Our drug problem: Prohibition, ads, incarceration and revenue

We wrote recently here about the new American Prohibition Museum here in Savannah.

Alcohol prohibition had a long rise in the US, starting as far back as the 1820s. States began passing their own temperance laws in the 1840s. We still see remnants of some of these today. Beer laws are changing in Georgia to allow breweries to sell their own product; this follows a similar change in Alabama last year. Pennsylvania is figuring out how to privatize liquor distribution. In some states you can't buy alcohol Sundays, or at least Sunday mornings.

The constitutional amendment that prohibited alcohol in the US (the 18th amendment), was ratified in 1919, and reads thus:

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
 
Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
 
Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Fourteen years later, in 1933, the 21st amendment to the US constitution was ratified. It reads:

Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
 
Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.
 
Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

If Section 2 of the 21st amendment sounds a lot like Section 1 of the 18th amendment, read it again closely. The 18th amendment prohibits the manufacture, sale, transport, import and export of alcohol. The 21st amendment prohibits the illegal transport, import, possession or use of alcohol.

In other words, we went from no booze to don't be stupid with booze.


During the years of alcohol prohibition, we saw the rise of Al Capone, who made sure Americans drank their fill. We saw the rise of Walgreens, which expanded from a couple of stores to hundreds filling prescriptions for medical whiskey. Bootleggers were the first at-home auto tinkerers, and prohibition gave rise to NASCAR.

The years of prohibition also cost the US $11 billion in taxes and $300 million in enforcement. Adjusting to today's rates, that's $207.1 billion in lost taxes and $5.6 billion in enforcement.

Today, alcohol sales are a $211.6 billion industry in the US. The federal government makes about $10 billion a year in taxes on that, and states and municipalities take in around $5.5 billion.

Extrapolated over 13 years and assuming no change, that's about $201.5 billion, pretty close to what we calculated for the prohibition years.


The CDC estimates there are about 88,000 alcohol-related deaths per year. Add to that 480,000 smoking-related deaths each year and 33,000 heroin- and opioid-related deaths.

Cocaine overdose deaths are now under 10,000 a year.

Deaths related to LSD appear to be too low to measure.

The best (read: no political agenda) stats I've found on marijuana-related deaths show that traffic deaths in which one driver had marijuana in his or her system increased in Colorado after legalization. The numbers are somewhat tempered in this case by multi-drug use, meaning that if the driver had used marijuana and alcohol, or marijuana and some other drug, it was still classified as a marijuana-related death (and also an alcohol-related, other drug-related, death).


Colorado saw $1 billion in legal marijuana sales in 2016 and took in $141 million in taxes during fiscal year 2015-2016, a 60-percent increase over the previous year. That will likely be up another 50 percent when we get the final numbers for 2016-2017 in a few weeks. Near as I can tell (the data are presented differently), Colorado is pulling in $5 million a month or so in alcohol-related taxes, or about 45 percent of what te state brings in from taxing marijuana.

Washington state is also selling about $1 billion a year in marijuana sales, and is pulling around $7 million a month in state and local taxes, which extrapolates to around $85 million a year. Washington gets about three times that in alcohol-related taxes.

Colorado has slightly under the average population for a US state; Washington is slightly higher, according to 2013 Census estimates.


Alcohol and marijuana prohibition are probably the most parallel examples we have — both were at one time illegal and they brought about big business thanks to some combination of illegal trading and legal prescriptions.

Cocaine is rarely (if ever) still prescribed, though it used to be. Most of the opioid overdose deaths we see start with prescriptions.

There's good evidence that SSRIs — often prescribed to fight depression — lead to higher rates of suicide. From strictly a social science standpoint, it's impossible to tell if people on SSRIs who commit suicide would not have committed suicide if they weren't taking them. You don't get a do-over with suicide, and you can't ask reflective questions of someone who has committed suicide.

The National Institutes for Health have a deep-dive on the pros and cons of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs, but one stats-gathering organization says that for every dollar spent on advertising, we see an increase of $4.20 in sales of prescription drugs, so the advertising is getting better than a four-to-one return right now.


You probably, by now, have figured out where this is going, but I'm going to take it farther than you think.

First, I should disclose my drug practices. I am an occasional (two to three times per week) alcohol user; I will smoke several cigars a year (tobacco); and I have used marijuana recreationally fewer than three times in my life. I have not tried any of the other drugs mentioned here.

All drugs should be legal, taxed and regulated. You've read 1,000 words at this point; don't bail on me just yet.

I think alcohol serves as the best precedent we have to work from as a model. We have:

• An agency that controls the quality of the ingredients
• A uniform way to measure how much alcohol we get (ABV, paired with volume)
• A measure describing legal impairment
• A minimum age for purchase and consumption
• Rules on who can make, distribute and sell alcohol

Those are the basics. We need them for every drug, and legalizing everything allows us to write a catch-all for synthetics that haven't been invented.


It would, of course, take some research. We've learned that the brain finishes maturing around age 25. We should, then, wait until someone is 25 or 26 before we let them buy and use psychedelics.

If there's not a good way to measure levels of consumption (we use blood-alcohol content for alcohol, with a level of 0.8 percent meaning impairment, as far as driving is concerned), then there's a zero-tolerance policy. You can use the drug in your own home or whatever, but if you operate a vehicle or commit a crime such as theft or assault and have any of the drug active in your system, the penalties are higher because you're impaired.

