Sex and Politics around the World

Owing to positive feedback from the previous article review post, I decided to do it again. This week’s article, The Bedroom State, was published in Foreign Policy in the May/June 2012 issue. The article provides examples of governments all over the world that are actively trying to promote, prevent and influence various types of sexual activity. The examples are far from exhaustive and has an air of Western condescension, but is interesting nonetheless. If you have any other examples of your own, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

Selective-sex abortions

Across Asia, a combination of social policy, modern technology, prejudice and economic incentives are compelling parents to abort millions of unwanted female fetuses. The problem is most notable in India, where the use of ultrasound to determine sex is technically illegal, and China, where decades of the one-child policy have encouraged families to keep aborting until they get a son. Hundreds of millions of bachelors unable to find a suitable partner spells disaster.

Sex-change operations

I never would have guessed that Iran is home to the second highest number of sex-change operations in the world. More than two decades ago, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa authorizing the practice for “diagnosed transsexuals”. Since then, many young gay men have resorted to such surgeries in order to legally have relations with men – keep in mind that homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran. According to Hojatol Islam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, the cleric responsible for sex reassignment, a sex change is no more sinful than “changing wheat to flour to bread.” This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Paying people to stop AIDS

In Malawi, where more than one in ten people are HIV positive, people were paid to get tested.  The cash incentives increased the number of people getting tested. “This makes a significant difference because sexually active, HIV-positive people who know their status are three times more likely to purchase condoms and thus prevent the further spread of the disease.” Another study posits that young women, who were randomly selected to receive between $1 and $5 per month, were more likely to attend school and avoid sex with older men. Throwing money at a problem may help after all.

How driving destroys virginity

The Saudi government famously bans women from driving, arguing that permitting such mobility would constitute an “end of virginity”. Women drivers would apparently “provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce” and lead to a serious shortage of virgins in the kingdom – Allah forbid.

Cash (and refrigerators) for babies

Russia, which is experiencing one of the most dramatic population declines in the world, has opted to pay people to have kids. For a while, the government was paying women almost $10,000 to have a second child and President/Prime Minister/President again Putin has pledged over $53 billion to boost birthrates. In one province, the government encouraged all employers to give a “family communication” holiday to facilitate the baby making, 9 months before Russia Day. Those lucky women who were able to deliver on Russia Day were awarded various prizes including fridges, washing machines and…a new car!!!

Boobs? No thanks

The only country experiencing a more dramatic population implosion than Russia is Japan where a new term, herbivore, has come to denote the sexually indifferent young men who are more concerned with fashion and hobbies than women and career. And given that the Japanese hate immigration more than the Tea Party, the population decline is more pronounced there than probably anywhere else.

Catholicism, machismo and marriage equality

In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American Country to recognize and perform same-sex marriages. Since then there has been a competition among the region’s tourist hubs to attract LGBT clientele. Mexico City has also legalized same-sex marriages but Rio de Janeiro can boast that a quarter of all its tourists are gay.

State sponsored matchmaking

If you would have guessed that the uptight government of Singapore would be a bad facilitator of institutional romance, you would be correct. The government’s efforts to promote marriage and families through dances, wine tastings, cooking courses, cruises, and romantic movie screenings have failed. According to the CIA World Fact Book, Singapore has the lowest fertility rate in the world.

The great firewall

We already know that the Chinese government is active in blocking Facebook, Youtube, Google Maps and so many other sites on the internet, but they are also active in preventing online pornography. So much so that the state offers cash rewards to informants who rat out agents of online pornographic material. Interestingly, on the anniversary of the Tienanmen protests of 1989, tens of thousands of porn sites were unblocked. I suppose a lot of frustrated young men stayed indoors that day.

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The Real Campaign Just Began

Today we try something new. I typically give you my thoughts on big topics in small doses. I often come across great articles, typically longform (5,000 words or more), that beg to be shared and when it fits, I include a link in one of my posts. Today, I’ll be taking one of those articles, an interview actually, and breaking it down for you. I still encourage everyone to read the original, but if you don’t have time, then this is for you. Think of this post as a longform article review. You know those people who never read books, but do read book reviews, and talk at dinner parties as if they’ve read everything? Just think, you can be the gal or guy who waxes eloquently about that fascinating article or interview you read earlier in the week.

The interview in question was with President Obama and it was published yesterday in Rolling Stone. It wasn’t a groundbreaking interview, but it was insightful. Also, given that Mitt Romney has finally solidified his position as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, it makes sense to take a look at the President’s first major interview of the campaign season. The following is a summary of the President’s remarks and my analysis.

