Mom & Dad: Embrace the Gray

I was a small child when Bill Clinton was POTUS, so I remember next to nothing about either his election or re-election campaigns. But by the time Bush Jr’s re-election came around, I was old enough to follow it. What I remember most vividly was the vitriol flung against the President by those sour-faced Democrats. My parents were very disapproving.

“You may not like the man’s policies, but you have to respect the office.”

And I felt like my family actually believed that sentiment…until Obama ran for office. The Republicans quickly proved they could be just as nasty and launch just as many personal attacks as their “opposites”. When Obama won, things got even worse. People started to question the President’s citizenship, accused him of being a “sleeper agent”, called him a Communist. All this hatred- at least as much as President Bush received- got no condemnation from my Right-Wing relatives. The fact that Obama was a bad leader (in their eyes) meant that he deserved every bit of anger directed towards him.

The double-standard is, of course, a well-established fact of political life. When the enemy starts slinging shit, it’s something to get riled up about. When your own team does it? Well that’s just leveling the playing field.

All I remember from the time of President Clinton’s impeachment was how very angry the whole situation made my mother.

“This is the leader of the free world and he lied to all of us in a court of law.”

Looking back on it, that seems rather silly to me now. I’ve come to expect any elected official to lie to me constantly. But I can see how the pettiness and selfishness of that lie could have soured my parents on an otherwise fine and effective leader. What I can’t see, is where their outrage went when Mitt Romney started lying on official government documents before he even had a chance to win the White House.

Just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock or avoiding any news critical of the Republican frontrunner, here’s a summary of the whole mess: Mitt Romney claimed on an SEC filing that he had entirely severed his relationship with Bain Capital by 1999. This was contradicted by the fact that Romney remained the CEO and sole stockholder until 2002. And the fact that he personally signed documents relating to at least one acquisition- a company named Stericycle.

So what does this mean? Either Mitt lied to his stockholders, who presumably felt comforted to know his name and attention were attached to business deals representing so much of their money…or he lied to the SEC. The former lie makes him a bad businessman, and liable for civil damages. The latter lie would make him a felon. Lying on an SEC form is the same as lying on any government form or in court.

And yet, I see no outrage from the conservatives in my life. My dad even tried to deflect this issue by bringing up Obama’s college records and intimating that, if Obama wants more transparency from his opponent than he should be more transparent. Which ignores the fact that Obama’s college records aren’t required to be released and that withholding them isn’t the same as lying on a government document.

Orwell had a wonderful word for this: doublethink. It’s the only way to keep two conflicting ideas- or two conflicting sources of rage, squared simultaneously in your head. Thus, John Kerry’s wealth made him out of touch while Romney’s fortune is just proof of his business acumen. George Bush didn’t need congressional approval to invade and occupy two nations but when Obama sends troops into Libya on his own it’s time to get pissed off. Eurasia has always been at war with Eastasia, and the Constitution is our most important document until a sitting Republican gets spooked by terrorists.

Can We Call Our Conservatives on Their Double Standards?

So here’s the sober, agonizing, God’s-honest truth: every single one of us is guilty of hypocrisy. Right this second you have beliefs that conflict with reality, and probably several of your other beliefs. That is part of being human. Our minds are gigantic, labyrinthine constructs and so very much of their thinking is localized to specific moments. We’ve all “voted for the war, before we voted against it”.

The key- the bit that is 100% critical to our success as a nation and continued survival as a people- is that we can never buy all the way into our own bullshit. And if you were to take your most ardent conservative kin aside, one on one, and make a statement to that effect, they’d probably agree with you. Only delusional narcissists believe they are always right. And delusional narcissism is a disorder that effects people on both sides of the political spectrum.

So why does arguing with conservatives feel so damned pointless? Why do they laugh in the face of hard evidence, stacks of data, preposterous contradictions? Because they are human beings, and that’s just what we do. Backing me up in this is my good friend, Science.

David Gal and Derek Rucker conducted three experiments involving pet, dietary and technology preferences among their subjects. They found that the best way to strengthen someone’s belief in something was to challenge it. When you hobble a person’s confidence in something they care about, their natural reaction is to defend that thing with more vigor than ever before. It isn’t sheer cussedness, but a natural human defensive reaction.

So on one hand, every Facebook screed and email rant from your conservative loved ones is really just a beautiful monument to the ineffable Lady Doubt. And on the other hand, the same is true for you and me. This blog, the Huffington Post, National Review, your Twitter feed- they’re all symbols of the inherent insecurity that comes from being intelligent enough to see your own living contradictions.

If there is only one point I can impress upon you with today’s column, let it be this. The greatest sin we need to fight against in our political system has nothing to do with the beliefs of either side. It has everything to do with the denial of doubt. When I first rebelled against the beliefs of my parents it was because I felt sickened at the certainty they displayed towards the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the right way to fix the economy, the proper way to deal with social unrest. When the people you respect are constantly on the wrong end of issues they claim are black and white, it makes the whole world look gray.

Once upon a time I was angry at my parents for that. But now I’m grateful. I only hope that one day I can help them embrace the gray.

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Mom & Dad: There is a BIG Problem With America’s Justice System

As a kid, I was raised to believe that the police were my friends. If I was ever in danger, any police officer I would find could be trusted to help me. They were valiant, self-sacrificing men who held the weight of society up on their strong shoulders. Their noble duty was printed on the side of every squad car and on the front of every badge- ‘To Serve and Protect’.

I remember the precise moment when the police turned in my mind from trusted protectors into hazards that must be avoided at all costs. It was in the middle of a cross-country road trip with my girlfriend and our friend Alicia. We pulled into a gas station in Brady, TX at around 2 AM to fill up on fuel and coffee. Three squad cars were parked out front, and six officers were standing around inside taking a break from what was no doubt a long night. As soon as the girls and I stepped out of the car, all eyes were on us.