If a drug is so dangerous it shouldn't be used, use fines and/or property forfeiture as the penalty. Some 46 percent of inmates in the US are in prison on drug offenses; many of them have also committed other jailable offenses, so it wouldn't decrease our prison population by half, but it would get 15 million or so people producing in the economy instead of costing governments money by sitting in prison.

[I got that 15 million number by taking Five Thirty-Eight's numbers that a quarter of the US population is in prison and 16 percent of those prisoners have drug offenses as the primary reason they're incarcerated.]

Even if a drug is so dangerous it shouldn't be used, you should probably be able to use it in your living room if you're just going to take the drug and leave everyone alone until it's out of your system.


The average prisoner in the US costs taxpayers nearly $32,000 a year, with places like New York skewing it a little high ($60,000 per prisoner across the state and over $167,000 per perisoner in New York City).

I'm having trouble finding good numbers for welfare programs (there are over 130 of them, with 72 of them assisting individuals), but I know from my days in retail banking that supplemental income (SSI) requires you to either work 30 hours per week or be permanently disabled. SNAP benefits (food stamps) are said to help 4.8 million people a year — and nothing on the order of what it costs to feed and house a prisoner.

We're starting to wander a little far afield here, but the point there is that even if every single person in prison on drug offenses alone was to be released and put onto SNAP rolls instead of contributing to the US economy via jobs, it would still cost less than keeping them in prison for nonviolent offenses.


In case you missed it in all the reading above we're not only talking about spending less money on people in prison (and also in not having to pay people to enforce drug laws including expensive long-term investigations and undercover stings), we're talking about more income from because all those newly legal drugs are regulated and taxed. Shops pay money to get licensed the way bars and liquor stores pay for licenses. If you have a product to distribute, it needs agency (something like the FDA, if not the actual FDA) approval. And then there are taxes on both the property from which the drugs are sold (new businesses, yay!) and on the drugs themselves — and that tax, like the taxes on alcohol and tobacco, can be higher than sales tax.

I think that about covers it. Your thoughts?

The Earth will fix itself, with or without us (see also: without us)

I've been kicking around this post for a while, so it's just as well that the president pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord last week to give it some salience.

Here is my very brief political take on the move; skip this paragraph if you want to skip the politics. "The only countries to do X are the US, Nicaragua and Syria." If I'm going to join a small group of countries in doing something, I'm not figuring those two are good role models for the US.

The rest of this post is going to be some combination of my observation and hopes, hopefully with some scientific backing.

Glass Beach is a small section of shoreline in an industrial area of 'Ele'ele on the island of Kaua'i. It gets its name from all the glass in the area.

It has for years been used as a dumping ground for things like engine blocks and industrial tools. The salt water is helping reclaim some of the metal into the lava rock along the shore. Here are a couple of photos of what this looks like.

While we were on the island, a few thousand acres were burned in a wildfire that was started by sparks from a pickup truck.

While no structures were threatened, dozens of emergency workers put their lives on the line to make sure the fire only affected dry brush. I'm sure over the coming months and years, new vegetation will grow in its place and before too long, no sign of the fire will remain.

Let's agree that engine blocks, industrial tools and pickup trucks are manmade things that would not otherwise be found in nature, and so we wouldn't have things like fires started by sparks from a pickup truck or engine blocks tossed on lava rocks without some sort of human intervention (objectively speaking — no judgment attached, just the fact that humans need to be involved at some stage of the process to reach this result).

In some amount of time — sooner for the brush fire than for the lava rocks — there will be no sign that anything out of place happened.

The Earth will always find a way to balance whatever happens to it. The thing is, the Earth doesn't care about anything but equilibrium — if a species or two or 16 needs to be eliminated in order to reach a sustainable balance, that's what will happen.

If those species are the star-nosed mole and Pan e Vino figs, the planet doesn't care.

If those species are strawberries and humans, the planet doesn't care.

Keeping the climate habitable for humans isn't something people do for the Earth. It's something they do for people.

The Red Sox and the flu: Health care and the bottom of the pyramid

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, I'll have a post about Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler's book Abundance. Until then, I just want to borrow their concept of the bottom of the pyramid — the four billion or so people who are the world's poorest but could mean big bucks for someone willing to go in with cheap products.

One of the things that happens is, if you can get this group of people clothes and food and water and electricity and cell phones, they can solve more of the world's problems. If you're worried about clean water and where your next meal's coming from, you could be the world's top engineer and you can't help anybody because you have to feed yourself first.

It's the same reason they tell you on airplanes to put your oxygen mask on first before you help anyone else with theirs: If you can't breathe, you're not of much use in making good decisions for someone else.

OK, so there's the bottom of the pyramid. Let's look near the top of the pyramid: professional athletes in the U.S.

The Boston Red Sox are off to a slow offensive start to the baseball season. A lot of that is due to the fact that the starting lineup has been decimated by the flu.

These are pro athletes, so they're generally in really good shape. They're also by and large wealthy — minimum salary for someone on a Major League roster all year is over a half-million dollars (approach that number without judgment — just recognize it as a statistic in relation to other incomes in the US).

