficult for him to find work and caused him to flee his community because of the "stigma" before finally committing suicide a month before his 20th birthday. I refuse to pin his suicide on anyone but himself. But a 4-month jail sentence and-10 year sex offender registration which hinders one's attempts to live a normal life is an absurd punishment for a harmless prank. As far as I'm concerned, 80 hours of community service would've been ample punishment. Then this kid could have finished school, gotten a job, and been, quite possibly, a model citizen for the rest of his life.

The length of time that a sex offender must be registered varies from state to state and often depends on the crime. Sometimes the registration lasts a lifetime. Registered sex offenders generally may not live within a certain distance of schools, sometimes within a distance of school bus stops. This may mean that if a registered sex offender has children, he may not take them to school, attend student-teacher meetings or walk them to the bus stop. Sex offenders are often ineligible to become licensed to practice law, medicine, etc. Furthermore, routine background checks run by potential employers will reveal a sex offender status and may prevent individuals from being hired. And, if someone is a registered sex offender, someone in their community is bound to find out, gossip about it, and then everyone will know.

At present, sex offender registration muddies the water by having a number of people registered for crimes that present no real threat to the community. The common misunderstanding is that a "registered sex offender" is going to be someone who has a: forced himself sexually on a woman or b: molested a child, and it's just not true. By lumping the comparatively innocent "offenders" in with the truly dangerous, we are being unjust and wasting resources that could be used to address the real problems.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What if the government stimulus is the wrong thing to do?

I am far from being an expert on economics, which makes it hard for me to articulate a reasonable objection to the enormous stimulus spending of late. But I've been decidedly and increasingly uneasy about it since the start, for a few reasons.

One problem I have is the vague notion that congress, the so-called "brains" behind the operation, have little to no expertise in the field of economics themselves. Their arguments in favor of the massive spending plans seem flimsy and wrongly motivated. They say, "we can't just do nothing," and they have the support of the panicked public, who want them to do something. However, I would much rather that congress acknowledge that they are, perhaps, impotent in the face of an ebbing economy than have them spend trillions of dollars in the pretense of "doing something".

Despite the fact that this latest market bubble, which has so dramatically burst, was inflated by wreckless behavior by arguably under-regulated banks and foolish trading on Wall Street, it doesn't seem clear to me that an equally artificial recovery is warranted. Traditionally, the market has had its ups and downs and after a trough, we inevitably start up again. Throwing money at the problem feels like trying to dig out of a hole to me.

The truth is that there are "experts", plenty of them, that don't think we can spend our way out this recession. There are experts who think removing money from the private sector and giving it to the government to spend instead will only reduce the efficiency of how the money is spent without fixing anything. We've already seen examples of the money being spent in ways we don't like and not having the effect we'd hoped for. There are experts who believe that as bad as this recession may be, it is a natural fluxuation in the market which will resolve itself once it hits bottom. By spending trillions of dollars now, aren't we just delaying or prolonging the inevitable bottoming out of the market and buying ourselves future trouble?

My instint is, if you're not sure what will work, what the solution is, isn't it better to error on the side of not spending trillions of dollars? In what other possible situation would we think it was a good idea to just throw more money than had ever been conceived of at a problem with no guarantee of success?

There is a wonderful article on, by John Stossel and Andrew Kirell, "Is the Government Bailout Just Dollars and Nonsense?" which argues much more intelligently than I could ever hope to on this point.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Trouble With Islam

Our perception of the world is colored pretty strongly by the culture in which we're raised. Our media is naturally biased to portray our own cultures, our own history and our own religions in a comparatively positive light. I have the advantage, when observing the behaviors of people from other cultures, of having been raised by open-minded, worldly parents, of having been exposed to a diverse cross-section of people in my life and of having lived for a year in France, a country just different enough from my own to help me appreciate the even vaster differences which must exist in the world. Nevertheless, I can't pretend not be biased by my white, middle-class, Judeo-Christian American upbringing.

As far as I can tell, the trouble with Islam is not the religion itself. It is the culture of misogyny and violence that is often so closely associated with it. Recently, there was a horrifyingly ironic story out of New York City. Muzzammil Hassan, the man who founded an American Muslim television network with the specific goal of improving American perceptions of Islam post-9/11, beheaded his wife. The act of murdering a lover who is about to leave you (Mrs. Hassan had just filed for divorce) is a common enough crime in any culture. But death by beheading (whether the decapitation was the cause of death is not known for sure, but seems likely) is somehow more distressing to me than the more common crimes of passion. The fact that Muslim terrorists have a habit of using beheading is evidence enough that they are aware of how horrible it is to us. It is the ultimate act of hatred against a person, and when it is done to one of our journalists and broadcast, it is the ultimate act of hatred against an entire culture: ours. It is interesting to note that Muzzammil Hassan was not considered an especially devout Muslim by those that knew him which again suggests that it is not merely the religion that is the problem.