2012 Campaign

The President: Leaders of the Republican party are not representative of mainstream Republican America. Republicans today are pretty much the same as they have always been, but the party has moved so far to the right that even Ronald Reagan, the GOP saint, would fail to garner his party’s nomination today. The economy is still struggling but a full recovery will take time and a Romney administration would be just another repeat of the policies of 2000-2008, which were, by and large a failure.

mrcyriac: This is basically his way of taking a jab at the opposition while still courting a few moderate Republican votes in November – GOP leaders are bad, but the GOP voters are alright. Part of the difficulty for Obama’s 2012 campaign is that in 2008, he ran on a platform of change. Three years later, things do not feel much better. Democrats argue that it could have been a lot worse and that we are in a much better position than Europe and other advanced industrial countries, but that’s a far cry from “change you can believe in”.

The role of government

The President: Folks like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist have done the country a disservice by convincing people that government is always the problem. “Let’s redirect the Republican Party back to those traditions in which a Dwight Eisenhower can build an interstate highway system.” A active government that provides safety nets is key to promoting the sort of productive risk-taking that helped the American economy to grow for generations.

mrcyriac: The President really doesn’t like Limbaugh or Norquist and can’t believe that he is being accused of being a socialist when most of his ardent supporters consider him to be, at least partially, a sellout to the right.

The Middle East

The President: It’s complicated

mrcyriac: Yes.

Everything else

The President: Regarding the war on drugs, until Congress changes the laws, the executive branch must enforce those laws. Regarding marriage equality, we’re making progress on LGBT issues, but “I’m not going to make news in this publication.” Regarding race, it’s almost always going to be an issue but much progress has been made. Also, climate change is real and anyone who dismisses it is a fool.

mrcyriac: These are mostly issues that Obama would rather not discus in a major interview because they might alienate him from those precious moderate Republican voters. By enforcing drug laws with greater zeal than anyone expected, he’s proving that he’s no hippie. He wants to come out in favor of marriage equality, but is probably fixated on some poll in some swing state that indicates that now is not the time. As for race, he tries to play it cool, but I think he hates talking about it, even more so than Republicans hate hearing about it. Obama has no problem discussing climate change, but does not, and will not, make it a priority until voters are scared of rising sea levels and vengeful polar bears. Nothing motivates voters like fear.

Things Obama likes

When I found out, years ago, that Obama was a fan of The Wire, as an ardent fan of the show, my appreciation for him went up a bit. In case you’re wondering if any of your favorites are on Obama’s like list, yesterday’s interview included praise for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart (actually, his exact words were “I think Jon Stewart’s brilliant”), Al Green, Homeland, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan and Mick Jagger.

Outlook

The interview was quite fluffy, but the hints of a more populist tone than in 2008 were evident. Four years ago, the conversation that Obama was commanding was dominated by the need for change, and a call for unity. There is almost none of that now. The debt ceiling negotiations last summer mark a sort of last attempt to politely reach across the aisle – frustrated by Republican obstruction, the President has begun to use a lot more executive authority in the past year. Expect to see a candidate Obama who is a lot more aggressive and progressive than he last last time. I doubt Obama will go full bull moose any time soon, but this interview is a good example of the President testing the waters.

Filibuster Blues

The filibuster was once a measure of last resort. It is now used casually and consistently to obstruct legislation, debilitate the Senate and turn our government into an ineffective debate club.

Some definitions

  • filibuster: a parliamentary tactic in which any legislator can talk endlessly (or even threaten to do so) in order to delay, and thereby prevent a vote on a given bill or proposal.
  • cloture: the method used to end a filibuster whereby a “supermajority” of 60 members of the Senate vote to conclude all discussions on a bill.

A little history: The filibuster is not an American invention – Cato used it in Ancient Rome – but no modern legislative body has employed it with as much zeal as the United States. Speaking indefinitely to delay a vote on a bill seems like a parliamentary gimmick, but the procedure has been used hundreds of times in the US Congress. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the title character of the film resorts to a filibuster to “do the right thing”. Strom Thrumond, on the other hand, presided over what is perhaps the most famous filibuster in US legislative history when he read for over 24 hours in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

The current situation: The filibuster has always been a thorn in the side of almost every Congressional majority – both parties have used it over the past few decades. The difference now is that the practice is used so frequently that having a simple majority in the Senate (51 votes) is no longer enough. Even routine matters, like the appointment of federal judges and agency directors are held up until 60 votes are achieved. Frequent use of the filibuster is a good way for the Senate minority to prevent just about any legislation from passing. These days, most filibusters are not even carried out; the mere threat of one is enough to derail legislation. The current Senate minority party is basically saying “if we can’t govern, nobody will”. And if the current majority should happen to become the minority in the next Congress, there’s no reason to believe that they would behave any different. Call it retribution, call it political warfare, but don’t call it hope. As you can see below, the level of political obstruction we are witnessing is historically unique.