While healthy people do tend to get rid of the flu more quickly than unhealthy people, the flu doesn't give a crap about your bank account.

Doctors and insurance companies, however, might.

Whether you're making $535,000 or $10,000,000 as a member of the Red Sox, if you feel like garbage and miss several days' work, at least your family is going to be well-cared for and it's hardly a matter of life or death.

If you're closer to the bottom of the pyramid, as far as US workers are concerned, several days with the flu might mean you miss several days' pay and perhaps you get fired. Maybe your job doesn't offer health insurance. Maybe your family isn't going to get to eat, or turn on the heat or lights this week, whatever you choose to forgo.

The thing about the flu: It spreads. If you have the flu, you risk your family getting the flu. If you go into work, you risk spreading it to their coworkers, and they to their families. If you work a bottom-of-the-pyramid type of job, say, at a department store, you might get a few dozen people sick. If you work in a restaurant or grocery store, there's a good chance you'll get some customers sick.

But if you work those bottom-of-the-pyramid jobs, it's hard to not go to work. You risk a lot.

Still inside the first few months of a new presidential administration, a lot of people are looking for a change in our health care system. Leadership royally botched its first attempt.

My congressman replied to my letter to him (see the post linked in the preceding paragraph), pointing out the Congressional Budget Office said the American Health Care Act would have saved the federal government money.

Yes, I responded, but they also said it would leave 24 million (more) people uninsured. Some people call that "patient choice." It's really not a "choice" if you have to decide between spending three-quarters of your paycheck on insurance and having a home and food and such.

So what do we do for those folks who, once the Affordable Care Act is replaced, won't be able to afford health insurance and won't be able to afford to miss work?

I don't know the answer. We have lots of smart people who could be working on it, but I'm not convinced any of them are.

In the words of President Donald Trump, "sad."

Lessons in leadership and work from the AHCA mess, plus a letter to my congressman

Well, last week was interesting, wasn't it?

I want to start with some thoughts on Obamacare, and the reason I want to do that is so you don't think I'm a cheerleader.

The Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") is not perfect. It's barely even good. It did a couple of good things, like making sure anybody who wanted health care could get it, and made sure that if you had a preexisting condition, you could get a policy.

It's also way too expensive for most of us in the middle class (I say most of us, because I think some people who think they're paying too much would be paying way more on the open market, if they could get insurance at all). It's harder to figure out what's going to be covered under my plan — I can pick a doctor in my network, but it takes a lot of work to figure out which tests (if any) are carried out by labs in my network.

The deductible plans under Obamacare are ludicrous. Ten years ago, insurance cost me about $160 a month. If I went to the doctor, I paid $10 and insurance covered the rest. If I went to the eye doctor, I paid $20 and insurance covered the rest. If I got glasses, insurance covered roughly the cost of basic lenses and I was responsible for the frames and any lens upgrade I might want.

Now, it costs about three times as much for insurance (granted I'm older and I have a second person on my insurance and there's been inflation). But the kicker is, the first $5,000 of in-network care comes out of my pocket, outside of one physical. The insurance company negotiates down the cost of care, but doesn't kick in anything except a physical until I've spent over $10,000 (the cost of insurance plus the deductible).

Obamacare, in other words, is not amazing. But it's what we have, so that's where we have to start from.

Here's the thing: In all the years since we've known Obamacare isn't amazing, nobody's bothered to start writing something amazing.

And then Donald Trump was elected president, with one of his major campaign promises being to repeal Obamacare.

If anybody had been doing one iota of real work on health care over the last seven years, we would have had some idea of the basics of a new plan that could have helped us move forward.

There are plenty of career politicians in both houses of Congress — people who would certainly have been around to reap the benefits of their work whenever it came to fruition.

Not that that's why you do it. Remember, you're entitled to work hard, and that's basically it.

Instead, what we wound up with was a quickly-hacked-together piece of legislation that some people were affectionately calling repeal and go fuck yourself.

This is not what you get if you spend seven years putting together a good foundation and then refine some of the details. It's what you get when you assume that people fall in line behind you instead of actually asking them what they want.

It takes 218 votes to get a piece of legislation through the House. It has to be a pretty good piece of legislation, then, not something that gets hacked together.

Lesson One, then, is do the work.

Lesson Two is work with your colleagues.


Two more lessons learned came straight from the top.

Lesson Three: Don't give ultimatums. The president told the House to pass the bill or forget about it. Trump's been in office just over two months, and he left everything on the field on health care? That's even an insult to athletes who actually go out there and leave everything on the field.

If you leave everything on the field, you focused on nothing but this game, gave it everything you had, and are so exhausted at the end that you'll have to deal with the emotion of the result later. For now, all you can do is scrape yourself together and try to pull off your shirt so you can get off in the shower.

Not one of those things describes anyone in the legacy of the AHCA.

Lesson Four: Take some responsibility. And even if you don't control the whole process, understand who can actually help you. If instead you're angry at your son-in-law for being off skiing with your daughter and your grandkids, you clearly don't understand that your son-in-law's job is basically to say what he thinks should happen and hold your hand when things don't go your way.

Jared Kushner doesn't write policy and he doesn't vote on it. And frankly, if he didn't think this was a battle worth fighting, that's his business, not yours.


