Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Alternatives

Lots of people today are at odds with the main stream political parties.  Voters in the middle, or Restless and Anxious Moderates (RAMs) according to the Washington Post, are becoming more and more prominent with some estimates upwards of 80% of the population saying they would consider an independent candidate in the 2008 presidential race (regardless of their declared party affiliation).  From my point of view there are several issues that people find themselves at odds with one party or the other, so they label themselves as "Fiscal Conservatives and Social Liberals" or similar.  I'm sure you have heard of some of the other political parties because of candidates like Ross Perot (Reform Party), Ralph Nader (Green Party), and Ron Paul (Libertarian Party).  Thus the subject of today's entry: your alternatives.

I've seen lots of people define their political party based on the few issues they feel are important to them.  For instance: some people would label themselves as Democrats because they believe people should have equal rights to marriage... others would label themselves as republicans because they believe abortion should be made illegal.  What about all of the other positions those parties take?  The Democrats believe the government should take care of everyone and watch over them where the Republicans believe the government is evil and all of its spending should be cut to nothing except war (I'm exaggerating here to make a point of skewed opinion, not a presentation of facts).  While it may be true that it is impossible to find a political party where you agree with EVERY facet of their platform, but do you fall neatly into either the Republican or Democrat columns?

As I hinted at before, there is a plethora of options for political parties in the US, so I'm not even going to try to tackle every one.  Instead, I am going to focus on the two parties that have captured my attention the most: Libertarians and Constitutionalists.  When I first began my dive into political alternatives, I was drawn quickly to these two parties because my emerging political issue is personal rights.  These two parties agree on several issues including the wish to return to a government strictly bound by the Constitution, the promotion of individual freedoms, and they both have similar economic policies.  They also both agree on the issue of health care reform: the government is constitutionally prohibited from regulating health care.

The deciding factor for me was written in the preamble for each party.  The preamble is the party line from which all of their policies can be derived from - with it, you should be able to identify exactly how the party would vote on any given issue without having to look at their issues page.  The Constitutionalists believe that this country was founded not by "religionists", but by Christians that believe in "our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."  They seek to return to American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the government within its Constitutional boundaries.  This to me said that the party as a whole can selectively persecute because of religious beliefs (though not through legal means because the Constitution prohibits that).  It seems difficult to me that a country with such a strong foundation favoring one religion over another can remain tolerant of other religions (I'm thinking of the UK right now which is going through problems with their Muslim population and much of the Middle East which is trying to work through its problems with Christians).

The Libertarians on the other hand emphasize individual rights and the elimination of the use of force or fraud to achieve goals.  They don't even mention religion in their preamble except to say that they believe it is wrong for the government to promote or attack any religion in particular and that people are free to follow any religion they wish so long as it doesn't infringe on the personal freedoms of someone else.  It just makes sense to me.  Since I have learned about these platforms, I get a little confused when I see people arguing for something that would infringe on other people's rights or freedoms.  Some examples I run into all the time are things like farm subsidies, health care, and government regulations.  Things like the health care debate strike at the very core of the Libertarian platform.  According to the Libertarians: the government is already too involved and needs to get out; Subsidies (farm, foreign trade like NAFTA, and energy) are all bad for the people; and government regulation does more harm than good.  Look it up.  Understanding that there isn't one party that fits all, issues that deal with the core party line should certainly align with your values.

The first thing you should do now is read up on your favorite party... go to your search engine of choice, type in your political party (like "libertarian party") and the first hit will be your party's website.  You should then be able to navigate around their website to find their Preamble (here are links for the Constitutionalists, Democrats, Libertarians, and Republicans for a start).  Do you agree with your party's platform?  If not... why would you support them?  Find a party that agrees with you.  It isn't always easy to make a decision... but we've got some time... the next vote for the US House and Senate is November 2, 2010.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Blind Leading The Blind

Today a friend and I went to see Mike Capuano give an "Open Mike" talk in our town.  Mike is currently a US Congressman representing the 8th Congressional District of Massachusetts and running for the open Senate seat vacated by the late Ted Kennedy.  I wanted to ask his opinion on the Constitution and the current healthcare reform.