The problem: As Francis Fukuyama recently told Thomas Friedman for the New York Times

“There is a crisis of authority, and we’re not prepared to think about it in these terms…When Americans think about the problem of government, it is always about constraining the government and limiting its scope…But we forget that government was also created to act and make decisions.”

Checks and balances are good, but after a point, they are burdensome. Given that the country is divided 50-50 on many issues and the intensity of that polarization, it is unlikely that any party will amass the 60 votes needed to consistently invoke the cloture needed to circumvent filibusters. Friedman goes on to describe the end result:

To put it another way, says Fukuyama, America’s collection of minority special-interest groups is now bigger, more mobilized and richer than ever, while all the mechanisms to enforce the will of the majority are weaker than ever. The effect of this is either legislative paralysis or suboptimal, Rube Goldberg-esque, patched-together-compromises, often made in response to crises with no due diligence. That is our vetocracy.

Perhaps we have been lucky that until now, this flaw in our Constitution has not been exploited to its fullest potential. It took 200 years for this flaw to be made obvious, and now that it has, it does not look like it’s going to get any better any time soon.

Tax the Rich More (Like We Used To)

It’s taken for granted that taxes are too high. We forget that by historical standards, taxes on the rich are low – very low.

It’s common to hear that taxes are too high. Nobody enjoys parting with their money, so it’s no surprise that we almost never hear people asking to pay more to the government. Even when politicians suggest tax increases, they use euphemisms and circuitous language, arguing for fair taxation or and end to subsidies for the rich.

The premise of the current narrative is simple: the rich (job creators) must not be taxed too much, otherwise, they will not hire people and make the investments necessary for economic growth. Neither the Democrats nor Republicans are proposing an increase in taxes for the lower and middle classes, so for this election cycle, a fundamental question is, how much should the rich pay in taxes?

The US federal government operates under a marginal income taxation system. This means that, assuming you are single, for the first $8,700 of income, everyone pays 10%. Everything in between $8,700 and $35,350 is taxed at 15%. The highest tax rate of 35% does not even kick in until you are making more than $388,351. There are currently six tax brackets and corresponding rates, as shown below.

Let’s take a look at the historical data as provided by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. A top marginal tax rate of 35% is about as low as it has ever been. The only other time (since the Great Depression) that the rate dipped below our current levels, it was clear that the rate did not generate enough revenue and had to be increased. In hindsight, the relatively successful presidency of George H. W. Bush was cut short because he, in order to have a more balanced budget, reneged on the promise not to raise taxes. The following graph is a bit of a wake-up call to all the fear mongers that equate a return the a 39.6% top marginal tax rate with socialism.

If a 39.6% top marginal tax rate is socialism, then the Greatest Generation were a bunch of left wing radicals (what with their 91% top marginal income tax rate and all) and the post WW2 economic boom was an accident. Our country’s Golden Age was exemplified by a federal government that was active in the redistribution of wealth and the promotion of economic growth. And there was tremendous economic growth, in spite of high taxes.

I am not arguing for a return to 91%, but we must stop pretending that increasing the top marginal rate by a few percentage points is going to be the end of the world. Even 39.6% is low by historical standards. Any realistic conversation about deficit reduction must be accompanied by plans for tax increases.

The Individual Mandate and the Constitution

While the pundits thrive on turning the Supreme Court into a sporting venue, a couple of law scholars point out the obvious constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate.

It’s difficult to imagine what the founding father and framers of the constitution had in mind when they set into motion the creation of the country and the republic more than 200 years ago, but we often seek their guidance in some sort of hindsight game of guessing their intentions. What would the framers think about abortion? Gay marriage? Government mandated healthcare? It’s not an entirely ridiculous practice – the US Constitution is the oldest living document of its kind in the world. This is no small feat for a country that is often regarded as a relatively young one. There are costs and benefits in basing our laws on the values and intentions of men who lived in the late 18th Century, but in the most recent instance of invoking the framer’s intentions, critics are barking up the wrong tree.

After a moment of reflection, it’s remarkable that the debate over the constitutionality of the individual mandate within the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare) has come this far. Yesterday, two remarkable articles were published in the New Republic.