This is the letter I wrote to Congressman Buddy Carter on Sunday after I received his weekly newsletter. I'll update when I get a response. He only accepts email from his constituents, so unless you're in the first Georgia district, you can just read and enjoy (or whatever).

Congressman Carter,

You write in your most recent email to constituents (March 26, 2017) that "Obamacare is a disaster," and you list many reasons why that may be true.

You also blame a "small number of [your] colleagues in the House" for failure to pass the AHCA.

If a small number of your colleagues were against the AHCA, it would have passed -- at least 218 of them must have been against it.

The problem with dwelling on the faults of Obamacare is that you create no solutions.

Obamacare was always imperfect, and nobody -- Democrat or Republican -- has tried to fix it or work out any of the kinks in the past seven years.

The proposed version of the AHCA failed because the president rushed together a new bill and tried to bully it through the House with a "pass it tomorrow or forget about it" dictate, rather than spending the time working with a majority of the House to write good legislation.

It's going to take some time to write good legislation. If it means gut Obamacare and start over, then do that -- don't just pick apart what you and your colleagues don't like and hope it works out.

Look, I am a healthy 40-year-old man with a healthy wife and so far no children. That makes me fairly immune from whatever comes down the pike over the next few years; even if we're blessed with a child or two, we're in pretty good shape.

My parents are not getting any younger, and their premiums are way too expensive under Obamacare, but they would not have been eligible for coverage under the previous system because a bad back or a previous rotator cuff surgery would have been flagged as a preexisting condition.

We're not sure what would have changed for them under AHCA because nobody bothered to tell us what's in it, other than, "it's better."

I want you to understand something, before you read the rest of this letter. I'm a writer by nature, and do a fair bit of writing by trade. I have a vocabulary roughly three times that of the average college graduate. I say that because the words I'm going to use are very strong, and you should know that I'm picking them purposefully. Ready?

Get it the fuck together.

Your constituents know Obamacare isn't working. We're subject to it, unlike you and your colleagues who have federal health care.

You're not struggling. We are.

You don't have to tell us "Obamacare is a disaster." In fact, we'd really like it if you found your own descriptor. We've heard that one before. Chernobyl was a disaster. By that metric, Obamacare is at best annoying.

While you're coming up with words, try some that mean something. Here is what you said about AHCA in your email: "The legislation contains the critical reforms necessary to deliver relief and a patient-centered health care system with the choice and control needed to empower patients. "

In case you need someone to translate your fancy speech for you, that says, "AHCA contains changes that will give patients power."

Give me some details, please.

You don't fix a broken system by calling it a disaster and then hoping you can speak vaguely enough for long enough that people will cheer for the new one.

Do some fucking work.

I know it's difficult. Remember that you are a public servant. You represent us, but you work for us. It's not the job of your constituents to make you feel great about yourself. It's the job of your constituents to ask you to do great things, even if it takes sacrifice and hard work.

Even God never promised us the fruits of our labor, only the labor itself.

Now, take a deep breath, then decide to take some responsibility for working together with 217 (or more) of your colleagues, to write some legislation that's good for your constituents instead of your reelection campaign.

Yours,
Joshua Shear
Savannah, Georgia

I promised to update this if and when Rep. Carter responded, and I did get an email from him on April 7. I'm just going to paste the letter in and let you infer my reaction.

Thank you for contacting me about the urgent need to rescue America’s failing health care system.

As a lifelong health care professional, I have seen first-hand the devastating impact Obamacare has on health care in America, especially in South Georgia where I served patients for more than 30 years. This misguided law has driven up costs, taken away choices, and inserted Washington bureaucrats in to one of the most personal aspects of our lives: our health. It contained $1 trillion in new taxes, kicked 4.7 million Americans off their health care, and created a new class of uninsured with 19.2 million Americans who could not afford the coverage offered them.

I supported the American Health Care Act, which was our plan to rescue patients and families from the Obamacare train wreck. While imperfect, it put aside the failed policies of the past and built on the best ideas from around the country. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office confirmed it would lower costs and empower patients to make their health care decisions. I was disappointed this bill was not brought to the floor for a vote.

Please know that this is not the end. I will not stop working until we empower all patients with access to quality, affordable, patient-centered health care.

Thank you, again, for contacting me and for the benefit of your input. It is an honor to represent you in the United States Congress.

Election reform and the evolving myth of Two Americas (hint: there aren’t just two)

In 2004, John Edwards gave a convention speech about two Americas, drawn along economic lines. We've since developed the notion of The 1 Percent.

This was based on an academic study.

While there's certainly a dividing line between those in the top percent of Americans in terms of income, there are other dividing lines as well. The "middle class," such as it is, is a large group who may never know that immense wealth. However, the middle class may also never know what it is to decide whether to pay the electric bill or the phone bill this month.

There are several layers in between, as well — not just between the bottom one percent and the middle class, but between the middle class and the top one percent.

Economically speaking, there are not just two Americas.

***

Katie Couric was on Marc Maron's podcast recently. She made a reference to Two Americas, but it was different: It was about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and their supporters.

If Two Americas was originally about the ultra-wealthy and everybody else, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are on the same side of that divide, and it's not on the side that includes "everybody else."

Trump and Clinton are the least-liked major party candidates since we started taking polls of these things. I don't think they're the most polarizing — they're not only disliked by people in the opposing party, they are disliked by large swaths of their own parties, and by people of neither party.