First, I want to talk about the event itself.  This was my first time ever going to see a politician talk and it was quite an event.  The talk was scheduled to start at 11:30am and was hosted by a local tavern down town.  My friend and I arrived early so that we were sure to get in (about 11:10am).  There were a couple of folks already there chatting amongst themselves and one came over to us shortly after we sat down.  At first I thought nothing of this guy coming over to chat - there were only 5 people at the tavern at this time that didn't work there, so he seemed like he was just trying to be friendly when he asked us if we were residents of the town.  Then he asked why we were there and if we were political activists.  Woah - what?  Right from townie small-talk to political activism?  As it turns out, most of the people that showed up (I'm estimating 80%) were advocates from some group or another trying to get the Representative to hear their pleas.  By the looks of it, everyone knew everyone else because they were all activists for some group or another.  The first gentleman we spoke with was advocating to escalate the war in Afghanistan and pull troops out of Iraq - another person we spoke with was advocating to end the "military industrial complex" (do people really talk like that any more???) - and someone else was advocating for gun rights.  I felt a little out of place.  The few people that weren't activists were town leaders from state representatives to the chief of police.

Around 11:20 the staffers for Mike's campaign came in and started posting signs all over the place.  It was a game to see how many "Mike Capuano for Senate" signs they could put in the little room we were all in.  We asked one of the staffers working near us what how she got involved with the campaign and her answer was a little interesting.  She was going to the Kennedy College and after the death of Ted Kennedy, she became more interested in politics.  She chose to work with Mike's campaign because his office was located near her home in Cambridge, MA and because he seemed like a good guy.  When we pressed a little more, she said the she agreed with some of his political views, but that she really liked him because he seemed like a good guy.  This was a common theme among the people at the event: they were mostly there to support Mike Capuano because he is a good guy.

Representative Capuano showed up around 12:10pm and things kicked off shortly after that.  Before anything could begin however, Mike walked around the room to everyone that was there and shook their hands to thanked everyone for coming personally.  He gave a very well delivered speech (without notes or a teleprompter) talking about how his orphan grandfather came over from Italy to live the American Dream (I'm paraphrasing a little bit, but you get the picture).  His strongest point seemed to be that you were voting for him because of his moral standings and judgment - not his political positions (because you won't agree with him on every point).  He was also very open that when voting on an issue of great importance to himself, he would vote towards his conscience even if it meant voting against his constituents.  He was very proud of his decision to vote against the Patriot Act even though he thought most of his constituents would have wanted him to vote for it.  He thought that if he was consistently voting against his constituents that he would be voted out of office.

There was a brief question and answer session after his speech.  There were a couple of things that I thought were interesting including his stance on immigration, a public option for health care, and education.  He felt that the immigration policy could be boiled down to economic policy - If the US economy is good, then we can accept a lot of immigrants and if the economy is bad, we can refuse a lot of immigrants.  The immigrants that are here should have available to them a path to citizenship... but the immigrant criminals should be deported.  Mike's stance on a public option was a little vague because he said that he hasn't heard any good options from experts yet.  He basically said that he gets one option for health care as a US Representative: Blue-Cross Blue-Shield.  He would support a public option that offers more choices.  I don't think the people there saw the connection that your bountiful choices would be between your employer's coverage and the government option.  Wonderful choices.  Mike also stated that there is only two ways to limit the cost of health care: a government-controller health care system or competition.  He doesn't believe the country is ready for a government-run health care system, but he thinks that it would be the best way to solve the current problems.  His stance on education was simply that the schools weren't receiving enough funding to implement No Child Left Behind and that all of the problems could be solved by increasing funding for education.

Here is my interpretation of his views: Immigrants are a drain on our economy, so we will only let them in while the economy can support them (except the smart immigrants... they will help are economy).  A public option health care will allow people to choose between the one choice they have now and a government option... but the government should really control the cost of health care.  Our schools are failing students because they don't have enough money, so just throw more money at them and everything will be fine.