Now I’m a shaggy, bearded chap. My girlfriend has several felted dreadlocks, as did Alicia. We looked a bit like hippies, which was enough to set off alarm bells in the minds of these officers. As soon as I walked out with my coffee, two of them were standing in front of my car, staring at me.

“Sir, do you realize a front license plate is required in the State of Texas?”

I did not. I’d been stopped a few times in Dallas for unrelated things over the last year and not one single officer had ever mentioned the lack of a front license plate as a problem. And this cop wasn’t actually concerned about it either. Within thirty seconds he was asking me if I had any illegal drugs in the vehicle, and then he began pushing for a search. We spent ninety minutes out there in all. The cops patted us down several times, and threatened to call out the police dogs if we did not consent. Unfortunately for them, the dogs were “asleep” at that late an hour and they eventually let us go. But not before doing their level best to pressure me into consenting to a search.

This may surprise some of you, but I have a concealed handgun license. Which, among other things, is a card that certifies I have not so much as a misdemeanor to my name. Despite my lack of a record and the fact that we hadn’t actually broken any law, two cops spent over an hour grilling me in an attempt to trick me into revealing my suspected drug usage. The lead cop (who informed me he had been trained to sniff out lies) asked me if I had ever in my life smoked Marijuana about fifty times.

“Ack! You’ve forced me to reach my daily lie limit now. Yes, I DO smoke pot, officer.”

What incensed them most was that I did not immediately consent to the search of my vehicle. I never carry drugs, but I also never consent to any search. I believe I have a right to be presumed innocent by law enforcement, as well as a right to freedom from unlawful search and seizure. The problem is, no police officers seem to share my belief in the importance of those rights. Thanks to this incident- and three others like it, I no longer feel safe when I see police officers. I know for a fact that any one of them could decide at any time that I look like a criminal. And if they decide that, it is up to me to prove my innocence.

Now then- that’s all one first person account of police wrongdoing. I wouldn’t be typing up this column if I didn’t have specific, factual, systemic allegations to make. And I do. So, mom & dad, here’s my thesis: the American criminal justice system is fundamentally broken. This is not a minor problem. It is not something we can wait to fix. It represents the single greatest abuse of human rights our country is currently guilty of. I’ve divided my argument into three parts.

1. The Police are Not Here to Protect Us

That’s not some pseudo-anarchist ‘rage against the machine’ bullcrap. It is a cold hard fact that you cannot deny or argue with. Despite what is printed on those squad cars and badges, protecting you is not the job of any police officer. My proof for this? The United States Supreme Goddamn Court. In 2005 they ruled:

“…the police did not have a constitutional duty to protect a person from harm, even a woman who had obtained a court-issued protective order against a violent husband making an arrest mandatory for a violation.”

You should take that motto as seriously as you take McDonalds’ claims of using ‘only the finest’ ingredients.

This isn’t something I have an issue with. Nor do I believe it represents a problem in and of itself. In most cities, the average police response time is somewhere between nine and eleven minutes. Which is plenty of time for any rapist or axe murderer worth his salt to do whatever evil shit he has planned for you. If some bad person attempts to do violence to me, I am the only person I can rely on to defend myself. That is cold hard brutal fact, and no amount of technology or surveillance drones will ever change it.

Even if a police officer were to arrive on scene in time and choose to risk his life protecting me against a madman, the odds are very good that said bad guy is much more skilled with a weapon than Joe Patrolman. Violent criminals practice frequently with their weapons, while most police officers fire a few hundred rounds per year in training at best. The average cop, in a combat situation, hits about 17% of the time. So yeah- if you’re ever in immediate danger of harm, the odds of a police officer arriving in time to help, being capable of helping and choosing to risk his life to help you are extremely low.

So those are the facts. It isn’t any cop’s job to protect you, nor are most of them competent enough with their weapons to do so. And yet, in spite of all this police in America are more heavily armed than ever before. Suburban cops in Allen, TX troll around with submachine guns. We have tens of thousands of men as well armed and armored as soldiers, but without the training or responsibility to go with it. Even our SWAT teams- ostensibly formed to deal with heavily armed supercriminals- are mainly used to enforce non-violent misdemeanor warrants. In Maryland, only 6% of SWAT deployments were in response to the sort of violent situations those teams were formed to deal with.

If you really want to depress yourself, do a Google search for ‘officers shoot dog’. Hell, I’ll even screengrab the results for you:

There are stories about breaking into the wrong house and shooting animals, shooting caged animals while serving misdemeanor warrants. It seems like every week brings a new story about some cop firing off his weapon just for the sake of seeing it draw blood. When you give a man a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you give a man a machine gun and tell him he’s fighting a war against ‘crime’, everyone looks like a criminal. And it sure doesn’t help that some large departments specifically reject candidates that are too smart to be cops. The reasoning for that move?

“…those who scored too high could get bored with police work and leave soon after undergoing costly training.”

This is in spite of the fact that smarter, less brute force strategies have actually proven far more successful at reducing crime. In New York City, crime keeps dropping even though they’ve had to trim their active force by 16%. I could go on and on about why the militarization of our police is a terrifying trend, but I think I’ve made my point. When you treat police like soldiers, they treat civilians like an occupied enemy population. And no one is safer.

2. The War on Drugs is Fundamentally Racist

As much trouble as my bearded, shaggy self has with cops, I know I have it easy because I hit a jackpot in the skin pigment lottery. Being white is the best protection from the law a person can get. Now I know you’ll probably expect me to go about ‘proving’ this by quoting individual stories of cops murdering unarmed black men in their own homes for no reason after calling them ‘niggers’. But I won’t. Tragic as those stories are, anecdotal evidence is the weakest sort of evidence. I want to prove a systemic problem. And, boy howdy, there’s plenty of facts to support that allegation.

Blacks, whites and hispanics are all equally likely to be pulled over. But ‘equality’ ends there. Blacks and hispanics are more than twice as likely to be searched by the police. And these stops end in police violence 4.4% of the time for blacks, 2.3% of the time for hispanics and…1.2% of the time for white people.