Of course, it's not fair to judge a culture by its worst extremes, by its mad men. But I have seen misogyny and oppression of women perpetrated on a wide scale by an entire community of Arab Muslim men. The year I studied abroad was spent in a large-ish city in the south of France, Montpellier. France is host to a large number of Arab immigrants, largely due to its colonial past. The tension between the French and Arabs and the rampant racism against these immigrants is a related issue. But for now, let me describe the neighborhood I walked through every day to get to and from my apartment in the suburbs from downtown. The neighborhood, centered on a street called Cours Gambetta, was almost exclusively Arab and the main street was lined with middle eastern cafes, restaurants, markets, etc. A non-Arab woman, such as myself, walking along this street would often be subject to frequent wolf-whistling and vulgar language. You see, to those men, I was a whore simply by virtue of my being unaccompanied by a man and, possibly, due to my clothing (you know, jeans, t-shirt, sexy uncovered head). As to the women in the neighborhood, you would be hard pressed to find them. Cafe after cafe was filled with customers, all male. It was not uncommon to see an old man, a young man and a little boy all sitting at the same table in an open-air cafe being served by a waiter. But never did I see a woman (except very occasionally a couple of bold French women), nor even a female server. Compared to wife-murder, this is a subtle example of misogyny but one that can not be dismissed as the act of mere extremists.

Of course, the most obvious issue with Islam is the number of acts of terrorism committed in its name. Defenders of Islam call it a peace-loving religion but unfortunately for those who make this argument, it is rather too easy to find passages in the Koran which clearly instruct its followers to kill non-believers and be rewarded for their actions. Defenders of Islam will then find similar passages in the Bible. The question is not whether Islam can be practiced peacefully, or whether Christianity can be practiced violently. History and common sense illustrate the possibility of both. The problem is that Islam, for one reason or another, is much more frequently used as a justification for violence in modern times than is Christianity. Whatever the reason, it's a problem for all those peace-loving Muslims out there.

The Muslim population seems to have an on-going public relations problem due to their over-sensitivity, their inability to assimilate and their reluctance to condemn extremist action. Remember the riots over the portrayal of Muhammad in Danish cartoons, the murder of a Dutch film-maker whose work criticized Islam, the multiple fatwas (death sentences) issued against Salman Rushdie for his unflattering portrayal of Islam? Most people get cranky when their religion is insulted, but rarely to the point of causing mass mayhem and murder. And then we have the frequent clashes between Muslim culture and Western culture in small legal issues. I remember female Muslim medical students in England being unable to practice medicine due to their refusal to wash up to their elbows because it would mean exposing too much of the flesh of their arms. I think the veil has been related to more reasonable, though still bothersome, requests for accomodation, but to refuse to follow modern hygiene habits due to forearm chastiy? We can not assimilate into one society with such disparate standards. Finally, it would certainly help if international Muslim organization would swiftly condemn acts of terrorism and even be seen assisting in bringing these criminals to justice. I'm sure there are some who do, but there are just as many who remain silent.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Unacceptable Behavior

In the past few years, I have become increasingly aware of the ugliness of human nature, witnessing examples of selfishness, thoughtlessness and an utter lack of moral compass on what seems like a daily basis. Fortunately, I have also had occasion to witness the rarer examples of goodness and generosity displayed by some; just enough to prevent me from becoming totally cynical, distrustful and misanthropic.

The other day, I accrued yet another example of the kind of petty immoral behavior that makes me crazy. My boyfriend and I had decided to go to the Grand Asia Market for lunch, not anticipating just how many others would have the same notion on a Saturday afternoon. We waited in the lengthy line to place our order and, after paying, began to scout the small seating area for a table to open up. My food was ready fairly quickly but we still had not found a table. I stood there, food in hand, quite obviously looking for an available seat along with, I might add, a few other people. Then I noticed that a man seated alone at a two person table had finished eating and was moving to clean up his table. Eureka! I thought and moved close to claim the soon to be empty table, but just far enough to respect somewhat the man's personal space. The man finished throwing his leftovers away and returned to the table to wipe up some drips of soup. Then he sat down. And just sat there. He sat at the table, alone, with no more food to eat, not doing anything, with his hands in his lap, just sitting. He just sat. Meanwhile, Lee's food came up so that we were both standing awkwardly, waiting. Another couple that had not been waiting as long managed to swoop in and take a table across the room because they had not been foolishly hovering over the mysterious sitting man. Finally, the woman right next to sitting-ass-man finished eating, cleaned up, and smiled and nodded at us as we took over the newly available table. For the record, the man sat occupying that little table for another 15 or so minutes, mostly keeping his hands in his lap. Occasionally, he would take the little napkin that still rested on the table and move in a circle as if he were wiping something. That is all he did.

I decided that there was only one circumstance I could conceive of that would justify the man's actions and make him undeserving of the death-by-chopstick-through-eye that I was vividly envisioning for him: if his wife and daughter had been kidnapped and the kidnappers had demanded that he meet them at that specific table at a specified time with the ransom money or else they would kill his family slowly and painfully, after first prolongedly raping them... in that case, then perhaps I could forgive him for the way he hogged that table. But as the smugly contented look on his face seemed to suggest no such turmoil, I think instead that he was merely a petty, evil bastard who deserved a chopstick through the eye.

I realize that there are far greater crimes than hogging a table in a restaurant while others are waiting. But it is the pointlessness, the absolute lack of comprehensible motive, that bewilders and disgusts me. That man so clearly had no need for that table. He wasn't doing anything. He wasn't using the surface in front of him. If he needed to sit, he could have pulled his chair off to the side and made the table and its other chair available. It's not that I expect people to sacrifice what they themselves need in order to help others, although that's admirable. But what is the motive to keep something you don't need when the need of others is so obvious, so blatant, when the right of others is so evident? I think it's evil. It's a small evil, but evil nonetheless. And it's all around us.