I wasn't able to ask my question during the Q&A session, but thanks to the bold actions by my friend, I was able to ask Mike my question one-on-one.  I asked Mike to explain to me how any federal decision on health care fell within the powers mandated to it by Article 1 Section 8 the US Constitution.  Mike's response was that it was entirely within congress' powers because the Constitution outlines powers granted to the states and whatever powers weren't granted to the states fell under federal control... then he said that he respectfully disagrees with my opinion that Congress was overstepping its powers and was ushered off to his next appearance.  I feel like I've done a lot of reading regarding the powers of the federal government outlined by the constitution and never have I found anyone that even suggested that the US Constitution applied limits to state powers.  The US Constitution was created to protect the people from an oppressive government and to protect the states rights outlined within their own constitutions.  I've linked this blog many times to the direct text of Article 1 Section 8 which begins with, "The Congress shall have power to..."  That deffinetly sounds to me like the beginning of a list of powers that The Congress has (not what powers the states have and absolutely not "these are a few of the powers of the Congress, but they can make more if they feel like it").

Mike Capuano seems like a nice guy.  He spoke very clearly and passionately about things he believes in, and he really wants to help people.  In his own words, he wants to help people and he doesn't know any other way to do it other than through his work in the Federal Government.  I guess he doesn't care for charities or community help organizations because clearly they aren't doing any good.  The event was interesting to see, and I think I might go to a few more if my schedule allows... but Mike Capuano will definitely not be getting my vote.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Statistics: Who's side are you on, anyway?

There are a lot of statistics flying around regarding health care, and I thought it would be interesting to see what the numbers are really saying.  The thing that gets me is that statistics can me massaged to say just about anything you want them to say.  In this post I am going to focus on three statistics that stand out in my mind when health care is debated: The percentage of Americans without health care, the number of Americans without health care, and the life expectancy of Americans compared with other countries in the world.

These stand out to me because the number and percentage of Americans stated to be without health care doesn't seem to correlate with my impression of the number of Americans in existence, and I have heard some statistics that put the US as #1 for life expectancy when things like car accidents and murders are removed from the equation.  My biggest problems with throwing numbers around is the lack of information regarding the source of the data so that I can go look it up for myself.  That is an immediate red-flag in my mind that someone is trying to conceal something or manipulate the data to make their claims seem more important.

On to the amount of Americans without health care.  According to the National Coalition on Health Care fact sheet:
Several studies estimate the number of uninsured Americans. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 47 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population under the age of 65, were without health insurance in 2008, their latest data available.

~NCHC Fact Sheet
I am a little skeptical about that number.  First off, let's see how many people under the age of 65 the census bureau thought there was in 2008.  Using this data from the 2008 1-Year estimate, I have calculated  that 87.3% of the population is under the age of 65.  If there are 304,059,728 people in the United States, and 87.3% of them are under the age of 65, then there are 265,444,142 (rounding the .544 off to make a whole number) people in the US under the age of 65.  Assuming for a second that there really are 20% of those people uninsured, that would give us 53,088,828 (nearly 53 million) uninsured Americans - not the "nearly" 47,000,000 cited by the NCHC.

Now if we assume the NCHC number is correct (nearly 47 million uninsured Americans under the age of 65 are without health insurance), what percentage would that really give us?  Using my number from before (265,444,142 Americans under the age of 65), then 47 million is only 17.706% of all Americans under the age of 65 without health insurance. I'll grant that these numbers are still depressing, but why the inflation? Why isn't the truth good enough? Lucky for me, the NCHC included their referenced material in their footnotes:
DeNavas-Walt, C.B. Proctor, and J. Smith.  Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008.  U.S. Census Bureau., September 2009.
~NCHC Fact Sheet
I dropped that into a Google search which produced this document.  If you pop on over to page 27 of that PDF document, you'll be at the section relating to health insurance.  This is the very first paragraph in that section:
The percentage of people without health insurance in 2008 was not statistically different from 2007 at 15.4 percent. The number of uninsured increased to 46.3 million in 2008, from 45.7 million in 2007 (Table 7 and Figure 6).
~U.S. Census Bureau
REALLY!?  Even the high number (46.3 million) which includes people over the age of 65 doesn't equal the NCHC number of nearly 47 million people without health insurance.  What numbers are they even looking at?  According to this report (which is cited by the NCHC), there are 301,483,000 people in the US of which there are 46,340,000 people uninsured (about 15.4%).  There are 263,695,000 people under the age of 65 in the US and 44,692,000 (nearly 45 million) of them are uninsured, about 16.95%.  Again, I'm not trying to say that this isn't a lot of people; I'm just making the point that someone is not being truthful about there numbers and that seems a little suspicious.