“Police were much more likely to threaten or use force against blacks and Hispanics than against whites in any encounter, whether at a traffic stop or elsewhere, according to the Justice Department.”

“Those dreadlocks are all the probable cause we need.”

White people are more likely to do and possess drugs, but black people are arrested ten times as often for drug related offenses. And the disparity doesn’t end there. If a black person and a white person are caught possessing the same amount of an illegal substance, said black dude is eight times more likely to serve prison time for it. Not only that, they serve an average of sixty percent more prison time than whites, even when both commit the same crimes. African-Americans make up 12% of the U.S., do fewer drugs than white people, but still somehow account for 33.6% of all drug arrests.

Make no mistake about it: the war on drugs represents a disaster for blacks on par with slavery. That isn’t hyperbole. More black men are in prison right now than were enslaved in 1850. And yes, slavery is an apt comparison for what is going on in our prison system right now. Our government currently ‘employs’ tens of thousands of prisoners in factories that produce everything from munitions to license plates. They make about 23 pennies per hour, have no unions, no restrictions on overtime, and very little safety oversight.

“What began in the 1970s as an end run around the laws prohibiting convict leasing by private interests has now become an industrial sector in its own right, employing more people than any Fortune 500 corporation and operating in 37 states.”

The only thing that separates these prisoners from slaves is a daily wage that seldom breaks $5. And it’s worth noting that these aren’t all or even largely violent men being forced to work off their debt to society. One million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in our country are non-violent offenders. They’ve never harmed a soul or stolen any person’s property. But they’re forced to labor with precious little rights or legal protections.

This brings me to my last point…

3. American Imprisonment is a Business

If any nation on earth is a police state, it is the United States of America. Despite holding only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s imprisoned people. And it is directly against the stated interests of many state and local governments to make that number go down. An increasing number of our prisons are corporate owned entities. Which means a huge, influential and wealthy business has keeping more American’s locked up in their best interests.

The Corrections Corporation of America operates the majority of our nation’s for-profit prisons. And they recently made an offer to the cash-strapped governments of 48 states. They’re offering twenty year contracts to manage state prisons. And all they want in return is the state’s promise that it will keep incarcerations at a steady level. Among the requirements that those state governments must agree too?

“An assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.”

That is the exact wording from the exact letter the CCA sent out to those governments. In case you’re not quite grasping the whole horror of it…states who agree to these terms will be in breach of their contracts if crime and incarceration goes down. This means it is now paradoxically in the best interest of many states to keep as many people in prison as possible, regardless of whether or not they deserve to be there.

If that doesn’t have the bile rising up in your throat, I don’t know what more I can say to you. Our criminal justice system isn’t a little bit messed up. It doesn’t need a few procedural changes to work better. It is fundamentally broken and corrupt at its core and fixing it is one of the single greatest challenges we as Americans face today.

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Sorry Mom: Illegal Immigration isn’t Crippling our Nation

Before she got her current job teaching the children of soldiers in Okinawa, my mother worked as a Speech-Language Pathologist in a school district near Dallas, Texas. As you may remember from your geography classes, Texas shares a crapload of border with Mexico. 16% of the people here weren’t born in the United States, and it’s probably fair to say that a majority of those foreign-born residents are ‘illegal’. Or ‘undocumented’. Or whatever term you want to use.

Whatever you call them, they’re the entire reason eating in the Lone Star State is awesome.

Not surprisingly, my mom has a BIG problem with illegal immigration. Her main talking points focus around the catastrophic drain the children of illegals make on our educational system. To hear her tell it, we’re hemorrhaging billions of dollars to educate foreign kids while their parents skip out on taxes and laugh all the way to their bank. Which is probably in Mexico. And it doesn’t stop at the schools- ‘undocumented’ citizens leech money from health care and law enforcement. They get paid under the table and use up precious resources that tax-paying citizens scrimp and suffer to provide.

We Americans have an extremely developed sense of fair play. When we hear about athletes using performance enhancing drugs or politicians making shady deals to ensure their election, we get pissed off. So it’s easy to see why the problem of illegal immigration would get so many people up in arms. At first glance, it looks like we’ve got millions of freeloaders cheating their way to a good education and first-world healthcare. Writing that big yearly check to the IRS is even harder when you just know the suspiciously Hispanic family across the street isn’t pulling their weight.

Wait, what’s that?

The Social Security Administration estimates that about three-quarters of illegal workers pay taxes that contribute to the overall solvency of Social Security and Medicare.

And while the total they contribute, somewhere around $9 billion, isn’t a huge percentage of the cost of these programs, it’s worth noting that illegals don’t benefit from tax refunds. So not only are the vast majority of extra-legal residents paying their taxes, many of them are paying more than they should. This seems crazy- until you think about things from the employer’s standpoint.

If you pay your employees less than minimum wage, under the table, you can’t claim you didn’t know you were using illegal labor. But if you pay at least the legal minimum and make sure to withhold money for the IRS, you’ve got a reasonable defense to prosecution. But hey- that’s an example of employers doing the right thing. If it was up to the immigrants, the government surely wouldn’t see a dime of that mo-

“…the IRS estimates that about 6 million unauthorized immigrants file individual income tax returns each year. Other researchers estimate that between 50 percent and 75 percent of unauthorized immigrants pay federal, state, and local taxes”

That quote comes from those infamously unreliable loony left-wing propagandists, The Congressional Budget Office. You know, the budget office of the United States Congress. God, facts are a pain.

Source, Source

I’ve taken the liberty of stacking these two graphs together, because that’s something people do when they want to make a visually arresting point. Yes, it’s kind of a cheap trick. But it also illustrates that both the government’s income tax revenue AND the number of illegal immigrants doubled in the period from 1996 to 2008-9. Does that mean illegal immigration is responsible for doubling our nation’s tax revenue? Of course not. But it’s worth keeping in mind as we roll along.