***

In 1992, Ross Perot ran a fairly successful third-party candidacy for president. He was onstage for debates. He garnered enough votes in several states to swing the electoral votes. In Georgia, for instance, Bill Clinton beat George HW Bush by 13,000 votes. Perot got over 300,000 votes. Most likely the vast majority would have gone to Bush.

Since then, the rules for allowing third-party candidates on the debate stage have changed drastically. Now, to be considered for a debate, a candidate must be polling at least 15 percent in five national polls identified by the group that sponsors the debates. The candidates do not need to be options in those polls. If Zogby is one of those polls and Zogby is calling people to ask whether they'll vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton, if 15% of respondents don't go off-script and say Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, those candidates are eliminated from consideration.

A third-party candidate must also be on enough ballots across the country to receive 270 electoral votes, which is the number required to win the presidency. Different states have different rules for which parties are allowed on the ballot.

***

Apart from which parties are allowed on the ballot, different states have different rules on which party you can register for. I'm registered "unenrolled." In New York, that meant I couldn't vote in a primary unless I changed my party affiliation very early. In Georgia, it doesn't matter: we have open primaries, so I can just walk in on primary day and ask for whichever ballot I want.

When I lived in New York, I would frequently vote off the major party-line even if it was for a major party candidate. Sen. John DeFrancisco may have been a Republican, but if he had the endorsement of the Libertarian Party, I'd vote for him on the Libertarian line. If a Democrat was endorsed by the Working Families Party, I'd vote on the Working Families line.

There are not just Two Americas when it comes to political beliefs.

About 25 percent of voters are registered as Republicans. About 25 percent of voters are registered as Democrats. About 50 percent are registered as unenrolled or Green or Libertarian or Working Families or Socialist or something else.

There are dozens of Americas, and they manifest as three Americas — Republicans, Democrats and others. And in a society in which identifying as "Other" frequently makes social problems for people, we only get to see two Americas, and those two Americas are really one America: they're not Republicans and Democrats, they're the folks who put up the money to make sure the rest of America is as close to invisible as possible.

***

We're one week away from the U.S. presidential election. Vote for someone, not against someone. If we continue to do what we've always done — vote for the lesser of two evils — we're going to continue to get what we've always got — one of the evils. If a major party candidate is the best option for you, go ahead and vote for that person. But if a third-party candidate who certainly isn't going to win is the best option, vote for that person. We don't change with one election. It takes a wave. Why not start now?

The day after

It's a crisp but still 25 degrees out this morning, with a fuzzy crescent moon visible as the sky is lightening. The day after election day this year doesn't feel like a new era to me; in fact, it feels like a good time for leaders to sit down, light a fire, open a bottle of Scotch, and spend a couple of months reflecting on where our country is really going.

» Blog Archives: Day 1

The nation is 236 years old; about halfway through the expected lifespan of a strong empire, historically speaking (Rome and Greece each lasted about 500 years). Our economy has evolved in such a way that we don't really know how to pull out of a slide. We make less stuff; we're primarily service-based. And for the people who do make stuff – domestically that's fewer and fewer people – we have a burgeoning movement of people who want to get rid of their stuff.

In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a platform of change. It feels like something has changed, but as a whole, it's not tangible. He won the Nobel Peace Prize on the promise of what he could do for the world, and I don't think we've seen that promise come through yet. Obama is certainly a divisive figure, but I don't think he's any more divisive than George W. Bush before him or Bill Clinton before Bush. They've been divisive in different ways (read: people hate them differently), but I think, given the way communications is evolving, we're going to keep seeing bigger and bigger divides for the next couple of election cycles, before it comes to a head.

I don't know what that head will be.

This year, Obama has run on a platform of forward. Here are some things I think we need to do to make forward happen.

Civil equality. So much of our division has to do with social issues. We've stopped competing with each other for food resources and the physical ability to procreate, and so the way to feed our evolutionary need to keep ahead of our neighbors is to legislate that hunter-gatherer competition. It's the reason we fought the Revolutionary War. It's the reason we fought the Civil War. It's the reason we had to push through abolition and women's suffrage and to allow everybody to drink from the same water fountain and it's the reason – wait for it – we need to do the marriage equality thing tomorrow, and it's the reason we need to do something for immigrants who have been here illegally for a long time.

We're not going to get any real work done until we're all full citizens. Let me repeat that. We are not going to get any real work done. Not until we take away the need for my friends and our neighbors to worry about what happens if the person they love gets sick, or if their 17-year-old son gets into college.

Seriously, let's just get this done. Let's do the equivalent of a wet-foot-dry-foot policy for immigrants who have been here five years. If you've been here less than five years, let's fast-track your residency application so that, even if you have to leave, at least you won't be looking over your shoulder anymore. And let's just pass a national marriage equality act.

The day after those things happen, the people we're bringing into full American-hood will be able to fight other battles. And so will the people who oppose them. They'll be able to help look at the economy and the environment and figure out how we end the wars we're in.

Environmental destruction. I don't care what you think about global warming or climate change or whatever we want to call it. It's pretty clear that something's up. We're still cleaning up from Katrina in some parts of the Gulf. We're going to be cleaning up from Sandy for a long time. We keep moving people inland as mudslides hit the California coast. It seems like every summer there's a wildfire it takes longer and longer to contain.