Now my favorite: Life expectancy.  Life expectancy is one of those really difficult things to calculate because there are so many variables.  What are the chances of you getting struck by lightning or getting depressed and committing suicide or having a house fall out of a tornado and landing on top of you or being attacked by pirates on the high seas or... I think you are getting my point.  None of those examples have anything at all to do with your health at the time of the incident that ends your life... unless you are trying to imply that having health insurance will protect you from the killer asteroid in Armageddon.

The most popular statistic sighted is that the US has the lowest life expectancy rating among developed nations... just above Cuba.  Wolfram|Alpha is really useful for doing statistical analysis, so I asked it to show me data relating to life expectancy.  It tells me that the United States is ranked 50th in the world with an average life expectancy of 78.11 years which beats out Cuba's expectancy of 77.45 years (ranked 57th).  That sure beats Swaziland (ranked 227th) with an average expected life of 31.88 years!  All of this data includes unnatural causes of death including car accidents and homicide.  So what are the leading causes of death in the US?  I found a World Health Organization database here that lists mortality statistics for all over the world, but it is friggin' huge and I don't remember access well enough to make use of the data.  Luckily, as is often times the case on the internet, someone else has done the work for me.  Scroll on down to the dynamic table and check out the description.  When you remove fatal accidents from the equation of life expectancy (like car accidents, homicide, etc), the US all of a sudden is ranked #1 in life expectancy.  You may also note that the data is from an older database (1999), but based on the data I've been sifting through from the WHO, this trend still seems to hold true (If you want to volunteer to sift through the latest access data, be my guest!).

The bottom line is this: the truth is absolutely more powerful the any other variation of data.  As soon as it is picked up that the data you are using has been exaggerated in any way, your entire argument is suddenly no longer sound.  If you are modifying this data, what else have you not told me?  Why is the data being altered?  Why are people lying to me over something as important as my own health?  So much for private corporations being the ones we can't trust.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Personal and Community Responsiblity

A few people have pointed out that I advocate a lot for private and corporate donations as opposed to forced giving through government programs.  The criticism I receive is that I seem to look down from my moral high ground and expect others to do the heavy lifting for me.  Some people don't believe that I practice what I preach.  In this post I'll go over the strategy my family is taking to contribute our part to make our community a better place and to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

This strategy is not indented to be the best for everyone - this is one area that has more than one right answer.  I guess the best place to begin is to choose the best way for you to contribute which generally boils down to two categories: Time and Money.  This is most likely the hardest decision to make.  The common problem is that you need money to buy the things you need and you need time to make that money.  Making a budget is an easy way to identify how much money you can donate.  Eventually, I want to be at a point where I can donate 10% of my income.  Obviously I need to be financially stable on my own before I can help other people.  I define financial stability as having the following things:
  1. Being able to cover all of my monthly bills.
  2. Emergency fund capable of covering all living expenses for 3 months (Bills plus some discretionary spending).
  3. Full contributions to long-term retirement savings capable of maintaining my current lifestyle after I retire without help from Social Security.
At this stage in my life I do not consider myself financially stable, but I am definitely on the way to being so.  Right now, I'm not able to give the full 10% of my income as I'd like, but my budget allows for small contributions here and there.  This means that my money is more valuable than my time, so I volunteer.  Eventually as I get older, my time will begin to be more valuable (like when I have kids) and I will need to re-evaluate my position again.