Now illegal immigration is, obviously, illegal. Which is why it’s extremely difficult to get any sort of precise data on this stuff. Many of these people want to hide. And all of them are wary of answering any questions from government officials because, hey, a whole bunch of government officials want them deported. In the interest being super careful I’ve gone to a few different sources in order to determine the Total Cost of Illegal Immigration to the United States.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a rather conservative think-tank, estimates $10.4 billion as the net cost to the US for illegal-immigrant headed households. Other institutes estimate as little as $1.9 billion and as much as $19 billion. If we take $19 billion as the accurate number we pay $66 bucks a year, per American. ($34.66 bucks per person with the CIS estimates.)

So about sixty beers, if you don’t have expensive tastes.

Of course, that’s wildly unfair when you consider how these costs actually bear out. We aren’t splitting the burden across every person in the country. It falls, largely, on the schools and hospital systems and police departments of the American Southwest and heavily populated supercities of the Eastern Seaboard. So what is the actual cost of these sorta-freeloaders on our public services? Thankfully the Congressional Budget Office spent twenty years trying to learn just that.

“Over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants—both legal and unauthorized—exceed the cost of the services they use.”

In the majority of the estimates they studied, less than 5% of state and local spending went towards providing for illegals. California, the state known for having more Central American citizens than most countries in Central America, still spends less than 10%.

There is one thing my conservative relatives tend to get right about illegal immigration: It increases the cost of law enforcement. But not because it increases violent crime or drug usage or anything. Researchers from Rutgers have actually found that “…in general, immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to be incarcerated”. Despite the fact that they aren’t really committing any crimes (other than existing), illegal immigrants do add “significantly” to the cost of law enforcement.

Hell, that’s easy enough to see by looking at how the cost of border protection has skyrocketed since the Clinton years. In 2006 alone our cops spent $7.2 BILLION keeping out people who are statistically less likely to commit crimes or use illegal drugs than the white ‘majority’. It’s worth noting that, by incarcerating these generally law-abiding citizens, we’re depriving ourselves of the income taxes and social security taxes that 75% of them would pay. And the sale taxes that all of them would pay.

But hey, if the police weren’t spending all that money keeping illegals out of here our hospitals would be completely bankrupt by now. We just can’t afford to pay for these people’s healthcare. And while that may be true (depending on your opinion of the deficit) there’s another equally true fact that tends to get lost in this debate. Uninsured illegal immigrants sure as hell cost us money, but not nearly as much money as our own uninsured citizens.

Arizona’s Udall center found that more than half of illegal immigrants in the USA pay for health insurance. “41 percent of unauthorized adults, 47 percent of unauthorized children, and 75 percent of native-born children of unauthorized parents” are no more of a burden on the state than you or I. Assuming we’re insured. One in six Americans- more than fifty million of us have no health insurance of any kind.

Does it seem ridiculous to anyone else that the (estimated) 7.2 million uninsured illegals are apparently collapsing our healthcare system, while the fifty million uninsured citizens are entirely supportable? From a purely financial standpoint, we’d be way better off with fewer uninsured citizens and MORE uninsured illegals. Why? Because they tend to be healthier and thus require less care than ‘legit’ Americans. Despite making up about 10% of the total population, they only account for 7.9% of our medical expenses.

Undocumented residents use about $6.4 billion a year in medical services. But they pay for most of that themselves- the government only ends up footing around $1.1 billion. Which is about 1.25% of the healthcare costs born by public funds. But hey, that $1.1 billion in uncompensated costs does suck. Just not nearly as much as the $34-38 billion we spend every year on providing healthcare to those 50 million uninsured citizens. Let’s go back to the Udall Center’s big report for a moment-

“Unauthorized immigration is not the major cause of increases in uninsurance or uncompensated care costs in the United States.”

In other words: the illegals aren’t bleeding our hospitals dry. We’re bleeding our hospitals dry.

So- last item on our list, the schools. Illegal immigrants may not be sending the crime rate up, and they aren’t that expensive from a healthcare standpoint, but they’re still stretching our educational system to the brink. Right?
Well not in immigrant-heavy New Mexico, where the government sees net profits of $1-2 million per year thanks to sales, income and property taxes paid by immigrants. That’s $1-2 million dollars more in New Mexico state schools thanks to illegal immigrants. And things look even better in Texas! In 2006 our comptroller added up the cost of healthcare, education and law enforcement for illegals and found that we make a net profit of $424 million thanks to their presence.

So yes- illegal immigration DOES cost us money. $10.4 billion per year, net, is a fairly reasonable estimate. While that number is a pittance compared to our total national budget, cost-conscious voters are right in noting that every bit we can save helps. But before we start throwing all our undocumented neighbors out of the country, it’s probably worth looking at the total cost of border security. We spent $7.2 billion in 2006, and in 2012 the Obama Administration plans to spend more than $14 billion to keep the guard towers manned, the blimps flying and the 110,000 national guardsmen deployed.

But hey, we only need to keep throwing that much money out the door until our awesome border fence gets finished. All that will take is another $22.4 billion. See guys? If we just spend a few tens of billions of dollars more than illegal immigration costs us, we could really save some money in a few decades. Y’know, maybe.

If we don’t just blow it all on dune buggies.

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‘Drill, baby, Drill VS Basic Math: A letter to my family.

Several days ago I had the pleasure of a dinner with my extended family at the Cheesecake Factory. As with most such gatherings, it took around fifteen minutes for this heartwarming reunion to spawn a light-hearted argument. On one side- me, saying that continuing to drill every-damn-where and ignore the growing untenability of our petroleum-dependent lifestyles might be a bad thing. And on the other side, members of my extended family. Their argument went something like this:

1. You’ll never convince the hard-toiling masses that some distant environmental concerns outweigh their need for cheap gas.