I can't tell you the causes. Humans might have nothing to do with the creation of these events. (I think we do, but I can't prove the science myself, so I'm not going to push that on you.) We might not be able to do anything to stop these storms, fires and slides.

But we can change the lifestyles that keep getting disrupted by these natural disasters. I don't think we can legislate those changes, but enough people have been affected by weather events over the past decade that if wind up having some good ideas, people might actually listen.

Fund all mandates. If you want to "fix" the economy, one of the things that we need to do is start funding all mandates. We have a healthcare mandate that will cost some people upwards of 10% of their income when it's enacted. We have federal education mandates and Medicare/Medicaid mandates that states and municipalities are picking up the cost for, at the cost of things like public safety departments and public works items like, say, enough road salt to last the winter.

I think we've shown that things like tax breaks for small businesses and higher taxes for the wealthy are only going to get us so far. They are policies that will help tweak statistics in the directions we want them, but they're never going to actually solve anything.

Diversity of viewpoints in government. Our focus on diversity in positions like judicial and cabinet appointments through the past two administrations has revolved primarily around gender and ethnic background. But for the most part, everyone appointed tends to fall into line, at least on the surface, with the political views of the person who appointed them. That leads to an us vs. them attitude in elections every four years, and it specifically excludes the viability of a third party coming into play.

We're never going to bridge divides if we don't have to build coalitions. In a two-party system, we either pass all legislation in one direction (if the presidency and the majority in both houses of Congress are of the same party), or we pass only moderate legislation (because the Democractic president and Senate need to concede some stuff to House Republicans).

We move in small increments, and every four years we have the option to push those small increments in a different direction. Let's sprinkle some Libertarians, Green Party candidates and other minor-party representatives into the cabinet and into our courts. It will be a slow change, but eventually, those parties will start to really put some seats in Congress, and leaders will have to create coalitions across a variety of viewpoints. Instead of Blue vs. Red on every issue, there will be a gradient of purples in the mix.

***

I recognize that I've left foreign policy entirely out of this post. But I think we need to take care of things at home before we're going to effect much change abroad. And if we take care of stuff at home, we'll be able to put more people to work on what's going on in the world.

Onward.

The issues important to me: Why I’m voting Green this year


Wherein a politician tells his 8-year-old son he plays piano in an opium den because he doesn't want the kid to know he's really in politics.

Tuesday is election day here in the U.S. It's a day when a bunch of people puff up their chest and smile proudly about civic duty (though most of us only vote in presidential elections and then only when it looks close going in – and even then our voter turnout is embarrassingly low). The reason we're doing this on Tuesday is that people are more likely to stop at the polls on their way to or from work – or take an hour out of the office – than to give up some time out of their weekend to vote.

For me, the most important races in my neck of the woods are on the federal level: president and Congress.

Here are my pet issues right now.

Civil rights. Marriage equality is at the top of my list. I have a bunch of friends who, unless they live in a handful of states, won't be able to visit their partners in the hospital – even after 40 years of monogamous couplehood. Seriously, it's ridiculous. We don't even need to talk about children, but let's do. If one of the couple has a child, the partner has no parental rights and has a terrible uphill battle to get some. Sure, raise the kids together for 12 years while the birth mother is healthy, but the second she gets hit by a bus, we'd rather make that 12-year-old a ward of the state than let him live with the other woman who helped raise him. Makes sense, right? Nope, didn't think so.

Also, I'm going to put abortion here, as a civil right, not under health care, though health care's an important piece. Abortion should be safe and legal. Why? Because laws limiting (or outright outlawing abortion) don't actually decrease the number of abortions performed. They just limit the safety. You want to pretend you're "pro-life"? How about saving the lives of moms in need, and how about making every child a wanted one, instead of one that's born into malnutrition and raised as a burden?

Health care. At this point, it looks like a single-payer system is the only way to go, unless we're willing to regulate the hell out of the system and make it a la carte. Health care is so expensive that even those of us you might consider to be middle class can't afford it, because it represents upward of 14% of our pre-tax income for a lot of us. And unfunded mandates coming up in 2014 are going to cripple some people, especially young families.

Jobs and income. OK, I really don't know how to create more jobs. But nobody can live on minimum wage. $7.25 an hour gives you $15,225 a year for a full-time job. Let's assume that gets you 50% off your health care cost and 50% off your housing cost and a 0% tax rate because your state is really helpful. You're still paying well over a third of your income into a bare-bones health plan and a small apartment ($150 and $300, respectively, out-of-pocket). There aren't any good-paying jobs out there, so I hope you didn't bother going to college, because another $300 a month in students loans would really put a dent in there. Also, I'm pretty sure you're taking the bus to work, since even if you managed a small car payment, you couldn't pay insurance. It just seems our elected politicians are entirely out of touch with reality.

Higher education. I have someone on my staff I was going to give more hours and perhaps start developing toward a management position. But I wound up having to cut his hours because he went back to school. He went back to school because his student loans were called in and, though we're paying him more than minimum wage, he can't come close to making payments, and going back to school – and getting deeper in debt in the process – was the only way to put off paying those loans. Yeah, what a crappy system.