This leads me to the second decision: where do I donate my time and money?  I am a strong advocate for community support.  There is no point in perusing lofty goals of saving the world if the people down the street can't get a good education.  I also believe in supporting programs that have some meaning to me personally.  Really, anything you think is important is a target for your contribution.

My community volunteer support focuses primarily on education and pursuit of the sciences because that is what hits closest to my interests.  I am the team coordinator for a local FIRST Robotics Competition team which promotes science and technology education in high school students.  I also mentor in a program called STOMP which promotes science and technology education in fifth graders.  Both of these programs also get some of my money as is sometimes the case with volunteer efforts.  I have also donated money to Alternative Gifts International which helps fund engineering projects in places around the world.  All of these activities revolve around my local community or promoting science and technology. 

As I mentioned before, once I become financially stable and my time begins to be more valuable to me than my money, I will have to choose to re-allocate my resources as is appropriate.  I'm sure that my ideas of what to contribute to will be different from yours.  Some people may not wish to contribute anything at all which is of course their right (except in today's world).  How do you decide the way in which you donate?  How do you decide where your donations go?  Drop a line in the comments section.

The Right To Bear Arms

My older post about the Constitution combined with the personal knowledge that I am a gun owner spurred the following question: What is my take on the constitutional right to bear arms? The argument goes like this: If we are supposed to interpret the Constitution's words as they were meant back when they were penned, wouldn't the Constitution only allow members of a well-formed militia to keep firearms? There is another thought that the militia members stored their weapons in a militia armory and not in private homes. In this post, I'm going to attempt to explain the Second Amendment.

The ratification of the Constitution was not entirely smooth as there were several states that felt that the rights of individuals were not properly spelled out.  Many states passed legislation which tied their adoption of the Constitution to the later creation of the Bill of Rights that would more completely detail individual protections from the government.  Virginia passed its own bill of rights in 1776 called the Virginia Declaration of Rights with the following right:

That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.
~Virginia Declaration of Rights
The first federal mention of the people's right to bear arms was by James Madison in a speech to congress in 1789 (before he was elected president in 1809).  In Madison's speech, which the following phrase was heavily influenced by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, he proposed:

The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.
~James Madison

For those of you that don't know, James Madison was the key architect behind both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  In this statement, he justifies the right of the people to bear arms because he sees a well formed militia as being the best defense of a free country - not a requisite of keeping arms.  It was

Lots of people focus on the well formed militia statement as indicating that only members of an organized military should have the right to keep and bear arms.  It is true that
the militias fought off the British in America's fight for independence and it wasn't until the Civil War that drafts were the primary source of warfighters (the Vietnam War saw the last draft end in 1973 and today the US armed services is currently all volunteer service members).  However the key reason behind the bill of rights in the first place was to protect individual rights from infringement by the government.

The constitution was designed so that the people possessed more power than the government.  At the time of the ratification of the Constitution, standing armies were not popular because Europe had seen many armies rise up to rule over the people.  Additionally, people that lived on the frontier commonly had to protect themselves against Native Americans.  Many state constitutions included rights to bear arms for the purpose of self defense specifically (including Massachusetts).  Noah Webster (of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary) had this to say with regards to the people's right to bear arms:

Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretence, raised in the United States.
~Noah Webster
 Another argument in this debate is that the second amendment was intended to be a state right rather than an individual right to bear arms for protection... the state has the right to have well regulated militias (all arms and ammunition would be stored in a common location for the use by the militia).  During Madison's speech to Congress, he thought these amendments should actually alter the wording of the Constitution itself and not added as a list to the end as they are now.  During his speech he suggested that the right to bear arms be inserted in Article 1 Section 9 between clauses 3 and 4.  Section 9 deals specifically with individual rights, where Section 8 deals with state rights, indicating that Madison had intended that the right to bear arms is specifically and individual right.  Additionally, in the Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to bear arms is an individual right.

The US Constitution is meant to protect the people against their government.  It is recognized that the ability of the government to enforce unjust laws by force can not work if the people are able to defend themselves.  If I have missed or misrepresented anything, drop me a line in the comments!