2. Alaska has enough oil to keep America going for like, 200 years. You hear this specific claim all over the place- often with the added factoid that Alaskan wonder-gas would cut our pump prices down to $1.50.

3. Energy independence means the terrorists have one less ball in their court.

It isn’t an overly nuanced take on the issue. But it is a hard one to argue with, if those are indeed the facts. Tens of millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. If you’re working construction or landscaping and hauling tools all day in a 14 mpg truck or slinging loads of kids around the suburbs in a 17 mpg SUV, the cost of gas is a big damn concern for you. Theoretical environmental worries don’t come close to real issues, like paying the rent and meeting your health insurance deductible.

So in today’s letter to the conservative parents of the world, I’m going to leave the environmental argument entirely out of it. They don’t much care what happens to ANWR and making that a pillar of any argument isn’t going to get you anywhere. Every claim you make about global warming or ecological ruin will be met by, ‘PEOPLE matter more than BEARS and we need cheap gas to make our economy GO again!’

Instead, let’s focus on their claims, and see if increased drilling really could make some of middle America’s problems go away.

Two hundred years of oil! That’s what we’ve heard is sitting, untapped, up there in Alaska. And interestingly enough, proponents of drilling in Wyoming make the exact same claim about that state’s oil holdings. Apparently we find big, round numbers much more compelling than accurate ones. So let’s fight back with some numbers of our own.

- 19,150,000. That’s the number of barrels of oil our nation uses every day.

- 6,989,750,000 That’s the number of barrels of oil our nation goes through in a year.

- 1,397,950,000,000 Assuming our oil need remains stable (it won’t) that’s how many barrels of oil Alaska would need to be hiding in order to fuel the USA for two centuries.

And finally…

- 29,400,000,000. That’s the highest reputable estimate I’ve been able to find for the number of barrels in ANWR.

You may notice that number is much tinier than the one above it. In fact, ANWR only holds 1/47.5th of the oil we’d need to make it another two hundred years. In other words, all the fuel in Alaska would be enough to run America for 836 days. Two and a half years.

God, things really look different once you have the facts in hand, don’t they?

But hey, so Alaskan oil won’t be able to keep Jean-Luc Picard’s hummer topped off. That doesn’t mean it can’t cause a substantial drop in gas prices for us in the here and now. Smart science-y people are hard at work figuring out an alternative energy solution for the world. But we need to keep the cost of living reasonable while we wait, right? Drill baby, drill still makes sense if you just want to cut down on the cost of living.

And here, of course, is where the ugly, drunk cyclops of truth comes out to take a swing at the hobgoblin of rhetoric. Drilling for more gas does not decrease the price of gas. This isn’t an opinion, it isn’t a theory and it isn’t speculation. This is a fact, based on thirty-six goddamn years of studying the market. Don’t take my word for it- take the word of this gigantic AP study.

“A statistical analysis of 36 years of monthly, inflation-adjusted gasoline prices and U.S. domestic oil production by The Associated Press shows no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump.”

Balls on a baker’s forehead. It turns out the whole world is much bigger than America, and it also turns out that petroleum is a WORLD market. Which means the price you pay at Texaco has more to do with global politics, weather and geography than how much drilling we do. The U.S. only makes up about 11% of the world’s oil supply. If we were to increase our production by a staggering 50% (which might not even be possible) it wouldn’t get you more than a 10% drop in prices. And it might not even get that, because Iran could blockade the Strait of Hormuz or a few tankers could crash or a few million more people in China could get cars and we’d be right back to $4-per-gallon gas.

Only, y’know, all the polar bears would be dead and the eskimos would have to move to New Jersey. I know- I promised I wouldn’t bring the environment into it. Let’s jump past that. One source is almost never enough to convince the conservatives in my life of anything. A single study or scientific body can be biased. What if this ‘AP’ is in the pocket of George ‘the Antichrist’s drug dealer’ Soros?

It’s true that a single study could have any number of errors that bias it. But there isn’t just one source to this argument. Experts from the Cato Institute, Yale, MIT, Duke University and the Department of Energy are all in agreement. More drilling does not translate to lower gas prices.

So I’d guess that hypothetical blue-collar worker had better sell his F-150, buy a Prius and invest in a tow-hitch. That’s his best bet at cutting that fuel bill in half.

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Sorry Dad- The Media isn’t Liberal and Fox News isn’t Reliable

This post has taken a fair chunk of time to research and write. I hope you’ll all forgive me for that, I feel the depth of the subject matter necessitated a more comprehensive approach. This is a topic that should be near and dear to the hearts of anyone with conservative parents. Today, we’re looking at the media in general, with a special emphasis on Fox News.

I grew up in suburban Texas, and as a result I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence with Fox News playing on our TV from the time I got home from school to when I went to bed at night. The parade of news would stop when there were sitcoms or American Idol to be watched, but otherwise we lived lives dominated by Bill O’Reilly, Shepard Smith and Sean Hannity. During my high school years, Glenn Beck added his voice to the conservative chorus. There was a time when I considered these men arbiters of truth, courageous voices who dared to speak out from within a media establishment that was overwhelmingly left wing.

They were plain-spoken pundits of truth. Barefaced ambassadors for the common man, avatars of the sensible masses who would steer this country in a better direction if only those ‘Hollywood elites’ and biased journalists of the liberal-industrial complex would stop confusing the issues. Fox News was a lone, courageous right wing voice in a sea of left-wing propaganda. As I grew older and traveled the world, exposing myself to a wider breadth of intellectual influences, I came to realize this for the lie it was.

But my parents never did. Fox News (and, to a lesser extent, the Drudge Report) are still their primary sources of world and national news. We argue about this frequently. And their points can be summarized as follows:

1. Fox News is no more biased than CNN or ABC or CBS, and they lie less often than any of those other organizations.

2. The Media as a whole leans very far to the left. So Fox provides a necessary counter-point.

3. While Fox News may lean to the right, they always tell the truth and their viewers are no less informed than the viewers of any other news site.