The environment. Go ahead, tell me climate change doesn't exist. These freak storms that we're getting every couple of years are just that – freak occurrences. Except that they're happening regularly. We just had this storm come up the east coast that was 1,000 miles across. A thousand miles! And it was colliding with this giant snowstorm that came in from across the country. Have you had a headache or vertigo the past couple of days that seemed unusually strong? Yeah, that's the lowest barometric pressure that's ever been recorded getting to you. I'm sure our consumption has nothing to do with this.</sarcasm>

I left the Commonwealth during Mitt Romney's years as governor of Massachusetts. He didn't do anything for the Bay State. In fact, the most notable thing he did accomplish was to pass an unfunded mandatory health care law like the one President Obama passed that Romney is fond of claiming he'll repeal (you know, because presidents can repeal stuff – has he even read the Constitution?).

And I've had high hopes since Obama took office. I loved his speech at the 2004 Convention, and I was surprised to see him running in 2008 (I thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the obvious choice for a couple of election cycles and Obama would be the Democratic candidate of choice in 2016). Still, I was optimistic, and, in general, I've been unimpressed. Yes, Obama's done some important things, but every president does.

I don't like my relationship with my government more than I did four years ago, and really, that's what we're asking. "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" is always the wrong question, because over the course of four years, most of what happens to us is our own doing, for the most part.

I'll be casting my vote for Jill Stein. It's an easy decision for me; if I accept that we're a de facto two-party system and either Romney or Obama will be sworn in January 20, 2013, and I accept that, for me, Obama is the lesser of the two evils, New York is safely an Obama state. Look at Stein's issues page. It speaks to me. It's by and large stuff I agree with. As I said, voting for Stein is an easy decision for me.

» JFM @ TheMins: Sometimes you have to follow your heart even when you know you’re going to lose.

Not such an easy decision for me is the one to vote for Ursula Rozum. I definitely align with her on the issues, and I've seen Rozum out in the community – my community – talking to groups I'm part of, engaging young voters and organizing for some important issues. And she's aggressively outspoken, which I think is important.

It's a difficult decision for me because I know the major-party race is going to be close. Ann Marie Buerkle, the incumbent Republican, has not spoken for me over the past two years. Not by a long shot. Her website doesn't allow donations under $15, and says so up front. Civil liberties and education aren't on her issues list. On the other hand, the Democratic challenger, Dan Maffei, surprised me by aggressively pursuing legislation and generally sounding smart during his term in Congress.

I say Maffei surprised me because I'd met him a few times before his run. I used to work for syracuse.com, a news website. Each time I met him at a party or other function and he discovered who my employer was, he'd immediately ask the host for a non-alcoholic beverage (seriously? The current president brews beer in the White House) and would go find someone else to talk to. Meanwhile, I'd bump into his then-fiance, Abby, at all kinds of volunteer events. She'd be real easy to vote for, but I just can't bring myself to vote for him. I mean, look at what he says about education. It says, "someone should make this better," not "I'm going to make this better, and here's how."

In a close race, that might mean two more years of Buerkle, but I'm getting tired of voting for the lesser of the two evils. America was built by idealists, and I'm an idealist, so I'm voting my heart.

I support gay marriage, and I am not a lustful cockmonster

I'm breaking from my publishing schedule to make sure you read this. Because it's fucking great.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has come out in favor of a Maryland bill that would allow marriage equality in the state. Fair enough. Maryland legislator Emmett Burns sent a letter to Ayanbadejo's boss – the owner of the team – saying that maybe he should tell his employee to shut his mouth and just play football.

In defense of cussing »

That prompted a response from Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe that begins by reminding Burns that freedom of speech exists and as such Ayanbadejo can support whatever bill he wants to support, and then goes on to light into the legislator:

why do you hate freedom? Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life? If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you'll start thinking about penis? "Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!" Will all of your friends suddenly turn gay and refuse to come to your Sunday Ticket grill-outs? (Unlikely, since gay people enjoy watching football too.)

I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won't come into your house and steal your children. They won't magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won't even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?

Kluwe went on to explain why he wrote the letter and used the language he did.

A tip of the hat to Matt over at Life Without Pants for sharing this story with me. I love getting my blood boiling to start the week.

If you support marriage equality, share the crap out of this story. It's important.

Guest Post: Could mixed martial arts save the New York State budget?

This is a guest post from Alexia Krause at MMA Industries. Obviously, she's got an angle on this, so take it at face value. Personally, I'm open to any reasonable suggestion to help this state dig out of its budget crisis.

With the New York state deficit hitting $8 billion, steps need to be taken in order to right the ship that is the state's budget. Recently New York Gov. David Paterson stated that the projected deficit for the upcoming fiscal year has grown an additional $750 million. There's no doubting that the Empire State is in dire straits trying to fix their deficit. It is extremely difficult trying to balance a state budget at a time when the country as a whole is going through some of its most difficult economic hurdles in recent history. This forces us to take a fresh look at which programs will continue to receive funding. As a result, the state has been forced to cut, reject, and outright shut down many state programs and projects in order to make some type of movement out of the red and back into the black. Many of these budget cuts (like closing down state parks and cutting funding to public schools) were rampant and have cast an unfavorable light on politicians in Albany in the eyes of many New Yorkers. However, something must be done in order to fight the ailing state economy. As coincidence has it, a good fight might just be the answer to the budget problems.