In one, conservative constitutional law professor (Columbia) Henry Paul Monaghan argues that the mandate is obviously constitutional. In a nutshell, Congress has the right to regulate interstate commerce; since most people will, at some point in their lives, require medical care in the form of a service for a fee, it qualifies as a form of commerce that applies to the greater population; Congress has a right to regulate health insurance under the purview of interstate commerce. There may be outliers who live “off the grid” and would be forced to purchase something they may not need, but there is also a decent chance that they too will, at some point, need medical coverage. And besides, we often make sweeping legislation for the greater good at the cost of certain outliers – they ought not be an excuse to hold back society as a whole. The most telling sentence in Monaghan’s article was the last two sentences:

I recognize that many persons believe the health mandate is very bad legislative policy. But the appropriate judicial response to such a complaint has long been clear. The Court was admirably forthright about the point in its ruling in Munn v. Illinois in 1876: “For protection against abuses by the Legislature, the people must resort to the polls, not the courts.”

In the other article, another professor of law (Harvard), Einer Elhauge, gives examples of government mandated health coverage enacted by the founding fathers. They very first Congress, which met in 1790, passed a law mandating all ship owners to purchase medical insurance for their seamen. The bill was signed into law by a man named George Washington. Eight years later, an issue arose over the fact that this law covered drugs and physicians services, but not hospital stays. Congress responded by…wait for it…passing a law requiring all seamen to purchase hospital insurance for themselves.

I’m not a fan of trying to discern the exact intention of the Constitution’s framers. Even if we do pursue their intentions, we must make the right decision even if it conflicts with the framers’ intent. In this hullabaloo over the ACA’s constitutionality, there have been too many critics crying foul that we are violating the principals of the framers. It turns out even the framers were pretty clear in their support of individually mandated health coverage.

sidenote: there have been other, weirder individual mandates too. In 1792, Congress passed a law requiring all “able-bodied men” to buy fire arms. That’s right – not only a right to bear arms, but a law requiring that you must. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we don’t follow everything our framers set down to ink.

Where Is the Outrage over Black-on-Black Violence?

Leaders in the black community regularly speak out against the violence and challenges facing their community but are ignored. 

Since the shooting death of Treyvon Martin in late February, there have been outcries against racism and outcries against the outcries. Conservatives are quick to point out that although representing less than 13% of the population, blacks represent about half of all murder victims, usually at the hands of other blacks. The same folks (Juan Williams of former NPR and current Fox News fame is the most prominent example) are asking (here, here, here, here) where is the outrage over black on black violence?

As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in the Atlantic:

This is an interesting question. It’s also one that Juan Williams, who’s been writing about race for almost three decades, should be able to answer. Moreover, Williams is an award-winning journalist. Should he not know the answer, it would suit him to do his job and find out.

The answer, it turns out, is everywhere and all the time. Coates provides a few examples from  Chicago in 2010New York last SeptemberNewark in 2009Pittsburgh last SeptemberSaginaw, Michigan in 2010Gary last month and Brooklyn, last Sunday.

Here’s a video of Rev. Al Sharpton urging the black community to look inward and take a greater level of responsibility. It’s hard to disagree with the Reverend’s words, which is probably why you’ll never see it in the national media.

Such protests and voices gain traction in the national media only when there is an element of black vs. white. The black community is fully aware of and active in addressing issues concerning black-on-black violence. At times, it may feel like a losing battle, but to say that there is no such outrage in the black community is absurd. Some folks are so eager to go out of their way to miss what is obvious.

Kill the Penny!

It costs 2.4 cents to make a penny. Let the one-cent coin die with some dignity.

Canada recently announced that it will no longer be making one-cent coins. Perhaps it’s time for some inward national reflection. The penny seems worthless now, but until 1857 it made sense for the US mint to issue even half-cent coins. Prior to 1982, the one-cent coin was made primarily of copper – they are now mostly zinc. This is why old coins are green; it’s the same process (oxidization) that has given the once shiny copper Statue of Liberty it’s current green color. Over the past ten years, the price of raw materials and minting has gone up significantly as have the calls to cease production.

If it were so simple, we would have already gotten rid of the one cent coin by now. So what are the reasons for maintaining it?

  1. prices will rise as a result of everything being rounded up to the nearest 5¢
  2. poor folks will be disproportionately affected by this price rise
  3. many charities rely on pennies precisely because people are more willing to part with smaller denominations
  4. we would have to mint more nickels, which are even more expensive
  5. sentimentality/tradition/respect for Abraham Lincoln

And now the reasons for getting rid of it:

  1. it wastes taxpayer money
  2. it wastes time at the checkout counter
  3. any price increase would be effectively meaningless because most pennies are lost/discarded/hoarded anyway
  4. maintaining the penny is a disgrace to the memory of Lincoln in that his face is on a worthless coin that nobody wants
  5. c’mon!!!!!!!!!!

The world is moving on. It’s time to kill the penny.