As is the tradition with this blog, I’ll meet each of these assertions with the best factual information hours of googling and a few pints of Leviathan IPA can provide.

One: “Fox News is No More Biased…”

There isn’t a form of media on this earth that isn’t biased. As George Orwell said, all art is propaganda. And good journalism is art in the same manner of Ulysses and the statue of David. It exists to reveal truths about the world and influence people to think, believe and/or feel certain things. If you believe journalists can sit embedded with soldiers or cover a riot or follow a candidate on the campaign trail and not allow his opinions on those events to influence his reporting, you are ridiculously naïve. As someone who spent several years working in journalism, I have no trouble agreeing that any news source in the world will have some manner of bias.

Once again, the facts back me up here. Scientists from Washington University fed news reports from various cable sources through a robot that studied the relative frequency certain words were pared with other words. So if the station used words like “untrustworthy” “liar” and “poop-faced cockbite” next to the names of conservative policitians and policies, they had a left-wing bias. And if similar words were found with greater frequency next to the names of liberal politicians and policies, there is a detectable right-wing bias. That’s a vast oversimplification, but it gets the basic idea across. So what did they find?

In short, every station surveyed showed some manner of bias. Fox News was skewed to the right, CNN and MSNBC were skewed to the left. This was more or less in line with what I expected to learn. But an analysis this shallow can’t be the last word on the subject. So I dug a bit deeper.

Here we have a study by the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism. They’re a non-partisan (as much as anyone can be) group dedicated to watching for irresponsible reportage. They did an in-depth study on the presence of personal opinions in reporting during the Iraq War coverage.

“In the degree to which journalists are allowed to offer their own opinions, Fox stands out. Across the programs studied, nearly seven out of ten stories (68%) included personal opinions from Fox’s reporters — the highest of any outlet studied by far. Just 4% of CNN segments included journalistic opinion, and 27% on MSNBC. Fox journalists were even more prone to offer their own opinions in the channel’s coverage of the war in Iraq. There 73% of the stories included such personal judgments. On CNN the figure was 2%, and on MSNBC, 29%. The same was true in coverage of the Presidential election, where 82% of Fox stories included journalist opinions, compared to 7% on CNN and 27% on MSNBC.”

So Fox reporters present their own, unverifiable opinions as fact seventeen times as often as CNN reporters. When it comes to reporting on presidential elections, their correspondents substitute personal belief for fact eleven times as often as CNN. So “We Report, You Decide” is somewhat inaccurate as a tagline. I’d suggest “We Report (On Our Personal Opinions), You Decide (Without Being Exposed to the Actual Facts)”.

Boy, that’s slightly less catchy than the original. So, if Fox is so awful about letting personal bias slip through in their reporting, I must have some pretty damning individual examples of this happening? Yup,

If I were to provide evidence that, say, MSNBC had photoshopped pictures of Fox Reporters to make them look dangerous and untrustworthy without informing their viewers of the editing, you (the conservative parent) would be incensed. Well what about when Fox News does that? Because they totally did. For a report on two New York Times journos they described as “attack dogs”, Fox presented the following images without noting that they had been altered in any way:

Wow- huge noses, big bags under the eyes, yellow teeth and massive foreheads. Those sure are some seedy, wolfish looking journalists. Now, here are the actual pictures of those men- prior to the editing by Fox.

Wow, somehow they look much less like rape-hungry predators in the unaltered pictures. Could it be that Fox deliberately manipulated those pictures to influence their viewers opinions? Well, what the hell else could it be?

Oh my, and that’s far from the only example we find. When Mark Sanford admitted his affair, Fox reported the Republican governor to be a Democrat. When Mark Foley was revealed to be a pedophile, his orientation magically switched from “R” to “D”. Sure, you can argue that they recanted both of these errors. But admitting their mistake via a press release with a far lower circulation than their cable news broadcast doesn’t exactly undo the damage.

I could keep going for days. But I won’t, because we have two other points to address and I have paying work to get to before the night is over. So let’s move on to point number…

Two: “The Media, as a whole, leans left…”

This is probably the most widespread and oft-repeated accusation in American politics. The folks who claim this usually use ‘well its obvious’ or ‘just watch TV’ as a source. But there is one legitimate, scientific origin for this belief. This comprehensive UCLA study found that, on the whole, more media outlets screwed to the left than to the right. This study got quite a lot of play across the media world. But how valid was it, really?

Well, for one thing the study was funded by three conservative think tanks. And their definition of bias, which basically looked at which politicians quoted what sources to determine where they lay on the ideological spectrum, was extremely problematic. If a study showing the opposite findings had noted the same issues of bias, I feel fairly confident my conservative friends and family would have rejected it.

But we’ll look a little deeper. At, say, this study by the Pew Research Center on ideological bias in non-profit news sites. They looked at 46 different national and state reporting agencies. And they found,

“The most liberal sites were nine operating under the umbrella of the American Independent News Network, which is funded by a variety of individuals and organizations including the Open Society Foundations founded and chaired by billionaire financier George Soros. The most conservative sites were 12 that shared the common name “Watchdog” and were funded chiefly by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, which was launched in part by the libertarian group the Sam Adams Alliance.”

Of the 56% of news sources that showed strong ideological bias, 30% more showed a conservative bias than a liberal bias. Other studies have shown the general mass of reporting to scew further to the right than to the left”. But it’s worth noting that substantial amounts of diligent research will pull up many sources who argue for either a left or a right wing bias. There isn’t a clear, authoritative answer to this question that puts one side ahead of the other.