On June 16th, the New York State Senate passed a bill to legalize MMA in the state in an effort to help amend the state's financial problems. Opening the floodgates for MMA in New York would be more of a benefit to the state than it would to the MMA Industry. For years, promoters have happily held venues in nearby New Jersey. Mixed martial arts competitions like UFC among others have been banned in the state because many lawmakers felt it was too brutal of a sport (even though other legal sports like football and hockey can be just as- if not more- brutal). With the passing of this new bill, fans will finally be able to support their home state and local venues. MMA events would potentially have access to one of the most active metropolises in the world- New York City. There are dozens of great venues surrounding the state who have been capitalizing on this opportunity for years. At the UFC's most recent event held in New Jersey, there were more New York residents in attendance than NJ natives. Fortunately state legislators have finally come to the realization that legalizing MMA will open access to a new revenue stream that it gravely needs.

By welcoming MMA in the state, as much as $11 million in economic activity could be generated for each event held. This activity ranges from salaries paid to venue workers, to an increased interest in martial arts training academies and dojos, to tourism dollars spent in the surrounding area. At every step of the way, tax revenue is generated. The MMA organization UFC (who would play a large role in scheduling events in the state) is broadcasted in over 170 countries, made 5.1 million in Pay-Per-View sales in 2007 alone, and averaged 30.6 million viewers in that same year. This type of outreach is bound to benefit the state and bring thousands to events, thus helping the economies of struggling New York state cities.

Holding events isn't the only way that this bill will help bring money to the state of New York. In fact, the broad reach of allowing MMA to be legalized is something that will affect participants in the sport from top to bottom. For example, people who run mixed martial training gyms and programs will see a huge revenue generating boost in enrollment that will give many the chance to train and compete in their home state. This bill may even have the effect of preventing violence instead of causing it (which opponents of the bill argue) because it will allow many kids to go someplace safe after school. Studies have shown that when at-risk children are trained by mentors in a disciplined sport such as MMA, they are less likely to become involved in criminal activities. This is one of the most important aspects of the bill from a human perspective, and one of the greatest reasons why this bill needs to be passed.

Every once in a while, a sport can transcend its origins and become a true cultural phenomenon. This is what MMA could be for the state of New York and that is precisely why this bill needs to be passed. The New York budget is going through one of its worst economic times ever, but by legalizing MMA, it can help to fight back against the deficit and make a difference in the lives of millions of New Yorkers.

Alexia is a lifelong fan of sports and fitness. Recently, she's been obsessed with MMA. As a result, she has joined forces with MMA Industries, purveyors of widely popular MMA shirts and gloves. Alexia has been writing about the latest developments in MMA training equipment for the past few years, and continues to bring you the latest news in the mixed martial arts world.

The case for reform


Don't worry about the fact that the audio stinks here. But if you're prone to audible gasps, you may want to check your surroundings.

You're forgiven if you missed this video of New Mexico University's Elizabeth Lambert being perhaps a bit too rough in a 1-0 loss to Brigham Young. Her play earned her an indefinite suspension, as you might have imagined.

You can take her "OMG I can't believe that was me!" for what it's worth, but did she deserve the

[You] should be taken to a state prison, raped and left for dead in a ditch

Email that she says she got? Emm, no.

She's doing what she needs to do to get back in the good graces of the NMU powers, including seeing a psychiatrist and talking to youth soccer players about sportsmanship (it occurs to me that might be a little like Jayson Blair giving a journalism ethics talk or Eliot Spitzer talking on ethics, but at least she's still a college student and learning her way through life).

At least NMU is giving her a shot. One thing that's coming up a lot these days in minimum sentencing laws – particularly as regards sentencing juveniles to life in prison (this is often the result of three-strike laws and that sort of thing).

Tell a 16-year-old he's going to prison for the rest of his life, not only have you removed just about all hope of him bothering to be a decent human being ever (he's not likely to see a need for reform if he's not getting out of jail), but you've also told him you're not interested in helping him out.

The Atlantic Monthly has a good roundup of news and commentary about the topic, and they got a good response on Facebook to the piece.

THe way I figure it, you've got two strong arguments you can make. One, this kid has either done something so bad he should be in prison for life, or he's shown after two prior crimes he's not going to shape up Or, two, you might say that the line between a juvenile and not a juvenile is arbitrary.

Let's look at the second one first. Yes, that line is arbitrary, but it's already been drawn. And we draw other arbitrary lines all the time. In most states you can start driving legally sometime around 16 years and six months. You can begin voting at 18. Drinking alcoholic beverages at 21. Run for president at 35.

The reason for these otherwise arbitrary lines is somewhere along the line, someone decided these were the ages we were mature enough to take on the responsibility. To understand the consequences of our actions. So if we're old enough to understand something is wrong at 18, why, if you do it when you're 16, are you treated as if you were 18? The idea of juvenile sentencing laws is we don't think you're mature enough to recognize the consequences of your actions – and then if you carry out an action, we decide that particular action, well, you really should have known better? Weird. If a 16-year-old tried to vote, would we count it, because she displays the initiative to want to vote? Of course not. Also weird.

And, as for three-strike laws, give me a break. You get caught shoplifting three times, you should be in prison for life? You can't be serious.