But we’re not trying to prove a conservative bias in the general media here. Nor are we trying to refute that many sources lean to the left. All this blog post attempts to show is that there is absolutely no evidence of left wing domination over American news media. The idea that the mainstream media has any sort of monolithic political opinion is entirely unsupported by the data that I have been able to gather. Mom and Dad, you are speaking without support. Or, as a cruder man would put it, you are talking out of your asses. So, at the risk of lapsing into more pointed language, let’s move on to point number…

Three: “Fox Viewers Are No Less Informed Than Anyone Else”

Even my parents will agree that Fox News leans more to the right than their competitors. And only the craziest of crazies would assert that they have a bias that skews anywhere but in the favor of conservative policymakers. But we’ve already established that bias is inherent to the craft of news reporting. Fox may favor the right wing, but there’s no evidence that they do a worse job of informing the public than their left-loving fellows at CNN or ABC. Except, of course, there is.

Fairleigh Dickinson University conducted a pole of New Jersey residents which found that Fox News viewers tend to be less informed than people who watch no news at all.

“For example, people who watch Fox News, the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks, are 18-points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those who watch no news at all (after controlling for other news sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors). Fox News watchers are also 6-points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their government than those who watch no news.”

But hey, that’s just one study. As always, we need to look a wee bit deeper. So I dredged up this study by Ohio State on the spread of erroneous facts about the so-called TERROR MOSQUE in New York City. Scientists looked at four inaccurate beliefs about the proposed worship/community center:

“‐ Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam backing the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque, is a terrorist‐sympathizer who refuses to condemn Islamic attacks on civilians.

‐ The Muslim groups building the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque have deep ties to radical anti‐American and anti‐Semitic organizations.

‐ The proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero is scheduled to open on September 11, 2011 in celebration of the 10‐year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks.

‐ The money for the proposed Islamic cultural center is coming primarily from foreign financial backers associated with terrorist organizations in Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

All of these “facts” are disputed by the Pulitzer-prize winning Politicfact and FactCheck.org. In other words, they are complete bullshit with no factual backing whatsoever. And yet, viewers who report a “high reliance” on Fox News are 35% more likely to believe these non-facts. It’s worth noting that,

“In contrast, reliance on other cable news networks, including CNN and MSNBC, does not
influence rumor exposure.”

So viewers of Fox News are more likely to believe things that are demonstrably untrue. While viewers of other cable news sources are no more likely to believe horseshit than the general population. The University of Maryland conducted a further study on the matter found that regular Fox viewers were “significantly more likely” to believe any of seven non-factual statements about the American political climate.

“In addition, the study said, increased viewership of Fox News led to increased belief in these false stories.”

The study itself is rather damning. But what’s really pertinent here is the Fox corporate response. Michael Clemente, SVP of Fox, said this:

“”The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having ‘Students Who Study The Least’ and being the ‘Best Party School’ – given these fine academic distinctions, we’ll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was ‘researched’ with.'”

Which is an entirely fallacious claim. The U of Maryland actually ranks as the 19th best “party school”, nowhere near the top. And “the Princeton Review says the University of Maryland ranks among the “Best Northeastern Colleges.” So, true to form, when Fox News hears something they don’t like, they pen the responsibility for denigrating the source on someone else (who never agreed with their assertions) and blatantly lie about that source’s real qualifications. Meanwhile, the Universities actual assertions remain entirely unchallenged. Probably because they are true.

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Sorry Mom & Dad, Republicans Aren’t Better for the Economy

This might be a tad too ambitious for my second post here. The economy is pretty much the most complicated thing there is, and I am so very dumb. I tend to think that just about every one else I know is exactly as dumb as I am when it comes to the economy. But, for some bizarre reason, that doesn’t stop them from having an opinion on it.

When I was a child I labored under the belief that Republican leadership was generally ‘good’ for the economy, while the Democrats were ‘bad’ for it. My dad explained that Republicans favor policies like tax cuts that encourage economic growth, while Democrats like to raise taxes and inhibit growth. Anomalies like the Clinton Boom were brushed away by explaining that Reagan’s policies had been responsible for the ragin’ 90s. Even as I got older and more liberal, I still believed that Republicans were better at making the country money. Why else would big business love them so much?

So we’ll start with the simple question: Does the party in power have any influence on the economy? This paper from the University of Nevada (PDF) set out to answer just that question. They poured through annual data collected by the Department of Commerce since 1929 to look at how the economy has fared under either party.

“…the economy has grown significantly faster under Democratic administrations, and more than twice as fast in per capita terms.”

That sounds like an open-shut case. But that whole ‘great depression’ and ‘second world war’ thing probably inflated things for the Democrats. So what happens when we look at only the data past 1949?

Well…pretty much the same thing. Adjusted for inflation, we see real weekly wages rise, unemployment drop, growth rise and even corporate profits rise.

But hey, most of those Democratic presidents were preceded by Republican presidents. How can we know they weren’t just reaping the benefits of lagged conservative policies? Well, our friends in Reno accounted for that too. Even if you credit Republican policies with being responsible for a lag of up to four years, the Democrats still come out on top.

Now it’s critical to keep in mind that correlation does not equal causation. This data should not be used to argue that Democrats cause the economy to boom while Republicans collapse it. But this data does make a convincing case against the old argument that conservative leadership improves the economy. Put simply, there is no evidence that this is the case.

So let’s move on to the next big complaint against Democratic presidents: they spend like Rick Ross in a Florida strip club. That’s the argument I heard over and over again as a kid. Whenever the Democrats are in power they run up the deficit, what with their love of big government. If we could just get back to those good old Reagan era fundamentals we’d have this whole ‘debt’ thing cleared up in no time.

Balls. Once again, the data supports exactly the opposite. While our own Mr. Obama has presided over a substantial debt boom, we can clearly see that Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes are responsible for the vast majority of our nation’s debt. In other words, there is indisputable mathematical evidence that Republicans consistently build more debt than Democrats.

Since 1938, the debt has risen by an average annual rate of 8.3% under Democrats, which is admittedly pretty bad. But under Republicans it raised an average of 9.2% per year. That isn’t a huge difference, but it throws more water on the argument that Republicans are somehow better at managing our nation’s money. But hey- debt isn’t everything. Republicans are the party of business. They may spend the government dry, but at least the people have more money when an elephant sits in the White House.

If you’ve got any sort of pattern recognition, you know a big hairy “but” is coming up next. Over the last six Democratic terms the Dow rose by 247.9%. Over the last seven Republican terms, it only grew by 147.1%. On average, Democrats grow the Dow by 41.3% per term, while Republicans only grow it by 21%. Under Ronald Reagan, the perfect conservative, corporate profits increased by $143.5 billion. But under Clinton, they rose by $326.6 billion.

I hate it when people throw out a list of numbers with no context or analysis and then claim ‘checkmate’ on an argument. But not nearly as much as I hate it when people make an argument like, “Republicans are better for business” or “conservative policies grow the economy” and then back it up by claiming to speak from simple common sense. The economy does not run on common sense. Sound economic policy is often counter-intuitive and always incredibly confusing. Anyone who claims to have a simple answer to our fiscal woes should be immediately disregarded as crazy at best, and outright lying at the worst.

Numbers don’t necessarily tell us the truth, but they’re pretty damn good for revealing lies.

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No Mom, We Shouldn’t Kill the Drug Dealers

My mother works for the defense department and just got back from a trip to Singapore for my little brother’s debate tournament. While she was in the airport she noticed a sign like this:

Drug sign

She brought it up in conversation the next time we talked, mentioning what a great idea it would be for getting rid of drug users. We proceeded to argue, and most of her points circled back to either 1. how clean it was in that city! Or 2. How drug addicts were such a terrible strain on society that any intrusion by the government was justified if it got those ruined people off the streets.

This is precisely the sort of argument I started this blog to deal with. There are between fifteen and twenty million users of illegal drugs here in the United States. My mom isn’t the first conservative I’ve heard advocate something like this and, to her credit, I don’t believe she actually thinks all those people should be killed. She just comes from a generation and political orientation that believes you have to “get tough” in order to make serious change. If you kill a few of the worse eggs, everyone else will jump in line.

“The War on Drugs” sounds like just another hyperbolic euphemism, but there’s a whole mess of people who take it literally. American police departments have their own armored special forces teams, tanks and helicopters. Even beat cops in suburban neighborhoods are likely to carry enormous assault rifles in their squad cars. So what has all this heavy-handed justice won us?

Nothing. Back in 2008 the World Health Organization released a massive study of drug use in 17 countries and found that the people in the U.S. use illegal drugs with more frequency than people anywhere else in the world. This is in spite of the fact that we have some of the harshest drug laws on earth. But hey, maybe we aren’t being harsh enough. There are plenty of hippy states like Colorado and California where those dastardly drug users can peddle their wares in peace. That must be inflating the numbers.

So we’ll look at Singapore. If their drug laws are successful, it would stand to reason that drug use is at an all-time low, and probably getting lower. It wouldn’t make much sense if the death penalty for drug trafficking lead to an increase in drug trafficking. If that were the case, the law would be completely ineffective and needlessly bloodthirsty..

Which…it is. Despite being the world’s top executioner, Amnesty International has found “no convincing evidence” that the state’s drug laws have had an effect. In 2002, Singapore’s rate of new drug offenders increased by 16%. Heroin has been on the rise consistently since 2006 and Methamphetamine is also on a steady rise. While it’s true that Singapore recently reported a 5% drop in drug arrests, they later recanted and admitted a 5% increase in arrests.

And these aren’t long-time addicts who just can’t quit the smack. Singapore’s percent of first-time drug offenders has increased every year on record, to a new high of 46% in 2010.

For comparison, we’ll look at nation’s with comparatively more lenient drug laws. Spain and Portugal have both decriminalized possession of all narcotics. Critics will note that Marijunana and Cocaine use have both increased in Spain. But frequent use in these drugs has decreased, with more experimental users and far fewer regular users. Frequent heroin use also saw a decline, along with the use of ecstasy, amphetamines, sedatives and psychedelics.

Portugal has seen their number of deaths from street overdoses plummet from 400 to 290 annually over the last five years. The number of HIV infections from dirty needles has also dropped, from 1400 per year to just 400. Proponents of a tough stance on drug users claim to be doing it for the children- well, Portugal’s rate of teen drug use is on the decline. There’s no evidence of the same decline in Singapore.

But if you really want to reduce the rates of dangerous addiction and cut down on the cost to the country, you might consider just giving free drugs to addicts. The Netherlands provides heroin to their worst junkies, and they’ve seen the cost to the state of each junkie decrease by around 13,000 euros per person per year. Safe, high-quality drugs taken in a clean setting means no overdoses, no infections, and no people stealing stereos for cash. There’s a reason the Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of problem drug users in the entire world.

It’s crucial to make that distinction between “problem” and “non-problem” drug users. Only about a third of drug users in America are considered serious addicts, and no amount of law enforcement seems to make that total number bulge. But decriminalization- which, at its fundamental level is a separation between drug users and the drug business, decreases the number of problem users in every case we’ve seen. The fact that it causes a spike in the experimental use of some substances shouldn’t be of concern. Studies have shown that casual drug use has no negative impact on job performance or earnings.

The consequences of drug use are heavily publicized in our country, and it’s easy to see why any parent would fear for their child’s safety. But we can’t let that fear lead us to blindly smite a huge segment of our population. Most of the arguments in favor of the war on drugs are rooted in emotion, keeping the kids safe and cleaning up the streets. “We should threaten all the drug dealers with death!” is the kind of thing that feels good to say. So good that many people never bother to look at the numbers to see if that approach has ever helped.

It’d be nice if we could just let the frightened parents of the world go on holding to their opinions. But this isn’t the kind of thing we can chalk up to a difference of opinions. When people go on believing that a tough, militaristic approach is the best way to combat drug addiction, they make the world a worse place with every election cycle. People like my mom are wrong on this one, and they have to know it.

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